The end of the world is behind me and the end of the trip looms large. My brother just sent me an email saying it felt like I’d just left and I wrote back, telling him it felt like I’d been gone six months. It’s always strange how time flows when you’re not in your normal routine.
Yesterday I hiked along the Beagle Channel, with my mom, in Tierra del Fuego National Park. We already had a trip into the park scheduled for this morning but we thought it’d be vastly different from what we did yesterday. Looking at a map of the park, however, I don’t know why it wasn’t obvious we’d be covering much of the same route today as we did yesterday; there’s only one road in the whole park. The major difference in today’s itinerary was the 7km train ride. The train was tiny, almost like the ‘toy train’ I saw in northern India but it ran well.
The view from the train was decent but Tierra del Fuego just isn’t all that exciting; if Ushuaia didn’t have the claim of ‘southernmost city in the world’ I imagine it’d be little more than a working harbor town. After Cerro Torre, Perito Moreno and Torres del Paine, I’ve been spoiled for scenic vistas in Patagonia. One thing I can say about Ushuaia is how much better the food is here than at a lot of the other places I’ve been. Last night’s meal, at a place called El Kaupe, was divine. Scallop ceviche and king crab stew in mushroom cream sauce. Mmm.
Ushuaia is ‘del fin del mundo’ (the end of the world), and I was able to mail off a postcard this morning from the world’s southernmost post office. The guy operating it was postmaster general, customs agent and postcard salesman, all in one. I asked him for a stamp and he asked to see my passport. I gave it to him, thinking he wanted to know how much postage to sell me, and he opened it to a blank page and proceeded to put a big fat Ushuaia stamp on it. I wonder what the customs folks back in the States will say when they see it. Surely it’s official.
The plan for today was to take a bus to Tierra del Fuego National Park, then do a four hour hike along the Beagle Channel. It was sunny and warm when the bus dropped us off where I got my postcard from that guy. Looking out across the Beagle Channel, with Antarctica to the south and Chile to the west, it felt like the bottom of the world, not the end of the world. I expected the curvature of the Earth to suddenly be much more pronounced.
The hike along the water takes 3 – 4 hours, depending on how many pictures one takes After two hours I looked back and saw the bus was still in sight. It was supposed to pick us up at the other end of the hike so I knew we had a ways to go. The clouds thickened and the ubiquitous Argentinian wind picked up, bringing some rain with it. A relaxing hike along the ocean became a mad dash to get to the pick up point by 2 pm, or else we’d have to wait until the 4:30 bus arrived. We were still quite some distance from the rendezvous point when I noticed the road was visible. Cutting through the woods we reached the road just as our bus was passing by. I flagged it down and the driver let us on, asking if we wanted to go back to Ushuaia. Sure, I said, it’s freezing out here. We hadn’t been on the bus for a minute when the sun came out and it was beautiful again.
Back in town we had lunch at a typical Argentinian restaurant (pizza, pasta, lamb, pastries) and watched the rain turn to snow, then sleet and hail. Spring in the Southern Hemisphere.
Now it’s almost 6 pm and I need to recharge this thing before tomorrow. The last scheduled activity on this Patagonian adventure is tomorrow morning, a guided tour through Tierra del Fuego National Park. I imagine we’ll see more of the interior and only glimpse the channel a few times. Wednesday at noon we leave for the airport and the 27-hour journey back home. Yikes, that just sank in. We fly from here to Buenos Aires (4 hours), then have a four hour layover in BA, which we might need if we have to reclaim our bags (we’re flying a domestic airline to BA, then switching to United from there to Houston and PDX); I experienced the longest lines of my life when we flew from Buenos Aires to El Calafate.
I just overheard someone ask the front desk if the tap water here was potable. The host said he wouldn’t drink it. Hmmmm ….we’ve been drinking it since we got here. “Should be fine.”
They say Ushuaia is the southernmost city in the world and I can believe it. There was still light in the sky at 10:30 and the solstice is still over a month away. I’ve been going to bed late and getting up early (it gets light at 5:00) but I’m not tired; it must be all the extra light.
Flying here, to Ushuaia, yesterday afternoon I didn’t know what to expect. I guess I was imagining a city like Sapporo (in Japan) but this place feels like a boomtown whose glory days are far behind or, possibly, yet to come. Viewing the region from the air, with mountains as far as the eye could see, it felt like I was flying into Alaska.
This is also the first hotel I’ve stayed in that has a big bed and it’s quite comfortable. As has been the case with every place I’ve stayed so far, the walls are paper thin but there don’t appear to be any loud guests next to me. The guy at the front desk, who was here until midnight last night and is here again this morning, at 7:00, likes to play his stereo loudly all the time. It’s a mix of American music from the 80s, it sounds like.
The plan today is to go for a hike in Tierra del Fuego National Park, along the Beagle Channel. The forecast is for scattered rain, with a high of 46, so once again I’m glad I packed those extra shorts!
The picture below was taken as the plane descended into Ushuaia. I took it through a rather opaque window and can still only shoot wide open, but you get the idea.
It’s raining here at the airport in El Calafate. I guess we got really lucky with the weather so far. It’s been extremely windy but we haven’t run into rain since Buenos Aires; our time in El Chalten, El Calafate and Chile was all rain-free (well, there was some blowing snow at Perito Moreno Glacier, but that just added to the coolness factor). The rental car people have just left us and I was not charged for the hood latch. I’m glad; I can imagine trying to sort that out over the phone once I got back to the States!
If I haven’t already said so, Torres del Paine was incredible. The roads, as I mentioned, were a travesty but that just made it all the more remote I suppose. Now that I’m back in civilization I can reflect back on how unique those last three days were. Waking up at 5 every morning to a sunrise over Torres del Paine was awesome. Once I get back home I will need to upload a viable map of the park; not a single map we saw showed the entire park boundary, or the roads leading in and out. This caused a few u-turns but we amazingly found the hosteria without any corrections. A simple wooden sign on the side of the road was the only indication of where to turn, and it was still a 30- minute drive from there to the hosteria. On the way out this morning we passed horses, guanaco, sheep, cows, rabbits, emus and one fox. It was still just past dawn so all the animals were out.
More to follow, but here are some photos:
I am finally back in Argentina and can get WiFi again. I kept some notes on the trip to Chile, and Torres del Paine National Park; here they are:
Thursday, November 14:
I was worried about this ‘estancia’ here in Chile, since it has no WiFi and limited electricity, but the place is absolutely stunning. It reminds me a lot of Redfish Lake, Idaho (in the heart of the Sawtooth Mountains), but it’s even more remote and the mountains are more majestic. It truly is special. I am lying here in my bed, typing this onto my iPad Mini in the hopes I’ll find a WiFi signal at some other hotel tomorrow, and looking out my window I can see nothing but bright stars and the silvery glow of the mountains and Lago Verde, bathed in moonlight. The electricity here is available from 7pm til midnight, which is better than I’d heard (that the power shut off at 7:30 each night).
Friday, November 15th:
The saga of how I got here is probably only interesting to me but hey, if you’re still reading, I guess it must be okay to keep going. Everything about this trip, except for this three day jaunt into Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park, was arranged by a gentleman named Cesar, from somewhere in southern Argentina. That, along with a wealth of online information (which I still think is miraculous; I can remember being in Europe in 1992 and being stoked to find a USA Today that was only one week out of date), has made it much easier to navigate through two countries where English is rarely spoken. So, the saga of the rental car…
In order to rent a car in Argentina you must be able to prove you have liability insurance. I was unable to find anyone in the States who would sell me such a policy so I scanned a copy of my Safeco insurance card then used Photoshop to erase those pesky details like exactly which car the policy covered. When I was finished it looked like a generic, all-encompassing insurance document.
As it turned out, nobody at Dubrovnik Rental Car (in El Calafate, Argentina) asked me about liability insurance at all. What they did want to know is whether I wanted to purchase collision insurance. I thought I was going to use my credit card to rent the car, which meant I’d have excellent (and free) collision insurance, but my mother had already paid for it with cash, via an online bank transfer to Cesar. Dubrovnik’s best collision insurance offered a $2500 deductible. Not really all that great, in other words.
Dubrovnik was located ten minutes from the hotel, by foot, so walking down there wasn’t a big deal. Walking down there seven times in one day was a little bit of a drag, however After the insurance issue was straightened out, and my mother’s money refunded in cash by a man who arrived on foot to the hotel lobby, the next hurdle was finding gas for the car. The entire province of Santa Cruz was out of gas due to a strike by gas station employees. Pablo, the owner of Dubrovnik, assured me our rental car would be full of gas and we should have no problems getting to Chile.
The normal drive takes 8 hours but I found a shortcut that would cut it down to 5. However, this shortcut is only possible when there’s fuel along the way. Pablo said there ‘might be’ gas in Esperanza, a little town 3 hours from El Calafate.If there was gas there, he went on to say, the lines may be blocks long. If there wasn’t gas there, a small possibility existed at a one-pump town called Tapi Aike (literally only one pump). If that place had gas there might also be a long line, or neither of those places could have had gas, at which point we’d have to go down to Puerto Natales, which ‘definitely has gas’ (allegedly), but would add three hours to our trip. We have to make this same drive coming back, on a Sunday. Our flight to Ushuaia leaves at 3:45 on Sunday which means we need to be back in El Calafate by 1:45, which means we need to leave Chile at 4 am, just to be safe. However, the border crossing doesn’t open its gates until 8 am. So, a conundrum.
I heard an Englishman yesterday asking the owner of this estancia if he could buy 8 liters of gas from her so maybe they could sell me some tomorrow evening. That would be awesome. There’s still just over a half tank but that’s because, even after taking the shortcut through Cerro Castillo, we still ended up driving down to Puerto Natales anyway, just to get gas. We had to, since there was no gas in Cerro Castillo (even though three employees at the Cancho Carrera border patrol, only 7km away, assured me there was). I thought if we filled up in Puerto Natales we’d have enough to make it through the park these three days and back to the gas station in La Esperanza on Sunday. Now I know I’ll have to go back to Puerto Natales tomorrow afternoon, a three hour round trip, if we want to leave via Cerro Castillo on Sunday morning (unless the people at our estancia will sell us 15 liters or so).
I’ll have to speed the whole way back on Sunday and hope the car’s hood doesn’t pop up; I noticed it bouncing this afternoon as we drove into a 65mph headwind. I got out and was literally blown off my feet. I had to grab the back of the car to keep from being swept away. I’ve never been in wind that strong. Not wanting the hood to blow off the car, probably smashing the windshield in the process, I took the strap off my camera and used it to lash the hood down. Every car hood I’ve ever seen has a metal hook, or ring, that latches onto the spring attached to the car’s frame. Not this one (a Ford Fiesta). A single plastic tab jutted from inside the hood, with a slightly hooked end on it to catch the latch. So there I was, lying on my back on a gravel road with the wind blowing that gravel into me the whole time, as I tried to figure out how to make my camera strap secure the hood. I got it done but it seemed very sketchy. We were on a three hour drive to a place where a boat was going to take us up to some glaciers and we’d barely made the halfway point. I was up at five that morning, taking photos of the sunrise over Mt Torres Del Paine, and was pretty exhausted by the time I had to fix the hood. Pulling into a campground a little while later, I decided it was too risky, and I was too wiped out, to keep driving those roads into such a relentless headwind. Imagine a place as big as Yellowstone and Yosemite combined, and having to traverse all of it via gravel roads. I think part of the reason they don’t pave everything is to discourage this place from becoming as crowded as either one of those parks. At the campground my mom remembered she had a backpack that had ropes for straps, so I undid my camera strap and replaced it with the rope, which is still there now. I wanted to contact Dubrovnik, and let them know what was going on with the hood and the brake lights (they don’t work) so we stopped at a place called Hotel Explora (aka Salto Chico) and I used their WiFi to send Pablo an email. My iPad wouldn’t let me log in to my gmail account, however. I experienced a similar problem when I was in the Houston airport, then again when I landed in Argentina. There wasn’t time to figure out how to circumvent whatever weird security Google has installed so I had to use my mom’s iPhone.
Sitting in the lobby of the Explora, I could almost understand why rooms there rent for $7000 a week. Almost. It’s the only place in the park with a better view than ours but I still like this place better. It’s much more homey and I don’t have to listen to two women talk over champagne about which Hyatt Regency is their favorite in the world, as I did in the Explora lobby.
As usual, I’ve been writing this on my iPad ‘Notes’ app and will post it (and more photos) as soon as I find another WiFi signal. To those who’ve written me email and are wondering why I haven’t responded, I will try to do so once I get back to Argentina on Sunday evening. I will be able to access my blog for sure, but I’m also hoping the email issue will fix itself once I’m back in Argentina, since I’ve already had success logging in there.
My first zip line today! It is the warmest day so far here in Patagonia and the wind is non-existent. A perfect day to fly through the air. I kept my camera in my right hand so it was slightly difficult to keep facing forward as I sped along but I still shot some video of the experience. Way off in the distance we could see Torres del Paine where we’re going tomorrow. I was amazed at how fast I got going. There were five different stages, zigzagging down the mountain; we were driven up in an old Land Rover similar to what I traveled with in India. The first stage was fun but, like I said, it was hard to keep myself facing forward. I watched one of the operators the next time and saw him lift his knees to his chest; he flew! So I did that the next time and it was awesome. Also, I weigh enough that I was able to make it all the way to the end platform every time. The guide had to inchworm his way out the lines sometimes and ‘catch’ people who had stalled out. My mom was one such person:)
There’s still no gasoline available but the rental agency assures us we’ll have no problem. Hmmm.
If we really do find the road that takes us from Cancha Carrera to Cerro Castillo we’ll shave three hours off our drive tomorrow. Google shows it’s not possible but people here say it is. I to going to post the entire route if we make it through. I searched and searched online for such a route and it was like looking for that fabled Northwest passage.
Dinner may be pizza again tonight. Argentina has many things but really good food is not one of them. Every meat dish we’ve had has all been cooked well done. The portions are large, however, and everyone is very friendly. There’s just no “oooh, that looks good” kind of food here (so far).
Below is a photo of the zip line group.
And here is a panoramic photo I took using my mom’s iPhone. I wanted to see how that feature worked and it’s really cool!
This will be my last day to post for awhile: the place we are going tomorrow, in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park, has no WiFi. It doesn’t even have electricity at all,after 7:30 at night. They call it an estancia, a working ranch. I’m thinking of that scene from City Slickers; I just hope I don’t end up bringing home a calf named Norman!
Yesterday we went to Perito Moreno Glacier. It was sunny and in the high 40s when we left El Calafate but by the time we reached the glacier it was cloudy and snowing. My camera stopped working on the bus ride there. I was taking pictures out the window and suddenly got this message (on the back of the camera) that my camera and lens weren’t connected properly; I needed to clean the contact points of each. This has never happened before so I don’t know if it’s a problem with the lens or the camera. I took the camera apart and cleaned the contact points the best I could with my shirt sleeve but that didn’t do the trick. After fiddling around with it for most of the bus ride to the glacier, I found I could still shoot if I left the camera ‘wide open’ (at it’s widest aperture). This makes me think it’s the lens, and that somehow it’s not able to close the blades that give me more depth of field.
The glacier itself was massive. I took some Dramamine, for the first time in my life, so I wouldn’t feel carsick like I did on the tour to Lago Desierto. It worked great! There was also a one-hour boat tour so the Dramamine helped there as well. The boat tour took us right up to the edge of the glacier, which is huge. It’s 250 square kilometers, larger than the city limits of Buenos Aires. Looking up at it from the boat, it towered hundreds of feet above and was filled with blue light (the cloudy day was perfect). Despite the snow blowing in my face I went to the very front of the boat and stood at the prow (think DeCaprio in Titanic), shooting away.
Once the tour was over, and we were back in El Calafate, I got a call from the travel agent letting me know it was okay for me to charge the rental car to my credit card (the collision coverage is 100% if I use my card)… but I still don’t know how we are going to get gas. The strike continues and people were lined up for blocks last night, just to buy a few liters (I think each car can only buy 100 pesos of gas). I don’t really understand the point of being on strike and still letting people buy any amount of gas; it’s just making the lines insanely long and making the gas station employees work much harder.
Today we are going on a zip line adventure. I looked for bungee jumping but they said it’s too windy here for that (but a zip line is okay?).
Now it’s time for breakfast here at the lovely Quijote Hotel.