Land of Fire: Tierra del Fuego

Tierra del Fuego.  Doesn’t it sound more romantic and full of drama than “Land of Fire?”

One of the things I blocked out and didn’t think about much was the long bus rides we’d be taking on this 2 week trip down Argentina and Chile.  To say that Patagonia is big is an understatement.  On our first day we took a flight from Buenos Aires to El Calafate (~2,000 km or 1,300 miles) but since then we’d been traveling mainly on buses and vans.  It can easily take 4 or 5 hours to go from one town to another, and we’d had a 5 hour ride when we crossed the Argentine-Chilean border on on day six (~360km or 225 miles).  I wasn’t particularly looking forward to it but once I got over my fear of using the toilet on the bus, I eased into my reclining seat and enjoyed the vast emptiness of Patagonia.  After that, the 4 hours we spent going from Puerto Natales to Punta Arenas was a piece of cake.  But 10-12 hours it will take to go from Punta Arenas, Chile to the End of the Earth (i.e. Ushuaia, Argentina)?  We were going to travel over 830 km (500 miles) on January 12, 2012.  “Ahhhhhhhhhhh!,” was my first and only reaction.  I didn’t have to use much imagination to feel my lower back aching from spending 12 hours on a bus.  Couldn’t we just fly?

Well.  Now that I’ve done that journey, I can say with absolute certainty that flying over that distance would have been a big mistake.  Before I came to Argentina I assumed that I would fly to Bariloche, Mendoza, Iguazu, Salta, and all the other places I want to visit while I’m here.  But now I am seriously considering the bus options.  I took trains and flew longer distances in India, but never once took a bus there for fear of safety.  I found that in both Chile and in Argentina bus services are fantastic!

See on the door what amenities are available on the bus?

We had a big fancy bus for our trip down to Ushuaia from a small bus stop in Punta Arenas.  It was just 5 blocks from our waterfront hotel so I opted to just walk up there with my stuff, but the bus actually came to our hotel and picked up the rest of our group.  We all had our assigned seats and within the hour we were racing down the unpaved roads of Chile, painfully aware of all the little bumps and turns.  Every 15 minutes or so I would look out the window or tilt my head over to see if there was anything up ahead, but all I could see were just miles and miles of flat Chilean pampas.  And just as most of the passengers from going a bit stir crazy, a guy from the bus company came around and served crackers and hot coffee.  Granted the coffee was already sweetened (it hurt my teeth to drink it) but I thought it was a nice gesture.  You don’t get that on a Greyhound bus, or do you?

Absolutely nothing for miles and miles and miles and miles…

I read more during those few hours on the Chilean side of Patagonia than I had for the two weeks leading up to that bus ride.  And finally!  I began to see some houses and we slowed down to a complete stop.  We were then ordered to get off the bus.  We were going to cross the famous Strait of Magellan!

We stood there on the shores of the Strait of Magellan and watched as a ferry unloaded its passengers and cars, and waited for our turn.  We were instructed to walk on board before our bus and all the other trucks and cars drove onto the ferry.

Here comes our fancy bus.

It was windy and a bit chilly, but I chose to stay outside to stretch my legs out a bit and watch the crossing.  I didn’t want to face the sun (even with all that sunblock I’d gotten quite dark) so I was looking over the other side of the ferry when I thought I saw something jump out of the water…  My heart skipped a beat when I realized that I’d just spotted a dolphin flipping over!

Then it came to me.  Carola told me a few days ago that she’d seen dolphins in these waters when she crossed the Strait last.  And as I’m remembering her words I began to hear the people around me start to shout, pointing at more dolphins.  They were swimming right in front of our eyes.  Black and white, jumping in and out of the water, almost sparkling under the Patagonian sun.  Two months ago I was fortunate enough to see dolphins in the Galapagos and thought they were magical.  And here I was again, dumbstruck, giddy, and feeling like a little kid.

Strait of Magellan where dolphins live

That ferry ride over the Strait of Magellan shook me right up.  This bus ride was turning into an unforgettable part of my Patagonian adventure.  When we arrived at the border, the coffee/snack guy from our bus took care of processing our paperwork, which was also a new experience.  He collected everyone’s passports and went into the border control office to have them reviewed and approved.  We didn’t even have to go through immigration or wait for anything.  We took a break to have lunch and returned to the bus to have our passports handed back to us with a new set of stamps from Chile and Argentina.  Easy, peasy!

A little motor-home-turned-snack shop at the Chile-Argentina border.

And as soon as we crossed the border back to the Argentine side, our slow bumpy ride transitioned over to the fast and smooth comforts of asphalt.  We all had a collective sigh of relief at this delightful change and looked out the window again with renewed interest.

The last hour of our bus ride was, in a word, awesome.  It felt as if I was watching a movie or I’d been transported to a different world.  It was unexplainable and other-worldly.

There were several miles of stripped down and fallen trees like this, for as far as your eyes can see.

We entered a mountain range where the landscape became even more dramatic.  We sped over the winding roads snaking through hills, mountains, and valley floors, with sweeping views of the blue water that stretched out before us.

I would have missed all this if I took a flight instead of a long bus ride…

We spent our first evening in Ushuaia celebrating Joy’s birthday and recalling how amazing our trip has been so far.  We only had a few more days left and we knew we’d make them special.  If I enjoyed a 10-hour bus ride, how could the End of the Earth not be special?

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4 Responses to Land of Fire: Tierra del Fuego

  1. Martia Maven says:

    I have cousins there! I so much wanna go there, it always looked as a special place!

    • dreamgolive says:

      It was beyond words, a very special place. I’d love to go back again. Please visit, especially if you have family there. We went hiking in the Tierra del Fuego national park and took a boat out to the Beagle Channel as well. Beautiful place.. but I think all of Patagonia is amazing. Thanks for reading my blog!

  2. george says:

    Sorry, think that went off without my permission!! Loved all the wild life, the penguins etc…yes we are big fans of bus rides…we have been in Mexico for 3 weeks and took the buses there all over the place..very safe..you are photographed before getting on the bus and all baggage searched.
    Argentina is a huge country…we drove a rented car from BA to Mendoza..thought we would never get there! Can’t wait to go back! We took the mail boat from Puerto Natales north for 3 nights.loved it.. at 6.00pm the barman always announced “best pisco sours in the world now available!!!” Enjoy!!

    • dreamgolive says:

      Photographed before getting on the bus and searched bags? Is it because of the drug traffickers? Better safe than sorry… I knew you’d have a great Argentina story- like driving from BA to Mendoza.. 18 hours? 20 hours? You’re brave, sir. I’ll probably take an overnight bus to Mendoza. I’m starting to plan that trip now, actually, and getting very excited. Are you back from Mexico? Hope you had a wonderful time and got to eat a lot of Mexican food. Oh how I miss Mexican food…

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