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Magic Boots: Trooping in Tierra Del Fuego

Apr 8th, 2006

Mariana and I marched faithfully towards Lago Esmeralda, following the paper map that "Gato" (racer of Siberian huskies and former mountain climber) had given us. On either side, fantastic sawtooth mountains looked ready to tear the soft grey sky overhead. The valley is carpeted by a rainbow of turba, peat moss in a bouquet of colors: red, green, white, yellow and black. The wind almost knocked her over as she tiptoed across the valley floor, a dragon's mouth laid open.

The trail head to the Lago is about 19km outside the town of Ushuaia, Argentina's base at the bottom of the world. With Argentina's peso devaluation after the Crisis in 2002, tourism has flipped from unimaginably expensive to dastardly cheap. Ushuaia is booming -- hikers during summer, skiers during winter. So too have the prices climbed. Like any good travelers, we consulted the public transportation system. Foiled.. it just ran to the edge of town. Fortunately, that little leg allowed us to hitch a ride with fellow hostellers from Seattle and Zimbabwe who were on their way to fly fishing heaven.

They dropped us off at Altos del Valle, the haunt of Gato, a warmly grizzled husky breeder. Never before have I seen such a natural mountain man: thickly bearded, Iditerod racer, warm quiet smile. He pointed the way and gave us a map roughly printed on napkin paper. Over the river and through the woods..

Mariana and I climbed gleefully, happy that our day had come together so nicely. The Patagonian woods are in autumn, crisply colored in red and yellow, the trees squat and knotted against the wind. As we climbed towards the nook of glacier-laced mountains that surrounded the lake, the winds picked up.

Stepping through the turba was like a chessboard of unknown squishiness and depth. Despite her Swiss-made boots, each time Marianna stepped to a new square, a she winced as water welled up around her boots and gators. In a lovely twist of fate, my boots had seemed dodgy enough to the hostel staff that I'd been able to borrow rubber boots. Unlike every other pair of shoes I've ever put on, I slipped into these like a fish liver-oil Cinderella, and was ready to stomp through the turba, water welling around my ankles, gleefully ineffective. Ever stomped through the mud in bare feet, enjoying the sucking sound around your ankles? Transpose to sub-Antarctic tundra, and there you have it.

As we crested the lip of the lake, a translucent blue waterfall greeted us. Unable to contain my glee, I insisted on taking a picture knee-deep in the lake. Above us, a hanging glacier looked to be smoldering against the sky. Slowly, the clouds receded, and the sun glimmered off the lake. There was nothing left to do, but have a picnic lakeside. Tuna sandwiches, plums, and a bit of chocolate. I've scarcely seen anywhere more beautiful.

Then, of course, being Patagonia, the weather turned and we scampered down the hill for Gato's place and its warm stove.

Fortunately, after we'd reached safety again, the sleet stopped and we decided to hitch back. Walking down the gravel highway, we were lucky enough to see the sun set on a set of sawtooth mountains. Not five minutes later, a van saw our outstretched thumb and we were speeding back into Ushuaia for dinner.. I mean, it's no pumpkin... but.. .

(All Argentina)
Local Scenery
Lago Esmeralda
Originally called the Land of Smoke
Maybe even a little scary?
. .