Getting to our next, very exciting location was no easy feat. We would be getting two buses for one night and a lot of hours, crossing into and then out of Chile, and taking a ferry to the Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego. Our first issue however was that our first bus wasn’t there when it was meant to be, and Maeve in particular was full of cold.
Our bus did arrive, two hours late. There’s no way of knowing when a late bus might turn up, so you just have to sit there and wait in the sweltering heat, watching all the time. Confusingly other buses from the same company to the same destination arrived, but we weren’t allowed on those. Eventually we were ensconced in our almost-fully-reclining cama seats, and excitingly found that the snacks aboard were mostly accidentally vegan. We’d made a ton of food though so as not to go hungry. It was about 2pm, and we expected to finally arrive in Ushuaia around 8pm the next day.
All the way from Trelew the desert scrub expanded outwards toward the never-ending horizon. At one point the ground dropped away to the side of us and we realised we’d climbed to about 600m, with exceptional views across the plains to the sea beyond. Toward sunset we travelled South along the coast where huge waves smashed immense sand-coloured cliffs. It was dark by 9pm and we tried to sleep, but we didn’t know if we’d be chucked off the bus randomly in the night like our last journey. A few hours later we were boarded by Argentine police who came through and checked all our visa stamps, but we were able to doze a bit shortly after midnight.
It got light around 5am, and Jay was woken by the sound of another passenger vomiting in the toilet. On the horizon a deep blue was gradually changing to orange. Dotted around the steppe occasional lights twinkled in the murk, some red and blinking highlighting a distant phone mast. As the land consolidated in the dawn we moved toward a large glittering town and our next, temporary, destination. We had expected to arrive at Rio Gallegos around 5am on the 24th, but with the delays we only arrived at 7am. Luckily our connection was still about 90 minutes away, so we had plenty of time to find a local supermarket for onward supplies. Sadly there was predictably nothing vegan, except a couple of really rough bananas, some biscuits and some crisps. But we anticipated being able to get dinner when we got to Ushuaia so we thought it wasn’t going to be a major issue.
With 10 minutes to go before our next bus was due to leave, there was still no sign of it. Luckily we asked because it turned out it was there and boarding already, it was just randomly, and for no reason we could ascertain, a completely different company to the one we’d booked. With 5 minutes to go Maeve showed the conductor our tickets, and was directed inside to a ticket office. It turned out that they had to be checked against our passports because we would be crossing borders (although we had to show our passports to get them in the first place). There was an enormous queue at the ticket office, but with gestures and urgency Maeve managed to get the situation across and someone let her into the queue. We finally boarded, both full of adrenalin from the last-minute ticket ordeal, but then the bus didn’t leave for a further half an hour. This time we were in slightly less luxurious ‘semi-cama’ seats, which don’t recline as far as cama, are narrower, and have less leg room, but were still pretty ok. As we weren’t planning to be on the bus overnight, we naively weren’t too worried.
We still had some bread, avocado, and burgers left from our food prep and we made some tasty sandwiches. As we headed South the conductor, a solid-looking weather- beaten man who was obviously used to tourists, appeared with some visa forms we had to complete to go through customs. He slowly and carefully explained that we couldn’t take fruit or vegetables over the border with us, so we panic-ate almost everything! The sands of the desert landscape gave way to grasses, short harsh looking yellow and brown stalks that rattled in the Patagonian wind, swaying like waves in the sea. The road we bounced along – a main highway – gave up its tarmac to long stretches of gravel. At a road-block we were again boarded by police who checked everyone’s ID. It was starting to feel like China again. Herds of guanaco occasionally raised their long necks to stare bleakly at us as we passed. A giant rea (basically an ostrich) watched us from the scrub. On the grey horizon dark hills appeared, lone peaks, isolated extinct volcanoes. Closer, their craters had collapsed and they yawned brazenly into the wind. The sky glowered with low clouds, the grey meeting the washed-out yellow of the flora. Patches of ancient lava fields appeared, large black gnarled rocks, which the road builders had chosen to skirt around rather than attempt to build over, making wide sweeping curves in otherwise endlessly straight roads. Occasional breaches allowed shafts of light to pick out vivid greens and reds in the rocks, which quickly dulled again into blackness and char as the clouds swallowed and contained the sunlight.
We stopped at the first border point where we sat on the coach for a long time waiting. Outside the police were training a sniffer dog among the cars, and it was not going well. A guy hid drugs (yeah, we think it was actual drugs) under wheel arches or in bollards, and the dog made its way around the obstacles, having the time of its life. It rarely found them, but when it did it was rewarded, as all search dogs are, with a toy. This dog loved its toy, but was very easily distracted and would rush off if it saw another person who might play with it, much to the frustration of its handler, and mirth from the drugs-guy.
Flags around the checkpoint were horizontal in the wind, and rain rolled in, moving in swathes across the plains toward us, engulfing us, and then letting us go as we watched them proceed into the distance in long grey sheets between the clouds and the ground. Within minutes of passing, the wind had dried the fallen rain as if it had never happened.
Eventually we were called from the bus with our hand luggage, to stand and queue outside a shed in the biting, bitter wind. Once fully numb, we were allowed inside where a small man behind a big desk gave our passports a cursory glance and stamped us into Chile. Our bags were scanned and a security officer took Jay’s bag, squeezed it, and gave it back. After another long wait in a holding shed we were all back on the bus, and back on our way, glad to be inside again. The freezing aircon of travel through the North of Argentina had now given way to actual heating for this leg of the journey, and we were all profoundly grateful for that. We settled down to try and catch up on some sleep, while a man behind us stared out of the window and sang quietly into an imaginary microphone he held up to his face.
After a while we started to follow the coastline, where epic waves ravaged the shale beaches and the wild sea looked relentless. After a few minutes we started to see the sea on both sides of us, and we realised we were coming to the end of mainland South America, and would soon be on a boat in said torrid and raging waves. The road here doesn’t really stop, it just continues into the water and disappears.
This end-point was a strange place to be. It was thoroughly wild with a small light-house marking a promontory. There was a low naval building, a cafe and a tiny shop, and then nothing but huge sea, vast sky and never ending plains. We waited for some time with growing anxiety as a few ferries rocked violently side to side, before they disgorged their loads, and each time we were told we’d be on the next one. It just didn’t look like the sort of sea you’d want to be anywhere near! So it was with some relief that we were told that the ferries were stopping because of the weather, and we’d cross once they started again. We didn’t fully understand the implications of this, so happily got out of the bus and went to top up on caffeine in the cafe. It was only a few hours later that we learned that recently one of our drivers had been stuck at the other side of the channel in a similar situation, for 27 hours. Suddenly we were faced with a very late arrival to Ushuaia, an Airbnb we’d paid for but might barely use, and a hungry night on the bus!
Walking to the cafe the wind was so strong that we could lean into it and be supported to stay standing. Sand was blown in a low haze that made the surface of the beach appear to shimmer, leaving its boundaries indistinct. In fighting the wind the waves appeared to roll backwards and lost their surfaces to spray. A flag on the navy building fought ferociously to escape its confines. The cafe predictably had nothing we could eat, but it did have tremendous picture windows that gazed out into the wild channel beyond, and it was warm and dry. The building was clad in tin on the outside: yellow tin for the walls, red faded tin for the roof. Inside it was a cocoon of pine, and we huddled up watching the remaining ferries lurching round the headland aiming for the safety of the harbour. We nursed a terrible coffee, sitting at a table topped with sticky, dark wood, lamenting the weather and our misfortune.
Outside we initially thought snow flurries were coming in clouds past the window, but although the wind was icy, the sun was hot, so it couldn’t be snow. When the cafe door was opened some of these lovely white seeds floated in and moved gently in the breeze as the door closed behind. Like seeds from dandelion heads, the small fluffy motes flowed quietly into corners, and drifted in a tiny silent tornado to settle behind a bin.
We stared blankly through the steamy windows at our destination across the water, a whole world away now. The grasses outside lay flat in the face of the onslaught; as we left we were blown back to the bus, unable to hear each other over the screeching gale. It was wild and raw here at the end of the continent, where Argentina and Chile began fragmenting into the sea.
At around 6pm the driver appeared with sandwiches for everyone, predictably filled with ham and cheese. At Jay’s “soy vegano”, he just nodded sympathetically and took ours back. We didn’t expect any replacement! Jay headed out to try the cafe and shop again, and returned with a somewhat unusual dinner combination of a tin of peaches, a carton of juice, crisps and chocolate biscuits. Our despondence was short-lived however as soon after a ferry appeared from the harbour, and we were told we would be getting on it.
We had to leave the bus while it was carefully maneuvoured aboard the rocking ferry, but then we followed, racing down the slip-way, eager to get on the boat and underway. We settled on some plastic-covered seats dreading the tumultuous crossing, which would take 30 minutes. However, out in the channel while the wind whipped froth off the waves and the sea clawed at the hull, the ferry was exceptionally stable and we barely felt a thing. It was still a relief though to arrive at the other side. On the island there was nothing – no open cafe, no shop we could see – and we were very grateful for the few amenities we’d had access to. On the ferry we had briefly had wifi, and Maeve had managed to send a message to our Airbnb host to say that we were underway and would likely be arriving at her house at 2am. At least then we still thought we would get some sleep, and although we weren’t relishing a 30 minute walk in the middle of the night, we were fantasising about a comfy bed.
Somewhere around 11pm, out of the darkness lights appeared, and we were stopped at the border back into Argentina. We waited on the bus for a long time, then were told to get our passports and queue at immigration. We stood for a long, long time in the snaking queue as it seemed none of the staff were rushing to process us. At the front eventually, we just gave the immigration official our accommodation address in Ushuaia, and our passports were stamped. Back on the bus we tried to warm up, waiting for what felt like an eternity to get going again. Well over an hour later the driver came to tell us all to get off the bus. We had to take all our luggage, including our hold luggage, and go back inside to have it scanned. Everyone was confused, tired and fed up, and the atmosphere was bleak as we stood again outside in the freezing queue. Almost 45 minutes later the queue started to move, and about 30 minutes later we had our bags scanned. Despite rigid rules about putting everything through and random questioning as we handed over our documents, it didn’t appear as though anyone was actually paying any attention to the scanner.
Back on the bus it was now 2am, and we had no way of sending another message to the Airbnb host without wifi. We waited and dozed, angry acceptance slowly seeping in with the heat of the fans. We were still at the checkpoint at 4am, with no understanding about why. Then three passengers, who we hadn’t noticed were missing, boarded, the engines started, and we were finally again on our way. We found out later that the three poor tourists had been held and questioned by border police the whole time we’d been there.
We must have finally fallen asleep as the next thing we knew dawn was breaking, and the scrub and desert was replaced by mountainous wooded valleys. We rounded a corner and Ushuaia appeared before us in all its strange and conflicted glory. Bordered by the Beagle Channel on one side, and the Marshall Mountains on the other, Ushuaia looks like a strip of Scandinavian port-town. The mountains form an immense and seemingly impenetrable embrace, their ridge-line towering above the town, preventing expansion. In their peaks glaciers hulk like waiting beasts glaring at the conurbation below.
The bus stopped at the terminal on the seafront at about 7.15am, and we began a long, soggy slog through the stirring streets. Along the sea shore a biting wind found faults in our clothes and pulled at our big backpacks. Maeve was struggling to breathe through her cold and feeling pathetic and weak after very little sleep on the bus.
As Jay excitedly stopped to take pictures along the way, Maeve wobbled under the weight of her bag and tried to stay upright. It was with utter joy that at 8am we finally found our accommodation, 12 hours and one sleepless night later than our expected arrival time.
The woman who answered was thankfully not at all surprised at our random arrival time, and showed us to our small pine room. After practically inhaling some toast and jam, we collapsed on our squeaky beds and immediately fell into a long and deep sleep.
The next few days were a bit of a blur. We did little as Maeve recovered from her cold and Jay from the fatigue on top of the concussion. After a few days however we moved to new accommodation and took the opportunity to start afresh. Before we left though we chatted with some other people staying at the same Airbnb. They told us they’d just gone to some of the travel agents in the town, and because of the coronavirus affecting tourism (particularly from China), there were very cheap last-minute deals to be had for trips to Antarctica, they’d managed to get tickets for less than half price, around £4800 each. While we would never in a million years have considered spending that amount of money on a holiday, the discount was huge, and we were both aware we were unlikely ever to be here again in our lifetimes as we really do want to stop flying after this trip. Given this ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity, we thought seriously about whether we could possibly afford it. We set ourselves a top limit and firmly stuck to it. For a few days we asked around in all the agencies, and we even became quite friendly with one travel agent (an aspiring vegan who reassured us that all diets are well catered for!), but even in these unprecedented times, the cheapest tickets were more than we could afford. And so after briefly having the door opened for us, we closed it and walked away. It was a really hard decision, but one that we are both fortunate to be in a position to even be able to consider, and one that we definitely made the right call on.
Four days after arriving in Ushuaia, we had gotten to know the town quite well and had enjoyed just soaking up the atmosphere of the place. We were however getting itchy feet and were feeling a need to get out into the surrounding mountains now Maeve was feeling physically better and Jay was once again well-rested.
The easiest walk to do directly from the town was up to the Marshall Glacier, high in the peaks overlooking the city. The footpath snaked up through the woods, occasionally crossing the road up to the hotels and ski lifts higher up. A beautiful glacial stream gushed past us in its rush down the hill to the sea. We both commented on how familiar the woodland felt, filled with Magellan’s beech trees which are quite similar to our own beech trees but with smaller leaves. This was somehow comforting after spending months among very alien flora in New Zealand.
After an hour’s climb, we reached the top of the road where several cafes and hotels marked the start of the ski field in winter. For now, the ski lift hung silently swaying in the sunshine. We stopped for sandwiches and gazed out over the Beagle channel at the last land before Antarctica. From here – and to a lesser extent, from the windows of our new accommodation – the extent of the tourism industry in Ushuaia and Antarctica was truly apparent. Every day in the small channel new boats arrived, and every couple of days a smaller cruiser would depart for Antarctica, whilst the humongous cruise liners paused for a brief stop on their tours around the southern coast of South America. It was quite bewildering to see these enormous boats parked up along this tiny city enclosed by mountains, and more concerning to think about the impact of all the boats going to Antarctica. Another factor we had considered in our decision not to go there ourselves.
The next bit of the hike up to the glacier was much steeper, as the path approached the ice sitting at the top. Maeve was struggling with the strenuous exercise, and we eventually decided to split up, so that Jay could stretch his legs and Maeve could rest. As she made her way back down and relaxed in the cafe, Jay ascended the steep zigzag path to the glacier, then enjoyed the exhilarating run back down: a lovely, technical 5km over mixed terrain, and the first chance he’d really had to run since his concussion. Luckily it was a good test, and didn’t bring on any symptoms!
We treated ourselves to one proper tourist excursion during our stay in Ushuaia, a boat trip to “Penguin island”. Predictably, there is a very expensive option for those who have the means, which allows you to disembark on the actual island and walk around a specified area with the penguins. This is suitably restricted to a small number of people each day, which means it was priced out of our range. So we joined the hundreds of other tourists – most from a docked cruise ship – on one of the many catamarans that leaves each day to visit the birds from the boat. The trip stopped at a couple of other islands first to view the hundreds of sea birds currently nesting there. At another island enormous sea lions lounged on the rocks, seemingly oblivious to our presence.
As we arrived at Martillo Island, there were penguins along the beach as far as we could see. We were hoping the boat would get close enough for some pictures, and were astounded when it actually banked up on the sand! We were practically on top of the poor birds, but they seemed utterly unphased by it. They hilariously went about their business, pottering around, darting in and out of the water, and resting face-down in the sand. A highlight for us was witnessing a few shooting around in the water next to the boat at incredible speeds, before hopping out right alongside us. On the journey back to Ushuaia we saw dolphins, and Jay had the remarkable luck to spot a couple of whales, but they disappeared again before Maeve (or anyone else) could get a glimpse.
On our last day in Ushuaia we got a bus to Laguna Esmerelda, which promised a muddy walk up to this glacial lake. Muddy was an understatement! For the first half of the walk we picked our way around and over the mud patches in the woods, trying to keep our feet dry. But after an hour or so of this we were confronted with a huge open field of bog, with no clear path across. Some other hikers were trying to get through by sticking near the vegetation, whilst others were up to their knees wading dangerously across. We followed the markers which vaguely suggested a certain direction, but there was no clear path. Eventually we made it across with only partially muddy shoes. The path became solid and rocky again, and joined up with the gorgeous stream flowing from the lake, which was opaque and whitish from the glacial grinding of the bedrock.
Eventually we reached the hanging valley which housed the lake: a stunning aqua pond that distorted the colours reflected in it. There were dozens of tourists sat at the top of the path, so we made our way around the beach to a quiet spot to eat our lunch. We were joined by a very bold sparrow who hopped all around us on the lookout for crumbs. As we finished eating, there was a big splash and a whooping noise as two tourists decided to go for a dip in the icy water.
We wandered around the lake, following a path as far as we could before it disappeared into bog again. But on the upper side we were surprised to find a second lake, this one of clear, dark, peaty water that contrasted starkly with the whitish one below. Between the two, handily, were large dams built by beavers, long since abandoned and grown over with grasses and shrubs. We were able to walk across the dams to get across the bog to the other side. The surrounding wooded area was full of evidence of beavers, teeth marks scarring almost every tree.
On our descent Jay went off for another 5km run, trying to get back into the daily routine he’d had before his concussion. Thankfully he made it through the woods without any collisions with trees, but he did fall afoul of the bog!
Back in Ushuaia we spent the evening prepping LOADS of food for our next long road trip, to avoid a repeat of the night without dinner on our last delayed bus. We had only a vague plan of where we were heading to next, but we’d arranged to get to Punta Arenas, just over the border in Chile for a few days to plan our next steps.