Land of Fire

Land of Fire

Trying to write a catch up post but making slow progress so this might be even more lacking in eloquence than usual..

Thurs 9th – Sun 12th Feb
Quite disappointed that I had to get up early to take the bus from Rio Gallegos to Ushuaia, leaving the massive bed and proper bathroom behind:

I crossed the Magellan Straits and felt a bit like Michael Palin (the Around the World in 80 Days version rather than Monty Python, obviously). So absorbed in standing on deck looking at the water that I totally failed to realise there was an inside where delicious culinary treats were available (dishwater coffee and dirty hotdogs -I rectified this on the return journey a few days later because who wants to stand outside looking  at some water?!).

dsc00560-smallAt first Tierra del Fuego was basically flat and desolate like the bit of Argentina above it, and the name, which is suggestive of the presence of at least a couple of volcanoes, seemed to be a bit of a con, like Greenland. But after a couple of hours it got more interesting, honest.

I hung out in Ushuaia, appreciating its Southern-hemisphere -Scandinavia vibe (and prices to match!) and tried to figure out my plans. (Incidentally, travelling in Patagonia in winter is probably even more of a headache than in summer but I think Ushuaia might be more appealing then – at least to me, though I loved Siberia and Svalbard in January so I’m not normal. I liked the city nonethless and it has quite a buzz, compared to the rest of this corner of Argentina).

I had vague plans to hike and possibly camp in the Tierra del Fuego national park, before taking a bus to Punta Arenas in Chile to start making my way to the Torres del Paine national park. TdP is possibly up there in the gringo South America top 5 these days (Macchu Pichu, Rio Carnival, Bolivian Salt flats & Iguazu Falls would be my bet for the others). It’s immensely popular and due to overcrowding, [at least in high season] you now have to make advance reservations for all the campsites/refuges you plan to use (as most people do one of the multi-day hike options: the ‘W’ or the complete ‘O’ circuit). This is a fairly complex process – I think you can now book most of it online but if one site is full on a particular day, then you’ll probably have to adjust your stages and shift where you stay for the other nights. (If you don’t want to carry enough food for 4-9 days trekking, the refuges offer meals but these also have to be booked in advance. However I brought ziploc bags from the UK for the specific purpose of portioning out daily rations of porridge etc after reading other travellers tips!). I *knew* about the busyness and the reservations, but despite the odd specificness of packing ziploc bags, had taken an absurdly blase approach and hadn’t yet booked anything. Partly because I didn’t know when I would get there, and partly because I knew it would be complicated and was putting it off as long as possible. Well, I heard other people in my hostel talking about the process and how it was now booked up until the end of time, and I decided, having previously designated this as almost the only definite thing in my itinerary, to not bother and go somewhere else instead! What a rebel. This decision was reinforced when I found out I’d have to hang around 4 or so days longer than I wanted in Ushuaia due to all the direct buses to Punta Arenas being sold out (surprisingly that was the first time I had a problem in Argentina getting a bus ticket for when I wanted, despite all the warnings I’d heard about travelling in high season, but it turned out to be an accurate reflection of travelling in southern Chile!).

Oh how I laughed when I came across this piece online a few days ago, how glad I was that I’d ballsed-up the only chance I’ll have anytime soon to *enjoy one of the most remote walks in one of the most beautiful places on earth*.
I hope the commentators are closer to the mark than the awestruck (expenses-paid) author, pointing out the overcrowding and that it’s not so remote (by Patagonian standards). There’s also arguably just as compelling trekking in other parts of the continent. Do I sound like I’ve convinced myself yet?? (I’d still like to go there at some point, just not *this* point. Still plenty of reasons to come back here!).

Punta Arenas still seemed interesting enough to merit a visit in its own right though so I still thought I might try and make it there – by joining the the South American students and Israelis, with my thumb out by the side of the road 🙂

Meanwhile, in Ushuaia, it was even harder that in the rest of the country to ignore the still very sore spot that is the Islas Malvinas. But err..I still felt very welcome!

Ignoring politics, I took a boat trip out on the Beagle channel – lots of companies to choose from (they have little huts by the port) but I went with Tres Marias and would highly recommend them. A small boat, great guide, and we got to hike around one of the little islands in the channel.

We saw a colony of King Cormorants – also known by the far better name of Imperial Shags! They seem happy to share their island with a bunch of sea lions:

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Back on dry land…rather than taking a bus to the TdF national park then walking around like people normally do, I walked to the national park and then accidentally took the bus around. It worked out ok but I wouldn’t recommend my alternative method as that road is unpleasantly busy to walk along – though it was still pretty scenic.
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I have to admit that what I saw of the park itself did feel underwhelming compared with the amazing sights I’d already seen…

The original inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego were the Yamana people – British missionaries showed up in the later 19th century and founded Ushuaia, soon followed by Argentines who established a penal colony there. The former prison is now a complex of museums which looked interesting, but not quite interesting enough to justify stumping up the £17+ foreigner entry fee:

If I remember correctly (I probably don’t!), Chile and Argentina formally agreed that Ushuaia could use the southernmost city designation, but a look at the map will quickly show you that there is a more southerly settlement: Puerto Williams, belonging to Chile. This might be why Ushuaia brands itself as the Fin del Mundo and doesn’t make quite so much of the ‘southernmost city’ designation. The small population of Puerto Williams includes the last remaining community of Yamana people, and it’s difficult/expensive to get to – my favourite- so it’s obviously gone straight on my list for *Patagonia – the sequel*.

Coming soon: Out of the fire and into Chile!

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A Beagle Blonde by the Beagle..
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