I can’t remember most of the bus ride out of Ushuaia. I’d stayed up drinking wine all night beforehand for three reasons:
- I don’t have an alarm, so staying up is a more foolproof way of not missing an early-morning bus than waking up early
- Staying up all night means making it easier to sleep on throughout twelve-hour bus ride
- Wine is awesome
As intended, I slept for most of the trip. I was awake for the ferry ride across the Beagle Strait and it was great – unlike my first trip across, when the water was rougher, passengers were allowed to sit outside overlooking the water. Other than the ferry and the border crossings though, I mostly napped the day away. Getting off the bus I hit up a few hostels and soon found one with dorm rooms.
In my dorm room were a few German and Swiss folks and before crashing out we got into a conversation about the regular stuff – where we’d been, where we were going, etc. I mentioned the Villa O’Higgins border crossing fiasco and a German girl began relating a very similar story she’d heard. Almost exactly the same story in fact, it was uncanny. As it turns out, Damien had been in this hostel two days beforehand.
The next day was New Year’s Eve. Feeling pretty lazy, I sauntered around town to investigate penguin tours as well as flights and boats to get back up north to Santiago – at some point I’m going to have to fly out of there to Australia. The next boat’s leaving Puerto Natales on the 5th but it’s full so I grab one of the last seats on the next one, leaving on the 12th. It’ll get me as far as Puerto Montt, and it’s an easy overnight bus from there to Santiago. Four and a half days of cruising through the southern archipelagos and within view of the Andes… Sounds great, can’t wait.
I didn’t really have plans for New Year’s and the hostel was kind of quiet but I went and picked up a bit of booze anyhow, and it turned out well, a handful of people around the hostel had some drinks and we made an excursion down to the waterfront for a street party. At the stroke of midnight a band on a nearby boat let rip with the Chilean national anthem and a surprisingly large fireworks display followed immediately after that. We didn’t have any booze with us but another guy from our hostel showed up with a bottle of champagne and we all took a smash or two off of that.
One of our crew, a German named Michael, had two pieces of party intel scrawled onto a map that we decided to follow up. The first was a bar near the waterfront that was supposed to be blowing up… when we went to its location on the map, there were several bars and all were closed. Womp-womp. It was kind of strange really, as soon as the fireworks ended the crowds started dispersing and aside from people beelining it home there really wasn’t any party scene happening. Our second lead was a hostel party and we actually found it but it was a massive sausagefest. Double womp-womp. They said it’d be blowing up later but we said to hell with it and just went back to our own joint and sipped booze for a few more hours.
I slept till about noon on the first day of the new year but was pleasantly surprised to see most everybody sipping wine or beer already. Might as well get in on it too, I figured, so I picked up a few drinks and chillaxed, shooting the shit and flipping through an atlas I found from 1954. In the evening a few of us made another excursion to one of the few joints that was open, a great little pizzeria that was queued up out to the sidewalk. The evening continued in a similar chill vein, just hanging out in the kitchen with a few drinks and some movies – Leon the Professional was on, and even dubbed into Spanish too fast for me to understand it’s a badass movie.
By the time I’d been in town for three-ish days I figured it was time to get out and have a look around. I went down to the waterfront first, which is nothing terribly special aside from a pile of birds, and apparently a pile of species as well, with cormorants and many others gracing the remains of a few old piers.
I headed inland and uphill. Previously I’d been surprised with how little nightlife there was around the Centro but I suspect I may have found it at this point – there were several blocks with a couple dozen little establishments with signs saying “Night Club”, usually accompanied by a picture of an attractive female in various states of undress. Super-seedy looking, like a house that’s been converted to a speakeasy, and windows often covered. I’m not sure whether these things are actually clubs or just thinly disguised strip joints, but I have to suspect they’re clubs – I can’t imagine a city of this size supporting that number of strip joints, even a port city with a significant military presence.
As I kept moving uphill there weren’t many people on the street but there was one guy walking ahead of me that I was rapidly catching up to. When I was about 10 feet behind him and he turned around, grabbed my hand and started shaking it hard and started asking me all these questions about myself. He wasn’t drunk, didn’t seem like drugs, but there was definitely something off about the dude. He demanded that I follow him to a museum and he led me up to an army base a couple blocks up. Facing the street is an old-fashioned building with wooden doors, small windows in them, he grabs them and starts trying to open them violently. When that doesn’t work he starts banging on them and yelling. A female soldier comes out with an assault rifle and tells him to piss off. He points to me and says I’m a tourist and that I should be allowed in. The soldier looks at me like “WTF?” and I just shrug and try to give a sideways look at the dude like “I don’t know what this dude’s problem is”. I guess there’s a museum inside or something but it was closed; crazy dude wasn’t standing for it. He told me to wait here, he’d be back and he marched off down the road. The soldier looked at me again like “That dude is fuuuucked” and I agreed and just got out of there.
After a quick stop at a lookoff I headed back down to the center. This downtown’s not what I’d call spectacular… quaint might be a better word. Its buildings have character, it’s pretty clean, not a bad place to walk around at all.
Later that afternoon Michael and I grabbed a collectivo out to the port to wait for the ferry to Isla de Magdalena, part of the Los Pingüinos Natural Monument. Two hours later the ferry had pulled up to the island, opened its car door, and the staff had pushed a metal catwalk on wheels from the end of the door to the beach to help people cross the slippery rocks and seaweed. Even from the boat, literally thousands of penguins were visible, some swimming directly next to boat. I’m no penguin expert and I can’t say if they really do “play”, but that’s what it looked like – they were waddling into the water, kind of floating there, letting the waves swoosh them ashore, then doing the same thing again. Penguins are good swimmers so I have to think they were just screwing around.
As we couple hundred passengers stormed ashore I expected the penguins to flee from the immediate vicinity but they really didn’t give a crap. At most, some moved off the roped-in trail that tourists are limited to, but others moved closer, seemingly curious, sometimes waddling right across the trail, almost underfoot.
As I said, I’m no penguin expert – aside from Fairy Penguins in Australia and captive penguins, these are the first I’d ever seen – but I was surprised to see they live in dens dug out of the soil. Usually there’d be one or two adult penguins standing immediately outside the den and a fluffy grey head or two peeking out from inside. Other times, the whole family would be congregated outside, soaking up the rays. (It was pretty goddamned cold out there, I likely would’ve stayed in the den myself.)
I was laughing my ass off just watching these things be penguins, they’re ridiculous. They seemed to fall over a lot while waddling around, other times these groups of 3 or 4 adults would be strolling around together until meeting another group, they’d all flap their wings, maybe honk like a goose, then the two groups would continue on their way, albeit mixed up with the other group. Their honking is pretty ridiculous too – you can tell one’s getting ready to crank it out when it stretches its beak to the sky, spreads its wings out in a Jesus Christ pose and then “Waaaaaoooooooo!! Woaaa woaaa woaaaaaaa”. Usually one will start then another, 10 or 15 feet away, will pick up the tune once the first stops, and so on and so on.
We really did have to watch our step though – not only had some built dens right on the path, sometimes you’d get one on a mission that was hoofing it right through the path, completely oblivious to the huge primates swarming overhead.
In the picture above is a grey-and-fluffy juvenile. It seems like there are three distinct “looks” these penguins have, the adult and juvenile phases shown above, and a third intermediate look that was uncommon. These punk teenagers were still grey but could obviously swim and didn’t have the fluffy-look, and their facial markings weren’t as well-defined as the adults, almost making them look like weird ducks.
The numbers were pretty wild. I didn’t hear an official estimate but there had to be thousands over the small island. A large number of gulls made it look like more than there likely were, but it had to be a lot regardless.
After reaching a lighthouse and signing my name in a guestbook I turned around and everyone loaded onto the boat. I slept most of the way back, then we found a collectivo and headed back to the hostel, calling it an early night.