Tierra del Fuego

I returned to Punta Arenas late at night.

Utterly beat from my trek I hardly had the energy to brush my teeth. Sleep had never felt so good, even on the squeaky top bunk I was assigned.

I set my alarm and was up by 6 o’clock. I took my first shower in three days and filled myself with bread and coffee. My haste was due to the fact that all buses to Ushuaia leave Punta Arena before 9 a.m. and despite my best efforts in Puerto Natales, I had been unsuccessful in buying a ticket in advance.

Checking out, I was advised on the bus company to take and I set out. I arrived at the address to find the shop closed but with a sign in the window confirming there was a bus running to Ushuaia on Thursdays. The local tourism office was conveniently next door and after expressing my concern they assured me the bus would come.

I tried to be patient but 9 a.m. came and went. No bus. Shit.

At ten minutes past a woman casually strolled up to open the shop. I asked whether the bus was coming she looked at me like I was stupid. Not until Saturday. Double shit.

Knowing that there were no later buses I sprinted down the street to another company I knew about, only the learn I had missed their bus by mere minutes. Transportation options limited at the end of the world. There wasn’t a single bus until the next morning.

I was pretty steamed for a little bit. 

I was angry with the hostel for recommending a shit company, angry at said company for lying about their routes and being utterly unsympathetic, angry at the tourism office for being wrong, angry I had to stay in this lame duck town, angry I’d have less than 24 hours in Ushuaia, angry I could have spent another day in Torres del Paine.

It was not the ideal situation anyway you cut it, but I pulled it together. If I was going to be stuck here I might as well find a way to think of it fondly rather than be sour. I bought a bus ticket for the next morning and returned to the tourism office for information on local activities, even signing up to tour a penguin colony in the afternoon.

The hostel had yet to change the sheets on my bed and was still serving breakfast. I relaxed for the rest of the morning and caught up on some blogging. Things were not so bad.

Around noon I took a big walk around town. 

The sun was out but I was reasonably bundled up. This land is just made of wind. I had been told to see the local cemetery, which the tourism had bragged about in all seriousness as having been voted sixth most beautiful cemetery in the world. I’m becoming quite the veteran of looking at these death museums. They were right, it was a good one. Compared to the crumbling desert cemeteries I’d seen in up north, this place was remarkably well kept with much larger, marble tombs for some very wealthy dead people.

Besides the upkeep and massive size, this one was special for the lines of meticulously groomed trees, which had been trimmed in the shape of giant mushrooms. I wish I knew the breed of tree but the foliage is so dense that you can approach it at a run and bounce off like a vertical trampoline (I had to try).

I returned to the hostel and cooked what turned out to be a filling and delicious lunch with mismatched leftover camping foods. I read my digital New York Times front to back. 

At 4 p.m. a van picked me up for the penguin tour.

I had low expectations in visiting a penguin colony but it was something to do. At some point on the bus I struck up a conversation with Don and Allison, a lighthearted Canadian-Australian couple of retirement age. As evidence to not judge a book my its over, it turns out they are hard core backpackers.

Two and a half years ago Don and Allison decided to sell their house, their car and most of their possessions. They’ve been on the road ever since. Two of the happiest 70-somethings I’ve ever met, Don said he feels 10 years younger. He encouraged me in my quest to see as much of the world as possible. Despite there being nearly half a century between us, I felt like I could talk to these two about anything and we were great friends for the afternoon.

It’s funny how few travelers I’ve met who as young as me. Generally I’ve found myself connecting far more with people in their late twenties and early thirties. This wonderful couple taught me that age is truly just a number and that you are never too old to see the world from a backpack.

The penguin colony was a cute activity, though pretty damn low on the adrenaline scale. As promised I did see a lot of wild penguins. At one point a handful decided to move and I could not stop laughing at how they walk – such adorable, funny creatures. They are sure tough when it comes to tolerating some crappy weather though.

After exchanging travel advice and blog URLs, I said goodbye to Don and Allison before being returned to my hostel

I packed my iPad and walked into town for the evening. The sunset was painting pretty Punta Arenas with warm reds and purples. I love how late the sun goes down this far from the equator, and the extra golden tint of the sunlight – it makes me miss Scandinavia in the summertime.

I drank a top-notch cappuccino at a funky, cool cafe that gives you thin chocolate wafers and a sparkling water just for sitting down. This town was impressing me with its cafes and restaurants. After my suffering in the back country, I felt entitled to treat myself to a decent dinner. At an eclectic, French-inspired establishment I ordered a fancy dish with locally caught fish and a couple local craft beers. Life was good. I was totally okay with being where I was.

I walked back, grabbing a few more beers along the way, and got to Skype dad. I have been thinking a lot about family lately and look forward to being surrounded again by people who love me so much. I’m lucky to have such supportive team back home.

The next morning was a step-for-step reenactment of the previous day, except this time I had a ticket to assure me I was going someplace.

With only a handful of days left it was kind of a bummer to be on a bus all day long, but I had to get to Ushuaia and it was my last major bus ride of the trip. Besides a border crossing and ferry ride, the commute was pretty unremarkable. 

I arrived in the southernmost city in the world around 8 p.m., which still gave me a few hours of daylight thanks to the long days. I was smart to reserve a bed ahead of time as the whole town was booked up. The best part of the hostel was the fluffy, precocious white husky that greets everyone at the front desk.

Ushuaia is an interesting place.

While a lot of it is mental, you really do feel like you are at the end of the earth. Compared to the windy tundra that generally characterizes Tierra del Fuego, Ushuaia is markedly calm thanks to the protective (and gorgeous) mountains that surround it.

It attracts an interesting crowd as well – a mix of adventurous backpackers, Antarctica-bound cruise-takers, and motorists finishing their road trip to the tip of the continent. The town itself is a confusing blend of architecture, where posh buildings that would fit well in Vail sit a block away from unfinished concrete shacks.

I walked around the town as it slowly turned dark, having dinner at a cozy pub with local beer on tap. I wandered back to the hostel and, struck with an intense feeling of exhaustion, passed out at an early hour.

While my time in Ushuaia was very short, it’s not a town that requires much time to see it. 

Having thoroughly wandered the streets the night before, I decided that the best (and cheapest) way to mark reaching the southern end-point of my long journey was to hike the nearby Glacier Martial. I had been told to plan for a round trip of three hours, but that was far from accurate. 

Too cheap to take a taxi to the trailhead, it took close to an hour and a half to walk the 7 km. across town and up the hill to the trailhead. From there I was at the base of a ski hill in the summertime. Of course I said no to paying for a chairlift ride to the glacier. After a steady climb I caught sight of the tall, windy chunk of perennial snow. I might have been jealous of the dudes skinning up the glacier to ski down, but in a matter of days I would be back in Colorado just as the season starts running at full steam.

First walking under the sprinkle of rain, I was soon in the clouds and covered in snow. Summer is not an appropriate description in this extreme climate. Having neither time nor the gear to reach the top, I settled to keep hiking until the clock struck one or until I hit a dead end. After zigzagging up the glacier I followed a narrow rocky ridge, filling my water bottle from a stream.  

When I could no longer continue I turned around, marveled at the view and thought for a minute about how far I had come. It felt good. It felt earned.

I was justifiably hungry by the time I was back in town. 

Searching for some cheap eats I found a bakery where I could get my empanada fix. I selected a variety of types from the rack, each wrapped in a slightly different way to tell them apart. I could eat 100 of those things if someone kept feeding them to me, but I settled on four. 

With an early evening flight I spent the hour or two I had left relaxing at the hostel, letting my shoes and clothes dry. This incessant walking and hiking have really begun taking their toll, but it’s also nice to feel so tired. I shared a cab with a friendly French guy who gave me his metro card to use in Buenos Aires. We talked until out respective planes started boarding.

Having reached the end of the world, I had nowhere to go but up. 

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