Ushuaia, Argentina, is on the island of Tierra del Fuego near the bottom of the continent of South America. It claims to be the world's southernmost city, although Puerto Williams also makes that claim. Puerto Williams has barely 2,000 inhabitants, including navy personnel, so—well, you can make up your own mind. Puerto Williams is located a few miles to the southeast, just across the Beagle Channel.
I stayed at Antarctica Hostel, owned by a fine chap named Cristian who also owns limehouse Youth Hostel in BA. This was the nicest hostel I've seen. Chris built it from scratch, so it ought to be nice. The staff was excellent, too.
During my eight days in Ushuaia, I visited the prison museum, hiked in Tierra del Fuego National Park, went horseback riding, hiked up a hill behind the town for a non-existent view, and took a boat trip out in the Beagle Channel. I also did a fair amount of relaxing in the hostel, both on my laptop and with a book.
Just a few years after Ushuaia was incorporated, the government began to send hard-core criminals there. The initial inmates were chosen because they had certain skills, so that they could build up infrastructure prior to the arrival of your average, unskilled, murderer. The prison is now used as a museum. I spent four hours wandering its cold, concrete halls. It houses myriad displays of interest, like the history of the prison and its inmates, the history of the railroad they built, and other, unrelated things, like maritime history, and a few art galleries. There was also an original, untouched, prison wing—very cold, rundown, and spooky. Cost was 35 pesos—about $12. It's located about one block from Antarctica Hostel.
The staff at Antarctica Hostel can arrange a variety of outings, including a horseback ride, an off road adventure, a boat trip, or a trip to the park for some hiking. I got picked up in front of the hostel in a mini-van and taken to the park for a ride on the railroad that the prisoners built to haul lumber from the forest back into the town. It used to run all the way between town and the park, but now is just in the vicinity of the park. The ride lasts about and hour and has some informative dialogue piped over speakers. It also passes through some beautiful scenery. After the train ride, I hiked around for a few hours, taking photos of the park. The van took me back to the hostel later in the afternoon. There are various times of the morning you can catch the van, and it leaves the park at several different times in the afternoon. Nice flexibility. The round-trip ride cost 40 pesos—about $13. The purchase of the train ticket covered park entry. It's 20 pesos one-way, and 50 pesos round-trip. Not sure about the math they're using.
A few days later, I got picked up in front of the hostel for some horseback riding. I went on the four-hour ride—rides of two, four, and seven hours are available. It started outside the park and went into the southeast corner. We galloped several times and ended up riding along the water front after coming down out of the hills, where we had some gorgeous views overlooking Ushuaia. They fed us a sandwich and offered us some coffee at the half-way point. The four-hour ride cost 210 pesos—around $70—and included the ride to and from the horse parking lot—er, ranch.
I met and hung out with some great guys in Ushuaia. Back in Puerto Natales, I had met Ezra and Pablo, brothers who were originally from Utah, but currently living in New York. They had hiked "the W" in Torres del Paine and met Tom, from England, during that hike.
Unbeknownst to me, Tom had come to Ushuaia and was on the boat trip in the Beagle Channel with me, but we didn't meet at that time—we only saw each other. The next day, we were on the same van going into Tierra del Fuego National Park, recognized each other, and ended up doing some hiking together. I learned that Tom knew Ezra and Pablo from Torres del Paine, so that was a fun connection. Tom and I had lunch the following day, but didn't see each other again, unfortunately. He's a lawyer and his girlfriend works for the UN. He'll be spending his time working in Holland for the next couple years where his girlfriend works, in The Hague, but he might even move to the States sometime down the road. He clued me in on a great train ride from D.C. to New Orleans that sounds great. He had taken it while visiting the States previously. Made me want to do a bit more traveling back home!
I stayed in the same room as Ezra and Pablo back at Erratic Rock and we discussed the possibility of taking a boat around Cape Horn. I was excited to find some other guys who wanted to take that same trip. Unfortunately, that didn't work out.
After Puerto Natales, they traveled to El Calafate and El Chaltan, then came to Ushuaia. We spent dinner together at a nice parrilla in Ushuaia our last night there. Sons of Mexican immigrants, Ezra and Pablo split their time growing up between Mexico and the States, their parents having obtained dual-citizenship before the kids came to be. Their parents were devout Mormons in Mexico and carried that on into the States. Now, however, only the mom attends church, with the dad going only occasionally to support her when she sings in the choir or gives a speech—the normal method of "preaching" within the Mormon church.
"All religions are flawed," posits Ezra. "I'll definitely raise my kids in the Mormon faith," chimes in Pablo, although he doesn't disagree with his older brother. "All religions basically teach morality," Ezra continues. He figures it's not that important which one you choose. "It seems pretty harsh for God to condemn someone for picking the wrong one." We all agree that, although we feel disappointed by our respective religions, we would never switch. I add that I got sick of years of jargon and the regurgitation of the same thing endlessly. It didn't feel real to me.
I felt at home with Ezra and Pablo. It was sad to say goodbye. Their trip will end in twelve days. Ezra will move from Buffalo to New York City to begin a new job in finance, and Pablo will finish college in upstate New York. I wish them the best.
Today began a new phase of my trip. I got up at my usual leisurely time of get-up-sometime-after-I-wake-up. After showering, I fixed my usual breakfast of four scrambled eggs and a bowl of cereal. I topped it off with a few swigs of Coke. You can't beat Coke for breakfast. If any of you reading this are investors, you should buy Coke. I am single handedly causing a rise in their stock price. Paying for my room and packing my bag followed. I said goodbye to Chris and Mariana—one of the staff—and grabbed a taxi to the outskirts of town. I was shortly reminded why I'm not in sales—I can't take rejection.
My current goal is to hitchhike from Ushuaia to Santiago. After that, we'll see. There are two roads leaving Ushuaia. They merge into one at the edge of town. The taxi dropped me just past that point, at a police checkpoint. I dropped my pack and my shoulder bag and stuck out my thumb as the first vehicle came through the check point. Nothing. I figured I'd better get used to this. Chris, the hostel owner, shared with me that he once waited for a ride for sixteen hours (!) when hitchhiking. Within minutes, a semi pulled over. I grabbed my shoulder bag and briskly walked up to his cab. I opened the passenger side door, only to find out that he was just going a few klicks down the road.
Back at my spot, I continued my ritual. Take off my sunglasses to appear more friendly, stick out my thumb, lower arm, replace sunglasses. After about a half hour, a silver midsize pulled over.
Leopoldo was going to Río Grande.
Leopoldo is a middle-aged lawyer who lives in Ushuaia. Divorced, he has two daughters attending college in Córdoba, where he got his law degree. One of them is studying law, like dad, and the other, medicine, like mom. Every weekend he drives to Río Grande, a couple hours from his home in Ushuaia, to visit his girlfriend of thirteen years. He says he likes it this way. He explains, "It's much less complicated," making me laugh.
When I got in the car, he was playing a CD of Strauss. Very nice. Leopoldo enjoyed his tranquility. I complimented him on his choice of music. With this, he raised a finger in the air and got a little excited. He ejected the classical aluminum disc and grabbed another CD off the dashboard. Karen Carpenter. "There's a kind of hush all over the world, all over the world you can hear the sounds of lovers in love. So listen very carefully, get closer now and you will see what I mean (bu-duh-bu-pa), it isn't a dream (bu-duh-bu-pa)..." Leopoldo definitely loves Karen Carpenter. Ya gotta admit, though, it's hard not to melt at that buttery smooth, angelic sound.
After maybe an hour, we pulled in to a small town on the banks of Fagnano Lake called Tolhuin, named indigenously, and containing a mere 9,000 inhabitants. Parking at a panderia—a store that sells bread—we entered, and Leopoldo bought a shot of coffee for himself and, against my grumblings, a Coke and sandwich for me.
Along the roadside were signs every so often with some number of kilometers printed on them. It started with around 3,050 km near Ushuaia and the numbers shrank with the passing rotations of the odometer. If you followed the signs until you got to zero, you'd be in Buenos Aires. I will eventually end up going more than 3,000 km, but thankfully that won't be for a while.
On the road again, it wasn't an hour more before we arrived in Río Grande. As we pulled into town, Leopoldo pointed out a gas station—YPF, common down here, sorta like BP at home—where trucks refuel and said that's where I should look for a ride in the morning. A few blocks farther down the road, we pulled up in front of a hostel. Although not as nice as Antarctica Hostel—and without breakfast—they still charged forty pesos. I'll live with it.
A few hundred kilometers farther north, a bunch of Spanish I didn't understand, some extraordinary countryside and guanacos, some good music, and a free lunch. I'd say my first day of hitching was a success.