We’re at the end of the world in Ushuaia

Last Sunday we arrived in Ushuaia, the southern most city of South America nicknamed “the end of the world”.  This slogan is well used throughout the city, appearing on clothing, menus, tourist attractions, road signs, etc.

It took about ten hours by bus to travel from Punta Arenas.  While it was a long trip to take on a bus with regular seats (no camas or semi-camas), the scenery made the daytime trip worthwhile.  For many miles, the land was as flat as a pancake, with not a single tree in sight.  Large sheep ranches called “estancias” occupied the land, making me think that this might be what the Australian outback looks like (I’ll let you know if this is true next year when we travel there :)

As we approached Ushuaia, the landscape changed quite abruptly; the flat plains in Chile turned into rolling hills which then became snow-capped mountains. This was our first up-close glimpse of the Patagonia mountain range and we were duly impressed.  We passed through the Chile – Argentinian border easily; our bus driver collected our passports and we waited while he got them all stamped, both the exit stamp from Chile and the entry stamp into Argentina.  Not much in the way of security as the immigration/customs officials didn’t even see our faces or our baggage.

Ushuaia, a former penal colony, is a sizeable city with a population close to 60,000. The main economic activities of this region are fishing, natural gas and oil extraction, sheep farming and eco-tourism.  It has a very busy port servicing both shipping vessels and cruises.  This is summer time in Ushuaia and the peak of the tourist season and everything was priced accordingly, much to our dismay. The streets were crowded with tourists, and accommodations were filled to capacity, making it very difficult to secure a bed to sleep in. This city reminded us of Banff, especially the main street with lots of expensive clothing stores, souvenir shops, and restaurants.  It had a vacation resort feel to the place.

The town with Martial Glacier in the background.

Downtown Ushuaia

The Dubliln Irish Pub that did not serve Guinness – blasphemy!

Outside view of the Dublin Pub – one of the few
restaurants with reasonable prices.  The homemade
draft was hit or miss too. 

Argentinians love their meat.  A BBQ spit was a common
sight in the front window of restaurants.  We sampled
this type of cuisine at an all you can eat buffet at
La Estancia one night.  The meat was  good (lamb and beef) 
but the rest of the food was mediocre. 

Throughout the week, we stayed in three different places out of necessity. First we stayed at the Drake Hostel which didn’t overly impress us, especially the fact that there was no housekeeping during the three days we were there.  Next was a night in a private home, a neighbour of the bed and breakfast, La Maison de Ushaia, where we spent our last two nights. The private home gave us a bed to sleep in, but the home reminded me of someone who had a serious hoarding issue.  I was glad it was only one night.  The bed and breakfast was lovely although the entire household (4 generations of women) was getting over nasty colds which we hope we don’t catch.  We’re not big fans of bed and breakfasts mainly because of the lack of privacy and this one was no exception.  Still, the owner’s daughter, Soulange, went out of her way to make us feel comfortable, and to give information about things to do and where to eat.  She even satisfied Chris’ curiosity about ritual of matte when she showed us how this peculiar tea is prepared and then how the communal cup is passed around the table.  It’s a very common Argentinian ritual, reminding me of the British and their afternoon tea.

Bundled up down at the port.  It was interesting watching the ships come
and go each day – both the large cruise ships making a port of call in Ushuaia and
the much smaller Antarctica expedition ships beginning their cruises from here. 

So many shipping containers.

We were quite taken aback by the ridiculous prices being extorted from tourists. Here’s some examples: $25US for two small loads of laundry; $45US per person to hike in the Tierra del Fuego National Park (transportation and park entrance fee), $4US for a thimble full of coffee, $12US for breakfast (coffee, juice and toast) , $12US for half a ham and cheese sandwich, $75US and up for a hostel room (double with shared bathroom).  Just for the fun of it, Chris priced his camera in a local store and was appalled to see it going for just shy of twice the Canadian retail price.

Brilliant lupins of every imaginable colour grow in abundance.

One of the prettiest houses and gardens we saw in town,
just a few houses down from our B&B. 

We came to Ushuaia with the desire to find a last minute deal on a 10 or 11 day cruise to Antarctica. These cruises are ridiculously priced and even the last minute prices are outrageous in our view.  But, we rationalized the expense thinking that it was unlikely we would ever be here again, and we both really wanted to see Antarctica.  So when we arrived, the first order of business was to find a cruise.  I had already sent out about a dozen or so emails a few days earlier to tour agencies in Ushuaia enquiring about availability on upcoming ships.  We were discouraged to learn that all the 10-11 day cruises for the next three weeks were completely filled and most tour companies had waiting lists of 5-6 people for each of these ships. It wasn’t looking good.

We then learned that there were some deals on two ships leaving this week but they had longer itineraries (19 days) which included stops on the Falkland Islands, Georgia Islands and Antarctica.  Of course, longer cruises means larger price tags.  We debated our options – long cruise leaving this week, short cruise leaving in 3 weeks, or no cruise at all.  In the end, we booked ourselves on the 112-passenger Sea Spirit with Quark Expeditions for a 19 day cruise.  All week, I’ve been giddy with anticipation for this cruise. We leave tomorrow – hopefully we have some internet access so I can keep the blog up to date – otherwise you’ll hear from us in about 3 weeks.


This Gap cruise left yesterday – this was the other 
19 day cruise available this week.  Hope we made the right choice. 

The Star Princess cruise ship – look at the size difference
compared to the Gap expedition ship to the right.  The
large cruise ships don’t stop in Antarctica for
environmental reasons – they just pass by it.

It’s a busy shipping port too. 

We again experienced the kindness of strangers here in Ushuaia.  Alicia was the agent through whom we negotiated our cruise.  When we met her at her home mid-week to finalize the paperwork, we got to know her story a little over a bottle of Argentinian wine.  We were immediately impressed with how she came to Ushuaia ten years ago and built up her business and her reputation from scratch. She’s a real go-getter, very genuine, modest and down to earth. We found her to be inspiring.  I think she was equally impressed with our story.  It’s funny how you just hit it off with some people.  Well, after completing the paperwork, and the first bottle of wine, she spontaneously invited us to stay for dinner. As she prepared the steak, and I made a salad, Chris cracked open the second bottle of wine.  It was our first home made dinner, in somebody’s home since we left Canada. We really appreciated her hospitality.

Chris and Alicia in her kitchen at dinner time.

Besides securing the cruise, and draining our bank account, we’ve just been hanging around in Ushuaia this week, taking it easy and getting to know the town and area a little bit. One day we hiked to Martial Glacier which gave us another good work out.  The hike wasn’t particularly challenging or strenuous, but it was all up hill and then down hill as we were climbing yet another mountain.  We felt our legs for a few days afterwards.  At the glacier, we were rewarded with spectacular views of Ushuaia and the Beagle Channel far below as well as the surrounding rugged mountains.  Once again, we had a canine companion all the way up and all the way down….he was a cute mutt that reminded me of a dog my brother David once had. I don’t know what it is, but we seem to attract dogs when we go hiking. There were plenty of other people on the trail, but this dog singled us out and remained with us for our entire hike.  Of course, we shared our lunch with him – so maybe he just knew how to pick ‘em.

On the way up to the glacier, in the distance.

Still not there….the hard part was yet to come.

We reached the snow, but the glacier was still above us.

Checking out the view of the Beagle Channel and Ushuaia below.

Where’s Christina?  At the glacier, with our new canine friend.

Having a bite to eat.  How could we resist sharing our lunch
with our polite and patient friend? 

Can you believe this view?

Our faithful guide leading the way up.

Typical mountain flora clinging to the rocks.

Another day, we went to Playa Larga, a lovely beach  along the Beagle Channel about 4 km east of town. We took the local bus there, but since we didn’t think to ask about getting back, we couldn’t figure out where the bus stop was and had to walk most of the way back into town (after already hiking for 3 hours) until we were able to flag down a taxi.  Mental note:  ask for directions for both ways next time!

Playa Larga – can you see the helicopter that passed by?

Chris taking a photo of a gray fox (below).

This gray fox was the only animal we saw on all our hikes.

Photographer at work but what has captured his rapt attention?
Before I answer I must tell you a story.  A few years ago, we were having dinner with our old neighbours Chris and Nancy when my Chris shared a pet peeve with us:  why do people leave dirty diapers lying around all over the place? All three of us looked at Chris like he was nuts. We had no idea what he was talking about. But then, the next time we got together, Nancy and her Chris both remarked how they too were now seeing dirty diapers everywhere.  And even I have to admit, I too have seen many dirty diapers discarded in the strangest of places every since Chris alerted me to this phenomenon. Throughout South America, we have seen plenty of dirty diapers but I think the weirdest place was in Quito, Ecuador where we noticed a dirty diaper wedged in a tree. Who does that?? Of course, Chris now takes a picture every time he sees a dirty diaper in a weird place and sends it to our friends. Sure enough, while walking along this beach, we saw yet another dirty diaper on the ground.  There was no other garbage anywhere on the beach – just a single, dirty diaper.

 Chris takes his dirty diaper pictures quite seriously as you can see.  Who knows, maybe Chris will compile a coffee table book on the subject – anyone have any suggestions for a title?

View of Ushuaia from the beach.

Which direction does the wind blow?

Hiking along the shores of the Beagle Channel, one of
three navigable passages around South America between
the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans.  The other two are
the Straits of Magellan and the Drake Passage.

 Enjoying the moment, and the view!

Moss-like plant growing on the rocks near the shore.

Finally, we spent an afternoon hiking in Tierra del Fuego National Park, the southern most national park in the world.  Once we recovered from the shock of the cost of getting there (85 pesos each, about $21.25US) and the daily park entrance fee (also 85 pesos each), we did enjoy hiking the Costera trail that followed the coastline of the Beagle Channel for about 8 km.  We saw some beautiful and varied scenery of majestic, snow-capped mountains, dense forest, pretty meadows and rugged beaches.

The weather in Ushuaia is quite unpredictable.  We were surprised with the mild temperatures when we arrived, probably mid-teens during the day.  Most days have been a mix of sun and cloud, some days more windy than others.  The air is cool so when the sun is not out and the wind picks up, it’s time to put on the wooly hat and mitts, and add a layer or two.  When hiking, we were always prepared for any type of weather and it was not uncommon to strip down to our t-shirts only to bundle ourselves up with fleece, windbreaker, hats and gloves all within a couple of hours.  It rained hard one night, and we’ve had some very slight, barely noticeable sprinklings of rain during the day.  Again, we’ve been lucky as far as the weather is concerned.  We’re also enjoying the long days.  As I finish off this post at 10:45 pm, the sun is just starting to set.  It seems our bodies have adjusted accordingly and we are going to bed much later and sleeping in each morning until around 9:00 which is quite late for us.  It’s strange how daylight affects your natural rhythms.  We’re even eating dinner later, 9:00 or later each night.  But that may just be because we’re in Argentina where many restaurants close after lunch and don’t even open until 8:00 at night.

Tomorrow we board the Sea Spirit and we’re off to sea for 19 days of adventure.  I hope we have calm seas – well maybe one storm just to see what it’s like – and clear weather.

Sea SpiritSea Spirit with Quark Expeditions
http://www.quarkexpeditions.com/sea-spirit 

 

 

 

 

 

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4 Responses
  1. Nancy says:

    Everytime I see a dirty diaper I think of Chris. This will haunt me until the end of days. You should make a coffee table book of dirty diaper photos around the world. I do share your love of penguins. I could not get enough of the penguin photos. The lupine photos are nice to see as the temperature will be dropping to -20 and a freezing rain warning again today.
    Enjoy the nice summer like weather.

    Nancy

  2. Angus says:

    Bon Voyage! I’m really glad you decided to take the cruise and hope it goes well.

    I was talking to Janet about the next cruise you’re planning and have a bet that Christina will become so cooped up with all her energy after a few days at sea with no mountains to hike that she’ll jump overboard and swim the rest of the way to Europe.

    Of course that would be just silly on a cruise to Antarctica as the water would be too cold :)

    Can’t wait to hear how the cruise went and see the pictures.

  3. Catherine Appleby says:

    Chris should call his book ‘ the Remains of the day’. Or you should start a campaign that provides everyone in the world with a free diaper Genie.

  4. Connie and Yves says:

    High guys. Hope your having fun on your Sea Quest journey. I just checked out the website of your tour and it looks very exciting and cold. Can’t wait to hear how your doing and see more of your ad..venne..ture!! We check out the blog every day for something new. Take care and have fun.

    Love,
    The Leroux’s