This morning we woke early to see the first of eight glaciers between Puerto Arenas and Ushuaia along the “Avenue of the Glaciers” in the Strait of Magellan.
The glaciers here cascade down from the southern Andes mountains (that now form a ridge west to east, rather than north to south). We were warned that the high peaks are normally in cloud but we did get a glimpse of them from time to time.
I tried to remember the names of each glacier but finally gave up when I realized that I would never be able to distinguish one photo from the other anyway. However, those that cascade into the Strait are all named in Spanish after European countries.
We arrived in Ushuaia, our first port in Argentina, two hours late, about 1:30pm.
This is what I would classify as the city at “the southern end of the earth” and what an amazing setting! Located at the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego Island facing Beagle Channel, this city was founded by the UK-based South American Missionary Society in 1870 who arrived to “save” the Yaghan people whom Darwin classified as “the lowest form of humanity on earth”. After surviving 6,000 years without foreign contact, the Yaghan people were literally wiped out by diseases brought by missionaries and settlers as well as the infringement on their hunting territory by sealers and gold prospectors. In onboard lectures by an excellent presenter (drdonklein.com) we learned that theirs was a culture without interest in possession (what was yours can now be mine) and early settlers, not appreciating cultural differences, killed “the savages” when they dared to “steal” their sheep or other possessions.
We had arranged a tour to the Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire) National Park with another couple and we all crammed into a small car for a ride out to the park with our charming driver/guide, Juan. Throughout the day he talked about his adopted home (born in Buenos Aires, he came here 20 years ago), it’s history and natural environment.
Between 1884 and 1947 the Argentine government created a penal colony here, sending some of its most notorious criminals. In 1950 it became an important naval base. It is now also a base for explorations to the Antarctic as well as the preferred home for Argentinians looking for a quieter, safer life in a relatively moderate climate. Surprisingly, although they do get lots of snow in winter, the temperature seldom dips below 0 Celsius.
Surrounded by snow-peaked mountains and filled with beautifully clear lakes, the park is quite beautiful. Our first stop was the official southern most post office where Tony and I scampered up a trail that was lined with evergreen beech trees and (something I never expected) the odd rhododendron bush. Subsequent stops took us to the visitor centre, a lovely green lake that feeds into the Pacific through the Beagle Channel, and an area of several magnificent beaver dams.
Here we learned that our national animal is one of the most hated animals n the region. Introduced in the early 1900s for their fur, they have no natural predators and with a relatively benign climate have grown to a much larger size and their fur is not as thick or a prized as it is in Canada. The dams they create are now ruining the natural environment and the government is offering rewards to anyone with a solution to exterminate them. Mink, rabbits and chinook salmon have joined the list of fauna introduced to the area that they wish they could get rid of.
Luckily we avoided the very touristy narrow-gauge “end of the world train” running through parts of the park and we even managed to get ahead of the myriad of tour buses (many from our ship) that poured big groups out from time to time. Juan took us to areas of the park that were devoid of big buses and very peaceful as well as beautiful.
Driving back to town he stopped so that I could get a photo of a lovely 9 hole golf course. Somehow I think I’d have quite a problem with that course – the wind is always very strong and the ball wouldn’t roll far with the amount of rainfall they get.
We had spent so much time wandering the park nature trails that we didn’t have time to walk around the streets of the town (although we did take Juan up on his suggestion to purchase some Argentinian Malbec at a local grocery store). As we drove in he showed us the different style of houses: early homes very small, heated by and constructed of wood while recent homes are larger and constructed of steel and concrete to withstand earthquakes. We also got a taste of the small town atmosphere as he drove us down the main street back to the port.
A great day exploring a fascinating region.