The road to Ushuaia
Since arriving in Patagonia I’d been listening to travelers’ tales from people who had done a lot more planning than I had:
“There are glaciers to the south.”
“There are mountains you should hike farther south.”
“There’s a city at the end of the world.”
“Ooh,” I said. “That last one sounds capital-R Romantic. What’s down there?”
“Well, there’s an old prison, and it’s where all the Antarctic expeditions sail from. But mostly it’s just The End.”
Having walked the glaciers and hiked the mountains, I boarded a final bus to the tip of South America. I wasn’t sure what I hoped to find there- inner peace? Revelation? A pub where the bartender shares the secrets of life if you tip him well? The way forward?
After over fifty-four hours on buses through upper Patagonia, another eighteen hours hardly seemed daunting. I doubt I’ll ever pass this way again, and it would be a shame to come all this distance and not see the End of the World.
I’m confident none of my ancestors have ever come this way before- it has the feel of a pilgrimage. Between bus-naps I supposed other travelers must feel a similar calling. I had a globe as a kid and always instinctively picked out the highest mountains, the furthest points. Back then I’d wanted to be a cartographer- I never thought I’d walk those lands in person.
I crossed the Strait of Magellan to Tierra del Fuego via ferry. During the windy crossing I met another American- an Alaskan. He’d been traveling more or less non-stop for six years while managing his forestry company via his laptop and visiting over seventy countries. There were no spring breakers or honeymooners or folks out for a week’s holiday. The End of the Earth is kind of out of the way for casual travel.
I woke from another bus-nap to a surprise: the arid plains had been replaced by a sparse forest from a hallucinogenic dream. Dead trees, white and leafless like gnarled skeletons, grasped for an overcast sun in a dull periwinkle sky. Pale green lichen hung on their branches like sick parodies of leaves. “Some real Tim-Burton woods,” remarked the Alaskan. I nodded, and felt oddly satisfied. It would’ve been disappointing if the End of the World looked the same as the rest.(( To any readers of Robert Jordan- it totally felt like I was entering the Blight.))
I fell asleep again, and again awoke in a completely different biome. The bus was lurching along mountain switchbacks hundreds of meters above a river. I observed the grey silhouettes of snow-covered crags against the dusky sky and checked Google Maps to make sure I hadn’t slept through my stop and been transported to another world beyond.
The city and its denizens
I’d heard rumors that the town kind of sucked, but Ushuaia’s not actually bad. It’s unquestionably dreary, so the local tourism board really hammers the “End of the World” message at every opportunity.
There are three things to do in Ushuaia: visit the national park, take a boat trip around the islands, and go to prison.((Cerro Castor, the world’s southern most ski mountain is also nearby, but it hadn’t received much snow at all this year, and the local consensus was that it wouldn’t be worth visiting.))
I stayed at the Antarctica Hostel, where Garret is the night-shift bartender. A native of Cape Town, South Africa, he’s traded the tip of one continent for another and now lives here with his girlfriend and daughter.
There were a lot of travelers compared to rest of Patagonia in winter. Garret said it’s because anyone who travels all of South America makes either a start or an end in Ushuaia. It’s not a place many people just pass through. Except me.
After the majesty of El Chalten, this was merely a beautiful national park, and my companions and I spoke nonchalantly of all sorts of things as we traipsed through the pristine austral wilds:
– Cannibalism, specifically who to eat first if we run out of sandwiches
– Argentine trade policy
– Etymology of swamps, bogs (peat and otherwise,) fens, turbals, marshes (an alien word to my Alaskan friend,) and “muskags” as they’re called in Alaskanada.
The prison at the end of the world
“El presidio del fin del mundo” reminded me very much of Ellis Island since they were both built in same era. But whereas Ellis was the gateway to new lands and lives, this prison was a terminus.
I’ve toured prisons before, but as a traveler I’ve come to deeply cherish freedom of movement. The thought of confinement to a cell for years (or a lifetime!) is horrible. I’d prefer death, and some of the condemned agreed. One poster told of an outlaw who’d always vowed never to go to Ushuaia- “the evil land” he’d called it. When he was being loaded onto the south-bound prison ship in irons, he walked off the side of the gang-plank. Ironically, the weight of his irons gave him final freedom- they pulled him to the bottom and drowned him before he could be recaptured.
All of the cells had small windows to the outside, and one of them offered a glimpse of the mountains. I tried positioning myself close to the wall so I could see the sky, too, as I’m sure the cell’s inhabitant must have done. Prisoners did get to go outside, though. They were used for hard labor, in particular the construction of the town’s railroad (which now features a cheerful steam locomotive that tourists can ride.)
I walked through an unrestored cell block. Even in springtime the cold seeped in. Furnaces were placed at intervals in the hall, but I doubt the prisoners were ever truly warm here. The floorboards creaked and the wind whistled through broken windows. I turned back before the revenants of dead prisoners could mess with me.
I left that wing of the prison and reached the center- where the museum had constructed a gift shop and bar, but no one seemed to feel like drinking in a prison before 8pm.
The next wing of the prison featured a penguin museum! The warden’s office had been converted into a massive diorama with a dozen species of taxidermy penguins. Photos on the wall described their taxonomy, and local artists had carved life-sized wooden replicas of the creatures and painted them playful colors. Videos showed penguins waddling adorably and swimming gracefully while a narrator described various cool penguin facts. It was a nice break from the cruel reminders of man’s inhumanity in the other wing.
The next wing was a local artist’s gallery featuring lots of Disney themed work, and a bit of Metallica (because at this point, I’m not even going to guess what the gallery curator had in mind). The cells had been painted a clean white, and bright lighting had been installed to showcase the art. An image of Minnie Mouse had been created out of the sentence “If you dream it, it can come true!” written hundreds of times in various sizes and colors. In another gallery this might’ve seemed cute, but here I imagined insane prisoners scratching the words with their fingernails until every surface of their cell was covered.
I boarded a twelve-passenger cabin cruiser to tour the Beagle Channel (so named for Darwin’s expedition). I was the sole non-Argentinian. We left from a dock filled with shipping containers, freighters, and murals condemning the “British pirates” and their interference with the nearby Maldives. Reagan never understood what the big deal was over “those icy little rocks”, but the Falklands War is still a very sore point here.
Tierra del Fuego (“Land of Fire”) is a confusing name for such a cold, windswept archipelago. Unlike other indigenous peoples at this latitude (who wore seal skins and furs for warmth), the Yaghan wore little more than loincloths and relied instead on ubiquitous beach fires to keep them warm. By all accounts the beach fires were numerous enough to give the land its name. But European contact proved even more devastating than usual. Attempts to “civilize” the “rachitic, bad built, non-aesthetic” natives with clothes and houses backfired, as both dirty clothing and habitations fostered disease. Today only a single full-blooded, native speaking Yaghan yet lives. She is now an old woman who lives in a small island village where she receives the occasional anthropologist or linguist.((http://www.nytimes.com/2004/02/29/magazine/say-no-more.html))
I set foot on the island and showed some of the kids traveling with us how to skip rocks more effectively. I then walked along the beach until I found a gap in the steep cliffs leading inland. From the grassy plateau I looked south across the sea toward Antarctica and contemplated a detour. But the first expeditions wouldn’t be leaving for several weeks yet, and I figured it’s okay to leave some horizons unseen. It is said that Alexander, seeing the breadth of his domain, wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer. I don’t want to end up like poor Alexander.((Actually apocryphal, dating from 17th century. Actual source was Plutarch claiming that Alexander wept upon learning that there were actually infinite worlds when he had yet to conquer even one.))
I found a convenient rope staked to the top of the cliffs and rapelled down to the boat. We made for Isla de los Pajaros, where I was super excited to see some real penguins! We arrived to find hundreds of the white and black birds flying overhead. Last I’d checked in the prison/penguin museum, though, penguins are flightless birds. I was actually in the presence of a colony of cormorants, which are also cool, I guess.
Our boat proceeded to Isla de los Lobos, a small rocky island home to scores of sea lions. Sea lions are the most hilarious sounding creatures in nature- they sound like God misplaced their .wav file at the moment of creation and was forced to dub it Himself. They sound like parodies of themselves, kind of as if you asked drunk guy to do an impression of an extremely drunk guy: WWWWGGGGGaaaaaaaaaayyyhhhh!
Beyond Isla de los Lobos is the “lighthouse at the end of the world”. Back before the Panama Canal, much of the world’s shipping passed through these waters (“rounding the Horn”, they called it!) As such, pirates followed, inspiring Jules Verne’s Lighthouse at the End of the World. Disappointingly, Wikipedia informed me that Verne was actually thinking of a different lighthouse at the other end of the channel. But as lighthouses at the end of the world go, this was still a good one.
Our boat, the good ship Tango, had a built-in kegerator, and the captain poured us all mugs of the local Cape Horn beer. The beers were delicious, and the captain explained it was due to the brewery using water directly from the glacier.
The last beach
That evening back at Antarctica Hostel I made ready for a walk along the beach. I filled a flask with Ron Zacapa and slung my ukulele over my shoulder. I had some hardcore, end-of-the-world contemplation to be about.
I walked down to the boardwalk and was a little sad to see the container ship had left port. I walked past the village of huts offering identical overpriced boat tours through the channel. I found the gate to the Ushuaia yacht club unlocked and strolled down the dock, but it was still too close to the noise of cars. I followed the shore until the boardwalk became just dusty grass above the beach. I walked until the sounds of the town receded.
Finally I found a suitable stretch of beach. No people. No sounds beside the waves. It was cold- the wind carried the chill of the Antarctic icecap with it. I sensed I’d reached the southern apogee of my journey. I sat down on a rock and worked the top of the flask with numb fingers. Zacapa hit my tongue like a dose of distilled sunshine (which, photosynthetically speaking, rum is) and reminded me of sunny Guatemala. I took out my ukulele and began to play:
(I really should pick up more of the regular ukulele repertoire one of these days.)
When my fingers were too numb from cold to play((Too bad I don’t know any Coldplay!)) I slipped on some conductive gloves, took out my phone, and began to write letters to my past, present, and future self. Slowly I poured my thoughts into the shitty Samsung keyboard until my hands were too stiff to type. I watched the waves crash until the last light of dusk faded.
I returned from the beach stiff from cold and without epiphanies, but feeling like I’d made another step forward (I was certainly no less enlightened). I looked ahead to the ten thousand kilometers between me and home, and realized I had no idea where to go next.
I grabbed some Lonely Planet guides from the bookshelf and sat down at the bar. I asked Garret for a stout. “Good man,” he said approvingly. We spoke for two hours of life plans and travel plans, and together we covered the surface of the bar with maps and charts until it looked like a sea captain’s study.
Peru and Chile called to me, promising the wonders of Macchu Pichu and Easter Island, respectively. Iguazu Falls in northern Argentina was not to be missed, Garret informed me. Mendoza was wine country, but I figured I could always drink a few bottles from Mendoza wherever I go. Buenos Aires bills itself as the “Paris of Latin America”. I’d had an awful time in Paris, France, but I’d give Bs.As. a shot. I booked my flight for the next day.
I thanked Garret, and excused myself to bed. “I’d hate to miss my noon flight.”
Garret wished me a good journey and a good life, and I to him. A casual parting between two people who know certainly that they’ll never see each other again.