LUGARES MAGAZINE Nro. 95
Pags.: 108 - 116
By: Gabriela Pomponio
Photos: Kiki Baccarelli
TIERRA DEL FUEGO
Ushuaia and its surroundings' offer includes much more than a simple stay spent contemplating the "twilight" zone: ranches, Kayak activities, 4WD excursions, canoeing and sailing trips.
The city grew up facing the sea, on the edge of the Beagle Channel.
It was the land of the Onas, Yamanas and Alakalufes. Later came the European sailors, the Anglican pastors and the first criollos. Gold-seekers, ranchers, fortune-hunters and convicts. Ushuaia is a destination for starting afresh, a city of tenacious souls.
As soon as we arrived, we fulfilled the ritual of walking along the coast to the port, holding huge ships of all national flags. Later we lost ourselves in the narrow streets of the center and discovered some of the original houses, of corrugated iron and in vibrant colors.
There are also the "sledge houses", designed to be moved as they are, from one town to another. The evening found us in Encerrada Bay, where the first Anglican mission was founded in the mid-19th century and which is today a military housing estate. The effort was worth it; from here you get the best views of Ushuaia from the sea.
At the other end of the city is the ancient jail converted into a museum. We visited the cells, that have kept their original structure and have been restored to give an idea of life behind bars. Its walls enclose horrifying tales, the most famous being that of the ferocious Petiso Orejudo, ("Little Big-Ears" or "Bat-Ears"). There are also tales of political detainees, those - like Ricardo Rojas - who preferred isolation in the south to exile. The rest of the buildings shelter the Maritime and Antarctic Museum. We lodged once again in Las Hayas.
This hotel is in the outskirts of the city, at the foot of the Martial Glacier. The generous-sized rooms have all the usual five-star comforts. A glass tunnel leads to the spa with its Jacuzzi and heated pool. The gymnasium was designed with special care and is practically submerged in the forest.
Where the story began
We got up early. Esteban Abregu, from Canal, came to pick us up and we left for the Estancia Harberton. First you have to take Route 3 and then turn off on Route J. We stopped in Brown Bay, just to watch the sea, and then crossed the river Lasifashaj.
Harberton is the oldest ranch on the island. It was built in 1886 by Thomas Bridges, an Anglican pastor who arrived from the Falklands / Malvinas Islands to evangelize the Indians. It's located on the Beagle Channel and the house has been maintained almost identical to its original form: all wood and covered in corrugated iron.
We were short of time and we went round the shearing shed and the carpenter's shop. If you come by yourself, you can take a guided tour and also visit the ranch museum, which has a collection of cetaceans and birds.
On the quay they were waiting for us to sail to Martillo Island, where the Magellanic penguins are numbered in thousands in one of the most numerous colonies in the area. It was our lucky day, because the Gentoo Penguins were there too which, although few in number, showed up for us.
The next stop was Cable Island. In its good times it was the place for the Harberton sheep to spend the winter. A few paces away is the old shepherd's lodge, converted into a pleasant shelter; there the kids from the Canal received the visitors. As it was early, they prepared some delicious nibbles for us and we went out to look at the neighborhood. We were the only people on the whole island and the idea was to cross it from one side to the other.
We crossed a stream, balancing on the beaver dam. Then the route took us along a path of black shrubs, lenga shoots and recently flowering calafates. We reached a clearing to see the capricious coast-line with its scattering of bays. We returned via the beach. The water of the channel is so calm that at times it seems like a lake; we tried it and felt its sharp, salty taste, verifying its maritime origin. At the end of the walk they gave us some tasty barbecued fish. In the afternoon, Beto Mendez, our kayak guide, guided us between little islands back to terra firma.
From there we left in the pick-up to find the flag-trees; the wind has "stretched" them incredibly and now they seem drawn against the sky. We went on to Estancia Moat and met the last light of the evening on a bank opposite Picton Island. From the road, surrounded by really tall sour-cherry trees, we could make out a small beach beside the sea. We vowed to return.
Mt Del Medio
Today we planned a day of pure trekking. Daniel Catania and Marcelo Arias of the Patagonia Guides Company were our "guides for the blind" through the mountains. A long walk awaited us on Mt Del Medio, which is just behind Ushuaia. Our companions for the day were a group of French people who go around the world looking for an excuse to climb the heights.
We left along an ancient woodcutters' path, the same one that had been opened up at the start of the century by convicts looking for firewood. The first part runs through thick forest, but at the end of the climb the landscape is transformed. The summit is rough and deserted, covered with quite dark stones where only a few bluish lichens grow. Despite the wind, we took pleasure in our triumph and stayed up there, balancing so as not to fly away, with a unique view of the bay of Ushuaia.
It seems that we did well, because Daniel and Marcelo decided to come down by the difficult route. We went directly towards a rocky ground that lies on the hillside. We went down as if we were skiing on the loose stones and for 300 meters of "free fall" we tried not to give in to panic and to "enjoy" the descent. After that, a well-deserved picnic. The trip ended in a peat bog, a typical formation in Tierra del Fuego, which the first melts of the snow convert into a path of puddles and marsh. We arrived muddy but happy.
Roads of adrenalin
In the morning we moved on to Los Fuegos where Veronica Sisti, the owner and hostess, was waiting for us. The hostel opened its doors only recently and is surrounded by a lenga wood running down to the river Olivia. The rooms smell of wood and combine a precise dose of modernity and warmth. In the loft there is a living room with a games room, and there are tulips everywhere, showing the hand of Aad, her Dutch husband. After breakfast, the kids from Canal were waiting for us with their Land Rover ready for a new adventure. The idea was to reach Lake Fagnano by a non-traditional route.
Very close to the Bronzovich saw-mill there is an ancient ford that the locals use to get the wild cattle out of the wood. The path is impossible for any vehicle, but Tito Baserga is a deluxe driver and the action started there. We advanced "biting" the edge of the Fagnano. At times, the path disappears, and so the 4x4 went ahead, so submerged in the water that it splashed in through the windows.
But the most exciting part came when the road turned into a thick, slippery chocolate goo with deep tracks in it, and we progressed tilted over and almost touching the ground. This is no metaphor, or mere approximation to the truth: the tilt meter showed an inclination of 30°. Tito didn't even blink and we felt like the blonde in Camel Trophy. Finally, we arrived at the refuge that's on the shore of the lake. While they prepared the barbecue, we got the need to walk out of our systems. Some followed the path that leads towards Lake Pugliese; we took the opposite path, where the shore is edged with saffron-brown cliffs and the beach is covered with tree trunks in strange shapes.
In the afternoon, the old route 3 took us to lake Escondido and we made a stop at the Petrel inn. Then we returned along the edge of the Tierra Mayor valley, a huge, reddish peat-bog, the true ante-room to the city.
The Park and the Channel
These were our last days in Ushuaia and we decided to spend them in Patagonia Jarke. The sisters, Maria Teresa and Maria Cristina Escudero opened last summer and attend it personally so that you feel quite at home. The place has the advantage of being near the city but has an atmosphere of intimacy due to its elevation. The rooms are equipped with everything necessary for a pleasant stay.
Today we had our last appointment with the boys from Canal and set off for the Tierra del Fuego National Park. Crossing the Pipo river, we found the station of the End of the World Train, and then some kilometers further on reached the entrance to the park. We stopped in Ensenada Bay, opposite Redonda Island, to go on along the coast path that leads along the edge of the sea to Lapataia Bay. The three-hour walk through the wood is one of the options less frequently chosen by tourists, and is ideal for seeing Andean geese, albatrosses and woodpeckers.
The shore is scattered with green stones that shine with golden flecks in the sunlight; this is andesite, the stone the locals call "fool's gold". Lunch was waiting for us at Lake Roca. A red fox arrived uninvited, attracted by the aroma of barbecued meat; it's forbidden to feed these animals, so we were unable to follow our instinct. Later we climbed into the canoes and rowed down the rivers Lapataia and Ovando to the sea, just at the point where Route 3 finishes.
The next morning we said goodbye to the city, sailing off in the Patagonia Explorer, a small yacht that runs around the south-west of the Beagle Channel.
First we went round the Les Eclaireurs lighthouse that signals the entrance to the bay of Ushuaia and then we went to see Sea-Lion island. It was nearly midday and the males - which are all single-furred sea lions - were resting in the sun surrounded by a harem of females.
On Bird Island there are hundreds of uninhabited nests; no one knows why the cormorants abandoned it three years ago. It seems that the birds prefer Despart Island, where it was easy for us to pick out the royal cormorant, a variety that holds it crest up high in the mating season. On Bridges Island we disembarked for a short walk. In summer, when the senecios are in flower, it's all colored yellow and the air is filled with a delightful scent. It wasn't time yet, but we were fascinated by the llareta, a plant that looks like a giant cushion and grows over the whole island. On the shore there were dozens of diminutive snails, that are so delicate that it's difficult to imagine them as carnivores, capable of drilling through the shells of mussels and clams to feed themselves.
Early in the afternoon we left for the north, on the way to Estancia Rivadavia. Route 3 took us to Tolhuin where everyone stops off in La Union to buy freshly baked bread, have a coffee and enjoy a pleasant conversation with Emilio Saez, the baker and owner.
Then, along complementary route H, we found the ranch house, an old Malvinas-style building in sheet metal and wood. Myrna Antunovic inherited the land and shows her special talent in her remodeling of the interior of the house. Rivadavia is in the midst of woods and plains, and also has shores on the two large lakes of the region: the Chepelmut and the Yehuin.
Myrna was waiting for us with Martin Vegino, who has an unequalled knowledge of the roads on the ranch. They had prepared their four-cycles ready to leave, and off we went to see the land. We filed through a wood of twisted ņire trees and came across quite a few guanacos that live wild in the area. We went down towards the Chelpemut that seems like a sea with the water roughened by the wind and we drove round the shore. We got back onto the road to open country and reached our destination: the trout farm, just where the river Mimica flows into the Yehuin. Every year, hundreds of these fish arrive to spawn in its waters. The place is ideal for an evening snack, with the fire already lit and an exceptional view of the lake that seems surrounded by cliffs.
The ranch is a destination for big trips: you can visit the beaver colonies, climb the neighboring hills and wander through the almost virgin woods where not a soul goes. Very near lies Estancia Ushuaia. Located in a valley surrounded by the Pinturas hills, it also has a sector of forest where there are lots of ņires and lengas.
Siegfried Otto Friedrich Wolfsteller - plain "Piti" to his friends - welcomed us with a hyperactive plan of activities. The idea was to take a close part in the work on the farm. We spent a long time at the corrals admiring the work of the gauchos as they lassoed the calves with their usual skill, one after the other. Later we joined in with herding the sheep.
The ranch is also prepared for cross-country cycling, horseback riding and excursions on four-wheel motorbikes. It has five thousand hectares of countryside to enjoy.
We returned to Ushuaia as night fell, just in time to take the last flight leaving for Buenos Aires. As the plane climbed, out of habit we looked down on the city as it disappeared under the clouds. Emerging from the cloud cover, we saw the moon in shadow, with just a tiny strip lit up at the edge. It was an eclipse, and we thought it the best of endings to our journey, here at "the end of the world".