29.03.2016 - 29.03.2016
And so it is: Ushuaia. The southernmost city on the planet. The End of the World as it's so openly and proudly referred to down here.
It was a long journey down here with a lot of hours spent in planes - and thankfully this English-speaker managed to communicate enough Spanish to get transferred to the Emergency Exit seats for the extra legroom.
I was very hyper from lack of sleep lying in Buenos Aires airport messaging people and looking up nonsense online, and at one point singing quite loudly because the lounge was empty. Turns out I was waiting at gate 1 instead of 11, but I didn't miss my plane so that's completely besides the point.
It was a long journey but it was so worth it. If the sunrise was anything to go by (and it was) I was in for some spectacular sights
As soon as I had stepped out of the airport I was struck with two things.
Firstly, I was still wearing my shorts and shirts from Venezuela's climate. It was a might colder down here in Tierra del Fuego.
Secondly, the views were amazing. I mean beautiful. All around the city is surrounded my mountains and forests and glaciers.
Unfortunately, the city itself is not the greatest looking place. It's a victim of it's circumstance of growth as much as anything. From a small town of 7000 some decades ago, the Argentine gonverment decided to attract as many of its citizens to Ushuaia as possible in order to keep the Chilean's at bay. And so Ushuaia became tax free and very attractive to business and factories as well as the average citizen looking to get twice the wage for their same job in Buenos Aires.
And the sad result is a mismatch of different architecture and aesthetics, different states of repair and finance, of quality and practicality. There's not even a vague sense of romantic wayfarerness about the design, and certainly not even the whiff of a luxury ski resort or Swiss chalet about it. They have plenty of ramshackle construction and graffiti. And, maybe for the best, your eyes are drawn outward rather than inward. Still, on occasion, the city can surprise you with its picturesque quality.
And yet, Ushuaia never feels unsafe. The people are exceptionally friendly and patient, especially with my poor (non-existent) Spanish. Even when they think I'm English they're very friendly, despite the Malvinas (never call them the Falklands) being a raw memory for some of the locals.
It's actually quite amusing to explain where I'm from. Eager to not want to say I'm Inglés, I quickly say I'm from Isla de Man. They pause for a moment and they say "Ah, Berlin?" Which might sound odd but Isla de Man (a place few in South America have heard of) sounds remarkably like Alemania, which is Spanish for Germany. So I try again: "No, Isla de Man. Isla de Hombre." The pause, frown, and then proudly say: "¡Dublin!"
Then I just agree and say yes. It's easier that way.
Now, what is there to do in Ushuaia? Pretty much the same things you can do in most of Patagonia but with a few extras thrown in. There is so much hiking and walking to do, fans of those particular activities will never get bored. I don't just mean of the actions themselves but the pay off at the end. The views are beautiful! I've been here nearly 2 weeks and I still look at the mountains in awe. And sad to say I've covered only a fraction of Tierra deal Fuego and virtually nothing of Patagonia in comparison. This will be a region I will eagerly return to.
So what is there you can do? There is the standard tourist stuff (which of course I did!) such as traversing the Beagle Canal. Being a fan of Darwin and Captain Fitzroy's world-altering voyage, I would have regretted not sailing just a slice of their path.
Expect to see commorants, seals, and sealions as well as incredible views of Ushuaia from the bay. I actually think the views are better than the wildlife but maybe that was because of the shockingly cold wind detracting from the experience a little.
(N.B. For those not in the know, Fitzroy was the captain of the HMS Beagle at the time of the famed voyage, and was very close friends with Darwin. He was even the reason Darwin was on the ship in the first place. But then Fitzroy sort of got a bit peeved with Darwin because of the whole evolution thing, given Fitzroy was big on God and all that. There's a great book called "This Thing of Darkness" all about their journey and rivalry; it's a fantastically engrossing read, but it's long and a little dire and glum at times - the title refers to Fitzroy's bouts of manic depression which bookend the whole story.)
You can also view penguins on the same boat, or do what my friend Amit and I decided to do, which was to get on the island itself. There is one tour (and one tour only) that will allow you to actually walk with the Penguins. How could I refuse?
Sadly, as with everything in Ushuai, these tours are expensive. You need to hunt for the best offers and haggle with cash-offers to get the best deal you can, but even then expect to part with more than a little cash!
The National Park is incredible too. Feel free to bring you tent and camping gear to spend the night - plenty of places in the acres and acres of land accomdate those who don't mind the cold. There are 4 or 5 "official" hikes and countless more you can do just walking around and exploring. The official hikes are anywhere from an estimated 1 hour to more arduous 8 hours, though even the later only took me 4 hours. Amit and I walked to the Chilean border (the border control there is non-existent if any unscrupulous readers wanted to sneak into Chile) in the National Park before doing a longer hike round the lakes and forests (and definitely not getting lost along the way). You can hike up right to the top of the surrounding mountains for unbeatable vistas of the park and Ushuaia. Pictures sadly do not do it justice but I have tried my best to capture what I can.
There is Laguna Esmeralda, just one of the many lakes about Ushuaia you can hike to. It's a meltwater lake nestled at the bottom of the mountain and should only take an hour or two to get there. You can hike to the glacier but the lake itself is the most breathtaking turquoise you could imagine, and more than enough reason for a visit alone. Also, if you're feeling brave you can have a little dip in the crystal clear water - such as myself and Nicholas did! What? You only have so many chances to swim in ice water as far south as possible.
Horseback Riding around the hills and paths is another option. Like me, you don't actually have to posses any skill or prior experience with horses. Just a thirst for adventure and a will to not fall off! The paths are winding and steep, and your horse's sure-footedness is all that stands between you and a very nasty injury. So I clung on as though I was scared. Imagine...
It's perfectly safe though. The horses know where they're going even if you don't! They move easily between walking, trotting, and galloping - which is a completely freeing experience. It feels a bit like downhill mountain biking but more powerful. I can see why horse riding is addictive. As with everything else the views are incredible and the longer you ride these horses (four hours is a fairly long time) along cliffs, between forests, through rivers, you are almost overwhelmed with awe at what you see.
There is always the Antarctica cruise you can go on. Prices range, obviously, but the lowest I saw was around $5,500 for 12 days. Don't get me wrong, I'd love to go and see it, but I haven't that sort of money to spend quite yet. Maybe another time! But the cruises were all finishing up at this time of year (due to it being their winter and the ice beginning to expand). Amit, my hiking partner, tried desperately to get on the last cruise of the season; even going so far as checking with the Navy base to see if he could accompany as a civilian passenger. That, sadly, did not work. But if you ever fancy visiting Antarctica, you won't have trouble finding a place to buy your ticket - just bring your money!
Ever fancied walking on a glacier? Easy! There are several to chose from. Make sure you don't attempt them solo though unless you're experienced with it and have the kit, or are with a guided tour. You can hike up the paths as far as you can yourself, but actually traversing the ice is not safe without guides or proper equipment. This is a view from the top of the path to Martial Glacier.
And there's more to do besides this! 4x4 excursions, canopy slides, mountain bike trails, rafting, paintball, kayaking, and probably more on top of that! As for food, there is plenty of that here too, but you'll want to try out the King Crab if nothing else 👌
And I have to give a final shoutout to my constant roommate in Ushuaia. Where others in the room have come and gone, this guy has been in the bed opposite mine for the duration. He doesn't know my name (keeps calling me Phil, from Ireland...) and I think his name is Carlos. He doesn't speak a word of English and I speak no Spanish, but we have persevered with our respective conversations, merely talking in our native-tongue and just ignoring the fact the other will have no idea what is being said.
I think we developed a real bond.
I will certainly be returning to Patagonia in the future, if not Ushuaia I particular. But for now, I'm flying up to Lima begin the start of my 8 week journey across Peru, Ecuador, and the Galápagos. Who could ask for more?