Traveling to the Ends of the Earth: Ushuaia

By Troy Henkels

My immediate response was “yes,” let’s go there. I didn’t even know where “there” was, nor had I ever even heard the word before. I just knew that with most things in life, you know where you are going. And I believe that sometimes, if not most of the time, it is more interesting to take on the unexpected and unknown. One never knows where it will lead. On this occasion, I hadn’t a clue what awaited this decision.

My partner, Ford and I had landed in what I believed to be the southernmost city in the world, Punta Arenas, Chile. We were set to explore the wilds of Patagonia and the peaks of the Chilean Andes. We had no itinerary and no real plan. Strictly traveling by the seat of our pants, if you will. It felt good to be on the road again, and even better with no set itinerary. It seems the older I get the more planned life and travels become, so this journey to South America was much anticipated. Patagonia was a place I had always dreamed of and only remotely ever expected to explore.

The day before our arrival, I had asked Ford what he thought we might find to do in the ramparts of deep Southern Chile? He said, “ Well, we could go to Ushuaia.” My response, of course was “yes”. With that followed the question of, what’s that? Ford explained that Ushuaia was really the southernmost city in the world and was reached with a variety of difficulties. Many of which we were unaware of at the time. By our third hour in Punta Arenas we had had enough. Punta Arenas gave us a lasting impression of what life in the Deep South really was like. A very different lifestyle than what we were both accustomed to in Alaska. It was cold and dreary, everything….the architecture, the weather, the feel, the people. It is not surprising for a place that sits at the very Southern tip of Chile and is buffeted by constant winds and weather stumbling in from the Atlantic, the Pacific, and Antarctica. There seems to be no reprieve from the harsh elements, particularly the wind. Most everything reflects that, even the trees lean with the wind.

We hit the road in a small rental car that we were assured was durable enough to withstand anything Patagonian roads could deal us. We had to drive North and East in order to catch the one lone highway that would take us South. This was the only road that went further south than we already were. It wasn’t until then that I wondered what was at the end of that road? Did it just end at the tip of Cape Horn? We didn’t know, but we hoped so, and were hell bent on finding out. As we moved across endless plains of rolling windswept bush country, the incessant wind was always there, blowing in from the west across vast, deep blue lakes and the Pacific Ocean. Before long we came across the abandoned Estancia San Gregoria. A very large abandoned estate that resembled a ghost town of sorts, complete with the rusting skeletal hulls of a few large ships abandoned here in the 1940s, after a half of century or service. These alone gave me a sense of a far away loneliness. A reality check of how far away from civilization we really were, and we only stood to get further away.

After several hours, we traveled on a road, like no other road I had seen before. I’ve always believed that one good road is enough, but this was taking it to the limit. In an attempt to save money, the government had only paved half the road. I had never seen a road that was half gravel and half pavement. Ford and I were both in a quandary of which side to drive on. Certainly the pavement was for better traveling, and we soon learned that this was the accepted protocol. Drive on the pavement no matter which direction you were traveling. If you were going the wrong way, then you had to swerve into the gravel lane as an oncoming vehicle approached. This proved for some excitement when traveling 60mph and on blind corners. After some time of traveling on this type of road, the pavement ended, and it was all gravel. The only thing that prepared me for the poor condition of this road was driving to the North Slope of Alaska on the Dalton Highway. It is hundreds of miles of the most horrendous gravel I had been on. However, this road, in Southern Chile, was worse. In the end, we drove in the ditch for quite some time. Driving in the ditch was smoother and easier, than driving on the road. These were just more examples of how poor and somewhat underdeveloped this part of Chile really is.

The road finally veered south and we raced towards a deadline of catching a ferry across the Straights of Magellan. In the end, we made it, just in time, and drove onto the ferry with a potpourri of other vehicles, destined for ranches and small establishments at various points South. The wind was relentless as we made the quick passage. The Straights of Magellan? A place I had always heard of and never dreamed of crossing, now I was here and it felt good, really good. I wonder what it must have been like in 1520 when Magellan first passed through these straights? Somehow, I suspect not much has changed. Back on the road we travel for hours as the uninhabited landscape rolls past our windows. We see the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans in the course of a few hours drive. I suspect it is one of the few places on earth that you can actually do this. Late in the day we must pass through customs and immigrations, as Ushuaia actually is in Argentina on a small strip of land that is somewhat removed from the mainland.

First we pass through the Chilean version of customs and then a few miles further, the Argentinean version. Both are similar. Both are staffed with armed military that are not friendly and are excruciatingly slow. Both are manual. We pass through 5 people at each crossing, each has a specific job, which we cannot figure out. They look through our passports and stamp them. Ask a few questions, fill out multiple carbon copy forms that get signed by numerous different people. And, they punch our name and passport number into an ancient computer. Amazingly it takes two people to do this, one to punch the keys and the other to show the operator where the keys are. Then, like everywhere in this part of the world, we are manually entered into a huge ledger. Ford and I are continually in awe at the inefficiency and labor-intensive ways that things operate here. The entire time, no one speaks and we remain unsure if we’ll be allowed into or out of Argentina. In the end, we spend hours getting through both stations, but we make it.

By nightfall we arrive in Ushuaia, the end of the earth. It is a larger town than I expected with an inviting cold feel to it. The houses are very industrial looking with a small area of town geared towards the small tourism industry that thrives here for part of the year. We walk along the ocean and among some shops in the middle of town getting a feel for what life is really like in such a remote desolate place. Like everywhere in this part of the world, there is wind and the landscape, people, and buildings reflect that. I’m entrigued by the solitude and remoteness of such a place and vow to visit this part of the world again, and stay for some time. Ushuaia reminds me of some places in Alaska that are built between stark, towering peaks and the ocean. This community is just that, and the beauty of this remote outpost is astounding. Amazingly 43,000 people live in Ushuaia and this town that is wedged between the ocean and 4500 foot peaks.

After a few hours, Ford and I travel out of town, continuing on the road that brought us here. We spend the night by a small stream, outside of town, where the fly-fishing looks promising and the stars explode across the Southern sky. By morning we continue for many miles down the road until it ends. Finally we have arrived at the end of the road at the end of the Earth. We are in Tierra del Fuego. A National Park of sorts that encompasses a large land mass at the very Southern tip of this continent. It is truly an amazing place. We spend the afternoon taking it in. We walk from the end of the road, a half-mile to the ocean and look out, imagining that Cape Horn is not far off. I’m in awe at the sign that is posted there. It informs us that we are at the end of the road and that we are 11,090 miles (17,484km) from Alaska!!!!!! For me, life is good when I can experience the extremes of latitudes and visit places that I never knew existed, but are inexplicably tied to the place that I now call home, Alaska. Oddly, the landscape here does remind of Alaska, but the feel is different. The best I can suggest is to visit both places, then you’ll know what I mean.

Ford and I spend the day hiking around and marveling at the ocean, mountains, and lakes. This place holds immense beauty and we want to soak up as much of it as we can, in the short time we are here. Fortunately we are far away from just about everything in the world, so there are very few people around, just how we like it.

In the end, Ford and I log thousands of miles in the rental car exploring the far southern reaches of Argentina, Chile, and Patagonia. On the return trip to civilization our car inexplicably breaks down and we spend hours improvising a solution for repairs with nothing more than fencing wire and lumber, roadside rocks, and a muli-tool pliers. With success, we limp into the next town, with smiles on our faces, for repairs. We realized early on, there are certainly worse things than being broke down in the middle of Patagonia, with no tools.

And with that I came to realize, that life, like this trip is unpredictable. And sometimes, the days that take you into the unknown and to places that you didn’t even know existed, are the most rewarding and memorable days in life. So if you wake up one day and someone suggests going to Ushuaia………..just say ‘yes’!! You won’t regret it.

Troy Henkels lives in Eagle River, Alaska, is a 1985 graduate of Wahlert High School, and a 1989 graduate of the University of Northern Iowa, and the son of Pete and Mary Henkels, of Dubuque. He writes about his adventures and experiences from around the world.

Originally published in the Telegraph Herald, Dubuque, Iowa, June 22, 2003.Copyright 2003 Troy Henkels.