Journal 21 - March 1, 2003

Tierra del Fuego » Go Back

Journal 21
After the splendid Torres del Paine trek in Chile, it was time to make my way back to Argentina. First I traveled south to Punta Arenas, Chile to see a penguin colony. I then caught a flight to Ushuaia, Argentina, the southern most town in the world. The flight into Ushuaia was beautiful and exhilarating. In gale force winds we took off from the Punta Arenas airport, but the ride was smooth and we were treated to some amazing scenery as we flew to the end of the world. Ushuaia is a port town in Tierra del Fuego, and seemingly half of the businesses there have signs that say, "Fin del Mundo," boasting that their coffee shop, restaurant, internet cafe, barber shop, etc., is the southern most establishment of such sort in the world. The town sits on Ushuaia Bay, located at the northern end of the Beagle Channel. From the bay the town climbs steeply towards the glacial peaks that loom behind in serene fortification.

While in Ushuaia I took advantage of the opportunity to rest my aching knees and relax. After the trek in Chile I was tired, and Ushuaia was the first place I'd spend more than one consecutive night for weeks. The hostel was great, Cruz del Sur, very helpful, beautiful, great atmosphere, and a lot of information about the surrounding area. My fist day I hiked as far up to Glacier Martial as my knees would let me. The guidebook described Martial as an overgrown ice cube when compared to the massive glaciers Moreno and Grey. The book was right, I think I've seen bigger glaciers that are not glaciers, but the view from the top of mountain was great, and it's always great to hike in Patagonia regardless of what you're looking at.

The next day I booked a boat trip to see some penguins and sea lions. The trip was a great way to see Ushuaia Bay, the mountains that loom behind the city, the impressive port, and of course the wildlife. The first destination was a rock-island covered with penguins, like the gender-separated portion of a prom-party, the tuxedo-clad birds wobbled around the island. It was an impressive site, and I couldn't click fast enough as we navigated around the island. Thousands of the black-and-whites sat, waddled, swam, and stared back at us in complete disinterest.

After visiting the penguins we went to see another rock island, 'Isla de los lobos,' this one was covered with a gigantic herd of sea lions who stared back at us only slightly less interested than the penguins had been. They preferred to sit, sleep, bark, and waddle around the island while some of the males occasionally engaged in battles for dominance of the herd, or at least their portion of it. Funny, because I've always lived close to the ocean, and in Santa Cruz I was never more than twenty minutes from similar herds, but being the tourist I am now, I was able to see and appreciate them in a new way. It was great to sit, watch them, and wonder what kind of evolutionary abomination I was witnessing.

They're great animals, very cute, but for the life of me I couldn't figure out where the hell they came from. Whether they're an evolutionary abomination is hard to say, maybe their divine creator, whoever and whatever that may be, just had a bad day when he/she decided to create the oxymoron that is a sea lion. They're not fish, although they have flippers and swim very well, and they're not lions, because they don't have legs, a tail, or any of the other limbs that come in handy on land. They have the same mannerisms as dogs, very cute, and they scratch their ears like a dog does. Just as a dog uses its hind leg to scratch behind its ear, so too does the sea lion use its flipper to scratch it's confused head. They also walk around like dogs, but only with the use of their flippers, which possibly were supposed to be legs. Among the males there is a lot of alpha behavior, always striving to prove their dominance of the island and herd. They strut around and bash into each other violently, briefly fighting before sitting down to resume their naps. To warn the others they are upset or bothered, they raise their heads high into the air in a yoga-like pose, warning any would-be foe to back off. The females appeared to be very submissive, eagerly fluffing the proverbial pillows of the head bull after he finished his belch-like barking sessions of combat. Watching them was fascinating, and it made me want to visit some of the similar preserves when I go back to Santa Cruz. I couldn't help thinking of Benny and company as one of the tourists on the boat began attempts to communicate with a huge male, and after a moment the bull barked back in a whiny howl as if to acknowledge the man's efforts. Very K9.

The next day in Ushuaia I went for a long hike in the Tierra del Fuego National Park. The hike was a relatively easy walk along the bay, near various lakes and lagoons, and finally to the end of the Pan-American Highway over ten thousand miles from its beginning in Alaska. What a ride that would be. During the hike I saw some fantastic views of the Beagle Channel, great mountains vistas, toothpaste-colored rivers and streams, rabbits, and some beautiful birds. Unfortunately we didn't see any beavers, but I was impressed by the huge beaver constructed dam we saw. The little critters are not native to the area, so there is some debate about how cute the overgrown rats really are. After the hike I had my third quiet night in Ushuaia and made my preparations to fly back to my favorite city, Buenos Aires.

Back in BA meant long nights, no sleep, loads of great food, espresso, helado (at least one a day), and integration back into the live fashion show. After talking to one Argentinean man, he told me his wife takes an hour and a half to get ready to leave the house, and that's just to go the grocery store. This is great for Joe-tourist, who's treated to a catwalk-like display every time he leaves his hotel room, but I can't imagine the headaches it causes for their poor Argentinean husbands.

After a few days in Buenos Aires seeing sites and getting my Visa for Brazil, I left for Mendoza to visit some friends of a friend There I met an Argentinean family and was treated to a local's version of a city tour, which meant we saw much more than the city. During a twelve hour tour of Mendoza, the surrounding mountains, the Chandon winery, and many other fascinating sites, I learned more about Argentina than I had during my previous seven weeks in the country. Pedro and his daughter were amazingly generous hosts, and I'm very grateful for the hospitality they showed me while I was in Mendoza. Pedro and his family are friends of a friend, so it was a bit of a reach for me to contact him, but I'm glad I did. He's a former Argentinean journalist, former California resident and current vineyard owner in Mendoza, where over seventy percent of Argentina's wine is produced. He entertained me with hours of stories and historical facts during our tour of Mendoza, and it was great to see the area with a local who had a profound knowledge of the country and region of Mendoza.

From Mendoza I bussed back to Buenos Aires for two more nights, including a great night at the Opera in Buenos Aires' oldest and fanciest theatre, then off to Brazil for Carnival. The race to Carnival started over two months ago. As soon as I entered Argentina the day after Christmas the clock started ticking. For me and thousands of other travelers on their way to Carnival, it's been a target we've been aiming at for months. If it wasn't for Carnival, I would have spent more time in Patagonia and other parts of Argentina, but then again, I might never have found a reason to leave if it wasn't for Carnival. Fortunately I was greeted in Brazil by an old friend and former roommate, Cory Naugle. Cory and I were roommates in college, and she's been living in Brazil for years, so I've had someone to guide me as I entered a foreign country where they speak a language I don't know for the first time during my trip. My first two days in Brazil have been great, lots of beach time and relaxation, exactly what I needed after the rush to get here. Carnival starts tonight, and internet access is hard to find here, so my replies will be fewer and farther between during the next few weeks. Viva la, or whatever they say here.

I hope all is well back home.

chao,

Justin