Ushuaia & the Tierra del Fuego

Posted by on Mar 10, 2014

Ushuaia & the Tierra del Fuego
Coodinates:   54°48’26” South      68°18’16” West

 

There are a number of couchhosts in Ushuaia but only about 2 that are actively participating so I count myself fortunate to have had my request accepted by Carlos within about six hours of sending it. I always read the profiles of those to whom I send requests and I remember a unique detail about Carlos’ profile which caught my attention. He had expressed a wish to visit Pripyat, the modern day ghost town abandoned hours after the explosion of reactor 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in April of 1986. Photos show this soviet era city disappearing behind an advancing tide of green vegetation which is reclaiming the paved roads and public squares, softening at first gave the lethal legacy  which lies silent and deadly in the corners of the hollowed out shells of buildings, or in pockets beneath scraps of debris. In the background the colossus of the abandoned nuclear power plant lies in a sarcophagus of concrete enclosing the melted remains of what before Fukushima had been the world’s worst industrial accident. Before the accident, Pripyat had been a modern and prosperous Soviet city and was home to many workers at the nuclear plant which, up until that time, had had a ‘stellar safety record’. The modern day zone of exclusion extends to a radius of 25km from the plant in every direction where radioactive isotopes in dangerously high concentrations which had been splattered into the ecosystem and thrown up into the atmosphere from the blast, will keep it this way for at the very least many decades to come. Shortcuts in the plant’s completion schedule and an incomprehensibly murderous mentality of the soviet government to construct a plant using such a toxic and inherently explosive technology without containment demonstrates a sinister, psychopathic and flagrantly irresponsible behaviour on behalf of a governing body. In what is emerging as a pattern, the Japanese regulator showed the same deplorable lack of responsibility towards their nation’s health when known design flaws in the containment systems of the Fukushima reactors were not addressed, nor was the sea wall raised despite a historical precedent of higher tsunamis than the wall was designed to withstand which had hit the Japanese coast, or the refusal to install submersible pumps (used to cool the plant) which would operate underwater, when, and not if, a tsunami flooded them. People can visit the zone of exclusion at Chernobyl, armed with Geiger counters to measure radiation one can walk through many of the areas and to do so would be a fascinating if eerie experience to the curious explorer so I can understand Carlos’ desire to see this for himself.

Ushuaia, located on the southern edge of the Tierra del Fuego at 52 degrees 69 minutes south has become popular in tourstic circles for it’s badge of being ‘the southernmost city in the world’. It is a port city in the Beagle channel and is the lugar de salida (leaving point) for cruise ships bound for Antarctica. For just USD4,000 you too can visit the White Continent!

Where the north of the Tierra del Fuego is barren farmland without even trees, the southern half is comprised of forests, lakes, glaciers and snow-capped mountains; the more traditional austral landscapes. I travelled in bus from Punta Arenas in Chile across the northern half of the island, before crossing into Argentina which has a smaller slice of the island along its western edge. My route took me past the depressingly boring looking industrial city of Río Grande called La Ciudad de tus Sueños ‘The City of Your Dreams!’ before entering the forests and mountains to the north of Ushuaia, itself spread out on the shores of the Beagle Channel. The summer in Ushuaia is cold and when it’s windy, it can be really cold. The snow line is easily visible on the surrounding mountains and descends quite far, the proof of summer, I am told is in the fact that the city itself is free from snow-drifts and light for as much as 20 hours of the day at its longest point. I had everything planned out and expected it to run like a well oiled machine, arriving late on a Sunday and looking for a place to buy a SIM card so I could call my host and ask him his address so that I could arrive so that we could leave straight away for the national park and go trekking. After an hour and a half of a lot of backwards and forwards this is what I did and soon we were on the side of the road, arms and thumbs extended looking for a late-evening ride to the national park. Fortunately we found someone almost immediately who took us all the way into the national park where due to our late arrival we didn’t have to pay the substantial entrance fee and dropped us off right at the carpark near the campground. Then I realised I’d left my camera behind at the apartment.

 

We set up camp, took some dusk photos (at 10:30pm – with Carlos’s camera) of Lago Roca and prepared a meal and chatted before going to bed. The next we walked up Cerro Guanaco in all its muddy, sloppy, rocky, icy glory to see Ushuaia, the Beagle Channel, Isla Navarino which belongs to Chile and much of the Tierra del Fuego National Park. On the summit it was truly freezing and the cloud obscured the view of the city but soon the wind blew the clouds apart for a brief moment and we saw Ushuaia backed by mountains which continued around to the one we were standing on and off towards the west. On the Isla Navarino more snowy mountains disappeared from view and behind us the valley and the lake of the national park were also visible. From above the view was wide and stark and the light shone through openings in the clouds in shafts, illuminating parts of the landscape and leaving others in shadow. I had seen a similar effect in Bariloche some 10 months earlier though this view as colder and more extreme. Here the distances were shrouded in grey instead of blue and one really felt like this was the end of the world. Just away beyond those mountains and glaciers was 2,000kms of turbulent and freezing ocean before steel grey water would turn to ice heralding the beginnings of the white continent.

Despite the cold weather we stayed on the summit for one and a half hours before retracing our steps to the campground in about half the time. We wanted to do more walks in the national park but had run out of town so we packed up and began walking along the road, waiting for someone else to carry us back to Ushuaia. We were not waiting long.

 

I stayed 5 days in total and walked the city with Vlad from the US who was also visiting and whom I had met in Punta Arenas. He’d left the US and travelled south through Central America and Colombia before heading to the extreme end of Argentina. He spoke of his plans to start a hostel or internet cafe in the Colombian city of Medellín and chatting thus we did various activities in and around Ushuaia. Deciding on the modality of transport out of Ushuaia I weighed the options of flying or bussing and decided on the former. When the day came to leave I arrived at the airport to discover that my flight had been delayed, joining the crowd of listless, confused and a little bit angry people sitting against the walls or searching for powerpoints. Vlad arrived for his flight to Buenos Aires (I was going to El Calafate) to find his flight delayed. We watched a movie together then we found out that his flight had been further delayed, and that mine had been cancelled all together. There was a mad scramble for food, transport and accommodation coupons which were dutifully dished out – naturally the food was horrible. Vlad stayed at the airport and eventually flew out 12 hours late; I went to a hotel and arrived at midday the next day to general chaos and uncertainty as what had before been listless passengers were beginning to show signs of hysteria. There were women in tears and men speaking in heated tones – there were women speaking in heated tones as well although I didn’t see any men in tears, well one, but he still had his baby teeth. Areolíneas Argentinas enjoys a state-controlled monopoly and all the inefficiency and general shite which that entails. I overhead the hotel managers where I stayed complaining about coupons from the airline in that they would often have to wait as much as a year to see any money from them. Everyone is getting screwed – the passengers, the unwilling support crew, everyone. Aerolíneas is a shabby airline with terrible food and an illustrious history of being delayed. In state-protectionist wack-jobbery they also run two discriminatory tariffs for foreigners and Argentineans whereby foreigners get screwed to help cover the costs of what I perceive to be a top heavy bureaucracy. If anything in Argentina has the faintest whiff of the words ‘presidencia de la nación’, flee flee flee. Unfortunately, more and more things do.

I did get out eventually, and arrived one day late in El Chaltén.

 

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