My flight to Ushuaia was to leave at 8:50 on Saturday morning. I shared a taxi at 6:00 from the hostel to the airport with a Norwegian dude named Daniel. Having already toured the airport the day before on my little parcel quest, I knew exactly where I was going. I checked two bags, which taking into account my additional cold weather gear put me 6 kg over the allowable limit. So, $17 dollars later, I headed toward the gate, stopping first for a chocolate cream donut from Dunkin' Donuts.
When I reached the waiting area for gate 21, I noticed a striking characteristic of the waiting crowd - 90% of them were white. And a good 70% of those were over the age of 60. It was if all the outliers in the security line were pooled into one gate. While waiting, I overheard a good bit of German, something which I could imagine being Swedish and a bit of British-accented English. Outside of two couples traveling together which looked to be native Chileans, and three or four younger backpackers including myself, the entire plane was filled with retirees from Europe. An interesting, if not telling slice of humanity, all heading to a remote (and likely touristy) point in Argentina.
Once on board, I discovered for the first time that this was not a direct flight. The fact that we were making two stops didn't surprise me as much as the fact that I didn't know about it until now. We actually were first flying to Puerto Montt, then on to Punta Arenas, then finally landing in Ushuaia. Even when I booked the ticket online, Ushuaia was the only destination listed. Oh well. I was going to stop in both places in my original plan anyway. I found my seat, and wedged myself in. I do feel a little bit sorry (well, not that much) for the people sitting in front of me. When I get my legs situated in front of me, there's no chance of them reclining. It's just not physically possible. A few minutes before departure, a worried looking elderly woman to my right leaned over and while staring at my knees said in a German accent, "why don't you ask to be seated in the exit row? It can't be good for your legs." I explained that I bought my ticket less than 24 hours ago, and really didn't have a choice. However, I did mention something to the attendant when she strolled by. After they closed the door, she came back and waved me forward - yes! An entire exit row was clear of people. I sat right in the middle - seat B - and put one foot under seat A, and one under C. It was paradise. We soon took off, and as is somewhat normal with me on flights (especially those before 10:00 am), I was asleep five minutes after the wheels left the earth.
I awoke to the sensation of decent. I could feel us pointing down, and about 10 minutes later the captain came on the intercom and stated the fact. I looked outside the left side of the plane and was treated to one of the most spectacular scenes I've ever seen from the air. Puerto Montt is in the Chilean Lake District which is a series of mountains and lakes stretching for hundreds of miles down the southern part of the continent. The view was breath taking. Jagged, rugged mountains with snow-covered peaks were exploded from beautifully perfect blue water. Low clouds were snaking around some of the peaks, creating irregular shadows across land and water. Not a single man-made structure was visible as we passed - It was nature untouched - just as God designed it. It was absolutely spectacular.
After a really tumultuous approach which had the grey hairs looking wide-eyed at one another, we touched down in Puerto Montt. A few people got off, and the rest of us were asked to stay put as we'd be airborne again in about 20 minutes. Unfortunately, the exit rows were filled with people joining our flight. Damn. Back to the confines of 21C. I squeezed in next to a couple of Canadians. The older guy sitting next to me was headed to Punta Arenas for a fishing trip. He was a jolly guy with a full, white head of hair and a white-gray moustache setting off his kind face as he told stories about fishing all over the world.
We took off again, passing through gathering clouds which unfortunately blocked the view of the mountains. After another 2 hour nap, we descended into Punta Arenas. Once we ducked under the ceiling of clouds, I took a look outside. The difference between our last stop and this one couldn't have been more extreme. The area around Punta Arenas is flat and brown. Much more of a marshland than a mountain range. It's a loose analogy that only a few people will get, but it reminded me of the Dead Marshes Frodo, Sam and Gollum passed through on their way to Mordor. I didn't see any glowing dead bodies in the water though. Yes, I'm a geek.
This time when we landed, we all had to get off, even those of us headed on to Ushuaia. Since this was our last stop before Argentina, we had to get our exit stamp from Chile here. After about a 30 minute stop, about 50% of the original set of passengers and a few newcomers boarded the exact same plane and took off toward Ushuaia. This leg of the flight lasted for about 45 minutes, if that. The views along the decent this time were again spectacular. Majestic snow-covered mountains disappearing underneath our wings. I stared out the window until I felt the wheels hit the ground.
Ushuaia's airport is really small. Only two jet ways protruded from the terminal. As we entered the building itself, I felt like we were in a big ski lodge. All the construction was done in a nicely stained wood - large, thick beams crossing over our heads. I could even smell a fireplace. After getting through customs, I got a bit of cash out of the ATM and had to re-adjust my internal conversion rate system (this begins to be a pain - in Chile, it was roughly 500 pesos the dollar. In Argentina, the peso is also the standard currency, but here it's three to one. I took a taxi to a hostel called Cruz del Sur - a place of course recommended by the Lonely Planet. The taxi drive was great - I had a great view of Ushuaia from the elevated road of the Airport - The entire city is nestled between a very tall, rocky mountain range and the waters of the Beagle Channel. Again, I caught myself just staring out the window - I'm semi-surprised I wasn't drooling.
The hostel was... OK. The guy running it, Luca, is great. There are pictures of him from all over the world pinned to the walls of the entire place. China, Indonesia, Brazil, the US, Australia, everywhere. I got a dorm room which was adequate, but nothing compared to where I had just spent a week in Chile. I think the shady-looking bathroom with the leaky, dirty shower put me over the edge. I'd already paid for two nights, but I vowed to look for a new hostel as I walked the city. After putting all my stuff in a locker, I headed out to explore.
The city is really great. It feels like a ski town. It reminds me a lot of Breckenridge, CO, but even better as it's right on the water as well. I walked along the waterfront, taking in a few of the monuments and statues along the way, and then made my way to some activity in the harbor. There were a bunch of sailboats anchored in the bay, and a long pier where several large boats - one of them an ice breaker - were resting. It was surprisingly temperate - probably about 50-55 degrees or so, and I was walking around in a short sleeved shirt.
As I walked through the very touristy downtown area, I noticed tons of restaurants, internet cafes, shopping areas and souvenir stands. As I looked closer, I noticed the words "Fin del Mundo" written over and over. "World's End". One restaurant's tag line is "Enjoy, It's the end of the world." It's kind of eerie, but also very cool. This is it. I've reached the end of civilization. There's nothing but uninhabited islands to the east and west and nothing but cold water, Ice and Antarctica to the south. It finally sunk in. I've made it to the end of the world... and I love it.