Thursday, February 7, 2013

El Fin del Mundo--Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Welcome to Ushuaia
It's fitting that the last leg of our journey through Argentina took us to "Fin del Mundo", or the End of the World. We landed at the airport in the city of Ushuaia, which is often called the southernmost city in the world, located on the Beagle Channel in Tierra del Fuego province in Argentina. Our taxi brought us to our hotel (Las Yamanas), beautifully situated right on the Beagle Channel, about 5 km. from the center of Ushuaia.
Beagle Channel, Right outside our Hotel
The hotel had an odd but interesting diorama in front dedicated to the history of their namesake people, the Yamanas who lived in the region at the time of first European contact, up until recent times. Ushuaia is supposedly a Yamana place name, but I'm not sure if anyone knows what "Ushuaia" means,  because, although there is a dictionary of many words from the Yamana language, it is incomplete and the people themselves have mostly died out. We were told there is only one elderly full blooded Yamana remaining and she lives in Chile. They lived and thrived in this region for thousands of years, despite the cold temperature which remains between 0-9 degrees celsius (32-48 fahrenheit) year round. They were small people, and spent much of the time kneeling in their canoes or in a squatting position, which helped conserve heat. They ate a huge number of calories each day and reportedly had a slightly higher body temperature than our normal. They wore no clothing and stayed warm by covering themselves with animal fat which kept them from losing heat and moisture even though they spent most of their time on the water, either in canoes or swimming and diving for shellfish. During storms they took shelter in the rock alcoves on the shore and small islands.  They were also known for the huge warming fires they built on the beaches. Ferdinand Magellan noted these fires and named the region "Tierra del Fuego" or "Land of Fire" after them.

Las Yamanas Display at our Hotel
The motto of the city is "Ushuaia, fin del mundo, principio de todo" or "Ushuaia, end of the world, beginning of everything", which is apt because we fit as many adventures as we could into 3 days. As I mentioned, our hotel was located right on the Beagle Channel. The first morning I walked out to the edge of the water that we could see from our bedroom. There were seabirds of all sorts within yards of the hotel. Oystercatchers, Gulls, Sandpipers, Cormorants, Ducks, Geese, and something huge which turned out to be a Petrel.
Magellanic Oystercatcher

White-rumped Sandpipers

Southern-Gigant Petrel
I could have spent a week just photographing there. But instead, we booked 2 excursions. The first was a trip to the Pinguinera. We took a van ride out of Ushuaia, through forests and peat bogs, to the large privately owned Estancia Haverton that includes the Penguin Rookery. We went by Zodiac (another first for me) and within 5 minutes we were at the island. There were penguins everywhere! Our guide explained that Penguins had moved to this island about 20 years ago to get away from seals, who eat penguins. They have been safe for all this time, but this year some seals were sighted nearby. Time for penguins to watch out! There were 2 kinds of penguins breeding on the island--Magellanic and Gentoo penguins. The Magellanic penguins dig holes and nest in their burrows. The Gentoo penguins build up nests made of rocks. Both kinds of penguins had chicks and some had just hatched that day. There was also a lone King penguin who was hanging out with the Gentoos. He/she was the only one of their kind, so there would be no chicks this year. No one knew why it was there, but it was a treat to see anyway. In addition to the penguins, there were cormorants, geese and skua gulls. We found a pair of skuas who had just hatched some chicks. They were adorable. Skuas eat penguins and their chicks, so I'm trying to hold onto the adorable picture in my mind, knowing that it will probably get ugly sometime soon. But skuas have to eat, don't they? We spent an hour on the island and it went all too quickly. The company that does the tours limits the number of people on the island every day and they keep people from walking near or touching the birds. It was magical to see them. Penguins are very loud and squawk a lot and are funny to watch when they walk. Also, something I never realized about them is that they fart when they stretch. It was so funny! I loved being there so much and wish I could have spent more time there. It made me want to be a tour guide in Patagonia.

The Pinguinera

Magellanic Penguin and Chick in Burrow

Gentoo Penguins and Chick in Rock Nests

Lone King Penguin

Skua and Chick
The next day we took a sailboat tour to an island preserve ("Isla H") in the Beagle Channel. We hiked around on the island and learned a little about the flora and about the Yamana people who sometimes sought refuge there. We also saw Skuas, Flightless Steamer Ducks and nesting Rock Cormorants. The cormorants built their nests out of mud, plants and guano. Some of the nests were hundreds of years old. Most of the cormorants had chicks, which was very exciting to see. Then we got back on the sailboat and sailed to an island with Sea Lions and King Cormorants. The Sea Lions were huge and very sleepy, so they weren't doing much. The Cormorants had the prettiest blue eyes. There were some Snowy Sheathbills hanging out with the Sea Lions and one of our fellow passengers told us that they eat poo. Nature's little cleaner uppers. A lot of the tourists in Ushuaia were going to or returning from cruises to Antarctica. It was pretty cool to be in a place that was a launching spot for the South Pole. It sounds like a trip worth taking some day, although one couple we talked to said they were very happy to see anything green after a week of ice and ocean. When our sailboat was leaving port, someone said that there was a whale sighting. I didn't see anything, but the South Pole travelers saw lots of whales and every type of penguin. Sigh.

Flightless Steamer Ducks and Chicks

Rock Cormorants and Chicks in Nests

Rock Cormorant

Sea Lions and King Cormorants

King Cormorants

Snowy Sheathbills
On our last day, we rented a car and drove to the Tierra del Fuego National Park. It actually took us a few tries to get on the right road. We followed signs that said "National Park" and ended up several times on dead end dirt roads. But we finally got set right and drove there. It's very close to town and we passed a lot of taxis driving people up and dropping them off to hike for the day. We found a nice trail to walk and spent a couple of hours walking along the shore of Lago Roca, back amid the tall Beech trees with their strange galls everywhere. It was really lovely and I kept my eyes open for the elusive Megallanic Woodpecker, but alas, did not see one. I did see orchids, however. They were everywhere and it was beautiful! The trail ended at Chile. There was a sign that announced that it was an international border that should not be crossed. I am a rule follower, so I didn't cross, but someone in our group (I'm not naming names) insisted on eating a banana in Chile. After the hike we drove to another short trail near the Beagle Channel. We saw a red fox in the parking lot. It was a little too used to people and came very close. I got my best photos from inside the car. We also took a short hike to see the Beaver Dams and try to see a beaver. We didn't see any. They are not native to Tierra del Fuego. They were brought down from Canada, along with muskrats, in the 1940's to start up a fur industry. The fur industry didn't take off for whatever reason, but the beavers settled in and started damming up rivers. Now they are gnawing and drowning trees and causing all sorts of damage. I think beavers are cool, but only where they belong. This is just another reminder that organisms outside of their natural ecosystems will have an effect, usually not a good one. It's all connected. Beavers have not been good to Patagonia. There is a trapping program in place in the National Park. Meanwhile, though, there are actually tours in Ushuaia to go see the beavers (Los Castores). I guess when life gives you lemons, you make money with beaver tours.

Beech Galls in the Forest

Palomita Orchid

Yellow Orchid

Palomita Orchids

Tierra del Fuego National Park

Bold Red Fox

Beaver Damage
So we said goodbye to Ushuaia and Patagonia and headed back to Buenos Aires for one more day, and then back to Florida. It was an amazing trip and I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to see these wonderful places. It sounds like we'll have a chance to go back to South America again in the next couple of years, and I can't wait!

Beagle Channel

Click here to see more of my photos from Tierra del Fuego. 

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