(January 10, written by Dave)
Today we visited Tierra del Fuego National Park (TDF NP). It is billed as the southernmost national park in Argentina but it is not the southernmost point in Argentina. The southern point would be the South Pole as you’ll no doubt remember that Argentina claims a pie slice area of Antarctica.
As these trips go, how much you enjoy the trip depends a lot on the guide, the tour company and the size of the group you are travelling with. We had a great guide – Sebastian. The tour company (Tours by Design) focuses on quality over quantity. And finally, we only had 7 people, counting Nancy and I – they limit tours to 15 people.
The park is pretty new, having only been created in 1960. This seems pretty recent, however, when you consider that in the 60s, only about 2,000 people lived in Ushuaia so there would not have been the infrastructure to support a park much earlier.
Ushuaia was founded as an Argentina penal colony in 1884 but when the jail closed in 1947 the population dropped significantly. The penal colony used the park area as a source of wood for construction and heating. Inmates built a railroad to the centre of the park, using it to take work crews out from Ushuaia and raw materials back to town. The last 7k of the railroad have been restored and if you want, you can ride it into the park.
We rode the railroad but only because it seemed like the right thing to do. It is a super narrow gauge train and almost felt like one of those little trains kids ride at the county fair – probably something you do once, but not a second time. When you board the train, a convict grabs you and they take one of those daggy tourist photos – all in good fun and, no, we did not buy the optional photo.
The southernmost terminus of the Pan-American Highway is in the park. We probably should have ridden bikes out there but they are taped in their boxes and besides, the sign in the park has the mileage to Alaska all wrong anyway. They list the total distance at a little over 17,000k and we know that it is closer to 27,000k. Wikipedia lists the highway at 30,000k, from the park to Prudhoe Bay. We didn’t ride from Prudhoe Bay so not riding to the sign in the park is not a big deal to us. And for those wondering, there really is no “single” Pan-Am Highway anyway. It is rather a collection of roads. Which roads probably depends a wee bit on how proactive the tourism board is in each state or country.
The park is quite scenic. We learned a lot for Sebastian. During the ice age, the park was covered by 650 meters of snow and ice, which just about the tree line today. The tall jagged mountains that you see today are the ones that were above the ice pack way back then. The rounded top hills and mountains were below the moving ice.
The vast majority of the trees in the park are beech trees. There are three types of beech trees – two that don’t lose their leaves in the autumn and one that does. I didn’t know that there were so many kinds of beech. The trees grow very slow and can live for up to 350 years. We started seeing trees on the last couple days of riding on TDF – it turns out that they were all beech trees.
Sebastian was more than happy answering our political questions as well. He was young, but seemed to hold stronger feelings about the Falkland Islands than other young Argentineans that we’ve met – though this was more focused on the unfortunate decision to send unprepared and ill-equipped young men into a war that they were clearly unable to win. It was also interesting to talk to him about the indigenous people who lived in the area before the European explorers arrived – indigenous folks here suffered as badly as they did elsewhere.
As noted above, the guide on these trips can make such a big difference. Sebastian recommended that we try the merluza negra at a local restaurant called Volver. Merluza negra is actually Chilean sea bass but we didn’t figure that out until we reached the restaurant. Boy it was good, and the presentation was as first-rate as well.
So tomorrow we fly. We leave South America and Spanish speaking lands. We’ll miss Latin America. Naturally, we both wish that we spoke better Spanish but we just never could get much studying done at the end of a day’s cycling. There were days we didn’t cycle of course, but it’s like anything, if you do your homework, you’ll get better. If you don’t do your homework, your grades reflect it. We have passable Spanish but only barely – se necesita mas practica.
Next update will be from the USA – if we can get through ‘crisis’ that is apparently engulfing the southern border. Wish us well.