Day 13 Flight to Ushuaia
Very low cloud today, adding Turner skies to the mountain views. After gorging like pigs on breakfast, we taxi to the airport (no more 20 hour bus trips for a while - hooray!). The taxi ride is a heart-stopping 20 minutes: we slalom in and out of lanes with barely inches of room. Other cars slam on brakes to let us squeeze in on roads slick with rain.
"Es ventoso!" The driver booms at the airport indicating the gusty winds. We agree and make faces that disagree with the fact that we would prefer a windy take-off to another journey in his car.
Not to linger too much more on the minutiae of our travelling, but the woman in front of us on the ensuing flight doesn't heed the warning on switching her phone to flight mode (Whatsapping on the plane - are you mad, woman?! Also, how have you got coverage at 30,000 feet?), or having her seat in the upright position on descent which means Ruth and I can't see out of our window at the beautiful El Calafate glacial lake, on our brief stopover there. Ruth prevents me from shunting her chair forward just as we hit the runway for karma reasons.
If there is uncertainty over what to feed someone in Argentina, the answer can usually be found in Dulce De Leche, and so our mid flight snacks rely heavily on this ingredient with crisps and biscuits all laden with it. I'm not complaining - it's delicious, but my heart is racing with sugary palpitations when we step off in Ushuaia.
Because of Ruth's insistence that we are on a 'backpacking' trip in spite of some of the 4 star accommodation to the contrary, we have to walk the 5km to our hotel from the airport, with our enormous and Mendoza-wine-filled rucksacks on. Honestly.
Ushuaia, if you're interested, is the world's most southerly city, sitting at -48° latitude (which puts it similarly far from the equator as Inverness), it has an enormous naval base from which the Belgrano last set sail on its way to the Falkland Islands, and it was the place where Jeremy Clarkson et al were chased out of Argentina after pissing off the locals with a number plate.
So lots to contemplate as we walk the harbour-sweeping road from the airport, past a poster which reads "Ushuaia, capital de Malvinas!"
After the sun-dappled vineyards of Mendoza, and the lakey, mountainy vistas of San Carlos de Bariloche, the sheer, stark utilitarianism of Ushuaia is a jolt to the system. It has been hewn out of the Martial mountain range, nestled just south of the glacier of the same name, and on the shore of the Beagle channel (named from the British ship which first surveyed the place), just North, of course, from Cape Horn. And yet even in such a setting it looks decidedly unlovely, as one trudges in through the sleet, dodging the waves of spray from heads-should-roll potholed roads, wondering how warm the corrugated steel buildings get in winter. Its architecture is cheerfully colourful, granted, but this is all I can currently salvage on Ushuaia's behalf under the weight of Mendoza's grapes and my now-necessary thermal clothes.
It certainly isn't as welcoming as our other Argentinian stops have been, and we haven't even had a 22 hour bus ride to get here.
Getting to our small room which overlooks the noisy dual carriageway out of town and, more despairingly, a 'Malvinas park' with an everlasting torch burning and a memorial wall with the names of the conflict's Argentinian victims on it, hardly tips the scales.
"Why are we here again?" says Ruth sulkily, once we have given up trying to turn the radiator down. We are here because it has a fine national park, a fascinating nautical history and also you can get your passport stamped saying you were in the most southerly city in the world.
We hit the streets, and after surveying the naval base at the edge of downtown head for a bar. I am curiously attracted to one which has fibreglass prisoner models climbing up the building. It turns out to be a restaurant catering heavily to infant tourists with many a nautical gimmick on the wall - rigging, compasses, souwesters, harpoons etc - obviously I am entranced. Ruth less so.
However, the barman is very friendly, speaks enough English for us to understand, not enough that our entry-level Spanish is insulting. He recommends a reasonable local beer (Patagonia pale ale) and leaves us to appraise our surroundings with the bar's view of the chilly-looking harbour.
We decide on an early night - next to our hotel, we spot an Argentinian greasy spoon called 'el turco' whose logo is borrowing heavily from the genie in Disney's Aladdin, and we enter to a convivial atmosphere of locals talking about what's new in Ushuaia. Which, evidently, isn't the roads. Ruth has her new favourite food, fugazetta. I have Milanese Neapolitana - recommended from Juan way back in Buenos Aires, which is a breaded beef escalope as large as Ruth. It is hearty and good. Full and more cheerful, I spy a glass Easter Island stone head at the end of the bar shelf and ask the waiter what it is.
He replies with what I assume is Spanish for "You've never tried Pisco? Don't start now! It'll strip the enamel from your teeth!"
"Gracias, quiero uno por favor" I confidently reply.
Afterwards, back in South America's hottest room, and after the phrase "taking the Pisco" has been well overused, we sleep.
Day 14 National Park
We are up early this morning to look at 'old Ushuaia' with an organised tour of the landscape. Our knowledgable guide is called Macarena, and I courageously resist every urge to ask her questions without first saying "Hey". She flits effortlessly between Italian, English and Spanish for the people on the bus, which provides further lingual shame for us. Ruth and I are, once again, the youngest by two generations. Why is this so often the case? Where are the other early 30-somethings who want to go on a steam train and learn about deforestation?
As we arrive at the train station, there are more people than we've seen since the protest in Buenos Aires. Hundreds of other tourists all beating past each other trying to take the best photo of them and a train. Wonder if this is he sort of thing Columbus was expecting when he set off for the new world.
And so we climb aboard the steam train (which like everything here, from Irish bars to lighthouses is "the most southerly in the world") at a station sitting in the valley of two vast, snowy peaks, close to the Chilean border on a chilly, sunny morning. Were it not for the hundreds of other tourists being shouted at in many languages not to stand on the train tracks to take their photos, it would be quite a romantic setting. The train chuffs off through the valley and we learn a little about the landscape. Very basically, the two different indigenous tribes who lived here did so for millenia (one of them entirely naked - how did they manage in winter?! It's the beginning of summer here now, and Ruth's doubled her body mass with thermal clothing).
Then as is so often the case, and to paraphrase Bruce Dickinson, white man came across the sea, he bought them pain and misery. The British, Spanish and finally Argentine governments all poked around down here on what is now Tierra del Fuego (after Magellan sailed through the straits while he was circumnavigating the world) and with them brought clothing, resettlement programs and typhoid, decimating the native population. There was some bickering with Chile about where exactly the border should be, before a neutral party just shonked it on longitude line -68°.
Our train chugs through a valley which has been completely shorn of trees - the petrified grey stumps stick up like graves - hacked down by prisoners to help build their prison and other buildings in the town. As the US did with Alcatraz, and Britain did with Australia and the Isle of Wight, the extremity of the Argentinian empire was used to send and incarcerate some of its swarthiest convicts.
We, meanwhile, stop at a small station called Macarena (I know) where there are further examples of tourists walking on the rails to get their photos. I notice the driver waits until someone is right up against the engine to photograph some ironwork, before pulling the all-aboard whistle and presumably blasting out the chap's eardrums.
Another diverting half hour on the train finishes the excursion, and our group gets back in our bus to drive further into the National Park. The weather has taken a turn for the worse now, and the remainder of our group are decidedly surly about being made to walk among trees and lakes to see the devastation wreaked by a battalion of beavers. 25 pairs were introduced so their fur could be harvested for the blossoming tourist trade at the start of the last century. Inevitably their numbers spiralled out of control and they laid waste to millennia's worth of ecosystems. Now they are hunted down as pests. No one else cares about this though, because it's raining too hard, so they sit on the bus while Ruth and I try and photograph otters.
Later, back at the hotel, we consult our dependable Rough Guide and opt to take a scenic 45 minute walk out of town to a well-reviewed restaurant called Kuar as it boasts a good view of the mountain range and has an open fire. About 25 minutes into the journey, 15 minutes from town, along an exposed harbour road, dressed in what I would describe as 'light waterproof clothing', the sky empties it's arse all over us. Light rain becomes a deluge, becomes freezing sleet, becomes snow. By the time we get to Kuar, we are drenched and appendage-losingly cold. A quick chat with the sole waitress inside ascertains that it closed at 3. It is now 3:02.
A little delirious with cold and rage (open FROM 3 is it Rough Guide?) the lovely waitress lets us sit by the open fire (the view is indeed excellent) and have a beer while we puddle onto her floor. She even organises a taxi for us back into town, shining light of humanity that she is. I don't wish to tarnish her benevolence with my endless grievances, but it's worth noting the beer I had (a local one called Beagle pale ale) was undrinkably bad. On the plus side, in terms of revelations, we realise that complimenting someone on their excellent English really takes the sting out of us speaking diabolical Spanish.
After this fairly calamitous afternoon, we treat ourselves in town to one of the more up-market looking restaurants (instead of fibreglass prisoners, they have furnished their restaurant almost entirely with late sheep) and have a solid lamb casserole - an unexpectedly welcome respite from all the beef of the last few weeks - turns out you might actually be able to have too much steak.
Return to our room which is now like a sauna because of all the drying clothes on the scalding radiators, and sleep, humidly.
Day 15 Martial Glaciar
We've been going back and forth for the last two days on whether to shell out for one of the arranged expeditions from the harbour, to go and see the colony of famous Magellanic penguins here ('pinguino' famously being one of Ruth's known Spanish words) but have decided not to. While it would be magical to toddle around with them, we just don't fancy another bus (and this time boat) journey cooped up with another flock of squawking belligerents. Plus, the excursions are ruinously costly for two people at least trying to keep up the appearances of running a budget. We opt instead to take a walk up the Martial Glacier just north of town which is gloriously gratis. At least it would be if we could bother to do the hour long hike to get up to it; shamefully we pay the 150 peso to get there by taxi, after yesterday's misadventure. On the plus side, the taxi rank is fortuitously close to the tourist office where they stamp your passport.
So passports newly garnished, we climb up to the glacier from the hotel at the top of town. And Ushuaia pulls it out of the bag. The view is specacular. The Beagle Channel and beyond it Drake Passage are neatly framed beween the V of two enormous snow-capped Martial mountains, while the low cloud hangs in the air looking touchably close. It is snowing lightly, but it's amazing the difference appropriate clothing makes (and by 'appropriate' this does also mean the two left handed gloves I've managed to bring along). We have an enchanting few hours' climb, sharing the trail with a handful of other folks, otherwise having the vista of Cape Horn pretty much to ourselves.
That is until we stray too far, and two irritatingly-professional looking walkers bark at us in avalanche-baiting Spanish that we are about to walk onto the drift-covered glacier and bloody well shouldn't be. "Well they should really have a sign", we grumble as we walk back past such a sign that we pretend not to notice.
Now for those of you on the fence about the merits of having ginger hair, and experience tells me there's not many of you: maybe, you think, you'd probably just get used to strange teenagers joyfully and loudly pointing it out to you no matter where you are in the UK? You think you'd actually quite like being instantly recognised as British wherever you are in the world. Well, before you go rushing out for dye and hair plugs, just a note of caution. With the hair, comes the skin, and with the skin comes the sunburn. Especially in CFCs-bollocksed-our-ozone-layer-Ushuaia, where it transpires you can achieve comically vivid red-flesh even through a heavy layer of snowclouds.
Having finished the trail, we sit in the hotel tea room (which is furnished with bunting and cake stands to the extent that it feels like we're in Bakewell) one of us glowing like a surly, neon tomato. With most of an afternoon still to spend, we opt to give the Rough Guide the benefit of the doubt again, and head to the Ushuaia museum, which it describes as "must see".
And it is. Despite setting us back about £30, it is a fascinating look at Tierra Del Fuego's history. Next to the naval base, and housed in the old prison (laid out, to my mind very appropriately, like a snowflake) it charts the struggles of the indigenous population (of which, inevitably, almost no trace remains) followed by Ushuaia's growth first as a colonial outpost, then a port (with an unbelievable amount of shipwrecks around its jagged shoreline) and then a naval base. It even has an oddly diverting wing on the World's prisons (the UK does well).
Afterwards we lose many a Peso in the nautical-heavy gift shop, which means we have exceeded our budget today, so we go to the local supermarket for cheese and meat based sustenance for this evening, before retiring, feeling better about our stay here.