Argentina: Losing It at the End of the World

A sunrise at "the end of the world."
A sunrise over the water in Ushuaia. Photo by Olivier Guiberteau

I thrust my hands deep into my coat pockets, a refuge from the biting cold. The Beagle Channel stretches before me. An angry wind growls in from the sea. Great hulking ships sit dormant in port. Monsters of nautical travel — ice breakers — Antarctic ships. The frozen continent lies 1,000 kilometers to the south. Bronze busts of past explorers line the waterfront, staring wistfully out to sea. I have no idea who any of them were — but if their clothing, steely gaze and sensational facial hair are anything to go by they were quite something.

I have been stranded in Ushuaia for three weeks now. The result of waltzing away from an ATM without retrieving my debit card first. A replacement was making the slow, agonizing journey from England. I wasn’t entirely sure how — but judging by its speed I suspected by rowboat. There certainly were worse places to be stranded. Stevenage, for example, or anywhere in Nebraska. Nevertheless, I was sure I was only days away from complete insanity.

Ushuaia sits at the far southern extremity of Argentina, on a small island evocatively named Tierra del Fuego, The Land of Fire. A name that was given by the first European visitors who saw the frozen land alive with the fires of native Yaghan tribes. Today the Yaghan are long gone, and so are the fires. The snow has certainly remained. Pressed tightly between the Martial Mountains and the Beagle Strait, and effectively ringed by snow-capped mountains, the town’s setting is quite extraordinary. It has long been romantically dubbed “The End of the World.”

Travel here is Argentina has its own pace. My days have taken on a Groundhog Day repetition. Icicles greet me on the outer walkway as I rush quickly into the cozy warmth of the kitchen. The Antarctica Hostel has become home. Despite its name, it is pleasantly heated and filled with warm, agreeable people. I breakfast at 8 a.m. — a large coffee with cereal, followed by some toast and a second coffee. Always in that order. Occasionally I consider altering my system — but I fear what might happen.

Sunrise is late this far south. A little before 10 a.m. the uniform gray sky begins to evolve into vibrant blues, and clouds burst with a candy-floss pink before settling into a deep rusty orange. I wrap myself with excessive layers, strap a backpack to my shoulders and venture out into the blustery world.

A yawn escapes me, it’s long and deep and I savor every moment of it, stretching my arms to their limits. A powerful gust of wind snaps me out of my bliss. I shudder violently for a few seconds until it subsides. And so begins my day.

I approach the port and pass the angry, ranting sign with an enormous cross through a Union Jack, and words to the effect of “No English Pirates.” The Argentine government has again begun to beat the old war drum over their claim to the Falkland Islands.

The Saint Christopher, known as The HMS Justice in a former life, appears; a small forlorn ship run aground in 1954. She now acts as a monument to the regions many shipwrecks and lives lost. It sits lonely and dejected on a sand bank, black birds littering the wreck — standing guard. They remind me of the ravens at the Tower of London. A man with a more questionable mental stability might believe they never leave their posts, as they always seem to be in exactly the same spot. But I assume they’re simply on some kind of shift rotation. They eye me suspiciously as I walk past — a true Hitchcockian nightmare.

The Saint Christopher is one of many wrecked ships.
The Saint Christopher sits on a sand bank. Photo by Olivier Guiberteau

The town begins to widen. A tiny slither of land cuts a small lake off from the harbor. A broken muddied road runs along it and up to the naval base. I walked there once, and was fiercely rebuked for taking pictures of an old plane sitting ceremoniously outside. A large man with a large gun looked dementedly enraged, his eyes bulging, and his face contorted in a manner that generally either accompanies war or debilitating constipation. I’ve since developed quite a real fear of being water boarded as an English spy. I avoid the naval port these days. I’m not entirely sure what I would say under torture.

My path diverges here. Sometimes I walk through the residential area of the town and onto the old train line that snakes through the pine trees and winds up in to the hills. Inmates of the now closed prison were once brought here to collect timber in freezing conditions, an awful punishment. Sometimes I amble along the trail, occasionally I tackle the hill that borders it. What begins as a pleasant stroll quickly becomes a treacherous climb that involves hauling myself up and over sheets of ice. If I was honest with myself I would know that this would be extremely dangerous to return over. I’m always honest with myself — but I rarely listen.

Recently I saw a wolf in the woods. The beast stood motionless ten meters from me. Its shaggy gray fur speckled with snow, its eyes deep blackened moons. We greeted each other with the same look of shock and disbelief. Our eyes remained locked for several seconds. I feared war was moments away. Thankfully it ran away first, which I took as a small victory, but promptly ran the other way.

Sometimes I clamber up the abandoned ski slope that tumbles down the mountain side just outside of the town. The reward for the slippery climb to the summit is instantaneous. The world sings gloriously out to the horizon — and into a different country. The small town of Puerto Williams, Chile, lies across the motionless water. The southernmost town in the world is the last stop before the foreboding Cape Horn.

The forest stretches back a mile or so from the ridge before hitting the mighty wall of the Martial Mountains, which tower up with a giddy steepness, finishing in anger somewhere near the clouds. On my first visit to the area I spotted a cross-country skier moving quickly toward me.

The wooded path gets more steep .
The wooded area around the abandoned train line in Ushuaia, Argentina. Photo by Olivier Guiberteau

“Hola,”I hollered as he approached. He glared at me and shot past without a word. I watched his agile shape disappear into the distance, as I attempted to suppress both a feeling of hurt and an impulse to hit him with a snowball.

When I grow tired I head for home. I always walk along San Martin, the main business street. Shops pack closely together — it still has the feel of a traditional main street, but the few upscale boutiques hint at what the future may hold.

I expected something much more basic than what I found in Ushuaia. The “End of the World” brings visions of a wilderness hardship. San Martin has a brisk and prosperous feel to it. Just today, for no other reason than my sad slow demise into insanity, I was gazing aimlessly into a shop window which seemed solely dedicated to taps. You may think, as I did, that the end of the world might well be satisfied with the one tap — at a stretch two — but no. I counted, then re-counted 14 different types of sink taps, all of which looked roughly identical to me. Each came complete with a cheery, slightly exotic name — Ashia, Marta — Liberty. If a society is ever to be judged on taps, I suspect Ushuaia will do rather well.

The communal area in the hostel is busy. The bus back from the nearby ski slopes has just returned, disgorging people with that healthy glow that comes from a day on the slopes. Among them, the Brazilians I am sharing a room with beckon me over, but I have my usual business to attend to first. I walk to the front desk with both hope and resignation.

“Any post for me?” I ask Carla behind the desk. She used to try and vary the way that she would let me down. Now she just shakes her head sadly.

I usually take a stroll in the evening to work off dinner. If the stroll becomes a little strenuous and I happen to work up a thirst, I stop at a local bar. I’ve become very fond of the El Almacen de Ramos General, a wonderfully warm and homely old-style bar. It’s filled with antique knick-knacks, such as ancient train sets and elderly typewriters. My inner child begs me to play with them. Sadly, all of them come with a stern little sign informing people like me not to touch them.

They know me there now.  I’ve stopped pretending that I was planning on sharing that liter of beer with a friend. In turn they have stopped looking at me in the funny way that you look at a man sitting alone in a bar, on a Tuesday evening, consuming beer delivered in a large jug. Sometimes I go a little wild and order another — because let’s face it — it’s not as if I’m going anywhere tomorrow.

Author Bio: Olivier Guiberteau is 30 years old and has lived and the worked in the U.S., Australia, the Czech Republic and Vietnam. He is currently living in Saudi Arabia, where he works as an English teacher.