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The bus to Ushuaia from Puerto Natales is not the most pleasant of journeys. It takes you through beautifully rugged landscapes, but it takes 15 hours and requires unloading/loading for a ferry and boarder crossing. 15 hour bus rides can be okay, but only when you expect it. We were under the impression that the trip would take 10 hours, so the last few hours were especially icky. Chumps, the lot of us. We arrived in Ushuaia around 10 pm and were rather unceremoniously dumped into the rain streetside on a main drag of the town. We got a taxi and headed for the respite of our hostel. The next day, we wandered into town, exchanged money*, and then took a leisurely stroll to enjoy the unexpected grandeur of the mountains that guard the town and its waterway.

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I wasn’t dead set on visiting Ushuaia, but through the power of The Facebook, my friend Sullivan and I realized we would be in South America at the same time. Sullivan and I met on the Purdue rowing team waaaay back in 2005, during our freshman year at Purdue. Although we don’t live all that far away from eachother (Seattle to Missoula, MT), we hadn’t seen each other in 6 years. She and her dad, Robert, like many visitors to Ushuaia, were visiting the port city in order to embark on an Antarctic cruise (…the advantages of working for an adventure travel company…). Fortunately for me, they’d also planned to hang out in the city for a few days, so my decision to head south became an easy one. (Now I can claim that I went to the End of the World for our friendship. Hehe.) I’d briefly considered looking for last-minute passage on a cruise, but even the very best dockside deal I could expect would not have fallen into a category of financial responsibility (3000 USD was CHEAP for a 10 day cruise. Eek.). Ah well, some day…

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I showed up at Sullivan’s hotel in the early evening, where I met her and her dad, Robert. There was almost immediately a vodka sprite in front of me, so I knew it was going to be a good weekend. We set out in search of dinner, to a place recommended by Sullivan’s city tour guide. I don’t remember the name of the place, but it was kind of a hole in the wall. A hole in the wall with GLORIOUS meats. I asked the grillmaster what his favorite this was, and ordered that. But Robert ordered Bife de Chorizo, and he won dinner with one of the most delightful cuts of beef I’ve tasted. Also, “Bife de Chorizo” will forever be associated with the mistranslation “Bife de corazon,” which became “beef of my heart” to describe the love held by Robert for this particular piece of animal. I can’t say I blame him.

As the day of our reunion was a Friday, naturally we aimed for the Irish Pub in town, which happened also to the be ONLY pub in town. I don’t think I’ve been in a bar that packed since undergrad. We almost immediately ran into Sullivan’s Argentinian doctor, who’d treated her burst ear drum earlier that day. He insisted on buying us beer before excusing himself with the explanations that 1) his wife was returning from a trip the next morning and 2) he was “on call” and so couldn’t drink too much. Hah! Sullivan’s dad decided he wanted to sleep before our tour the following day, so he headed back to the hotel. Within minutes Sullivan had made a coy comment to some guys ordering beers at the bar, resulting in new beers in our hands and a group of South American sailors surrounding us. It turned out that they were on the crews of the tall sail ships docked just down the street. And while they were from different countries – Columbia, Argentina, Brazil – they were all friends on shore. drinking with south american sailors wasn’t on my bucket list before, but now it’s been simultaneously added and checked off.

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We got back to the hotel for just barely enough sleep to be awake for our tour of Tierra del Fuego on Saturday. We went with a company called Canal Fun. While not the cheapest operation (85USD for the day, plus transportation and lunch), Canal Fun’s customer service helped me justify spending twice my daily budget on one tour. Their guides were knowledgeable and hilarious and joined a bunch of strangers into a jovial family for the day. We took a leisurely stroll along the coast and then hopped in canoes to paddle to the end of the Pan American Highway.

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Upon our return to town, Sullivan and I wandered the streets trying to get a good pictures of Mt. Olivia, I bought my plane ticket for Buenos Aires (2 days out, yea!), and then we all passed out for a late siesta. Late siesta was interrupted only for dinner, and then we all went back to sleep. Sullivan and her dad had to board their Antarctic cruise on Sunday, but not before we had lunch at an Argentinian buffet. Delicious. I was sad to part with my adoptive family, but super grateful that I was able to meet up with them in the first place.

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*A note about money exchanging in Argentina. There is an official exchange rateĀ  of about 7.8 Argentine Pesos to 1 USD. However, because Peso is so unstable, a competing “blue market” rate has arisen. (The market is colored blue and not black because while it is technically illegal, the authorities turn a blind eye to it.) If Argentinians can get their hands on Dollars, which the government has officially forbidden, then they can save money without worrying about rapid inflation destroying the worth of their savings. A tour guide I would have in Buenos Aires explained the situation to me a such: 20 years ago, the Peso and the Dollar were more or less 1 to 1. So if you’d saved 100,000 Pesos, you had 100,000 Dollars toward financial security in the future. Enter inflation. Over the next couple decades, that 100K in your account drops to be worth around 13K. Costs of living have not dropped proportionally, so your situation downright blows. With the Argentine government limiting access to more stable currency, it behooves the people to collect said currency by alternative means. In my experience, the blue market rate has been between 9.5 and 10.8 Pesos to the Dollar. The result is that tourists like me get 40% more buying power worth of Pesos, and Argentinians get Dollars, which won’t plummet in value like the Peso. Inflation is a terrifying thing. Only through traveling here have I realized the extent of the impact that unstable currency can have.

An example: in Ushuaia, I had 400 USD to exchange, and those quickly changed into Pesos as I paid for a tour and a flight to Buenos Aires. The flight, for example, cost 1885 Pesos. If I paid at the official rate, that flight would have cost me 242 USD. At the unofficial rate, it cost 185 USD.

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