|City at the End of the World|
by Sally Hammond
The road marker near the base of Mount Olivia reads 3030. That's kilometres from Buenos Aires, as every distance in Argentina is measured.
We're crossing the Andes, which sounds adventurous, but here in Tierra del Fuego – where Argentina dips a rocky toe into the icy southern waters of the Atlantic on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other – it's as simple as hopping on a tour bus.
At the Garibaldi Pass, we dutifully alight and huddle in the chill winds at the lookout overlooking lakes and more snow-tipped mountains - the Andes, of course - some of us posing by the sign proclaiming Tierra del Fuego.
Tierra del Fuego. The name translates as 'land of fire', and certainly the snowy, conical peaks we can see across the border in Chile, across Lake Fagnano, look volcanic, but Rosa, our tour guide, swings her long dark hair and puts us right.
"It was the smoke," she tells us, "from the fires of the people. Everywhere, there were fires. That's what the explorers saw."
A nation of cooks? Hardly! These fires in every home - even on their boats - were primarily in order to melt fat from the seal lions the people had caught. It was then rubbed onto their bodies, all over them, to keep them warm in the freezing climate.
Rosa hands around a book with a photograph of smiling locals, buck naked and greased up, as they lived a century or so ago. Some skinned animals and fashioned warm fur garments, but others simply preferred to use fat.
Today's Fuegians keep warm in a more accepted way. Shops in the long, long main street of Ushuaia (population around 50,000 except when a massive cruise ship swells the town's numbers) are cosy with fleece jackets, down vests, and woollen wear for every part of you. There are ponchos, shawls, gloves and caps - and leather goods in abundance as Patagonia, with its lambs wool and leather, is just a ferry ride away across the Magellan Strait, on the north of this wedge-shaped island.
In 1520, Ferdinand Magellan, that savvy Portuguese explorer, was amazed when he located a connection between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Sir Francis Drake, a few years later tried to do the same thing, but was blown off course, and that much rougher southern route, the Drake Passage, named for him, was actually discovered by others.
The British wanted to stake a claim to the southern oceans, and grabbed the chance with this treacherous stretch of chilly waters, punctuated by the notorious Cape Horn, a rocky islet (not a cape at all) responsible for putting a fullstop to many a journey. Cross this, and a thousand kilometres later you could land on Antarctica.
Although Ushuaia sounds like a sneeze, its name actually means simply 'bay penetrating west'. A glance at a map shows the Beagle Channel doing just that, with the deep water port of Ushuaia, founded in 1884, cosily situated at the far end of a narrow tongue of water flanked by Argentinian land on one side and Chile on the other.
The world's southernmost city has the look of a frontier town. The architecture is eclectic, with buildings in progress, some half finished, and many roads pockmarked, obviously damaged by the severe weather. The warmer season, roughly from November to March, seems hardly long enough to catch up on all the jobs which accumulate during those colder months when, in the depth of winter, there are only seven hours of daylight each day.
Yet tourism has sparked new life into the place. At the port at the bottom of the hill, cruise ships berth, and others depart for Antarctica. Penguins abound in the shops. Not the real ones of course, but sculpted and painted ones, drawn on mugs, laminated onto keyrings, or embroidered on thick sweaters. There are mate mugs from which you can sip the astringent tea that Argentinians love, and jewellery fashioned from the local pink rhodocrosite rock.
The town has plenty of places to relax too. Coffee lounges such as Tante Nina's and Tante Sara's offer warm havens in which to enjoy freshly baked pastries and pizzas, and slurp down a reviving coffee or hot chocolate
Or there is Restaurant Kaupe - hidden away up a side street.
"This is the best food you will have anywhere," we were enthusiastically advised by one of the staff on our ship. We went, and the food was amazing, but the view over the sparkling town and bay stole the show.
Likewise the accommodation ranges the whole gamut, from spartan two star hotels and guest houses to exclusive places such a Las Hayas Resort. The latter, located high above the town, and with a forever view across the port and down the Beagle Channel, has the ambience of an elegant alpine hunting lodge.
But for those who wish to see more, and do more, Canal Tours offers 4WD treks into the hinterland. There is skiing and snow sports in winter, fishing, cycling, hiking, kayaking and sailing, even simple sled rides pulled by huskies, bred specifically for the purpose.
A narrow gauge train trip 'to the end of the world' leaves from near Ushuaia chugging along a loop through fir forests. In town, there is the Museum of the End of the World, a Maritime Museum and a wealth of day tours available from the port to take visitors out through the islands of the archipelago.
Ushuaia - it's a tongue twister of a name, but it feels good to say it. Especially when you have actually been to the ends of the earth to see it.
GETTING THERE: Aerolineas Argentinas (02 9234 9000
www.aerolineasargentinas.com) flies to Buenos Aires from Sydney, on Thursday and Sunday with an additional Tuesday flight in peak season (December to February). There are daily flights from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia on either Aerolineas Argentinas or Austral Aircraft.
EATING OUT: Restaurant Kaupe, Roca 470, Ushuaia, www.kaupe.com.ar
CLIMATE: Average winter temperature is -2C; summer maximum up to 30C.
THINGS TO DO: Visit the Museum at the End of the World or take the Railway to the End of the World (details at the local Tourist Information Centre in the town). Take a day tour on the Beagle Channel, or go trekking, horse riding, mountain bike riding, fishing or skiing 15km out of town on Krund Hill.
MORE INFORMATION: Contact your travel agent or log on to www.patagonia-argentina.com
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