Friday, May 2, 2008

Update from Ushuaia

Port of Ushuaia My original plan was to take a boat trip to or around Cape Horn, since that's the bottom of the continent, and I can't really see coming all this way, and not going all the way, but I'm a bit late. The tourist season is over and so I'll have to call it quits here—almost at the bottom, but not quite.

By some accounts, Ushuaia is the world's southernmost city, but by others, the award goes to Puerto Williams, in Chile, not far from here. Regardless, I'm pretty close to the bottom. Ushuaia is on the southern coast of the island of Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, and its original claim to fame was when the Argentine government began to use it to store serious criminals at the beginning of the 20th century. It's an island, after all, and so, like Alcatraz, is a tough spot from which to remove one's self—perfect for bad guys.

Walking back from Martial Glacier The ride here from Puerto Natales, Chile, took about thirteen hours and cost 28,000 pesos, or about $62. I got on a bus at 7:30 in the morning about two blocks from Erratic Rock and we headed South. About two hours later, we met a bus coming from Punta Arenas. They were pulled over on the shoulder, and the bus I was on crossed over and pulled off onto the same (left) shoulder, nose to nose with the other tour bus—kind of funny. Those of us going to Ushuaia (or somewhere along the way) got off our bus and got on the bus coming from Punta Arenas. The bus we had been on continued on to Punta Arenas.

We drove East to Río Gallegos, then South to the Strait of Magellan, which we crossed in a ferry, putting us on the island of Tierra del Fuego. Before reaching the ferry, we had been driving on a gravel road for a few hours. The gravel continued for a couple more hours. A view of the city from the edge of town with a fisheye lens Eventually, we cashed out of Chile. A few minutes more on the bus put us at the entrance to Argentina—border crossings in Latin America are called frontiers. Entering Argentina put us back on pavement. The day all blurs together, but after not much longer, we pulled into a bus station and those of us continuing to the bottom got on smaller buses—twenty-passenger vans. Think going to the airport. As we arrived in Ushuaia, we stopped on a couple different side streets to drop people off in front of their houses. It was sort of amusing and we discussed this amongst ourselves in the van as we bopped around the city. After a few such excursions, we pulled over next to a curb in a nondescript part of town. I don't think Ushuaia has a downtown. This may have been a main street, though. Not much of a bus station, but we had arrived.

Ushuaia is definitely in a nice setting I'm staying at Antarctica Hostel and it's one of the nicest hostels I've ever occupied. The showers are huge—showers at some hostels are hardly big enough to turn around in and the shower curtain just ends up sticking to you—the rooms are nice and have heated floors, there's a huge common area, WiFi, a large and fully equipped kitchen, and a great staff. Chris, the owner, is from Buenos Aires and initially spent a few years down here getting things going and doing much of the remodeling work himself, but now spends more time back in BA with his new wife than he does down here. His staff handles things quite nicely, however, and will help you with anything you need, including ideas of where to go and what to do and see.

Ushuaia just after sunset They booked me on a boat tour with Patagonia Adventure Explorer and it was really great. We toured out into the Beagle Channel for around four hours and motored around the main lighthouse that guides boats coming into Ushuaia. We also saw Cormorants (think flying penguins), Fur Seals, and Sea Lions. What a kick! Made me want to go to the Galapagos—we'll see about that. Anyone have a short term software project they need done?

The tour cost one-hundred-thirty-five pesos—around $45—plus a six-peso tax at the port—another $2. The weather wasn't the best, but could've been much worse. It rained for a few minutes during the trip, but everyone happened to be inside the boat at that point. Hot drinks (coffee and hot chocolate) and cookies were provided and were much appreciated after being out in the cold. The mug warmed the hands and the liquid warmed the body. We also stopped on another island and did a brief guided wilderness trek.

Contemplating life at sunrise Speaking of which, the guide was outstanding. As we putted along with the Fur Seals following the boat, leaping out of the water, and as we hovered around the rock covered with wildlife, he explained in gross detail the genus, species, family, and physical details of the creatures we were spying. Gave me horrible flashbacks of high school. At least I think I must have studied some of this stuff back then. Now that I think of it, I probably didn't study it too much, although the teacher may have tried teaching it to me. The words genus, family, and species do ring a bell, but not much more. I guess the difference is that I love learning stuff now, whereas I wasn't much into learning when I was in school. Odd how that works.

The tour guide showing us some details of Patagonia during the boat tour Another thing I should mention. There was a rock which formed a small island jutting out of the water. It was chock full of the Fur Seals and Sea Lions. The smell on the upwind side of the rock was not the same as the smell on the downwind side. I'll leave it at that.

Yesterday, I got a cab ride up to a ski lift in the Martial Mountains behind the city, and hiked, slipped, and slid my way up to the top of the lift—the hike was on snow and ice—where I got a stunningly disappointing view of the city, surrounded by Beagle Channel and myriad mountains. Almost shockingly, I made it back down to the bottom of the lift without falling. Old tennis shoes aren't really the ticket when walking downhill on ice.

Lighthouse in the Beagle Channel I walked back down the mountain road and came across an excellent viewpoint about halfway down. I could see almost the entire town along with the water and surrounding mountains. Then, when I got to the upper edge of town, maybe a mile farther along, I walked right by—er, stopped at—a really nice plateau next to some big building, overlooking the entire town. Super duper view.

So, here's my travel tip. If you want to hike up to a glacier, get a cab ride to Martial Glacier (bottom of the chair lift) and hike up to the glacier. If you just want a great view of the city in its setting, have the taxi take you only about halfway up the road to the glacier and drop you off at the viewpoint. The cabbie should know what you're talking about. Then snap your shots, enjoy the view, Sea Lions and Fur Seals chilling out and walk back down to the city. At the edge of town, on the right side of the street, hop over into the clearing—assuming some new building hasn't been stuck there—and get some more great shots of the beautiful scene. Then, make your way back through town to Antarctica Hostel, to a restaurant of your choice, to the waterfront, or just wander aimlessly, investigating a cool, new city.

I'm still planning a couple more outings while here—taking the world's southernmost train, and visiting the prison museum. I'll let you know how those go. Then I'm off on an entirely new adventure—hitchhiking from here to Santiago. At least that's the idea. We shall see about that.


Anonymous said...

Here's hoping that you don't suffer too much ash fallout from the volcano near Santiago that's erupting - it looks like the plume is heading more or less in your direction; although this could make for some very interesting sunset shots.

Nice pictures again in this segment; keep 'em coming and have fun!

Buena suerte,


Jay said...

One guy here at the hostel ended up taking a bus early this morning to head back north because his flight got cancelled due to the fact that the destination airport was closed because of ash in the air, so it's definitely affecting things, even as far away as here in Ushuaia.