I encourage others to share their travels in hopes it inspires others. Whenever a close friend of mine goes on a trip, I ask if they are willing to share on AngelaTravels. To my delight, my friend, Tobias, went on an epic trip to South America and was willing to share his story.
I’ve never been to Alaska but I imagine that the stark landscapes, limited biodiversity, and harsh weather found in Ushuaia, Argentina (the world’s southernmost city, and the de facto urban cultural center of the Tierra Del Fuego region) mirrors many parts of Alaska. “Stark” and “harsh” are not meant pejoratively as both regions harbor unassailable beauty, but it is a beauty characterized by hard lines and inclement conditions. The day treks closest to the city offer sweeping, majestic views, while the surrounding peaks and ranges provide options to gain more spectacular vantage points and increase the challenge. If you climb, many of the peaks look tasty, but the terrain appears similar enough to North American ranges that the Tierra del Fuego summits may not intrinsically warrant a return trip.
Many folks use Ushuaia as a gateway to Antarctica or as a homebase to visit its nearby penguin populations. While penguin tour operators require admission fees that may exceed expectations, the trips are certainly well worth the cost. We lucked out with sightings of the only three King penguins that live in the area. Like the tours, regional day hikes often bring visitors within close proximity to wildlife. We were treated to encounters with wild parrots and beavers. Several weeks prior to the trip, I caught a beaver documentary on Netflix. Though the film accentuated the intelligence of these astounding creatures, it failed to fully capture the complexity of beaver architecture as I’ve seen forts built by ten-year olds that were significantly less developed than the beaver dams.
Most Ushuaian residents do not speak English and I felt as though I would have struggled had my French friends (wife and husband, Julie and Thaddée) not spoken conversational Spanish. However, Ushuaians are exceedingly nice and helpful, and the city feels very safe. Case in point, early in the trip, I left my camera on a tour bus and it was returned several hours later without issue.
The city offers most modern conveniences and generally keeps clean, but signs of neglect and abandoned cars are easily found, so it feels a bit worn, but not any more than some U.S cities such as Aberdeen, Washington or Michigan City, Indiana, for example. Our meals included a rotisserie and an all-you-can-eat asado (both are variations of grilled meats); neither impressed, so I would recommend making food from items bought in the supermercado and save splurging on meals for other locales.
On our first day hike, Thaddée suffered an injury requiring stitches which necessitated a visit to the emergency room. The doctors patched him up in less than two hours and charged a meager $25. Health providers in the United States would have certainly billed the patient hundreds of dollars to treat the same incident, thus, in my mind, the experience put the American Medical System on trial, and raised many questions which currently have no answers.
Ushuaia’s most surprising cultural product? The street art. It tackled different subjects (history, religion, rebellion) utilizing divergent styles (graffiti, Banksy, cartoon) in interesting and nuanced perspectives, and generally added a progressive vibe to the city.
Street art in Ushuaia. Photo credit: Tobias Cortese.
The exchange rate was about ten pesos per U.S. dollar, but unfortunately, prices in Ushuaia are about ten times that of the U.S., presumably due to Argentina’s developed nation status, high import taxes, and the difficulty of supplying goods to the “End of the World,” so visitors should expect to burn through their purse or wallet at rates similar to home.
Thaddée and Julie on the summit of Cerro Guanaco. Photo credit: Tobias Cortese.
On our second day, we hiked to the top of Cerro Guanaco and were delighted to find no tracks ahead of us due to the trail opening just a day or two earlier (or so we were told). We shared our bus back to Ushuaia from the trailhead with a small group of American college students. They were loud, vulgar, gossipy and easily identifiable as American. I felt disdain almost immediately.
I cringed, judged, and wondered if a person twenty years my senior would feel similarly towards me. It was at about that moment when another woman in the group exclaimed, in her most grating voice, that Ushuaia is beautiful, and that she is lucky and undeserving to experience it. With that act, she redeemed her generation (to some degree) and her age group for all generations, past and present, myself included.
Written by Tobias Cortese.
Travel date: December 17, 2015