The end of the earth, part 2
17.02.2012 - 22.02.2012 5 °C
Ushuaia is a place where a lot of things don't make a lot of sense at first blush. It sits on the southern tip of the island of Tierra del Fuego (land of fire), but if you were to got to BA by bus, you would have to pass through Chile. Why? Because the island is split between Chile and Argentina. Ushuaia is the southernmost city, but Chile possesses the islands between Tierra del Fuego and Antarctica, so Cape Horn (the island closest to Antarctica) belongs to Chile. The beauty of politics. To bolster its claims to the Falkland Islands (British) and Antarctica, Argentina has been trying to boost the population and promote industrial development in Tierra de Fuego and Ushuaia by offering significant tax incentives to investors. It seems to be working as Nokia has a cell phone factory in town and other factories for electronics (e.g., televisions) have also set up shop. I wondered why the small port was filled with barges and shipping containers.
The town itself is also a bit strange. It clearly caters to the well-healed foreign tourist. In addition to being the main departure point for voyages to Antarctica, mammoth cruise ship running the BA to Santiago route (or vica versa) periodically drop anchor for a few hours flooding the streets with souvenir-hungry tourists. The bustling main street is lined with upscale outdoor gear stores, several casinos, gourmet chocolate shops, souvenir stores and (despite the cool temperatures) trendy clothing stores featuring bathing suits, skimpy tops and shorts. I don't get the obsession with summber clothes. It is summer now and since I arrived, I haven't left the hotel wearing less than 4 layers.
I have also been scratching my head about the island´s name. Why Tierra del Fuega (land of fire)? The place isn't warm, the soil is not red and there are no active volcanoes. It turns out that when Magellan sailed through the area in the 16th century, he saw the smoke from fires of the local indigenous people (the Yamana), and dubbed the place Tierra del Fuego. Interestingly enough, the Europeans left the Yamana and Tierra del Fuego pretty much untouched until the 19th century, probably because the Yamana (hunter/gather nomads) had no gold or silver to covet. Apparently, they sailed around in their canoes naked (yes, naked), tending a fire in the middle of the canoe to keep them warm and with seal oil smeared on their skin to repel the rain. The Europeans showed up to hunt whales and seals in late 19th century, decimating the Yamana's food supply and then finally finishing them off with European diseases.
Oh yeah. There`s more. Did I mention the beavers? Ushuaia sits between the sea (the Beagle Channel) and the gorgeous Martial moutain range extends behind the town and along the coast of the island. Driving through this area and hiking in the various mountain valleys, following hiking trails through the forest, I have been baffled/stunned to come across landscapes pulled from a Group of Seven painting -- beaver ponds and dams, eerily framed by dead tree trunks. Apparently, in the 1940s, one idea for industrial development was to import beavers from Canada so that Argentina could have its own fur industy. It backfired, badly. It is not as cold in Tierra del Fuego (0 Celcius in winter) as in Canada so the pelts aren`t as soft and thick so there is no market. More importantly, there is no local predator for the beaver (no wolves or coyotes) and the population has exploded. In recent years, the beaver has invaded every river in Tierra del Fuego and to everyone's chagrin, has permanently transforming the landscape. The Argentinians are at a loss about what to do. It's a bit sad. Who thought our industrious beaver would become a menace?
I am going to go on another rant about the weather. I went up to the Martial mountain today to see what is left of the glacier. One of the trails at the top was advertised to be a lookout point for Ushuaia and the Beagle Channel. So I follow the 2 kilometre trail in the hail (the walk down from glacier featured snow then rain). Along the trail, all I see is white haze. At the end, I am tired and stop for a snack. While I am sitting there, the wind picks, it blows away the clouds revealing a spectacular 180 degree view of the town, the port and the islands in the bay. There was a rainbow. The sun came out, the wind died down and I sat in awe for about 15 minutes. After which a haze rolled in and the snow started, again. Calgary has changeable/unpredictable weather, but this place takes the cake!!!
Patagonia here I come! I fly to El Calafate tomorrow.