Part 4 : Ushuaia – the end of the World
(For Part 1 : Buenos Aires (i) click here, for Part 2 : Puerto Madryn click here, for Part 3 : Welsh Patagonia click here)
The flight from Trelew to Ushuaia takes a little over two hours. It’s 1072 miles from Trelew heading due south. We land at the Malvinas Argentina International Airport, some two and a half miles from the centre of Ushuaia. The runway doesn’t look that long from the air….almost not long enough….but we manage it with room to spare. The view is fantastic; down the Magellen Straits to where the Pacific meets the Atlantic and then turn right and onto Terra del Fuego.
Ushuaia is the capital of Terra del Fuego. It’s the southernmost city in the World. It appears that, whereas in the UK you can’t call yourself a city unless you have a Cathedral, in Argentina, it’s all about population. Under 4,000 people and it’s a town. Over 4,000 people and it’s a city. Port Williams (3,000 population), which lies further south and is in Chile, is the southernmost town in the World. It’s growing and someday, far off, it’s possible it may topple Ushuaia (population 59,000) off its pedestal.
Ushuaia was founded in 1884 by Augusto Lasserre, an officer in the Argentine navy. At the time it was populated by the Yaghan and the Selk’nam Indians, continually bickering with each other despite the civilising effect of the British who came as missionaries and Antarctic surveyors. The last pure-blood Yaghan, who speaks the language, is Christina Calderon. She’s 90 (2018) and lives in Port Williams. All her relatives and other 1,500 Yaghan have inter-married with Argentines, Spanish and other Indian tribes, thus weakening the blood line, so to speak.
It’s 400 miles to the Falklands but the political importance of the Malvinas is evident in the items for sale in the shops, the names of the shops themselves and in the huge memorial on the promenade. It’s a significant memorial with the photos of the soldiers going to war, the names of those who lost their lives and an eternal flame in remembrance. Quite sobering.
Here, it’s the end of the World, the Fin del Mundo. Ushuaia is a glorious frontier town built on a series of steep hills with the Martial glacier to the rear and the Beagle Channel to the fore. It’s a windy city, with the wind coming in from the Antarctic and there’s nothing to stop it.
Ushuaia is chaotic in its planning. Houses are built of wood or of corrugated iron. Roofs are all of corrugated iron and everything is painted in a rainbow of colours. There isn’t a ‘style’ – or perhaps there is and it’s ‘frontier’? Someday, someone in the planning department is going to have to get to grips with all of it. The shopping is mainly aimed at the tourists – outdoor outlets abound, but there are also some very good restaurants. Prices are Buenos Aires with a few percent added on, but portions are the usual – ridiculously large!
The climate here is interesting. It rarely falls much below zero celsius in winter and in the summer rarely reaches the mid twenties. They say that Ushuaia’s weather is ‘everything in a day’ and it’s true. It can be raining, grey and overcast in the morning, glorious sunshine and baking heat by lunchtime and blowing a gale by bedtime. In the summer, there’s as much as twenty hours of daylight. It takes getting used to!
At one end of Ushuaia is the old city prison. This was a penal colony for re-offenders, dangerous criminals and political prisoners until 1947 when it was closed. It’s now the main Museum and is situated next to the Argentinian naval base from where the submarine, the San Juan sailed on its tragic last voyage in November 2017. At the other end of Ushuaia are the Martial Mountains and the Martial Glacier. It would be a staggeringly beautiful backdrop for any city.
The museum of the Yamana indians is a popular haunt for tourists. Traditionally hunter-gatherers, the Yamana travelled in birch-bark canoes, the men hunting sea-lions and the women diving for shellfish. Oddly, the men did not swim and could not swim. Neither men nor women wore clothes, even allowing for the climate. They covered themselves in animal grease and, over time, they evolved so that their metabolism was such that they had a higher than usual core body temperature.
We’re staying at the Hotel Austral, a lovely ski-lodge of a hotel just off the main street and next to the only pub in Ushuaia, the Irish bar ‘Dublin’ that opens at 8 p.m. and is full to the brim in five minutes. You book a seat in the same way as you’d reserve a table in a restaurant. It’s easier to simply eat out and drink as you go.
The promenade and the harbour wall are the same. Cargo boats vie for space with tourist boats and military vessels. Cruise ships arrive and depart. The air is full of gulls of all sizes and there are cormorants and albatross where ever you turn.
Frontier towns can be quirky. On the first night, we eat early at the Hard Rock Cafe. There aren’t many of us out at that time and the band is warming up and having something of a technical rehearsal. Still, it doesn’t stop a man in his fifties, dressed in black a la Johnny Cash, sporting brown cowboy boots and brown studded belt, standing with his back to the band playing air guitar for the diners. There is something really quite odd and creepy about someone playing air guitar…..to an audience…..
We head off early in the morning to catch the 8 a.m. boat up the Beagle Channel. Piratours have the monopoly on penguin watching as they are the only company who have the right to land on anything in the Beagle channel. The excursion takes you up the Beagle Channel past more albatross, petrel, terns, skuas and geese. The first stop is at a small rocky outcrop absolutely crowded with cormorants. You don’t need to be told they live in a fish diet, the smell is appalling! There must be six or seven thousand cormorants, maybe more?
Within an hour or so, we land at Harberton Ranch on Martillo island. After Thomas Bridges, the missionary, retired from his efforts converting the Yaghan indians, he approached General Rocas, the Argentinian president, with a request to be given land to start a cattle ranch. Working on the principle that it was better to have someone on the land rather than run the risk of it being taken away from Argentinian sovereignty, he granted him 10,000 hectares on Martillo Island. Bridges moved there with Mary Ann Varder, his wife, and they imported a house from England. Mary Ann was from Devon and the estancia took its name from her home village near Totnes. The house still stands and the family are still in residence. They still farm but now there is an additional income from visitors who land to meet and observe the colonies of penguins. Today, there are 16 pairs of Gentoo penguins and 3000 pairs of Magellenic penguins.
The Bridges also have a Skeleton museum on the island, the Acatushun Museum, and support a team who collect carcasses, strip them through boiling and catalogue the parts. The facility was started by Rae Natalie Prosser de Goodall, a native of Lexington, Ohio, and, although no longer alive, her work continues. I never realised that a killer whale is neither a killer nor a whale. Actually, it’s a dolphin. The museum smells almost as bad as the cormorants.
“It’s the smell of science”, the guide tells me.
I’m not convinced.
Across the islands are forests of dead trees. Trees keel over in the wind but the climate is such that they take an inordinate length of time to decompose. Consequently, forests of pale grey bare wood are everywhere. It looks like something from another World….I suppose it is. It’s a strange world – devoid of ants, cockroaches, snakes, spiders and mosquitoes. There are a few wasps and that’s about it.
However, everywhere you go, and I mean everywhere, are lupins. The British brought them over and they clearly like the climate and the soil. Every colour you could want. Huge flowering masses of them.
There are strict rules for visitors. It’s stressed that there is to be no litter. No one can pick anything up for fear of affecting the ecosystem and there are no souvenirs to pocket. It seems very clear but, despite the explanation and the instruction, it’s surprising how many need to be reprimanded for not doing as they’re told.
One couple are told more than once and made to empty their pockets. I turn to the lady who is trying to place her ample rear on a flat stone to take close up pictures of a baby penguin trying to pick some grey down from its back.
“Where are you from?”
“Israel”, she replies, “Small country, very big noise.”
“Very big trousers, madam” I mutter quietly.
While we’re waiting for the boat to take us back to the city, the guide tells me that people are very well off in Ushuaia. The basic pay per month in Buenos Aires is 15,000 ARS. In Ushuaia it’s 30,000 ARS. However, with that comes inflated rents, expensive food and expensive clothes. Only gas and petrol are cheap; their own and comes from just on the mainland. He pays less than US$10 a month for his utilities. It goes someway to explain why all the shops and the hotels are so hot!
The next day we walk east from the centre of Ushuaia and on to the Martial Glacier. It’s Sunday morning and a steep three hour hike up to the rim of the glacier. It’s a glaciated valley but there is still snow on the top and the glacier has yet to fully recede. The Martial mountains are 46.5 million years old and still jagged as a result. At 1500 metres (4921 feet) it’s quite a climb but worth it as you look back out to sea, and away to where Antarctic lies beyond the horizon.
We slide on icy snow using waterproof trousers as a make-do sledge, taste water from streams fed from the Andes and drink hot coffee at a cafe at the base of the mountains.
There’s just enough time for a last meal at Bodegon Fueguino, a typical Ushuaian restaurant where you sit on sheep fleeces and eat mounds of tenderloin beef and huge lamb steaks with delicate roast potatoes, washed down with Argentinian Malbec before staggering home to pack and to bed.
Tomorrow, it’s time for yet another flight. This time north and east to El Calafate on the Chilean border.
For Part 5 : El Calafate, click here