Just like that, I’m in Argentina. My second time in South America, but my first time in the southern hemisphere.
At this point in the trip, I’m only in Buenos Aires for one day – enough time to change some greenbacks into pesos with help from my friend Holly, and for a proper Argentine barbecue, or asado, on the roof of my hostel before catching my flight to Ushuaia the next morning. But after six weeks in Central America, Buenos Aires is such a pleasant cosmopolitan shock to the system that even the city’s metro strike can’t dissuade me from determining to return as I make my way back north later in my trip, and thus I’ll save my remaining comments about BA for a later post. For now, I’m headed to the end of the world.
A lot of things about Ushuaia are surprising, starting with the flight down – it’s a huge plane, it’s packed, and it’s one of several departures for the day. I kind of thought I was heading to Argentina’s Alaska, some remote outpost that no Argentine would ever visit, but as I’ll find out, it’s something of a vacation destination for locals. In the winter it’s a ski resort, and this is South American autumn and the resorts aren’t open yet, but plenty of people are still around.
The second surprise is the best — walking out the front door of the Ushuaia airport and seeing massive mountains encircling the bay the town is set into. I can’t think of a more stunning view to greet an arriving air passenger at any airport I’ve ever been to. It really underscores that I’m really here – the southernmost city on earth, on the island of Tierra del Fuego, even beyond the expanses of Patagonia. Central America’s lush forests and black volcanos are now literally a distant memory. Here are proper mountains, jagged and foreboding, lining the dangerous waters of the Beagle Channel.
I get myself settled at a quiet hostel and get to work hammering out the logistics of my time in Patagonia. One of the few things that I have set in stone are my nights at refugios on the W trek (booked, with considerable difficulty, from my temporary home in San Pedro in Guatemala), up near Puerto Natales, Chile, about 15 hours away by bus. It’s almost impossible to figure out what the inter-city bus situation in Patagonia will be until you’re actually at the ticket window, especially as relatively late in the season as it is, so I’ve baked in a few days to spend in either Ushuaia or Punta Arenas, Chile, while I sort it out. As it turns out the next bus to Punta Arenas isn’t for two days, so it looks like I’ve got some time to kill in town. There’s a big casino on the waterfront here that is tempting after my moderate success at the Panama City roulette wheel, but my pesos are limited, and Ushuaia’s surroundings are calling me. I spend most of the day wandering past the harbor, back towards the airport, and through town, taking photos.
As night falls I head to an Irish bar called the Dublin, because why would I stop going to Irish bars at this point? This one is reputed to get pretty wild so I’m a little disappointed when I walk in at 9pm and there’s just a few people eating dinner. There’s not much else on my social docket for the evening so I order a burger and a beer.
There’s a point in a night that you can never quite identify, even if you know it’s coming all along, and you can’t pinpoint it in hindsight either, but it’s the point where you go from having a reasonably pleasant but decidedly mature time, to having an ignorant drunken night where just about anything can happen. Such a point passes by me at some unknown time at the Dublin, thought it must be around the time that a literal boatload of dudes who had been at sea for some extended duration wandered into the bar in search of drink. I am not sure how long they have been at sea — accounts I heard ran from three days to two months — but they are on land now, and looking to drink, none more so than Ivan, a Ukrainian guy. He is somewhat drunk and particularly ridiculous. He talks to me, or talks at me, about Putin and god knows what else; other people might find him annoying, but I have long experience in dealing with drunk rambling, particularly from Eastern Europeans, and I find him amusing. He ends up being tremendously helpful, unintentionally, because any time girls come into the bar, Ivan sooner or later ambles over to them and starts babbling , which provides me the opportunity to swoop in and say “I see you’ve met Ivan,” in English or Spanish as necessary, and this provides me a nice introduction to some Argentine girls who are on vacation from Rosario. One of them, whose name I can only remember as Ines, seems to take a shine to me.
Tierra del Fuego National Park is just a few miles west of Ushuaia. If the rest of Patagonia wasn’t so stunning, you’d probably hear more about this National Park, but as it is it gets overshadowed by Torres del Paine and Los Glaciares, further north. Fortunately, I am starting from the bottom (very near the Drake Passage, appropriately enough) and thus my expectations have not been set unreasonably high yet.
If you have one day in Tierra del Fuego National Park, you basically have two choices. You can either climb Cerro Guanaco, which eats up most of the day, or just hit up the smaller trails, which doesn’t quite take up the whole day, and requires almost no exertion.I opt for the latter. Ever since Ometepe I’ve been paranoid that I’m going to turn an ankle or sustain some other injury that would ruin the W trek, so aggressive hiking has been at a minimum. Plus it turns out I got a later start than expected this morning.
The scenery in Tierra del Fuego changes quickly even over the gently rolling low-elevations that I’m walking at. At times it almost feels like some fantasy golf course, with short lawns lined with ponds, lakes, mountains, tall grasses, and a constantly shifting variety of trees.
At one point I leave the road take a grassy side-path down to a small stream. I take a few photos and when I turn around, the path back to the road is blocked by a large fox that is staring at me. It doesn’t seem threatening at all, but it also doesn’t seem the least bit disturbed by my presence. In fact, it lays down and seems to enjoy the attention from my camera. After a few minutes it slowly ambles back towards the road, looking back at me every now and then as if to ensure that I’m following. It crosses the road and meets up with another fox, and the two of them slowly patrol their territory, pausing briefly for more photogenic moments at a small pond.
Eventually I wander towards the Lapataia Bay on the southern side of the park, and look out over the waters stretching towards the Beagle Channel. Until I go to Antarctica, I’ll never stand further south on my home planet. I’m completely alone and very content with my life at this moment.
Following the hiking, it’s time for an unholy amount of meat for dinner. The local restaurants take great pride in showing off exactly what you’re going to be eating – we’re talking a full lamb split down the middle and tossed on the grill. Spider crabs bigger than the facehuggers from Alien are on display in restaurant window aquariums. I pick a place that offers an all-you-can-eat deal. There’s a buffet with salad and sides but my days at Fogo de Chao gives me the pro knowledge to save my room for meat, which is procured by taking your dinner plate up to a little window by the massive grill, saying the name of a meat, and having it plopped on your plate. Sure you can ask for a chorizo or some pollo, but the real fun is saying cordero and watching this guy take three mighty whacks at a hunk of lamb leg and hand you the result.