That pretty picture you see up at the top of my blog was taken during our descent into the southernmost city in the world located at the bottom tip of South America. As my souvenir coffee mug proclaims, “Ushuaia Fin del Mundo” – the end of the world.
We are 500 miles from Antarctica in August so that means it is still winter. Considering the proximity to a frozen land mass, we are a little surprised with the mild weather. High temperatures hover around the freezing mark and daylight lasts seven to eight hours.
This portion of the trip is my husband Mike’s idea. He usually leaves all of the travel planning to me but this time he was incredulous that we would be in Buenos Aires and not go the extra 1500 miles and lay claim to bragging rights for Ushuaia (oo-swah-EE-ah). The money manager in me protested for about a second before diving in to a search for flights that would coordinate with those already booked and still allow us two days on the ground there.
On the ground, our usual dilemma rears its ugly head. We have not booked a hotel because what I found online was either expensive, located out of town meaning we’ll add transportation costs or received sketchy reviews. The tourist information booth at the Ushuaia Airport is slightly helpful, providing us with a list of hotels in our potential price range.
Whenever feasible, our m.o. is to have a look at a potential room before we commit. We hail a cab and head into town to check out what’s available.
The town is compact. The airport is nearby. It’s off-season so our driver is more than happy to help. Thinking that because it is off-season it should be easy to find a vacant room. We are wrong.
First stop is Fueguino Hotel Patagónico. It looks nice but they are full. Not one room available but even if there is, it’s at the top of our price range at around $150 a night. We’re hoping we can get something a bit less expensive.
The second stop is the Lennox Hotel. No vacancies. Uh-oh.
Feeling maybe a twinge of desperation, we make our third stop at the Hotel Tierra del Fuego. They have a room but it’s tiny, dark and overpriced. Nail-biter time looms on the horizon.
The fourth stop is the winner. Whew! The Albatross Hotel will be our base camp for the next two days. The lobby has soaring wood-beamed ceilings, giving it an A-frame feel. It’s comfortably in our price range. The room is okay, not great, but we reason this is the best we can do and don’t really want to run up the meter any further on the waiting cab.
Years ago, I was a ski reporter and it’s been way too long since I hit the slopes. Knowing that we would be here in winter, provides the perfect opportunity. We smushed our down jackets, ski bibs, and gloves into our luggage in anticipation. Now that we have a roof over our heads, we need ski-gear.
Jumping Ski Rentals sets us up with skis, boots, poles and goggles for under $32 for both of us. Super cheap. We arrange for a shuttle and a lift ticket for another $35 each and we are set for our ski trip the following morning.
After dragging the equipment back to the hotel, our focus turns to our stomachs. Another day has gone by and we really haven’t had anything substantial to eat.
Dinner at a restaurant called Kaupe (ka-OO-pay) sounds good. It has lots of good reviews and it’s not far away. On paper it looks like an easy four-block walk. But a flat map doesn’t show that three of those blocks are practically straight uphill.
The restaurant is empty. We tuck into a table with a great view and turn our sights on the wine list. We deserve a good glass of wine after that hike so we order a nice bottle of Argentinian Malbec.
The appetizer of saffron crab crepes is heavenly. So are the scallops Lyonnaise. We hope this bodes well for things to come. Mike orders Merluz Negra en Papillote (Patagonian toothfish, better known as Chilean sea bass, in parchment paper) and I have Lomo George (a tasty grilled steak). It’s like having a seat in a private restaurant.
The food is fantastic and the service is excellent. Even the presentation of the bill is out of the ordinary. Printed on a full sheet of paper, on one side of the page is the tab, on the other are two charming watercolors. The whole thing is meticulously folded. We are very happy. Mike nominates Kaupe for our Top Ten All-Time Best Restaurant Meals. I agree that that it’s up there near the top. Hanging on to each other for balance, we navigate the snow drifts and slick spots and make it back to the hotel intact.
Our room has two tiny towels. I like to have an extra “hair” towel. Any woman with long hair knows that this is essential. The front desk refuses to give us any extra towels. Really? They are obstinate. Of course this makes me more determined than ever. We go back to the room and fortuitously, I discover a dead bug on the bed. Not knowing what one looks like, I immediately leap to the conclusion that it’s a bed bug. I try using that as leverage to get an extra towel. Not happening. They won’t budge.
The next morning a different crew is at the front desk so I attempt once again to get an extra towel. This time I bring the dead bug which I wrapped in paper with me as evidence to use for leverage. It works. Upon our return home, further research determines that it was probably not a bed bug. The clerk explains that people will pay for a room for two but then sneak in extra people. That’s why they won’t give out extra towels. With promises that we are alone, we get one more towel. Jeez.
We are excited about our day of skiing. Cerro Castor is the closest ski area from downtown Ushuaia. It’s no bunny slope. Because it’s summer in the northern hemisphere, the Italian Olympic ski team is training here and staying at our hotel.
Our shuttle driver, Carlos Nuñez is picking us up at 9:30 am so we grab a quick breakfast in the hotel. Because it’s Wednesday we’re hoping the slopes will be fairly empty.
The ski area is about 16 miles from town. Less than a half an hour drive along a snowy, mountain road. The sky is grey and a few flakes are falling. In town it’s more like mud season but it’s definitely still winter up here.
Near the lodge visibility is pretty good. It really starts to snow as we head further up the mountain on the second lift. Our goal is to take the third lift to the top.
A raging blizzard near the top of the mountain abruptly stops the lift. Maddeningly, we can see the termination of this lift ride just ahead. However, we are left dangling over about thirty feet of space. Not wanting any broken bones, we stay put.
For what seems like hours, but in reality is closer to twenty minutes, we are stranded in horizontal, blowing snow. Oddly, even though we are 500 miles from Antarctica, it doesn’t feel that cold.
Over-dressing in layers helps. The only thing that freezes on me is my exposed hair that’s sticking out of my cute new Cerro Castor souvenir hat. Just three of us are on this quad chair. Beside me and Mike, is a man from Buenos Aires. He, of course, speaks excellent English. We pass the time discussing ski areas and other attractions that we need to see in Buenos Aires and Argentina.
Finally, the lift starts to move and we are grateful that there’s a bar and restaurant just a quick schuss away. We step out of our bindings as fast as we can and get inside to warm up. The hot chocolate is so chocolatey and it quickly warms me from the inside out. Once my hair thaws and we can feel our fingers and toes again we decide it’s time to ski down the mountain. Going any further up is out of the question, because the ski area has closed the lift to the top.
The snow is heavy and wet so it’s not as easy to ski as the dry fluffy “champagne powder” that thoroughly spoiled us in Colorado. With a foot of new untracked snow, we struggle to follow what is suppose to be an easy “Green” trail. The trail markings are different than we’re used to. In North America, easy slopes are marked with a green circle, moderate runs are blue squares and difficult trails are black diamonds. At this South American ski area we assume the colors have the same meaning but every color is in a circle. If the color on the sign is weather worn, it’s hard to read. I have new appreciation for the brilliance of shaped trail markers.
We rediscover muscles that have been sitting around doing nothing for years, as we inch our way back down to the base. The further down the mountain we get, the better the weather. As we approach the lodge though, all the various trails off the mountain converge into one single wide, but steep descent, that is skied off. For the non-skier, this means most of the snow is solidly packed into a scratchy icy patch. We assume a tuck position, cross our mittened fingers, and make a bee-line to the bottom.
It is a bit early for our ride back to town, so we shop for souvenirs, take some pictures around the lodge, and settle in to the Snow Bar for some more hot chocolate and a snack.
On the ride back, our driver aims for and manages to hit just about every available pothole. Once in town, we drop off our gear, get cleaned up and set off to do a bit of shopping.
Leather is a big deal here. They eat a lot of meat so it only stands to reason that they need to do something with the leftover hides. Everywhere we go, we see boots, purses and jackets made with a light brown suede that has tan spots. When I ask what kind of animal it is from, I don’t understand the answer.
One shop is having a big sale with 50% off anything in the store. They have a pair of these boots made with this odd hide that fit me perfectly so I must have them.
It is not until we return home that I go online and figure out the hide is from an animal called a capybara. The capybaras are indigenous to South America and sort of look like a really really big, hundred pound beaver, sans the flappy tail. No wonder I didn’t understand.
Even the devout non-shopper Mike gets in on the deals with two leather belts. We also pick up carved wooden bookmarks that are made locally. The total tab for this shopping extravaganza is under $50.
When we return to the hotel, it’s still too early for dinner so we hire a taxi to take us on a tour. We agree to a set price of about $30. We traverse sometimes gravelly, sometimes snow-covered roads between the mountains to the western outskirts of town so that Mike can look at the Ushuaia Golf Club. He desperately wants bragging rights that he played here but that is not to be. The course is covered with snow. There is not even a car in the parking lot.
The sun is setting so it’s time for our driver take us to the Hotel Del Glaciar. It’s perched above the city and has the perfect view for drinks at sunset and dinner. The cabbie manages to change the fee to $40. We pay the higher price with not too much animosity, since his chatty near two-hour tour also included the military base and several other outstanding views of Ushuaia.
Inside the hotel, it’s empty. Only one room is rented and it’s occupant corners us and just will not stop talking. His wife, he tells us, is upstairs. We assume she is probably relishing her alone time. We were hoping for a different atmosphere so we have one drink and decide to have dinner elsewhere.
Following a recommendation from the front desk, and also endorsed by Frommer’s, we clutch each other and hike down the dark, icy road to Chez Manu, a restaurant we noticed on the way up.
Frommer’s says this Seafood/French eatery is a “Find”. We’re not as impressed. The $74 dinner is unmemorable and seems that it is trying too hard. It takes a while for a taxi to come up and retrieve us.
The next morning, for some odd reason, I have it in my head that our flight back to Buenos Aires is at 1:00 pm and so I don’t bother to check the tickets. We pack, leaving our old ski bibs behind to make room for my new boots and to lighten our load. I’m sure someone will be able to use them here.
Up the street from the hotel is Laguna Negra, a shop that sells dulce de leche, a cream caramel spread that many South Americans love. We buy a few small jars that are easy-to-pack gifts.
Outside, a huge demonstration is taking place. Our hotel is across from the police station and that seems to be a favorite location for protests. The shopkeeper explains that these rallys are a regular event. Today’s grievance is cuts in welfare payments. She is clearly disgusted with the march.
With shopping wrapped up, we check out of the hotel. The tab for the Albatross is 936 Argentinian pesos or $240. Not bad since we also charged some food and drinks to the room.
When we arrive at the airport we discover that our Aerolineas Argentinas flight was at 10:50 am not 1:00 pm. For the first time ever, we have missed our flight. Oops. They tell us that we might be able to get on a flight at 4:00 but we have to wait to see if everyone checks in. Now we are nervous and stuck at the airport for the afternoon.
We have a room booked back Buenos Aires at the Etoile Hotel and don’t know if we’ll be charged if we don’t show, or whether they will hold it for us when we are late. Luckily, everything falls into place. We get seats on the 4:00 flight. As we board the weather is starting to turn bad.
The flight has a stop in El Calafate where it is snowing pretty hard. This is the final destination for most of the people on the flight from Ushuaia. We now find ourselves on a nearly empty plane. As we lift off, visions of planes crashing into the snowy Andes mountains swirl in my head.