el fin del mundo

It is about 2 degrees Celsius outside this morning in Ushuaia, Argentina. The sky is mostly clear, and we can see the snow-covered mountains stretched along the north side of town, and out over the Beagle Channel which defines the south edge of this, the southern-most city in the world. There are a few military bases further south and of course numerous research stations in Antarctica, but this is the furthest south ordinary people can work and play. In contrast to Punta Arenas, which was muddy and dusty, mostly plain, and not that interested in tourists, Ushuaia feels like a Banff or Jasper in a good way: compact with a main street or two hosting a variety of restaurants, tourist services, and outdoor sports stores, very clean, and the museums are actually open. This city’s advantage may be that it gets visitors through summer and fall who are exploring Patagonia or heading for Antarctica, and in the winter it is the base for people skiing on the nearby hills on the Argentine half of Tierra de Fuego.

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We arrived here yesterday after five days/four nights on board the MV Stella Australis, a relatively small “expedition” cruise ship (capacity 210 but with 166 aboard for this last eastward trip of the season) that plies the channels between Punta Arenas and Ushuaia, with multiple stops for passenger exploration of forest life, local history, and glacier activity. On board we were treated to several mini-lectures on these and other subjects, as well as documentary films. When we disembarked by Zodiacs (rubber boats), we were taken on guided tours through the forest, we hiked to amazing viewpoints up in the mountains, and got very close to several massive glaciers. We generally walked and hiked with the same group of fellow English-speaking travellers, although once we lost track of them and instead joined a group of English-speaking tourists from India who were quite enjoying the trip as well. At the end of each excursion, as we all gathered at the landing point, the crew had hot chocolate, and whiskey on the rocks ready for us!

We expected the highlight for us would be reaching Cape Horn and climbing the 160-step staircase to the top of the hill where the very-famous seven metre tall Cape Horn Memorial sculpture is located – an albatross in flight cut out of several layers of thick steel, with an extra giant eye to one side that guides our own eyes out to the vast Drake Channel that separates South America from Antarctica – 1000 km to the south. Indeed, it was the highlight – to stand at the very tip of South America was breath-taking, awe-inspiring, and a truly remarkable experience.

Along the way we also saw southern dolphins and South American seals, sea lions, and one big elephant seal lazily sleeping in the sun (and clearly not interested in lifting his head so tourists could see more than a big lump of blubber in the grass!), numerous types of birds, plants, and trees. We also had the pleasure to sit for each meal with friendly travellers from Australia, New Zealand, France, Switzerland, and one other fellow Canadian (originally from Russia), and to chat with others on hikes or back at the aptly-named Sky Lounge. With conversation, wine, and whiskey flowing freely, we rarely returned to our cabin before midnight. Our cabin was larger than we expected, complete with a floor-to-ceiling window to watch the scenery go by, the food was very good and plentiful, and the serving staff and tour guides were very helpful and professional. It was an outstanding trip that we highly recommend.

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So here we are in Ushuaia (pronounced oo-shwhy-ah). Yesterday we stopped in at the “Museum of the End of the World”, located in a former bank, which offers a brief introduction to the former and current people living in the region, the role of explorers and the military in opening up the area to European exploitation and settlement, and the construction of the nearby prison. It also features the largest collection of stuffed birds in Patagonia, which helped us identify the ones we’ve seen over the past week.

At the edge of town is the second museum we visited, the former prison itself, in operation from about 1911 to 1947. It was built to house hard-core convicts and political prisoners – but constructed here to help establish an Argentine presence in the area (an instant “settlement” that the prisoners were forced to help build the infrastructure for, including parts of the prison itself). It is a huge complex, with 380 cells designed to hold over 700 prisoners. Some of the wings have been left as they were when the prison was closed, the rest of the cells hold mini-galleries highlighting the maritime history of the area, partially through an extensive series of amazing model boats all made to the same scale by one man. The displays describe the impact of missionaries, gold-seekers, and farmers had on the native population (now essentially extinct), the various waves of immigration from Croatia and Italy in particular, and aspects of daily life over the past century. If we had one complaint it is that there is far too much text – it was like trying to read a dense book one page at a time – they have everything they know about everything up on the walls, it would take days to read it all. We decided to pick and choose a few descriptions to read and not feel guilty about skipping the rest!

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It was fascinating to see how Argentina views local historic figure Julio Popper. In Chile, he is characterized as a key organizer in the hunting and killing of Selk’nam people on behalf of sheep farmers who were operating in Selk’nam territory on Tierra del Fuego and complaining that the Selk’nam were killing their sheep. A photograph of Popper and several others pointing rifles into the distance with a Selk’nam body at their feet is used to illustrate this description. It’s a completely different story here – he is revered as an explorer and inventor, as a business tycoon who minted his own currency and printed his own postage stamps, and as a military leader who bravely held off attempts by Chilean forces to move into parts of Tierra del Fuego that Argentina had laid claim to. Under a copy of the very same photo the caption suggests the men were simply “posing” during an “encounter” with native people, and that yes, a few were killed or injured on both sides. Certainly no suggestion that he was engaged in what we would easily now describe as genocide.

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We are aware that in some parts of Central and South America, Canadians are disliked because Canadian mining companies have contributed to contamination of drinking water supplies and the destruction of fisheries and forests. What we were unprepared for is what we’re associated with here in Patagonia – as the source of the region’s number one pest, the Canadian beaver (el castor canadiense). It seems that back in the days when Europeans were sending boatloads of beaver pelts from Canada to Europe to be made into hats, someone in Patagonia had the bright idea that they could raise beavers and also profitably sell the pelts to European hat-makers. What they didn’t realize was that the beaver’s home diet of maple trees was what made their fur so long and shiny. Gnawing on the skinny birch trees here did not result in the same quality of fur, and so eventually the ragged and unwanted beavers were released into the wild. Big mistake!

The beavers took their revenge by doing what they naturally do, building dams and causing damage to huge areas of forest – and they proliferated because they have no natural predators here. Our objection is that they are repeatedly referred to as Canadian beavers. We argued that they had been here for many generations and should now be referred to as South American, or Patagonian beavers. We felt it was time to stop blaming Canada for an historic mistake made by locals!

land of flamingos and penguins

When Deborah and I go for a long walk, we like to kick a post or railing or building at our turnaround point — there are a couple of signposts along the seawall in Stanley Park that used to regularly bear witness to this ritual. Now that we’re on the road, when we walk through cities, or hike on trails, we continue the practice and give a post or tree a gentle tap with one foot. What we have not done is think bigger – is there an endpoint from which we will be turning around as we tour Central and South America? When we were initially thinking about this trip, we decided we would plan as we went along, but would try to stay in warm places as much as possible. That went out the window when we realized the natural thing to do would be to head down to the southern tip of South America, and kick a penguin.

It’s not easy to find them this time of year – two days in a row our plan to see the large colony of small penguins on Isla Magdalena was thwarted by high winds and rough seas, so on the third day we changed plans and joined a bus tour of Tierra del Fuego to see a relatively new and small colony of King Penguins – a penguin one size down from the Emperor Penguin.

It was a long day – bus travel, ferry crossings, stops in small towns, and passing by a large flock of flamingos – and then finally, late afternoon, we reached the pinguinera, on the windswept southern edge of bahia Inutil (Useless Bay), at the mouth of a small river. It was utterly fascinating to watch them hang out – about 20 penguins were in sight, we’re told the rest were feeding in the bay. The ones you see lying down are preparing for the night – they’re secreting an oil for themselves and the babies underneath that will keep them warm when they later stand up to sleep. Penguins wisely set up their camp just out of reach of tourists – in a small clearing just across the creek so they are about 50 feet away in these pictures.

In addition to flamingos and penguins, we also saw lots of upland geese (pictured), wild llamas, eagle-like caranchas, and thousands upon thousands of sheep. It is the invasion of sheep farmers near the end of the 19th century, and their practice of hunting down and killing indigenous people who did not understand property in the same way as the invaders, that resulted in the near extinction at the time of the Selk’nam people, whose camp fires three centuries earlier had prompted Ferdinand Magellan to call this island Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire).

Near the end of the day we ferried back across the straits named for Magellan, at the only point in the Americas where the Pacific and Atlantic oceans naturally meet. It was dark and the nearly full moon was rising and casting much light on very cold looking waters.

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The last couple of photos show some of the mud that crashed through part of Punta Arenas just a few weeks ago. We’re told there were several days of heavy rainfall, combined with a very high tide that resulted in a large portion of the commercial core being submerged in mud – in some places you can see the marks, in other places the mud is still caked or piled high. Many businesses were destroyed, a bridge was washed out, and it looks like the city has dug up the main street to rebuild the drainage system which was plugged and backed up with all the mud and debris.

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We’re boarding a boat this afternoon for a five-day cruise through the islands at the end of South America which will take us right around Cape Horn and then back up to Usuaia, Argentina, the southern-most city in the world.

*(please note: no penguins were harmed during the preparation of this blog)