OYOP: Patagonia Part 2 – Punta Arenas and Ushuaia
We took the 7:00am bus from Puerto Natales to spend one half day and night in Punta Arenas, Chile. We didn’t have a lot of time to visit another town because we would be taking an 11 hour bus to Ushuaia, Argentina the next day to spend our last 3 days in Patagonia, but we stopped in Punta Arenas anyway. Most places are not worth taking a 3 hour bus ride to and only passing through for a half day, but most places do not have an island just a short 2-hour ferry ride away with a colony of over 50,000 penguins.
We walked from the bus station to the hostel, seeing a little of the town along the way. Punta Arenas was a bigger town than I expected, though there wasn’t much to explore. It is a port town on the Strait of Magellan, which was once the passageway between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans before the Panama Canal. We arrived at our hostel, which was more like a quaint, small scale bed & breakfast in Punta Arenas at 10:30am, before check-out time for the people in our room the night before. The hostel owner set us up in the comfortable, warm front room with coffee, tea, and wi-fi, so we were more than happy to catch up on internet and news and relax after having spent 4 days in Torres del Paine national park without such luxuries.
At 2:00pm, we left the comforts of warmth and wi-fi for the one reason we had come to Punta Arenas: penguins. We headed to the port at the Strait of Magellan to catch the ferry at 3:00pm for the 2 hour ride to Magdalena Island, where a colony of over 50,000 Magellanic penguins come each year between November and March. The excursion was $50 per person to spend a 4 hour round trip on the ferry and 1 hour on the island with the penguins. The ferry was filled with over 200 other excited faces ready to waddle with and take selfies with penguins, though the long boat ride put mostly everyone to sleep on the way there. When we were close to arrival, there was an announcement that there was a walking trail that we must stay on, which led up to a lighthouse about 20 minutes away. It was nice to know the penguins were free to go where they pleased but the humans had to stay in a designated area and didn’t have free reign to disturb their natural habitat.
We immediately made a plan to resist the temptations to gawk at and photograph the first penguins we saw off the boat and walk straight to the lighthouse. This way, we would hopefully get out of the crowd of 230 people and have some private penguin time. The plan worked. Everyone stopped and took photographs of the dozens of penguins that were right near the boat, but we walked on. We were giddy to be alone and walk with a few penguins who were on the trail with us and get more up close and personal without the crowd. We also noticed that the penguins stopped using the trail and stood a little further away from the ropes once the crowds got closer, but when it was just us, we could have reached down and scooped them up.
One hour on the island passed much too quickly. We watched penguins waddle around, burrow in their dirt holes, dry their feathers in the sun, and even an adult and baby penguin go out for a swim and return to the rocky beach. I could have spent much more time there just taking it all in. On the way back, the crowd was in high spirits and we all tried to do some whale watching, spotting some whale blows in the distance.
After our half day in Punta Arenas, we took the 11 hour bus the next morning to Ushuaia, Argentina. These long bus rides are always grueling, but this bus had a bathroom on board and included ample food and break stops, all factored into the 11 hours. This was all a contrast to many bus rides we’d taken in South America with no bathrooms and little to no opportunities to break or buy food, still arriving several hours later than promised. We arrived only 30 minutes later than scheduled with enough daylight left to walk to our hostel on the outskirts of town without worry of being lost in the dark.
Ushuaia is the farthest south city in the world. It is at the very tip of South America, and just to reiterate how far south, it is a city from which you can decide at the last minute to hop on a multi-day cruise to Antarctica, if you have the time and several thousand dollars per person to spare. If not, it is still worth a visit for it’s nearby beautiful hikes and scenery. I continued to be surprised by the liveliness of these southernmost cities. I expected remote towns with few facilities and little to no visitors. Ushuaia, however, like the other cities we have visited in Patagonia, is a normal town packed with tourists, shops, restaurants, and activity options, especially now during the last of the summer months in which good weather is still possible. It just happens to be at the end of the world.
We arrived at our hostel, a little daunted by the bare and filthy facilities, but still we slept hard after the long bus ride. We awoke ready for the adventures to be had at the end of the world. On the first day in Ushuaia, we took a taxi to the base of the hike to the Martial Glacier. It was cold, windy, and rainy near the base of the glacier, but we were well-equipped with warm clothing and rain jackets. The hike was a gradual incline for the first 40 minutes with an intense, steep ascent in the last 20 minutes to reach the highest viewpoint. At the same time, the wind picked up and it started to hail, making the arrival at the top feel like a great accomplishment, despite the overall hike only taking one hour. The Martial Glacier is a cirque glacier, a glacier that once covered a valley but now is only a bowl shape of ice and snow on top of the mountain. If I hadn’t known I was hiking to a glacier, I would just call it snow on a mountain, but it is still technically a glacier. On the way back down, James said “we are lucky we had good weather!”, which was confusing since we’d just hiked through wind and hail, but when judging the weather down here, it is all relative. We spent the night in the hostel common room getting to know our roommate from Italy and for the first time, cooking in the hostel. It was only pizza, but it was new for us, so we started simply.
The next day, we did have actual good weather with a warm sun and cool breeze. We took a minibus to the Tierra del Fuego National Park for a 4-hour hike. The hike was easy, and the views were absolutely incredible. While hiking through the forest was enchanting, once the views of the endless trees and soft dirt started to feel repetitive, we would suddenly reach a small beach with mountain views where we could stop for half an hour and still be the only people there. This pattern of forest, beach, and mountain view continued throughout the walk, and I never wanted it to end. Once we reached the bus stop at a lake with a small cafe and museum, there were busloads with hundreds of day trippers, and I was thankful the hike was so empty.
We spent the last day exploring the town of Ushuaia. We learned about the interesting indigenous culture of the people who used to live in Ushuaia. Despite the extreme weather and bitter cold, these native nomadic people wore little or no clothing and lathered in seal grease to keep warm and quickly dry. Though descendants exist, there are no longer any people that speak their language and remnants of their culture only exist today in street art and souvenirs. We also sat at the Beagle Channel port for bird, boat, and people watching, soaking in the last views of the Andes mountain range we would have for the remainder of our trip in South America. We have seen the Andes mountains for 3 months now, and we would be leaving them, along with Patagonia, behind. It is bittersweet, but once again, we will move on.