Argentina - Rio Gallegos and Ushuaia

 

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Mar 25-29, 2000

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Mar 17-24, 2000

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Mar 9-16, 2000

Argentina - El Calafate and El Chalten
Mar 1-8, 2000

Chile - Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine
Feb 18-29, 2000

Argentina - Rio Gallegos and Ushuaia
Feb 13-17, 2000

Chile - Santiago and Punta Arenas
Feb 8-12, 2000

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Feb 4-7, 2000

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Jan 28 - Feb 3, 2000

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Jan 22-27, 2000

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Jan 16-21, 2000

Belize
Jan 6-15, 2000

 

Sun Feb 13, 2000 - To Ushuaia (we think)

The morning gave us just enough time to eat a good breakfast, pack our gear, and trek the 4 blocks to the bus station. We loaded our gear onto the luxury bus and left pretty close to on time at noon.

The road north of Punta Arenas is fascinating: it is paved only on the southbound side. This means the bus drives on the wrong side of the road most of the time, swerving on to the gravel to let oncoming cars pass on the pavement. We saw lots of sheep and a few ostriches grazing on the steppe, but it was mostly barren.

After formalities exiting Chile and the usual nonsense [pt CLARBD entering Argentina] (which took 1.5hrs of our 5hrs transit time), we pulled into Rio Gallegos at 5pm. We happened to have been traveling with a Swiss guy who was also trying to get to Ushuaia. He was complaining that there were no busses from Rio Gallegos that didn't go back through Punta Arenas! That's 5 hours back, and then 14 more - no thanks. We wished him luck and headed to the airport.

This is where the fun starts. We arrived at the airport and had no idea which of the 5 airlines our reservation was on, although we had the reservation and flight numbers. Of course, there was only one counter staffed, so we asked there. We were surprised to learn that no such flight existed. In fact, there was only one remaining flight to Ushuaia that day, and there was already a waiting list with 13 people on it. Further investigation at the tourist office, other airline counters, and with random passersby (all in broken Spanish, of course) indicated that our reservation must have been on Kaiken, which had recently suspended flights. We spent a very frustrating 2 hours at the airport trying to find another alternative, but came up empty - and almost everything was closed at 6pm on Sunday. Finally we realized that we were spending the night in Rio Gallegos, and headed back to the tourist office to pick a hotel.

After waiting a bit more just to make sure there wasn't room on the Aerolineas Argentinas flight that night, we grabbed a taxi to town. Fortunately for us, there's a 24hr ATM in Rio Gallegos, so we were able to get some Argentine pesos (pegged at exactly one to the dollar, which makes currency conversion fairly easy). We found a hotel, checked in, and headed out to see what we could do about getting out of town tomorrow. We had learned at the airport that AA has another one tomorrow ay 6:30, but it's full (except Business Class). We also learned that Lade has a flight, but not exactly when, and Lapa has a flight at 9am to Rio Grande, from which it's a 2hr drive (or 4hr bus ride - I have no idea why the difference) to Ushuaia. Whew! What to do?

We tried calling all the numbers for all of the airlines we could find, and discovered that a surprising percentage had been turned into modem lines. We never got a human. We called our Ushuaia hotel and changed our reservation optimistically for the next night.

We ran into the Swiss guy (Andy) again, and went with him to the tourist office to try to learn more. We found that there are indeed no busses, got a list of the airline offices, and decided not to try for the 9am to Rio Grande. We then grabbed a great burger and headed back to the Hotel Alonso (primitive) around 10:30pm.

Just around the corner from the hotel we stopped for ice cream. Unknowingly, we ordered huge bowls each with two flavors. The ice cream was delicious! We ended up devouring all of it, a great nightcap.

 

Mon Feb 14, 2000 - Rio Gallegos to Ushuaia

We awoke early and hit the shower - which was the strangest yet. There were five identical knobs arranged in a circle, and an unusual U-shaped cutout in the floor. While experimenting with the knobs Tom got a jet in the face coming up from an opening in the U in the floor - the shower doubles as a bidet! Needless to say, Louisa found this quite amusing.

We went to a breakfast place for coffee, but they had never heard of take-out before. We ended up with plastic dixie cups of espresso - mighty bitter! Our heroes then set out to find Kaiken, which supposedly had a morning flight as well. They were closed, with no hours on the door, but a surly gentleman informed us that they opened at 9:30, so we quickly gave up on them. We then waited for Lade to open, to find that their only flight of the day was full {the plane only held 10 people).

Finally, we headed for our last hope, Aerolineas Argentinas. We got there at 9:15, and headed for a bakery around the corner to buy some comestibles while waiting for their 9:30 opening. Incredibly, by the time we got back at 9:20 with pan dulce, three people were waiting in line outside the door! Just before they opened, Louisa had the idea to try to call for the reservation, so Tom went around the corner to call. Meanwhile, Louisa was helped fairly quickly, and told immediately that there were no tickets available. As the man started to call the next person in line, Louisa firmly said "No." She explained that we had been told last night that business class was available, and after checking, he was able to issue two tickets. By the time Tom returned unsuccessful, Louisa was all done. Hooray!

Let's review: there are no flights from Punta Arenas to Ushuaia, a fact not known to Santiagan travel agents and at least 2 tour book writers. There are many flights from Rio Gallegos to Ushuaia in the central reservation system, but which ones in fact exist seems only to be known by the airlines themselves. And apparently, you can get on an otherwise full flight simply by paying more and calling it "Business Class".

We then spent the rest of the day getting laundry done, getting Tom a haircut, checking email, and trying to get on a boat to Antarctica. We talked to one travel agent in Ushuaia about a boat leaving tomorrow, and were told to call back at 4pm. We then walked along the waterfront for a while, and had a great lunch of steak, eggs, and crab near the center of town.

We also did some more research at the tourist office about getting to and from El Calafate and Puerto Natales, for later. Thank goodness for great Argentinian tourist offices! They have good maps (unlike the completely absurd one we got at the useless Sernatur in Santiago), lots of information, and are amazingly helpful and friendly. They're in the airport, bus station, and center of town, and open until 10pm. One even gave us a great tour of the "cathedral" in Rio Gallegos, a cute wooden church 100 years old.

Finally it was time to call the travel agent back, but no joy - the boat was full. Oh well. We picked up our laundry, packed our bags, and headed to the airport 2.5hrs early. Thank goodness! We were nearly first in line to check in, but within 15 minutes the line was 20 people long and growing. Secure with our seat assignments, we waited for the plane, and finally boarded for our front-row seats.

We celebrated Valentine's day by toasting with our champagne in first class during the spectacular one-hour flight. We watched the steppe turn into mountains, and saw the thousands of islands in the Beagle Channel. We landed at the brand new, beautiful Ushuaia airport, and immediately caught a taxi to our hotel. Our Spanish was sufficient to indicate to the taxi driver that we were interested in Antarctica, and he directed us to the pier. Once checked in, we wandered down there, but found only freighters. It was a cold walk, but we did get a nice view of the Beagle Channel.

On the way back, we found a flyer in a window advertising a 1/2 price deal on a 10 day trip leaving on the 17th. The travel agency was closed, but there was someone inside, although told us he didn't know if there was room.

We then went to the tourist agency, and had another wonderful experience. We first asked about Antarctica, and he pointed us to agents and the office that handles them all. Then he spent an hour with us, telling us about the area, what to do, details, and jokes. When Louisa asked about the tea he was drinking, he offered to let us try it, which led to our first experience with "mate". It is apparently quite popular, and we enjoyed the unusual and indescribable taste.

We looked for a nice restaurant to celebrate Valentine's Day in, but failed. We ended up with another interminable meal that lasted over 1.5 hours because of glacial service, and to top it off, the waitress spilled red wine on Louisa. The crab was pretty good, but not good enough. Exhausted, we headed to bed around 11:30.

We haven't figured out exactly what cultural differences in Latin America promote what we Americans consider terrible table service, but it has been very consistent. We know that they never bring the check until asked - that's fine - but they also seem to disappear for 10-20 minutes at a time, making it very difficult to ask. They rarely check in to see if everything's OK, and it's often extremely difficult to catch their attention. In any case, we discovered that if you want to eat dinner anywhere in less than 1.5 hours, get takeout pizza or bbq.

Our ears are becoming a bit more used to Argentinian spanish. They use a very distinct "zh" sound instead of the "y" we learned for the spanish consonant "ll". As in: "Me zhamo Tomas". They are a bit less rapid-fire and clipped than the Chileans, so that also makes it easier to understand. Of course, they also use the "vos" conjugation, which we didn't learn either, so we always seem more formal using "usted".

 

Tue Feb 15, 2000 - Ushuaia Beauty

The day started unbelievably beautiful, with not a single cloud in the sky. We got up and started by checking on boats to Antarctica - we knew there was one leaving today, that had had spaces available as of last weekend. One travel agency said they would call for us, and to come back at noon. With the morning to kill, we grabbed a taxi up to the chairlift at the Martial Glacier above town, and took some great pictures. Once back down, we had some pizza for lunch, and checked back with the agency - no dice.

After lunch Louisa headed back to the hotel for a nap while Tom investigated boats to Antarctica at agencies and on the internet. The day continued to be gorgeous and clear, so we arranged for an overflight of the area and headed to the airport.

Getting access to the Ushuaia Flying Club was an adventure. The guard asked for out passports and called to verify our identities. We wondered about the formality since identification of any kind is not necessary for commercial air flights. We soon discovered the reason for the security as we walked along the Ushuaia runway in order to reach the hangar for the flying club. An Aerolinas Argentina flight landed as we stood on the small taxiway.

Then we loaded into the four-seater airplane with our pilot and took off. The views were astounding - the air was crisp and clear. The forested countryside surrounding Ushuaia fills the mountains down to the deep blue of the Beagle Channel. The flight included a tour over Tierra del Fuego, the Beagle Channel and the surrounding mountains. The parks looked incredible, we could hardly wait to explore on foot the next day. As we returned via the Beagle Channel, the pilot descended to 300 feet for a fly-by of Isla de las Lobos, Isla Cormorante, and theBeagle Channel lighthouse. The final segment took us near one major peak and its neighbor, the five brothers, before a final pass over Ushuaia and a smooth landing.

We then decided to splurge on a good dinner, so we headed up the hill to Chez Manu. We got there early by Chilean standards, so we were eating with all the tourists, but we had an awesome view of the Beagle Channel during the sunset. The sunset was so spectacular, in fact, that Tom kept jumping up from dinner to run outside and take a few more pictures. The dinner was the best we've had so far - awesome fish cooked in paper, and fantastic desserts (don't miss their "souffle" - more like ice cream, but awesome). The service was great, too, and would have been absolutely perfect except they forgot Louisa's fondant, and we wasted an extra 45 minutes waiting for it. Definitely a must have.

One thing that we continually contended with was hotels with no "cama matrimonial" (double bed). We pushed together the twin beds in most places, but still had to contend with two sets of single sheets and blankets. Finally, Tom solved the problem by turning both sets of sheets sideways, and overlapping them around our waists. This way, we can simulate double bed linens, although one of us still has to sleep in the crack.

We immediately took to Ushuaia, liking the feel of the place right away. It's definitely touristy, but in a charming way. Rio Gallegos and Punta Arenas did not strike us the same way at all, seeming to be drab towns that people pass through to get somewhere else. The energy level was different, too - Ushuaia has an energy and amiability that the other two lack.

 

Wed Feb 16, 2000 - Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego

We woke a bit late and headed down to check on boats to Antarctica. Our hearts jumped when one said they had empty rooms, but fell again when we found out they were $17,000 per person. Incredible.

We then caught a bus to Tierra del Fuego national park, to do some hiking. We immediately latched on to the only hike describe in the flyer as "demanding", climbing high above Lago Roca on Cerro Guanaco. The "trail" was just a set of blazes pointing straight up the hill - we've climbed ladders that were less steep. Apparently they've never heard of switchbacks. We labored up and up, finally reaching a saddle between the two hills after an hour or so. The clouds were moving in, so we had lunch there, and headed back down.

Once down, we decided to go meet the 5pm boat from Lapataia Bay over to another bay, from which we could catch a bus home. We hiked another hour or two, next to beautiful rivers and small lakes, before finally reaching the bay around 4:45. We waited in vain until 5:25, but no boat ever came - somebody should tell the tourist office. We ended up hiking back several miles, and then waiting over an hour with a nice Argentinian woman for the next bus to take us back to town.

By the time we got back it was after 8pm, and we were beat. We grabbed a takeout pizza from a recommended spot and ate it in our room. We did motivate for a little while to head to the internet cafe a block away, but then turned in.

 

Thu Feb 17, 2000 - Ushuaia to Puerto Natales

Since we had made a reservation for a flight this afternoon, we decided it was our last chance to try for a boat to Antarctica. We gave it our all, but the boats were all packed, and there was no room for us. Now we have an excuse to return to Ushuaia!

We packed our gear, ran a few errands (replaced our Cipro, for example), and headed to the airport a bit early. I guess we should no longer be surprised by airport screw-ups - our reservation had been canceled, even though the travel agent told us we could pay at the airport before we boarded. We also learned that the flight was oversold, although they did ask us to wait, just in case. We immediately tried to make other plans, but all other flights were packed, and the buses only ran early in the morning. We were just about to give up and leave to find a hotel when the gate agent ran over to us and told us there were 2 seats left. We quickly paid for the tickets and ran for the plane, found the last two seats - aisles, a miracle! - and crammed ourselves into the tiny seats for the hour flight to Rio Gallegos.

We took a taxi from the airport to the bus station, bought tickets for the 5pm bus to Puerto Natales, and settled in for a 3 hour wait. Louisa camped with the gear while Tom walked to a nearby store for provisions, and called to make a reservation in Puerto Natales. Tom also made a discovery that cheered both of us greatly - the store had a large jar of Nutella! We feasted on it for days.

Finally the bus came, and we were off. We found out why there was a cage over the windshield as we drove at over 50mph along a narrow gravel road. For 3 hours through the pampas, we saw only sheep and the occasional farmhouse. At one we stopped and picked up a hitchhiker, and at another we delivered a newspaper. We even stopped at a crazy roadside shrine for a moment - no idea what that was about. Finally, we reached the border of Chile. After the usual [pt 772 border] nonsense, we reboarded for the last 45 minutes to Puerto Natales. We took a taxi to the Costa Austral hotel and checked in - staying upscale this time, with a king bed, view of the mountains, and a price tag to match. We had a nice late dinner at the hotel with the entire restaurant to ourselves, and then luxuriated in the huge bed.

Revised: Wed Feb 13 11:37:54 2008 on www.shieldsaroundtheworld.com.
Copyright 2000 Tom & Louisa Shields. All rights reserved.