Tierra del Fuego, Argentina
After 3 days here, the feeling of unreality has not worn off yet. We made
it ! Actually it`s easy to get here. The great majority of travelers
arrive by jet. A relative few come by cruise ship, a minuscule number by
car (like us, after a long journey over long and finally bad roads), or by sailboat
(most enroute to a circumnavigation of Earth).
Names of several place names in this vicinity get lumped together as
synonyms for remoteness, like Timbuktu. From the north, the Strait(s)
of Magellan separates the mainland Patagonia province from the island
province of Tierra del Fuego, the south side of which is defined by the
Beagle Channel. On the north side of that channel is Ushuaia, on the
other side more of Chile, and beyond that small islands culminating in Cape Horn.
Much of the aura of this place, to me, comes from its storied visitors.
First was Magellan, whose 1520-22 expedition was perhaps the most daring
and important ever. His discovery and passage through the 250 mile
tortuous constricted passage that bears his name seems nearly
impossible. Because tacking across the open sea south of Cape Horn is
supremely easier, almost no commercial vessels used his Strait again until
steam was supplanting sail in the last decades before the opening of the
Panama Canal. The return to Portugal of one surviving ship and a few
surviving men, which did not include Magellan, proved that the world
was continuous, with no dropoffs. The next famous traveler to this area
that I remember was Darwin, who traversed the area in the ship Beagle,
via the Channel now bearing its name, enroute to the theory of evolution.
...Around 1900 Joshua Slocum, the quintessential circumnavigator,
connected the oceans in his salvaged sloop Spray .... During those waning
years of the Age of Commercial Sail my great-uncle Captain Myron Bailey,
whom I met once in 1932, rounded Cape Horn about 30 times. Some of
his letters to his employers, the Sewalls of Bath are in the Maine Maritime
Museum in Bath..... Next in my memory
is our favorite painter, the socialist adventurer-painter-author Rockwell
Kent, some of whose work is in the Portland (Maine) Museum of Art. He lived in,
painted, and wrote artfully about Greenland, Monhegan, Newfoundland
and Tierra del Fuego, places where we've visited some of his haunts...
Then pilot-yachtsman Sir Francis Chichester, the first non-stop-solo circumnavigator.
Studying a globe here reminded me that land-wise the world is
top-heavy. South of here are only a few small barren islands, and the
Great White Continent. At the equivalent north latitude are Edmonton
and Oslo. North of the Arctic Circle live more than a million people.
South of the entirely wet Antarctic Circle live maybe a
thousand human off and on, and more permanently, lots of penguins.
Ushuaia`s economy has been capricious. It plummeted in 1914 when the
oceans were joined at Panama. Until 1947 it hosted Argentina`s Alcatraz,
or Devil`s Island. Since then it has become the main supply port for
Antarctica. Accessibility by jet has continued to strain the hotel capacity,
and the more affluent tourists continue to Antarctica. Russian icebreakers
and other ships, even some commercial sailboats, shuttle to Antarctica
during the summer, which is winter in the USA.... Backpackers and
help-wanted signs abound. There are no beggars or shoe-shine boys.
Some prices (except things heavily taxed in Buenos Aires but not here)
are nearly double those of northern Argentina. Local taxes
provide much better facilities than in northern Argentina, we are told.
Now back to the end of the previous post, #7: Mendoza to Ushuaia.
February 15. Our sleep was short because the previous day was
Valentine`s Day, Saturday, with weddings at our hotel in Comodoro
Rivadavia, where the restaurant opened at 8.30 PM and we ate near midnight.
We drove to the wind power farm above the city, where European-made
windmills, like animated Easter Island monoliths, thrashed their 155 foot
diameter arms with pulsating "whooshes". These were mingled with the fading
icons of energy, petroleum pumps. Continuing southward, the trees
disappeared, leaving only bald brown
grass rolling to the horizon. More guanacos and rheas, and ever fewer gas
stations. We stopped for the night at the port of San Julian, whose history
belies its population of only 6500. Magellan spent 5 months there in
1520, then came Sir Francis Drake, Darwin, and Antoine Ste. Exupery, the
legendary pilot who wrote Wind Sand and Stars, and The Little Prince.
By coincidence, as we entered our hotel room and turned on the TV, a
story on the History Channel in Spanish told about the Lindbergh airplane
shipping box, now a museum in Canaan, Maine.
Near here we passed the estancia (ranch) of Douglas Thompkins, the USA
backpacker turned billionaire, the founder of North Face. A decade
earlier he bought several thousand square miles of southern Chilean
scenery for $55 million, lived there in a "shack" with his little
Cessna outside for occasional transport to civilization. He groomed
that vast property, Parque Pumalin, for a gift to Chile. Conspiracy
theories arose (CIA, Jewish homeland, etc.) so, disgusted, he gave the
park to Chile and moved to Argentina, where he could buy similar realms
cheaper. His example inspired other tycoons to buy and protect
Patagonia while it is still cheap. One was the Italian
clothing billionaire Benetton, who has put thousands of sheep on his
land, to help revive the moribund wool industry.
February 16. Gasoline in Patagonia is 40% cheaper than in northern
Argentina, about $1.30 per gallon, taxed low by the government to
encourage settlement.... On the 220 miles of paved Route 3 to Rio
Gallegos we met another vehicle only about every 15 minutes.
Accommodations became scarcer, and we had reserved the last
available room in town.
Definition of "ripio", if you've skipped over previous segments: narrow road
of gravel and rocks, with two wheel ruts. Between the ruts is a ridge OK
for trucks, but so high for our Yaris that when we don't drive on the side
of the ruts, the ridge rubs the bottom of the car, so that even at 20 mph the
loud crashing seems to indicate imminent loss of oil and death of car.
Highlights this day:
* 40 miles of some paved, some bad ripio to
the border with Chile. That country is shaped like a 2900 mile spine,
usually under 100 miles wide between the Andes and the Pacific, with
the Strait(s) of Magellan as its coccyx. There Chile has its only 8 miles
of Atlantic shoreline.
* Customs and immigration twice: out of Argentina, into Chile.
* 40 miles of ripio to the Straits of Magellan ferry, which doesn't run for
about 3 hours of low tide. We reached the ferry in time to avoid that
hiatus. Bus passengers had to walk across, to lighten the bus enough to
negotiate the angle between the sloped beach and the boat ramp.
* 100 miles of ripio, swerving carefully around oncoming trucks to avoid
a cracked windshield. Ripio roads lack shoulders.
* Out of Chile and into Argentina again. Fortunately all this processing
was efficient and courteous. A sign declared that it should be so, and
how to report if it were not.
* 10 miles of PAVEMENT to our fortunately reserved room in Rio Grande.
February 18. 190 miles, half ripio, half asphalt, the last of our 2500 mile
arc from Santiago to Ushuaia. As our route curved westward and
approached the Andes the ground rose and rolled, and low conifer forests
appeared. We traversed a spectacular mountain pass via cliffside
construction. The last 25 miles to Ushuaia were on new asphalt, which
Argentina is extending northward. We transferred our one-night-stand
reservation to a hotel where we could stay for several nights. We investigated the possibility of heavily discounted passage to Antarctica on a Russian icebreaker, about which we had read.
Ushuaia is spread out on the curved steep rim of its harbor, with a
semicircle of snowy peaks and glaciers above it. We drove up to a
chairlift, parked, and were carried up towards a glacier. There we enjoyed hot
chocolate and a magnificent view. The little city gets its water from
glaciers above it, like Boulder, Colorado.
February 20. We took a 9 hour catamaran excursion down the Beagle
Channel, passing a few yards from separate colonies of sea lions,
penguins, and cormorants, and stopping for an hour at an estancia
(ranch) founded and still run by Englishmen. Marge caught her foot
on a metal stair on the boat, but after the fall followed our guide and
group on rough trails. When we returned to our hotel in Ushuaia the
pain, swelling and coloration of her left shin mandated a visit to the
local hospital emergency room. She was wheelchaired down long
faded corridors, and treated by solicitous and apparently competent
nurses and a doctor. Xrays determined the bone
was not broken. Total charge: 4 pesos, or $1.35. An injection, pills, ice
PS: It's still so marked in 2015.
February 21. Marge stayed put. I tended, shopped, and used the
Internet. The government tourist agency told me that there were cabins
left on the 3 Russian ships leaving for Antarctica that evening, and the
price had been reduced to $1,500. Considering that demand exceeds
supply, it was not surprising that that turned out to be false. Minimum
passage is $2,400, and the norm $4,500, which was too much for us.
February 22. I continued composing this opus and Marge updated her diary. She
went out with me to eat and shop, a good sign that she was recovering.
Tomorrow we will head north, for hundreds of miles of ripio and gorgeous
mountain-glacier-lake scenery, enroute to Santiago.
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