LUGARES MAGAZINE Nro. 47
Pags. 56 - 63
By: Julia Caprara
Photos: Carolina Aldao
Enrique Vivian makes his living amidst crabs and toothfish in Kaupé. Hernán Ferrari amongst lakes and lenga woods with the Canal 4x4 vehicle. Jorge Trabuchi, in the sea on board the Callas, his sailboat, and the second one to arrive to Antarctic with an Argentine flag. If the Huskies are barking, that means that Tony Ocanto is nearby, with her usual friendly smile. Belen Rodriguez is "glued" to Las Hayas, the best hotel in Ushuaia; shooting his camara at an almost extinct ray of sun at dusk, that must be Eduardo Pocai, or his disciple, Gustavo Groch.
One can find Maria Silvia Boutellier anywhere cm the island or in the world for that matter, except in her office: she is a restless spirit and a professional guide Oscar Sigel uses the few free moments his restaurant To Elvira leaves him to take off to some unknown part of the world. If she's wearing, boots and has several sheepdogs following her, it has to be Annie Luna from Estancia Rolito.
And if its someone
speeding down the slope of the Castor Mountain it has to be a member of the Begué family. There are still quite a few left unnamed amongst the 40,000 inhabitants of Ushuaia, but we met all these characters mid many more during our 5 days there.
The arrival by plane is only a taste of what the trip will be. From above, the diaphanous clouds blend in with the snowy outline of the Fuegian geography. Fables should he inspired cm this part of the southern hemisphere.
For Some reason, "paradise" is associated with the tropic,
palm trees, warm waterfalls mid tropical birds, and ignores this amazing combination of Hue Channels between islands, lighthouses, penguins, glaciers, sea lions and cormorants.
9.30am. In winter, Ushuaia has the ideal sunrise for sleepyheads, and nights that would please all those who like to stay up late ...they arc as long as, the shadows cast by the Sun on the Shortest day of the year. The midday sun barely warms the frozen crust of ice on the slippery pavement. The port is deserted except for a couple of fishing boats biding their time. One is the bright red Tai An, the other, the black Canal Beagle. Anchored there for days, they seem to be the owners of the long jetty which, from December to March, is bustling with transatlantic ships and icebreakers.
Snow on the Tierra Mayor reserve. The eyes of the Huskies seem bluer. Their furry coats shine and the sound of their footsteps is muffled by the snow as they run, pulling the sledges behind them. Their effort is visible by the steam around their snouts. They obviously enjoy the cold. Winter belongs to them.
Ushuaia is, as we all know, the last city on the map. To the various "end of the world" labels used for tourist purposes, we should add the authentic local discoveries such as "La Salchicha Austral", a great hot dog place in the port. However, no matter how like "the end of the world" it may seem, Ushuaia is in fact the exact centre of the Argentine territory, the middle of the imaginary line drawn from La Quiaca to our piece of the South Pole.
Besides, it is the closest civilised spot to the Antarctic, at a distance of a little over 1000km. This is why, despite the fact that only 37% of the ships heading there used to stop at Ushuaia in 1985, currently 92% consider Ushuaia a mandatory stop on their way to the white continent. These statistics coincide with the increasing interest in the region. In 1985 only 544 travellers set foot there. Thirteen years later these numbers have increased by I,724%, at an annual rate of 35%,, higher than any other place in the world.
The uniqueness of a visit to the end of the world is a magnet for adventurers, who undoubtedly find the idea of 14 million square kilometres covered in ice quite irresistible. Its general appearance is that of a high plateau (which can reach a height of 3000 metres, 2700 of those being solid ice).
The moss defying the cold, the courageous colonies of sea animals, volcanoes and a temperature which has been known to drop to 88.5 degrees below zero, are all factors which draw more and more people to this land.
Due to the high latitude, and the lack of sun, storms here are silent, without thunder or lightning. Argentina has 13 bases, of which 7 are temporary, and the remaining 6 permanent. In Ushuaia it is possible to find "last minute" rates for cruises. Though not precisely inexpensive, they still cost exactly half of what Europeans pay months in advance. There are ten day cruises available for $2500, without great luxury and limited space.
Federico and I landed in the magnificent airport of Ushuaia on the first day of Winter, and began to shatter all the myths from the outset. "We're going to freeze to death!"... wrong. My conclusion is that one is better prepared for the cold here, and that one is probably colder in Buenos Aires with one's normal city clothes. "Boy, we are going to sleep here, with days that begin at 10am and finish at 5pm", we thought. Wrong again!
On our first day we arrived at Kaupé at 7.30pm, not very hungry, but completely disoriented by the darkness, We ate a glorious crab crepe, a delicious toothfish, and dessert ... just before 9pm Ernesto and Tesi came over for a chat. It was l o'clock in the morning before we realised it was past our bedtime!
This couple arrived 20 years ago when he was transferred by Gas del Estado. "I was so involved with gas, that I ended up bent over the gas stove!" , he joked. "With the 1989 crisis, our group of close friends decided to take turns entertaining once a week at our homes rather than going out for dinner."
Soon it became "Ernesto cooks tonight", which in 1990 evolved into Ernesto opening his restaurant Kaupé, which means "being at home". Here in Ushuaia, Ernesto and Tesi settled down and started a family. Their children are authentic locals. Tesi remembers the times when there were no buses, before the industrial boom of the 70's.
The island then had only 13,000 inhabitants, reaching 70,000 in 1990. "This used to be Fantasy Island", he recalls. "People came here looking for work in the industries that were encouraged under provincial law. They would build their homes on state land, and as one spends most of the time inside the house because of the cold, they would finish the interior first, and would leave the outside unfinished".
One can prove this easily by just having a look around. Fortunately, the authorities are trying to restore some kind of order, and are putting an end to the indiscriminate construction which led to a cement coloured anarchy reigning in many neighbourhoods of the city.
Nevertheless, it is enough to walk 20 metres along the docks in the port to have the best view of the city, with Mount Olivia at one end and Mount Martial as a backdrop to the little red rooftops.
Another possibility is to take the risk of falling in love forever, by staying at the Las Hayas hotel, and living like royalty. This hotel is located in the arca known as "villa turistica", which is successfully preventing itself from becoming over populated. The hotel is located in a privileged spot chosen by Hector Rodríguez Zubieta in 1993. When he decided it would be built there, the authorities agreed, on the condition that it would be a 5 star hotel.
That did not deter Hector and his wife, and there it is with its 92 beautiful rooms, impressive cuisine, and great service. Belén, their eldest and Sofia, their youngest daughter welcomed us. In Las Hayas, just looking through the windows is a luxury, eating, a true pleasure and sleeping, a pure blessing.
At 9am, when it was still dark, Hernán Ferrari appeared in his Land Rover, ready to show us the best spots of the Fagnano Lake. He and his partner, Alvaro Pintos are expert guides, totally devoted to Patagonia.
They got together to form Canal , eighteen months ago, convinced that Tierra del Fuego has a lot more to give than is usually on offer. He made this clear to us the moment we arrived to the coast with its black rounded pebbles and sea-like waves. We drank our coffee in silence, with the wind blowing in our faces, and the sun trying to appear. We were convinced. This was the way to know the great lake of the island.
Those who prefer contemplative life on the lake, without too many aspirations, can extend their stay at the Kaikén hostal, near Tolhuin. Better maintained is the Petrel hostal on Lake Escondido. There is also the option of the refuges in the cross country ski centres near the city, such as Haruwen, Las Cotorras, Tierra Mayor, Altos del Valle, Solar del Bosque, among others.
Besides the barbecue at the Fagnano, Canal offers beaver spotting (in Spring when some of the 50 thousand beavers bred from the first 21 couples introduced in 1947, come back to life after the winter); trekking in the National Park, and sailing in canoes.
But what Hernán and Alvaro are dying to organise is a visit to the Mitre Peninsula, at the southeast end of the island, and the Policarpo estancia, which offers an amazing view as well as the remains of the Duquesa dc Albany ship, whose extraordinary figurehead is in the Museo del Fin del Mundo in Ushuaia. But this is not an easy thing to do. Tierra del Fuego has only one national route, Route 3. For the rest, there are ten provincial roads which bear the letter A to J and which spread out from Route 3 to cover the most populous areas of the province.
This doesn't amount to much when you consider that the only cities are Ushuaia and Rio Grande with 40,000 inhabitants each, followed by the town of Tolhuin with 1000 people ........ and that's it. Road J runs alongside the Beagle Channel until it reaches the famous estancias of Harberton and Moat. It doesn't even reach Sloggett Bay and from there to the extreme end of the continent, 100 km away, "the coast, above all the north, has some incredible countryside and until recently could only be visited using a combination of 4x4s and inflatable boats".
But the logistics are very complicated and the waters of the Le Maire Strait are even more so. "The estancias of the region are abandoned or have only one caretaker, who is paid by the prefecture". Hernán told us, while we imagined ourselves walking like the Magellans of the next century. But night fell suddenly and we still wanted to visit the Valley of the Huskies to see the 40 Siberian Huskies belonging to Tony Ocanto.
Tony joined the Navy and, over 20 years ago asked to be sent to the
Antarctic, just so that he could be with his beloved huskies. Today
he is a true "musher" with twenty pairs of dogs who leave their wooden
kennels and bark excitedly in the icy wind whenever someone approaches.
Tony races his sledge professionally raising and training his dogs
and even finds the time to teach the children how to race, an activity
he enjoys almost as much as caring for his dogs.
By August 10 his colleague Gato Curutchet and other Fuegians passionate about sledge racing have planned an international even which has attracted more than 20 teams from Tierra del Fuego, Buenos Aires, Europe and Canada amongst others. It is one of the most eagerly anticipated events together with the "Marcha Blanca" cross-country ski race, the national ice sculpture competition and the End of the World Rally. The 31st of December in this corner of the world, is still a surprise but they assure us that it will be something special. Tony, faithful to his passion for dogs and children is organising a Treasure Hunt with clues hidden throughout the valley. That day we also stayed up chatting until late in the evening.
At 8 o'clock, as had been arranged, Demetrio and Josefina Martinelli arrived. They are the husband and daughter of Maria Silvia Bouteiller, the director of Turismo de Campo, a travel agency that caters for small groups. They design unconventional excursions like the one we had been invited to join: a trip to Rolito, an authentic Fuegian estancia with an even more authentic owner, the charming Annie Luna, who advised us over the radio that the road was safe, and was expecting us with a warm house and a delicious chicken casserole.
The moment we got out of the cars we were greeted by about ten of her twenty seven "barbucho dogs" - a cross breed used to herd sheep - jumping up and down with their snouts covered in snow. We went for a walk with Annie and her favourite dog, Leña.
The barking of the other dogs and the crunching of the snow beneath our feet was the soundtrack, which stayed with us during our visit to the shearing shed and other facilities of the estancia.
I was captivated by the frozen grass. It looked like a blanket of hard, white sticks covering the ground.
Annie's stories about her grandfather Sebastián, who founded the estancia in 1927, and her father Rolo - the first dentist in the region - animated our lunch. Her mother - she said - is French and was never able to adapt to the life on these 17,000 inhospitable hectares. "There are places here she never even got to know, and when I mention them she just looks blankly at me...". Educated in Buenos Aires, Annie never had any doubt that she would return home to run Rolito.
The sun was threatening to disappear, so Demetrio and Josefina had to tear us away from the table to take us to Cape San Pablo, over the Atlantic.
We would have loved to stay longer with Annie, but the lighthouse which has remained crooked since the 1949 earthquake, and the Desdemona, a ship stranded there on the beach, were a spectacle we could not miss. The Martinellis organise a ten-day pony trek in the summer on the coast here, reaching the wonderful Mitre Peninsula. It isn't a ride for beginners, bearing in mind that the trail runs parallel to the sea and the tides can delay one's passage.
The next day dawned overcast and rainy. We decided on an "urban" day that included the famous and unmissable Presidio (Prison). Now harmless to the visitor the partially ruined building still evokes the shivers. But so does the Maritime museum, with stirring exhibits of shipwrecks, expeditions and the old Prison, all impeccably organised and fascinating.
There are plaster replicas of the blue and yellow striped prison clothing of some of the famous inmates who spent time there: Cayetano Santos Godino, Mateo Banks and Simón Radowitsky - a catalogue of illustrious villains who spent their days behind bars. Tierra del Fuego was associated with the prison until 1947, when the government decided to close it down.
The first convicts arrived in Ushuaia in 1896. The Carcel de Reincidentes (repeat offenders prison) was located on La Isla de los Estados until 1902 when, for humanitarian reasons, it was decided to move the prison east to the capital city. The prison took 20 years to build using convict labour. It had 380 single cells but sometimes housed up to 700 inmates.
On our departure the rain was so relentless that we stopped for a coffee in the famous Volver, a restaurant/café belonging to Lino Adillón from San Juan. We had lunch in the Tia Elvira with Oscar Sigel, the son of the legendary Elvira, a pioneer of the region. In `58 she arrived from the village of San Juan in Entre Ríos province, a russo-german colony of folk from the Volga region. Elvira started first La Cabaña and then, in '78, the Tante Elvira. Three years ago Oscar took over the restaurant and re-christened it in Spanish and moved the premises to the Avenida Maipú. "In summer there is a queue outside" said Oscar who has been careful not to extend the premises because "it will lose the essence of the kitchen".
Fresh, home-made and original, the recipes inherited by Oscar complement the ambience of the place, decorated as it is with photographs and mementoes of the Ushuaia he knew before Law 19.640, when this was not fantasy island.
In winter, Ushuaia has the clarity of an icy paradise.