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Published: April 17th 2014
Rough, rugged and remote Ushuaia sits on the tip of the island of Tierra del Fuego and was full of adventure. I hiked up to the glacier that backs the town, getting stuck in deep snow, and then got lost in the national park as the sun was fading. In the late April off-season, there was no one around--I had to rescue myself.
Even more intense, I learned that the indigenous Yamana who lived in this sub-zero icebox wore no clothes because the constant rain and snow would have soaked them--yikes. A land of extremes.
Extremes indeed, as Ushuaia was the southern end of the Andes/Rocky Mountain chain and of the Pan-American highway, both of which begin in Alaska. It's the southern-most city in the Americas, sitting on the Isla Grande
, the Big Island of the remote archipelago of Tierra del Fuego, between the Straits of Magellan, named after that first mariner to circumnavigate the globe, and the Beagle Channel, named after the ship that carried Charles Darwin--another Patagonian town steeped in history!
From Punta Arenas, Chile, the southern-most spot on the South American continent, I'd sailed across the Straits
of Magellan, where I imagined being with Magellan and those first Europeans to cross from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean in 1520. Magellan had incongruously named this frigid land Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire) because of the fires of the indigenous tribes he saw burning on the shores of the straits. Patagonia (Big Feet) he named after the unusually tall tribe of people he met here.
Magellan's journey through the straits was incredibly difficult since its winds are unpredictable and sometimes raging, and the strait is narrow, just 2 km/1.2 miles wide and honeycombed with channels, bays, labyrinthine fiords, islands and a lot of false paths; witness, descriptive names like Deception Bay and Port Hunger. My journey would be easier, but not by so much.
The promised 10-hour bus ride from Puerto Arenas turned into 13 hours and was the hardest travel I'd done in awhile. The bus was over-heated and had no air circulation, leaving everyone faint and nauseous, and of course the toilet didn't work; we were trapped in hell! After endless, bladder-bursting hours, we finally got air and a break when we stopped to
enter the Argentine part of Tierra del Fuego--surely the first time I'd ever been happy to see border guards.
We had been traveling through northern Tierra del Fuego's flat, grassy Patagonian steppe, dotted with sheep and wild guanaco (camelids), backed by the low foothills of the Andes, and relieved only by isolated estancias
(ranches) with gauchos (Argentine cowboys) herding sheep. My view was tiny through the bus windows chocolate brown from dirt, but there wasn't much to see anyway except for the wondrous Patagonian clouds.
Finally, we entered the magical land of mountains and Magallanic sub-polar forests that cover the southern part of the island. However, since the bus was 3 hours late, the sun had set and we could only see outlines illuminated by the moon. This is what I get for taking the cheapest bus, and the one that left at the civilized 9:30 am rather than the too early 7 am. Warning, it's not worth it--don't take Tecni-Austral.
The bus-from-hell pulled into a parking lot near Ushuaia's waterfront from which the streets rose steeply. It was after dark, there was no bathroom
and the tourist office with housing recommendation was closed. I had the name of a woman who rented out rooms for my fave $10, but after hauling my suitcase up a few steep blocks, I took the first affordable hostel, and flopped down in a still-expensive, ten-person dorm. Not an auspicious beginning though luckily it wasn't high season. I was told that hostels were then full and reservations essential--not my style!
Curiously, there were tons of motorcycles outside the hostel. Turns out that motorcyclists love to follow the Pan-American from Alaska to Ushuaia. They rarely stay in or explore the towns they pass through or deviate from their route. Clearly, they just like traveling on the open road. While this is very much not my style, how great that there are so many possibilities to traveling!
Martial Mountains and Glacier
The next morning I arose to gorgeous sunshine and saw the spectacular, snow-capped Martial Mountain range that backed the town. This would be my destination. I leisurely had my coffee and oats and headed out, ever upward through first, the attractive tourist streets, and then, the rougher residential areas where the city's
Mt Godoy, a presence over the town
In every town, I tend to have a favorite mountain; here it was this one.
60,000 residents live. My initial enthusiasm waned as I ever more slowly plodded seven, lung-busting kilometers up past the neighborhoods and then a forest to the ski resort on Cerro
Since it was off-season, the chairlift wasn't working, and I was faced with two paths. Others poured out of taxis and followed the wider ski slopes, but I chose the path less traveled, and as Robert Frost said, "...that made all the difference."
I was alone on a snowy, silent trail through an autumn-turning, southern beech forest, where snow delicately laced the gold and crimson leaves, and ice-slippery, little log bridges wove back and forth over an ice cycle-lined stream. There were few birds and I heard only the sound of the dripping ice cycles and gurgling stream. I kept having to stop to sense the deep beauty of it all.
After an hour or so, I emerged from the forest to a wide-open, snowy meadow. Seeing a few footprints heading up to the Marial Glacier, I followed. I was the only one for kilometers around with nothing but the white stillness of snow and ice. This for me
A sign warned, "No further walking," but I couldn't imagine that it applied to me. I continued, avoiding the lowest depression, which I knew to be a hidden stream. Then, oops, I sank down to my knees. I pulled myself out and kept on going though it was increasingly difficult until, major oops, I sank down almost to my waist. I tried and failed repeatedly to extract myself as my hands kept sinking into the deep snow. I looked around for help--no one. Hmmm.
Nothing to do but go within and be open to inspiration. I flopped my upper body on the snow, pushing off against my hole and started swimming, sinking, swimming out. It must have looked pretty funny, but hey it worked. After half an hour or so, I was free and ever so relieved. I gave thanks to the snow gods and goddesses and retraced my knee-high steps to the meadow.
Evening was closing in, so I took the easy way down. I descended along the ski slopes with incredible views of the Beagle Channel, tortured into bays, fiords, and islands
and backed by snow-capped mountains opposite and with Ushuaia spread below. I was so glad to be walking rather than skiing, so I could properly enjoy the spectacle rather than having to pay attention (never my forte).
I then walked the 7 km back to town, first on the sinuous road, then on a little path in a forest, where I got lost and came out in a farm. There, I was surrounded by a pack of big, barking dogs who turned into tail waggers when I bent down and sweet-talked them. I've rarely been bitten by dogs down here, and then it was always by small, barking dogs who sank their fangs into my leg when my back was turned, after I'd passed their territory--sneaky rascals.
Following the farmer's directions, I finally emerged from the forest and threaded through colorful, funky, wooden neighborhoods clinging to the hillsides. Many of the houses were half on stilts because the inclines were so steep, and were reached by even steeper staircases. My asthmatic lungs had complained on the ascent and my arthritic knees on the descent, and I wondered how residents did
this all their lives.
Tierra del Fuego National Park, and Lost Again
The following day was also uncharacteristically sunny, so I took a taxi with some guys from the hostel to the Tierra del Fuego National Park. Like all Patagonian parks, it was massively expensive for foreigners and totally worth it. Once we arrived, I branched off to walk alone in silence. A 3 km jaunt brought me to a large bay and my trail head.
The 8 km, forested Coastal Trail fabulously meandered up and down hills around the bay with views of islands and snowy mountains, though dense red-leafed, southern beech, lenga forests with grazing horses, and past rounded, grassy hills that had once been shell middens of the Yamana much like those of the indigenous Chumash of my Santa Barbara area. Best of all, I had the place to myself.
Finally, I emerged from the trail and walked up, down and around on islands and along lagoons, spotting cormorants, oyster catchers, grebes and other sea birds, as well as an eagle. As throughout Patagonia, there were evergreen "flag" trees whose branches grow in one
direction from the wild winds that constantly blowing from the west. I tried to get to some beaver dams, but it was getting dark, and I hadn't seen people or cars since I'd arrived.
Since I didn't quite know where I was, I started searching for the park's road. A slight feeling of panic arose but abated as I realized that wouldn't help, and besides, the gorgeous, almost-full moon was coming up. After a bit too-long of a time, I found the road and some time later, a park ranger found me and drove me to the entrance. I only had 12 km back to town, so I started walking, hoping to hitch a ride on the deserted road.
Finally--a car came, but it passed me--time to use my womanly wiles. I took my long hair down from its pony tail and draped it fetchingly around my shoulders, and the next car stopped. Great trick which worked even though I was so bundled up, I was the size of a small grizzly. I was dropped off at the turn-off for the airport a couple of kilometers from town and had a gorgeous
walk under the moon. Another perfect day out in the wilds!
Beagle Channel Boat Tour
The next day was misty and rainy, and I headed down to the harbor, hoping now to hitch a ride to Antarctica. Ushuaia is the primary port for tours, and I'd been nurturing a dream of offering a booking agency a whopping $1000 (heaps in my book), and they'd give me an unfilled berth. However, I was a month too late and thousands of dollars too short. Oh well, it was a great dream while it lasted. Good thing I'd seen lots of icebergs and glaciers El Califate and the All Glacier Tour
Instead, I boarded a charter boat for a 4-hour tour into the Beagle Channel. In the gray drizzle, most passengers sheltered below deck, emerging only for the highlights. However, in my giant rain poncho and lots of layers, I enjoyed myself out in the elements. There are few things I enjoy more than being out on the water and seeing land from the perspective of an explorer. We saw numerous small islands covered with cormorants and contentious sea lions, and solitary lighthouses on tiny, isolated islands.
Indigenous Tribes and the Yamana Museum
The next day drizzled again, so I visited the wonderful, bilingual Mundo
(World of the) Yamana Museum which told of the four indigenous groups that lived in Tierra del Fuego, focusing on the Yamana, a sea-faring people who lived off the bounty of the sea. It had an excellent historical analysis of colonization and time-lines, artifacts, dioramas, and films of the four indigenous groups who had lived successfully in this harsh land for 10,000 years.
Amazingly, the southernmost of the groups, the Yamana, generally wore no clothes since animal skins would always be wet from the rain and snow. Instead, they smeared their bodies with sea lion fat which they baked in, standing around their fires and added a short cloak of sea lion pelts. They spent a lot of time in their canoes, which carried a perpetual fire. The women dove naked and deep to get crabs and other bottom-dwelling sea creatures, and the men speared fish.
The first Europeans to settle Tierra del Fuego were British missionaries who arrived from the Falkland Islands in 1870. However, the indigenous people died from
their diseases faster than they could be converted. From the 1880s onward, the natives were slaughtered outright by miners seeking gold, hunters after sea lion pelts and ranchers usurping indigenous land for sheep. The civic leaders of Punta Arenas had built their mansions at the cost of thousands of indigenous lives. Today, the Yamana, like the others, are extinct, with only mixed bloods left.
To secure their claim to the area, Argentina established a penal colony for re-offenders, modeled after one in Tasmania, that operated between 1884 and 1947, as well as housing political prisoners during the 1973-89 dictatorship. The prison population became forced colonists and spent much of their time building the town with timber from the surrounding forest. The huge prison has now been turned into an expensive museum, showing the city's history and growth through the oil, forestry, fishery and tourist businesses.
Finally, my five days were up, and I had to get back to Puerto Natales to catch the last of the season's Navimag ferries up through the Chilean fiords. Leaving, however, was major drama. There was no bus terminal, the info in my now elderly
Lonely Planet was wrong, and the tourist office sent me on several wild-goose chases to non-existant agencies. Finally, I ended up just cruising the tourist streets and got a ticket for a 5 am bus the following morning. Thank goodness it wasn't high season when you have to book far ahead of time. And fortunately, this 16-hour bus ride was drama-free though I can't say the same for the misadventures on the wild ferry ride to come.
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