Not even 48 hours after getting back to Santiago from the Atacama Desert I was packing my bags for the entirely other end of the country. Through a mutual friend in Buenos Aires I was put in contact with someone from Belguim who has bought a 1975 Citroen 3CV and is driving around South America in it. I decided that this was too good an opportunity to pass up on and so decided to meet up with Guy (pronounced Gee in Belgium) in Ushuaia and travel north along Route 40 in Argentina which is supposed to be as famous as Route 66 in the States.
I have to admit to being really nervous about this trip at the start (See post “A fortuitous dinner in Buenos Aires” for more details). Besides being put in touch with Guy via Enrique and having 2 or 3 facebook chats with him, I knew nothing else about him. Would we get on? Could we travel together? What was it going to be like in the car with him? Etc etc… but despite these thoughts I knew that I would either make it work and have an amazing time or I would leave and return to Chile. Either way I had this amazing opportunity ahead of me and I had to go for it…
I flew from Santiago to Punta Arenas at 1am on Sunday 11 April and then the next day I travelled to Ushuaia (via the blue line on the map). I arrived in Ushuaia after 13 hours on two different buses and a turbulent ferry ride across the Magellan Strait which separates mainland South America from Tierra Del Fuego Island. Apart from a dodgy stomach I was exhausted and was very happy to find the warm and cosy Antartica Hostel where Guy was staying. A welcome relief from the cold and gale force wind outside. Little did I know at that stage that wind was going to be my constant companion for the next 7 weeks and nearly drive me crazy on several occasions.
So after finding the hostel I just had to find my new travel companion… however he was not around that evening and so I went off to bed. The next morning he was still asleep after 3 days of camping and hiking in the national park, so I went off and explored Ushuaia by myself and we finally met up later that afternoon. I kind of felt like I was meeting someone on a blind date as I had an idea of what he looked like from Facebook, but then suddenly everyone in the hostel looked the same to me and I had to kind of wait until someone made eye contact with me and gave me a quizzical look before I said “Guy?” and he replied “Ingrid?” – I had found my travel companion for one of the greatest adventures of my life!!!
My four days at ´El Fin Del Mundo´ (the end of the world) as they call Ushuaia were great. It is the southern most city in the world and the gateway to Antarctica. It is the same latitude south as Glasgow and Copenhagen are north, but is much much colder due to cold Antarctic ocean currents. And bloody hell it is cold…especially when the wind blows which it seems to do 24/7 across all of Patagonia.
Ushuaia is a magical city, but I can´t put my finger on why I feel that way exactly. The scenery is spectacular with mountains and glaciers as the backdrop, the Beagle Channel in front and the lakes and forests of Tierra Del Fuego. But it is more than just the setting that makes it what it is. I think the fact that it is the gateway to Antarctica adds to it as well as the fact that it is just so darn isolated from the rest of Argentina (thanks to Chile having a chunk of land in between) and also from the rest of the world. But what ever it is, I like it, despìte it obviously being quite touristy.
On my first days explorations I went on a boat ride in the Beagle Channel and got to see loads of cormorants and sea lions and a few seals. In the afternoon I did a truly hectic hike up to a glacier behind the city. Now it doesn´t really look like what we expect a glacier to look like, but that is compensated for by an amazing view across the channel. The hike there was really really steep though and the wind tries to do everything it can to make you go backwards instead of forwards. Little did I know that this would be great practice for a hike that Guy and I would do later in the week with two French guys (Ben and Thomas). They wanted to do a ¨sporty¨ hike (their exact words) and I decided to join them. The trail was to the top of Cerro Emfinge which supposedly has spectacular 360 degrees views of the area. I say supposedly because nature was against us and we never made the top. Being a trail not as often used by tourists, it was very poorly marked – actually it wasn´t marked at all. It started from a farmers house and we had to cross his peat bog and then cross a river. He gave us vague directions, but the first adventure of the day was not only finding the bridge, but also crossing the bog without ending up knee deep in the mud. Celebrations
upon finding the bridge soon turned to questions of where to from there. The map was totally useless and we had no idea where the trail was, so we just walked into the forest and figured that if we were heading uphill, we would eventually find the path. Pretty poor logic in some ways, but miraculously Guy did find the trail. But not until we had nearly an hour of balancing across fallen trees trying to avoid more swamps and thick black mud. Most of the time they were all speaking French, but they still had me in stitches as we all tried to stay upright and dry even though I had no clue what they were saying exactly. Some moments just transcend language barriers. Once we found the trail it headed straight up this near vertical mountain. I swear the gradient was about 60 degrees in places. Bloody tiring to say the least. Eventually we came out of the forest to this small lake and we were just near the edge of the tree line. The forest turned out to have been sheltering us from the crap weather and the wind and icy rain coming in nearly horizontally assualted us as soon as we were in the open. We quickly went back into the forest to have lunch. Robert, my first mate (local tea for those of you who haven´t heard of it) was had on the side of that mountain and in the freezing cold, it could not have tasted any better. In true French style lunch consisted of a baguette with smelly cheese and meat. Before we risked being frozen to the spot we started to look for the trail up the last part of the mountain, but as before, we could not find it and there was no way to continue in the crappy weather without a trail. When it got to the bare, rocky parts higher up it would have been too dangerous. So when Ben asked if I thought we should turn back, I said yes with no hesitation. Going down was tough on the knees, but at least in the forest we were sheltered again. It was so funny coming out of the forest and realising that the trail started right from the bridge, but there was just no way you would have known that. Back through the peat bog, we were all so tired and muddy and wet already that it did not matter whether we sank into the mud or not. Despite not making the top though, it was a great day!
My third hiking experience was in the Tierra Del Fuego National Park where I hiked with an American guy I met on the bus on the way down. The weather was truly stunning that day and we did a spectacular hike along the coast. Not much in the way of wildlife, but we saw some really cool giant woodpeckers with bright red faces and crowns. Also, the wierd thing was that birds here don´t seem to be shy of people and you could get really close to them. We saw some kind of small bird of prey and it was literally 2m from me on the rocks before it flew off.
Besides tiring myself out on various mountains, the rest of the time was pretty chilled. In the evenings we all cooked dinner together and shared some wine or the local beer called Beagle (after Charles Darwin of course).
After 4 days in Ushuaia Guy headed north back to Rio Gallegos where he had had to leave the car due to alot of red tape and beauracracy trying to get it across the small piece of Chilean territory separating mainland Argentina from Tierra del Fuego. He had to do some mechanical work on the car and since there was nothing to do in Rio Gallegos, I decided to spend one more night in Ushuaia before heading north myself. I was really excited about finally getting to see the car as Guy had told me about many of the adventures he had experiences so far on his trip south from La Plata (close to Buenos Aires). The road trip of a life time was about to start…