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Published: February 23rd 2018
We set off on the characteristically swish bus from Puerto Natales to Punta Arenas to see penguins. Punta Arenas was an important stopover from Europe to the American west coast pre Panama Canal (1914), as it lies at the end of the Magellan Straight, a narrow channel which by- passes Cape Horn. It therefore has lots of old colonial architecture and evidence of wealth from a by- gone era. There was a regular steamship service from Liverpool to California years ago. It was also where Ernest Shackleton planned his venture to Antartica.
I love a bit of history; feel free to skip this paragraph! Shackletons endeavour was privately funded by many donors, it’s mission to bolster the British exploratory credibility by being the first country to cross Antarctica. He advertised for crew for an arduous and dangerous adventure, from which they may never return. 5000 people applied. The day before they were due to travel the first world war was declared, so Shackleton wrote to the King, placing his ship and crew at the country’s disposal. The King replied that he should set off. After a month of toiling through ice, his ship was trapped by it and gradually squeezed
apart as it was carried hundreds of miles with the ice flow. Blah Blah...... Together with 3 others he travelled 800 miles in a boat 16 feet long though the biggest seas he had ever experienced to reach a small island. 6 months later he went back to rescue the rest of the crew of the Endurance who all survived. It’s a tremendous story which is celebrated in various museums and visitors centres. The full scale replica of the life boat is ridiculously small – he added a couple of planks to the top of it to make it a bit more stable, added a roof to keep the waves off and added a mast and makeshift sail so they could sail it. Back when men were men eh?
There is a great museum with full-size replica ships; Magellan’s 18th century ship that eventually found the way through the Magellan strait; short and stubby with a high platform aft, The Beagle as in Charles Darwin, and the James Caird, Shackleton’s life boat. The coffee shack at the museum was staffed by two native south American ladies who looked like they’d been wearing their clothes unwashed for years (bit like
us, some would say). The museum was about 7 km from town so we took a taxi. When we came to arrange the return journey we asked the staff to ring a taxi for us. This was apparently unprecedented. They asked us for the taxi telephone number... funny business!
Coffee menus here are quite extensive and usually include the option of instant coffee for the same price as cappuccino. No flat whites though.
The penguin tour to an adjacent island was great for Pete but small beer for Jan who had spent many hours enjoying the curious attention of much bigger numbers in The Falklands (don’t mention the war....) where she worked in the dim and distant past. We also saw sea lions and cormorants in huge numbers on an adjacent isle.
We visited the house of the biggest cheeses of the turn of the 18/19 century. Very grand place full of period furniture with distinct gender divided areas (billiard room vs ante room). High ceilings but only one floor. The house was one of many beautiful houses surrounding the main square. Such a ridiculously elegant place at the end of the world.
We continued our
journey southward by bus to Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego, back in Argentina (12 hours including a ferry crossing and a pantomime with much queuing at the border); more comfortable than it sounds but this really is the end of the world! Stayed in a hostel where we were warmly greeted with mountains of home made cakes. This place is booming. Busier than any other provincial cities we’ve visited. Lots of housing development and stacked container ports all squeezed between sea and mountains. Beautiful mountainous backdrop. Took a bus across town to walk along the shoreline out of town. Found a fab cafe, the old grocery store, established about a century ago and decorated with shelves full of the stuff they’ve sold over the years, including a wonderful old till. The best croissants in south america to date.
Took a bus into the national park which was much more beautiful than we expected. Lots more snow capped mountains in the background and glacial green lakes and rivers. We had a minor hiccough when the tourist info lady persuaded us to change our walking plan from the lakeside stroll to a view point up a hill (actually mountain). We got
there, but it definitely wasn't worth the struggle. Fab camp sites here if a little chilly. We’ve had enough of cold camping and stayed in a very nice warm hostel. Climbed up to the glacier above Ushuaia. A gentle climb along a river, tremendous views.
UshuaIa seems a much more earthy place than Punta Arenas but you could be forgiven for wondering why oh why would anyone choose to live here, on an island at literally the bottom of the world, separated from the nearest other town by at least an 8 hour drive, a ferry ride and another 4 hour drive or even worse by ship though the Beagle Channel, leading out onto Cape Horn?
We toyed with the idea of heading south again across the Beagle Channel to Porto Williams where there is a 5 day trek but the weather conditions are starting to become “Autumnal” and we thought that Tiny Tim (not to mention us) might blow away. So we are heading north to Northern Patagonia tomorrow to see what we can find a bit further north.
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