By the third day in Ushuaia, Nikki and I had already done two amazing hikes – one up the back of the town and one through Valle de los Lobos. The former was difficult, because we had just arrived after four days on the road and the last thing I wanted to do was exert myself. But it was enlightening too, showing me how far a little bit of perseverance can take me. The latter hike was a wave of fresh air pulsing through a body and mind that had already seen more incredible things than it technically deserved.
So on that Sunday, we took our time getting up. It was a long overdue morning of idleness, upstairs at warm Yakush Hostel, plonked down on the oversized couches, checking and returning emails, writing blog posts and reviewing photographs, paging through books (I picked up a copy of Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses here and, while it’s taken me ages to read and even though it started off silly and stupid, it has become one of the most profound reading experiences of my life. I’m savouring it) having a cup of tea, then another … But eventually, mid-afternoonish, we decided to see what this town at the end of the world looked like. It was another rain-free, not cold day, and by now the endless good fortune that I’d been experiencing had turned into a backtrack to my travels. A given, something obvious.
Ushuaia. Perched on the sea, skirted by a chain of mountains, sharp edges with soft, snowy accents. Ushuaia. Small but covered in art, a recurring theme on this continent. Ushuaia. Painfully beautiful, picture perfect. The long costanera that stretches from one end of this Swiss-looking village to the other, the boats casting perfect reflections on the water, echoing the wilderness twins of ocean and mountain, earth and sky.
The responsible thing to do is to go to all the museums, of which Ushuaia has many. But it was Sunday and everything was closed, so we had a free pass to amble along every street, to stop to photograph every little thing, from every angle. “Nothing to do, nowhere to be, a simple little kind of free.”
The best way to see a place, as I’ve undoubtedly said before, is just to walk it. And so we did.
Ushuaia is not exactly a backpackers destination, although we did encounter many of our kind. It’s really difficult to get here (not to mention away), and then, once you do, everything costs double. For the absolute basic accommodation you’re looking at ARG$100 (about R200) per night, transport to anywhere that you can’t walk will cost you roughly the same, and food, drinks and cigarettes are all just a little bit more pricey.
Which is strange … To boost local businesses and the economy, the Argentinian government made Ushuaia and Tierra del Fuego a tax-free region. Conventional wisdom would say that that would make things cheaper, but no. What am I missing? I suppose you pay for the privilege of being able to say, “I was here.”
It is worth it. Revision: this is a backpackers destination, but you need an extra dose of commitment and frugality (we resisted the temptations to have a restaurant meal) and tenacity to make it here. Many travellers in South America skip Ushuaia completely (I nearly did), so once you get here and you set your bags down and you boil some water in the kitchen and sit down for a cup for tea (free if you ask for it) with complete strangers from Australia, the Netherlands, Brazil, France, Canada, there is a shared look of recognition, of camaraderie, an unmistakable sense of mutual pride that characterizes every interaction.
The payoff is priceless.
Nikki and I hadn’t discussed how we would get away from Ushuaia, or when. Neither of us wanted to talk about it, and so we didn’t. In our minds we could stay here forever. In fact, we talked about going even further south. If we went to the right hotel and met the right people, maybe we could bum a lift to Antarctica? There was a large yellow building for sale on one of the shoulders of the mountain, and we considered buying it, undercutting all the other hostels and setting up one of our own here. We’d take turns living in Ushuaia for six months at a time. Secretly I fantasized about the end of the world happening and being forced to remain here at the end of it all, isolated but content in such an unlikely place.