please note all photos in this post can be viewed larger by opening in a new tab (right-click)
The port city for our Antarctic adventure was Ushuaia, Argentina, at the very tippy southern tip of South America. It has adopted for itself the nickname, "The End of the World." This is also the gateway to the Argentinian side of Patagonia. Years ago, I backpacked the Paine Circuit in Torres Del Paine National Park on the Chilean side of Patagonia with my family, which was a heck of a trek. If I had to pick which country's side was more spectacular, I'd be forced to say Chile. But Argentina was astoundingly beautiful and I would recommend it to anybody! I would only recommend the sights accessible on the Paine Circuit to very fit people. We backpacked for 2 weeks around it. And it was probably the most challenging physical feat I've personally done. The sights we saw around the Ushuaia area, however, which include the well-known Tierra del Fuego National Park, have a variety of trail difficulties from super-easy to difficult. We didn't do any of the ones with a "difficult" rating. But even the ones rated "medium" were quite easy ... this from a not-particularly fit person. People often think because I have a slight frame it indicates fitness, but it ain't so. I don't necessarily sit on my couch, so I'll call myself a house potato (as opposed to a couch potato). I don't leave my property sometimes for weeks! (I have a lovely property, of course.)
So we spent two days hiking in Tierra del Fuego National Park. This park has a wide variety of landscapes and landscape features, plus a wonderfully dynamic sky always changing with fast-moving clouds. Tierra del Fuego is actually an island and is divided between Argentina and Chile. The national park of the same name is the southern-most park in Argentina and borders the Beagle Channel, so named after the ship of the same name that carried none other than Charles Darwin on his second voyage down the South American coast.
Some of the trails in the park follow the shoreline, and some head inland up steep hillsides. Our first day in the park we headed to the southern-most part, Bahia Lapataia. This is end of the Pan-American highway.
Although the Patagonia region in general is most renowned for its mountain scenery, with textured and colorful peaks rising very sharply and dramatically from sea level, what Erik found perhaps most captivating was the endless supply of perfect rock-skipping stones. I do not know how to skip rocks, but it's a favored past-time of Erik's whenever we come across the right stones. (I know what they look like and help pick them out for E.) Look at that back swing!
Besides the piles of skipping stones, there are many interesting rocks everywhere. I knew to expect the rocky peaks, but the rocks on the ground were unexpectedly beautiful and complex in their topography and color, sometimes sporting almost neon-bright lichen formations. I'm one of those people who likes rocks anyway and often walks along with her nose to the ground, and can't help herself from picking up a pretty one when she sees it. The likelihood of her subsequently taking it home depends on its size relative to the size of her pocket. Except if she sees a sign somewhere specifically prohibiting taking rocks out of a park, then she obeys the rules. Except once when she took them from Volcanoes Nat'l Park in Hawaii, but subsequently mailed them back. The park brochure provides an address specifically for mailing back rocks, so I was far from the only thief.
Ecologically, the Tierra del Fuego region (which extends beyond the national park into a whole province at the southern tip of Argentina) is a "subantarctic forest." I didn't even know there was such a thing until I got there. To look at it and walk through it, an ecological layperson such as myself would mistake it for more of a tropical forest, such is the lushness -- the moss, the density of bushes and trees, the birds singing all around, etc.
The only difference is the chilly temperature, even in the middle of summer (which is December-March in the southern hemisphere), and the fierce winds that blow as soon as you emerge from the forest. It's really shocking when you step out of the forest, which is calm and still, into the open and feel the blast of wind which you would never suspect from inside the forest. So suffice to say that Ushuaia is not a warm place, even in the middle of summer -- the closest piece of continent to the Antarctic peninsula. Astonishingly, the native Yaghan people lived there for thousands of years before Western contact in near nudity. We were there only a couple days before their summer solstice and needed layers and fleece jackets, yet those people walked around naked! Some archival photos show them with a light animal-skin cape hanging around their neck. Hardy folks.
I think this might be my favorite photo I took from Tierra del Fuego National Park.
One of my very favorite flower types is orchids. I try to grow them indoors at home all the time. So imagine my delight when I was walking along the path and spotted patches of these white orchids.
This curious fungus grows on many of the trees. When the round pods fall on the ground, they look like little fruits, and at first that's what we thought they were. In fact, they're referred to as beech oranges, a little Google research informed me after I got home, and native cultures in the area did eat them. Their scientific name, though, includes the name of the man who first classified them, Darwin, during his Beagle Channel voyage. Eventually they grow into huge tumors on the trees, but the trees seldom seem to suffer for it. The fungus grows on trees that only grow in the southern hemisphere.
Another compelling flower along the paths ... looks like a giant insect with long spindly legs crawling out of the bushes.
One thing I was very excited to see -- which had been mentioned in the park brochure as a possibility, so I had my eyes peeled -- was green parrots! We saw them one day on the Paine Circuit, too. But other than that, as I pretty much have only seen parrots inside of cages, I think it's super cool to see them in the wild. We knew what they sounded like from having seen a bunch in the trees in Colonia, Uruguay, just a few weeks earlier, so we actually heard them first and then looked around to spot them ... you can see they are a bit camouflaged. I could not get a good picture of them, but here are some lame ones, just to prove to you I saw them. :)
We ran across some other cool birds, too, but similarly, I couldn't get a good photo. This little brown one, I have a series of 4 or 5 pics of bare ground. That's where the bird was when I pressed the shutter, and by the time it opened and closed, the bird had flitted away. Pretty impressive how speedily it could hop around.
These geese are very popular throughout the park.
I was excited to learn there were lots of beavers in Tierra del Fuego, I really want to see one, and they live in my area but I never see them. Then I learned that they were imported into the area to breed for their prized fur, and have since become an invasive species and real problem. Too bad. I did see two of them, one swimming with a branch, but the pleasure was diluted with the knowledge it doesn't belong there and it's causing the native species big problems.
The strangest creature of all in the park was this outhouse troll. Had built a nest in an old, dilapidated outhouse just off one of the trails.
One afternoon we took a drive along the Pan-American highway out of town north and saw some very lovely scenery along the way.
After two days in the national park, we took another day to hike to nearby Lake Esmeralda, which I had read was one of the top-rated things to see near Ushuaia. The trail started out very muddy. Then it opened up to a couple different valleys with some striking mountain peaks rising up on the horizon.
Then back into a densely forested section, then into the open again where we were confronted with a large peat bog. The trail disappears and it's every man for himself finding tufts of moss solid enough to jump to and land on without sinking into the water. I've encountered these before backpacking (once on the Paine Circuit) and they really are not fun to navigate with a backpack whose weight hinders your jumping capabilities, and whose bulk messes with your balance. But sans backpack, it's like a game, like playing "Crocodile" as a kid, having to jump from one thing to another without touching the ground. Plus knowing at the end of the day we'd be relaxing in a heated hostel room with a hot shower rather than having to pitch a tent and crawl inside, made the risk of getting wet feet, or even falling in, nothing dramatic.
We made it to Lake Esmeralda just long enough to see that its name was warranted -- emerald green water, indeed -- before it started raining with a pretty good pelt factor. I was afraid of the bog getting more challenging to cross if it kept raining, so we did not stay for lunch as was our original plan, but instead high-tailed it out. (you can see a raindrop smudge already got on the camera)
So now it was raining hard enough that we dug out our rain pants from the day pack and began running back across the peat bog, not taking time to pick our steps so carefully as we did through the bog on the way in. One valid strategy to not sinking in is to simply run so fast that your feet never have time to sink unless you plant one in a really deep hole. So Erik was running pell-mell through the bog, jumping side to side onto the most promising patches of peat moss. I wish I could describe it better because I was behind him in stitches, it was so funny. He looked like a pinball or a pachinko ball on its way down.
By the time we got through the next stretch of dense trees to the next big meadow, the rain had ceased, the sun was out, and it was the perfect spot for our picnic lunch.
After the accommodation on board our ship, Sea Spirit, which we considered rather high-class and luxurious (for reference, we're typically budget to mid-range travelers), our humble hostel room in Ushuaia was a kind of culture shock, except it was accommodation shock. haha. Since we are used to budget digs, it was fine with us, but just kind of interesting. If you ever decide to go to Ushuaia, let me warn you that the price of everything is shockingly high. I figured Buenos Aires would be the most expensive city in Argentina, but not so by a long shot. Food, accommodation, toiletries, clothes, sunglasses (we found out) ... everything costs.
Although many people hitchhike around Ushuaia, I strongly recommend a vehicle. You can cover much more ground and far more conveniently. Of course, it's expensive, but my opinion is it's worth it. However, be warned!! If you need to fill up the car with gas before returning it, the line for the gas pump near the port is obscene. We waited for 30 minutes, and saw longer lines than the one we were in, stretched well out of the station and down the block on the street. So plan your time accordingly! In fact, plan your time in all things to account for gridlock traffic on the streets around the city center and port. Ushuaia's population is growing by 5,000 people per year with no evolving roadways to accommodate it. You can literally walk somewhere faster than you can drive in that relatively small area around the port. It's not the tourist industry that's booming, but manufacturing. Strangely, for such a spectacularly-located town, it wasn't founded by the Argentinians as a tourist destination either, but rather, as a prison.
There were two wonderful things about our budget room -- one was a very lovely view from a large picture window. The other was two friendly kitties who let themselves into our room when our door was open (for a little fresh air) and subsequently could be easily lured in to hang out with us and play and be petted. So this little kitten below, whom we named Loco Button, was a stray who had shown up at the hostel a couple days before we arrived. He was so crazy sometimes, he'd hide under the edge of the bed quilt on the floor and then sproing out and attack our feet as we passed by. He'd hide behind the chair in the corner and then leap up to the top of it and drop back down, leap back up, etc. Erik found a bird video on Youtube for him to watch on our laptop and he sat on our bed watching. He napped with us. One time Eirk and I were lying down napping after a day of hiking next to each other on our backs so our elbows were touching, and the kitten wanted to sleep with us but he couldn't decide who he wanted to cuddle with. First snuggled up to Erik, then to me, then back to Erik, finally he draped himself over our arms where they met so he was lying on top of both of us simultaneously. Over time he migrated down but always staying on both of us, so eventually he bridged the gap between our legs with his head pressed against Erk's leg and his arms stretched out and paws pressed against mine.
The other kitty belonged to the hostel owner. She was super friendly, and after she realized how nice it was to be in our room where she could be petted and played with, we could call out to her as we were walking back up to our room from being out or from breakfast, or whatever, and she'd come!
Now allow me to briefly reveal what you can get as "the better half" (like, $250-$350 per night). We stayed here one night because it was included as the first night of our Antarctic expedition in the port city. It's funny how many of the rooms in Ushuaia are listed with their square footage ... seems to be an important issue around there. And we amusingly went continually downhill (in all aspects) since our arrival. The room at Hotel Arakur is listed as 400 sq ft. Our cabin on the ship was an opulent 215 sq ft, and that's not being sarcastic because they were the largest rooms for a regular cabin class in the Antarctic fleet. Our hostel room was advertised as the largest private hostel room in Ushuaia at 189 sq ft. The Arakur was a high-tech hotel out of a movie (it seemed to low-class me). Everything was operated from a panel, so you pushed a button to make the window shades go down, to make a shade go down between bathroom and bed, a button for all your lights, a button for your alarm clock which was not a harsh "beep beep beep," but began softly as the soothing sound of ocean waves and then got louder and louder with seagulls calling and such.
There was an indoor pool and spa, which we intended to use during the day before boarding the ship, but a very strange kink happened in our car rental reservation, which was a pretty random fortune that we were clued into it before we landed back in Ushuaia and needed to rent the car. So we spent the afternoon sorting that out instead.
So a lovely stay in Ushuaia. Had we the time (and money), there were many more hiking opportunities we could have taken. But really, three full hiking days and a scenic drive felt just about right.