Chapter 3: Ushuaia, Tierra Del Fuego
Tuesday, February 16
I had a really early start, and departed the hotel into a cold, sunny morning. From the Estacion Omnibus, I took a Morea bus at 8am. Papers for the Chilean border checkpoint were distributed to passengers. We waited almost three hours for immigration and customs processing to be completed at the Monte Aumand border crossing. I noticed a Labrador dog in the bus’s baggage compartment during one of the stops and felt concerned about its welfare.
The bus entered Chile and we took the Punta Delgada ferry crossing. I managed to beat the clamour for a hotdog and gaseosa (pop) at the little refreshment bar. The contrasting landscapes throughout this journey were mesmerising. The greenery early on gave way to another arid and undulating landscape. Then the big sky broadened out onto a breathtaking plateau.
A loose-gravelled Chilean highway took us to San Sebastian and back into Argentina, the remote landscape and ostriches adding a strangeness to this end-of-the-world location. There were a couple of other Brits on the bus, including a southern English lad called Jim who was on a round-the-world trip. We shared a smoke at the San Sebastian border crossing. Sitting in my front seat on the bottom deck, I found myself next to an Asian-looking man with an immaculate appearance, briefcase and all, taking his two-week vacation in the south. We were afforded great spectacles of the outside world from these seats. A cluster of amiable Uruguayans shared the coffee, and eager conversations flowed in an exciting atmosphere.
Rio Grande’s memorials to the young Argentine conscripts who never made it back from the Malvinas were a fresh reminder of the current stand-off with Britain over advancing oil explorations around the Falklands. I spotted a huge block of stone dedicated to those who lost their lives when the Belgrano carrier was sunk by the British in 1982. The Asian man offered me a generous smile of acknowledgement and lightened the mood when he pointed out a happy sculpture of a large, leaping fish. A sociable young man found a long, reclined seat across the aisle for his pregnant partner and when we stopped in Rio Grande, they liberated their happy Labrador.
The bus trundled out of the city and down into a region of spectacularly jagged white peaks – a dramatic distant image of the southern Andes. The final stage of the journey into Ushuaia offered a spectacular backdrop of vast swathes of petrified and dying forests then a fjord-like wonderland descent into the evening lights of Ushuaia. I hadn’t prepared myself for a 10pm arrival. There were no taxis about so the steep streets were a tough challenge; they ascended sharply up towards the hills overlooking the town. I’d emailed the Freestyle Hostel the previous night knowing it might be a struggle to find accommodation. The busy hostel had no reservation recorded and left me in a spot, so urgency led me to check another hostel, also fully booked. I remained philosophical after such a wondrous day and opted for a cosy night in a single room at the Posada Costa Serena, an establishment filled with exotic plants. The clientele was mostly Antarctica-bound folk, full of smiles and farting aloud while congregating outside the Posada, sharing their smokes and stories. After a bite to eat and a coffee, I returned to the Freestyle to book the following two nights there.
Wednesday, February 17
I enjoyed a sleep filled with vivid dreams, one involving a multi-million-pound scam and another about turning the tables on an all-powerful leader, whoever that was…
I needed to stay focused as being in a dopey stupor didn’t make for safe travelling. Perhaps the satisfaction of achieving a good distance in my first fortnight of travel had lulled me into a self-satisfied and sleepy state. Or was I being hard on myself? Surely I could relax a little bit more now?
I couldn’t locate an ATM outside the main bank but I wasn’t in a rush. I decided therefore to take a ticket and wait for my turn to speak to a clerk and withdraw money that way. I must have waited a good hour, in which time I studied my phrasebook and listened to the Spanish conversations of the customers including a fellow bus passenger from yesterday’s trip who came over to me and gave me a friendly acknowledgement. So, all was not wasted as I sat back and viewed the people of Ushuaia going about their daily affairs – ladies and gentlemen, all dressed well and one or two in football jerseys, even a Liverpool replica.
After the clerk kindly escorted me to the ATMs at the other side of the building, I laughed, withdrew some cash and wandered off for a big grill meal then ventured to the harbour to find a bus to take me west into the Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego (Tierra del Fuego National Park). I paid the 20 pesos entry fee and the Peruvian driver took me further into the park where I could start a sun-drenched hike in the stunning scenery of late summer colour with purple heather gracing the lower hills overlooking the blue lakes and pine forests. High-teen temperatures graced this lovely day and I marvelled at the idyllic locations for camping out. It was a landscape to paint on canvas, and to enjoy under canvas!
I took lots of photos, admiring the spectacular mountain and lake surroundings, as many other European tourists were doing. Many coach tours were sucking parties deeper into the hard, dry mud tracks of the vast park. I walked a circular route reaching, and returning from, a lakeside spot to the pick-up point by a large hotel. On the way back to Ushuaia, many travellers requested to be dropped off at the edge of town for a picturesque, sunset ramble back into the centre, but I opted to stop further on at the central station and ambled to the busy Galway pub for a pint of Beagle Ale – very refreshing! The Galway felt like a sea shanty Irish pub, with interior pine panelling and a prominent nautical theme with paintings of old sailing ships on its walls!
Thursday, February 18
The corrugated-tin roofs of Ushuaia reminded me a lot of Reykjavik, Iceland. There seemed to be plenty to do. Should I plan to go up to the Glaciar Martial or on a boat trip? I liked the bustling hostel atmosphere here. Lots of beautiful young women were happily chatting away and making plans. I got speaking to Ann, a scriptwriter from Los Angeles, who was going to Antarctica with her sister. We enjoyed a good hour’s chat.
After a light lunch, I walked to the harbour as the hot sun sparkled over the bay. Sun protection is vital in these southern-hemispheric parts as holes in the ozone layer leave one at greater risk of burning or worse. It’s really that serious.
At 3pm I clambered on board a Canoero Catamaranes for a trip out into the Beagle Channel. Unfortunately, rain set in and shrouded the surrounding Fuegian Mountains in a thick cloud. The wind also picked up and temperatures dropped back below 10 Celsius. But the stunning views had camera-wielding tourists, many Japanese, jostling about and dashing backwards and forwards from the top deck to the warmth of the large cabin below. A bilingual tourist guide briefly escorted us onto the desolate rocky shore of Bird Island. Later we cruised past other rocky outposts and wave-swept shores crowded with rock cormorants and sea lions. I particularly enjoyed the first island stop and our little ramble to check out the archaeological evidence of indigenous settlements. I decided not to eat a Calafate berry, which they say will capture your heart and encourage you to live the rest of your days in this part of the world. I remembered first tasting a winberry, a similar wild blueberry fruit on a family walk up to Moel Famau Tower on the Clwydian Range back in the long hot summer of 1976. The rain by now had become heavy and we chugged back west through the bay to Ushuaia. Despite the chill, if this were a sign of experiences to come, I relished the days ahead.
A really pleasant couple – John from Paris and Maia from Malaga, Spain – arrived in the dormitory and we had a good conversation which led to the Labrador in the baggage compartment recollection and how bizarre it had looked to me. We surmised about the Argentines having a less cautious approach to life. John and Maia laughed about recalling seeing a dog in a cage atop a car which overtook their bus. A recurring theme, when in conversation with the Argentines, is how they place emphasis on asking about your family rather than what you do for a living. I like that.
Friday, February 19
I’d had a light, fitful sleep. While sipping a coffee in the hostel foyer, the reception worker came over to talk. He was keen to have his first nicotine rush of the day. I still had some tobacco stashed away so I gladly obliged.
The next ride was booked with Tecni Austral at the company’s Ushuaia office. This particular morning’s early start from the harbour in the 5am darkness, took me, and a half-full bus of people, back up to Rio Grande. Seated in my allocated front seat on the old blue bus, I watched the dawn break over the stunning white-topped, jagged mountains as we made our way back up north. Again I asked myself what was the protocol on journeys out here? Was it just taking any seat? It seemed quite a relaxed matter really.
I slept on the first leg of the trip and changed buses in Rio Grande. I’d considered visiting Torres del Paine over the Chilean border, but instead set my mind on reaching El Calafate on the eastern side of the Andes. On our return along the rough road after the border stop, I recalled having a touch of hay fever in Ushuaia. Staying out in South America would save me the June and July misery of full-blown hay fever back in Britain. But there was lush vegetation in Tierra del Fuego, and grasses, gorse and dandelions represented a similar terrain to home in many ways.
I would reach El Calafate by nightfall if there was a connection in Rio Gallegos, which there was, and within an hour I was seated at the front adjacent to the driver on yet another bus with a cracked windscreen. We headed west along straight roads across endless plains.
We reached El Calafate by 10pm, having travelled down through a stunning north-to-south valley as the huge Andean range appeared to the west and the destination sat nestled in the darkening vale below. The Calafate Hostel, an impressive and attractive log building, was an easy walk from the station even at this time of night. I’d only eaten a couple of empanadas but I needed rest. I had a couple of beers and smoked a couple of cigarettes in the tranquil night air after checking in, thanks to pre-booking. I then enjoyed a very deep sleep.
Saturday, February 20
This was a friendly, HI-affiliated place, which included free computer access. The first-floor dining area offered a light breakfast. I walked down to the nearby lake and took some pictures. There was an Alpine feel to the area. The strong sunshine broke through mid-morning and I ambled back into town along Avenida Libertador. I slowly worked out my bearings, found a supermarket and bought a sandwich and other snacks to munch in the deep shade beneath a large tree in a small park. Large timber-framed buildings lined the nearby main street and wood smoke filtered into the warmer afternoon air. Car-chasing dogs were quite ubiquitous here and perhaps provided another way of slowing down speeding motorists – a bit like sheepdogs often did on the country lanes of North Wales. I checked out a museum but passed on the 20 pesos admission price and returned to the hostel.
The Saturday-night restaurants were packed out and I settled for empanadas and a couple of large bottles of Quilmes, the popular lager of Argentina – not the greatest taste, having a chemically edge. I made an accommodating gesture mid-evening when Sebastian and his partner from Switzerland arrived in town to meet up with two cousins; however, they were booked into different rooms. So, I swapped rooms with them so that they could all be together. My hostel experiences had been fine so far, but this was a night disturbed by a loudly snoring guy. Some reward from swapping rooms to cater for others!
Sunday, February 21
On my first excursion into the Andes I enjoyed a spectacular visit up to the Perito Moreno glacier, a stunning sight. I went along with the others on our minibus. We were entertained by some great folk music being played by the driver on his CD player. I relished this mind-blowing afternoon, especially the boat trip right up close to the glacier wall, a unique and rare chance to witness nature’s glory. There was a 75 pesos charge to enter the Parque Nacionales Los Glaciares. However, the different balcony views of an amazing glacier were later surpassed by our boat’s close flirtation with the steep-sided ice bulk’s blue-tinted fissures pointing high up into the mist. The milky coloured water from the ice melt induced a cold sensation in me as we floated next to one of the few stable and advancing (two metres a day) glaciers left in the world. The mass sheet was cracking up on its north side, but the advancing colder season would soon see it blocking up the river again. Some spectacular ice breaks occurred with corresponding cracks and groans as we all gasped at this marvellous beauty.
Brian from Pretoria, South Africa was on our trip. He was in Argentina for a month and would soon be heading back home to find some work amid the Fifa World Cup carnival. We had a great guide on this particular day, a lad with a true love for his job and the surrounding environment. I think the enthusiasm came across as he and his driver took turns to put on some great tunes throughout the journey, complementing the experience with some style. It increased my desire to explore this vast continent further. I felt out of this world! I was also rapidly developing a personal theme of new post-ironic tunes, my twist on a world perhaps losing its sense of irony. After all, we were all getting hot under the collar and rushing around, while nature was losing its cool yet at the same time cooling off its relationship with us.