I am dating these next few entries because we are aboard ship as I type this and will not be be able to send them out for at least another few days. (Our ship, the Via Australis, is a small (126 passenger) “expedition” passenger ship devoid of a lot of big cruise ship amenities: no internet, no swimming pool, no movie theater, etc. It does however have an open bar; this ain’t exactly the Shackelton expedition. Anyway, more on the ship shortly.)
Ushuaia (pronounced oosh-WAH-yuh, by the way) takes its reputation as the southernmost city on the world pretty seriously, to the point of indicating the latitude and longitude of the major intersections on its street signs, as you see at left. One second of latitude is about 100 feet, and one second of longitude is only about 55 feet or so at this latitude, so you can actually see the differences in the coordinates on the signs as you walk from block to block. (The main drag of Ushuaia is a single street of crappy souvenir shops and much better restaurants, about 16 blocks long.)
The problem with the whole “southernmost” self-image — we drove past a sign advertising “the world’s most southernmost golf course” today — is that unless you are actually in Antarctica you are always on slightly shaky ground. And indeed, there is a Chilean town called Port Williams that is slightly further south than Ushuaia (which is Argentine). But Port Williams has only 1500 inhabitants versus Ushuaia’s 65,000, and so a gentlemen’s agreement — and I swear this is true — was reached whereunder each gets uncontested bragging rights: Port Williams bills itself as the world’s most southernmost town, whereas Ushuaia is agreed to be the southernmost city. Chile and Argentina have a contentious and sometimes bellicose history, so this counts as a small victory for peace.
Our main activity on Monday morning was a visit to Tierra del Fuego National Park (proof at right) which in the spirit of things I suppose is the world’s most southernmost national park. The are a number of cool things about the place, but one of them is the entrance sign itself. Note the third line from the bottom, which means “Here is the end of National Route #3”, that being the designation of the Argentine portion of the Pan American Highway. In other words, this sign sign is REALLY the end of the road.
The park itself is beautiful, the vistas strongly reminiscent of both the Pacific Northwest and many parts of Alaska: glacial moraine, cold clear lakes, snow capped mountains. We made a few easy hikes, ogled the views, got educated by our local guide Laura and the flora and fauna. The vegetation is noticeably different than the temperate zone stuff that we are used to: lots of orange-colored spherical edible fungi on the trees, Calafata berry bushes (from which one makes Calafata Sours, Patagonia’s answer to the otherwise ubiquitous Pisco Sour). The picture below gives a pretty typical sense of the place:
There was a little bit of conversational confusion with Laura as she kept referring to “Fire Land”. She was trying to be helpful, since that is the literal translation of “Tierra del Fuego”, named after the fires lit on the beach by the native Yamana and first seen by Magellan. We assured her that we called the place by its Spanish Name.
The Yamana were a hardy crew, though not hardy enough to avoid being wiped out by the Spanish. They were master canoe builders, and their designs have not yet been successfully duplicated. They were also naked, since clothes in this environment tend to get wet and stay wet, thus keeping you cold. They smeared animal fat on their bods instead. (It makes me wonder if, much as the Inuit are said to have many words for snow, the Yamana had dozens of ways to say, “Holy crap, I’m freezing my butt off.”)
Speaking of being wiped out, another member of our traveling party did more or less that at about by tripping on a step as we were boarding the bus to leave the park. Broken wrist — she flew home from Ushuaia today. That’s our second loss, which brings the group down to 19. Julio’s not happy about it; he’s never lost two before. (And though he doesn’t know it, he’s going to get more bad news tomorrow: one of our party took sick with a cold or flu and is having trouble shaking it off. She has pretty much isolated herself in her hotel room and boat cabin, and told us in the hallway an hour ago that she is punching out too as soon as we come into port in Punta Arenas in two days.)
We got back from the park in time to have a late lunch before boarding the ship and decided to go full native in much the same way that we ate a whole fresh king crab for dinner the night before. The local specialty this time was barbecued lamb, and there are a large number of local restaurants dedicated to cooking mammals over wood fires and displaying the process in their windows as at left.
The waiter told us that a portion was suitable for one person, so we ordered two portions plus an appetizer. But as soon as we mentioned the appetizer (empanadas) he backpedaled and suggested that one portion of lamb might be enough, and we went with that. This turned out to be about 3 lbs of lamb on the bone, and we couldn’t finish it. But it was really good…
After lunch we walked all 16 blocks of downtown, then to the port to rendezvous with our group and board the Via Australis, which you see at right.
It’s a small, attractive ship that as I mentioned carries about 126 passengers. It has four decks plus an open top deck for panoramic viewing if you enjoy being out in the open in 40 degree weather in a 20 mph wind. The interior is quite beautifully appointed, all dark wood and brass. Our cabin is comfortable, about 11′ x 16′, on the lowermost deck right down the hall from the main dining room. (The rooms are identical on all decks, so lower down is good: less rocking.) One of the ship’s prominent features is not visible in the photo: a row of 4 Zodiacs in the back, to be used to ferry us 12 at a time to islands and glaciers. (As we shall see in our next installment.) Here we are looking back at Ushuaia as we leave port at about 7pm. Note the sterns of the Zodiacs at the bottom.