“El fin del Mundo”
The simple phrase was stenciled proudly into countless signs, restaurants, souvenir shops, and t-shirts throughout the city of Ushuaia, which enjoys the honor of being generally regarded as the southernmost city in the world. Situated in the bottom of the Patagonia region of Argentina, Ushuaia was originally founded as a prison settlement, the destination for hundreds of criminals for whom jail quite literally meant the end of the world. Today, the prison is closed, but the city still sees its fair share of visitors: tourists who come wearing winter jackets instead of striped uniforms, bearing cameras instead of chains. You see, apart from being the southernmost city in the world, and an ex-prison colony, Ushuaia is also the capital of Tierra del Fuego, one of the most uniquely beautiful regions in Argentina, and arguably the world.
It was this combination of factors that led our study abroad program, API, to select Ushuaia as the destination for our final excursion of the semester, an all-expenses paid, grand finale meant to let us celebrate one of our last weekends in Argentina. I know I was not alone in my irrational excitement for the trip. Since we first arrived in July, the weekend in Ushuaia has been one of the most popular conversation topics in our group. In my case, it was a solid 20% of the reason I chose API as my study abroad program. The Patagonia region is almost as famous as Argentina itself, the subject of countless documentaries, photos, movies, and even a multi-million dollar company name. I knew that if I came to Argentina, I couldn’t leave without experiencing it for myself, and if someone else wants to foot the bill…well then all the better.
Far from simply paying the way for all of us lowly college kids, the directors at API had already purchased plane tickets, made housing reservations, and designed a full itinerary. After spending far too many hours of my life in front of a computer screen researching bus routes and the cheapest lice-free hostels, being able to hop aboard a fully planned trip felt like cheating. All that was left to do was pack up our hats and mittens and go along for the ride.
In this case, “going along for the ride” meant rising around 3:30 on Friday morning to get to the domestic airport in Buenos Aires. Our program director and fearless leader for the weekend, Jimena, joined us 13 API students in finding our bleary-eyed way onto a chartered bus…well 12 of us at least; Katie added a little bit of early-morning excitement by not getting out of bed until the bus pulled up to the front door of her apartment. After a little scrambling and a quick dash across Santa Fe, the straggler joined the rest of us to arrive safely at the terminal, stroll straight through security, across the runway, and onto the plane. The sky was just beginning to lighten as the plane taxied down the runway and lifted gently into the air. Destination: South.
According to my carefully executed Google search, Ushaia lies exactly 1,474 miles, as the crow flies, from Buenos Aires. This hefty distanced translated into a roughly 3.5 hour flight, the majority of which I spent talking to my neighbor, a man named Eduardo who works as an electrical engineer in the Argentine Coast Guard. Approaching Ushuaia afforded us the first glimpse of what the Patagonia region could offer to those adventurous enough to find their way down. Enormous expanses of mountains created a real-life topographical map. As we circled closer individual summits because visible, challenging each other for dominion over the sky. I felt like I had landed myself in one of the ski movies that take up my fall nights each year; snow-covered peaks filed back in every direction, they’re steep white faces, cliffs, and chutes begging for the touch of a snowboard. I could almost hear the classic dialogue in the back of my mind: “3….2….1….Dropping.”
Unfortunately, for this trip it was only our plane that was doing the dropping, touching down onto a runway running parallel to a sparkling bay and rows of those tantalizing mountains. Again, we made quick work of airport security and emerged into the crisp, cool, Ushuai-an air to meet the bus that brought us to our sleeping quarters for the weekend at Aires Beagle: a small collection of cabin-style condos situated just outside the city center. As the only 3 guys on the trip, Matt, Patrick, and I had the luck to be assigned our own 3-person condo. It was a simple, yet comfortable kitchen/sleeping area which we quickly christened “The Johnson Pad.” We had just enough time drop our stuff on our respective beds and raid the fridge of its bread, milk, and OJ (meant to be for the next day’s breakfast) before our group reconvened to explore our new surroundings.
You really couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful day. The sun shone bright and strong, but the air was tinged with a refreshing Arctic chill that made every step feel as if you were walking through all-natural air conditioning. The result was a temperature that would be appropriate for just about anything: pickup soccer, hiking, lounging, or, in this case, strolling through the streets of Ushuaia in jeans and a t-shirt. I spent the first 5 minutes of our walk simply spinning myself in circles to take in the world around me. The city of Ushaia lies sandwiched between two of the best things in life: water and mountains. Looking South, one can see the sparkling waters of the Bay of Beagle, the horizon crowned by spiky, white peaks. Turn a full 180, and you will be snow-covered summits of another mountain range, which sprout from the back of the town and stretch both left and right, creating a “U” around the settlement that should stand for Unbelievable. Throughout our stay in Ushuaia, these peaks took on all manner of appearances, depending upon the time of day, weather, and vantage points. One second they would stand stark against the clear blue sky, the next be wrapped in a web of soft cloud. Regardless of the look, the power of living underneath such beauty was palpable throughout our stay.
After walking for about 25 minutes I realized that we were finally at our destination….a shopping mall? I’m all for supporting the economy, but somehow appreciating the amazing scenery of Patagonia through a 3rd-story food court window just didn’t seem right. I turned to Jasmine, who has become my designated “nature buddy” for our various trips.
“Jasmine, do you want to get out of here?”
And so we pulled a quick U-turn, headed back down the humming escalators, and back into the tantalizingly fresh air. Instead of browsing through shiny new plastic knick-knacks, we passed the next 3 hours walking all along the coastline of Ushaia, extending the journey out onto a peninsula that gave home to a few quaint houses and a collection of horses. We capped off the with Jasmine leading me through a sunrise salutation in the gazebo of a small park. By the time we arrived back in the town center to meet our group for lunch at 2, our cheeks were flushed from the crisp breeze, and my mind was thrumming from so quality nature time.
More than just red cheeks and tousled hair, the walk had also left me with a healthy appetite. Looking for a meal worthy of three growing men, Matt, Patrick, and I decided to split an asado. Minutes later the waiter reappeared bearing a platter piled high with meat, fresh of the grill, that was literally sizzling. Chorizo sausage, chicken, pork, beef, blood sausage, and the famous Patagonian cut of lamb called cordero were all piled in a sinfully delicious spread. Every cut tasted every bit as good as it looked (and sounded), but it was the cordero that really stole the show. In the classic style of asado, the lamb had only been seasoned with salt and fire, letting the rich flavor of the meat speak for itself. It was lean, gamey, tender, and utterly satisfying, especially when washed down with a cool glass of beer.
Our asado feast left all three of us guys reclined in our seats, savoring the feeling of a stomach full of genuinely good food. I don’t think I was the only one feeling the 3:30 wakeup call from earlier that day; our whole group looked like they wouldn’t have taken issue with a designated nap time. That, however, was out of the option. Before coming down, Jimena had heard about a hiking trail that ran next to the local ski resort, and I could hear the mountains calling my name. Channeling the hefty lunches into a store of energy, our group rallied themselves to take a group of taxis up towards the trailhead, following a winding road that dropped us at the base of a ski lift. A rocky path stretched out before us, leading up towards a collection of towering, snow-covered peaks.
And thus at 4:00, the 13 API students, plus Jimena, took to the trail, bravely battling through the immobility of jeans, traction of all manner of footwear, and extra weight provided by the recent lunch. The sun was still shining brightly, the views were spectacular, and spirits were high. As we climbed a bit hire, snow began to appear across the trail, slushy corn that is perfect for forming snowballs, or slipping out from underneath the foot of an unsuspecting hiker. Still, our group kept pushing ahead. It wasn’t until we reached the bowl at the base of the surrounding peaks that it finally looked like people were ready to throw in the towel. I caught myself looking longingly at the summits ahead, but realized that between our group, gear, and late start, today probably wasn’t the best day to tackle the trek. I was preparing to enjoy the sweet air and a leisurely walk back… until Jasmine called my name from the front.
“Morgan, are you not gonna keep going up?”
Well, there was no way I was turning down a challenge like that.
“No no, I’m coming.”
I turned around and followed Jasmine up into the snowfields rising up in front of us, reveling in the heavy sound of my own breath and the crunch of snow beneath my feet. The rest of the group remained below on the sun-baked rocks, disappearing from view as we rounded a corner. The snow got deeper, or jeans got wetter, and the face got steeper, but still we kept chugging up the hill. I wasn’t sure if we would actually make it to the summit, but only knew that every step brought me a bit closer. The steps continued until we hit another headwall, this one steeper than anything previously seen. Fighting our way up through created a pattern reminiscent of a Stairmaster: kick into snow, weight on foot, step up….kick into snow, weight on foot, step up… We climbed, and still the summit remained a distant dream. It wasn’t until about 6:45, standing alone on the intimidatingly-steep slope, that Jasmine and I finally decided it was better to be safe an warm in the light of a condo than cold and stranded on a mountain in the dark. That, and my lower third felt like it had been dunked in a tank of ice-water.
Despite the premature turn-around, our hike was the furthest thing from a failure. Looking back the way we had come provided a view unlike anything I had seen yet. A pass between the mountains showed the city of Ushuaia spread out like a map, sloping downward until it hit the shores of the Bay of Beagle. Across those midnight-blue waters one could just make out a string of white peaks, mirroring the ones surrounding us. Jasmine and I celebrated the view, our ascent, and the raw feeling of being outdoors with yells and yodels that echoed across the bowl. When it came time to start heading back down, we discovered that running, jumping, and sliding our way was the most effective, and the most fun. We must have painted quite a picture: two pictures bounding through the dusk down darkened slopes, letting out bursts of song as the inspiration struck us. It was, without a doubt, one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had while in Argentina.
An added bonus of running downhill is that it is much, much quicker than climbing up. Thanks to our own energy, and the force of gravity, Jasmine and I were back at the base of the trail by 7:30, wet, tired, and ready for a taxi ride back to civilization. We arrived at the Aires Beagle with plenty of time to shower, change, and join the rest of the group for a big family-style dinner. Happy conversation carried us up through the evening, of which my favorite topic was deciding upon spirit Pokemon for every person in the room. It wasn’t until about 12:30, after deciding that Patrick was officially a Meowth, that our 21-hour day finally caught up with us. The guys retreated to our room, where my bed welcomed me with a nearly instant trip into a warm, dreamless sleep.
And so ended the 1st of 3 days in Ushaia. An enormous thank you to all over you who stuck with me for this very detailed account; I hope that you got the same enjoyment reading it as I did in writing it. I realize that it is only the first third of the trip, but sadly I can’t promise when the next installment of this grand journey will appear. I am currently in my last week in Buenos Aires before I head off to the Salta province with two friends for one final Argentine journey. With the coming craziness, it may be some time before I find a chance to write again. Fortunately, I’m sure you have much more pressing things to attend to than reading the whimsical blogs of a lowly college student. Until the next entry- Ciao!