The End of the World

Being in Ushuaia, one tends to forget that it is in South America. The landscape is remarkably similar to what we saw on the west coast of the south island of New Zealand. Of course it was winter in New Zealand when we were there and in Ushuaia it was the height of summer. The town is situated right on the Beagle Channel and in front of a mountain range that is host to the Martial Glacier which is visible from most parts of the town. It is apparent that the town has become incredibly wealthy from tourism. It shows all of the signs of having enough wealth to be frivolously adorned: shining statues of prominent figures, immaculate public parks, painstakingly tended flower beds along the main streets (one in the whimsical shape of a whale). All the house fronts and businesses are clean and tidy and you get a bit of a storybook feeling as you pass through some parts of town. Just by looking around at the tourists who frequent Ushuaia, you can tell where all of the money comes from. One day as we walked along the waterfront, Adam went on a tirade about the type of tourist who comes to Ushuaia in the middle of summer decked out in outrageously expensive clothes that were made less for taking a stroll in slightly inclement weather and more for an Antarctic ice climbing expedition. Shaking his head in disbelief he said, “It’s like putting on a costume to go shopping. Jesus Christ, we’re not even that far south.” He continued in the voice that you use when mocking the dunderheaded: “Oh, I’m going to Ushuaia, I better put on my crampon compatible stiff boots and my waterproof Gore-Tex in case we get hit with a blizzard between the gift shop and the restaurant. Watch out Stella! I’m going through this puddle!”

While fancy gear is not necessary to tour the town and its surroundings, it must be admitted that the weather is fickle. Being a meteorologist in Ushuaia would be just as easy as it would be pointless. Every day the only thing that you would have to report would be that it is going to be sunny, windy, rainy, hot, freezing, mild, and perhaps snowy. The only problem is that it is difficult to determine the order in which these conditions will occur. The weather even stumped Adam at times which is difficult to do because he is the kind of person who could have astounded primitive cultures with his ability to predict weather conditions right before they occur. While walking down the street or sitting in front of a window he will casually remark, “It’s going to rain,” and 30 seconds later rain pours forth from the heavens. He might say, “We probably don’t want to go over that way, it’s going to be windy as shit.” And we will go that way and, sure enough, it will be windy as shit. But the weather conditions in Ushuaia sometimes changed faster than even Adam could keep up with. Thus we would start out in the morning in short sleeves, the sun shining mercilessly, then by lunchtime we would have our rain jackets on being pelted by a severe rainstorm, and by the afternoon we would have four layers of clothing on, bracing ourselves against the fiercely blowing wind, our mouths gritty from the dust swirling around our heads. Travelers always stress the importance of wearing layers of clothing, and nowhere is this advice more handy than in Ushuaia.

Even if the weather was unpredictable, it was a small price to pay for the rewards of being there. Not only was the town picturesque as can be, but we found a bevy of culinary delights as well. In one of my previous posts I was whining about not being able to find peanut butter anywhere. The closest I had come was a tiny, sample-sized jar of Skippy at a grocery store in Buenos Aires that cost almost $8. I would like to say that I didn’t buy it because that is a ludicrous amount to pay for peanut butter, but the only reason that the purchase was not made was that I didn’t have enough cash and I didn’t have my credit card with me. But when I saw the size of the grocery store in Ushuaia, my hopes were revived. They had to have peanut butter. A preliminary survey revealed bad news: no peanut butter to be found in the condiment aisle or with the scads of jellies and jams. But I went back another time because I just knew that it had to be there somewhere. After scouring every aisle, I finally found a few jars of what was marketed as a Mediterranean delicacy, but was in fact peanut butter. I snatched it up as if someone might swoop in at any second and empty the whole shelf into their basket. I grabbed a jar of plum jelly and a family-sized loaf of bread and we ate those sweet, sweet PB and J sandwiches all week. I found pickles too.

Restaurants were a boon as well. Alba had informed us that the restaurants in the tourist area were much more expensive which is, of course, to be expected. She directed us to a street where we could find various restaurants serving good food at decent prices. Our favorite, and the one that we ended up eating in four times, was a parilla called Islas del Sur. We were drawn to the restaurant in the first place by the heavenly aroma of roasting meat that we could smell all the way down the street. Once inside, the sight of chickens turning on rotisseries, beef roasting on flaming grills, and sandwiches as big as our heads made the place impossible to resist. The dining room wasn’t much to look at—just five or six tables crammed in the back, but we weren’t there for the decor. Our first meal, a lunch, was a chicken sandwich that did its best to represent all aspects of the farm. We ordered the chicken sandwich “completa,” which can mean different things in different establishments, but in this place it meant chicken, ham, fried egg, lettuce, and tomato. It was so huge that my jaw hurt after attempting (and failing) to consume the entire thing.

We had to go back and try some of that chicken that looked so good, so the next night we went there for dinner. We ordered a whole chicken with fries which cost us a bit less than $10. Surprisingly, they remembered us from the day before, and as we walked in, the man at the counter genially waved us into the dining area. The waitress brought us some bread and some heavenly chimichurri sauce—the best I have ever had. I became obsessed with the chimichurri. As I had never seen one so simple before, I asked the waitress, “Is this chimichurri?” She nodded her head, a little confused as to why I would have to ask such a question. The next time we went I asked her for the recipe, and although she must have thought I was insane to be so taken in by such a simple thing, she always made sure to bring us a bowl filled to the top with the sauce and always asked us if we wanted to take some home with us. The cook would come by occasionally to say hello and ask if the food was good, which it always was.

Next on the menu were the empanadas. We ordered four of each kind: ham and cheese, meat, and chicken. They were all tasty, but they don’t specify the “meat” in meat empanadas for a reason—there is all kinds of stuff in there. I wish I could, but I just can’t take the little chunks of intestine. Texture is very important to me and intestine has a rather unpleasant texture. And I think it tastes a little fishy too. Despite that, we had more than we could eat for a ridiculously low price and wonderful, personalized service.

Our last meal there was the parilla, the meat plate. It comes on a sizzling grill: chicken, beef, scrumptious homemade sausage, with a side of little pieces of intestines and a bloated blood sausage. We tried to eat the intestines and the blood sausage, we really did. In fact, I think that this was the only restaurant I’ve ever been in where I wanted to eat everything so I wouldn’t offend them. But grilled intestines are like chewing on pieces of rubber tubing, and blood sausage does not have a pleasing taste or texture. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate that people are able to make use of an entire animal, I just can’t manage to get it to go down. However, the rest of the meat was fabulous right down to the crispy, salty skin of the chicken which I am always going to eat from now on. Life is too short not to eat delicious animal skin.

The best thing about Islas del Sur was not necessarily the food. You can get sandwiches and empanadas and grilled meat at any number of places. But we kept going back there because they made us feel exceedingly comfortable and taken care of. They remembered us, they joked with us, and even though our Spanish is still terrible and their English was non-existent, they made us feel relaxed and at home. And I would take that kind of atmosphere over some stuffy touristy place any day.

However, without a doubt, the best part of Ushuaia is not the coziness of the town or the feels-like-home food and hospitality, but exploring the natural beauty that is spread out in all directions. But in order to explore such beauty thoroughly, one must be ready to proceed upwards into the mountains which is something that I hadn’t done in quite some time. I would ultimately pay for that lapse in physical fitness.

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