Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Patagonia X: Chronicles from the tip of South America


My time in Ushuaia was a time of exhilarating decisions, experiences and vistas: from the easy-going trail along Ensenada bay, through the golden sunrise over Ushuaia bay to the windswept peak of Cerro Guanaco that overlooks the Beagle Channel. Or, as one local restaurant promoted on a napkin: “Enjoy yourself, it’s the end of the world.”

Ok, I am here but how the hell I am getting outa’ here in the next month!?
I think that the biggest joke one can tell about Ushuaia at peak season is the ironic phenomenon that the first thing a new comer do after he dumps his stuff in the hostel’s room is to look for a flight ticket out of Ushuaia. Yeah, it is crowded, highly touristy and damn, all flights till the end of February are fully booked!
Some of you folks already know that I am no laid-back boy, and the morning following our arrival I already woke up early and ventured down to the town’s front, the sun just picked up speed and was in the first quarter of the sky, illuminating little Ushuaia with a warm and strong morning light. The sign of “USHUAIA, end of the world, beginning of everything” was welcoming as I walked along the front waterline, examining the merchant’s freights that docked at harbor, the water of the Beagle channel glistening in the morning light. The air was fresh.
When I returned to Violleta de la Montana, Barak and Maya just woke up and together we ventured into town looking for a reading book for Maya, and eventually buying one for her and one for me (Shogun, by James Clavell). We also went through the Tourist Information and stamped our passport with the famous “End of the World” passport stamp and to arrange myself a ticket out of town…well, I knew it would be difficult, I just didn’t know to what extent.
I didn’t even thought about taking a plane out of Ushuaia, so while Barak and Maya checked the Argentinean airline, I went to the other side of the street and went inside a travel agency to check land transportation options. While I was waiting in line something like 20 minutes, two Israeli girls were just closing a ticket direct to Buenos Aires on the 12th (it was the 5th), telling me the bus has only one seat left and that I can book it for me. Optimistically, I finally sat down to talk with the representative, only to grip that there was such an option only on the 13th as this was a three-section ride and one section was fully booked for the 12th.
I had to take a bus to Rio Grande and there switch to another bus to Rio Gallegos from company A. From Rio Gallegos I would take a direct bus of Andesmar which will stop at town on the way and the seats will be changed and continue all the way to Buenos Aires. Even though it was a week ahead and it cost even more than a flight (!), I booked and paid over 100 USD…Unbelievable, and even more than that, what happened later…
Meeting Barak and Maya I was told from them that the line is long and tiring, and chances of changing their flight ticket to an earlier date (before the 10th) are slim. Well, I had a 48 hours of non-stop ride to Buenos Aires!
Setting aside transportations problems, we focused on the local attractions. We planned on visiting the penguin Island (nicked fondly “Penguinera”) and the near national park which I heard so much from Lee way back when we were walking in the alleys of Cusco (remember those days?!). The weather in Ushaia is quite crazy, with sunny day in the morning and a rainy afternoon sweeping well into the start of “evening” (which is still regarded by me as daylight). Darkness sets in only around 10 PM, and even then you can see strong stray of light from west that still linger way beyond midnight…end of the world or what?!

Cruising The Beagle Channel
As time was on our side, we didn’t have a problem chilling out in the hostel on our third day in Ushuaia (6th) planning on Saturday as penguin day.
Turns out, that Saturday was also a grey day, but as we had additional plans, we decided it is better to see penguins in grey/rainy weather than to get wet in the park (a decision which turned out to be quite a wise one). In the morning we checked the different tours that were offered and decided to go for the standard tour that included not only the penguin Island but also the famous light tower and the seal islands.
We went back to the hostel to prepare lunch and even though we took some extra time into our plans, we were back at the docks exactly on time after walking quite fast to get on time…
Our cruise company utilized a fancy Catamaran lined up with the rest of the tourist boats of other companies. The skies were overcastted and uninviting, and it immediately reminded me of the tour to Bellastas Island in Southern Peru (see September chapters). Even so, I got into the Catamaran with Barak and Maya hoping for the best.
Inside, luxury was bouncing from every centimeter – wall-to-wall deep blue soft carpets, several Plasma screens on the walls showed the highlights of the cruise, hi fidelity sound system, deep cushioned face-to-face benches with appropriate tables, and splendid view out of the panoramic windows. The benches were already half occupied by many tourists, and I could imagine the commotion at the sights of attraction, when everyone will move forward for the photo-op.
As we sat there and talked a bit, we suddenly saw through the windows no other than Aviran and Shay walking down the pier past our cruise ship – will they come to this ship? We asked, and looking back toward the wide entrance to the saloon, we saw them enter, looking around to get their bearings. We waved to them and they smiled back and sat beside us, asking in sarcasm why we always chase them to all the places…Turned out that they split from the rest of the Israeli gang and found a nice place to sleep in. Short time after that, the ship left her dock and headed westward toward the opening gap of the Beagle Channel. The channel was calm and the boat gathered her 32 knots with ease. As I have the urge to shoot everything of interest, I poped out my SLR and went outside to the freezing wind, taking pictures of the busy port and of Ushuaia lying under the cloudy grey umbrella. I stayed there no more than couple of minutes before descending down, half frozen.
Our first destination was the Cormorant and Seal colony on top a couple of small Islands. As I already visited Bellastas Island, this part was less impressive for me, as I saw more than enough Cormorants and Seals there. It was in any case quite interesting and I snapped several shots, just for the sake of it. We continued with the cruise to the famous lighthouse, the Faro les Eclairenrs, which is situated at the middle of the channel on a football-field-size rocky Island. The ship half circled the Island and then continued on west, toward Penguinera Island. After two hours we finally approached the Island, coming from it’s southern-western part and heading toward it’s southern beach. On top the wind and the chill, everyone got out of the heated spoiling saloon to the front deck, as the Catamaran headed with idle engine toward the beach, numerous Penguins walk here and there, some watch the ship while others continue with their daily routine. Surprisingly, the Catamaran beached the Island with its front fuselage, while all the Penguins start to play and walk around the ship.
That was indeed, a unique experience, seeing such cute creatures, with their playful ecstasy walking and looking at the weird creatures that came from the sea with speed and will go back again in 10 minutes. Many swam in the water beside the ship and the commotion on the beach was big. Deeper into the exposed Island you could see the Penguins commune together and in some way it reminded me of our race, that some are indifferent to new visitors, and some dare and play with the unknown.
After ten minutes the vessel backed up toward the channel and everyone went back into the saloon to warm up with a cup of coffee/tea. On our long way back (some 3 hours of direct course back to Ushuaia) we saw a sail boat that was on it’s way to Antarctica but most of the time we were more involved in conversation, similar to most people on the boat.
Getting back to Ushuauia, we parted from Aviran and Shiri, and headed back to the hostel for some home made Ravioli we purchased from a little take-away restaurant. It didn’t take too much time for us to fall asleep afterwards.

Bahia Ensenada – blue as blue can get!
The morning of the 8th of January was very beautiful, with clear skies, which were perfect for a “walk in the park”, as one can say…We made some phone calls to hostels in Buenos Aires in order to reserve places for Barak and Maya that were expected to land on the 11th of January in the capital. Finishing this, we quickly arranged ourselves and left to the main street to catch the micro to the park. Fifteen minutes later, we entered the park’s perimeter and were dropped off at a junction that leads toward Bahia Ensenada.
The air was crisp and we were in good spirits as we walked down to the trail head at the little bay, which it’s waters were tranquil and partially reflected the wild blue skies on it’s surface. We could see the distant wild mountains on Island de Navarino, Chile, and not too many people were around. The perfect day!
We started walking along the path, that introduced us from the start into part of the forest, thick with bushes and old trees, all green and fresh. Alas, five minutes into the trail and I felt my lower intestines crying in a diarrhea alarm fashion and I gripped immediately that the pasta I ate last night must have been too loaded with oil…Stopping and searching my backpack I immediately gripped that I was “truly lucky” to forget my toilet paper in the hostel. Crap (up to your throat!)!
I stopped Maya and Barak and explained my, ha, delicate situation (somehow I always have those anal problems…). Lucky for me, Maya popped up a half roll of toilet paper, and before she knew it, I was already running like a madman into the bush, feeling that in any split second the truck will unload it’s cargo (and, damn, it was a close one!).
Soon we were on the move again, passing by quiet pieces of heaven, with no one around, but the blue sky and the wild mountain in the background. The tranquil waters splashed tenderly on shore and the behind us everything was green and lush.
At a certain point, I got occupied with my photo taking agenda, and suddenly I noticed that I was alone on the path. Barak? Maya? Silence…Well, I guessed they continued on forward, but as I walked briskly and still didn’t see them, I suddenly started to think that maybe they actually went back to look for me, missing me and that they are actually behind me…What should I do? My inner logic told me to continue to the end of the trail and wait for them there. But, as time passed and I gained the distance through the thick forest, going up and down, I still was not sure about that…Where are they? I started to ask people but no one saw any of the mention characteristics, not does that passed me on my direction and not those that came on the other direction. I decided to stop and wait something like half an hour and see what happens, but except for getting more anxious, nothing changed. Finally I decided to continue on, hoping that nothing serious happened to them and that they will look for me at the end of the trail. I left a note on one of the trail posts in Hebrew, hoping that it won’t fly away, and that it would tell Barak and Maya where I am if they were walking behind me. As I was continuing on forward, I saw two Americans walking in the opposite direction and asked them if they saw a couple with the appropriate characteristics of the their clothing and appearance. Surprisingly, they told me they indeed saw a couple sitting near a little bay some 10 minutes walk from where we were. After I doubled checked it with them, I asked them to take the note I left on the post and throw it away. They happily agreed and I thanked them. Optimistic, I went continuing plowing forward till I indeed saw Maya and Barak soaking up the sun near the shellfish rich sunny beach in front of wild windswept mountains scenery.
Barak greeted me, telling me something about how easy it is to bounce the rocks on the water surface, but I felt something was wrong and the tension in the air. Maya didn’t talk. Talking with them, and specifically with Maya, I felt that something was wrong but on the other hand, I felt that something is still wrong. Mistakenly, I thought it was because of me and our separation event, and as a consequence, I got into an argument with Maya, feeling that she is not honest with me and at the end, we continued on, I am fuming with myself and putting high pace and opening a gap so I would be alone. At the end I had nothing to do with the tension that I felt at that time.
I waited for them at the end of the trail and after clarifying ourselves, things got back to what they were and we caught a micro back to town. It was already late, and the hunger started to annoy us.

Wild sunrise and Martial Glacier
As an enthusiastic photographer, I decided that I have to take a picture of the sunrise at the end of the world – it's gotta be something special! And damn, it was!
I will remind you, folks, that unlike the northern hemisphere, at that time the night period was the shortest, and the sun rose already at 5 am (!). So, when the buzzer went on on the morning of the 9th , I woke up and rearranged to the upcoming series of sunrise shots while Maya and Barak were in deep-deep sleep. I took my camera, and went outside to the bloody cold morning.
The sight was mesmerizing – a glow of yellowish-golden penetrated between the low hanging clouds over the Beagle Channel and spread a golden cast over the quiet waters of the channel and the harboring yachts. I sped to find a good location to catch that amazing moment before the sun will completely be hidden behind the clouds. After I "took the shot", I strolled down to the main way that ran along the waterline, amazed by the beauty of this golden moment (literally). I was quite alone, except for a woman that strolled also and watched the seagulls squeaking and the seals playing with the nearby stream flow. It was so peaceful and quiet that I felt for a moment that I am died and went to heaven…amazing place!
When I came back to the hostel, it was only close to 6 am, so the place was still dead quiet. I took the opportunity to arrange myself (cup of coffee, internet) and also have a modest breakfast with Gizeralda, the cutest tourist information girl I have met yet…she speaks Hebrew quite fluently, to your amazment (and my own) and she knows the Israeli quite well as the owners are good friends of hers (and still, don’t forget Ushuaia is a small place, everyone knows everybody).
While I was talking with Gizeralda, Barak and Maya woke up and prepared themselves some breakfast and we hurried to catch a taxi that will take us to the Martial Glacier.
Time was running out on Maya and Barak, so with little time left (2 days or so), we decided that we gonna visit the not-too-spectacular Martial Glacier, located several km north of Ushuaia. After seeing the great Perito Moreno, no glacier on the continent can really get near in shear magnitude so we were not expecting something amazing, and gone out more for the fun of getting out and do something with ourselves (how much times you think you can cross down town Ushuaia and not get bored??).
To get to the glacier you can either walk all the way up from the park entrance or take a cable car that saves some time and effort and from that ending point, continue on foot all the way to the glacier…
We took the cable car, of course…There is something scary about open cable cars, I am telling you but also exciting – on the one hand you are hanging on a strip of a steel some 15 meters above the ground, with only a bar that really hold you in the seat (and you better not let anything drop out of your hand!). The exciting thing is the fact that you feel like a bird, half floating in the air, the air blowing all around you and everything looks so CLOSE…!
After reaching the higher point with the cable car (where a little cabin served hot beverages and food – we will return to that) we started the walk toward the glacier, which was out of sight. The walk/climb was quite straightforward even though required some fitness, depending how much time you have to reach the goal…We puffed quite good, but at the end we saw some spectacular view of Ushuaia from a point close to the glacier itself. The valley that the taxi and then the cable car took us through framed Ushuaia and the Beagle channel, and the overcastted clouds dispersed a little to give some really nice sunshine…we enjoyed that beautiful sight for ten minutes, and then quickly went down back toward the cabin. Good thing we moved fast, as rain started pouring down and soon everyone were covered with GoreTex coats. Half soaking wet we entered the warm and stuffed cabin to find a place near the windows, having some nice tea. The weather cleared and we continued on taking a taxi back to town and looking around in Ushuaia (again?!) helping Maya find an interesting book for the rest of their journey. We stopped for a cup of coffee and a cake only to get later stuck under a pergola of a chocolate store for ten freezing minutes as a massive downpour struck Ushuaia that lasted for couple of hours…Later, when Barak and me went to fetch some dinner we saw that the peaks around Ushuaia were covered with snow (!) that lasted several days after Maya and Barak left for Buenos Aires…
The next day I parted from Barak and Maya that boarded a flight to Buenos Aires that night and we were suppose to meet again in couple of days ahead…My eyes were now set on the modest peak of Cerro Guanaco...

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