LUGARES MAGAZINE Nro. 80
By: Ana Slimovich
Photos: Alejandro Peral
USHUAIA IN WINTER
Ushuaia (now that I've got to know you, I'm pronouncing your name differently, with the "shhh" sound), or "Ushu-aia", was the name the Yamana gave this area thousands of years ago, speaking a language that was able to express in a single word the phrase "bay that penetrates westwards". Today there are only two of them left: Ursula and Cristina Calderon.
The yamanas used no clothing, a fact I find hard to reconcile with the bitter cold in this place, so I'm forced to give up my rational train of thought, that apparently doesn't apply to this hinterland, at the outer edge of the world. It hadn't snowed this hard in seven years. No sooner had we arrived than the wind started to blow furiously. The weather forecast announced a snowstorm for the weekend, and I didn't know whether to be glad or sorry.
We piled into the car for Luis to take us to Cumbres del Martial. What will a snowstorm be like? I'm totally disconcerted at the series of events: landing at the "last airport in the world", a snowstorm, seeing the silvery Beagle Channel, the little Fueguian houses, all the roads winding upwards and the white blanket that even covers the entrance to the hotel and extends as far as the eye can see. It smells like heaven, the room has the biggest bed I've ever seen.
I see a storybook picture through the window: an empty bench on a wooden deck, snowflakes silently floating down, the snow-covered handrail and beyond, the majestic lengas standing to attention to salute the arrival of a new winter.
One's arrival in Ushuaia takes a while to "digest"; perhaps a night's rest helps one get accustomed. Getting used to the cold weather, for example, which once sampled is "all bark and no bite". Getting used to the early nightfall, illuminated by the reflection of the white snow that blankets everything.
La Cabaña, the hotel restaurant, wakes us out of our stupor with its attentions: a spread of Patagonian smoked specialties, a vegetable and cheese fondue and a chocolate mousse. I'm in Paradise. The snowflakes whirl and eddy around in a silent, peaceful dance.
In the morning, that's still dark at 9, the layer of snow on the handrail is significantly thicker. In Ushuaia you even have breakfast at night! Dawn greets us on our way to the National Park. The city had already woken at 8 a.m., when the government agencies opened and the kids started their school day.
We find the "End-of-the World Train" waiting for us. The steam engine chugs mightily, and the train starts advancing through the snow. The voice of Mariana, our guide on this excursion, is heard over the speakers, accompanying the incredible views that follow on each other through the windows.
This train trip was also made by prisoners and wardens a hundred years ago, sitting on the lumber they had felled in the forest and enjoying the sensation of freedom of the cold wind on their faces. In 1896 it was decided to send convicts down to this desolate area. What better jail could there be than distance, icy seas and mountains? They built the city's buildings, streets, and bridges in exchange for a minimal wage, preparatory education and severe discipline.
In 1910 the train that still runs alongside the Pipo river was inaugurated.
The first stop is at Cascada La Macarena Station, where the waterfall has already frozen over. On the hillside some hairy broad-hoofed Percheron draft horses kick at the snow to find food for grazing. Lower down, across a bridge over the river, the replica of a yamana hut takes us back in time. Just to think that they wandered around naked. No clothing would remain dry in that weather, so they had no choice but to bare their skins. It took them seven thousand years of evolution to attain this hardiness. However, they had fire as their ally; they even took it with them in their canoes, where they spent most of the time. Fire, and sea lion blubber, that they used as food and as effective heat insulation on their bodies.
They led this life until the European whaleboats arrived in the 18th century and the wholesale hunting of sea lions began. This fact, plus the new diseases brought by the crews were the main reasons for the disappearance of these aborigines. We continue our trip - this time through a wood of grayish lengas with some isolated green patches on them: these are the "Chinese lanterns", epiphytes that feed on the sap of these trees. At the National Park station, the train turns around and one goes back through the landscape, thus indelibly imprinting its beauty on one's subconscious mind.
At three thirty Hernan Ferrari of Organizacion Canal comes by for us in his 4WD. The sun that now and then appears, low on the horizon, has a tendency to disappear behind the Cordillera. We chase it along the road leading to Altos del Valle, but, relentlessly it disappears from sight. When we finally arrive at our destination it's almost nighttime and the light is on in Gato Curuchet's cabin. No sooner do we open the door, Carmen calls her husband: "Gaaatoo!" "I'm coming - I'm in the bathroom! ! ! ". he shouts back.
I can't help chuckling when he emerges, a miner's lamp on his head, wearing a lumberjack shirt, a blue overall and holding assorted plumbing tools in one hand. He's the spitting image of Mario Bross! That's it - I burst out laughing! At the age of eight, Gato made a drawing: a little house, a tree, the sun and some mountains. It was prophetic. Had he drawn a dog also? "I don't remember", he says, "but anyway, fate decreed that I should now be surrounded by 55 huskies, Siberian and Alaskan wolfhounds, that sometimes start barking all at the same time ". "They can communicate with each other ", says Marcelo, one of Gato's young helpers that trains the dogs. He speaks so matter-of-factly, that it's clear he understands them.
While Gato gets the sleds ready and Ale accompanies him, camera in hand, Carmen and I stay by the wood stove drinking mate to keep us warm inside. Carmen works in an airline and met her husband while she was selling tickets. Now she lives from one dog sled race to another with one Gato and a lot of dogs. They were in Alaska two years ago, where he earned the distinction of sportsman of the year in the John Beargrease competition, named after a postman whose dogsled "round" was 700 Km long. Curuchet is the first South American "musher" to have won a prize; the locals were specially amazed by his ingenuity in solving all kinds of problems that cropped up during the race using the materials at hand, a typically Argentine skill.
Carmen also has her share of inventiveness, using her hands to manufacture body harnesses and leggings, because the imported ones became prohibitive under the new exchange rate. The sleds have been home-made for some time now. "And what do you use the body-harnesses for?" I asked her. "For climbing in summer and doing "ski-shoring" in winter", she answers. Ski-what? So she explains, and I'm eager to try this new sport. I don the back-country ski boots, wrap up in as much warm clothing as possible, put on the harness and skis, and they hook me on to Karut, one of their dogs, with a rope. I hear everybody shouting "flex your knees", as Karut starts running at full speed. My first fall.
Karut waits for me impatiently as I get up, and then starts pulling me along the trail through the woods. I can't believe that I'm learning this new skill. I fall again, but only because I'm nervous and exhilarated. However, Karut gives me an ugly look this time, and I try to explain to him, but don't know how. By the time we get back to the cabin we're getting accustomed to each other. Five Englishmen and a Peruvian are waiting for us to start on the Fuego Blanco excursion.
Only Karut and I are missing. Now we have 32 dogs and four sleds. The preparation for departure is quite a ritual. The dogs bark excitedly, while Gato, Marcelo and Garza (another helper), talk to them in a special code, and prepare them with a series of false starts. Finally, both mushers and dogs set out on the trip. We skim along silently through thousands of lengas to a clearing that at one time had been occupied by a glacier and is now a peat bog: a mossy terrain that ends up absorbing the water completely.
Pure whiteness everywhere, the bright mountains looking more distant and a southern aurora over our heads. This is paradise. We stop to light a bonfire and have a cup of "mountain chocolate", i.e., hot chocolate with a touch of brandy. The Englishmen take photos with their digital cameras. You can see that, just like me, they can't believe what they're seeing. Gato disappears; I find him gazing up at the stars like a kid. In the cabin, a hot mutton stew full of calories is waiting for us. We savor our meal happily.
Snowstorm. We awake to an all-white world. Only we are up and about in the city. Of course - it's Saturday and there's nowhere for anyone to go - except us, because we're going skiing on Beaver Hill. The good thing about snowfall is that it doesn't wet one or cause a nuisance.
Instead It beautifies, and somehow makes sense out of winter. Cold weather without snow is much more boring. Gaston Begue receives us in the complex. He invites us to a coffee and gives us all the news on the ski center that, together with his father he has been developing since 1998. They've already finished building the new 300 m2 house for the day care center and the new ski school. We've arrived just in time for the inauguration of the Snow Park with its jumps and rails. After two years of studying the mountain, they decided the best place for it was between the La Barra snow-bar and the 870 meter survey altitude mark. "Enough talk - lets ski!" prompts Gaston, and he provides us with a full set of brand-new equipment to ski down the powdery snow of the runs, that invite one as though they also enjoyed it. Time flies faster than our skis, so we eventually have to stop, but not without swearing to come back, this being the only way of tearing ourselves away.
When the weather dictates what one does, one can't fight back. Especially if you're in a hotel like Las Hayas, with those picture windows that are framed like a classical landscape painting. Falling snow has a hypnotic effect similar to that of licking flames - you stand and watch it, mesmerized. A domed glass passageway crosses the mountainside from the hotel to the pool, sauna, Jacuzzi and gym. The latter can wait - I prefer hot water and a view on Ushuaia. I approach the pool that seems inviting, but when I dip my toe in, it's icy cold! This can't be, I tell myself, we're in Las Hayas! Just before I conclude there's something wrong, the area supervisor comes to tell me the temperature is 28 degrees Celsius. Not satisfied with this explanation, I go to the Jacuzzi that is at 32 degrees. Later I discover that the secret of enjoying both is to alternate from one to the other.
Kaupe completes the day's hedonism. Ernesto prepares marvels in the kitchen, and Tesi brings them to our table. A ceviche made with fresh vieyras, crab and black hake with sage and lemon. In the wine bar, inaugurated last November when Kaupe celebrated its tenth anniversary, a couple of habitues -who even have had their names engraved on their private glasses - sips some wine before their meal. At the next table, another couple goes for the third of the six helpings that make up the seafood sample. This is a ritual combining dishes and wines. We all are ready accomplices to this pleasure-giving ceremony of good eating.
Tierra Mayor is almost invisible from the road because the snowfall has all but buried it. Like he does with all the mobile homes and cars, Gustavo Giro meets us with a cup of hot chocolate. The size of the cup enables me to leisurely read the newspaper clippings festooning the wall about the founding of the winter sports center in 1976 by Gustavo Giro Senior.
Five minutes later, we're outside walking over a meter of soft snow on snowshoes. Although we're wearing the snowshoes, we sink to our waists at every step. Gustavo stands on an outcrop of the mountain and jumps into the snow. Snow becomes a plaything, and we jump around excitedly like children, without stopping.
On our return, we go to see Nunatak, the mountain lodge that also lies within the family grounds. Again, a fairy-tale view meets my eyes: the little wooden bridge, festooned with snow, the icicles hanging from the roof, and the smoking chimney. We feel like staying, but we have to get back to the catamaran, that leaves at three sharp. We say our goodbyes and go to get a closer inside look at the Beagle Channel.
The city shrinks from view, and we get to some islands full of sea lions, snowy sheathbills and cormorants. A new voice tells us about all these scenes and gives us information to better understand this southern geography. Les Eclaireurs lighthouse isn't really the "end-of-the-world lighthouse", as it is called, because the real one is on De los Estados Island. The pitching and tossing of the ship leaves us a little seasick. With this queasy feeling we go back for dinner at Volver, an almost museum-like restaurant that is over a hundred years old and was saved from demolition. On its walls are displayed historical objects and Gardel's voice comes from the gramophone.
On this occasion we see Hernan de Canal bright and early at 9.30 a.m. with his Land Rover ready to tour the off-road lakes. Tito, also de Canal, sits in the back seat with us. "Squeeze him dry - he knows everything", recommends Hernan referring to his friend. Three years ago, Tito changed the Buenos Aires subway for a 4WD, and now he studies tourism at university and puts his knowledge into practice every day - a well chosen hobby. Tito says that Ushuaia's best view is the one you get from Playa Larga ("Long Beach"), beyond the "645-home neighborhood" - in this 50,000 strong city, neighborhoods are know by the number of homes in each. In summer during the three or so days one gets warm temperatures of between 18 and 20 degrees Celsius, people go bathing in the bay there. Water temperature never goes over 8°C.
We get to the Garibaldi Pass, and from here, Lake Escondido is visible along its whole length. It is surrounded by a green ring of coihues. Ushuaia shows another face on this side of the Cordillera, where it doesn't snow so much. Along a track surrounded by woods we reach the shores of Lake Fagnano. Tito tells us the basic way of telling trees apart in Tierra del Fuego: "if it has leaves, it's a coihue, if it doesn't, it's a lenga". Lucky he didn't decide to be a forest guide. The trees that were felled to make the road, are still there frozen by the roadside. In summer, the greenery of the live trees makes a stark contrast with the grayness of the dead ones. In some places it was not human hand but rather beavers' teeth that did away with a major part of the forest. In 1947 25 sets of these rodents were introduced with the idea of establishing a fur industry; today the beaver colony has 250,000 members. Without any natural local predators, these true engineers of nature who build dams in rivers multiplied, becoming a pest. The government department of Natural Resources pays 5 pesos for a beaver tail and seven dollars for a complete hide.
Once in the lodge, on the shores of Lake Fagnano, Hernan and Tito prepare lunch and we go walking on the lake shore up to a frozen pond. We get back just in time to enjoy a good picada and a stupendous grilled steak. As well as being good drivers, these boys are handy in the kitchen.
On our last day, the sun is shining brightly, the snow is starting to melt and streets become dangerously slippery. The Ushuaia Prison helps me enrich my knowledge about the island. However, the Yamana Museum will leave me somewhat perplexed thereafter. We were grateful for the good weather that enabled us to tour Ushuaia with a clear sky, and from 800 meters above, in a small plane from the Aeroclub we overflew the city in farewell; the winter sports centers in the valley seem like toy miniatures compared with the imposing peak of Mt Olivia. We landed to take off again almost immediately, this time to fly at an altitude of 10,000 meters homeward to the north, leaving the place where nature seems to treasure her last outpost.