Published: May 6th 2008May 4th 2008
Ushuaia has nicknamed itself "The End of the World", a fact with which you're bludgeoned over the head like an overly trusting penguin as you wander its streets, however it's difficult to justify such a title. At roughly the same latitude south as Belfast is north, and not even the most southerly city in the world (that honour goes to Puerto Williams in Chile, a fact acknowledged by both the Argentinian and Chilean governments, though purists may argue that Puerto Williams is more a naval base than a city), a population of of over 60,000 people lives amongst a colony of penguin soft toys and outdoor clothing stores. There is little sense of isolation, the proximity to Antarctica (only ~1,000km away) being deceptive as it's the jutting peninsula of the white continent, rather than the Antarctica of Scott and Amundsen, that is accessible from here.
In the southern hemisphere summer, the harbour in Ushuaia sees a stream of ships involved in the run to Antarctica, a high-priced cruise to the coldest, driest, and windiest continent. One day I will go but, as that has been a dream of mine for a long time and perhaps has created the highest expectations
of any of my intended destinations, it may be appropriate to make that my last stop. In any case, I had arrived in Ushuaia just after the season had ended. A couple of cruise ships came into the harbour but they were not Antarctica-bound, and simply increased the average age of the population of the town for a few hours. The best I could do was look south and imagine what awaited me there at some point in the future. In an attempt to feel some empathy with the Antarctic explorers of yore, I grew a beard but the itchiness of it drove me to distraction and I was glad when I finally felt I'd had enough of a beard-related experience to shave it off. Note to self: 2 month old blade + 3 weeks of beard growth = 25 minutes of hand-to-chin combat to achieve clean-shavenness.
Though the penguin colony near Ushuaia empties out during the winter, the many souvenir shops in the town can furnish you with soft toy versions of pretty much any of the planet's seventeen penguin species year-round. In fact penguin representations have veered into the fanciful, with several jewellery stores having decided that
there's a gap in the market for pink penguins carved from rock. Penguins greet you as you enter shops, and model hats and T-shirts in shop windows. Having something of a weakness for the little chaps, I had to constantly remind myself that penguins were not high on my list of critical purchases. However it took a tremendous internal struggle to prevent myself from buying the chocolate penguin choir that I saw in the window of one of the artisanal chocolate makers on the main street, as this work of art combined three subjects very dear to my heart. Like in El Calafate, a selection of incongruous casinos made a naked pitch for the tourist peso.
I plumbed the depths of Argentinian hostels when I first arrived, with a 4-bed dorm containing 3 snorers of whom I was not one. I'm sure I read somewhere that snoring lowers one's life expectancy, but unfortunately it doesn't appear to have lowered it enough to leave snorers dying like flies. The other guests in the hostel contributed further to this sleep-unfriendly environment by having loud conversations in the common room at 4AM, culminating in setting off the smoke alarm about an hour
later in a bungled toast-making attempt.
Fortunately salvation was at hand in the unlikely environs of the most popular hostel in Ushuaia, to which I moved as soon as I was able. Popularity breeds mediocrity, as the noisy, inconsiderate, messy, and teenaged of this world like a good hostel as much as anyone else, but this place hit a sweet spot that transcended any irritating guests - at least for a while. The design was almost perfect, with large, comfortable dorms the like of which I've rarely seen. The top floor common room, with acres of window space affording inspiring views of the Beagle Channel in one direction and the mountains of the Fuegian Andes in the other, gave me the cushioned chairs, speedy wifi, and plentiful electricity outlets I'd been waiting for. I took root for a month, making some steady progress on my travel memoirs.
The reception staff were a complementary set, with the friendliness and helpfulness of the 2 girls having a counterpoint in the owner's power-crazed son whose idea of customer service was to constantly badger all and sundry about their intended leaving date. The night shift brought forth the figure of Masta Rax
(name changed to preserve his anonymity), whose affected Jamaican patois and penchant for dishing out beer on the house belied the fact that he had a finger in many nightlife-related pies in the town. Lone male travellers would have no want of paid female companionship if they so wished.
I had a mix of dorm-mates - though liberally sprinkled with snorers, mess monsters, and the usual morons determined to disprove the saying that travel broadens the mind, I also met several people with whom I made an immediate connection, including one in the same situation as me, roaming the planet in search of answers. Many hours of conversations ensued with this guy, who's only the second person I've met on my travels who could really understand where I was coming from.
Argentina so far has been extremely lacking in international cuisine, which is puzzling given how many foreign tourists come here and who might be glad of a Chinese or Indian every so often. In general, your choices are pasta dishes, pizza, meat in its various forms, and the joy of empanadas. The best value for carnivores is tenedor libre, essentially an eat-as-much-as-you-like buffet where you can stuff
yourself with hunks of Argentina's finest edible inhabitants, while throwing a token vegetable or piece of salad on your plate. Not being much of a meat eater these days, it didn't have much appeal. I was more taken by empanadas, small unhealthy pastry offerings related to gyoza and Cornish pasties that come in flavours ranging from the tasty (e.g. ham and cheese) to the unwanted (e.g. innards, which go by the beautiful name of "mondongo" in Spanish). I tried a fajita that stood out for its novelty value on an otherwise Argentinian menu but its Mexican ancestry was doubtful.
Mate is the Argentinian drink of choice, a cross between coffee and green tea, and its many fans can be seen carrying the gourd and straw from which it is drunk, and the Thermos flask of hot water with which the gourd is topped up.
Sweet flavours are very popular here, with the rather sickly dulce de leche used as everything from a toast spread to a marinade for croissants. The cereal served at the hostel's free breakfast was Frosties. Though South America is where chocolate was first created, and Argentina has a large chocolate-making industry, there was a
surprising shortage of decent chocolate biscuits (so much so that I was reduced to eating chocolate-flavoured Oreos).
I uncovered some more pitfalls of South American Spanish. The word "wifi" - pronounced "whiffy" in Spain - is said here the same as in English. This explained several strange looks I'd received when asking if various hostels possessed such a facility. Quite what the waiter made of it when I asked for a Beagle Channel beer, pronouncing "Beagle" as "Bay-a-glay", I don't know, but I received my drink. In return for my quirky Spanish, Ushuaia offered up some interesting English, ranging from a menu bearing the entreaty "Enjoy yourself, it is the end of the world", to a sign in a restaurant toilet attempting to encourage good hygiene practice with the phrase "Your needs, within the toilet". I also provided some linguistic help to an Argentinian guy in the hostel when I explained the difference between "manual work" and "hand job".
Ushuaia nightlife was as extreme as that of Buenos Aires. There was no point in heading out even to a bar before midnight, and the clubs were deserted before 3AM. In the wasteland of the evening, crowds of loitering
teenagers littered the streets. The hostel provided free tickets to one club, whose class could be guessed at from their fliers advertising a "Free bar until the first girl goes to the toilet to pee". I braved the smoke-filled interior for a few hours and was rewarded with maybe 10 songs of an acceptable level of cheesiness, and a set of clothes that immediately had to go in the laundry bag.
I'm not sure the Argentinian concept of when a day should begin and end will ever appeal to me, with bedtimes and rising times about 3 hours different to my preferences. I also have no idea how people fill their evenings before venturing out onto the town. I may have enthusiasm for going out at 7PM but, 7.5 hours later, I'm flagging just as most of Argentina is considering checking out a club.
Moneywise, the country seems to have a shortage of change just like India. Even the largest supermarket in Ushuaia was constantly running out. Once, when I pulled out a handful of change from my pocket to search for a 10 centavo coin, the checkout woman's eyes lit up and she "bought" several pesos worth
of my stash from me. On several occasions shops gave me an unexpected discount because they didn't have the correct change. Continuing on a financial theme, none of the ATMs in Ushuaia could dispense more than 300 pesos (just under $100) in one transaction, leading to regular visits and regular commission charges.
Over the month I was in Ushuaia, the winter settled in in a perceptible fashion. The dustings of snow atop the mountains around the town coalesced into white peaks, and the slopes gradually fell under the onslaught of wintry precipitation, the autumnal leaves having the colour leeched out of them by the descending snowfalls. There was a gradual decline until the amount of clear blue sky could be measured in minutes per day, and snow and rain took it in turns to accompany the blustery winds that tore through the streets. One morning I woke to find a layer of snow on the ground and from then on leaving the hostel meant braving a chill atmosphere and seeing one's breath steaming in the clear air. The hostel was well-heated, meaning it was short-sleeve weather within, and I was surprised to find that the red star T-shirt that
Where it all begins
The start of the Ushuaia street system
I'd picked up in Beijing attracted attention from fans of Rage Against The Machine and the Jesus and Mary Chain, but no-one ever asked if I was a communist.
The road rules in Ushuaia are interesting though I wasn't sure they were actually codified anywhere. Traffic on the level always has to give way to traffic on a hill, to avoid uphill traffic having to do a hill start on the slope, and to avoid downhill traffic having to stop sharply on roads that could be a skating rink in mid-winter. The use of indicators is avoided where possible and the drainage is sufficiently poor that, after a downpour, you need to pay close attention to the distances between moving cars, puddles, and yourself.
During the course of the month, my opinion of the hostel gradually worsened and that of the town improved. The low season that I was expecting, with its attendant peace and quiet, never arrived, and the constant stream of holidaymakers kept up a round-the-clock noise, smoking, and drinking assault that ensured that my productivity tailed off. I've never stayed in a hostel where so many of the inhabitants were local people taking their annual
vacation, which I can only assume is because hotels are so expensive here. Driven out of the building, I began to appreciate the amazing natural setting of Ushuaia - the ring of mountains and the superb leaf colours of the forests. Regular walks by day and by night further reinforced this.
However the breakfast Frosties, perhaps as part of some cost-cutting measure, began to be mixed with cornflakes, then one day their sugary goodness was no longer present at all in my cereal bowl. The only possible reaction to this most profound of omens was to buy a ticket out.
There are more photos below