I knew that Argentina is big. I saw it in the map and I read about it while planning my travel. But until I was there, I didn’t realize what it means. Argentina is huge! It is the eight largest country in the world. If one were to go by bus from Buenos Aires to the Tierra del Fuego archipelago, Argentina’s southernmost tip, it would take three to four days. Full of curiosity and lured by the appeal that Tierra del Fuego always had for me, the paradox of a very remote land shaped by water, wind and ice and called the Land of Fire, I chose the easy way and flew to Ushuaia. The initial scenes and the haunting music of Solanas’ film, el Viaje (The Journey) were playing in the back of my mind
Ushuaia, capital of the Argentinean Tierra del Fuego, is the southernmost town in the world. It grew from 20,000 to 100,000 inhabitants in twenty years and became touristy in the process, but it is still somehow fascinating thanks to its history of prisoners, gold-diggers and missionaries, its location between the mountains and the Beagle Channel and some unforgettable Technicolor sunsets.
One day later, in a change of weather typical of these latitudes, I was hiking in the beautiful Tierra del Fuego National Park under a blissful sun. While taking in the expanses of space and water I could almost imagine the now nearly extinct indigenous populations –Yaghan and Selk’nam – roaming these forests that they once called home. They were nomads who traveled around the archipelago in their canoes, lighting fires to dry themselves and keep warm. These are the fires -fuegos in Spanish- that the Portuguese Magellan saw while exploring the region in 1520 and that gave it its name, Tierra del Fuego.
After a few days in Ushuaia, inspired by the sea travels of Magellan, I took a short boat ride and went further south, to a remote outpost in the Navarino Island in Chile: Puerto Williams. If Ushuaia is the southernmost town in the world, then Puerto Williams is its southernmost settlement. It is a base of the Chilean navy built around a few houses and a handful of streets, looking how I imagine Ushuaia did when it was a small village, many years ago. I liked its remoteness and its authentic atmosphere of end of the world. If one keeps going South, he will run into the fabled Cape Horn, nemesis of every sailor since centuries, and then is nothing but ice-cold ocean all the way until Antarctica.
In Puerto Williams I did a short but scenic trek up Cerro Bandera, where I tried to keep up with the vigorous pace of a nice couple of French alpinists. Later I visited a settlement called Villa Ukika where the last descendants of the indigenous Yaghan live. While there, a group of three men and a woman invited me to chat with them. I was happy of the invite, but my heart sank realizing how they live in a ghetto and the community is plagued by alcoholism.
After hovering so South as to almost physically feel the presence of Antarctica, it was time to head North again. Following the trails of two other to famous visitors to this archipelago, sea-captain FitzRoy and Charles Darwin who traveled here together on the Beagle, I embarked in a two-day boat trip in a little cargo boat going to Punta Arenas, in Chilean Patagonia
While the accommodation was no-frills, the good food, like the hearty soup cazuela, the warmth of the Chilean crew, the good company and the landscape made the trip memorable and very worthwhile. We sailed the Beagle channel passing through the so-called Avenue of the Glaciers, surrounded by the Cordillera Darwin’s fjords and their imposing glaciers.
I did not warm up to Punta Arenas, part of the Chilean Magallanes & Antarctica region, quite prosperous once upon a time thanks to the wool trade and today thanks to the oil and petrochemical industry. Someone once said you have to stay in a place until something good happens to you there. Faithful to this philosophy, I spent a couple of days in Punta Arenas. One night, while I was sitting in a posh if a bit out-of-fashion bar, a gentleman bartender invited me to the kitchen to show me how he does the famous pisco sour cocktail and then offered it to me. Pisco liquor, lemon juice, a bit of eggs’ white, impalpable sugar. Then shake, shake, shake: delicious! Now I was ready to continue my travels.
A toast to you and stay tuned! On the next post, Chilean Patagonia and its breathtaking parks appear on the horizon…