My time in Chile was much too short for my liking, but I had good reason to be excited as I packed up my apartment and lugged my hefty backpack down to the street to catch my lift to the airport. The purpose of booking my trip in the first place beckoned me onward – it was time to head south, to the end of the world, to the start of my grand Antarctic adventure. Everything progressed smoothly at the airport and after a connection in Buenos Aires, I was on my way to Ushuaia, Argentina on a small domestic flight.
The scenery as we approached the small seaside community was breathtaking. Majestic, snow-capped mountains filled my view from the plane window, as they rolled down toward the inky water below. We landed on the runway in the middle of the man-made island which was connected to the mainland by a causeway. Our bags trundled out on the short carousel inside the quaint, chateau-style building, complete with bare wooden support beams and stone walls!
I was greeted in the entryway by a lovely staff member from the local tour office who was in charge of conveying me to my hotel for the night. Not only did she offer a warm welcome, but she also suggested a great way to spend my morning the next day while I was waiting for our embarkation time in the afternoon. I checked in to the Tierra del Fuego Hotel with a combination of my infinitesimally less-horrible Spanish and the clerk’s excellent English. Unfortunately, with the timing of my flight I missed the pre-expedition meeting being held that night, so I dropped my bags in the room and headed out to explore the town.
First port of call was the Rumbo Sur tour office to book my excursion to Tierra del Fuego national park the following morning – I made it with fifteen minutes to spare. My lovely guide on the ride over also suggested a great place for fresh seafood in town, El Vieho Marino, so with the help of my tourist map, I wandered down to the esplanade and found the small, burnt orange coloured frontage with a giant tank in the window full of king crabs. Talk about straight from the boat! I managed to order successfully in Spanish and enjoyed a DELICIOUS king crab, scallop, and prawn dish cooked in a rose marinade. The restaurant was wonderful for people watching, too, with the patrons a mix of locals and other tourists like myself, probably either coming or going from the numerous large ships I spotted anchored at the dock on my walk.
With a full belly and heavy eyelids, I hiked back up the steep streets to my hotel and discovered my roomie had returned from the meeting. Premshakti is a yogi at an ashram about an hour outside of Melbourne, Victoria and was also traveling solo, hence us being paired up for accommodation. She gave me the rundown on what I missed and we both had an early night in preparation for our departure the next day.
Once we munched down the Argentinian version of a continental breakfast, Prem and I parted ways as I headed out for my park visit. Despite it being the middle of summer, it was still quite chilly due to our latitude; that, paired with the ski-town feel of Ushuaia, and I was totally bemused. Adding to my entertainment, I soon gained a furry companion on my short walk to the Albatross Hotel to meet the tour bus. There were a number of dogs roaming the street and that particular pup wanted to make sure I made it safely – he even stopped and turned back periodically to make sure I was still following!
We drove out of town on a large tour bus and made our way west, toward the arbitrary border which divides the small chunk of Argentinian land on the tip of the peninsula from the neighbouring Chile. Once inside the Tierra del Fuego National Park, we disembarked and bought our tickets to ride the Tren del Fin del Mundo. It’s an amazing look back in time to when the area was first settled and the prisoners who inhabited the penal colony had to build the train tracks into the forest in order to cart the wood back out. To this day they still run some of the engines which were used back then! Not surprisingly, that meant we broke down about 2/3 of the way through the ride and had to be pushed to the station by another engine. All part of the charm. 🙂
The rest of the group met us train-goers at the station and we all carried on further into the park, to Lago Acigami. Talk about impressive! It was so huge and so windy, there were waves crashing on the beach to rival an ocean swell. We walked around the edge, back to a much calmer section of the same body of water, which had marshes on the shore and barely a ripple in sight – completely surreal. We spent time exploring the cultural centre museum in the building which overlooked the lake and I found the coolest wooden puzzles in the shape of penguins! There are some very happy little people in my life playing with those now.
The troops were rounded up after everyone was watered and educated, and we drove to a trail head deeper in the grounds. It was a bit of a hike to reach the lookout, but we were rewarded with amazing views out across the island-dotted water of the Beagle Channel and beyond. As far as the Argentinians are concerned, it truly is the end of the world. Just don’t ask the Chileans about their inhabited regions which are technically further south… Our guide led us down the trail, out onto the flats and their raised wooden walkways which jutted out closer to the water. The whole cove was breathtaking.
Early afternoon rolled around and with my embarkation time for the ship rapidly approaching, we made our way back along the winding road to cozy Ushuaia. With my previous culinary success based on local advice, I asked our guide for a lunch recommendation and was again rewarded with excellent food. If you ever go to Argentina and you eat meat, you must try the traditionally-prepared lamb and mint-based pesto! It makes me drool just reminiscing as I write this.
I meandered down to the wharf in the gorgeous, crisp sunshine and admired the view of the large vessels moored there from my perch along the waterfront. Three o’clock crept closer and my stomach became much more flighty than usual as I anticipated the crazy journey I was about to undertake. Would I get horribly seasick crossing the Drake Passage? Would I freeze my peripheries off once we got down there? Would I see any of the wildlife I hoped for? What would the expeditions be like? Little did I know, it would turn out to be the best two weeks of my life thus far.