Travels in Puerto Natales, Chile and Ushuaia, Argentina
01.30.2013 - 02.05.2013
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After a 6-hour bus ride from Calafate to Puerto Natales, a tiny lively Chilean woman (our B&B hostess from Pire Mapu, Fabiana) picked us up at the bus station. TripAdvisor has been guiding us well on this journey, and we stayed in a quaint bed and breakfast for three days just outside the city center. This town is about 100km south of South America’s most visited national park: Parque Nacional Torres Del Paine. A ton of hikers go to the national park to complete the “W” trek or the full “O” circuit around the Torres del Paine and the Cuernos del Paine. Ryan and I were not that ambitious and only planned on spending one day in the park.
Sadly, there was a huge fire at the park that started in December, 2011. A hiker was cooking in the wrong area, and wind caught the fire. It lasted for 3 weeks with fire fighters from all over the world (including the States) arriving to assist with putting out the flames. The problem is the excessive wind in the park, and the fire kept getting blown over the lakes rather than stopping at the water. Upon entering the park, we had to watch fire prevention videos and sign paperwork saying that we would not start a fire. I bet that person felt like a huge jackass for starting that fire. Here is a picture of some of the damaged landscape:
After catching break after break with relatively good weather everywhere we’ve been to this point, our luck finally changed a bit in Torres del Paine. We were told to plan for all four seasons at the park, and our draw once we got off the bus was a Winter storm (in the middle of summer). It was incredibly windy and sleeting at the same time. Ryan was a little hesitant to take many pictures initially since there wasn’t much to see and he didn’t want to risk damaging any of his gear. We caught a bit of a break when Spring showed up for a few moments allowing us to make another quick video and snap a few photos (the bright moss and absence of trees really made for some interesting shots). We’ve also included a ‘borrowed’ pic from Google images below to give you an idea of what this place looks like with a bit better weather. With the weather looking terrible and the forecast not promising, our day excursion turned into only a 3-hour hike due to the weather. Once back on the bus to Puerto Natales we felt like pansies for only spending a few hours. Other trekkers who had been hiking at the park for 4 days to a week were passed out everywhere on the bus. (Apologies in advance for the howling wind on the video...)
The silver-lining to crummy weather in the park was that our half-day trek around the park allowed us time to come back and explore the charming town of Puerto Natales. It started as a mining town, but all of the hiking traffic headed for Torres Del Paine has really boosted the tourism economy. We spent the rest of our day sightseeing around Puerto Natales and finished with a delicious dinner at Afrigonia – a fun restaurant serving “African-South American Fusion” cuisine. Afrigonia and the recently-established brewpub Baguales kept us well-fed on our Chilean stopover.
After reading Bruce Chatwin’s, “In Patagonia”, the statue of the giant bear sloth at the entrance of Puerto Natales makes sense. Apparently there were sightings of milodons (giant bear sloths) throughout Patagonia, and the town had the image on each street sign. Also, there was the most creative sculpture next to the water of a man and woman flying over the bay. The imaginative sculpture accurately captured the feeling of the wind and the waterfront.
Ushuaia. Patagonia is an expansive place, and our bus ride from Puerto Natales, Chile to Ushuaia, Argentina took 13 hours. Aahh! Luckily, we won’t have any more of those sedentary days on a bus. We could not wait to walk around once we finally made our destination in the southernmost city in the world (nicknamed “el Fin del Mundo” – the End of the World). Random fact: the Pan-American Highway actually ends just west of the city here in the Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego (where it is known as “Highway 3”). This highway actually runs more than 17,000km from Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina to Alaska! Ushuaia is a beautiful town with the Andes running west-east marking the northern border of the city and Ushuaia Bay and the Beagle Channel marking the southern border just a few miles from the mountains! Random fact #2: the province (and park) of Tierra del Fuego (Land of the Fire) get their name from the native Americans (“Fuegians”) first discovered here hundreds of years ago. They wore very little clothing at any time of the year but were able to stay warm by effectively keeping fires going all over the place (even in their canoes). As result, the region earned itself the nickname “The Land of Fire.”
There is a fair amount of cruise traffic in this town because people embark on trips to Antarctica from Ushuaia. Ryan and I had some energy to burn after our excessive bus ride, and we attempted a local hike up to a glacier (much smaller than Perito Moreno). The trail was not really well-defined, and we ended up getting a little lost on a trail that was making a huge loop. Regardless, it was fun until it started dumping rain. One moment we were in the woods, and there were three different options of possible trails to take. Fortunately, we picked the option that took us to an abandoned ski trail that went straight down the mountain towards town… Maybe we should stick to guided tours!
I knew I was getting close to seeing my favorite animal because all of the store windows were adorned with stuffed versions and tiny sculptures of them – PENGUINS! We were so excited about our excursion to Haberton Estancia and our boat ride out to Martillo Island to see the penguins. This was our main event in Ushuaia. Ryan and I were blown away with the sheer number of the Magellanic penguins on the island. Our group of 18 tourists slowly got off the boat and sat on the beach. Most of the penguins just watched us, but some of them waddled over and closely inspected us. They were really friendly and didn’t seem afraid of us at all.
Our spunky tour guide warned us to control our emotions once on the island! I guess people get overwhelmed and try to pet the penguins or something. We slowly hiked around the island, saw their nesting grounds and even observed baby penguins in the process of shedding all of their grey feathers. Every few moments a male penguin would look to the sky and make quite a bit of noise trying to call its mate. Magellanic penguins mostly stay with the same mate for life. Our guide said that the female looks around to see which nesting hole created by the male was the best and chooses her mate based upon the most inviting habitat for raising her babies. On rare occasions the female penguin may change mates, but interestingly, she will never change the neighborhood that the original nest was located in. We had to move slowly throughout the penguins’ area because different penguins kept joining us or wandering near us over the course of the hike. There was a section of the island where slightly larger penguins, Gentoo, hung out. These penguins had white fluffy eyebrows with orange beaks and feet. All in all, it was a huge treat to hang out with the penguins! (As with Perito Moreno, there were so many fun pictures on Martillo that we included a few here - but feel free to check the others out in the full photography gallery)
Ushuaia is a charming town full of cafes, chocolate shops and seafood restaurants. The night before our penguin excursion was Super Bowl Sunday. At the southernmost city at the end of the world, we came across an Irish pub advertising the game. The restaurant had its own idea on “Irish food” – even going as far as to offer up Ryan’s dinner choice of a cebolla (king crab) pizza freshly caught near Ushuaia. Ryan and I continued our policy of trying different local beers from everywhere we travel and opted to try Isenbeck that evening (think Coors Light) instead of the Quilmes that had been our staple prior to that point in Argentina. Apart from the food, it felt nice to watch some familiar football after 3 weeks of “soccer” watching. The older Argentinian couples in the bar couldn’t have cared less about the Super Bowl though.
The next evening Ryan and I stumbled across a gem of a restaurant called La Casa de los Mariscos (Seafood House). The fish tasted like they had just caught it that afternoon. We were in heaven and if we had more time in Ushuaia we would definitely have eaten there again. Also, Argentinian wine is very affordable in restaurants. For about $8-10 USD you can enjoy a great bottle of Argentinian wine with dinner. Casa de los Mariscos allowed Ryan and I access to a part of the local culture that he and I both share a real appreciation for – the food! Getting out around these towns and stumbling into local establishments to sample the local cuisine is a big part of what we both feel really constitutes a significant piece of the travelling experience.
After a terrific dinner, Ryan and I took one last well-lit late night stroll through downtown Ushuaia and headed back to our hostel. Southern Patagonia gets roughly 16-18 hours of sunlight during the longer parts of the summer; it takes some serious discipline to be in bed before the sun goes down!