A Quick Guide to the City of Ushuaia

Photo via Pixabay.

Photo via Pixabay.

First of all, Ushuaia is not the furthest south city in the world.  It claims to be, and it could be depending on your definition.  Puerto Williams, on the Chilean side of the Beagle Channel, is further south.  It has about 3,000 people.  It’s much less touristy than Ushuaia because it’s (a) smaller and (b) harder to get to.  Puerto Williams also claims to be the furthest south city in the world.  Punta Arenas (strangely) does too.

Side note: If you want to really get far south, go to Puerto Toro, Chile.  Like Puerto Williams, it’s on the Isla de Navarino.  Puerto Toro has about 30 permanent residents.  It’s known for king crab fishing (though “known” might be a bit of a stretch).  Apparently, there’s a ferry there once a month.  You can get off and walk around while they collect garbage and drop off supplies.  Just don’t miss the ferry back.

The overall ambiance of Ushuaia is kind of like a crappy ski town.  The main street, San Martin, is super touristy.  Everywhere else is patently un-touristy.  Tourists are strange in this way.  They go to the same places.  They do the same things.  They are very predictable.

One of the main hostels in Ushuaia is called Yakush.  It has several dorm rooms, several private rooms, and several common areas.  Mercedes, the main morning employee, stokes a warm atmosphere that’s ultra-conducive to meeting people.  Go into the kitchen at any time and you’re likely to strike up a conversation and make a friend. There’s something about Ushuaia that lends itself to a kind of solidarity that exists being together in a relatively small town in a foreign country at the end of the world. It’s not hard to get to Ushuaia, but at the same time it’s not firmly on the backpacker trail in the way a place like Lima or Buenos Aires might be. This is also reflected in the “locals.” In most places where tourism is rife, the locals get jaded towards tourists.  In Ushuaia this happens less, since most “locals” are transplants themselves.  It’s hard to meet someone who was born, raised, and still lives in Ushuaia.

For dining options, try Bar de Pizzas half price night on Wednesdays.  For lunch, try El Bambu, a vegetarian place just up the street from Hostel Yakush on Calle Piedrabuena.  For coffee, there’s only one viable option: Xpresso.  Xpresso serves above average coffee, which is a feat for Ushuaia.  Some might even describe Xpresso’s coffee as “good.”

As far as things to do, most tourists do the following: the national park, the Beagle Channel, Laguna Esmeralda and the glacier. This is it.  Everyone does the same thing, give or take a few items. Based on reviews, the Beagle Channel is not worth the 50 or so American dollars it costs for the boat ride. Seeing seals is not that cool.  Seeing a lighthouse is not that cool. The national park is OK.  It’s gorgeous.  But it’s also infested with tons of shuttles full of tourists.  Get off the main road and paths to discover the real magic of the park.  The glacier, it seems, is cool.  Laguna Esmeralda is definitely cool.  Touristy, but cool.  Not as many people as the national park.  Striking in its beauty.

The best touristy activity you can do in Ushuaia, however, is go for a simple hike.  The trail to Cerro del Medio leaves right from the edge of town and winds through forest alongside a stream and up above the treeline and into the mountains.  Above the treeline, things get magical.  One feels like one could be on Everest.  If it’s not snowing down below, there’s a better chance it will be snowing up here.  And the best part about the hike is that it’s free and you don’t need to take a taxi or bus to get there.  You feel like you’re cheating.

If you get a chance, go to Ushuaia.  It’s magical.  It’s like a crappy Aspen full of cooler people.  In other words: ideal.

The Where’s Wetzler Manifesto — 18 Ways to Travel Well

1) Learn the language

No, everyone does not speak English in Sweden and Norway. And no language is useless, no matter how small it is. Also, the locals will appreciate your effort and it will make your travel experience more fulfilling. Every single word counts.

2) Expect to get ripped off at least once in every country

It’s going to happen, so don’t freak out too much when it does. In every new country you visit, expect to get ripped off at least once. It might happen when you’re crossing the border, or when you’re buying a cell phone, or when you’re taking a cab. Learn from it, and move on.

3) Throw your Lonely Planet in the trash

Write your own damn Lonely Planet. Go places Lonely Planet says are terrible. Either way, go where you want to go, full stop. Think outside the box. Get weird.

4) Stay close to the ground

I don’t mean crawl or crouch (though that would be ideal); I mean go slowly, walk, take local transportation, and avoid flying when you can. You’ll see that hummingbird alighting on an orchid you never would’ve seen, or meet that woman selling tortillas you never would’ve met, or eat that meal at a hidden restaurant you wouldn’t have seen unless you had walked by.

That said, sometimes flying makes sense. If it does, fly your little heart out.

5) Travel alone

Being lonely is good for the soul (sobbing at night = growing). Plus, you’ll meet more people and speak the language more. And apparently traveling alone  is all the rage right now.

6) Become obsessed with places

My favorite way to do this is with Google Maps and Wikipedia. I find a place on Google Maps, I read about it on Wikipedia, and things snowball from there.

7) Eat everything

If you’re the kind of person who orders their hamburgers plain or makes people change restaurants because of your special diet, I don’t want to be your friend. Be vegan all you want, just not around me*.

*I’m kidding, of course**.

**Sort of.

8) Don’t plan in advance

Not planning in advance may be slightly more stressful but it also allows for complete freedom.  Get to a  town and don’t like it?  Just hop the next bus.

9) Read

Having a book with you is critical, especially when traveling alone, since it might be your only friend. Plus, reading makes you smarter. Plus, it’s a good way to learn a language.

There are a lot of pluses to reading.

10) Trust your instinct

This is the most important element on here.  It encompasses every other one of these points while also encompassing none of them.  There is a little voice in all of us that says things like, “This guy is ripping you off; this restaurant has delicious food; this taxicab is not actually a taxicab.” Heed that voice.

11) Don’t dress like a tourist

No one in Mexico City wears shorts. I’m not even sure the locals in Mexico City are capable of wearing shorts. Which means you’re not allowed to wear shorts.

12) Don’t DO countries

“My fiancée and I just got back from South America. We did Peru, Bolivia, and northern Chile.” What does this mean? Did you copulate with Peru? Did you have your way with the Uyuni salt flats? Saying you “did” a place is vulgar and obscene. It’s also pompous. Like you did every single thing there was to do. Like you took the country, squeezed every last bit of juice out of it, and left its shriveled carcass on the ground.

13) Don’t listen to other people

My friend’s mom once said, “I don’t do inland Mexico.” When she said this I felt so many emotions at once: A) I wanted to push her off a cliff, B) I wanted to make her understand and show her how beautiful inland Mexico is, C) I wanted to shout abuse at her, and D) I thought: That’s exactly why I love inland Mexico. People like you aren’t there.

14) Don’t go on tours

Unless you’re over the age of 65. Then you’re allowed to go on tours.

15) Don’t think a country owes you something

Foreign countries don’t owe you any kind of accommodation. They don’t owe it to you to be interesting or extraordinary. The people don’t owe it to you to be nice. In short: no one owes you anything. Behave accordingly.

16) Don’t carry lots of cash

I can’t think of a single reason nowadays to carry a lot of cash when traveling. Unless you’re paying rent and you’re walking straight from the ATM to your apartment. Or you just got paid at your job and you’re walking straight to your apartment. Or you’re a drug dealer.

17) Don’t think the US (or your home country) is better (even when it is)

This is an easy trap to fall into, and one that I fall into all the time. It’s tempting to compare the place you’re in with back home, and think, “Man, back home cars actually respect pedestrians. Man, back home sanitations laws actually do exist. Man, back home the hamburgers are way better.” I say this as much to myself as I do to you: keep an open mind. Your way isn’t necessarily the best way (even when it is).

18) Hitchhike

If you want to get somewhere for free and meet wonderful people, stand by the side of the road with your arm out and your thumb pointing towards the sky. Eventually a complete stranger will stop and take you exactly where you want to go. And you may even have a new friend.

19) Open your heart

I have no idea what this means. And I kind of decided to put it on here at the last second. But I’m pretty sure it’s important.

Wetzler Guides: How to Fly for Cheap

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Originally published December 26th, 2014.  Appears here in a slightly-edited form.

When it comes to flying for cheap, there are two important elements:  1) Credit cards, and 2) Google Flights.  Why credit cards?  Because they give you miles.  Why Google Flights?  Because when you don’t have miles and actually have to buy a flight, GF is the most efficient way to do so.  My own personal experience has shown me that these two elements can lead to amazing trips for relatively low costs, whether used in combination or on their own.  Which means that now more than ever there are no excuses to take the trip you’ve been dreaming of, whether it be to Cape Cod, Capetown or Cape Canaveral.

Many of you have used credit cards to get a free flight at some point in your life.  If you have, then this first part will be easy.  Instead of applying to for one airline credit card to get a free flight, apply to EVERY airline credit card. If an airline offers a free flight after you’re approved (and usually spend a small amount of money), apply for it, whether it’s Delta or American or AirTran.  This way you’ll pretty much always have a free flight, and after each free flight you just cancel the card. And here’s the thing: if your card is in inactive for long enough (usually two years), you can re-apply and get the miles all over for again.  Which means if you play your cards right (pun intended), you can slowly cycle through all the different airlines until you’ve a) been everywhere Chautauqua Airlines flies or b) lost your mind.

Of course, there will be times when you will actually have to buy tickets, and this is where Google Flights comes in. Google Flights is how I spend probably at least two hours of my waking days, every single day. There is nothing more satisfying than getting lost in the myriad maps and destinations, places with faraway names like Noukchott and Bamako, Samara and Burkina Faso.  Plus, the greatest thing about Google Flights is that you don’t even have to have a destination in mind.  You can put in a date and an origin, and Google Flights will tell how much it costs to fly to different destinations all over the world on a single map (“Hmmm, Delhi looks nice, but I’ve heard Jalalabad is beautiful this time of year”).

And it tells you all of these things in about 3.5 seconds.

After finding a flight on Google Flights I then check the Big Three just to be safe, a.k.a Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity. Maybe there are other good sites out there (I’ve used Kayak once or twice and I’ve heard Hipmunk is decent and I’m sure there are at least a couple of you out there thinking, “Dude, you don’t use dirtcheapflightstoazerbaijan.biz??? Idiot…”), but in my experience, these three are the only three that really matter. Its fun to quote ridiculously low prices on Priceline, but I dont think they ever get accepted, so it seems like a waste of time. And all the other sites like Cheapflights and Lastminute, etc, etc, I don’t really trust.

The two aforementioned strategies will help you cut down on airfare costs.  They can be used on their own, and they become really deadly when used in combination.  The following are some examples from my life:

1) New Zealand to Costa Rica

In 2013 I wanted to get from New Zealand to Costa Rica, and I had less than a thousand dollars to do it. Google flights would not help me here. Orbitz would not help me. A travel agent would laugh at me. It would require cunning and ingenuity and the ability to stare at a computer screen for several hours without blinking, all three of which qualities I fortunately possess.

Going by the book, the cheapest flight I could find from Auckland to San Jose was about 1500 bucks. But the problem was that I wasnt in Auckland, I was on Stewart Island, the furthest south you can go in New Zealand short of boarding a research vessel to study the mating habits of royal albatross. But I noticed on the Air New Zealand website that there was a sale on flights to Hawaii. So I checked Dunedin (a city fairly far south on the south island) to Hawaii, and bam: flights for about 600 bucks USD. A steal. And this is where things got interesting. I had frequent flyer miles with Alaska, but just to get from Honolulu to Seattle was going to cost something like 25,000 miles (and bear in mind I wanted to get to Costa Rica). Just for kicks I checked Honolulu to San Jose, and miraculously flights only cost 20,000 miles, less than Hawaii to the mainland. Why would this be? Presumably because Alaska has a set cost programmed in to the system for Hawaii to the mainland, and they also have a set cost programmed in for USA to Central america. When you book a flight from USA to Central America, Hawaii is considered part of the USA, whereas when you book Hawaii to Mainland, Hawaii is considered a more expensive non-lower 48 area. Make sense? Doesn’t matter. The important thing is that after 35 bucks in taxes and my 600 flight to Honolulu I got from Dunedin, New Zealand to San Jose, Costa Rica, for under 700 bucks. How there wasn’t a committee of travel agents and other people from the travel industry ready to greet me with pom-poms and champagne and present me with some kind of award for travel genius is still beyond me, but alas I was forced to celebrate silently with a quiet, self-administered pat on the back.

2) Santiago to Seattle

Later on that same trip, after teaching English for a few months in Colombia and working at a hostel in Chile, I found myself looking to get back to the states from Chile, once again for very cheap. This is difficult, since cheap flights anywhere south of Lima back to the States basically don’t exist (unless you’re going to New York, in which case they sometimes exist). Santiago is simply a long way away from home.

But anyway, after searching searching and not finding anything back to Seattle from anywhere remotely close (i.e. Santiago and Buenos Aires), I finally started checking other destinations and found a flight from Santiago to Liberia, Costa Rica, for 667 bucks. Granted, this was still a few thousand miles short, but if you’re going to fall short, the clear waters of Guanacaste are not a bad place to do it. Using frequent flyer miles on Frontier (they give you 40,000 after your first 500 dollars in purchases), I could get the rest of the way for 25 dollars in taxes. So I found myself “forced” to spend a week at Playa Guiones, my favorite gringo beach in Costa Rica, surfing and becoming good friends with an older guy named Rob who I bonded with over having similar surfboard-inflicted rib injuries. All in all I probably spent about 900 bucks, but this was still cheaper than buying a ticket from Santiago to Seattle and I got a nice little Central American vacation out of it, too.

The bottom line: churn credit cards, check Google Flights, and be diligent about it.  Flights are changing all the time and a cheap one could open up any minute.  Nowadays the person who gets cheap airfare isn’t the one who buys two months in advance; the person who gets cheap airfare is the one who checks obsessively and dares to think outside the box.  After reading this guide, hopefully that person will be you.

 

My Top 5 Destinations for 2016

5) Iceland

ice in iceland

Photo via Pixabay.

I was going to put Greenland on here because I want to go to Greenland more, but where Iceland is high school Greenland is university, and I should probably graduate from high school first.

I actually did go to Iceland for 24 hours in 2010. I remember: little African immigrand kids on the bus speaking perfect Icelandic, hiking in 200mph winds (or similar), paying 12 dollars for a coke and a shitty slice of pizza, and resenting the kid at the front desk of my hostel for being from Cleveland.

It’s time to go back, and it’s time to stay longer. Seattle has direct (!) flights.

4) Tokyo

japan

Photo via Pixabay.

I’ve seen very little of Asia. It’s time to change this, and Tokyo seems like a good place to start.

What is life like in Tokyo? What do they eat? What do they do at 11pm on a Tuesday? And most importantly, qué pensarán de nosotros en Japón-pon?

3) Puerto Rico

fajardo

Photo via Pixabay.

One of my favorite bands, Calle 13, is from Puerto Rico. Their Spanish sounds awesome, they have good surf, and the biggest draw: they’re sort of part of the US. Now, I know Puerto Rico is technically 100% part of the US. But from everything I’ve heard and seen and listened to (especially with Calle 13), “sort of” seems like a more applicable label, and the most interesting reason to go.

Atrévete-te…

2) China

china

Photo via Pixabay.

Getting lost in Central or Western China or anywhere in China for that matter sounds magical to me. China is vast and varied. What’s Tibet like? What’s the silk road like? How about the border with Mongolia to the north or the tropical island of Hainan to the south? More importantly, what’s the giant swath of land between all these places like?

I intend to find out before it’s too late.

1) Svalbard, Norway

dog-751521_640

Photo via Pixabay.

The only thing you need to know about Svalbard is this: If you want to go for a walk outside Longyearbyen, the main town, you’re literally required by law to take a gun. This is because Svalbard has a lot of polar bears, and polar bears are dangerous. Where do you run when encounter a polar bear in the wild? Do you climb a tree? Do you hide in a snowbank and count to 30?

Also, Svalbard apparently has a lot of Thai people.

There you have them: the top 5 places I want to go in 2016. Honorable mentions include: South Korea, Quebec, Alaska, Vladivostok, the Dominican Republic, and Medford, Oregon.