After helping ourselves to one of the prepared meat and cheese plates in the small fridge of the La Base Hostel common room, we strapped on headlamps and, at 6:15am, we started towards the bus terminal. By the time our 6:45am BusSur bus to Ushuaia left, it was closer to 7 and the bus terminal had filled with people and buses heading to Torres del Paine Park. An hour into the drive, looking at our transfer bus ticket, we wondered how we were ever going to make it to Puerta Arenas by its departure time of 8:30am? The answer was: We weren’t. The 8:30am was the departure time for the bus from Puerta Arenas and the plan was that our bus would drop us at the side of the road around 9am and the bus from Arenas would come pick us up.
From what we understood from the bus driver, the other bus would arrive in 15 or 20 minutes and pick us up on the other side of the road, but until then we had to wait here at the designated bus stop: a small white structure that kind of reminded us of the top of a bell tower, especially because most of the window panes were gone thus providing no protection from the cold wind whatsoever. The bus actually arrived 15 minutes later (yes, shamefully we were amazed it was on-time) and we settled in for the long 10 hour ride.
The landscape was mostly non-descript flat dry plains with lots of sheep and guanaco herds (fun fact: guanaco can spit up to 6 feet). For a little excitement, we had a ferry crossing at San Gregorio over the Strait of Magellan. As the bus came to a halt, the driver shouted “Vamos, caminando!” (Let’s go, walking!) and we all piled out and walked a short distance onto the ferry, watching as cars, buses, trucks, motorcycles and bikes rolled on. Weirdly, the ferry actually turned around before beginning the crossing and there was no cover for passengers; we just stayed out in the cold. As we crossed, we saw what we thought were cormorants but instead, delightedly, were several penguins swimming playfully in the waters. On the other side, we piled back into the bus but as we drove away, an older couple had gotten on our bus mistakenly so our driver had to call the BusSur bus ahead of us to pull over as we let them out. Traveler tip: never get off your bus without noting its number!
We went through the Argentina border (spending our last pesos at the snack bar) and then through the Chilean border, the only incident being the driver had locked us in while we waited in line and one woman needed to frantically get off and use the restroom (as in all SA buses, the bus toilet is urine only). We drove through some lovely mountain and forest scenery as the bus neared Ushuaia (pronounced oo-swhy-yah, not oo-shwhy-yah). We arrived before 7pm at the bus parking lot (there really was no proper terminal) and WhatsApp’d the owner of the one bedroom apartment we found on AirBNB. We didn’t book it through that service, but that’s a long and frustrating story (see our Puerto Natales post for details if you’re interested). We’d arranged to spend a week there so we could rest from all the frantic running around we had been doing so far. We did some quick food shopping and settled in for the night.
The next day we decided to walk around the town which is mostly known for being the southern most city in South America and a former penal colony. Every time we stepped out of the apartment and viewed the snow capped mountains, we couldn’t help but gasp – awed at the mountain backdrop, especially since they seemed to be a black and white photo negative – surreal.
We walked down to the harbor where a cruise ship was in port and stopped at the tourist information office. We had to step over a dog lying on the door mat (a few minutes later one of the staff pulled the mat with the sleeping dog on it away from the door) and got some information and just-for-fun Ushuaia stamps in our passports. Walking to the end of the port, we saw a park with a mirador at the top so decided to get up to Av. San Martin, the main tourist street, through there. The set of wooden stairs leading up had seen better days so we dubbed it the “trail of nails” as we stepped along the nailed parts of the wood hoping they would be the most supported and avoided the crumbled openings in an attempt not to fall through. After stopping at María Lola Restó to make reservations for dinner, we had lunch at Quinquela, a pizza place and instead of ordering the pizza we ordered the Milanese, a pounded flat piece of fried beef. The first of two mistakes was ordering something other than the pizza they are known for. The second mistake was ordering a glass of the house white wine. Warren said that it was Argentina so if she thought the wine had gone bad she should say something, so Cynthia flagged the waiter down and told him. He graciously took it away. A few minutes later he returned and apologized saying “I tasted the wine. I’m sorry, it has not gone bad, it is just bad wine.” We both burst out laughing! Cynthia told him she didn’t want to cause trouble so she’d drink it anyway (for 115 ARP what did we really expect). This time the waiter laughed and returned with the wine. Warren liked the beer so he asked what it was and the waiter wrote Oshovia on a piece of paper and said their brewery was just outside of town. He then told us the original name for Ushuaia was Oshovia but that the Spanish couldn’t pronounce it right which was how it wound up as Ushuaia. Not sure if that’s true, but it’s cute.
Unable to find a laundry that would be able to clean our clothes before Monday, Cynthia spent the rest of the afternoon washing clothes in the tub before we went to Maria Lola restaurant for dinner. The advantages of reservations when they first reopen for dinner is that you get to choose your seats. We sat at the windows with a lovely view over the Beagle channel. We had the “au-natural” Southern king crab for an appetizer, which was not as sweet and more fishy than its northern cousin, and for dinner we had seafood risotto, which was excellent; Cynthia learned that the squiggly legged baby squid, which she usually doesn’t like, could actually be delicious.
Before heading back to our apartment, we stopped for a beer at Santos Cervecería, where they have some great local microbrews, a fun interior that looks like the inside of an old railroad car, sturdy barstools that spin to adjust their height and urinals made from kegs.
After a day of rest (and some really good homemade burgers), we got up at the crack of dawn for our penguin and Beagle Channel tour with Piratour. We checked in at the port at 7am, got our colored lanyards, and watched the stunning mountainous scenery unfold as the sun rose. On the bus ride, the tour guide pointed out a sled dog facility with a treed yard full of “casitas de perro” which we thought was cute as it literally meant “small houses of dog”. After about an hour on the road we stopped to check out the flag trees; trees so windblown, that they grow in a shape that looks like a flag. After a quick, chilly visit (yes, the wind does blow up there) the bus took us to Harberton Ranch where we were split into two groups based on the color of our lanyards. We were the first group to go over to the island with the penguins so twenty of us boarded the zodiac and huddled under the covered canvas roof as we sped off to Isla Martillo. The island is part of the ranch and there are strict rules for visiting the island (only Piratour is allowed to let passengers onto the island). As we slid off the rubber inflatable part of the boat onto the pebbled beach, it still amazed us how, after receiving instructions in 2 different languages, that people still ignored the rules, which were simple – don’t get closer than 3 meters (10 feet), don’t eat or offer food, and stay with the group. A large group of Magellanic penguins were on the beach and seemed unconcerned with us and our guide until some people decided a selfie was more important than obeying the 10 foot rule. Fortunately, the consequences of the “too close selfie” was scaring the penguins into the water and a scolding from the guide rather than falling off a cliff.
The Magellanics lay eggs in boroughs the male has dug into the ground and we were told the females choose a mate based on the size of the home…hmmm. A short walk inland from the beach revealed hundreds and hundreds of borough holes. The young were now molting, which meant they could not go into the water until their full feathers grew in to protect them from the frigid temperatures – they looked miserable and shabby, half balding, scratching with their beaks at the loosening feathers.
Back on the beach, after some more urging from the tour guide (and us after she became exasperated) about remembering to stay together, we witnessed the Gentoo. The Gentoo are the third largest penguins in the world, and as we watched some of them surfing in the water and others wearing green shit proudly on their white breasts, we also witnessed how rude they can be.
In total we were on the island for a about very frigid (wear gloves and lots of clothing!) 45 minutes before we hoisted ourselves back onto the Zodiac and returned to the mainland.
Back at the ranch (always wanted to say that), we went on a tour of the museum as the other half of the group went to the island. The ranch was founded by a British missionary, Thomas Bridges, and spans over 50,000 acres, includes a cafeteria, museum and research facility filled with marine mammal bones collected by his wife Natalie Goodall and is still run by their descendants. The museum, although small, was fascinating. We learned that dolphins, whales and porpoises are all of the Cetacean order and that the difference between dolphins and porpoises are their teeth. Seals and sea lion skeletons actually have what we might call finger bones in their flippers and they differ in that sea lions have external ear “flaps”. The museum also had the bones of a beaked whale, ”an animal that, even today, has never been seen alive”. We walked from the museum to the dock to board a larger cruising boat for our trip back to Ushuaia.
As we cruised along the Argentina / Chile border, which runs right down the middle of the Beagle Channel, we saw Black-browed albatross surfing the boat’s wake. Although graceful in the air, we had to laugh at the clumsy, lumbering way they had to paddle the water to get a good running start. The vistas on both sides were amazing and the tour guide pointed out the southernmost “town” of Puerto Williams in Chile whereas Ushuaia in Argentina is the southernmost “city” and because of that distinction they both feel justified in using the “Fin del Mundo” label for everything.
Although the cabin of the ship was glass on all sides, we ventured out into the cold (briefly!) a couple times to get some better pictures. The cruise took about 2 hours. We enjoyed a couple of beers inside until we arrived at the working light house at the “end of the world”. It was set on an island that was a nesting spot for cormorants that really looked, walked and swam a lot like skinny penguins. The next stop was a colony of sea lions. We watched them all sunning themselves and squabbling for a female attention, then sailed back to the harbor. Back in town, feeling like seafood and not wanting to wait until 7 or 8pm when most restaurants opened, we stopped for an early dinner at Andino Gourmet for sea bass. The sea bass was quite good but nothing else, including the service, was.
Recharging was on our minds so we spent the next day relaxing in the apartment and catching up. We did venture out, first to Oshovia brewery where we caught the brewers off guard as we walked in through the open doors. It was tiny and after a few minutes of Spanish conversation, we realized they only make the beer there. Secondly, in hopes of trying the king crab again since it just hadn’t met our expectations, we ventured out again, arriving at 6:50pm to El Viejo Marino, there were already many tourists waiting for them to open and the few crabs in the glass tank weren’t going to last long. Deciding to drown our sorrows at Santos, the bartender, Augusto, recommended Christopher (it’s not a guy but a restaurant) across the street that had a lovely view of the Beagle channel. We took his recommendation and ordered “a punto menos” (medium-rare) ribeye steak dinner with some incredible fresh baked bread (instead of the small rolls often served with dinner in Argentina) and a nice salad. The steak was cooked perfectly (you really need to order it medium rare or “jugoso” (rare) or places tend to overcook it). With a bottle of wine and a healthy tip, we still only spent about 1500 ARP ($40 USD).
Glacier Martial, just outside of Ushuaia, was waiting for us the last day we had in town. We hopped in a metered taxi at the taxi stand outside the Supermercado La Anónima and were driven up the winding road to the trail head for just under 300 ARP. Although not apparent, there were two hiking options: either go up the wide road/ski slope or take the path along the stream. We opted for the path which is about 10 yards to the right of the road (head for the street lamp) and were glad we did as it was very pretty. We had two wooden bridge crossings that were a little sketchy, but we stuck to our motto of walking along the nails. Just beyond the end of the ski lift and house (lodge?), 30 minutes later, we were at the observation area where we learned from a park sign that Lenga (a restaurant we’d eaten at in Puerto Natales) was an indigenous tree here. You could see the glacier from here but there was a trail to get closer. We opted to continue to get as close to it as possible.
Another 30 minutes through steep, gravelly climbs and slippery snow drifts we made it to the “end of the trail” sign. Unfortunately the glacier had retreated a ways past that point and without proper hiking boots, it wasn’t really safe to continue. Actually, it was barely safe to continue back down as the wind had picked up tremendously with hurricane force gusts that had us frequently crouching and bracing ourselves in an attempt not to be blown off the mountain. Back at the observation area, rather than crossing back over the stream, we stayed to the left of it and took a lovely path through a copse of trees that were mesmerizingly twisty. This trail popped out at the top of the ski lift so this time we decided to take the road/ski slope down for the views of Ushuaia and the channel.
Back at the base, there were 5 taxis in the parking lot: one appeared full and one just had the driver; the rest were empty. We headed to the one with the driver and suddenly a guy popped out of the “full” one and pointed to his empty taxi. Ah, of course, why sit alone in your car and wait when you can hang out in one car socializing? We had an enjoyable ride back to the apartment as the driver practiced his English and we practiced our Spanish; the driver laughing when Warren pointed to a runner we’d seen near the observation area on the glacier that was still running, now nearly at the town, and commented “Loco hombre!”.
We had a delicious Argentinian stew with fries at Taberna del Viejo Lobo for dinner. It was a little strange to get to since you had to enter through what was some sort of museum and then take the elevator, but it was a cozy place with a nice view over the harbor – quite the hidden gem. Too bad we only discovered it on our last night. Back at our place we packed and made ready for our 9am flight to Mendoza. Warm weather here we come!