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Argentina’s deep south

In the time of Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe, ca 1519, Tierra del Fuego was a region vast and uninhabited except for a few indigenous tribes such as the Ona .  Passing through the straits of Magellan, near Cape Horn, Magellan was able to avoid the persistent, easternly blowing wind that prevented his westward transit around the tip.  Today Tierra del Fuego refers to this southern region of Argentina, south of the Straits of Magellan, and largely comprising the Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego and several smaller land masses.   This region is home to the most southern dwelling in the world, a truly fascinating area.

In May, for one week between jobs I traveled through limited southern areas of Argentina.  Travel arrangements were all made by me from the USA, and I flew on Aerolineas Argentinas.  The route went from Buenos Aires to El Calafate, a city in southern Argentina near the glacier Perito Moreno.  From El Calafate I flew to Ushuaia to spend a few days there soaking up the most southern residences in the world. I walked on glaciers and sipped glacier-ice chilled bourbon, travelled on a boat in the Beagle Channel, drove through utter isolation to the most southern farm in the world, and partied with locals and travelers in all towns along the way.

The first stop, El Calafate, was reached by plane.  The view from the plane, as we land, is filled with tall snow capped mountains.  Glaciers spill from mountain valleys into lakes filled with sparkling blue water.  The sky is clear with whisps of cloud.  The Patagonia, the pampa.  I see desolation and rugged terrain.  The plane flies over an isolated house, the place is eerie in its vacancy.  I catch my breath, the runway approaches, and we have alighted.

The first day in El Calafate I made reservations for glacier trekking on Perito Moreno, and I watch the sun set over Lago Argentina and the Chilean Patagonia.  The sun, during the South American winter, is so powerful in the early evening.  It cuts low over the Patagonia and shimmers from the lake, it is impossible to look almost anywhere but away.  The Patagonia is a jagged set of teeth, broken and vivid, the remnants of the epic adversity between tectonic plates.  Sitting in the dining area of the Nakel Yenu hostel that evening, I was lonely.  It was such a desolate place.

The next morning a bus came to transport me and a group of Spanish and Argentinian tourists to the Glaciar Nacional Parque.  It was snowing and cold, and our tires cut deeply into the ice on the roadway.  We entered the park, drove the lake shore, and boarded a boat on Lago Argentina. At this point, the glacier is a huge mass of ice in the distance, standing tall like a great white cliff.  Amazing to behold, it is nearly impossible to believe it to be ice, and I cannot fathom its size.

We cross the lake by boat and disembark at the foot of the glacier. Towering overhead, like the massive chalk cliffs of Dover, England, the glacier was immense.  The group acclimated itself to the cold, and our guide “Alejandro” launched into a discourse on Glacierology-101.  Much of the stuff is common sense, like that the glacier flows like water, but very slowly, and that this progress is lubricated by a fine layer of powder between the glacier and the ground.  I believe he said they call this gray-colored powdered rock is called leche de glaciar because the powdered rock makes a milky cloud when it disperses into the lake at the foot of glacier.

After glacierology, our group divided into two, and we were all very anxious to find out what was in store for us on the glacier.  Crampons were quickly applied to our feet, and we proceeded to trek onto the glacier.  We passed through ice tunnels and over ice hills, and I enjoyed a nice time attempting to pass conversation with the guides.  The group was very animated, and it was fun watching the macho men trying to one-up each other with probing questions directed towards the guides.  They were a lively crowd.

We hiked on, and, as we crested yet another ice ridge, there was a cheer of pleasure from some of the people in the lead.  As I came over the rise, I too felt a wave of joy come over me.  There, spread out on the ice, was a crude bar with glasses and huge bottles of whiskey.  The guides placed chocolates out in bowls, and one of the guides hastened to chip ice from the glacier to chill the whiskey we were to drink.  There I was, in the south of Argentina, more near to Antartica than I had every previously been in my life, drinking whiskey chilled with glacier ice and chatting in Spanish with people from Argentina and Spain.  Never, in all my life, had I been a participant in such an amazing activity.  We returned to El Calafate, and I passed another lonely night at Nakel Yenu.  Hauntingly-lonely, that place on the lake with the view of the Chilean Patagonia.  Hauntingly-lonely and dark.  I was glad to be moving on.

The flight to Ushuaia went off without a hitch.  Supposedly it was good to be going to Ushuaia, and not Buenos Aires, because everyone from Ushuaia was going to Buenos Aires.  It was the annual playoff between Boca and River, the two big Argentinian football clubs, and, in expectable Latin American fashion, everyone was going crazy.  In a country where the average daily wage is only a few pesos, people were paying several months worth of wages to fly to Buenos Aires and personally watch this historic match.  Arriving in Ushuaia was fine, and I stayed at the Refugio del Mochilero.

On the first day in Ushuaia I took a boat tour of the Beagle Channel.  The wind blowing over the channel was cold, and the boat ride included free biscuits and coffee to warm us during our voyage.  We motored past islands populated with birds and sea lions, and there were many interesting sights to see.  As we chugged back towards Ushuaia and the harbor, the moon rose slowly over the Chilean Patagonia and the water shimmered like diamonds in the night.

That first night I retired to my hostel to dine on my now favorite vegetable soup, canned vegetables and noodles stewed in vegetable bullion.  In the communal kitchen I interacted with the other people staying and working from the hostel:  Carlos, the young man working as a night clerk at a local hotel; Marcello, from Rio Negro in Argentina, the desk-clerk of the hostel;  a Brasilero (Brazilian) staying at the hostel and working at a fabrica (factory) in Ushuaia; and Pepi, the dueƱo (master) of the hostel. After sitting for a bit with this nice group, I retired to my room to sleep, locking the door behind me.

That next morning I rented a 4 x 4 and drive to the southern most inhabited location on the planet.  After warnings from the cab driver about hielo (ice) on the sinuoso (winding) road, and skeptical looks from the rental agents, I was definitely directed to the most southern inhabited place on the planet.  About 120 kilometers away was my goal, the farm called Estancia Moat, an enclave on the southern coast of Argentina, across the Beagle Channel from Chile.

The route I took passed out of Ushuaia to the east and up the mountains in the direction of Rio Gallegos.  Before I reached my destination, more than half of the distance driven would be on unpaved roads in the Argentinian countryside.  It was cold outside, and snow fell on the road and on my car.  I drove in 4×4 the entire way, passing ski resorts that were scheduled to open in two weeks after the first of June.  I passed large semi-trucks and heavy equipment working to expand the road in an area that is growing economically from an influx of tourists.  After about 40 kilometers on Route 3, I came to Ruta J, the unpaved portion of the drive.

Into the woods I went.  The road, frozen solid soil, the air cold the humming strain of the engine, and further into the wilds of Argentina.  Cows.  Passing cows on the roadside, a farmer leading a horse, isolated haciendas with all the trappings of poverty.  A fork in the road, straight ahead and Puerto Williams in the distance.  A left turn is made onto a winding road.  The ocean is frozen, and the trees are bent at unnatural angles from the force of the gale.  I drive passing cows and fences.  Estancia Harberton looms on the right, and I pause to photograph it.  A small place, isolated, longing, and appealing in its serenity.  Estancia Moat, the signs scribbled onto the backs of other signs point the direction out, and I plunge onward.

The surroundings lose nearly all suggestion of humanity’s influence.  The cows are roaming freely all about, and I am nervous that I might smash into one while driving in the middle of nowhere.  The road is lonely and I am alone.  The bridges become more simple.  Single stands of forest, frozen streams over the roadway, and a via that hangs on the edge of the mountain over the ocean.  These are the things I see as I drive to Estancia Moat.  The isolation and the loneliness, and I drive on.  At approximately 120 km, I begin to wonder where the farm is, though I long past crossed through a gate with the name of Estancia Moat upon it.

Just on the verge of despairing, I see buildings in the foreground.  Trailers, set down in the grass by the ocean, and a lone Argentinian flag flapping in the limp breeze.  Pink and aquamarine buildings, stereotypical cinderblock buildings, the final outpost of man on the planet. There it is, Estancia Moat, and I am overcome with…disappointment.  I don’t know what I expected, but this seemed rather unspectacular, though the location of this farm and myself at that moment was not lost on me as I looked at the farm.  On the way back to Ushuaia, I pulled over and walked to the ocean.  There I found two mussel shells, and I skipped some rocks in the water, as I did at Lago Argentina.  At the foot of South America, I skipped rocks in the Beagle Channel.

Ushuaia, a town in Argentina, at the end of the world, and I, an American citizen, skipping rocks in the Beagle Channel and satisfying a childhood dream:  to be in Tierra del Fuego.  I flew back to America via Buenos Aires a few days after my visit to Ushuaia.  I work now, but this trip stays with me.  This journey alone in the frozen world of the southern Chilean and Argentinian Patagonia.

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