Day 4: Ushuaia to Antarctica

Tierra Del Fuego
The morning was spent a lovely tour of Tierra Del Fuego – “The Land of Fire” – one of Argentina’ National Parks. Our guide took us through a few different scenic views and many opportunities for bird watching. Many people who make this trip to Antarctica do it for the birds as most of the species can’t been found outside the arctic. So the sighting of different types was an exciting moment. I knew then that these journals would start to tick off ornithology examples, like the geese or the ducks that we found. It was inevitable.

A gorgeous view of Isla Redonda in the Beagle Canal

Shannon and the view


Though the weather started out cloudy it cleared to a stunning sunniness for the park tour, especially when we got outside the bus to hike in the sunny, breezeless day. As Mindy said, “It would be shame if we hadn’t seen the sun because our only impression of Ushuaia was cold and rainy.” True that.

Mindy, hiking Tierra del Fuego

Gorgeous view

Shannon, me, and Mindy

Shannon and Mindy – just in case no one believes we were there, or in case anyone was wondering exactly how far away Alaska was.

Uhhh… a pretty flower

Running Around Ushuaia
At the group’s request the bus dropped us off in the middle of town so we could finish errands and have some lunch before meeting the bus to the boat. Mindy, Shannon, Janine and I had lunch at a local cafe and ordered the “traditional local dish” of toasted ham and cheese sandwich. Though we weren’t quite certain what made this “traditional” or “local”, we were impressed that they had cut the crust off and that each plate came with, essentially, two sandwiches rather than one.

We ran a few more errands and gift-buying excursions before deciding to go the Maritime and Prison Museum at the end of town / end of the street (because, honestly, the town wasn’t large) As we were walking down the street I went to put my sunglasses on and realized – gah! – I’d left them on the tour bus this morning. This wouldn’t have been terribly earth-shattering except that our boat was set to leave in a few hours and going to Antarctica without polarized lenses was not a happy thought. So we hustled back to the hotel and asked the receptionist to phone Pablo, the mornings’ tour guide, if he could locate the bus driver and the glasses. An hour later they were happily sitting on my head and the crisis was over, with an added benefit – while I waited at the hotel for the glasses to arrive, Mindy, Shannon, and Janine used the time to go to a wine store and purchase wine bottles for the boat trip.

Prison Museum
Wine and sunglasses in hand we walked to the Prison Museum. Ushuaia’s history begin as a prison and the town that popped up around to support it. The prison’s been closed since the 1950s (I think) and the prison structure turned into an history/art/maritime museum. There were some interesting exhibits – especially on the various explorers of the Antarctic. I was in the middle of the book Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage about Shackelton’s ship and crew who were stranded on an Antarctic ice pack for almost two years, which made the explorer’s exhibit especially interesting.

A world map before the full discovery of Antarctica

Shannon (wickedly amused by a map with all the marked shipwrecks: “Where’s the Explorer on this?”) in the Maritime Museum

The Ushuaia Prison

Mindy (“Don’t make me sit there. He kinda creeps me out.”) with a creepy prisoner.

The Bus to the Boat
At 3:30 we met in the large port parking lot where we boarded the GAP bus that would take us to the Polaris which, oddly enough, was a mere few hundred yards away. Apparently Argenitinean pier security required all passengers to arrive en masse in a chartered bus. No one stopped us and our twelve bottles of wine, though.

The Polaris on a sunny, lovely day
The Polaris
We gathered in the lounge of the Polaris and met some of the other 60-some-odd people we’d be traveling with and the 40 person crew. That’s almost a 1:1 ratio between crew and passengers. The Polaris is a Russian ice breaker with a very nice setup: a lounge, a few “library” rooms, a dinning hall that doubles as a lecture hall, a sizable bridge, a sauna and a hot tub that isn’t hooked up for this trip but fun nonetheless. GAP Adventures didn’t buy the ship but leased it for the remainder of the season as a replacement to the Explorer. It was still staffed by its Russian crew, which was part of the agreement to lease the boat, but we also had a fair number of GAP crew – biologists, doctors, iceberg experts, etc. We were well covered in any situation.

The Polaris
The cabins were bigger than what E and I had in Cocos and definitely livable. Shannon and I had a room together and Mindy roomed with a lovely young woman named Louise. (Rock-paper-scissors was the decider of the roommate situation, with the understanding that if Mindy’s roommate was unbearable we would all rotate.) The corridors take some getting used to since there was no one long hallway but a number of shorter alcoves and stairways from one berth to the other. I had to backtrack a few times in order to find Mindy’s room 110 from our 214.

After getting settled in our rooms, listening to the boat briefing and schedule, and practicing an “abandon ship” drill with life jackets, muster stations and all – we bundled up to go outside for pictures as the Polaris cruised through the still-sunny Beagle Canal. Totally picture-happy.

Saying goodbye to Ushuaia, Argentina

Shannon, Mindy, and Janine

A sunny rainbow over the Polaris

Mindy, Shannon and me

Lifeboats. Because… you know… they’re important

Evening on the Polaris
Dinner was served at 7:00ish (7:30? I switch to vacation mode so easily; watches and time have no importance anymore). Beforehand Mindy, Shannon, Janine, Harry and I opened one of our bottles of wine and toasted each other in plastic teacups. We quickly adjusted to calling ourselves “Harry’s Harem” since he was surrounded by women and – in Buenos Aires – the waiters/waitresses consistently brought him the choice cuts of meat, the wine to taste, and the bill. Our only complaint was that Harry had yet to pay the bill as a true latin man should; something we hoped to remedy by the end of the trip.

Plastic teacup toast

Malbec wine and classy stemware

Dinner was a soup course, then a choice of salmon or chicken, followed by ice cream for dessert – which Harry was quite happy to take off our hands.

Harry and his stack of dessert plates.
Note the fact that it was 8:30 PM and the sun was still out. Antarctic sunshine!
Post Dinner Happy Hour
After dinner we sequestered ourselves in corner of one of the lounges for more wine and socializing with some of the other travelers. Around 10:45 dusk was settling and Shannon and I turned into our room to sleep, leaving the rest of the crowd to finish the wine on our behalf.