Monday, 15 March 2010

Ferries, Penguins and Border Crossings – Ushuaia to Chilean Patagonia

Apologies for leaving you all stranded at the end of the world but intermittent internet access is to blame...honest.

We spent a couple of nights in Ushuaia and then turned the Baroness north to begin our long hike to Alaska. We left Ushuaia a little later than planned having decided to get the ball rolling on filming the initial scenes of "ThisRoad the movie". ( The video will be blog-bound as soon as we come to an unlikely agreement on the backing track) Having knocked up some impressive distances cruising down the painfully straight Argentinian Ruta 3 "motorway", we felt we could cover the relatively short distance to the eastern coast of Tierra del Fuego pretty quickly, but the combination of a delayed start, filming, roads with actual bends and a slight run in with Chilean immigration meant we arrived long after dark (Tierra del Fuego is split into the Chilean west and Argentinian east so you cross into Chile before catching a ferry to the mainland). As the ferry was not until the next day (we assumed as we haven't seen a timetable since Heathrow) we camped down by the bay a little out of town.

Anyway, what run in with the Chilean immigration I hear you ask.... Particularly Chile, but also Argentina, have decided to combat the spread of dangerous bacteria by operating a zero tolerance policy against, fruit, meat and lettuce. All the previous checkpoints and borders we had passed through had never bothered to search our car and had indeed okayed various meat, fruit and veg so we assumed we'd get the same treatment this time and happily signed our declarations and then told the guard due to search are car that we were free of undesirables. At which point he asked us to open our fridge, which was a blow. Having since had time to properly read through which food items are banned I can quite confidently say that the whole bunch were present and incriminatingly correct, which, probably with some justification, el Chilean customs muchacho took umbridge with. Having been the one to boldfacedly lie to him I was marched back to immigration and accosted for my duplicity. However, we did have one (not completely unplanned) saving grace. I'd lied in Spanish. Conveniently all my Spanish left me and I explained in English that I hadn't understood the question. Thankfully they simply decided to make me sign a declaration saying that I did have fruit and veg (although this was no longer true since they had relieved us of them) and handed me a leaflet explaining the evils of taking food into Chile; spread of foot and mouth, transportation of little bacteria and beasties etc. They don’t see fit to spray your car for such threats but we are clearly in no place to point fingers.

The following day we rose early and trundled down to the ferry port to see when and if the ferry was departing for the mainland. Our first ferry trip towards the end of our marathon drive to Ushuaia had been pretty fortuitous, as having rocked up to the port at 1’o’clock in the morning we’d simply joined an already waiting stream of cars. This time there were no cars, no people, no information and only the vaguest indication that ferrys ever frequented the area. Our ever improving pigeon Spanish came to the rescue, discerning that there was in fact a ferry arriving at 11am. One of our continual little gripes about the helpful locals though is their inability to see the bigger picture. This chap had kindly answered that it arrived at 11am, and took 2 hours to reach Punta Arenas. We (I) had admittedly failed to ask when it left, but really you would hope at that stage that he might have inferred that that little nugget of information might be right up our strasse. Anyway we boarded the 3pm (departing) ferry and spent the two hours updating our journals and starting across the incredibly flat sea. A pod, school or potentially gaggle of dolphins kept us company for a while and, confident that little now stood in our way on our drive to the top of South America, our spirits soared.

Punta Arenas was our first taste of a proper Chilean city and it was perceptibly cleaner and more Western looking than Argentina. The downtown area was still relatively small but there were a good few bars and restaurants to keep us occupied. The next morning we paid a visit to the city cemetery, where the graves range from fairly typical to incredibly ornate tombs for the richer families. They also had beautiful tombs for their police and firemen. It was very calming and humbling to walk among the shrines and a lovely place to reflect on the trip so far. And we were almost completely reverent and respectful, except for when Tom pointed the camera at us, at which point we morphed into grounded but still flapping angels. Apologies.

After our brush with death we headed north to Punta Natales, via Los Penguinos! It is a genuine fact that penguins are the coolest creatures on earth and we were all incredibly excited to go chill out in their manor. These little super stars had arrived in October / November to begin breeding (they only come as couples) and, with their young finally old enough to take to the seas proper, were two weeks away from migrating north to Brazil (Apparently where Happy Feet gets it’s Samba influence).

That night we stayed in the quiet but pretty Punta Natales and then shot on to Chile’s most famous national park, Torres del Paine (The blue towers) for some luxury camping and car repairs. The park itself is absolutely spectacular. The lakes have been formed by a receding glacier and, according to the guide, the way the sediment particles are suspended in glacier melt makes them a strikingly, opaque turquoise colour that captures the sunlight magnificently. The mountains surrounding the lakes are also hauntingly blue and this gives the whole landscape a beautifully tranquil, almost fantasy feel. Our final night there we brought ourselves back to earth with our first (of no doubt many) all steak barbeques, with a little (a lot) vino tinto under a star-packed night sky.

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