Bragging Rights

Antartica… probably the most inaccessible continent of them all… the continent that most people did not get to go to. And after travelling 32 hours by bus to the Southern-most tip of South America, where we got to the closest point to the South Pole (the supposed Gateway to Antartica), we did not make it either.

Apparently, we were too early for the season for Antarctic expeditions.

Closed for the season

Closed for the season

Granted, Ushuaia is a damn magnificent destination – there are National Parks to explore, treks to hike, and glaciers to bloody your nose on. But it is still a bit of a bummer to travel so far to miss out on the bragging rights of having visited one more continent.

To me, this is glorious... couldn't get sick of this view

To me, this is glorious… couldn’t get sick of this view

(Probably) Because of complainers like us, the city of Ushuaia seemed to have gone out of their way to say that “this is good enough, you’ve reached the End of the Earth, being able to go to Antartica had always been a bonus”

There were endless signs everywhere saying that we were indeed at Fin del Mundo.

One of many many many many signs

One of many many many many signs

If that was not enough, they have specialized Fin del Mundo stamps for your passport if you visit the Tourist Office.

Our (by now) rather grimy passport

Our (by now) rather grimy passport

And even a certificate to prove for the last time already that YES! THESE PEOPLE HAVE GONE TO THE END OF THE WORLD! Just give them their bragging rights and stop asking about Antartica already!

Yes... they give out the certificates in a presentation "ceremony" style, complete with handshakes and a photographer (me)

Yes… they give out the certificates in a presentation “ceremony” style, complete with handshakes and a photographer (me)

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Seriously speaking, the Tourism Office at Ushuaia is an EXCELLENT resource to plan your travelling needs around the area. They have up-to-date tours/weather information, and of course, passport stamps and certificates.

The Tourism Office is located at the intersection of Juana Fadul y en el Puerto, and (yet another) Avenidad San Martin.

The End Of the Road….

Quite literally so...

Quite literally so…

The Pan-America Highway, Ruta No. 3 ended right in the middle of Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego –  which was where we found ourselves one VERY windy and rainy morning.

Before we continue, I feel I need to point out that Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego translates directly to “The Land of Fire National Park”. To be honest, we knew nothing about the National Park prior to our visit to Ushuaia (yes… SOMETIMES, we are THAT kinda tourists), but based on the uber cool name alone, we felt that the National Park would be worth a visit (That… and also because Tripadvisor had some nice things to say about the park..)

Did I mention that it was VERY windy and rainy?

Totally not a posed shot

Totally not a posed shot

The first thing we noticed about the park is that we were constantly buffeted by gale force winds. We were at the Southern most point of mainland America. There was nothing to shelter the National Park from the winds coming in from the sea. The winds were so strong that the rain drops that fell on us felt like needles poking at our skin.

Combine this with the almost barren landscape that is synonymous with Patagonia, and I guess they really weren’t joking when they talk about the harsh living conditions. 

"the wild, rain lashed beach of the inhospitable Patagonia"

Or as Darwin calls it… “the wild, rain lashed beach of the inhospitable Patagonia”

However, since this is a National Park, they actually made concessions for sissy tourists like ourselves. There were walking paths throughout the Park and numerous signboards/maps pointing us towards the “correct” direction to go…

Walking the tourist path

Walking the tourist path

Yet, despite the best efforts of the National Park, we still managed to find ourselves wandering on a deer path through the woods.

We are THAT good at getting lost.

Get Lost!

Get Lost!

I swear… at one point, we were bashing through a bunch of shrubbery because we’d run out of road.

But I guess it was because of us getting lost that we managed to see some things that were just off the beaten path.

Like these geese for example. Initially, we were quite amused to always see them in a black/white pair. It was only after we got back that we found out they were ruddy headed geese

Like these geese for example. Initially, we were quite amused to always see them in a black/white pair. It was only after we got back that we found out they were ruddy headed geese

But my favourite sight for the National Park is easily this dam.

ushuaia tierra del fuego beaver dam

It is supposed to be made by beavers that had stowed away on the early ships from North America to Patagonia. It just feels kinda surreal to find something that looks ALMOST man-made in the middle of the woods…and on top of that to discover it was actually made by the elusive beavers. (elusive because we didn’t see any of them)

It was definitely an interesting trek because the scenery changed so often. One minute we would be walking along a snowy river bank, and the next we would be bashing through a barren shrubbery field, and one minute after that we would be meandering through an eerie coniferous forest. The only things that were constant were the piercing Patagonian winds and the gorgeous Andes in the background.

ushuaia tierra del fuego shrub landOf course, after our adventures were done, we had that little issue of finding our way back to civilization. Being the great woodsman that I am, I elected to find our way out of the forest by using an ancient tracking method… following the sound of the motor vehicles.

Of course, given our luck, we found ourselves on the furthest end of the motorway.

The looooong way home

The looooong way home

The long AND very windy road home

The long AND very windy road home

Thinking back, it was actually a bit scary as we really could have gotten ourselves hopelessly lost. But at the end of the day, aside from our sore feet and some partially frozen appendages, we managed to get ourselves a new adventure under our belt.

So… Great Success!

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

Journeying to the end of the world… wearing a pair of slippers

One of the things about travelling long-term is that after a while, we noticed that we were slowly losing our senses.

The first sense to go was definitely whatever fashion sense we used to have. Initially, this was planned and kinda borne out of necessity. We agreed we should just pack one nice set of “going out” clothes because we didn’t want our pretty stuff ending up in dubious laundromats. But after a period of living out of a backpack, wearing colour-coordinated clothes started taking a backseat to finding something that does not have (too many inconveniently placed) holes in them. Also… we must’ve been quite deluded to think that we would actually go to laundromats.

Fortunately, at this point, the next senses to go were our sense of smell and any sense of shame.

This was essentially the state of mind we were in as we prepared to embark on the 32-hour-long journey from Puerto Madyn to Ushuaia (apparently pronounced ooh shoo ahhhhh ya)

So far removed, even Google don't know how to get there...

A journey so long that even Google doesn’t know how to get there…

We figured that since we were gonna be spending a lot of time on the bus, the smartest thing we could do for ourselves was to get as comfortable as possible. We happily packed our warm socks, boots and heavy winter-wear in the backpacks and stuffed those un-laundered packs of stink into the luggage compartment of the bus. We were gonna make ourselves super comfortable, sipping red wine on the toasty bus in our t-shirts, thin jackets and our bathroom-going flipflops, thank you very much.

We were actually pretty smug at first. We were watching the hostile Patagonian landscape pass us by outside. We were in one of those infamously comfortable Argentinian buses, happily watching Robocop 3 (in Spanish), playing yet another game of Bingo and having one too many glasses of red wine.

Probably some of the harshest living conditions around... if you were OUTSIDE

Probably some of the harshest living conditions around… if you were OUTSIDE the bus

I think we kinda forgot that we were journeying TOWARDS the city closest to the South Pole (or as it is known by its less dramatically foreboding nickname, Fin del Mundo – END OF THE WORLD!!!!!)… a journey that would see us go through three-buses-one-boat-transfers, as well as four-custom-post-crossings.

Yup, the first time we realized how stupid we were was when we had to get off the bus very early the next morning to change to another bus in Rio Gallegos… and then we were reminded again when we had to get off THAT bus to go through a veeery long custom check at the Argentinian border… this reminder went on for the entire day when we had to pass through the Chilean Checkpoint, another Chilean Checkpoint and then again through a final Argentinian Checkpoint. Somehow, Chile had (why not?) laid claim to a teeny strip of land on the road between Puerto Madryn to Ushuaia.

The proverbial (and pretty literal) icing on the cake was when we had to swap from the bus to a ferry ride across the Strait of Megallan.

Outside...

Outside…

Ever wonder what it is like to have sub-zero, wintery winds blowing against your very exposed appendages? I will be the first one to say… it doesn’t feel very good at all.

Not feeling the heat... literally

Not feeling the heat… literally

So was it worth it?

We got into Ushuaia around sunset, and I just snapped these shots with Jo’s Samsung phone…

ushuaia sunset lake 2

ushuaia sunset mountain range

ushuaia sunset lake

At that moment… Our trip was starting to look really good.

There was one other little problem…

We had a 2km walk to our hostel in the cold, dark wintery night… and we couldn’t get our boots out of the backpack.

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.