Saturday 8 April 2006

Episode 1a. Ushuaia, The Trip Starts for Real...

guitarist at the Bar Lennon, Ushuaia
Landing in Ushuaia, I had my Lonely Planet Trekking in the Patagonian Andes guidebook to help me find somewhere to stay. But soon, a chap from Córdoba suggested we share a taxi to the place he was staying. Daniel is a travelling orthodontist, flying to places all around Argentina. He makes the dentures in BA, then flies back out and fits them.

As we were waiting for the taxi to arrive, another, older man joined us. Transpires, the cabbie told us, after we'd dropped him off at 9 de Julio, that he was a Fuegian minister for commerce. It's this sort of info that you simply can`t pick up without speaking the lingo. I'm so glad that I have it and can enjoy a greater texture of experience. Wow, that sounds pretentious.

We drove a short distance to 25 de Mayo and Magallanes to the Hostel Aonikenk. The word is local ie Mapuche and means 'Man from the South'. The owners, Claudio and Estela, were very friendly and helpful. Unlike, it seems, most other hostels, they put themselves out of their way to provide a better service. Towels and breakfast, for instance, were included. The hostel must have one of the best views of any place I've stayed at, anywhere. Above the city, you can see down to the harbour, across the Beagle Channel to Chilean Isla Navarino and the mountains of the Chilean Cordillera.

I had come down to do, probably, the Paso de la Oveja trek, which was down as a moderately difficult 3-day trek best done before April. Everyone - Administración Parques Nacionales, Claudio and others - was advising against doing it alone. On day 2, I was sitting at the computer doing some work on applications when Angels, Laura and Leo came back into the hostel and asked me to join them in the car they'd just hired for a trip to Lake Fagnano.

  • Angels, 48, from Catalunya. A sculptor on a trip to Argentina to work with communities on artisan projects. Flight paid for by the trip sponsor. Now travelling in Patagonia solo, was heading South. Well, she had been heading South. There's not much further South to go once you're in the most southerly city in the world.

  • Laura, 22, coincidentally also from Catalunya. Had been travelling for several months in Argentina. Was travelling with another girl but they'd split off on their own travels.

  • Leo, 24, porteño working for Mastercard. On his annual holidays, 3 weeks travelling solo in Patagonia.

Angels and Laura had met further north and arranged to meet in Ushuaia. Laura met Leo in the Ushuaia National Park. He'd been camping on his own for three nights and was apparently shivering when she met him in his own spot on a little island in the forest.

So those are the basic stories. We got to know each other much better as we travelled in the car over mountain passes, to Fagnano and the lakeside pueblo of Tolhuín. There, there is a supposedly famous panaderia. Started up by a Spaniard who took a shine to the place and decided to start it up some 20 years ago. Delicious empanadas and churros filled with dulce de leche. Then back to Lago Escondido, which was so well hidden, we'd missed it on the way.

The four of us were out till 5.30am that night. Leo had bumped into a young chap who was playing bass in a band that night, starting at 1.00am. So we headed down to the Bar Lennon on the harbour at midnight after dining on sardine sandwiches. A few Quilmes (beer from Buenos Aires) later, the band started up. Well, when they finished, we went to another bar, where another band was playing, to dance a while. Obviously, on the way home, we had to wonder around the harbour and try to get onto a large fishing vessel docked there. For some reason, the security guards wouldn't let us on board.

We had the car until midday, so we arranged to meet at 8.30 the next morning. So on 3 hours sleep, we set off to walk up to the Glaciar Martial. Well, Leo and I did, while the women stayed in a nice café that had a rather tasty looking chocolate cake. As we reached the glaciar, the wind was strengthening and the snow started to come down, nearly horizontally.

I was loving it. Leo, with his inappropriate footwear was finding the steep, icy terrain a little difficult. We scrambled back down with thoughts of hot chocolate and chocolate cake. We took the last two pieces that can only be described as scrummy. Laura flew back to Buenos Aires that evening. I, meanwhile, persuaded Angels and Leo to come with me on the 2-day trek over the Paso de la Oveja.