Tierra del Fuego - Land of fire....and pingüinos

Trip Start Jun 30, 2010
Trip End Jun 01, 2011

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Flag of Argentina  , Patagonia,
Friday, April 15, 2011

Just an hour out of Punta Arenas, a loud bang stopped the Pacheco coach and necessitated a half-hour tyre change during which time we had a competition to find signs of life out in the dusty pampas. Nothing. But as our journey resumed, the paved road turning to a rutted, pot-holed dirt track all the way to the Chile-Argentine border, we saw that the pampas was alive with all sorts of creatures - lines of caranchos or caracara standing sentry on fence posts looking out for some tasty road-kill, rheas turning tail and legging it away from us, herds of golden guanacos grazing, short-legged grey foxes pausing in their hunt to watch us pass, cauquenes flying in a ‘V’ alongside us or standing around the frozen bogs and pools, a jade lake with large pink waders that could only be flamingos, and we didn’t see it but we certainly smelt the acrid stink of a skunk that filled the bus for ten minutes. We passed large estancias, Sara, Las Flores, Las Golondrinas, mile upon mile of post and wire fencing, dust tracks disappearing off over the horizon, flocks of freshly shorn sheep and lone horsemen. To the east was blue sky, streaks of white cloud, brown earth, yellow grasses and in the distance the long snow-capped Andean range, to the west a dark Patagonian storm and black walls of rain.

As the little vehicle ferry set out across the turbulent waters of the Straits of Magellan and Tierra del Fuego drew closer our excitement grew, especially when Phil spotted a pod of dolphins from the top deck. Our bus drove down the metal car ramp and we were on Isla Grande del Tierra del Fuego. So very, very cool. At San Sebastian we were stamped out of Chile, a very quick affair, and at San Sebastian, Argentina we received a new visa, sadly the last of our Big Trip, and waited and waited as the Argentine customs officials made a big show of searching the coach. Then we were on our way, breathing a sigh of relief as the tyres touched smooth paved road again. We journeyed across the arid northern plains to Rio Grande to change from our big bus with lovely cushioned, reclining seats to a cramped minibus. Thankfully the scenery made up for that. The yellow pampas gave way to extraordinary autumnal Nothofagus (southern beech) forests dripping in grey lichen; forests that Peter Jackson’s Location Scout really should check out for his next Tolkien venture.

We made Ushuaia our base for our explorations of the area and we stayed with Javier at Martin Fierro B&B right in the centre of the small city. Javier was a kind and engaging host (although it was a rather odd experience having our undies laundered by a lawyer (his day job)) and Ushuaia we found to be a lively, modern city, clearly thriving through tourism, with a lively vibe. The ‘El fin del Mundo’ or ‘the end of the world’ brand was being pushed to the max and then some, as were the penguins. The city signposts had penguins on them, there were chocolate and meringue penguins in the restaurants and chocolaterias, penguins of pink stone and Lenga wood, penguin posters, postcards and key rings in the souvenir shops, and in the outdoor shops there were penguin fleece jackets. So, we joined the penguin hysteria and took a day tour with Piratour to the Estancia Harberton to view their offshore penguin colony. We’re not fans of tours but this one was really worthwhile. Not only were we able to step in the footsteps of characters like Bruce Chatwin who visited the estancia during his ‘In Patagonia’ travels, learn about this historic working ranch and visit the Acatashun Museum of marine mammal strandings, but we got to zip about in the Beagle Channel in a RIB and we saw lots of Gentoo and Magellanic penguins and, amazingly, one King penguin. No one quite knows what he’s doing there hanging out with the other breeds but he seemed happy enough.

We had a fantastic, blue-sky day out in the Tierra del Fuego National Park with the autumn colours and snow, walking the Pampa Alta and the Senda Costeria that wound around the Beagle Channel’s beautiful Bahia Ensenada and Bahia Lapataia. In the Nothofagus forests we had our eyes peeled for the apparently very common Magellanic woodpecker (big dude with the red head and mohican, black body) but they were steering clear of the paths that day. Javier gave us a lift up through Ushuaia and we walked the last stretch up to the Glaciar Martial to look across the Beagle Channel to Isla Navarino, where we had originally planned to do a hearty trek. The weather was just a bit too cold now for trekking but we do plan to return one day to see that dream through.

Other things worthy of note: The interesting Prison and Maritime Museum housed in what was Ushuaia’s penal colony, the best ‘submarino’ (hot milk with a huge chunk of dark chocolate) in Almacen Ramos Generales and the cloudy but tasty Beagle beer!

Our original plan for our onward travels was to gently wind our way northwards by bus to El Calafate, El Chalten and Bariloche. Unfortunately for us the end of April is well and truly low season, the buses had ceased running along Ruta 40 and alternatives were infrequent and incurred massive detours taking days and days. Traveller strandings at ‘el fin del mundo’ are not uncommon, and like everyone else who finds themselves stranded here, we jumped on a plane. In one last kind act Javier drove us to the airport in his beloved ‘imported from England’ Landrover. What a star!

Best wishes
Nickie & Phil

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