The inocentes at the end of the world

26 Mar

From warm, sunny & breezy Buenos Aires, the inocentes boarded a plane for the unknown: Tierra del Fuego. We were literally at the tip of the American continent.

Our plane from Buenos landed us in Ushuaia. To us, even comprehending what we would find there at the end of the world was just as hard as it was to pronounce the name. Ushuaia. Ooh – shway – ahh.

Our flight mates were cut from different cloths. There were the intrepid backpackers, with their dreaded hair pulled back into ponytails so as not to get too tangled with the handle and straps of their backpacks. There were the cruise ship aficionados, generally claiming at least a quarter of a century’s seniority over the nearest contender. Then there were those of us in the middle: not really carrying “serious” gear to withstand the elements; not yet gray enough to belong to the cruise group. We were just…there.

After a brief-ish 4 hour flight, our plane bumped below the clouds and we got our first glimpse of the wild terrain below. Brown, rugged coastline meeting the frigid waves of the Beagle Channel. The mountains and glacier, shrouded with clouds, projected strange silhouettes.

Though the coastline & terrain was foreign, the airport at Ushuaia was immediately familiar. It was like walking into a ski lodge with huge, wooden beams and stone walls. The only thing missing was a crackling fire which I’m pretty glad they didn’t have at the airport, come to think of it.

We went outside.

Wind and rain whipped–literally whipped–our faces as we waited for a cab. This was a far cry from our warm, sunny walks in Buenos Aires. On our way to the hotel, Greg and I were immediately reminded of Washington State; there are so many rugged small towns in Washington and Ushuaia seems like a sister-town to those frontier-like places that pop-up along the Skagit River or in the mountains of WA. The familiarity of the place was oddly comforting, allowing us to put our experience into some kind of perspective.

I had purposely packed very few clothes for our trip to save space for souvenirs (like cutlery) and new clothes. I brought one lightweight jacket which keeps me warm in Medellín but immediately proved insufficient for Ushuaia. It was time to go shopping.

We bought a collection of mismatched cold weather clothing, including weird hats, jackets and sweaters that we would have never bought unless under duress. But buy them, we did! And they proved helpful during our visit to the penguin island, a natural reserve an hour or so from Ushuaia where we were able to walk among those weird, flightless birds. Post (and pics) to follow independently.

Our time was spent walking around the town’s main drag and along the waterfront, ducking in for coffee or hot chocolate here and there. It was low-key, but necessarily so, because it was cold and wet, and it was a nice place to take a break somewhere warm. There were many, many tourists bedecked in outdoor gear. Hiking or trekking boots seemed the norm, footwear-wise, and everyone we passed seemed ready to hike straight up the mountainside at a moment’s notice. We were definitely not those people at that point in our trip, but it made me jealous that we hadn’t budgeted time/money/clothing to some long-term outdoorsy adventures.

From Ushuaia we took a long, 10 hour bus ride to Punta Arenas in Chile. The bus ride took us through the Fuegian estancias–filled with sheep & llamas–and across windswept tundra. We crossed the Strait of Magellan in a ferry and our bus was drenched by the choppy waters cresting up and over the sides of the boat. The roads were sometimes paved and sometimes dirt, and the constant winds rocking the bus were strong.

Punta Arenas felt immediately different from Ushuaia. You could tell that the town and the tourism infrastructure functioned together, whereas in Ushuaia the locals and the tourists were separated into two distinct camps and areas. The weather was also a bit more forgiving (although the wind never really died down).

Our first night we walked around the town and found ourselves at a bar down the street from our hotel called Cyrano (of de Bergerac fame) where we ordered some pisco sours and really welcome ourselves to Chile. The drinks were delicious, but the cigarette smoke enveloping the bar was sort of shocking. Nowhere else we have visited allows cigarette smoke inside, but here in Punta Arenas (and perhaps Chile at large) we are traveling back in time to an epoch of “would you like smoking or non-smoking?”.

After our piscos, we wandered over to Damiana Elena, a restaurant inside an old home in our neighborhood. The paint, the decor, the tableware–the ambience was welcoming and homey. Being near the coast, we ate our fill of seafood, because we miss it terribly in Medellín.

Some of the buildings in Punta Arenas are more classically colonial than the ones we encountered in Ushuaia. Former mansions of wool barons (yes, those are things!) line some of the streets, most of which have now been transformed into museums or private clubs.

We also visited the cemetery because cemeteries are awesome. I loved spending autumn afternoons in Boston at the lovely Mount Auburn or Forest Hills cemeteries. There were also some beautiful old cemeteries in Seattle, and there’s a reason that hot spots on tourist maps in Argentina include La Recoleta (where Evita is buried) and that in Paris many make the pilgrimage to  Père-Lachaise. Part of it is that dead famous people are buried there, but there are also so many other layers. You can get a handle on the history of a place through cemeteries, like understanding waves of immigration. In the cemetery at Punta Arenas, there are scores of Eastern European names interspersed with common Latin last names, a reflection of the waves of immigrants that came to Punta Arenas looking for better opportunities, but still retained their Czech or Croatian roots. Monuments to loved ones and monuments to the self are fascinating from a novice anthropological point of view: what was the person who wanted a reproduction of his face in stone like in real life? And, of course, it’s one of the few places where you can go and just be quiet. Cemeteries are QUIET. It’s nice to enjoy the silence, sometimes. Is that morbid? Meh.

Part of the center of the town was covered in mud when we arrived, and we wondered if it was because they had opted to do some serious construction in the brief shoulder season between the high tourist seasons (Jan & Feb) and the frigid winter, but we had actually arrived in town on the heels of a local disaster. The central river that runs through town–really not more than a trickle of water flowing to the Strait of Magellan, during our time here–crested and overflowed. Some shops were destroyed and were completely closed while workers and volunteers cleaned up the city. Some parts of the city were without electricity or gas, which means that they were without heat in near-freezing temperature. There is a contingent that has been living in local schools since Sunday the 18th (we arrived on the 21st) while power is restored and houses are cleared and cleaned.

While the mud was…well…muddy, the town itself was really beautiful and seemed very laid back and safe. We took long walks during the days and evenings without issue. We even trekked six blocks back to our apartment at 1AM after watching the premier of the Hunger Games (!!!) and felt totally safe. It was a nice change-up from being ever on-guard in large cities.

After freezing our butts (and ears) off for six days, though, we were looking forward to warmer climes. We’ve been so spoiled in Medellín with the weather, and wearing the same thing everyday gets old very quickly, doubly true when it’s cold outside and you’re wearing the same pants + jacket layer combo. Our flight from Punta Arenas left mid-day Saturday, and from that very windy airport plain, we took off and headed north to Santiago, Chile, with images of wine, sea and seafood dancing through our inocente heads.


One Response to “The inocentes at the end of the world”

  1. Lea Anthony March 26, 2012 at 6:51 pm #

    Funny, but I walked around a cemetery in Boston on a day trip. I enjoyed walking tru the leaves to see the old headstones with amazing dates and info. Maybe the weird fascination is that we do not have that available to us in California the same way.

    Rest assured my knitting fingers will be at work for more stylish cold weather apparel for both of you!

    Kisses, Mom

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: