La Floresta, Uruguay

This month we are spending some time in a semi-deserted beach town on the Uruguayan coast. La Floresta is about 30 miles outside of Montevideo; we came by bus, which took about 90 minutes.

We found our house without a problem – it is situated in a neighborhood mostly consisting of vacation homes. The beach is just a few blocks away. Since we are here in April and May, the weather is turning chillier and most of the summer weekenders are gone. Many of the other homes are shuttered for the season. The last gasp of summer was May Day, which is a long weekend in Uruguay. Hundreds of extra people showed up and even the restaurants in downtown La Floresta were full.

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However, the rest of our stay has been beautifully quiet. Few cars drive by, the occasional dog parks, once a week landscapers show up to mow and clear branches. We usually only have to share the beach with one or two other people – if that.

I had never thought of Uruguay as a beach country, but the sands here are stunning. The water is now too chilly to tempt us to swim, but others are out in the waves fishing, kiteboarding, body boarding, or bobbing around, and I imagine that at the peak of summer it would be the perfect cool-down.

We try to go for beach walks each day, avoiding it only during storms. The sand goes for miles, coming upon a stream to deep to cross on foot is the limiting factor. Crushed shells decorate the high-water mark, but much of the sand is beautifully soft. We’ve found pretty shells, even an arrowhead in the sand. The sunsets are stunning, as are clouds hanging over the ocean. It is wonderful to feel like it is our own private beach and that we have it all to ourselves.

There are plenty of gulls, herons, and sandpipers fishing at water’s edge. A couple of days brought mid-afternoon beach spiders that seemed to be feeding right at the waterline. There were also a lot of webs floating in the air, possibly from spiders trying to balloon back to dry land after getting swept out to sea or from a mass hatching. Thousands of web strands were attached to seafront weeds and power lines. Not my favorite natural phenomena to date. Unless there is a stiff breeze, there can be mosquitoes in the evenings; even they like trips to the beach.

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Though humans largely leave La Floresta alone in winter, there is plenty of evidence it is popular and near seafront population centers. Garbage washes up continually, and is especially prominent after wind or rain. I’ve taken to picking up a bag full every few days, but it doesn’t make a dent. It has really made me think about how much must be in the oceans – I’ve read the numbers, but to see it each day is depressing and eye-opening.

Quite frankly, at this time of year there isn’t much else to do in town. On May Day/Day of the Worker weekend, the ice cream parlor and small bookshop opened up, and stands were selling empanadas near the waterfront. But normally, we are confined to two groceries, a pharmacy, and couple of kiosks. Walking around, there is so few cars that sidewalks are unnecessary. No crowds, no traffic. Everyone seems so relaxed. It reminds us of off-season tourist towns in the Midwest.

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We took one afternoon to walk all the way to Atlantida. Unfortunately the reason that spurred us to go was a hunt for parts for our washer (which is missing some of the plastic agitator panels inside the drum and shredding our clothes on the sharp corners that should have been covered). Atlantida has a larger permanent population and is more well-known as a beach town. Even during a weekday afternoon, snack stands in the parks were open. Their grocery is much larger and more well-stocked – they even had Nutella! Their beaches are more populated, and we don’t regret staying in an out-of-the way spot.

The temperatures have gone from low 70s to low 60s while we’ve been in town. We thought the onset of fall would knock the remainder of the mosquito population out. That turned out to be wrong on so many levels. Apparently there is a type of mosquito that enjoys coming out after rainy chilly weather, like we experienced after our first week here. One day, a few flew around when we were outside; the next day, clouds hovered around us all day long, unbothered by rain or wind or bug repellent. We still are waiting for the last of that bloom to vanish… and we are running out of bug spray!

We’ve gotten a lot of work done and have thoroughly enjoyed a respite from city living. Next month will be a change back to the mainstream city-centers of Europe; I’m sure we will miss the quiet beach.

 

Uruguayan Cuisine

So far, the southeastern side of South America is not a great foodie destination. Sure, if you are into grilling this might be close to heaven, but for most other flavors, there isn’t a lot to satiate the taste buds. Much like neighboring Argentina, meals are centered on meat and starch. In a country where there are many times more cattle than people, it isn’t surprising that beef seems to be the ingredient of choice. Heavy Italian and Spanish influences also brought over pizza, gelato, and lots of pastas. Wine is here too, though that industry is smaller and the choices a bit plainer due to the climate.

Since our arrival, we’ve eaten our way through more cuts of meat than I knew existed. They are almost universally tasty, and I’ve discovered that I really do like chorizo. Cooking on the parrilla (here it is pronounced ‘paireeSHa’ rather than ‘paireeYa’ – Rioplatense-accented Spanish is only mildly confusing for us) is an incredibly common way to prepare everything that once had legs or fins. A slatted metal grate off to the side of the fire ensures the meat cooks without burning to a crisp. Fancy restaurants and people tending open grills on the street all give equal respect to the deliciousness that ensues from this way of cooking. Some days it was hard to walk around without hunger pains because grills were going streetside, wafting the smells between the buildings.

We had birthdays this month, which gave us an excuse to head to Mercado del Puerto for a mixed parrilla for two. We wanted to sample a variety platter, and Cabana Veronica obliged. The building is home to at least a dozen parrilla restaurants, and the entire place smells wonderful. Open flames rise from grills all around and it is clearly a place where tourists and locals alike come to enjoy an afternoon with friends and family over food. The pile of tasty grilled beef and chicken arrived at our table after twenty minutes or so. We were also presented with a large bowl of salad – clearly it is like veggies served at steak restaurants – not really expected to be eaten. Quarters of chicken, two or three cuts of beef, chorizo, morcilla salado were all delicious. The only confusion for us was how to eat the sweetbreads. We tried one but clearly there is an aspect to them we didn’t understand; there was enough other meats to keep us occupied anyway, so we didn’t worry too much about it. Everything was grilled to perfection, and we left happy.

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Milanesas, chicken-stuffed pumpkin, asado, parrilla mixta.

My favorite discovery during this stay was morcilla salado – salty blood sausage. I’d never have guessed that I would find it tasty when we started into the parrilla mixta. Cooking it at home only made me more fond of it; it can go on toast with breakfast or with rice for dinner. It is salty with a smooth texture, which is why it can be a spread as well. Uruguay is also has a second popular kind of blood sausage – morcilla dulce – a sweetened version. Stuffed with grapes, orange peels, peanuts, almonds, membrillos (which are a bit like jello), it is not your average meat-in-a-tube. We baked some and it tasted like a mix between mulled wine and a gingerbread house. I don’t think I’ll be craving that one as often as the salty version, but it would fit in as a Christmas food.

Milanesas are another favorite local way to eat meat. Despite the hype, we discovered it is basically the same thing as chicken-fried steak. We favored the chicken over the steak version, but they clearly use better cuts of meat than school lunches from our childhood and the breading has a mix of mild spices inside. Another way to get rid of the ‘lesser’ cuts of meat is to bury them in a chivito sandwich – between cheese, tomato, lettuce, eggs, and possibly bacon. Locals claim these sandwiches are a huge mass of calories that will leave you stuffed. Either we went to a restaurant that served a light version or the huge portions we grew up around have warped our understanding of appropriate meal size. We each devoured one and the full serving of fries and could have eaten more (not that it would have been good for us). And if hand-held, travel-ready packets of food are called for, there are empanadas everywhere. We had Venezuelan style made with carne picada and carne machada in maize dough, but also more traditional Uruguayan ones with flour-based wraps. Stuffed bread never gets old for me!

To go with all this meat, we arrived just in time to explore the fall harvest. Squashes, eggplants, and pumpkins feature prominently in veggie dishes. Once all the difficult slicing and chopping is out of the way, they are great fried or baked. Kevin had even gotten good at stuffing them – baking a half in the oven and then filling it with chorizos or ground beef.

Like elsewhere in South America, there still isn’t much of a choice for yummy snacks or desserts. Prices for chips are much higher than in the US – think $3-4 dollars for a small 100 gram bag of chips. As a result, popcorn has been the cure for my crunch fix. The only chipish items I’ve found that are made locally are crunchy puffs, but they always taste stale and relatively flavorless.

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Snacks! I like the expectations set by the cheese plate image on the Ringo can – a high ideal it did not meet.

Since we were in Montevideo during the Easter season, we did get to enjoy the traditional decorated chocolate eggs. Ours was a mid-sized version, but some are larger than footballs and feature whole scenes of butterflies or swans. These are clearly meant to be the centerpiece for table on Easter. Other desserts are often fruit-, cookie-, or cake-based. Just like in Argentina, alfajors and dulce de leche are everywhere. I am always left hungry for more chocolate though. Expensive imitation Nutella will have to do for now…

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Layered dulce de leche cake, stuffed squash, empanadas, Easter egg

Mate is the national drink; it gives everyone a reason to go to the beach, a chance to relax with friends, and take a break in the afternoon. Every grocery store seems to spend more shelf space on mate than on anything else. All over town, we would see people carrying the hollowed-out gourd in the crook of one arm and a thermos of hot water on the other. There is a whole market for custom-made leather carriers and the special bombilla straws used to drink it. It is interesting in that it is strictly a do-it-yourself drink – no restaurant will put it on a menu, and the most you can ever hope to find in a market is the dried leaves or a vendor selling extra hot water. A large part of the mate experience is preparing it yourself, to just your specifications. The water must be brought to an almost-boil, the leaves added to the cup and shaken just so, sugar or no, the whole mix has to be kept still while allowed to steep, then the rest of the water is added. One batch of leaves can be refilled a dozen times, so it becomes a communal way to spend part of an afternoon. It is slightly bitter, and despite the filtering straw, I always end up with bits of the leaves in my teeth. Much better sugared down!

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Mate done right(ish), bombilla and all

Uruguay does produce a reasonable amount of local wine, growing it along the coast or on the opposite side of the country. The climate isn’t ideal – it is a little too humid and rainy. Tannat grapes favor these conditions but produce a plain wine. Other grapes like syrah and cabernet sauvignon are grown as well, but also taste fairly one-toned. The wines we favor here are aged in oak, adding some body and making a richer-tasting drink. Our favorites were Tannat Roble made by Traversa and a Marselan made by Bodega J. Chiappella. Thankfully wine is relatively cheap, so we don’t necessarily feel cheated out of more varied flavors.

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Favorite beer and wines from Uruguay

Of course, there is beer as well – perfect for beach drinking and the hot summers. But even mass-produced brands like Patricia, Pilsen, and Zillertal seemed pricey and tend toward mass-market watery taste. (Some of that payment sadness is us being ruined by incredibly cheap, delicious beer in Poland last year – they set a high bar and woe to all the countries that have come after.) One bright spot was a small handful of craft brews. A trigo beer called Barbara made by Cabesas Bier was my favrite un Uruguay. Kevin also enjoyed finding the first pumpkin/fall spice beer he’d seen that was made outside the US, also by Cabesas – clearly they have hit their brewing stride.

We didn’t come to Uruguay for the food, and that is probably a good thing. I did enjoy the chance to chow down on red meat before heading to other places where it is more expensive. And it was good to try to local wines and mate. But overall, the cuisine didn’t stand out to me (except for morcillas!). I am so looking forward to chocolate and peanut butter again…..

 

Montevideo, Uruguay

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Finally getting Kevin’s computer back after a month without it (shipping back and forth to other continents is no joke) turned Montevideo into more of a working stop that it was planned to be. Most of our days were spent around the house/neighborhood enjoying the quiet parts of the area. When we went out, we spent most of our time on La Rambla and walking around the city rather than checking out museums or big events.

My favorite part of the city is definitely the Rambla along the waterfront. The wide boardwalk connects beaches, restaurants, and parks along 14+ miles and basically serves as the city’s living room. People hang out, fish, drink A LOT of mate, roller skate, read, walk their dogs, picnic, watch the sunset. Across the road from Playa Ramirez is Parque Rodó, with carnival rides and churros, and (naturally, because they are some type of plague on the planet) a McDonald’s. The last week we were in town marathon training was in full swing for the upcoming event itself. Its close proximity to our apartment let us enjoy it for a while almost every day.

The rest of Montevideo feels equally relaxed. Though it is the capital, largest city, business center, and main port of Uruguay, a big part of the attraction to it is being able to relax, shop, and eat good food. The stress level here feels lower than anywhere else we’ve visited, or lived for that matter.

We didn’t even need to head to museums to enjoy local art. There are murals throughout the city and sometimes even hidden in residential neighborhoods. It competes for the best street art we’ve seen anywhere. There is a lot of graffiti as well, and that does sometimes detract from the surroundings.

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Even Adventure Time is represented!

Montevideo is a city of pop-up markets. We discovered one on Calle Salto, a ten minute walk from our house, that magically appears on Saturday mornings. Its main focus is on food. Trailers that resemble Airstreams let down their sides to reveal fish, meat, and cheese shops; veggie and fruit stands set up under tents; a few blocks at the end are for rummage-sale type tables of clothes and repainted furniture. Unlike farmer’s markets in Seattle, the food here tends to be cheaper than in the regular grocery stores, with a much fresher selection. The best part might have been the Venezuelan empanada stand – the carne machada and carne picada empanadas were fabulous and freshly fried.

On Sundays, the side of Parque Rodó furthest from the beach has a fashion market – it was strange being there in April and seeing the winter clothes get front billing because summer was ending. This one was smaller but just as crowded with shoppers.

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Markets everywhere!

On Sundays, the city’s largest market sets up in Centro. It takes over dozens of streets and their sidewalks. The main ‘entry’ is full of puppies for sale; to the left is an area where it’s possible to purchase everything you need for a master aquarium setup and the fish to go in it. Antiques, records, books, tools, food, spices, mate cups and bombillas, flowers, art, lamps, furniture. Some stands seem to be just an agglomeration of whatever people found in their grandmother’s attic, others are much more curated and specific. Where prices on new items are listed, they seem to be similar no matter which booth we visited. If they aren’t, bargain at will! Thousands of people wander through with their mates in hand looking for things they didn’t know they needed.

While it was rare to find English books at the street markets, some of the larger bookstores have English-language selections. War and Peace, it’s on! Like Buenos Aires, people love to read and bookshops are scattered throughout the city. Libreria Más Puro Verso in the Ciudad Vieja is the prettiest I’ve seen here. Two stories of books in a lobby with stained glass at the center of a curving staircase makes for good photographs and good browsing, especially with a cafe on the second floor near the windows so readers can choose between books and people watching.

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Books always win.

I think of all the cities we’ve visited in the past year+ of travel, the older neighborhoods here are among the most pleasant. Outside of the more cramped-feeling Ciudad Vieja (which built within in the limits of now-vanished city walls), the streets are wide, and tree-lined. Many neighborhoods have colorfully-painted older homes with beautiful wrought-iron bars and balconies. Coupled with the general flatness of the area, it makes the city seem Midwestern, especially now that it is autumn and the leaves are turning and falling. It is almost a daily occurrence to see people grilling over open wood fires in the street, with the whole neighborhood smelling like steak and chorizos.

Montevideo has a reputation as being the safest large city in South America. I don’t really doubt that this is true given all the stories of phone/purse/jewelry snatching we heard in Buenos Aires and the number of people both there and in Santiago that warned us of that possibility. So its mildly ironic that it was here that someone tried to snatch my purse. Unfortunately for him, he didn’t assess the situation all that well. It started as a fairly traditional scam that we’ve run into before: one person asked the time with the hope that we would pull out a cell phone and another guy could grab it and run. Instead, we simply said we didn’t know. Normally that is the end of it, but this time they let us get part way down the block and then one of the men ran after us. He thought my purse would either come off my shoulder (except that I was wearing it across my body) or that the strap would break (it did not) because he was already turning around to flee as he was grabbing onto it. Kevin had a bag with a bottle with it, and, at seeing me being pulled to the ground, took a swing with it. This was the last straw for the snatcher, and he took back off up the street. Thankfully there were no weapons involved, or we would have had to had it over. All told, it went as well as possible, and I still have all my stuff and now a slightly ripped purse.

Despite this isolated incident, Montevideo is a lovely city, and that could have happened anywhere. (Probably better here than in the US where I’d have feared a gun being pulled out.) Being in the city during Semana Santa let us enjoy the relaxed vibe even more as locals packed up and headed to the beaches. The weather has been perfect and the food has been amazing (more about that next time.)

 

Thirty Things I Learned Travelling Before Turning Thirty

For my 30th birthday, I thought it might be fun to look back at the last 365 days and what I’ve learned. It is incredible to realize that we’ve been on the road for more than 15 months, and just how much more there is to see!

1. I hate the way airlines board planes and love flying. Just like I hate check-in at airports but love waiting for the flight and wandering the concourse.

2. Morcilla – blood sausage common in South America – is delicious as long as you eat it hot before the texture gets more unbearable as it cools.

3. Chilean volcanos love to play hide-and-seek. They are massive but still vanish almost with it a trace into the clouds.

4. The library at Trinity College really looks like the pictures, no color enhancement needed.

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Trinity College Library in all its non-color-enhanced glory.

5. Finns on the ferry from Estonia all look like alcoholics. In their defense, they need to buy in bulk and take it with them when visiting their neighboring country… it’s a bargain compared to local prices.

6. Some brands are obnoxiously global like Coke and Colgate and shampoos. Dish soap, though, has a much higher localization rate.

7. Croatian and most Latin American beers are not to my taste. Too light, too beery. Poland, though, is so far the king of beer countries.

8. I am not impressed by beach resorts in Cancun. They are all carbon copies and a weird bubble unto themselves.

9. Antacids in South America are pricey. I guess the food is bland enough (at least on the eastern coast) that heartburn isn’t a problem.

10. I LOVE food-stuffed bread. Polish pierogies, empanadas, Estonian pastries, Hungarian langosh. GIVE ME ALL THE CARBS.

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Carbs = life.

11. Budapest is gorgeous. No wonder so many people told us we’d love it.

12. Eurovision should be a holiday in Europe. I will now base travel decisions around this show and feel no shame.

13. Sweet fruit wines from the Baltic regions deserve more credit. At least they have the common sense to know grapes won’t work there.

14. Torres del Paine is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Destroyed my legs for days and was worth all the pain and hours on buses to get to hike each day.

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Here are some photographs not doing justice to Torres del Paine.

15. Photographs do nothing justice (almost – see #4 for the exception proving the rule).

16. Both Anna Karenina and Middlemarch look intimidating but are brilliant reads.

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17. In Peru, everyone asks if you’ve gone to Macchu Pichu and looks at you like you are crazy if you say no. Ditto Iguazu Falls in Argentina.

18. The hardest part about travelling is the unpredictable selection of books. No, I’m not going to get an e-reader.

19. Purse snatching can happen anywhere. Having a sturdy purse might keep the strap from breaking and sometimes helps you keep your stuff. But that can be good or bad… depending on how much the robber has invested into getting your stuff away from you… I really can’t recommend what is better.

20. For every place we visit, at least 3 get added to the list.

21. Romania is way more interesting than I had realized before going there. I hope we can get back to see Cluj-Napoca and Timișoara.

22. Just about every country has money that is more colorful and pretty than US currency. Uruguay’s coins have animals. Chile’s is a rainbow of colors and makes you feel rich (that 650:1 exchange rate). Romania’s bills are plastic so you can even toss them into fountains for luck.

23. Szellemirtók is a great movie. Don’t be a hater.

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It’s a good movie. There was tasty popcorn.

24. Krakow, Poland and Montevideo, Uruguay are my two favorite cities for street art and murals.

25. I’m never too old to climb around fortresses and tunnels.

26. I might be at least partly Estonian?

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I ❤ Estonia.

27. High heat and humidity is a terrible combination, ergo I could not live full time on the Yucatan Peninsula. Likewise, year-round chilly days and especially windy winters are not to my liking. Sorry Punta Arenas, I won’t be moving to the far south of Patagonia permanently.

28. Travelling and living full time in some small spaces with another human, even one I’m as madly in love with as my hubby, can occasionally be trying. Especially when mosquitoes are fierce, the kitchen is under-supplied, not all the appliances function, and the sink drains don’t have a u-bend to keep smells in the sewer and out of the house. And it is absolutely worth every second.

29. Inca and the related civilizations of Peru have the best pottery.  THE BEST.

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Surprise garbage can guy is my favorite. I relate.

30. Sometimes the mystery wine bottle is full of tasty alcohol. Sometimes it is terrible awfulness that gets dumped right down the drain. The only way to know is to try it.

 

The Coasts of Argentina and Uruguay

In a break from our usual kind of travel, we took a two-week cruise from Buenos Aires around Cape Horn and up to Santiago, Chile.  We covered the eastern coast of South America by going a little northward to Uruguay before heading southward to other cities in Argentina and the Falkland Islands (which I’ll talk about in a separate post).

Sailing away from Buenos Aires, a tug in the BA port, arriving in Montevideo

Our first stop was Montevideo, Uruguay, just a few hours across the Rio de la Plata from Buenos Aires. I’ve never been so quickly enchanted by a city as I was here. It has about a million and a half people people compared to BA’s 13 million and feels a lot homier. We walked through the touristy market and souvenir vendors next to the cruise dock to the more local areas of town. Part of the city lies on a peninsula ringed by a wide boardwalk which we followed right to one of the most popular beaches.

Montevideo street art and market

I don’t know if it was due to the summer weekend (large swaths of South America close for Saturday and Sunday) or because we had just been living in the center of a much larger city, but Montevideo’s streets felt remarkable quiet. The main shopping district and plazas were full of activity, but just a few blocks over it was peaceful. We came across a farmer’s market on a tree-lined street not too far away from the house we will be renting in another couple months. It even had a cheese truck, so I’ll be set. We spent the rest of the hot afternoon drinking light local beers at a parilla, envying the order of grilled meats the table next to us was devouring.

Ship graveyard in Montevideo, the hand in Punta del Este, PdE’s hotel- and boat-filled waterfront

A bit further up Uruguay’s coast is Punta del Este, the country’s main ocean-front resort.  This might have been where everyone from the capital was at – there are hundreds of hotels and sandy beaches forested by umbrellas, and all seemed filled to capacity. We were only there for a few hours and that was probably enough.  Once you’ve window shopped, eaten gelato (Freddo’s!), hung out at the beach, and seen the giant hand, there isn’t much else to do. Since it is built for tourists, prices tend to be higher as well. I will say that their Disco grocery caters to more diverse/tourist tastes than most, meaning that they had peanut butter and Nutella, and even some spicy sauces. Sadly, since Chile is strict about bringing food into the country, I didn’t even bother to stock up.

Puerto Madryn’s tideflats, light & clouds at sea

Now turning southward, we skipped all the way down the seaboard to Puerto Madryn, Argentina. This was the first opportunity to see penguins, though we didn’t pay for any of the tours that went to the colony.  There are a few hotels and a new shopping center near pier and some tour sales, but off the main street it felt like a small town. We stumbled onto La Abuela Dorotea, a shop offering wine and chocolate at cheap prices. Naturally we bought both. Aside from this little bit of purchasing, we walked along the tide flats. The beach here has a very shallow incline and low tide makes it grow hundreds of meters wider. The space gets turned into impromptu sports fields and a running track. It also means that the pier has to be more than a kilometer long to reach deep enough water for the cruise ship to dock.

Ushuaia claims the end of the world and the Malvinas, view from the top of town

At the very bottom of Argentina is Ushuaia, the traditional jumping-off point for Antarctic expeditions. The main pier was full of other cruises, most heading south at very high prices. Right outside the port and along the waterfront are signs asserting Argentina’s claim to the Falklands, here called the Islas Malvinas.  A memorial to the 1982 war features a map of the islands in cutout, as though missing from their map. Despite these claims, we heard the Falklands described as more English than England, a claim that certainly held up while we were there. 

The town is surrounded by the Martial Mountains, a welcome relief after months of flat terrain. A couple subdivisions even splash up the nearest slopes.  We worked our way up a maze of staircases until our path upward was blocked by an large, angry looking dog and we decided our current view was good enough. Clouds and fog are pretty much the daily standard, so only the closest mountains occasionally popped into view, their summits white with relatively fresh snow. Another good vista is from the waterfront near the Aeroclub.  Our landscape-looking options pretty much complete, and since ship drinking is expensive, we searched out a local bar and thankfully ended up at Klobber. Turned out they weren’t technically open yet, meaning the kitchen was closed, but they were more than willing to pour us their beers. The father and son running the pub were also the brewers, working out of Rio Grande. Their stout is excellent – the best we’ve had in Latin America. With some alcohol behind us, we made our way back to the ship so we could head into Chile. 

Boat art, Falklands War memorial, Klobber Beer, it’s a long way from where we’d been