Friday, 12 March 2010

It rains by night at the end of the world

Ushuaia usurps the title of "the world's southernmost city", sometimes dramatized as "the city at the end of the world". These slogans attracts countless crowds of tourists, hordes of them filling the local streets. For them shop displays offer goods such as North Face waterproof breathing trousers; supercomfy, also waterproof, Merrell hiking shoes; Speedo swim-suits; snowboards whose brands I don't know at all; penguins attached to pens and key-chains, hewn in wood or stuffed with foam; charming, ethereal dresses that in this climate only an Irish woman would dare wear out to the pub - in a word, everything a tourist needs. In a town of forty thousand, there are two Irish pubs, two airline offices, a few banks, several restaurants and dozens of places offering lodgings to tired travelers. Everything is expensive, more expensive than in Chile, too expensive, though - as it turns out - not everyone shares my opinion: I find a blog where an enthusiastic woman raves that goods in Ushuaia are so much cheaper than those available on-board the cruise ships. There are lots of ships in Ushuaia's harbour: alongside the fishing boats, there are container ships, tugboats, warships, cruise liners. Ushuaia is the launch point for all cruises aiming to set foot on the Antarctic.

Though Ushuaia is not really "the city at the end of the world" (the title seems to belong to Chilean Puerto Williams), it is "the southernmost city" that can be reached by road. The town is situated some 3040 kilometers from the country's capital, Buenos Aires: to cover this distance, one has to catch a bus at 5 am from Ushuaia to Rio Gallegos (one reaches Gallegos in stages: leaving Argentina, entering Chile, crossing the rough waters of the Strait of Magellan by ferry, leaving Chile, entering Argentina again). "Those four stamps in my passport make me feel very appreciative of the open borders in the EU", I think just before reaching Rio Gallegos at 5 p.m., where you have to change buses. The one to Buenos leaves at 8 p.m., the ride lasting another 38 hours. To travel such a vast distance in only 50 hours would be impossible in Poland. In Argentina, looking out the window of your bus, you will begin to understand how they do it: the road passes through vast stretches of land that seem to have no inhabitants or distractions other than cows and sheep.

Except for the 100km stretch between Ushuaia and little Tolhuin.

Lakes, broken trees, forests, mountain passes, waterfalls, peaks covered with snow even in summer, storms on one side of the valley, while the sun shines on the other: this stretch of road is at least as beautiful as the route from Mendoza to Vallaparaiso. On the way South, before reaching Ushuaia, you begin to anticipate something amazing. And you aren't disappointed. Despite all the tourists, the city is charming. As we stand by the Beagle Channel, gazing at boats entering the little harbour, overhead some student pilot is practicing. The tiny plane takes off from the airport, climbing briefly into the sky only to turn back and approach for landing. Seagulls welcome the newcomer to the skies with noisy croaks. The town stretches out behind us, with its cars, colourful shops, a yellow church, the smells of barbecue and wine. It climbs upward, hikes the hills, each street higher than the next. And then suddenly, the town disappears, the rest of the hillside densely covered with green trees. But even they fail reach the peaks: Martial, Olivia, Cinco Hermanos proudly dominate the horizon.

We spend three days in Ushuaia, wandering around, hiking in the Tierra del Fuego Park, playing pool and opting for the cheapest mode of dining: cooking in the kitchen of our hostel. The summer is just coming to an end: so I wear "only" a sweater, a scarf, a hat and gloves. I look with astonishment at local schoolgirls walking around town in their uniforms: short skirts and no tights. In the evenings rain patters on the window panes, the wooden roof of our room seems about to give way to the water, everything creaks, the wind rages outside, while inside we drink wine with our spaghetti. Even though it rains by night, torrentially, in the mornings there remain no signs. Except for the snow on the peaks that surround Ushuaia.

For while the downpours revel in Ushuaia town, in the mountains the clouds release only bright white down. Beautiful.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

The end of the continent

This was the Southernmost point we reached on the South-American mainland.

We walked past a sign proclaiming this was the End Of The Continent, had a little race down the hill and then held hands and walked together out onto a rocky, shellfish- and barnacle-encrusted outcrop, to record this GPS point and snap a photo.

Our guide for this little tour said it was at least two hours hike to the actual Southernmost point of the mainland, but this was good enough for us.

Fuerto Bulnes

Fuerto Bulnes was the main destination of a little half-day tour we did from Punta Arenas.

The fort is a restoration/replica of the outpost established by Chile to claim the Magellan Straight as theirs. It was a cute little museum full of buildings made of wood and turf, cannons and fields.

It must have been a cold, unwelcoming and profoundly lonely place for the 50-or-so soldiers who used to stand watch here, entertained only by the occasional pirate ship they could shoot at... its closest neighbor is a mound of barely perceptible ruins, all that remains of a town where all the founders died of starvation.

Today, in weather a little less grey and drizzly than our experience, it would make a great place for a picnic, or, better yet, a game of hide-and-seek.

Chile's midpoint

Thanks to Chile's territories in Antarctica, this point, only a few uninhabited kilometers from the southern tip of South America, is the "middle" of the country.

Strange, strange country.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Punta Arenas

Punta Arenas was our Southernmost stay on the South-American mainland. It is a port on the Magellan Straight, and one of the main attractions is the Zona Franca, a duty-free zone which seemed to primarily be full of warehouses for shipping companies, but also catered to the general public, selling electronics, cars, furniture, clothes, perfume and even food.

The Zona Franca was the first place we visited, mainly out of curiosity, but also to see if I could get a good deal on a replacement for my banged-up and hard-driveless Eee-PC. After much walking, we did find a potential candidate, but decided to read about it on the Internet before buying. It turned out to be cheaper to order online in Poland, so that was that.

After the Zona Franca we visited a couple of museums to learn about local history, saw the town cemetary and shared a local speciality featuring barbequed meat, chicken - and lots of mussels. It was a strange but good combination.

From Punta Arenas we took a sunday afternoon tour even further South, to Fuerto Bulnes. It was a funny tour, as we were the only ones taking it, and so our guide just drove us around in his Toyota Corolla, including a brief stop to refuel.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Parque National, Torres del Paine

The reason we came to Puerta Natales, was because that is where the Navimag took us.

However, for most, the reason for coming here is to visit the nearby national park, Torres del Paine. We of course planned to do the same, but agonized literally for days over whether to do the multi-day "W" trek, a day-trip, or something else.

Whilst agonizing, we explored Natales and spent one afternoon bicycling around the vicinity. We liked it, the town was pretty and full of touristic things like good pizza and bike rentals, and the countryside we explored by bike was both pretty and flat enough to make for a good ride. Some of the views, especially in the direction of the national park, were quite amazing.

Our hostel, Josmar, was also pretty nice. The owners were friendly and helpful, our room was comfy, we had wifi and access to a kitchen... the only problem was that the place was full of Israelis. Not that I have anything against Israelis as individuals, but they tend to travel in groups: all young, loud, messy and generally rather inconsiderate - pretty much what you'd expect from kids enjoying their freedom after mandatory military service in a very dangerous place. Josmar had multiple groups of them; clogging the toilets, messily cooking all at once and then talking loudly right outside our bedroom door until at least 1am every night.

But... we felt pretty comfy anyway, largely due to our hosts being so welcoming. Coffee and hot bread for breakfast, advice on how to get around, a ride with our bags on arrival - all good. Josmar also left me with the odd feeling that my Spanish was getting better; I found myself helping our hosts and the Israelis communicate.

After all this fun, and an inspiring presentation about the park at a place called Base Camp, we decided to: just take the touristic, one-day mini-van tour. Lame, we know. But we just didn't feel like carrying loads of rented gear, wading ice-cold rivers and then sleeping in a wind-battered tent. Not to mention the fact that our budget is still in critical condition after the Navimag extravaganza - we couldn't really afford the wind-battered tent anyway.

So, at 7.30am we piled into a van with five young Israelis (not from our hostel - we were probably the only non-Israelis in town) and off we went.

Our first stop was the Cueva del Milodon, a beautiful place where they charged us 3.000 clp each to visit the cave and pose for silly pictures with their big plastic milodon statue. Here, some wild red foxes were kind enough to pose for us, and a small hawk almost hit Ewelina in the head.

Next, we headed towards the park proper, stopping at various viewpoints to admire the breathtaking scenery. It really is very pretty, colorful lakes, wild herds of Guanacos (llamoids) and of course the Paine Massif: 3000m of soaring peaks, cliffs and glaciers presiding over it all.

We had a great day, and even better, we were both satisfied and quite glad we'd opted for the tour instead of the hike. No regrets! Driving around with our camera and then returning to our cosy bed was exactly what we wanted.

Next stop: Punta Arenas.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Puerto Natales

Our fourth and final day on the boat started with a hangover, of course. We skipped breakfast and for once I was the first to get up, to listen to a 10-o'clock briefing on the disembarking process.

Ewelina's hangover was much worse than mine, so after the briefing, when I got excited about the amazing views, she tried to fend off my attempts to drag her out of bed. Eventually I succeeded, in time so we could stand up front together as the ship navigated the narrowest passage of our trip, only 80m wide.

The currents made amazing vortexes in the water and again, we saw seal(ion)s leaping in the water and staring at the boat.

After the passage, we showered, had lunch and packed our bags. At 14:00 sharp, three bell-rings announced that we had arrived. We watched the docking and mooring process from on deck and were then the first tourists off the boat.

Our Navimag journey was over!

Good-bye boat, we wouldn't have minded staying on-board a bit longer. All the warnings in the guidebooks and online seem either outdated or princessy to us, it was a great trip. Still expensive, but although you'd expect better service for the amount we paid, the views and overall experience made it worthwhile. We recommend it.


Back on land, we returned to our regular routine. We walked towards the center a bit, I left Ewelina with the bags and found us a place to stay. And we sent SMS-messages home to let people know we were fine.

I was lucky and found us a good place: a spacious private room, kind hosts, our own bathroom, breakfast - and wi-fi, for 15000clp. Most places I visited were charging 25000 for less.

We spent the afternoon online, reassuring loved ones (and the Icelandic government) that we were unharmed by the quake, using Skype, Facebook and good old-fashioned e-mail.

Again the nerd in me was intrigued by the role modern social networking played in our little part of this event - my family and Ewelina's had found each other and people in three countries, speaking four languages, were helping each other find information about our whereabouts.

And now, the are "friends", in the new Facebook-altered meaning of the word.

Pretty cool!

The past!