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As seen in Transitions Abroad Magazine May/June 2004
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Budget Travel

The Ends of the Earth

Take a Bargain Trip to Tierra del Fuego

The image of a land beyond which there is none, of Tierra del Fuego, has fascinated me ever since my schoolboy geography days. Finally I went, driving for four months from Ecuador and arriving in time for Christmas and New Years.

The Island of Tierra del Fuego is the size of Ireland, the last outpost of civilization before arrival in Antarctica. To the east rages the wild Atlantic, to the west and north the comparatively tranquil Straits of Magellan, and to the south the Beagle Channel and Cape Horn, where the most outrageous storms in the world collide. The island is easily divided in simple fourths: the west Chile and the east Argentina, the north—windswept with dots of oil derricks, bogs, and sheep—in both Chile and Argentina, the south crammed with jagged snow-capped mountains, glaciers, a fabulous national park, and the world’s southernmost city of Ushuaia. The southeast quadrant in Argentina reputedly offers the best trout fishing on the planet around Tierra del Fuego’s largest city, Rio Grande, plus a very special bakery in the little town of Tolhuin.

The history of the fiery land is heartbreak and violent death. The four original indigenous groups were purposefully slaughtered by Europeans to add to their empires. Less than ten indigenous people survive from the Selk’nam tribe or any tribe. I bought two pounds of king crab from a weather-beaten and stoic Selk’nam survivor, when the ferry from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales anchored for an hour at Puerto Eden.

The southernmost Tierra del Fuegan tribe, the Yamana, lived naked in canoes, surviving the southern winds, rain, and cold by slathering seal fat over their bodies and tending fires in their canoes. Magellan named Tierra del Fuego, the land of fire, after them.

The only sight on the Chilean side of Tierra del Fuego is the time warp town of Cerro Sombrero (Hat Mountain) designed by a Tennessee architect in the 1950s for a local oil company. But Cerro Sombrero, with its pastel houses and white picket fences, is way out of the way so stick with Argentinean Tierra del Fuego where the roads are mostly paved and the attractions abound.

A Silesian Mission sits six miles north of Rio Grande, Tierra del Fuego’s largest city, with 60,000 people. The Mission is now reduced to producing cheeses and singing its own praises for serving the local Indigenous. The Mission has run out of Indigenous to save, but the cheese isn’t bad.

If you’re into huge sea trout, stop in Rio Grande if you can afford the $100-a-day fishing license. Since I don’t fish, I continued to the heart of the heart, which is what Tolhuin means in the dialect of an extinct Indigenous tribe.

The World’s Best Bakery

The tiny town arguably boasts the best bakery in the world, the Panaderia la Union, open 365 days a year. I was there on Christmas and New Year’s days, cadging cappuccinos, almond bark bitter chocolate and pastries in varieties too numerous to list.

Prices in Argentina are now the lowest in South America. Thus you simply must jet off now while you can afford conspicuous consumption at Panaderia la Union, which also features a private zoo of exotic birds, free hot water for yerba mate, the tea drunk compulsively by all Argentineans. Check it all out at www.panaderia-launion.com.ar.

In a blink, I was in Ushuaia, arriving in perfectly sunny weather on Christmas Day. Little kids were trying out their new bicycles next to towering cruise ships on the spectacular waterfront, Beagle Channel. This city of 40,000 extremely hardy souls rates all superlatives. It is ringed by black and white mountains, glaciers, and rushing waters. Argentinean pig-outs featuring beef, lamb, pork and sausages make the vegetarian blank, relieved only a smorgasbord of anything you can think of from fish to pickled beets for $5.

The “Southernmost City” is much more than resort hotels. It has two fine museums: the small Yamana Museum displays the tragedy of the indigenous tribes in huge 3D pictographs and surviving photos. The huge Maritime, Penal, and Antarctica Museum is housed in a sprawling 5-spoked penitentiary built for bad guys and political prisoners (from Russian anarchist philosopher, Simon Radowitzky, to a noted Argentine author, Ricardo Rojas). The maritime portion displays scale models of the important early explorers from Magellan to the Dutch, English, and Portuguese. A huge map of Tierra del Fuego shows the literally hundreds of ships that have foundered and sunk on its shores.

The museum also describes the lives of the most notorious murderers and the politically incorrect and a huge amount of information on the exploration of Antarctica.

Jumpin’ Off for Antarctica

From Ushuaia anyone can find last-minute fares for $2,000 and up, depending on the number of days. The Antarctic peninsula is across the Drake Passage south of Cape Horn, two days from Ushuaia by ship. You can go by luxurious cruise ship or by a Russian expedition vessel. I paid $3,000 plus a 4 percent credit card surcharge for a 12-day trip.

My favorite pre-Antarctic part of Ushuaia was next door at Tierra del Fuego National Park. West of the Chilean border are gorgeous lakes and coves and glacier melt makes it always cool. The lakes and the Beagle Channel are littered with islands sitting below the snow-capped Andes. You can climb the very end peak of the Andes, Cerro Guanaco, for views to last a lifetime.

Reaching Ushuaia

The best fares, at the time of this writing, for flights roundtrip from Los Angeles to Ushuaia include Lapa $665 with 5-day advance purchase and flexible dates, $879 on United and LanChile, slightly less from New York City and Miami. But fares change daily and must be researched for current specials. See www.travelocity.com or type “cheap airfare” you’re your favorite mega search engine.

Finding Accommodations

In Ushuaia I stayed at Alakaluf Hotel while awaiting my ship to Antarctica. For a room with, private bath, breakfast, sports room with harbor and mountain views, and use of the kitchen, all in the heart of the city, I paid $20. A better choice is the Cesar Hotel for the same price and better amenities. Both are on the San Martin. However, never stay on San Martin on a weekend because the drag racers will keep you awake all night.

On a weekend stay at the Malvinas Hosteria, a much quieter hotel one block west of San Martin, also $20 a night with a breakfast buffet and excellent rooms and facilities. If you want to splurge spend $50-$65 and stay at Tolkeyen, 5 kilometers from town (taxis are cheap), right on the Beagle Channel, with a fabulous restaurant specializing in lamb and views to croak for.

For eats in town easy choices in the $5 range abound, except for vegetarians. There are, however, two excellent supermarkets where you can pick up your fruit and veggie preferences, El Norte and La Anonima.

The only decent travel agency in Ushuaia for booking last-minute fares to Antarctica is Tourismo de Campo at 25 Mayo 76. Email info@tourismodecampo.com.ar and say hi to Silvia, who will get you the best fare available. Internet cafes line both sides of the main street in Ushuaia.

Across the Beagle Channel from Ushuaia lies the true end of the end, Puerto Williams, Chile. But since like most neighbors Chile and Argentina don’t speak to each other much less allow visits, so you can’t get there from Ushuaia. Puerto Williams is accessible by tour from Punta Arenas, Chile.

DAVID RICH is a frequent traveler and a freelance writer from the U.S.