Argentina Part Three: Ushuaia (Tierra del Fuego & Penguin Island)

Saturday 1 February – Tuesday 4 February 2020

Our next journey was our longest internal flight journey in South America. We were flying from Puerto Iguazu right down south into Patagonia to Ushuaia – the most southerly city in the world.

Our journey took about six and a half hours, which included a short stopover in Buenos Aires. It turned out to be an incredibly easy stopover as the plane dropped us off so that we walked straight into the departure lounge where all we had to do was stock up on snacks and wonder over to our gate.

I was excited to go right down to the tip of Argentina and see some penguins but I was less looking forward to the change of temperature which I knew would be involved. I’d been enjoying the heat of Buenos Aires and Puerto Iguazu and wasn’t quite ready to don my trousers and jacket.

We arrived in Ushuaia to find a small but rather cool airport. I’ve never been skiing but it felt like a ski chalet to me. We grabbed our bags and headed to the taxi rank outside. The cooler air and wind hit us immediately. This was different.

A very nice taxi driver took us to our hostel, Antarctica Hostel, where we were able to check in. The hostel felt a bit more old fashioned and our room was a bit concrete-y (and didn’t smell great but I blame the other occupants for that as opposed to the hostel itself) but I actually really liked this place. The bathroom had a decent hairdryer which My Friend really appreciated and the hostel had a common area as you walked in that had the vibes of a proper living room.  The wifi was a bit dodgy but that you can’t have everything.

It was later in the day by the time we arrived in Ushuaia so we didn’t want to do much more than just have a little wander around. We walked along the waterfront, passed the big cruise ships that take tourists down to Antarctica, along to the travel company huts that were closed now but which we could use to book tours in the coming days, and down to the Ushuaia city sign and to the Falklands war memorial at Plaza Malvinas.

We’d had a not-so-good review of Ushuaia given to us by a work colleague who didn’t think there was much going on there but we both loved it. The city felt rustic, like the kind of city you would expect to find at the end of the world. Sure, it was small in city terms but, coming from the Kent countryside, there was a lot more here than the villages I am used to! It also had a nice, chilled atmosphere.

Avenida San Martin is the main street running through the city, home to lots of shops, restaurants and the Iglesia Nuestra Señora de la Merced (Our Lady of Mercy Church), which you cannot miss because it is bright yellow – inside and out. We walked up and down the road on the hunt for someplace to eat and spotted the charming-looking Bodegon Fueguino Restaurant, which looked like a hut you would stumble into when out trekking in the snow and looking for someplace warm to shelter and something hearty to eat.

The restaurant was clearly popular but thankfully we were able to get a table for two straight away. The menu was pretty extensive and I went for a lamb stew. The restaurant reminded me of somewhere I’d been when I was at the opposite end of the world, in Norway, and I wanted something as rich and delicious as the stew I’d had there. This unfortunately didn’t hit that spot and we did find that some staff were friendlier than others (but it was very busy so you could forgive them) but the food was still nice and we loved the atmosphere and the decor of the place.

After we were finished with our food, we headed back to our hostel and called it a night. We had booked bus tickets for the national park – Tierra del Fuego – in the morning and, since this would be our first experience hiking in Patagonia, we needed some sleep.

We grabbed some (included) breakfast in our hostel in the morning before being collected by our mini bus, which whisked us off to Tierra del Fuego National Park. Our first stop was at the ticket office to pay the entry fee (you could pay by card or cash but given the queue when we arrived we opted for cash as this seemed quicker) and pick up a map. We then hopped back on the mini bus to head to the first trail drop off point.

There were several trails in the park and we weren’t quite sure which one we should be taking. At the first drop off spot, several people got off to take the trail up to the visitor centre but several people stayed on. We hesitated and stayed on. It turned out the remainder of the bus were all heading to the Cerro Guanaco Summit trail, which was the most challenging trail in the park but, given this was our first hike, we actually wanted something a bit easier to start off with.

Perhaps we should have alighted at the first drop off but, as it was, we were instead dropped at the visitor centre and from there we decided to follow the Hito XXIV trail to the Chilean border. This wouldn’t have the same panoramic views as the summit trail but going to the border would be cool and it was flatter and shouldn’t take us too long. The hike took us along Lago Rocaand we followed the line of the lake, through the forest neighbouring it, until the end of the trail. Here you wouldn’t guess you were at an international border if not for the small sign saying that you had reached the end of the trail and trespassing into Chile was not allowed.

We posed for some photos by the sign before perching by the lake to eat some snacks and then making our return trip. It wasn’t a difficult hike, even for beginners like us, and took us around 3 hours to get to and from the visitor centre, where we stopped for some food. Not wanting to spend too much time or money we just grabbed a snack of empanadas.

There were several other trails in the park open to us now and, as we had started our day early, we had plenty of time left. We couldn’t take the trail back from the visitor centre to the first bus drop off point as we’d been told buses wouldn’t come back to collect visitors from there but there was a third bus stop and some shorter trails between there and  the visitor centre, so we had plenty still to occupy us. Our only problem was finding them.

We took off, walking away from the visitor centre, along a road but it didn’t seem particularly picturesque and we weren’t sure we were walking the right away. Eventually, we spotted a sign for a trail but it wasn’t clear on our map which trail this was. We decided to follow it anyway. There was a nice lake involved, I think this was Laguana Verde. As we wandered along the clear pathway, we got to a section where it was no longer clear which direction we should be going into. We were pondering our next move when another hiker came by. She had been on our bus that morning and was also somewhat confused. Helpfully, however, she had a GPS (phone signal was non existent here) and we walked with her a little until we found a way off the trail.

We continued to walk around the park for the next few hours. We came across Laguana Negra and also took the Castorera trail in the hope of seeing some beavers. Unfortunately, we were not so lucky but we did see their dam and the destructive effect they had had on parts of the park.

All in all, we were exhausted by the time we made it to the bus pick up point but it had been a successful first day exploring the national parks of Patagonia. In hindsight, I was thankful that we had chosen to start with Ushuaia as opposed to ending there. This was because as beautiful as Tierra del Fuego National Park was, I didn’t find it as impressive as the other Patagonian national parks we visited – Los Glaciares National Park and Torres del Paine National Park – and so I am not sure I would have appreciated it as much if we had done the trip the other way around.

Once back in Ushuaia, we walked down to the travel company huts by the harbour to book ourselves on a trip to see the penguins the next day. There were two options: one involved getting a boat over to Isla Martillo, where we could watch the birds from the water; another option would allow us to actually dock and walk onto the island, meaning we could get closer to the birds. As much as I wanted to do this, it didn’t seem like a great idea to us as it would involve more disruption to the wildlife so we decided just to go with the boat-only option. Our first port of call was already fully booked but thankfully we had more luck in our second hut. The next morning we would be boarding a catamaran bright and early to sail to Isla Martillo where we would be able to make some new avian friends from a distance.

That evening, we did have a wander up and down Avenida San Martin trying to find somewhere new for dinner but nowhere really took our fancy. We were tired and in need of a good meal so we just ended up back at last night’s dinner choice: Bodegon Fueguino Restaurant. We were slightly on the early side for dinner and it turned out the place wasn’t actually open yet but thankfully we hadn’t arrived too far in advance and so we decided to stick with it.

We weren’t the only ones waiting by the door when they opened but we were seated quickly. Still in the mood for some kind of rich sauce, I went for lamb in red wine, with some vegetables. Unfortunately, again, this didn’t quite hit the spot but I still really liked this restaurant all the same.

After dinner, we decided to go back to our hostel and crash. We had an early start and were tired from our first Patagonian hiking day. My Friend crawled into bed and donned a face mask that made her look like Hannibal Lecter or Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I amused myself by take pictures of her to post on Instagram Stories, like any good friend would, before also climbing into my bunk.

The next morning we headed down to the harbour for our trip to see the penguins. We were one of the first to arrive and so were able to get seats right by the windows. It wasn’t too long before the boat was completely full and we were off, sailing down the Beagle Channel. Our first stop was an island full of black and white birds, but these were not penguins. This was Isla de los Pájaros (aka Bird Island), home to a lot of cormorants. We all piled out on deck to get a better view of these birds and the boat floated there for a while, turning around so people on all sides of the boat could get a decent view.

Our next stop was Isla de los Lobos (aka Sea Lion Island) where we saw… sea lions (curveball). Again we floated for a little while here, with the boat circling around so everyone on all sides of the boat could see the sea lions chilling out on the rock.

The next site on our trip did not involve wildlife; it was the Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse which warns sailors of the rocks by the entrance of Ushuaia Bay. This is often referred to as the Lighthouse At The End Of The World, which I thought was to do with how far south we were but it turns out that it has actually erroneously earned this name as it is mistaken as the lighthouse that inspired a novel by Jules Verne of the same name. That lighthouse is actually the San Juan de Salvamento lighthouse which lies further east on the Isla de los Estados.

After we circled the lighthouse, we continued on until we came across another little island which was full of both sea lions and cormorants. I was excited for this one; the boat seemed to be able to get a bit closer than it had to the other two, so I would be able to get some better pictures. True to form, we piled out on deck and, as before, we picked a side to see the wildlife from. The boat turned so that the other side got to see the island first and we waited for it to turn so that we’d get our chance. We continued to wait but this time the boat did not turn. The space alongside each side of the boat was narrow and we were jammed in somewhere in the middle and unable to move. As it was, we had to make do with peering through the windows and over the heads of the people on the right side of the boat who had a full on, close up view of the animals. I can’t lie, I was quite irritated. I like getting my David Attenborough on and this seemed like a missed opportunity.

Disappointed, we headed back inside as we pulled away from the island. Now we were heading onto the main event: Isla Martillo. As we arrived, we decided the best thing to do was linger at the back of boat as we walked outside, so that we could have access to either side of the boat, depending on which way it first turned. This time, however, the boat took a different approach and pulled right up to the island, front first, so we could see the birds from a lesser distance. Once we realised we rushed up to the opposite side of the boat and were able to reach the front deck. We had to wait a little bit to get right to the front where we would get a better view but the boat stayed for a while so we had plenty of time to watch the colony of Gentoo and Magellanic penguins.

Isla Martillo was the last stop on our tour so now it was a straight run back down the Beagle Channel to Usuhaia. By this point, I was really hungry so I queued for some overpriced food (a sandwich and chocolate bar) from the boat’s little cafe. It wasn’t the best food – if we’d thought about it, bringing snacks would have been a good idea.

Once we arrived back in Ushuaia, we found that we still had a decent amount of the day left. We had a list of recommended things to do in the area from our hostel and settled on the Martial Glacier, which would apparently give us great views of Ushuaia Bay. We popped back to the hostel for a quick change and to don our hiking boots and called a taxi for the short ride out of the town, up into the surrounding mountains. This turned out to be our first challenging hiking experience. Although we had spent longer walking around Tierra del Fuego National Park, we’d taken pretty flat routes. Martial Glacier involved a steeper hike that took us a bit over an hour to get to the top of.

By the time we reached the glacier, we were pretty exhausted. I hadn’t been expecting a particularly impressive glacier. Before my trip to New Zealand in 2010, when I thought of glaciers, I had always pictured icebergs, but on that trip I saw the Franz Josef Glacier as I went ski-diving over it. I sadly didn’t have the chance to hike over it and, from a distance, it looked to me just like some snow in the mountains. I imagined this one would look about the same and, indeed, it did. My Friend, however, still had the iceberg image in her head and so she was decidedly less than impressed with what we found at the top of the mountain. We were hot, we were sweaty and all we could really see was some snow.

The view of the bay was, however, quite impressive and we stayed a while for a little Instagram-photoshoot. I had been hoping for an easier descend but, thanks to the steep hill, my feet did not find this easy either and, by the time we got back to the carpark, I was afraid of what I would find when I took off my hiking boots. Thankfully, it turned out to feel worse than it was. I’m not sure I would say it was really worth the hike – particularly for two untrained hikers like us – but it was definitely good practice for what else we had planned for our time in Patagonia.

The round trip had taken us a little longer than expected/hoped and by the time we got back to the carpark I was worried that there wouldn’t be any taxis coming up here to take us back into town. After the climb, I was not looking forward to a long walk back to the hostel. Mercifully, a taxi did show up but it would have been sensible to have taken a number for the local taxi company from our hostel.

That night, we decided it was probably time to make the most of hostel facilities and cook our own dinner. We popped to the local supermarket and picked up some pasta, cured meat, cheese and tomato sauce and cooked ourselves a simple dinner. It smelt and tasted good but we did spot other hostel inhabitants who were more adventurous in their cooking attempts.

The next day, we had flight to El Calafate – further north in Argentinian Patagonia – scheduled for mid-afternoon. If we had been up and out, I’m sure we could have fit in another activity but we were tired and we’d done the things we particularly wanted to do. Instead, we just had a lazy morning relaxing on the chairs in our hostel’s common area and listening to some proper throwback tunes being played on the speakers (hello Avril Lavigne) before heading off to the quaint airport with plenty of time to spare.

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