Sunday, February 19, 2006

Patagonia IX: Going to the edge - Ushuaia

On the ferry crossing Magellan's strait (our bus is the yellow roofed one)


With time on our hand, I, Maya and Barak left Puerto Natales toward the edge of the continent, to Ushuaia.

Puento Arenas chapters – One hunt, One weird cemetery and One thing that went wrong…
The following morning of our return from the Torres del Paine trek, we already boarded the bus for Puento Arenas, Chile. Our final destination – Ushuaia! And we were not the only one with this idea on mind that you can guess by yourself!
With us boarded the bus half of the hostel (including Aviran and Shiri), and soon we were on our way again, going further south. The weather was most of the ride grey and cloudy but once we came to Puento Arenas, after 3 hours, the weather got clearer.
Once we came down, many advertising people rushed for us, offering hostels with varying prices. With all the mess and hassle, we manage to retrieve our bags and stuff, and also check the different pricing. I was very agitated to go to an agency and purchase tickets to Ushuaia, as I knew it is gonna be very hard to find a place on the first bus to Ushuaia (not too many buses go to Ushuaia, in contrast to the amount of travelers that journey to that little town). One “PR” managed to convince us to see her hostel, and while we followed her to the nearby car, I told her we need to buy tickets to the following morning bus to Ushuaia. “No problem, I will arrange the tickets in the phone, we have places”. After I was sure she knew what she was talking about, we all climbed the car and soon the car drove through the brightly shined streets of Puento Arenas, made of mostly small and old buildings, similar to the nearby town Puerto Natales. Puento Arenas is more of a passing-by town than an attraction by itself: aside from a tour to see penguins and sea lion colonies, you can only walk around town or go and shop at the nearby “Tax-free” shopping area.
After dropping our stuff in the room and signing in, we ventured into the city, looking for things to see. On the way, we passed close to the bus company (Pacheco) that we understand from the hostel owner that they will make a reservation for us in that bus company. Curious, we went inside and asked about any reservations for us. And there, there started all the rush and commotion for the tickets to Ushuaia.
No, no one reserved seats for you, said the representative and we started to get worried. We asked if they have place for the morning bus and they said its full. Damn! We asked if there are more companies, and they said there are, but at this time of day it will be VERY hard to find a vacant seat, not to mention 3…We rushed to find a telephone to call the hostel and to verify that the lady called and there were no seats. The senora told us that we don’t have to worry and that once the office will be open they will do the reservation – turned out that there are several bus agencies that book places in this bus company in advance and that the hostel routinely reserve several places for their guests. Even so, we were not settled and after verifying the street name of that agency, we made our way back to the streets using the map we got from the hostel. Not that it was so easy. Turns out, that the street that we found in the yellow pages was a street that was cut in the middle by no other than the municipal cemetery…While crossing it, we could not stop and observe this different cemetery orientation – have you seen in your life a cemetery which is built up to 6 floor niches?? Well, that’s exactly what we saw over there! I thought about getting back there and do some serious “shoot-out” but I could not resist the temptation of shooting the people that tended the flowers on the “graves”, the ladders that the people use to climb up to the grave…Really amazing and so unordinary…
We kept on looking for the continuous of the street, and didn’t find it…While we pondered between ourselves, a very nice lady stopped by and asked us if she can help (she even talked a bit of English!). After explaining her what we were looking for, she immediately popped her cellular gadget and offered to make the call. We were so overwhelemed by her offer that we immidiatley refused, feeling uncomfortable that the lady will spend TIME and MONEY on our time, but she waved our uncomfort easily and continued with a nice smile, saying it is really nothing and while dialing, asked us where are we from and etc. WOW! We were all impressed and overwhelmed and while we chatted with her she reached the agency and they told her that they changed address (REALLY?!) and she explained us more or less how to get there. We parted from her with warm words, still surprised from the generous help. Finally we found the agency on the other side of the street and with mixed feeling of anticipation and anxiety we got in. I had a bad feeling about the whole thing and soon we all realized we have a problem.
No, there is no reservation under your names, and No, we don’t have three vacant seats or even one for tomorrow morning bus to Ushuaia. Damn!
We got out of the agency, totally hopeless, as it dawned on us that we will have to waste another day in the town (which we didn’t want to stay in) only because we trusted a word of a foreigner…While walking back to the hostel and my fury was getting slightly out of control, I told Maya and Barak that Next time it wont happen. Oh, yes, NEXT TIME IT WON’T HAPPEN!
Coming back to the hostel after criss crossing the whole god damn city, we were both tired, disappointed and even felt like we were deliberately been fooled. Even though I did my best to keep my temper on a tight leash, it managed to slip and with my fumbaling Spanish I just felt that I am gonna explode. The lady of course explained us that they usually have reserved seats but the agency sold them out to other hostels and left them empty handed. At a certain point, she said she don’t want any trouble, and if we are not happy we can leave. We were all tempted to do so, but our logic told us that that wont get us to Usuaia. We had to find a solution! While we were sitting in their simple decorated living room, the lady and the PR girl tried to think about solutions: a car that will take us to another town and maybe take another taxi across the straight of Magellan to take another taxi…or to take a flight to Ushuaia, which was possible for a nominal fee of 150 USD…Desperate and tired of all this commotion, we realized we don’t have any choice but to spend another day in Punto Arenas…How bad THAT could be?? Maya and Barak wanted to exchange money and the two ladies offered us a ride to town, to a place we can exchange money with good currencies (I guess they felt quite bad about the whole incidence). We were surprised to see that the exchange booth was actually in the same office as one of the bus companies that also shuttle to Ushuaia. While Maya and Barak waited for their turn in the line, I met an Israeli that just bought a ticket for Puerto Natales and asked me several questions about hostelling there. On his way out he told me about a good Israeli place in Ushuaia called Violate de la Montana and he recommended it with warm words. The name dispersed into my mind, thinking that I have had enough of Israeli joints, good or bad. Without noticing, the two ladies were working their magic with the representative of the bus agency, and when Maya and Barak were ready, they told us that they might arrange for us a bus to the next morning. REALLY?!? I tried to control my joy, as I knew better than to lift my anticipation.
Amazingly, after 5 minutes they told us that we have it! YES!! They did it! We all embraced in the agency to the astonished gazes of the standing byers and we paid appropriately to hold the precious tickets! Ha, our spirit was so lifted and the ladies invited us to join them for “shopping” in the tax free mall, but as Maya was looking for a new book, we said we will look in town for book stores. While walking in the city we wondered to the center and modern part of the city, and even though we didn’t find any real book store that we could find an English paperback, we did see the city a bit, and also tried to book ourselves a place in Ushuaia. I still had a card of the “Antartica” hostel that Lee so recommended me, and after doing the call I realized the place was expensive and packed to the roof. We decided that we gonna find our places once we hit Ushuaia. The weather turned grey and we decided to try out the tax free zone, and with a taxi we got there in a five minutes ride. Rain started flowing down and we took shelter in one of the low level hanger size malls. Looking around we quickly realized that books is not exactly the main merchandise sold here and quickly we decided to get back to the hostel and prepare a meal. We bought some groceries in a supermarket (which had the stock but not the variety) and then took a taxi back to down town. Getting back to the hostel, Maya prepared her super Spaghetti with mixed sauce (and wine!) on the old but well kept stove. We were so tired from all that running that we went to sleep instantly…

The ride to the end of the world
When we came to the bus company’s office, we were not surprised to see Aviran, Shiri and the rest of the Israeli that were also heading toward Ushuaia. Some of them are a complete disgrace, some are lovely human beings. A bit after 8 am the bus departed and started its long journey, around 11 hours of ride, toward the island of Tierra del Fuego, The Land of Fire.
Beside me sat an adult of about 50 (if not more) and tried to start a conversation in Spanish, but to his surprise (I guess) I was not in a mood to talk, but rather to listen to music and being absorbed with the amazing scenery on that journey. I returned his answers with distinct impatience and he got the message and sank into his own thoughts. Don’t think that I felt good with this, I might have been more patient with him or at least, more subtle with the way I told him that. And the way was just splendid! The weather was clear with deep blue skies and distant overcastted clouds and close drifting isolated clouds that made the skies even more interesting. The Magellan’s scenery is quite similar to the Patagonian scenery, with flat or low-hill vast space with numerous little lakes and streams dotting it everywhere. After an hour we came to a stop in front of the Magellan’s strait crossing. As I boarded the bus I noticed several low buildings on both sides of the road, a wide space of water in front and that’s it. The Straits of Magellan’s. Here was the place where so many seamen lost their lives trying to find an alternative path to the far east and to the new Island that was rumored to lie east of China, The islands of Japan. Getting closer to waterfront, the road declined subtly toward the cold waters and sunk under them. This was Punta delgade, the main crossing place where ferries come and pick up trucks, private cars and busses that continue into the Tierra del Fuego, both for Chilean and Argentinean parts (or the other way around). And this was also the only land path that lead to Ushuaia.
Taking the camera with me and strolling around, I found this part a windswept place, with deep blue skies spiced up with fresh and cold air that felt like it was pure. It felt like the end of the world, no doubt about that.
The ferry came after 20 minutes and we went to the upper deck to enjoy the crossing and also the freezing wind and sight of seals playing with the ferry pass. It didn’t take more than 10 minutes for everyone to either squeeze into the captain’s cabin or to get down to the lower deck, which was a narrow enclosed sitting place which the Israelis turned it into a cacophonic hell, boasting that they filmed penguins in the area they were not suppose to walk on.
We boarded the bus once the ferry got close to shore, and no sooner than five minutes later, we were already zooming through Fuegian land, not too different from it’s neighboring lands of Patagonia and Magellan’s. Close to a little town named Cerro Sombrero (The Hat Mountain) the adult guy boarded down and started walking toward the green hills of the land, toward his home. I got sleepy numerous times on this drive and once Barak woke me up only for me to capture out of my sleep a Chilean Gaucho leads his sheep herd with his two loyal dogs. Was really cool.
The crossing into Argentina was consisting of a long wait for the Chilean to accept our bus and then followed a short crossing into Argentina. Ha, we were so glad to be back in Argentina! Suddenly everything is one-third in price and twice better! The ride in the Argentinean side was scenic and ever more diverse, with lakes, streams, the Atlantic ocean and forests of dead trees mingled with live one. It was a stunning ride, which kept us stick to the windows and only then I gripped that Ushuaia, whatever it has to offer, is only the start of this amazing piece of land, which was wild and rich with vegetation and wild mountain ranges. Finally, after almost 12 hours we came to Ushuaia, with mid afternoon light (at 7:30 PM!) and we saw the magnificent Beagle Channel, dotted with cargo freights and luxurious Antarctica liners and the distant mountains of Island Navarino. The bus soon was entering the southernmost city in the world, and stopped near a gas station. We were approached, as usual, by representatives but this time we were not taken too easily. First, we wanted to find the tourist information and hear what they have to say, and only THEN we will check other possibilities. It took us no time to find it, with all our stuff, and were surprised to find there a Hebrew-speaking Argentinean, a lovely girl that accidentally knows the Israeli place, Violleta de la Montana and gave us the phone number (though she should have done that according to the rules of the “house”). We called and found a place for us and it was the cheapest we heard of! Great! We took our stuff and walked some 7 blocks and up a long staircase till we finally reached the house, which was indeed full of Israelis, but also many foreigners. At first we got a room with another two guys but after talking with the very nice Seniora, she arranged us a cozier room to the next day. We were so thrilled to finally come to this amazing place, a place that Lee had so many good things to say about it, and also celebrated her birthday here (and what a place to celebrate!!). You wait and see…

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