Story by Barbara Angelakis
Photos by Barbara & Manos Angelakis
Ushuaia the unexpected treasure
Ushuaia is just a dot on the map at the bottom of Argentina. It is the town from which we were to board our Antarctic Cruise ship Ultramarine, the latest state–of-the-art expedition ship in Quark Expeditions luxurious ship line-up.
Ushuaia (oo·swai·uh) means “Bay to the West” in the native language of the Yámana who lived at the end of the world for 10,000 years prior to the arrival of Portuguese explorer/navigator Ferdinand Magellan (Fernăo Magalhăes in Portuguese) who in 1520 discovered the eponymous natural sea channel that separated the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. In a heroic effort, Magellan was the first European to cross the Pacific Ocean.
At that time there were about 3,000 Yámana or Yaghan’ people ( Yámana means ‘man’ and Yaghan means ´us´), and for a few hundred years after Magellan’s voyage they were left alone to continue their lifestyle but by the 17th century missionary groups began arriving and that was the end of their lifestyle. The Yamana were short, stocky people that lived in harmony with the land. Everything they needed was provided by their adapted interconnection with their environment. They were hunter-gatherers who traveled between the southern islands in their hand-made canoes in search of food. The women dove into the frigid waters to collect shellfish while the men hunted sea lions and otters and the rich fatty diet sustained them even in those glacial weather conditions. Since it rained almost constantly, being naked was a necessity to avoid becoming water-logged. To sustain themselves they built fires in the center of their canoes to dry off and stay warm and a fire was always present in their huts.
Tragically, being naked offended the arriving missionaries who insisted the Yámana cover themselves. This decree eventually decimated the population because once their animal skin clothing became saturated they were unable to stay dry and they died of a combination of exposure, introduced foreign diseases and the unbridled extermination perpetrated upon them in an effort to steel their lands.
Ushuaia is the southernmost city in the world; located at the tip of Argentina, on the Beagle Channel in the Tierra del Fuego archipelago. Tierra del Fuego or “Land of Fire” is the name Magellan derived from the Yámana people because they always carried fire with them; it was the agent of their survival. The Beagle Channel forms a natural salt water bridge between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans and also separates Argentina and Chile. It is named after the ship that brought Charles Darwin to these waters where his theory of evolution was developed that changed the world view of humanity forever.
Ushuaia has been an ancient city with very little population and little to offer, but with the explosion of tourism and technology, the city is experiencing a wave of growth, tripling its population in the last five years. It is neither charming nor stop worthy but since its host the expedition ships that ply the Antarctic waters (see Quark Ultramarine article), new buildings are spreading out the boundaries of the city daily with shops, restaurants and hotels serving the tourists that are flocking to visit this gateway to the Seventh Continent of the world – Antarctica.
Our flight from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, aside from the 3A.M. wake-up call, was uneventful - but the landing in Ushuaia was magical! On either side of the airplane the jutting spires of the Andes Range fell over one another to be more prominent; more beautiful; more creatively white capped. We later learned that the mountains are not snow-capped but the white robe is glacial in nature and with a cerulean blue sky above and the Beagle Channel below the little dot on the map seemed not so insignificant.
One must not leave Ushuaia without a visit to their National Park – a place where you can truly experience the sound of silence. The park is at the end of National Route #3, the Pan American Highway that runs from Alaska all the way to Ushuaia. It is located in a watery, boggy bowl surrounded by mountains. The silence is penetrated only by the call of birds of which there are many, having no natural predators.
Periodically as we drove along the road we passed a group of horses smaller than average due to the harsh weather conditions. They are docile and sublimely uninterested in human curiosity so I was able to get close but not infringe on their space to watch colts feeding on their mother’s milk.
The National Park has been protected since 1960 sadly after many of the slow growing trees had already been cut down. Earlier on, a penitentiary was built in this seemingly god-forsaken place and the prisoners were made to cut the semi-deciduous forests for heating and building of houses in the village before environmental forces came to bear and realized that it would take many, many years for the trees to grow back. The soil is thin and rocky due to the action of melting ice and the pervasive growth of peat moss. Perhaps that accounts for the specialness of the park, which can be reached either by car, or by the famous “End of the World Train” that stops at the El Parque station. Wildlife is mostly birds like the woodpecker, condor and sea birds. There are no predatory animals other than foxes and aside from the horses, all the wildlife is small while the views are huge and shockingly beautiful. We did not have time to hike the trails or visit the glacial waterfalls but we did have time to interact with sea and land birds and take in the majesty surrounding us.
After a boxed lunch in this spectacular setting we made sure to take everything we brought back with us and departed the park to return to Ushuaia and a short walk-about. We spent time visiting the funky native marketplace to purchase trinkets and finally we boarded our waiting ship when our Antarctic adventure began.
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