Just Let Go… and Laugh

On our last day in Ushuaia, we decided we’d take a stroll along the southernmost coast of South America. The hostel that we stayed in had a pretty idiot-proof step-by-step instruction to reach la Playa Larga (literally: Long Beach).

Idiot-proof... right?

Idiot-proof… right? And yes… I know… I knowingly went on a four hour trek. What can I say? The South American air has infused some loco in my blood

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you probably would’ve guessed what happened with this little misadventure…

Of course… We never made it to the beach.

In fact, we didn’t even made it to the “old lighthouse” in the instruction sheet (line 5 of 13).

To be fair, we tried our best. Initially, it seemed pretty straight forward. There was only one road leading away from the bus stop…

One very looooong road....

One very looooong road….

Even though the instructions stated that the walk would take 30 minutes, we figured that our frequent stops to take photos of the most inane nonsense, and our ridiculously slow walking speed probably meant that we would need about an hour to reach the beach.

Inane nonsense like the many graffiti-ed/disfigured road signs

Inane nonsense like the many graffiti-ed/disfigured road signs along the road

After walking for 30 minutes, we actually saw a sign that gave us hope…

Cue "Hallelujah" music

Cue “Hallelujah” music

Which was kinda strange, because up to this point, we had not seen any “trails through the forest” nor “Estancia el Tunel”.  But the sign MUST mean we are on the right track, right?

We continued walking for another 45 minutes after the sign, and still saw no sign of ANY of the things mentioned in the instruction sheet.

But it was a really nice walk, so we decided to push on anyway.

Did I say it was pleasant? It was gorgeous!

Did I say it was pleasant? It was gorgeous!

One of the reasons why the walk was so awesome for us was how isolated the walk felt. For the whole 90 minutes we’d been walking, we only saw ONE car that passed us on the main road. We had the whole stretch to ourselves. There were the occasional birds that peeked curiously at us and a ferret (fox?) that ran across the road ahead of us, but for the most part, we were on our own, with the crisp mountain air filling our lungs.

All in all… a gloriously peaceful walk in the morning. We figured that it didn’t even matter if we never reached la Playa Larga. This walk was so wonderful we could go on until we got tired, and then start heading back to the hostel.

That was when it started to rain.

Actually it was a full blown Patagonian thunderstorm. The dark clouds rolled in suddenly. Thick sleets of rain cascaded down on us. The winds billowed strongly, threatening to blow us off the road. It was one hell of an angry storm.

The isolation we loved so much earlier? Not that awesome anymore…

We started to panic. We tried hurriedly to cover our handphones/cameras (typical Singaporeans, we know) and started running back the way we came.

Then we realized… We were a good one hour from ANYWHERE! Doing anything at that point in time was really kinda futile.

I think there was a moment when we stopped mid run, glanced at each other and started laughing uncontrollably. There seemed to be little else we could do.

Then we started dancing and splashing water at each other.

This definitely made the list of “most memorable moments” of our trip so far.

This is gonna sound totally cheesy, but I guess this is one of the greatest perks of travelling with someone you love… in fact, the greatest perks of doing ANYTHING with someone you love – The most hopeless of situations don’t look so bad when you can just say “fuck it” and have a good laugh at with each other.

Not quite the End of the World

If you had mentioned Ushuaia to me before this trip, the mental image I’d have of the southern-most city in the world would be a snowed-out and deserted one-salon town; our accommodation would be a log cabin that was miles away from everywhere else – kinda like Walter White’s hideaway cabin in the last few episodes of Breaking Bad, and we would have polar bears and penguins roaming right outside. (yeah yeah… I know… Polar Bears live in the North Pole… Nerd…)

This belief that we were heading to the ends of the earth was further reinforced by our monstrous bus-bus-boat-bus transfer to get here.

We are definitely far from everywhere else...

We are definitely far from everywhere else…

So you can imagine my surprise when the first thing I saw upon pulling into town was a HUGEASS casino… followed by whole shopping streets with bright lights, bustling restaurants and… a Carrefour (??)

Ushuaia is definitely not the one-horse town I was expecting.

I guess as Ushuaia slowly gained the reputation of being the “Gateway to Antartica”, more and more tourists have started to “discover” it.

Gateway to Antartica

Gateway to Antartica… ONLY 1000km away!

Of course, on one end of the spectrum, you still have us – the “explorer-wannabes” who will be shocked by how… “developed” the city is.

We were the ones who showed up in our flip flops after traveling in shaky buses for 32 hours.  Along with us (I mean that quite literally… these guys took the same bus as us into town), we had a cool Spaniard who was on a year-long trip, but somehow managed to get by carrying a backpack that was half the size of ours. We also had a Brazilian who stepped into town in the middle of the night and proceeded to ask around for the nearest campsite.

The ambient temperature then was just near freezing.

We felt we gained that little bit of street cred just by hanging around them.

We must have been quite a sight as we dragged our scruffy selves across town, looking for a place to stay.

It certainly didn’t help that we were surrounded by the pre-Antartica-trippers who were wearing their warm, furry designer winter gear. THESE travellers were hanging out in the upmarket micro-breweries and restaurants, drowning themselves in beer and devouring chunks of bloody steaks, giant Alaskan King crabs and entire roast lambs.

However, regardless of the mode (or price) of travel, there was an undeniable sense of adventure in the air.

I think it must have been the amount of posters in the store windows, advertising the activities that could be done around town. Of course, there was the headliner – the cruises to Antartica, but there were also other activities such as going on husky-sled rides to the country side, treks up to glaciers, penguin-watching tours on fishing boats, snowboarding expeditions down deserted mountainsides, visits to National Parks, and…

and puppies!

and puppies for adoption!

The crisp Antartic air, the busy sea channel and the towering mountains around us made the possibilities seemed endless!

View from the hostel

View of the Beagle Channel from our hostel room

The Head that Shattered a Thousand (ok, ONE) Window

One thing about reading travel blogs is that most of the time, you only get to see the best part of every traveller’s journey – the whale-watching at sunrise, the mouth-watering cuisine, the jaw-dropping mountain scenery and the crystal clear seas.

But the truth of the matter is that these moments make up about 20% of every journey. The rest of the 80% is spent doing the very mundane chores of sleeping, eating and… getting from Point A to Point B.

Nothing very much happens during this 80%… except when things happen.

So… you know that we took the ocean safari while we are in Puerto Madryn… We traveled to the Peninsula Valdes, took a boat, saw some whales… but what I left out in the previous posts is that it’s a good 3 hour drive from Puerto Madryn to the Peninsula.

At the travel agency, we were promised that it would be an exciting ride where we would be kept busy looking for/at land animals that make the Peninsula their home; animals like rheas (small weird ostriches), guanacos (small weird llamas), grey foxes (small weird foxes) and maras (small weird ermm… mouse/rabbit/guinea pig mutants???). There were also SUPPOSED to be “at least 181 bird species, 66 of which migratory, live in the area, including the Antarctic Pigeon”. And every once in a while, we were SUPPOSED to be able to get out of the vehicle to see “large colonies of sealions and elephant seals basking in the sun”.

To be fair, our guide tried VERY hard.

He would very suddenly get the driver to stop the vehicle and point in a general direction, shouting very dramatically “SEE!!!” (Now that I think about it, maybe he meant “¡Sí!”… it’s hard to tell with his ridiculously cute accent… complete with the inverted exclamation mark).

At the start, every time he did that, we would enthusiastically peer out into the distance, trying very hard to see what it was that got him so riled up… Most of the time, we would see nothing (I mean the guide is a trained nature guide so that means he has mutant telescopic eyes), but every once in a while, if we were lucky, we would be able to make out two black dots bouncing in the distance.

After an hour of seeing these…

SEE!!!

SEE!!! The Patagonian landscape is notoriously harsh… this means dried grass plains for hundreds of kilometres all round with strong winds of up to 30kns being the norm here.

Si!  Si

¡Sí!
¡Sí!

and these…

Our first sighting of maras...

Our first sighting of maras… kind of…

And guanacos... kindof... suffice to say... we saw the backview of many animals

And guanacos… kind of… suffice to say… we saw the back view of many animals that tried to run away from our mini bus

To put it mildly, it was a bit hard for us to keep up our enthusiasm.

We had more luck with flower, since they can't.... move

We had more luck with flowers, since they can’t…. move

What we were "Supposed" to see...

What we were “SUPPOSED” to see… at a “museum” of Peninsula Valdes at the entrance of Peninsula Valdes…

It didn’t help that at the few pit stops we made to see “beaches covered with colonies of elephant seals and sea lions”, we saw this instead…

Hardly a colony...

Spot THE elephant seal… Hardly a colony…

Apparently, we were too early for the mating season, so what we saw were essentially the horniest of the elephant seals…

Horny The One

Horny The One

I suppose THAT is something we could brag about.

So… while the guide managed to keep a VERY upbeat attitude throughout the whole journey, we gave up. On the bus ride back to Puerto Madryn, our disease of being able to fall asleep anywhere/anytime/anyhow caught up with us. Believe me, it is not easy to fall asleep with someone who aspires to be a Brazilian football commentator shouting in your ears, but somehow we managed to do it.

And that was when it happened.

I had just been woken up by an exceptionally loud “SEE!!” by the guide, and I was peering into the distance, slowly being lured back into dreamland when I heard a loud “CRAAAAASSSSSSHH”.

The window beside Jo had shattered into a thousand pieces. The amazing thing was that EVERYONE in the bus got woken up by the loud crash… except for Jo.

I had to gently wake her up and tell her not to move about too much (not a big problem – just-woke-up-Jo has the mobility of a drunk garden slug) because of the loose glass shards that were all around her.

There were many theories as to what caused the window to break. The favourite one was that a loose stone on the road flew at the window, causing it to shatter. I think that is possibly the case too, but I also want to say that our heads tend to roll about a lot when we fall asleep on moving vehicles (A LOT)… but that’s all I have to say about that…

Anyway, we had to make a quick pit stop and through sheer Patagonian resilience and South American ingenuity, the driver and guide managed to sweep up all the glass shards and fix up the window….

Glass is for wimps. Here in Patagonia, they patch broken windows up with cardboard

Glass is for wimps. Here in Patagonia, they patch broken windows up with cardboard

So yeah… Out here on The Road, 80% of the time nothing happens during the journey. But when they happen, they do so with a CRASH.

Whales… from a boat

Word of warning… A phrase that is going to come up in this post is: “a mass orgy of whales”.

In Journalism 101, we were taught the axiom that “Sex Sells”, so let’s just see how many of you read on to the end… (although I am slowly coming to realize that whale sex was PROBABLY not the type of “sex” that sells)

So… as part of our tour package to the Peninsula Valdes, we were brought to Puerto Piramides, a seaside village that is about 1.5 hours drive away from Puerto Madryn, where we would board a boat to Golfo Nuevo for an “up close and personal” experience with the Southern Right Whales.

I think we both fell a little in love with Puerto Piramides once we arrived.

It’s an incredibly chill cliff-side little town by the sea where the locals take leisurely horse-rides by the sea, old ladies sit around tea pots catching up on the latest gossips and the village children run amok around visiting tourists.

All this against a backdrop of ridiculously blue waters and untamed scenery. Add in a dash of impossibly fresh sea breeze, and I think we are pretty close to my idea of heaven.

Locals taking COOL horse rides along the shoreline

Locals taking COOL horse rides along the shoreline

While waiting for our boat, we decided to take a walk along the beach.

The village of Puerto Piramides and its beach are protected by cliffs that resemble pyramids (and hence PIRAMIDES). The cool thing about these cliffs is that they are believed to have been the ocean floor millions of years ago. As the waters receded and the cliff was exposed to millennium of erosion, we could actually see the different layers within the cliff walls. The most amazing thing for me was to see the different eras of fossilized invertebrates (some supposedly dating back 9 million years) embedded like the rings in a tree trunk.

A WALL of fossilized oysters, baby!

A WALL of fossilized oysters, baby! They have so many of these, they don’t even bother putting them in a museum

And then, there were the dogs…

The dogs

The dogs

We saw these two fellows looking forlornly at the sea… of course, Jo had to go pet them (who cares about fleas, right?) and we spent the next hour or so running up and down the beach (it is THAT kind of place).

A girl and (not) her dog

A girl and (not) her dog

Ok… back to the boat and whale sex.

From the moment we boarded our boat, through our boat ride to the middle of the gulf, we saw whales. TONNES of them. We didn’t even need to look out for them. They swam alongside the boat, and every once in a while, we could see one of them doing a joyous flip in the distance. Golfo Nuevo is positively infested with Southern Right Whales.

First Sighting

First Sighting

Nope... not ONE shot of a whale leaping out of the waters

Nope… not ONE shot of a whale leaping out of the waters

You know how when you have too much of a good thing, you cease to marvel at how wonderful they are? It was kinda like that with us…

Until the boat came to a stop in the middle of the Gulf.

Without the sounds of the engine running in the background, the whales started to swim nearer and nearer to the boat.

Probably as close as it gets...

Probably as close as it gets…

P madryn whale as close as it gets

It was also during this period of calm that we came to truly appreciate what a unique position we were in. We were in the middle of the sea with these gentle giants swimming all around us. There were no sounds of modern living… only the splash of the water as they flip about in the sun, and the occasional geyser of water from their blowholes as they breathe… We felt figuratively and literally dwarfed by Nature.

Close enough to take shots like these...

Close enough to take shots like these… The Southern Right Whales’ heads account for one third of its body length and they are easily identified by the white coloured outgrowths of tough skin on their gigantic heads. The callosities formed are unique to each whale… kinda like fingerprints for humans

And then it occurred to me… the breathing from the whales seemed to be unusually hurried… Also… why were they congregating in such large numbers???

Turns out they were literally clusterfucking…

According to our guide, what we understood (because no entendemos mucho español) was that the Sothern Right Whales engage in group mating. Large groups of ten or more males would jostle for position alongside a female and take their turns mating with the female, so yes… what we were seeing was a mass orgy of whales… I never thought I would live to see the day…

Now that you have that mental image… check out this video I made…

Switzerland!

Actually… we’re still in Argentina.

But you can’t blame us for thinking otherwise.

To us, Bariloche will always be remembered as the Land of the Godly Meat. (Yup… I am aware that came out slightly wrong). But to many Argentinians, it’s the premier ski resort in the country. The town is situated at the foot of the majestic Andes and surrounded by the HUGE Lake Nahuel Huapi.

The buildings in town are primarily made from stone and wood. Along with the crisp mountain air and the sight of snow capped mountains in the background, we could almost hear yodeling in the distance.

The town hall.... yeah... a town with a Town Hall...

The town hall of San Carlos de Bariloche

Jo... taking a decent photo for once... only to be photo bombed by Drogo from Game of Thrones

Jo in the town square. She’s taking a decent photo for once… only to be photo bombed by Drogo from Game of Thrones

The townfolks certainly did their part to help perpetuate the “Swiss-ness” of the place.

Happy, shiny people walk around the town with snowboards and skis; touts with huge-ass adult and baby Saint Bernards (the dog, not the 11th Century monk) roam the town square; tourist trains ply the narrow alleys, and (very importantly) chocolate boutiques and breweries line both sides of the streets in the main drag of Bariloche (Av San Martin and Av Belgrano… of course)

Tourist Train in Bariloche

Tourist Train in Bariloche

What's better than chocolates? Chocolate IN Ice Cream

What’s better than chocolates? Oodles of Chocolate IN Chocolate Ice Cream

Yup, I think we could stay here for a little while longer…