Tag Archives: camping

Paradise found!

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During our travels, we had encountered several Uruguayans, and whenever we asked them for recommendations on where to go, we would receive the same answer: “You have to go to Cabo Polonio.” Described as a tiny fishing village of forty inhabitants hidden amongst sand dunes, with no electricity and no way of reaching it save for horseback or 4X4, Polonio intrigued us enough to attempt a trip there. Exactly as all our Uruguayan acquaintances had described, our bus dropped us off on the side of the highway. It was already night, and we were totally lost in the pitch black but for a tiny light in the distance. We stumbled towards it and found it to be the park office, where presently, a 4X4 dune buggy pulled up, and we clambered aboard to be carted off into the darkness.

Our transportation… but picture riding atop this in inky blackness!
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After a few minutes of bumpy driving, we reached a park office and a ranger came out. “Tienen una carpa?” he asked brusquely. (Do you guys have a tent?)
“Si, por supuesto!” we responded, eager to prove that we were prepared to camp, since we were entering a national park, and as we Canadians know, national parks were made for camping!
“Hand it over,” he demanded.
“… ?!??” replied us.
“Tents are prohibited in Uruguayan national parks. You’ll have to leave it with me.”

Away went our romantic plans of camping on the beach and enjoying to the fullest this rustic experience. Plus, our tent was our baby, from which we hadn’t been separated since we received her. Could we trust this man to care for her as we did, and did he realise how indispensable she was to us?!? Regardless, we handed it over, and with many bemused looks exchanged between the two of us, our buggy continued to bump away into the void.

About halfway through the forty-minute journey through the dunes, we became aware of a strange sound, and if we strained our eyes in the blackness, we thought we could make out odd white shapes just in front of us. We finally realized that the sound was the roaring of the ocean, while the whiteness was huge waves crashing ashore, barely ten meters from where we were driving. We were completely surrounded by and lost in the darkness: the only relief came from the beam of Polonio’s lighthouse.

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We were dropped off in an open space, and while we stood bewildered by the disorientating blackness and the vicious winds, we heard a disembodied voice asking if we needed a place to stay. Disembodied voices normally aren’t the most reassuring, but when your only other apparent guide is a lighthouse surrounded by menacing rocks, even a disembodied voice can sound relatively friendly.

We followed our shadowy host through ankle-deep sand and waving sea grasses, arriving finally at what turned out to be not a hostel, like we had been expecting, but his own house. Gabriel, our host, offered us the loft of his tiny, one-room beach shack, and while we hauled our bags up the ladder to our room, he lit candles and invited us to share his dinner of buñuelos de algas (aka seaweed fritters) and a single glass of red wine for the three of us (“The glass is new!” he told us proudly.)

After eating our fill of fritters, he then invited us out for a drink. We stepped back out into the dark and the howling winds, wading through sand dunes until Gabriel commented, “Well, we’re now on Main Street!” In the dark, Main Street felt exactly like every other sand dune we had just crawled through. (In the light, it turned out that wasn’t far from the truth.) We entered what looked like a massive heap of vines, but turned out to be a bar, dimly lit by candles, with little private “rooms” formed by bamboo partitions overgrown by living plants. Josh and I sat there with Gabriel, feeling as though we had stumbled into Lothlórien.

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Main street in the light of day. (Note the large bush behind Josh? Yep, that’s the bar!)
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The next morning, it was the sun that woke us up. The window right next to our bed was lit up by a dazzling glow, and rolling over, we were greeted by the view of the sun rising over the Atlantic. We ran outside and directly into the ocean, because what we had been unable to see the previous night was that there was absolutely nothing between our front door and the shoreline.

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View from our front door:
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We were planning to stay only two days in Polonio before continuing northwards. But when the day of our planned departure found us lounging in hammocks while gazing dreamily at the ocean, we suddenly wondered why we were in such a hurry to leave. If seven months had taught one important lesson about travel, it was that seeing ten new and different places will never be as amazing as finding one incredible place that you love.

So, two days stretched into an unforgettable week filled with sunrise and sunset swims, watching dolphins frolic so close to the shore we could see their faces, enjoying many performances by a hilarious folklore music troupe from Ushuaia, and many candlelit dinners (in Polonio, there isn’t any other kind!) of shrimp empanadas and shark ravioli, all caught that morning by the town fishermen.

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Shark* sighting from the beach!
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*Turned out to be a dolphin, but the picture was too good to pass up!

Lunch in our favourite empanada place (with our favourite traveling music troupe, Los Pinguïnos de Ushuaia, serenading us!)
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Josh taking on the Atlantic (…and valiantly losing)
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Everyone Together practice (having to go back to practicing in the basement will be hard after this location!)
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Lessons learnt?
Never be in a hurry to end a beautiful experience. And always take travel advice from the locals. Lonely Planet just doesn’t cut it!

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It just wouldn’t be a long-term voyage in South America without…

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…a purse theft!

Of course, this wasn’t exactly what Sara was thinking when she realized it was no longer in the bag on her lap where it was supposed to be, nor was it what I was thinking as I waited impatiently with our bags in the bus depot while Sara ran back to see if there was any possibility it had been left in the hostel. It wasn’t, in fact, until we had two armed officers solemnly stuff our backpacks into their armoured van and cart us off to the police station to give a report, looking to all the curious spectators like we were about to be deported, that we realized we were having an essential foreign travel experience.

Our plans underwent a few changes at this point. Practically speaking, this happened at a time of epic inconvenience: we had been literally on our way to the bus depot to leave Chile when all of a sudden Sara was passportless and unable to cross any borders, and it happened to be a Saturday night, and the office that would give her a duplicate of her Chilean visa would not be open until Monday morning. BUT this just meant that we had another couple days to enjoy in beautiful Valparaiso, and that is what we did. We got a midnight ride in the armoured car, driven by a couple of 18-year-old junior officers who definitely thought this was all a big fun adventure, back to our beloved Doña Elena, who greeted us in her usual warm-but-stern manner.

Now, we knew the most pressing matter in such cases is to cancel one’s credit cards as soon as possible, but Chile is a strange country in that literally NONE of their phones can make international calls. Not landlines, not cellphones, not even the police chief’s office phone (apparently international crime hasn’t yet made it to Valparaiso). The only option was to use a telecabina, a sort of privately owned payphone, but these are only open during business hours. So, at the crack of dawn we got up and found one that happened to be open and, very fortunately, were able to cancel all cards without a hassle.

The rest of the day was spent wandering the vibrant streets of Valpo once more, buying churros from little old men and watching still more sunsets over the Pacific ocean. All in all, not a bad way to be stranded in a foreign country.
(Note from Sara: Melnyk clan, you are going to love this – we found an ENTIRE STREET lined with nothing but secondhand shops. I had to keep reminding myself that I would have to carry whatever I bought in my backpack!)

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Secondhand paradise…
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The next day, however, we got down to business (it was Monday, after all). We got Sara’s duplicate Chilean visa without a hitch and caught a bus to Santiago, the capital, where we were to apply for a new passport from the Canadian embassy. The embassy was exciting, with all the marble floors and high-tech security you’d expect, but not as exciting as the mad marathon we then had to run to get Sara to the photographer six blocks away so she could have her new photos taken and be back to the embassy before it closed at 5:30 (Needless to say, of all the haggard passport photos in the world, hers may have the most legit excuse).
(Another note from Sara: While my white hoodie is getting so wretched it won’t make it back to Canada, how lovely that it is now immortalized in my passport picture!! :P)

That evening, however, was the reason why this crazy travel mishap will forever hold a dear place in our hearts. After leaving the embassy and eating a much-needed dinner in Santiago’s business district, we set off to find somewhere to stay for the night. We had an address of a hostel, which was supposedly surrounded by a dozen other hostels in case there wasn’t room. When we got off the last metro of the night and emerged into what seemed to be not the best area of town, however, no one we spoke to had ever heard of it. All we found was a sign that said ‘hostel’ on a building that, we were told, had been condemned after an earthquake a few years ago. We wandered, following terrible instructions after terrible instructions, until we literally collapsed under the weight of our backpacks. We sat despondently on the side of the road, both of us at our wit’s end.

And that’s when the friendliest couple in the world appeared. “We know this is strange, and if you’re not comfortable with it we understand, but if you need a place to stay we have an extra room in our apartment,” said the respectable man in his early 30s, his cheerful-looking compañera smiling welcomingly at us. Now, we know that accepting invitations from total strangers in a foreign city is a pretty major traveling faux-pas, especially after having your purse stolen three days before, but after 2.5 hours of taking sketchy directions from even sketchier people, these guys were hard to resist. We followed them home and were eagerly welcomed into a shockingly normal little apartment, and told to relax on an already-made bed in the spare room.

Turns out our amazing new hosts were on their first day of summer holidays and were heading out on vacation the next day, and yet still somehow found time to offer ridiculously generous help to a couple of total strangers. They told us they had seen us sitting for awhile, and were worried about us because the area was dangerous after midnight (which it now was). They then invited us to join them for tea, which turned into a sampling of Chileno wines, lessons in local slang, and just an all around fun evening (read: night. We didn’t get to bed until almost 4am) with what seemed to be friends we had known for years. And as if that wasn’t enough, the next morning we had a breakfast of scrambled eggs (absolutely unheard-of in South America!) while our new friends found hostels for us and escorted us there themselves, giving us their cell phone number in case we had any other troubles. Needless to say, we were incredibly moved by this huge, absolutely random act of kindness. Muchisimas gracias, Claudio y Pepa!

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Alas, the tale is almost told. The only hitch left was for our friendly embassy lady to contact four references to confirm Sara’s existence/lack of criminal activity. These could NOT include relatives, and we had to know their work and home phone numbers, as well as their home address off-hand there in the embassy. We managed to scrounge up four friends for whom we knew this information, but unfortunately they were all students and therefore not home during embassy hours. The next day was therefore spent frantically searching Canada411, Facebook, and old emails for ANYONE who might be accessible during the daytime. (We kicked ourselves for getting married at this point, since even ‘grandma-in-law’ is apparently too close a relative to use. Sigh…)

And so, after many hours of searching (and two hours of staying late at the office for our heroic embassy lady), we managed to snag a friend from camp (although the embassy lady at first could only get ahold of her mom, who apparently talked so glowingly of their friendship that our embassy contact was ready to just use the mom as a reference), an old coworker, and Pastor Matt, whom we said, for lack of more accurate information, lived in the church. The fourth, however, is still a mystery to us, so wherever you are, if you received a phone call from the Canadian embassy in Santiago, we thank you dearly!
Yet more notes from Sara: Seriously, THANK YOU ALL SO MUCH. Once we’re home, I will spoil you with dulce de leche!! 🙂

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The other ocean

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And so, after two and a half months of sheep-shearing, hitchhiking, feria-shopping, strawberry-picking, hosting, artesenal beer and way too much pizza, we bid our sad adieus to El Bolsón and were bus-bound once more.

We stopped in Bariloche just long enough to eat lunch by the lake and sample some of their world-famous chocolates, and then we were off and running to Valparaiso, Chile.

Relaxing at our hostel in Bariloche:
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Mamushka, Mamushka! (sung to the tune of “Solishka”): Home of Guillermo Wonka, the Latino chocolatier…
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After a wretched overnight bus ride and classic Chilean border crossing (read: three hours spent freezing outside at 2AM while the border guards sipped coffee and debated amongst themselves whose turn it was to turn on the x-ray machine to scan our bags), we arrived in Valparaiso at 5 AM: exhausted, homesick for El Bolsón and Argentina in general, and wanting only to find a campground pronto.

Apparently, however, Chilenos only sleep “with a roof above their heads!” making campgrounds a scarce commodity. It didn’t improve matters that the only person in the bus terminal available to help was a crotchety custodian with only one tooth left in his mouth, which he used to squawk at us instead of forming discernible words.

Needless to say, our first impression of Chile was less than favourable.

We found the single campground advertised at the (closed) information booth and made our way there, praying that the owner of “Doña Elena’s” would take kindly to two backpackers waking her up at five in the morning.

Doña Elena could best be described as terrifyingly formidable – but very kind. She led us down three flights of rickety steps to her tiny garden, where we set up our tent beneath a papaya tree that kept dropping fruit on our head, and finally, we went to sleep, wondering why in the world we had ever left Argentina.

That afternoon, we decided to explore our new neighbourhood. We had walked only five minutes down the block before coming across this beach:

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After seeing what lay in our backyard, we decided to give Chile a chance.

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Valparaiso is a city of brightly painted houses stacked crazily atop each other, tumbling down the mountain towards the sea. Whole blocks of incredible street art, tiny twisting alleyways, and cobblestone roads make getting lost in this city a most aesthetically pleasing experience. In order to explore the city fully, one has to take the ascensores, Valparaiso’s vertical public transport system dating from 1886, that will pull you up the mountain to yet more streets and cafes and getting-lost opportunities.

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On board the ascensor Concepción:
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Valparaiso is a funny mix of old and new latinoamerica: street wrestling matches can be found alongside massive (4 floors!) modern malls in the neighbouring Viña del Mar, which have everything from 5 McDonalds to movie theatres. (Yep, we saw 2 movies in 4 days, and had movie popcorn both times. It was fantastic!!)

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After a few days of getting tossed around by enormous waves in the icy Pacific, sampling strawberry and banana soft serve ice-cream (amazing, FYI), and ogling the magnificent street art in our beautiful Valpo, we hopped a bus to Isla Negra, a tiny town perched on the ocean, where the poet Pablo Neruda had built one of his many homes.

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We shlepped ourselves and our bags all the way from the bus terminal to the only hostel in town, called La Locura del Poeta: Eco-Hostel and Lodge, advertising “buena onda y energía positiva,” only to have Sandra, the owner, tell us dismayingly that there was no room. Our faces fell down to our toes, and I asked her desperately if she knew of any other place in town where we could stay, or camp. Immediately, her face lit up. “¿Acampar? Si, ¡yo tengo espacio para acampar!” With that, she led us to her backyard, dragged a lawn chair out of the way, and motioned triumphantly to a patch of sand beside her pool. Poolside suite for two? ¡Si, por favor! 🙂

La Locura del Poeta:
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That evening, Sandra invited us to a bread-making lesson, at which we met some of the other guests, including an adorable Chileno couple who not only took meticulous notes on everything Sandra said, but also insisted on filming the entire bread lesson, as well as the macramé lesson that followed.

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The next day, Josh and I wandered the town, having lunch on Neruda’s balcony (where I finally got to have a Pisco Sour – Nerudian style!) and watching the sun go down over the waves.

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We returned to Valpo, planning to leave the next day, but due to some unforeseen circumstances (click here for more details…) had to remain in Chile another week. Although our time in Chile had a rough start and an even rougher end (purse thefts and Embassies and water-borne illness, oh my!), Valpo remains the most beautiful city I have ever seen, with some of the loveliest memories.

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Ps. If we needed even more reason to remember Chile fondly, guess what we found in Valpo after FIVE MONTHS of searching Argentine supermarkets high and low?

Peanut butter. Real, honest-to-goodness, “ideal para sandwiches y recetas deliciosas” peanut butter.

The real kicker? It was imported from Argentina.

Granja #4: Tourists no more!

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Situated about twenty minutes from the centre of town, La Casita is our host Esther’s home that she’s transformed into a hostel and campground. It’s a gorgeous area, sitting beside the Río Quemquemtreu and nestled at the feet of the Andes.

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Josh and I take care of any concerns the guests may have, look after the grounds (things such as fixing the fence so the neighbour’s chickens stop sneaking into our yard!), build fires to heat the water tanks so guests can have hot showers, and clean La Casita (the hostel guests share the indoor kitchen and bathroom with us), as well as the camping’s outdoor kitchen and bathroom. Changing bed linens while dancing to Argentine cumbia music is a very fun way to earn our keep!

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In the middle of a drought, even the outdoor kitchen needs watering! (A tried and true method to keeping the dust under control with cement floors)
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It’s been an amazing experience to be hosts instead of guests, to have the chance to make people feel as welcomed and at home as so many other people have done for us since we’ve been in Argentina. It’s also an incredible opportunity to practice our Spanish – our host, as well as the majority of the guests, speak no English, so we’re getting used to conversing in Spanish even when it’s just the two of us! I love the chance to truly feel at home somewhere, and to make a neighbourhood “our own.” It’s so fun to know the family who runs the corner store, and the old man who has the kiosco down the street, and to walk around el centro and run into a half-dozen people we know every time we go out.

Our corner store kiosco (many late night runs for chips and drinks!)
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However, it’s been a sobering experience to work with people in the tourism industry, and realize how dependent one’s livelihood is on so many events that are out of your control. Last May, there was a volcanic explosion in Chile, and the Argentine news reported that the entire Patagonian area was affected by volcanic ash. In reality, there are only tiny areas of the region touched by this catastrophe, and the vast majority is unaffected and beautiful. However, because of this misconception, tourism is down by over 50% compared to other years, and it’s individuals like Esther, or like our artist friends who work in the feria, who are suffering. Josh and I are doing our best to spread the word via other travelers, and to post on travel forums and different travel blogs the reality of what’s happening in Patagonia. Although it was the most we could do, we felt like these efforts weren’t actually going to amount to much… But then, two Canadians (woot!) called to reserve a place in La Casita, and when asked how they had found out about it, they said they had read a review on Lonely Planet – a review just posted by one saratreetravels! 😀

View of Los Tres Puntos from our backyard:
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Our long-awaited hike to Río Azul (we made sure to swim upstream of the wild pig):
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Asado and singalong with all the hostel guests:
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Our castle in the campground!
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En route to the end of the world…

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When we last left you, dear reader, we were making our way gradually southward to the town of Ushuaia, which marks the southernmost point of human civilization. After 31 hours in three different buses (a trip which included spectacular views of the sheep-speckled Patagonia countryside, eight hours straight of medieval fantasy movies, and six hours standing in line at Chilean customs*), we arrived in Ushuaia and made our way in the dark to our campsite, which was also the winter season ski hill.

Grazing sheep dashing out of the way of our bus:
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Tierra del Fuego: “Land of Fire”
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We were in the process of setting up our tent when the campsite manager rushed outside and insisted we spend the night in the Refugio (“refuge” aka very rustic ski lodge), because it was too cold and too rainy outside. It was neither, but he was so sincere he was hard to resist. So, we spent the night on the floor of the refugio along with Pablo, the Catholic-Hindu Uruguayan who ate cereal out of a cut-in-half milk carton with a spoon he had borrowed from us, and was planning to camp just as soon as he bought a tent.

We spent the next few days exploring the town at the end of the world, and found that Ushuaia is a town where one doesn’t walk – one climbs. Built on the mountainside, Ushuaia is made up of vertical streets and cars parked at impossible angles, street signs bearing not only street names but geographical coordinates, an ocean harbor opening expectantly to the Beagle Canal, and, of course, the earmark of human civilization: many many MANY kitschy gift shops!

Looking towards the harbour:
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We planned to hike to the local natural wonder, the Glacier Martial. Armed with many maps and instructions from the campsite manager on how to complete the “three hour hike” to the glacier, we set off to find the trail that was supposedly clearly marked as soon as we reached the top of the ski hill. At the top, we found a marked trail, but after several hours of walking through ankle-deep mud (bear in mind that all the snow has just melted here, and it rained every day we were there!), it soon became clear that the trail was in fact heading in the opposite direction that we wanted to go. We were faced with a choice: turn back and repeat our chilly, muddy trek with nothing to show for it; or press on with the promise of a taxi ride home from the glacier (if we could manage to find it before dark).

The rainbow at the top of the ski hill (our campsite was right at the bottom!)
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Happy springtime! The trail of mud and freshly-melted snow:
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We pressed on. With only an hour of daylight left, we suddenly saw our first sign of civilization all afternoon: the tea house at the foot of the glacier mountain! A friendly taxi driver at the base of the mountain assured us that yes, this was the way to the glacier, but it was still a three-hour round trip from where we were! Crushed, we stood on the darkening mountainside, trying to decide what to do. Did we make the mature, responsible decision to take the taxi back to our campsite and attempt the hike again the next day, when we would be assured enough daylight to make it there and back? Or, did we press on like lunatics into the unknown, up a mountain and back again, possibly in the dark?

Up we went! Up the incline, across a rickety bridge, through a gnarled forest completely frozen over with snow, down an ice bridge and over a stream, arriving finally at… a lot more mountains.

Josh trekking the ice bridge:
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We stood looking around in utter bewilderment. We had followed all the directions perfectly, we had passed all the landmarks, and according to the map, the glacier should have been in front of us. But unless we were really missing something, there was no glacier to be found.

Freezing cold and at a total loss, we decided to take a breather at the benches by a little information placard. And there I read the following:

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In other words, we had made it to the glacier. We just missed it by 10 000 years.

The Glacier Martial:
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All was not a total loss! The trip up had given us beautiful views of the mountains, and had only taken half the time we thought it would (we were realizing at this point that Ushuaians have absolutely no sense of time), so the teahouse was still open for another thirty minutes. Fueled by our desire for hot chocolate, we sped down the mountain, arriving with one minute to spare – just enough time to call a cab and order two hot chocolates to go!

All in all, a successful day.

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*A note on Chilean customs: Any travel to Ushuaia requires, for some inexplicable reason, a two-hour drive on a stretch of Chilean highway. In other words, one needs to exit Argentina (passports checked, all bags scanned, many customs forms filled out, all passengers interrogated). Next, a half-hour drive through no-man’s land. Then, enter Chile (repeat all steps as above). Two hour drive through Chile. Exit Chile (repeat steps as above). Re-enter Argentina (repeat steps once again).
Total time in Chile: 2 hours.
Total time in customs lines: 6 hours.
Word of advice? Do not bring apples, no matter what the Chilean Minister of Agriculture may tell you.