The Uttermost Ends of the Earth: Tierra del Fuego
An electric day it was when I first heard about the uttermost ends of the earth, the jist of it all remaining a thrilling memory from way back when they still taught geography in school, about umpteen years ago.
The Island of Tierra del Fuego is the size of South Carolina, or if you prefer, the size of Ireland, sitting at the tippy end of South America, the last outpost of civilization before arrival in Antarctica.
The history of the fiery land is one of heartbreak and violent death. The four indigenous groups were slaughtered by Europeans to steal their lands for grazing sheep, making fortunes and building empires for
the Europeans who still rule the land.
Corduroy Dirt Roads
After stumbling across the wind swept plains of Tierra Fuego for uncountable jouncy miles on corduroy dirtroads it was only slightly more jarring to see a pink church in a roundabout surrounded by pastel houses with white picket fences, smacking one right between the eyes like the similar town in Pleasantville, the movie. Cerro Sombrero is obviously way out of the way so stick with Argentinean Tierra del Fuego where the roads are mostly paved and the attractions abound.
A Silesian Mission sits six miles north of Rio Grande, Tierra del Fuego’s largest city of 60,000 people, the Mission now reduced to producing excellent cheeses and singing its own praises for altruism, for serving the local indigenous, graphically displayed in its tiny museum. The Mission has run out of indigenous to save, all Argentinean tribes having been extinct for nigh on eons and the last ten survivors now in Chile. But the cheese isn’t bad.
Tolhuin is a tiny town on the east end of 50 mile long Lago Fagano and arguably boasts the best bakery in the world, a claim that gives me pause when trying sturdily to remember the taste treats offered by bakeries on the left bank in Paris, those in Vienna and all over Switzerland. But then Tolhuin’s Panaderia la Union is open 365 days a year, 366 in Leap Years, to tempt you to cardiac hotel.
Prices in Argentina are now the lowest in South America while less than two years ago they were the highest. Thus you simply must jet off now while you can afford conspicuous consumption at Panaderia la Union which also features a private zoo of exotic birds and an orphaned Guanaco, free hot water for yerba mate, the tea drunk compulsively and unceasingly by all Argentineans. Check it all out at this spanish website .
In a blink, discounting 37 miles of extremely bad road, I was in Ushuaia, arriving in perfectly sunny weather (no wind) on Christmas Day, little kids trying out spanking new bicycles next to towering cruise ships on the spectacular waterfront, aka Beagle Channel. This city of 40,000 extremely hardy souls is all superlatives, ringed by chilly black and white mountains, glaciers, extreme waters and parrillas, Argentinean pig-outs of meat featuring beef, lamb (better than in Greece or New Zealand!), pork and sausages, spreads to make the stoutest vegetarian blanch, relieved only by a veritable smorgasbord of anything you can think of from fish to pickled beets, $5.
Ushuaia has many charms from the Martial Glacier above it, within easy hiking or cable car distance, for great views of town and the Beagle Channel, to fabulous dining, T-shirts and souvenirs, the latter bragging “World’s End”, “Southernmost City” and the like. But Ushuaia is much more than shallow fun, excellent resort hotels and views you must pay for. It has two fine museums, both rather kooky in their own way. The small Yamana Museum relates the tragedy of the indigenous in huge 3D pictographs and surviving photos. Indeed the Yamana did run around this frigid land naked, living on mussels, moving on weekly while tending the fires in their canoes. Chilling.
The huge Maritime, Penal and Antarctica Museum is housed in a sprawling five-spoked penitentiary built by and for bad guys and political prisoners (from Russian Anarchist philosopher, Simon Radowitzky to a noted Argentine author, Ricardo Rojas). The maritime portion displays scale models of the important early explorers from Magellan to the Dutch, English and Portuguese.
Ushuaia is the jumping off place for Antarctica, the city from which 75% of the world’s ships leave for the frozen southland and which provides an outstanding opportunity for anyone to commandeer last-minute fares to Antarctica from $2000 and up and up and up, depending on the number of days. The Antarctic peninsula is across the Drake Passage south of Cape Horn, two days from Ushuaia by ship. You can go by luxurious cruise ship, if you have a spare ten grand, or by expedition vessel, the latter principally Russian which have the most experience with Antarctic ice. I snagged 12 days for $3000 plus a 4% credit card surcharge.
My favorite pre-Antarctic part of Ushuaia was right next door at Tierra del Fuego National Park, $3 entrance fee, extending west to the Chilean border. The Park offers gorgeous lakes and coves, exquisite because glacier melt is cool in both color and pictures. For some inexplicable reason our species seems to enjoy shades of bright neon blue. The lakes and the Beagle Channel are littered with exotic islands that sit below the final end-game of the snow-capped Andes as they run out of space after a 6,000 mile run down South America.
Getting to Tierra del Fuego:
Places to Stay and Eat in Ushuaia:
For eats in town the lamb and other meats at La Rueda are unparalleled for only $5, all you can eat, drinks extra running another couple of bucks for wine. On the waterfront street, Maipu, try Volver for décor, views and great food. Easy choices abound. For vegetarians in Argentina, forget it, though there are two excellent supermarkets where you can pick up your fruit and veggie preferences, Norte on the near southside and La Anonima on the further NE side of Ushuaia.
Other Stuff: The only decent travel agency in Ushuaia for booking last minute fares to Antarctica is Tourismo de Campo at 25 Mayo 76, email email@example.com and say hi to Silvia, the consummate travel agent who will get you the best fare available with no shilly-shallying around, quite dissimilar from the other travel agents in town. Internet places line both sides of the main street in Ushuaia, on San Martin, all between $.60 and $.90 an hour, several non-smoking.
Sights around Ushuaia: These abound. Go to Estancia Harberton, open Oct 15 to April 15, founded in 1885 by Thomas Bridges, the first ranch in TdF. It contains the oldest house on the Island plus a copy of his son’s memoir, “The Uttermost Part of the Earth.” Worth the trip alone is the Acatushun Bone Museum created by a biologist who married into the Bridges family, Natalie Prosser Goodall. The museum contains more than 2000 mammal and 2000 bird skeletons, most retrieved from Bahia San Sebastian north of Rio Grande where the 36 foot tide leaves marine animals stranded to bleach in the frantic TdF wind.
Shopping: The usual junk though there are quaint yerba mate kits and one t-shirt I especially like with a map of Tierra del Fuego, the uttermost end of the earth.
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