Friday, 16 September 2011

Ushuaia: the city at the end of the world

Ushuaia: the city at the end of the world.
After our extended bus journey from Rio Gallegos, we arrived in Ushuaia, la ciudad del fin del mundo, at the very bottom of Argentina, in the early afternoon. As the bus pulled into the town, the white world gave way to a shoreline flanked by mountains. This is the Beagle Channel, named after the British ship that passed through here on a surveying mission in 1828. In 1832, Charles Darwin sailed arrived in the same ship on his famous five-year round-the-world voyage. For me, however, this is as far south in the world as I will get – on this trip at least.

To get further south one must go to either Puerto Williams, a small town in the Chilean part of Tierra del Fuego, or to Antarctica. Neither option is available at this time of year, so this is, as far as I’m concerned, el fin del mundo (the bottom of the world). We decided to base ourselves here for ten days or so in order to take in the sights, do a Spanish course, and to prepare myself for the long, long trip up north.

Yep, you heard it here first, I’ve set myself another overland challenge: to get from the bottom of South America to the top of North America without flying. Ideally by land all the way, but there’s a bit of jungle populated by a few rebels renowned for kidnapping in the way. I may have to avoid that and take a boat. I’m not too sure what I mean by the top of North America, but somewhere in Canada or Alaska. We’ll see.

First things first though: time to do some South American skiing! Near Ushuaia is Cerro Castor, a reasonably large resort with decent lifts and good snow. There were no queues at the lifts, and very few people seemed confident enough to go off piste, leaving acres of virgin snow to be enjoyed. Best of all were the steep runs labelled ‘Peligro!’ (Danger!), ensuring that only a few of us were happy/stupid enough to head down them.

Skiing at Cerro Castor.
Whilst waiting in the summer for a boat to take them to Ushuaia, many people head out to Tierra del Fuego National Park to see the natural beauty of the green mountains and ragged coast. In winter it’s a white wonderland of frozen lagoons, bleak hills and barely-visible snow-covered trails. We spent a day trekking around here, enjoying the crisp air in our lungs and the crunching of the snow underfoot. This area used to be inhabited by the indigenous Yaghan (or Yamana) people, but alas they were wiped out through force, disease and ignorance at the hands of the colonial settlers. When they lived here they used to eat mussels caught in the channels and then would chuck the shells in piles on the shore. Over time these piles became several metres high and the hillocks can still be seen today.

Amazingly (to us), the Yaghan did not wear clothes until the Europeans came along and insisted they did. Instead, they had constant fires burning wherever they went, including on their boats. It was the sight of these innumerable fires that gave rise to the name of the area: Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire). Ironically, the forced wearing of clothes contributed to the Yaghan’s demise, since the garments became dirty and rife with diseases new to the indigenous population.

Tierra del Fuego National Park
One of the more intriguing creatures inhabiting the Parque Nacional is the woodpecker. As one walks through the forests a distinctive knocking can be heard coming from all corners, echoing through the otherwise still air. Then you spot it: a red-headed black-bodied bird clings on to the trunk of a tree, its sharp beak poked deep into a hole and repeatedly tapping away. Not satisfied with the fruits of its labour, it scuttles up to another hole and resumes its intensive probing. When you approach, it doesn’t fly away. It simply pauses its tapping and ogles you out of the corner of its eye, and when it decides you’re too close it scurries to the other side of the tree where it knows you can’t see it. It then continues its never-ending pneumatic pastime.

The city of Ushuaia itself is a ramshackle affair, built on the side of a hill running down to the channel. The main streets comprise a billion clothes shops and a few restaurants, but every other one is a steep, icy track lined by bungalows. Everyone has a dog in Ushuaia, though apparently no-one cares enough bout them to let them inside or to train them not to be terrified of other humans. During any five-minute walk around town you’ll get barked at by approximately 43 dogs trapped in the fortunately secure gardens, all of which seem to want to rip you apart for daring to come within ten feet of them.

But don’t let me distract you from the true charm of the town. It has a backdrop the pointy mountains at the southern end of the Andes, and a craggy coast line engulfed in wildlife. Walk just a couple of miles from the centre and you’re in the wilderness: wind-battered forests, rocky beaches and the bright yellow of grassy planes in hibernation. The sun is always low in the sky, casting enigmatically long shadows and lighting up the scenery in a reddish glow. Most people have moved here to escape the big cities of Argentina, and it easy to see why.

Monte Olivia overlooking Ushuaia.
Our Spanish teacher, Gustavo, was unique to say the least. While he was excellent at explaining to me the finer points of the Spanish imperfect subjunctive, he was also keen on interspersing his lessons with dollops of politics, philosophy and, erm, risqué jokes. Not an hour had passed before he made his first paedophile gag. I hope he always picks his audiences.

My stay in Ushuaia was made all the more enjoyable by the fact that I was CouchSurfing with a local lady. She too had moved there from Buenos Aires to escape the smoke, bringing her cat with her. (This cat is almost certainly a long-lost relative of mine. He has the same name, the same hair, inspired by Holland and has the same outlook on life.) I experienced for a short time the food, music and hospitality of the real Argentines.

Looking back towards Ushuaia from along the coast.
Now I start the long trek up north. As I said, I’ve no idea where I’ll end up, but for now I’ve got plenty more mountains to hang around in. The entire length of the Andes beckons.

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