As we went to leave Ushuaia, I couldn’t shake the feeling of disappointment. It wasn’t just the fact that most of the stuff we wanted to do was shut, that’s just the price you pay for travelling out of season.
After some thought, I think it was the fact that in Patagonia, we had seen so much natural beauty and isolation. Each town or region had adapted to the local climate in individual ways and the locals seemed to have a strong sense of identity.
To finish the voyage south at Ushuaia was an anti-climax. The place has at least three casinos and a mega-mall. Every second shop is a souvenir shop pedalling “end of the earth” t-shirts and mugs (it’s kind of what I expect the apocolypse to be like) and most of the restaurants and hotels are far beyond what a local could afford to pay for.
It’s not Ushuaia’s fault. In the words of Neil Gaiman, life isn’t story shaped. It doesn’t owe it to me to be a wind swept town full of characters in the middle of nowhere. Everyone likes to make a buck.
If we had been able to make it to Puerto Williams, I think I would have had a better sense of closure but it will have to be some other time. Apparently the flight from Punta Arenas to Puerto Williams is quite spectacular. It’s on my list for next time.
Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego is no doubt the best thing about Ushuaia. It doesn’t cost much, if at all, and it is the most impressive sight you’ll see in and around the “fin del mundo.”
It is hard to walk the trails in winter though. It takes a lot of energy to walk through snow that deep and it’s hard to tell where the rivers are.
We wound our way up the mountain to see the glacier in Ushuaia, but once we got to the top, we found out that everything, including the chairlift was closed. All that was there was a playful dog and a man shovelling snow.
“You can walk up,” he said. “But it’s two kilometres up that hill and it will be windy and cold.” Not to mention that we were already knee deep in snow. We walked a little way, I convinced the dog to jump on Frank and then we turned back.
Our final stop on the boat trip was a quick stop on an island to look at a clearing that would have housed a Yamana hut and a sprint through the snow as it was bloody cold. We then returned to the boat and travelled back to Ushuaia.
We went with Patagonian Adventure Explorer but there are so many companies that are probably equally as good.
Frank and I succumbed to the pull of the touristy boat trip into the Beagle Channel (named after the ship that Darwin was on). We visited the famous lighthouse that could possibly have been the inspiration for Jules Verne’s Lighthouse at the end of the world. Our guide suggested it was more likely to be one the lighthouses further south but who knows.
We then visited the Isla de Lobos (Island of Sealions) that had two types of sea-lions (the single fur and double fur) who could be differentiated by their different noses. They were stinky but languorously reclining in a manner that suggested a renaissance painting.
Next we got close to two different cormorant islands which housed two different species. All I knew is that this was starting to become the bad smell tour.
Our tour operator had an excellent grasp on the English language as well as much knowledge of the area and history. This helped us to enjoy the trip to the full extent.
Ushuaia’s claim to fame is that it is the Fin del Mundo or end of the world. It claims to be the most southern city in the world, although if you look at a map, Puerto Williams (just across the Beagle channel) is actually more south. Apparently that doesn’t count because it is mostly a naval base with hotels and restaurants. Ah, those two neighbours are always squabbling!
In fact, although Puerto Williams is only about 20 kilometres down the channel, there is no ferry linking the two. It has been said that this is conciously done so that Ushuaia doesn’t lose any of the tourism money (not that it doesn’t have enough to go around).
It is a very expensive town and like Pucon and El Calafate, it seems you cannot fully enjoy it without wads of cash.
Surprisingly, I spotted a sign suggesting that the Malvinas (the Falklands to the Poms) were within the Tierra del Fuego jurisdiction. This, combined with the recent ad for the Olympics, suggest there may still be tension as to the ownership of the islands.