Ushuaia: Adventures at the end of the world

Reluctantly tearing myself away from Santa Fe, and my excellent host Susana, I caught the bus back to Buenos Aires, another uncommonly short hop of 6 hours or so. Back to the the delight which is Retiro staton on a busy afternoon, with the new feature of a couple of ridiculously aggressive beggars, one of whom got treated to some new Argentine swear words I’d learnt after he approached me at a trot and aggressively stuffed his hand in my face in a style more akin to mugging than charity.

I stayed at a hostel in Recoleta, to save a long trip to the airport in the morning. I’d initially thought about enquiring for their long term rate to stay during my course next month, but after a baking hot night in a seriously noisy old house, I thought otherwise. A few errands in the morning and then good to go from Jorge Newbery Airport the next afternoon. Gratifyingly, the cashpoint worked again! After my earlier trouble failing to withdraw cash from about 10 different ATMs in 2 different cities then I NEVER take it for granted. Trust me, if you’ve ever been travelling a bit off grid the “tttttttthhhhhhhhhhhhhwwwrrrrr” of the cash dispenser kicking in is a very welcome sound.

Arriving on time in Ushuaia, it really did feel like I’ve come to the end of the world. The final approach is spectacular, with the aircraft banking steeply around the Beagle Channel before coming in to land on the runway, perched on a narrow peninsula. Stepping out of the airport brought a welcome chill after the stifling heat and humidity of Buenos Aires. 

Straight into a taxi outside, I again realised why I love Argentina, since everywhere has metered taxis and there’s none of the tiresome haggling or general mucking around you get elsewhere. A chatty female driver keen to point out the main peaks in the huge mountains surrounding the town, and straight to Antartica Hostel….

One of the top-rated places on TripAdvisor, and deservedly so, with a great atmosphere and comfy rooms. Unfortunately it also housed a contingent of people who just…don’t…SPEAK (It’s quite a common theme amongst gap-yearers!) but also some guys who wanted to trek to a far-flung glacier the next day.

The next morning I had a wander around town, and the interesting, if somewhat pricey, prison museum. £10 gets you into the Taj Mahal and the Kremlin, but also into this one.

To be fair, it was really interesting, and I can imagine how bleak this place was during the time it housed the worst of Argentina’s criminals, as well as periods incarcerating famous political prisoners. Ushuaia’s seasons are polar, with warm summers and long days, as well as temperatures down to minus 20 in winter, with few hours of actual daylight. In addition, I discovered that the biting Antartic wind could hit at any point, chilling a warm sunny day.

There’s loads of interesting detail about the seafaring history of the Beagle Channel and Ushuaia since the days of the early explorers, and Charles Darwin’s expedition vessel Beagle. In addition there is a fantastic art exhibition in one of the wings of the prison. Penguins feature fairly prominently- There are plenty of them around!

The museum also hosts an interesting exhibition about the use of convicts in the lumber industry and their narrow-gauge train which is now preserved there:

Afterwards, a wander around town, and the 99,000 outdoor shops along San Martin, the main drag. Ushuaia really does feel like a frontier town, sandwiched between the sea and the mountains:

Main street

 

Deepwater port for ships to Antartica and cargo services

La Quiaca is the northernmost point of Argentina on the Chilean border. Also a quick reminder of how far my schlep back to Buenos Aires will be!

After a hearty pasta lunch (Firmly back to cooking for myself given the ludicrous price of eating out in Ushuaia!) I set off with an Italian and a Latvian guy to find the Vinciguerra glacier. I’m glad he made the suggestion as it’s slightly off the beaten track. Most of the hikes in Ushuaia involve getting a taxi to the start to avoid walking out of town on the dirt roads, tangling with the lunatic fringe of Argentine motoring. Not a lot of money, about £8 between us for the 20min trip out of town to the trailhead.

Tempting glimpse from the trailhead

Following the river to the base of the mountains

Inventive path design

Up into the forest

The calm before the storm… High meadow

The path gets interesting…                                             More of a scramble than a walk in parts

The walk to the top took us around 4hrs from the trailhead at a fairly leisurely pace. Starting from beside the river, the trail then climbs steeply though a wooded area before crossing the high meadow… The going then gets seriously tough as the gradient increases, becoming a challenging scramble up the loose shale. All, however, is most definitely worth it once you reach the lake.

Is it just me, or can anyone else see a Stormtrooper on the rock above?

Lago de los Tempanos is fed by the Vinciguerra Glacier, and you can get right up to the terminal face. Neither the Italian nor the Latvian guy were sufficiently brave or stupid enough to see it at quite as close quarters as I did, baulking the 10m walk across snow/ice to reach the cave. Wusses!

Terminal face

Under the glacier

After a good wander around the lake and glacier, it was time to get going, and to meet the taxi which we had arranged to return to the trailhead. The walk down was a similar scramble to the ascent…

Back to the trailhead, and with half an hour until the taxi’s return, we chatted to a young Israeli group who’d also just finished. That is, until one of their number described his national service as having been a ‘warrior’ rather than a soldier and took great umbrage at Stefano telling him that he’d been to Palestine in the past. “What country is that? I don’t recognise that country” Ah, conversation over then..!

The next day I had intended to take a morning boat trip, but such was the mist that I didn’t think it worthwhile, waiting until the 3pm departure of the Patagonian Adventure Explorer, with the hope of actually managing to see some wildlife! Staff at the hostel recommended the company- There are plenty of businesses in Ushuaia whom will take your money but PAE are one of the smaller, more family-run outlets with a 30-person boat as opposed to a huge catamaran-style craft of companies such as Rumbo Sur. Sounded good to me. As with everything else in Ushuaia, it’s relatively expensive, with a 4 hour trip around the nearby islands for 850 Argentine Pesos (Currently about £40). 

We steamed out into the bay and hit the first stop, an island with a huge Cormorant population. That’s not snow, it’s guano!

Then onwards, to a close encounter with sea lions. Incredibly close, in fact, as the boat approached to within a metre of the rocks. It was a really windy day which apparently makes them less active. Nonetheless, any day in which I get to see a huge bull sea lion hanging out with his harem is a good one…

The Three Amigos

Rounding a lighthouse, we returned towards Ushuaia, and a stop at an island where an indigenous community once lived. I can’t quite imagine a more hostile environment to survive in without at least some modern technology.

A lighthouse… And lots more cormorants

Doing a ‘Titanic’ on the prow. No icebergs.

Colony of Rock Cormorants

Funky moss

After a thoroughly civilised tea and biscuit break on board, we steamed back into Ushuaia’s port, cold but invigorated. The next day it was time to see the surprisingly small Tierra Del Fuego National Park. Again, the Ushuaia Tax kicked in, with the minibus transfer to the park entrance (About 15 miles from the town) a fairly hefty 300 Argentine Pesos for the return trip (£15). Park entry is another £10 or so- Although a top tip is that, if you stay in the park’s basic dormitory or campsite your entrance ticket is valid for 2 days- Another bonus is that you’re ready to go in the morning, perhaps to tackle the 8 hour ascent of the main cerro within the park. I didn’t have the time to do this before the 6pm last bus.

Despite being a filthy morning weather-wise, the first path was nonetheless spectacular. Setting out from the park entrance and along the beautiful shoreline with crystal clear water, through deep woodland at part but constant spectacular reminders of where we were. There were a few groups of hikers who had been dropped off at the same time, including a really annoying noisy group, so quite a lot of my time was overtaking or dropping behind these groups in order to enjoy the uninterrupted peace of Patagonia and also to spot some of the birdlife…

This is seriously rugged country, and with the wind and occasional bursts of rain I really regretted having forgotten my waterproof! Still, I made good time on the coastal walk and ended up at the junction of the next path. They are well signed routes and the time estimates are pretty decent for leisurely walking. So, I turned up the river and started on the path to the Chilean border. Or rather, the wind tunnel up to the Chilean border.

Blustery Beach (Probably not its real name)

Through the forest

The evidence of how extreme conditions get is everywhere. The forests take an absolute pounding and, as they aren’t actively managed the path is strewn with downed and shattered trees. I was glad for the shelter since the wind by now was absolutely savage, but it’s still nice to sit on the pebble beaches and contemplate life:

Border Beach (again, probably not its name…)

Chilean border… Watch out for the forest snipers beyond!

I was slightly relieved to reach the end and to be on my way back, after 6 hours of windblown hiking. The final buses from the park are at 5 and 6 pm, and they pick you up from various strategic points. As I had an hour to kill, I decided to explore another of the bays nearby.

And then, back on the bus to Ushuaia. The next day was my time to go northwards… Hitchhiking here is extremely easy on the whole but given the torrential rain which didn’t seem to be letting up, I bought a ticket to the next town Tolhuin. Pastures new, not a million miles away but a nice less touristy stopoff all the same. The bus ticket’s relatively expensive for here, £10 for 100km, more or less, so if you can hitch it’s worth it. The advantage of Ushuaia is that virtually everyone on the road is going in the same direction… North!

Next chapter… Workaway shenanigans in Tolhuin, and then the desperate quest to escape the island!

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