On a scorching summer day, Ellen, my British travel companion, and I started off our backpacking journey through Argentina with a trip from Buenos Aires to the self-proclaimed but accurately described “end of the world.” Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, reminded me of a New England fishing town; the bearded men hugged each other and everyone bundled up to keep cozy in the bitterly cold wind.
By the end of our four-day stay, I already knew people on the street. Black mountains and white-capped lakes and ancient forests surrounded the town, forming a shelter and an escape. Sitting in Tante Sara, a café in the center of town, we watched friends wave hello to each other through the big windows overlooking the main street before spontaneously joining each other for lunch. Waiters patted me on the back and everyone, in true Argentine style, kissed each other on the cheek. Although it was a frequent stop for tourists, the town retained its homey, comfortable atmosphere and the locals, seemingly unaware of the stigma surrounding “the tourist,” received us warmly and without hesitation.
We took a boat tour the first day that took us to H Island, an H-shaped piece of land that housed cormorants and rare plants and the ashy remains of the ancient native culture. From far away, the treeless, hilly island looked colorless and drab. The gray sky, steel-blue water, and black mountains in the background added to the illusion of lifelessness. Once on the island, however, we climbed along a path bordered by bright yellow and small red and emerald green vegetation—plant life too small to be seen from a boat, but vibrant up close.
Our guide told stories about the extinct ancestral culture: how the women did all the work while the men sat around and ate; how they never wore clothes even when diving for fish so they constantly had an elevated body temperature; how they took their fires everywhere, even on their boats, and how those fires seemingly floating on water were the inspiration for the name Tierra del Fuego, “Land of Fire.” We hiked the short path to the top of the hill and took pictures of 360-degree view.
The Chilean Andes loomed on one side of the bay, while Ushuaia, Argentina, a town tucked between mountains, sat on the other. In the distance, the land seemed to drop off and disappear. Antarctica was miles and miles away, but besides those actually exploring and studying the icy continent, we felt we were closer to it that moment than anyone else in the world. A small sign erected by the boat tour company in the midst of the vegetation of H Island announced “El Culo del Mundo” (The Ass of the World).
The night after the boat trip we met up with the guide and his friend at a local Irish pub. Ellen and I practiced our Spanish with them as they laughed at our pronunciation but encouraged us and taught us local slang. The young Tourism Studies students on break from school, with their dark beards and huge brown eyes, seemed more genuine than the guys I had met in Buenos Aires. Not affected by the bustle and increased formality of city life, they were more open and familiar and never competed with each other for attention. While guys I had met in the city didn’t hesitate to put each other down or laugh at a stupid comment, the men from Ushuaia shared jokes and sly smiles.
We went salsa dancing at St. Christopher’s Bar and Disco after the pub. Two walls of glass showed the Beagle Bay and black sky, with the faint outlines of mountains in the distance becoming clearer as the night sky lightened into dawn. Jorge insisted he couldn’t dance but got out on the dance floor and waved his arms and shook his ass and grinned. As the sky turned orange we left the disco and the guys led us to a dock where, after squeezing between locked gates, we boarded a tiny motorized raft.
They took us out into the bay as the sun rose and everything turned tangerine and I finally understood the true meaning of Tierra del Fuego. The water was bright orange and small waves rolled and rippled the orange so it was just as alive as the changing sky or even as alive as us. We took photos and laughed at each other and watched the orange on each other’s faces. When we finally got back to the dock the color was gone and my eyes were bloodshot and the guys had to go to work. Carlos drove us back to the hostel while Jorge tried to read our little map and Ellen and I stared out at the little cottages with the towering mountains in the background.