So, there I was. I had seen mountains being made by Perito Moreno, and I had watched one catch fire in Torres del Paine. Now, on a dark and drizzly morning, I boarded a bus in Puerto Natales that would take me to the “end of the world”: the city of Ushuaia in the province of Tierra del Fuego (land of fire), Argentina. There is nothing about that sentence that I don’t like.
The bus was large and fairly comfortable. I sat down and started to chat with the Aussie that was seated next to me. She and her two friends were headed to a different destination than I was, and we started to question if one of us was on the wrong bus. However, an hour or so outside of town, we were told that those of us heading to Ushuaia would be changing buses. A few minutes later, in the middle of nowhere in southern Chile, the bus pulled to a stop. The Aussie (whose name shall be lost forever) joked with me that this was my stop and we shared a laugh. I stopped laughing, however, when the driver announced that this was, in fact, where I would be getting off. I said my farewell to my single serving friend and I and a few others piled off the bus stood in a stupor at the side of the road. As I watched what used to be my bus begin to pull slowly away, another arrived just in time to curb my concerns and carry me further southward.
At first, we drove through a landscape that was, shall we say, less than breathtaking. Soon, however, we were forced to stop when the road ran directly into a wide body of salty water. The sky was dull and grey as I beheld, with aroused interest, the Strait of Magellan lapping lazily at its rocky shoreline.
I got off the bus to snap a few photos and then waited for the floating beast that would carry me to the other side. Although the day was frigid and wet, the arrival of the ferry and the subsequent trip across the strait was something that I won’t forget. The boat was massive, and it swallowed up a long line of cars before hungrily devouring our waiting bus.
After crossing the strait, much of the rest of the voyage was uneventful. Then landscape was rather flat and brown, and I spent most of the time napping, reading, or running down the precious battery of my iPod. As we drew nearer to Ushuaia, the landscape began to change, and once again mountains began to rise up around us. I passed the last hour staring, wide-eyed and grinning, out of the window.
Eventually, I reached my destination. I walked, uphill unfortunately, from the middle of town to my hostel.
My first impressions were not great. This place was obviously not going to be as good as the previous two had been, but I settled in, locked up my things, and went out to get a look at the city. The light was waning and it was still cloudy, but I saw some interesting graffiti art and got my first good look and the Beagle Channel.
I spent the night in an uncomfortable bed in a room full of Frenchmen. This is a sentence that, before I began traveling, I would not have expected to write. I got up early the next morning to take a tour, by boat, of the channel. Ines, the girl at the front desk, had told me that I needed to be at the dock at around 9:30 in order to get a spot on one of the boats, most of which departed at 10:00. I ate a bit of the meager breakfast they offered and headed out. It was still cloudy as I left the hostel and walked out into my last full day in Patagonia. I arrived at the docks early and decided to take some time to check out the area.
Along the docks there were lots of spots selling excursions through the channel. I strolled among them leisurely, wandering in and out of the small shacks and inquiring about the particulars of each tour. Some places offered rides on smaller boats, promising a more personal experience, others on the large and impressive catamarans, but not all of them went to the same places. I had some idea of what the channel had to offer, and I knew what parts of it I wanted to see the most. Finally, I found an excursion that could satiate my desires. Time until departure: two minutes. I paid for my passage and rushed down the pier where the catamaran “Ana B” was waiting for me. I climbed eagerly aboard.
Even during the summer, the weather on the channel is brisk and windy. I put on my hat and tightened my jacket around me, recalling that I was, in fact, about as close to Antarctica as I could get without leaving the continent.
The first few stops were to see some of the wildlife that is native to area. There are a few specific spots where large groups of Cormorants and Sea Lions congregate on small islands and these were our first destinations of the day.
Next, we made a pass by the Les Éclaireurs (French for “The Enlighteners”) Lighthouse, an operational but unmanned lighthouse that keeps watch over the watery gateway to Ushuaia. It is a small and simple construct, but its red and white exterior stands in stark contrast to rocks and sea that surround it.
Shortly after passing the lighthouse, we were lucky enough to come upon a group a Sei whales. This massive and endangered species, reaching up to 20 meters (66 feet in the U.S.) long and weighing up to 28 tons, is not always present in the channel. On that morning, perhaps because of the perfect way my trip had been unfolding up to that point, I was sure they had appeared there just for me. They were a bit difficult to get pictures of, though, as I was never quite sure where they would appear until the last minute, when they would send up a quick spray of water before breaching the surface with their slick black fins.
We continued on through the channel with the hills of Chile on our right hand side and the mountains of Argentina on our left. The day began to lose a bit of its dull grey hue. I sat back and enjoyed the leisurely trip to our final stop before turning around and heading back towards Ushuaia. This was another rendezvous with the local wildlife. Another species of bird, but not one you will ever find in the air. Yes, those classy creatures that had to learn to dance because they don’t know how to fly: penguins.
After watching the flightless wonders for a bit, we headed back towards civilization. By now, the weather had finally improved and the return trip was decidedly warmer and more pleasant.
After being safely back on land, I took some time to explore the town during the daylight hours. And, of course, no trip to this city would be complete without a shot of the famous sign.
After that, I made a trek to the Martial Glacier. This small glacier overlooks the town and offered a spectacular view of the channel that I had just traversed. However, since my camera decided to run low on batteries, and since someone left the spare at the hostel, that particular memory will remain uniquely mine for as long as I can carry it.
Eventually, I made it back to the hostel. There I relaxed a bit, drank some wine and made some new friends. I slept sufficiently, if not comfortably, that night and woke up early the next morning to head to the airport. I boarded the flight, weary and road-worn, bound for my “home” in Buenos Aires. During the flight, I pondered all the unbelievable things that I had done during that amazing week, and tried to let the experience sink in.
Back in the city, it was warm and muggy. It seemed strange to be back, but with time the noise, the light, the smells, and the sights all became normal again. I missed the mountains, the stars and the salty sea water but, luckily for me, I got to live the whole experience over again while sharing it with you.