Our best day in Ushuaia by far was the day that we went to Tierra del Fuego National Park. I was still hurting a bit from our climb to the glacier, but once we got to the park I couldn’t have cared less about a few sore muscles. We traveled to the park in a mini-bus, and as we were the only passengers, the driver chattered away about everything that we passed. There was the river, the golf course (it is so damn windy in Ushuaia that I imagine yelling “Fore!” is a requirement every time your club makes contact with a ball), and the “train to the end of the world” which he scoffed at quite heartily to make it known that this was one of the greatest tourist traps of all time. After a brief drive he dropped us of at the coastal trail and we headed out along the coast of Beagle Channel through beautiful beech forest which was again reminiscent of New Zealand.
I wish that I could adequately describe the park, but (allow me to be a bit cranky here) after seven months of writing about the places that we have gone hiking in, it seems difficult to describe what makes one that much different from another. Of course we see them as completely different places, but how do I describe those differences in writing? Mountains, water, trees, birds, rocks, occasional mammals. How many variations can I create for this? Looking at natural beauty never gets old, but writing about it is another matter.
What I can say is that the second trail that we took in the park ends at the border of Chile. A sign marks the border and warns people that they should not pass that point. Of course we had to take some pictures of us pretending to sneak into Chile and I am happy to report that we did not get shot at or even chastised. And it does support my previous assertion that it is really freakin’ easy to cross the border unmolested. Also notable was the creepy plastic doll that someone had strategically placed on a rock next to the trail. Adam saw it first and he was kind enough to not say anything so that I could experience the creepiness for myself. It was kind of Blair Witch Project, and I say “Bravo” to the sort of person who thinks ahead enough to bring a plastic doll with him in his backpack when he goes hiking.
At the end of the day we climbed back into a mini-bus that unfortunately picked up a gaggle of English speaking tourists that I just knew were going to be annoying. Our strategy to avoid talking to such people is to not speak at all and therefore not give away the fact that we speak English too. These particular tourists went on and on about shopping for clothes, the run-ins that they had with store clerks, and even made some fully audible and snarky remarks about the route that the driver was taking, forgetting that it just may be possible that he speaks English. I would bet that the driver was thinking the same thing that we were: Damn, why don’t these mini-buses have ejector seats?
Our jaunt to the park, while totally worth it, was a bit expensive, but we still wanted to do some more hiking. Alba suggested that we take a taxi to Playa Larga which has a trail that runs along the coast offers a different view of the Beagle Channel . We ended up sharing a cab with another guest who was one of those people who finds silence uncomfortable and must ask questions to fill it. Thankfully it was a brief drive to Playa Larga, and we parted ways with Stephen after planning to meet him back at the trail head in five hours.
The trail began at the beach and in just a few minutes it ascended into the forest area before it wound back out to the coast again. In the forest I was surprised to meet a couple of rogue cows who were trying to hide behind some trees. It was like a Far Side cartoon without a caption.
The sun was out in full force that day, and when we broke out from the forest, we were rewarded with a breathtaking view of the Beagle Channel and all of the mountain ranges surrounding it. We climbed to the top of a hill to soak it all in. Adam turned to me with his arms outstretched as if to say, “What more could you possibly ask for?”
The trail continued past a picturesque estancia and up to a deep gorge. The only way across was at the bottom where we could wade through the stream that was flowing into the channel. Since we wanted to eat lunch on the other side, we took off our shoes and socks, rolled up our pants, and stepped into the water. I was expecting the water to be cold, but not that cold. This water was so cold that it was painful. The second that I stepped into it I wanted to be out of it which caused me to flounder around, staggering and splashing and cussing and probably getting much wetter than I needed to. Adam watched me, amused, from the other side. When we finished lunch and we had to go back the same way we came, I still had not learned from my previous experience and provided a similar spectacle complete with new and improved combinations of expletives.
On our way back we came across a very curious mink who dashed out from between the rocks on the shore to check us out. He was fairly skittish and kept diving under the rocks for cover, but he was interested enough to come up almost to our feet to see what the hell we were. Later we told Alba about our mink sighting and she was off to the races telling us about how the minks were introduced to Argentina for their fur and that they had become pests and that Chile was pissed off because the animals had crossed the border (apparently they didn’t heed the signs posted clearly in Spanish and English at the borders). It was a long story, but I was just happy that I could understand almost everything that she said. And just like that it was time to bid Alba and Ushuaia goodbye and set off on yet another bus to El Calafate.
Sometimes near-disastrous occurrences are predictable. For instance, when we asked Alba to book us a cab for 4:30 in the morning so that we could be on time for our bus at 5:00, I just knew that the taxi was not going to show up. But what can you do in that situation? All you can do is hope that your feeling is wrong. Which it wasn’t. Which is why at 4:40 AM we were foolishly running down the street thinking that we could actually make it to the bus station on time. Maybe if we had not been weighed down by our bags we could have made it, but running with the equivalent of a midget strapped to my back and a chubby baby strapped to my front allowed me to sprint for about 30 seconds and then come to a near halt, my lungs and legs refusing to cooperate. We got about six blocks and thankfully we came across a gas station that was open. We breathlessly explained that we needed a taxi right this second, and the station attendant looked at us sympathetically as he picked up the phone and called. At 4:45 we were pacing back in forth in front of the gas pumps waiting for what seemed like an eternity for the taxi. Another man who had been watching all of this from the van that he was sitting in while chatting with the station attendant took pity on us and offered to give us a ride. And that is one thing that stood out about Ushuaia—the people are wonderful. As we pulled into the bus station at a few minutes to 5:00, we stuffed the taxi money into his hand and grabbed our bags. As we were climbing out of the van he called after us in Spanish, “Say hello to Arnold for me—he’s my papa!” Fabulous.
Our bus troubles appeared to be over, but we had another long trip ahead of us: A bus from Ushuaia to Rio Gallegos again with the ferry crossing and all of the border crossing rigmarole, then a 3 ½ hour layover and another bus from Rio Gallegos to El Calafate. Total time: 20 hours. Of course our bus troubles were not over. After crossing into Chile and driving down the very bouncy gravel road for hours, the bus blew a tire. And here allow me to illustrate a difference between travel in the United States and travel in Argentina. In the United States, if you were traveling on a bus and there was a major delay such as someone having to go to the hospital or a destroyed tire, the bus driver would make some sort of announcement saying what had happened, what they are going to do, and how long we might expect to be delayed. It doesn’t really change anything, but it gives you some peace of mind. In fact, people in the United States would demand this sort of announcement if it wasn’t given right away. In Argentina there are no such announcements. If something happens, well, you can see what’s happening for yourself—why should they have to tell you? So we stood on the side of the road for two hours watching the bus drivers, who were not doing a very good job inspiring confidence in us regarding their mechanical abilities, puzzle out how to change the back inner tire. This event threw us off at the ferry crossing causing more delay resulting in yet another ulcer-inducing afternoon wondering if we were going to make the next bus or not. We got to Rio Gallegos with 40 minutes to spare before taking our bus ride to El Calafate which, except for the drunk guys from Finland, the obnoxious Irish man and the dull movie adaptation of The Merchant of Venice that we were compelled to watch because we were sitting right in front of the TV and under the speakers, passed without incident. And although we had survived this trip unscathed, I was thinking about how in a couple of weeks we would be on another trip for 36 hours and that, “I would rather be set quick in the earth and bowled to death by turnips” (as a character from The Merry Wives of Windsor says) than spend that much time on a bus again. But before we went off on another long distance nightmare, we still had over two weeks to spend in El Calafate and El Chalten and a date with a very special glacier.