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To the end of the world — at last

By on September 23, 2019 in Travel with 0 Comments
Penguins crowd together as cormorants fly overhead at a tiny island supporting a lighthouse.

By Susan Campbell Shell

A bicycle trip brochure was where I first read about Patagonia. It sounded like an interesting and challenging trip. I planned to do it “someday.” 

 Many years passed, and some friends and I were talking about traveling, and I mentioned my desire to go to Patagonia. One of my friends asked, “Why don’t you just do it?” And so I did this past January when it was summer in the southern hemisphere — but not on a bicycle.

 Patagonia is a region located in two countries, Argentina and Chile, at the southern tip of South America. It also includes the Tierra del Fuego Archipelago. It is a region of high mountains at the southern end of the Andes chain, spectacular glaciers, pampas grasslands and national parks. It is an area for those who like to explore the out-of-doors. The towns were mostly small and few.

 It is one of the few regions in the world with coasts in three oceans. The Pacific Ocean to the west, the Atlantic Ocean to the east, and the Southern Pacific Ocean to the South. 

 “It looks like home!” was our initial reaction as we saw big, dry fields covered with some kind of brush. We — my friend Cheryl Maher and I — were looking out the windows of the bus taking us from the airport to the city of Ushuaia, Argentina.

 Tierra del Fuego National Park was on our way to Ushuaia, and we stopped to take a short hike. Only a small section of the park is open to the public, but it was our introduction to the jagged peaks, glaciers and forests of Patagonia. It is known as a unique park at the End of the World.

 We made a second stop to taste the calafate berry. It grows on a thorny bush and was what we had seen growing wild in the fields. Its berries are about the size of a blueberry, and have an interesting, sweet flavor. We later had calafate flavored ice cream. 

 Folklore says if you eat the calafate berry you will return to Patagonia. It is doubtful that will happen for Cheryl and me.

 Ushuaia is the most southern city in the world. It was larger than I expected with a population of 60,000. It was hilly with only a few of the downtown streets paved. Located on a bay, it was also a departure point for tourists going to Antarctica.

 We visited a prison built by the government in 1896. Prisoners were transported to this remote location to increase the economy of the region. 

 This enforced population of prisoners became the permanent residents since they could never leave. They built the town using lumber harvested from the forest, and also a railroad. The prison was shut down in 1947.

 One spur of the Pan-American highway ends at Ushuaia.

 We took a cruise to see some of the local wildlife. We came to a small, rocky island that appeared to be a cormorant hang-out. The little island looked painted white with their guano.

 A tall, brick lighthouse, resembling a silo, had been built on the next little rocky island. This one also had cormorants, and sea lions. 

 The elegant, mid-size (24 to 30 inches tall) Magellanic penguin populated the next island. We could not go on shore but this has a sandy beach, so the captain pulled the boat up on shore as far as he could. They were fun to watch as they scurried about, and went in and out of the water. We had an exciting return trip as it got very windy.

 The lesser rhea, and the guanaco were two other animals who were new to us. 

 The lesser rhea is a large flightless bird with long legs, a long neck and stands about  35 to 39 inches tall. It is similar to an ostrich, but has brown and white spotted plumage.

 The guanaco was a handsome animal with light brown fur, and a long neck. It looked to be about the size of a deer, but had the erect posture of its llama relative.

Big, magnificent glaciers — like those you see pictured in the travel brochures, could be viewed up close from a boat or a hike.

 Glaciers were found in each national park. The big, magnificent ones, those you see pictured in the travel brochures, could be viewed up close from a boat or a hike. 

One glacier, located on a river, was one of the few in the world that is not receding. Evidently because it is on water not land, it grows each year. 

Sometimes on this trip, we flew to the next site, and other times we went by bus. 

The fourth park was in Chile so we had to stop at the border to go through customs. A little cloth bag, holding a glass water bottle, was on our bus seat. Plastic bottles were not allowed in Chile’s national parks. We could refill the glass water bottles at the hotel. 

 We had to cross a small stream to get to the hotel. There was no bridge so the bus driver calmly drove through it. 

This hotel was the only one actually located in a park, and was not open in the winter. The hotel was a long, two-story building with our rooms at one end the dining room at the other. All of the wait staff wore black berets.

Aboard a boat, Cheryl Maher, left, and Susan Campbell Shell glide past a glacier.

 Cheryl took the opportunity to go horseback riding out to a waterfall, while I explored the property. Outside a back door I found the only colorful flower I had seen the whole trip — a pink rose. 

Then I wandered up the hill to the big garden that was called “the farm.” I found a gate in the fence and while I was wandering around, met the gardener, a retired gentleman from New Zealand. 

He took me on a tour of the garden, which had many rows of strawberries, and he gave me sweet, ripe gooseberries, which I hadn’t eaten since picking them as a child in my parents’ garden. 

The rows of peas were covered in plastic because the strong wind destroyed them. Then he showed me a couple greenhouses that had tomatoes and cucumbers growing on strings fastened to the overhead supports. Food was grown for both the hotel and staff kitchens.

What really stood out for me on this trip were the spiky mountains at the southern end of the Andes, the unusual animals and the massive glaciers.

I did see one bicyclist, but I was glad I wasn’t riding. It would have been challenging in that mountainous terrain at the end of the world.

Susan Campbell Shell has been a teacher, cloth doll maker, folk art painter, and cyclist.  She has always enjoyed traveling, especially outdoors.  She is now challenged by old age but has many wonderful memories.

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