Updated: Jan 25, 2021
Patagonia – a region that spans both southern Chile and southern Argentina. All of it, other than the bald-assed prairie parts, beautiful.
Although even those bare grasslands are beautiful with their wild guanacos, foxes, and smaller version of ‘ostriches,’ all easily visible with nowhere to hide).
The domesticated animals are, surprisingly, more aggressive that the wild ones. Tip 1: Don’t have a picnic without a gate between you and sheep; they will eat you.
All of Patagonia, at least the steep bits, are breaking our poor old bodies. More often than not, it’s muy dificil to get my body out of bed, it aches so much.
Some of the first peoples of Patagonia were the Selk’nam, one of three indigenous tribes in Patagonia.
These tough individuals lived almost naked, believing that the natural oils in their skin protected them from the bitter cold temperatures (ironically, once they traded their nakedness for European clothing, they were mostly always wet, cold and sick). They were one of the last indigenous tribes in South America to be encountered by Europeans, and went quickly (over 100 years) from 4000 people to 100. Bounty hunters were paid per head by Europeans who wanted easier access to the gold and other resources of the region. The last of them passed away in 1974. It’s a sad, sad story that parallels Canada’s colonization and our brutality against indigenous peoples.
Those Patagonians who live here now, however, are kind, kind people. Our hosts pick us up from bus terminals when we land. Our collectivo driver calls our laundromat to find out when they close (because I’m scared of speaking Spanish on the phone), and then drives us miles out of his way to get us there before it closes so we can pick up our clean laundry. Random people do stuff for you when you look confused. Nice guys at the bus terminal’s kiosk let us use their phone minutes to call our hotel when we still can’t get our phone to work (after three days of trying).
Transitioning from Chile to Argentina has been some work. Different money’s needed, as is a new SIM card and data. It’s impossible and very expensive to get pesos from ATMs so we brought many American dollars with us to exchange. We try an ATM out of curiosity the first day…they want $12 commission and will only give us $100 at a time. Cancel that transaction! Yes, we’re a little nervous about carrying a lot of cash on us but going broke on commissions is a bad alternative. Because we can’t get money, we starve our first night. Get up early to get to the bank, nothing, nada, opens in Argentina (or Chile) until 10 a.m. – what’s with that? We head to the bank on the dot of ten. Enter one of the nice people I spoke of above. She overhears the receptionist giving us information, sees our completely confused faces, and goes and gets us the ticket we need but don’t know we need, points upstairs where we must go and sit in another room till our ticket comes up. Then we go behind a secret door and do our business with a hidden-away cashier. Crazy. Exchange at banks is 58 pesos for one USD. At stores, we’re offered 67 pesos per USD! Aaron quickly whips out $600 from his secret pocket and does the exchange, looking a bit nervous about doing this outside of a bank but too excited to not do it. (A British guy tells us later that he got an even better deal by wiring himself some pounds sterling from home before he left which get converted into pesos when they arrive for pick up at Western Union.
Next, a SIM card. For luddites like ourselves, this proves to be a big-ass challenge. We’ve bought a SIM card (a ‘chip’ here in South America, and pronounced ‘cheep’), and handed over a bunch of pesos in the hopes that this fills up our phone with time and data. This transaction provided a bit of entertainment for the locals. Aaron pulls out some peso notes at the kiosko to pay for the data. “Why do you have two different kinds of 5-peso notes?” he asks the girl, holding up two of the notes. She quietly turns one of them over and, voila, they become the same. She was still giggling as we left the store. We’ve been struggling for three days to use our phone with no luck. Someone tells us that Argentina requires everyone to register their phones (to deter cell phone theft), so we look back at all the random messages sent to us by the cell phone provider to see if they happened to mention this little important tidbit. Yes, there it is – we should read those messages more carefully. We start working through the process - I’m pulling out my hair after three seconds, but Aaron, the patient man that he is, diligently works through the steps. He takes a selfie holding up his passport and another photo just of his passport, attaches them to the online form, then looks at the series of pictures. We finally figure out they’re testing us with a CAPTCHA to ensure we’re human. Finally… we get a message saying our submission has been received and we have a case number. That apparently is the sign that your phone is registered. But nope, still can’t call…still can’t send messages. We turn the phone on then off…oh…that seems to work. Jesus! Probably didn’t even need to do all that other crap.
So, we have money now. Lots of it…Thousands. And we are starving to death - haven't eaten since Chile. What do we buy first? Forgetting the rule “don’t go grocery shopping when you’re hungry,” we go into the first store we see that looks like it has food in it. Yes! A full roast chicken, fries, salad and a litre of pop for 780 pesos. Sounds reasonable – no idea how much that is. But we’re buying it. Oh, is that fried fish? Holy, lots of choices over on this side of the store. We walk out with the roast chicken dinner, a container of fish, another container of a different chicken, a container of spaghetti, a container of mashed potatoes, some buns and a litre of orange juice. We run home with our billion carbs and get it on plates as fast as we can. We barely made a dent in the chicken. I think we have too much food. Yep, we do. We eat it for lunch and dinner for the next three days and then we avoid pollo like the plague for at least a week.
Meals in Chilean Patagonia are quite expensive, but we’re happily discovering that they are much cheaper on the Argentine side.
We are addicted to the inch-thick juicy and delicious rib-eyes they have here - $10 each – potatoes, veggies and drinks extra – but it’s our choice at least. I try to dress up a little when we go for steak, digging out the makeup at the bottom of my pack and adding some earrings for a little extra glamour to my zip-off pants and ratty travelling sweater. Sometimes I wish they’d eat these fucking barking dogs. Oh, that’s a nasty thing to say, sorry perros, (and all my friends who adore dogs) – I didn’t mean it (obviously I did, or I’d erase the sentence). Hot chocolate is an amazing choice for dessert! It is incredibly thick, sweet, and oh-so chocolatey.
Some random DO’s and DON’T’s:
1) DO keep toilet paper in your pocket – why is this necessary? Are people stealing it from the bathrooms? Seems so…often are left high and dry (actually, not dry) at bus or restaurant bathrooms, and sometimes not even in nice hotels!
2) DO book all bus trips as early as possible along Ruta 40. There are very few bus companies and the seats get filled very quickly in the summer. Get off a bus, go to a counter and book the next one (and even the one after that) before you go to your hotel.
3) DO go to the fantastic Museo Salesian – and, when you see a movie playing, go back a room, grab a chair from the table with all the brochures on it so you can comfortably enjoy the fascinating black and white movie from the early 1900s that captured bits and pieces of the fascinating lives of the Selk’nam and the Yahgan.
4) DO go to the cemetery if you haven’t seen a latino cemetery before. It’s a bit morbid to visit one but a very interesting way to spend an hour or so. The city’s dead lie in crumbling white cement structures that each hold multiple bodies, and in massive family tombs. Where they lie is dependent on the family’s income level. The poorest are buried with a simple wooden cross, the middle class are given one of the hundreds of holes in the cement structures with a small place for a photo and some memorabilia – a bottle of their favourite beer, a pack of cigars, and this month, lots of tiny bobbing Santa Clauses. The richest sleep in marble tombs the size of small houses.
5) DO climb nearby Cerro Doroteo. It’s a beautiful and totally do-able hike 8 km out of town that you can get to with a $10 taxi or your thumb. You’ll have to dish out another $10 to a cute old toothless guy whose land you need to go through to get to the trailhead. And don’t think your on the wrong trail when it takes you waaay left at the fork at the top.
6) DON’T book the last bus back from Torres del Paine thinking you need the extra time to hike to the very popular and super-challenging Mirador del Torres. You’ll just sit watching the earlier bus leave with longing in your eyes, wishing so hard you were on it and on your way to your soft bed at your hotel. We finish the hike in eight hours, including the kilometre I crawled like a snail.
7) DO take a break from your food budget and go to Congrejo Rojo for dinner in Puerto Natales – it’s very near the bus terminal. The king crab au gratin was to die for.
8) DO consider Don Pedro’s Hospedaje. It’s very near the terminal and Don Pedro is the sweetest (and shortest) man you’ll ever have the pleasure of meeting. And the location of the place is fantastic. Super easy to get to the 7 a.m. Torres del Paine bus that you’ll probably catch two or three mornings in a row to get value from your 3-day park pass. It’s even nicer to be able to stumble quickly to your bed from the bus after you’ve run yourself to the ground climbing mountains you have no business climbing at age 58.
9) DO go to Ushuaia, a really pretty town with the sea on one side and the mountains en el otro lado.
10) DO stay longer there because it’s a pain in the ass to get there and get out of there. You will get on and off the bus no less than eight times, nine if you leave on a Sunday like we did. From Puerto Natales, you have to transfer buses three times during the twelve-hour trip to get there, get off the bus at the Chile border to get an exit stamp, and again to get an entrance stamp at the Argentinian border. Then to get out of Ushuaia, because the town sits in a tiny isolated piece of Argentina, you have to go back to Chile to get anywhere else in Argentina. So, again, off the bus at the Argentina border to get an exit stamp. Then to the Chili border, to go through customs, and get an entrance stamp. Confused foreigners everywhere. No signs. No friendly information guy. Everyone coming from the other side of the border is getting into our line, knowing that it doesn’t look right, but their confused eyes not seeing any other place to go. Then it’s a couple more hours back to a border crossing to get to mainland Argentina. Well, it should have been a couple more hours. In our case, our bus broke down and it was six more hours before it limped into the border. A long, long day.
11) DO stay at Shalom del Sur in Ushuaia if you’re looking for a cheap and cute Air B&B. Sara and her sister Andrea are setting themselves up to be the best Air B&B ever in my opinion.
12) DO have a hot chocolate at Laguna Negra in Ushuaia – best EVER! Have two in fact. One will be free with your purchase of your expensive train ticket at the park. The drink almost made the train cost worth it!
13) DO hike to Laguna Esmeralda. Your tired feet will love the soft cushion of the peat bog on the way up and it’s a very cool ecosystem. The laguna itself is gorgeous.
14) DO rest for a day after that.
15) DON’T do so many hikes back to back that you crash and burn and don’t get every bit of value from your ticket to Tierra del Fuego.
16) DON’T get caught off guard by the fees to get into Parque Tierra del Fuego or on to the old historical train that takes you into it. The 900p charged by the shuttle service in Ushuaia to get to the Parque Tierra del Fuego nor the 400p charged to get to the tren won’t get you into the park or on to the train. The charges are just for transport from the city. The park is an additional 900p ($18 CAD) and the train will set you back 2100p ($45) CAD! Is it worth it? If you have money to spare, absolutely…its history is fascinating, and it’s just a pretty cool train. Refurbished beautifully, we’re taken slowly through the park, watching the rolling green hills and river go by from the upholstered seats of the diesel train. We’re told a story as we travel about the convicts who were transported here back in the late 1800’s to build the city of Ushuaia. Seven days a week they were brought by the train to cut down trees that were needed to build the city – we can see the old stumps they left on the landscape. A couple of convicts made a name for themselves, like the big-eared midget who killed his whole family (too much teasing at the dinner table?), and a guy named Pipo who tried to escape but froze to death in a river that’s now named for him. Sounds like it was a horrible existence Many of them, particularly those who didn’t comply with the rules, were beaten violently, put into solitary or made to stand outside in the bitter cold and not fed. Nasty – perhaps drowning was a better alternative? In the mid 1900s, the president of Argentina, shut down the prison and the train was transitioned into the tourist trap it now is.
17) DO book your bus trip out of Ushuaia well in advance. We bought the last two tickets for a ride three days in the future and we weren’t even able to sit together. Flying is an option, but it’s three times as expensive as a bus on the cheapest flight you’ll find.
Last thoughts. We are getting old. I am slowly coming to grips with that. We can’t kiss on hikes ‘cause we have no breath. We bound about like youngsters during the days, climbing mountains like we are mountain goats, then hobble around hunched over with pained faces at night. We think hard about where we will go have happy hour drinks to ensure the music’s not too loud. Sad.