Ushuaia, nestled between the Beagle Channel and the Martial Mountains, is the southernmost city in the world. A gaudy tourist trap at present, it was originally an Argentinian penal colony. Back in those days, a train ran west from the settlement into what is now Tierra del Fuego National Park. Prisoners would take this train into the wilderness and chop down lumber for the construction of the town.
The last seven kilometers of the old rail line still exist and, like the city itself, has turned into a cheesy tourist attraction – El Tren del Fin del Mundo. For a mere $1200 Argentinian Pesos ($30 USD) you can ride in a cramped passenger car along a narrow, twisty track pulled by an actual steam-driven locomotive from a terminal 8km outside of Ushuaia into the National Park itself. For an extra fee you can have a cheesy photo taken with actors in prison garb.
It’s the most expensive and complicated way to get into the park, but come on – there’s no way we could pass it up. (Except for the cheesy prison photo.) The ride takes an hour to go 7km, putting it at the pace of leisurely jog. There’s a recorded narration in Spanish, English, and Portuguese, set to – I kid you not – the theme to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Conan the Barbarian.
From the platform on the other end, you’re still at least 8km from most of the hiking trails. The easy way to see the rest of the park is to book a tour that takes you to the train station, picks you up at the end of the ride, and drives you around for the rest of the day. The cheapskate way (our way) is to hire a cheap transport company to do the driving and hike on our own with nothing but a poorly detailed and somewhat inaccurate park map as a guide.
Tierra del Fuego National Park is a beautiful confluence of mountains, meadows, lakes, rivers, and winds straight from Cape Horn. These were nothing to the gales that blew us over at Torres del Paine, but the hiking was long enough that it made me pine for my crappy old Honda. Eventually we found our way back to the end of the rail line and waited in the rain for the train back to town. And that, it turns out, was an adventure all on its own.
“An adventure is something horrible that happens to someone else.”
-Charles Stross, Accelerando
It turns out that the company we hired to do our driving for us was further on the shady side than we’d have liked. (When we mentioned who we were waiting for, an attendant at Tren del Fin del Mundo said, “Ooh, I wouldn’t recommend them.”) But on Friday they took us up to the Martial Glacier and back with no problem, so we booked them for Tierra del Fuego Day as well.
They took us out to the train station, but never turned up at the other end. If we’d waited five more minutes (after the twenty we’d already hung around past pickup time) we could have ridden with one of their partner companies, but we hitched a ride with another driver who took pity on us. We were able to find our own company again to take us from the Tierra del Fuego Interpretive Center to the park train platform, but they never showed at the Ushuaia platform to take us back to town. All the other passengers and train station employees had left for the day. We had to contact them several times until they finally sent a driver from a different company to get us.
Half a week in Argentina and our relationship with this country is already a little… antagonistic, shall we say. Part of the problem isn’t Argentina’s fault, it’s just that we’re running into Tourist Season in a part of the world that’s solely comprised of tourist trap islands separated by hundreds and hundreds of kilometers of absolutely nothing else.
Our bus left Punta Arenas at 8:30 a.m. on the day after Christmas and arrived ten long, tedious hours later. Unlike other ten-hour rides we’ve endured, this was at least broken up in spots, first for the ferry ride across the Strait of Magellan and later at the border crossing between Chile and Argentina. Border crossings stress me out, but at least they give you a chance to stretch your legs.
Then we got to Ushuaia and had to climb up an [expletive deleted] mountain. I guess we’ve gotten spoiled. With the exception of Valparaiso, all of the places we stayed in Chile were flat. What little flat land there is in Ushuaia is taken up by the coast road, travel agencies, shopping, and expensive restaurants. The one affordable hostel that wasn’t miles outside of town was still a leg-breaking climb up eight steep blocks from the bus station and it wasn’t close to anything. Laundry, groceries, restaurants, bus tickets – everything we needed required us to repel down the mountain and climb the rock wall back to our room afterward.
Maybe it’s not fair to blame a country for its own geography. You get what you’re born with, fine. But the buses – the buses are a point on which it feels like our travel luck almost ran out and Argentina nearly put us in a bind.
We’ve already had to shift gears in terms of booking rooms. For months we had the luxury of flexibility, the option to extend stays in cities we liked and not lock ourselves into accommodations until shortly before we traveled elsewhere. Because it’s now High Season we’ve had to book our rooms much farther in advance, but we didn’t realize that we had to do the same for our transits. We don’t like buying bus tickets online because so far we’ve always found that there are more, cheaper options available when booking in person at the bus station and paying in cash.
Ushuaia doesn’t have a bus station. It has a parking lot where buses drop you off and pick you up. Okay. Fine. The bus company offices were several blocks up the street and we already knew that we wanted to leave on Saturday. As soon as we dropped our luggage at the hostel we scaled back down the cliff to make arrangements for the next leg of our journey.
We knew that there were three bus companies that ran into and out of Ushuaia. What we discovered that evening was that two of them only run routes back into Chile. The third company, Marga/Taqsa, is the only bus company that will take you from Argentina to Argentina, and they only run one bus a day out of town. And the bus on Saturday was already full.
This, dear readers, is when I started to panic. Using crampons, pickaxes, and other mountaineering gear, we climbed back to our hostel and prayed to our lord and savior the Internet for a solution. A search of bus websites confirmed what we’d been told – there was no way out of Ushuaia on Saturday unless we stowed away on a cruise ship. We inquired at our hostel about staying an extra night, but no luck there either – they were already booked up. So not only did we have to find out if we could leave Ushuaia on Sunday and get to our next stop in El Calafate, but we also had to find lodging on a weekend in a town that was already booked out.
I won’t lie. I’ve got this irrational fear that somewhere along the way we’re going to get stuck sleeping in a bus station. (It’s happened before – we spent a cold night in the Mexico City airport in October 2017 because our layover hotel canceled our reservation.) Thankfully it didn’t happen here. There were a handful of places with beds still available, and we found a room at a hotel that ended up being much nicer than its rating on Booking.com suggested. And we got Sunday bus tickets – twelve hours from Ushuaia to Rio Gallegos, then a layover and another four hour ride to El Calafate, arriving at our next tourist trap at 12:30 in the morning on December 31st. We went ahead and booked our next ride too, an overnight haul to Los Antiguos a week from now, despite the online service fees.
It was a hell of a transit day, but at least we weren’t huddled outside with our luggage in the rain in the town at the End of the World. Ushuaia was such a tourist town that it never really struck me that we’d crossed into another country until we left Tierra del Fuego behind and were riding across the endless pampas. This vast, brown expanse of dry scrub was not pretty during the day, but during the long southern sunset the plain turned to gold as far as we could see.
At last we’ve turned the corner. We’ve traveled as far south as we ever will until we come back for a cruise to the Antarctic. From here the nights will get longer and the days will slowly grow warmer. We’ve come to the other side of the Andes into a whole new world to explore. Four more countries remain, with glaciers, grasslands, beaches, and jungle. A new year starts tomorrow. Who knows what it’s going to bring?
P.S. We miss you, Chile!
One last shout-out to the country that’s been our home for two months, and to Punta Arenas – a much nicer place than Ushuaia. (There, I said it.) Christmas and Christmas Eve were two lazy days spent recovering from our blitz of excursions. (See last week’s article.) However, while drinking Carménère and eating at wonderful Casino buffets are in themselves worthwhile things to do for the holidays, Punta Arenas still had more to offer. On Christmas Eve, we visited an outdoor museum with full-size recreations of Ferdinand Magellan’s Victoria, a very tiny ship to sail around the world, and H.M.S. Beagle, a cruise liner by comparison. You can climb on board and wander around these models, getting a feel for how unimaginably hard life at sea must have been during the Age of Exploration.
On Christmas we went to the cemetery, since it was the only thing open. We weren’t the only ones. The place was packed with tourists looking for something to do!
Which, at last, bring us to:
Lea’s Christmas Day Cemetery Flower Macrophotography