A Travellerspoint blog

It's the end of the world as we know it!

Greetings from Ushuaia

overcast 10 °C
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Today we find ourselves in surprisingly sunny Ushuaia. We've had an excellent few days here taking in some of the most beautiful scenery we've seen in South America. Being honest, we both had low expectations for Tierra del Fuego; we expected a barren land with a dumpy, charmless little port town. We were wrong!

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Ushuaia

We flew in on yet another prop plane with an amazing final descent which took us along the Beagle channel skirting between island mountain ranges on either side. What made these ones different is they were what a montain range ought to be: snow capped, jagged peaks with rolling green valleys skirting around the bottom. Ushuaia itself was surprisingly busy and has a great feel. Rather than being full on scrounging backpackers moaning about the cost of everything, it buzzes with Antarctic reseachers, tourists embarking upon and leaving the huge ships (easy to spot which is which from the proliferation of facial hair), hikers and of course locals as this is the only local town for a very long distance!

Whilst we have devoted much time to munching on Patagonian lamb (much better than its famed Argentine beef counterpart - the French need not lose sleep, Gallic steaks still leave the rest trailing), we did manage a couple of days out.

Tierra del Fuego national park

Firstly, we went to the national park - we went there on the old steam train. It's called the train at the end of the world (pretty much everything here gets that moniker) and was built by the convicts who were Ushuaia's first inhabitants. We then hiked part of the coast of Tierra del Fuego, almost tripping over wildlife as went. The coast is strangely like home (cold, green) albeit with bigger mountains around, but the flora is all slightly different which is actually a much weirder sensation than when things are obviously strange.

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Beagle channel & estancia Haberton

We also took a boat trip along the Beagle Channel to an estancia. We don't know why, but we were given VIP status on the boat. Usually this means absolutely nothing but on this exciting occasion it meant we got fat leather seats on the top deck of the catamaran. Even better, as luck would have it we were sat opposite two American biologists on their day off ahead of a research trip so we got a seriously informed guided tour for free and managed to wind them up by pointing out fancy looking sea gulls (black browed albatrosses), agile penguins (comorants), and massive seals (South American sea lions). We are now much better informed.

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As with Chiloe, we got up very close to penguin and sea lion colonies. These ones were rather more active than in Chiloe however and we got to see some pretty cool stuff. In particular we saw the huge alpha-male sea lions on each of the colonies - they're mighty impressive and must be about twice the size of the normal sea lions. Another thing I didn't realise is that when penguins swim, they occasionally jump out of the water, much like a dolphin - very cool to see. After much patience (and many photos of the sea with nothing in it) I even managed to catch a few of them at it!

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Once we've seen the penguin colony we jumped off the boat onto shore to visit Estancia Harberton, a farm with an English house which was built in the UK and then exported by boat to the end of the world. It now has lupins and rose gardens to finish the look. Now that really did make us feel like we'd slipped into a parallel universe.

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En route back we saw some spectacular scenery (including the slanty windy trees featured on every Ushuaia postcard), a husky breeding house and Anita earned the wrath of the biologists by successfully testing whether the local grey fox we chanced upon seeing would come to her if she threw it a piece of sliced white processed bread. Oops!

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Quiz of the week

Finally, a return to quiz of the week. What animal is this?

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Posted by jamesandanita 11:48 Archived in Argentina Comments (2)

Glaciers

Ice ice baby

semi-overcast 10 °C
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Torres del Paine

After getting a quick flight down to Puerto Natales in Chile (thankfully we managed to avoid the 28 hour bus ride which is the alternative route!) and spending the night there, off we went to the Torres del Paine national park - probably the most famous one in Chile. We were pretty fortunate to be able to see the park at all, as a major (BBC news worthy) fire had broken out in the park a few days ago and burned out large chunks of it. The fire was still raging in the park when we arrived, but the eastern side of the park was still open.

As it happens James had already been to Torres del Paine a few years ago and spent a week hiking in the park, but it had been snowing on the day he went to see the Torres and therefore he missed out on the picture postcard view. We were luckier this time round and managed to get a perfect view of the Torres on a sunny day - especially lucky given it was cloudy the day before and later the same day!

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We did have to brave a pretty chilly night camping in the park first though - it's very windy in Patagonia and gets pretty cold at night. Anita layered up with various wolly things from around South America, but it wasn't enough to prevent her being a little on the unhappy side come night time!

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Perito Moreno glacier

After seeing the Torres, it was a quick hop over the border into Argentina to the town of El Calafate, which is basically a purely tourist town which sprung up next to Argentina's (and in fact South America's) most impressive glaciers - part of the southern patagonian ice field which is about 350km of uninterrupted glacier. The 'biggie' is the Perito Moreno glacier which, as well as being huge and very impressive to look at, is one of the few glaciers in the world to be advancing rather than receding (don't ask me why that is).

The town of El Calafate really isn't anything to write home about - mostly just overpriced restaurants and tourist tat shops. The glacier itself really is mightily impressive though. There is a network of board-walks near the base of the glacier which lets you get very close to it on foot (though still at a distance of 100 metres or so, as large swathes of ice frequently fall off creating a thunderous roar and showering ice over the surroundings. It's one of those things which is pretty hard to capture in photos, but here goes anyway.

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Posted by jamesandanita 18:23 Archived in Argentina Comments (2)

Chiloe

The curse of the whales continues

sunny 20 °C
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First up, we spent a night in Puerto Montt; nothing very much to report as it isn't really the most interesting of town (though it's got a nice seaside location). It was however our gateway to the island of Chiloe which would be our home for the next few days.

Ancud

After the short bus/ferry crossing from Puerto Montt, we arrived in the town of Ancud at the northern end of Chiloe. It is primarily a fishing town, though it's slowly starting to attract more tourist trade as it's a handy base for plenty of wildlife spotting - this blog is therefore going to be pretty picture-heavy. The whole of the island was really rather stunning: beautiful coastline, lakes, rolling hills, and some simple but quirky architecture.

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First up we decided to sample the local cuisine. It's all very much fish-centric, but with a few twists - they seem to be very big on the "surf-n-turf" idea and take it to the next level. Curanto is the traditional dish and is a mountain-sized pile of mussels, clams, chicken, pork, sausages, potatoes, and dumplings - it definitely had the beating of Anita.

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Penguins

Once we were suitably filled with seafoody goodness, we went on a boat tour of the penguin colonies off the west coast of the island. The penguins migrate to the island each year to give birth, and we were lucky enough to get to see loads of grown-ups and little-uns (the brown ones lying down are the babies).

Avid penguin aficionados among you will notice that there are both Humboldt and Magellanic penguins in this colony - our guide tells us this is the only place in the world where you can find both species... who knew?

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As well as plenty of penguins we got to see a bunch of different birds, a sea-otter (below), and a sea-lion which seemed to be thrashing about in the water with something that looked a lot like a penguin (though the guide quickly told us it was just a big fish when he saw the look on Anita's face...).

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In search of blue whales

The penguins were great, but the island had whet our appetite for bigger and better things. On the way to the Penguin colonies we'd stopped at a viewpoint overlooking the sea and had spotted the tell-tale signs of whales - in the distance we could see the puffs of water that were the whales surfacing for air! Now our regular readers might remember that we've already tried and failed to see some whales in the wild this trip (in Rurutu, in French Polynesia) but being the fools that we are we thought we'd give it another go - this time we were going to try and see the pod of blue whales (the animal ever to have lived) which comes to Chiloe each year. So the next day we got up at the crack of dawn to get on a speedboat in search of them.

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As you may have guessed from the title of this entry, we didn't see them. Sigh. On the plus side though we did some other interesting wildlife - first up some bird who's name I forget.

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On the way back to shore, we stopped by the sea lion colony - they were definitely worth the detour and were much more active and inquisitive than the penguins. Not quite a consolation for the lack of blue whales, but such is life.

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A blue whale!

Having resigned ourselves to not seeing anything more than the tantalising hint of a blue whale from land, we headed back to town. We were getting a lift back with the owner of the hostel we were staying at, who'd also come on the whale trip. Half way back he says "shall we go for a drive along the beach - there's a beached whale you can see there?". James didn't give Anita the chance to say no, so off we went. If you're squeamish you might want to look away now...

On the way though we saw a taster of what was to come with a dead sea-lion; rather easy to spot from a distance by the vultures hovering overhead. The sea-lion looked pretty sinister, with its eyes pecked out (apparently that's what the vultures always go for first).

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Next up was the whale. It was a blue whale calf, which beached two weeks earlier - despite being a calf it was mighty impressive in size; it must have been almost 10 metres long. The stench was atrocious as it was a fair way along with its decomposition - the body had turned a reddish brown colour and the vultures had taken great bug chunks out of it - we arrived to see one remaining vulture proudly perched over his super-size meal.

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Castro

After failing to see the (live) whales we headed down to Castro for new year. It turns out pretty much everything there was shut so it was a bit of a ghost town - we managed to have a perfectly pleasant new year with a home-cooked meal and a few beers though so all good (and happy new year everyone!). Castro wasn't as nice a town as Ancud, though we did have a very nice sea view from our hostel and it had a pretty enough church.

We managed a quick hike in the national park, which was a nice way to kick off new year.

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After that it was back up to Ancud for a day, and then on to Puerto Montt - we'll be catching a flight tomorrow to head down to the Torres del Paine national park (which is currently on fire it seems, but fingers crossed eh?)...

Posted by jamesandanita 13:15 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

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