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Patagonia: Two at the tip

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They're the South American equivalents of Williams, Ariz.

And why? Because Williams only matters to us tourists -- and only has all those motel rooms -- because a well-known ditch called the Grand Canyon is an hour up the road.

Ushuaia, in Argentina, population 65,000, is a place to eat and sleep and party a little while waiting to grab a ride on an Antarctica-bound excursion vessel or as a base for exploring semi-tamed chunks of Tierra del Fuego. Either plan is a valid reason to rush down here.

Punta Arenas, in Chile, population 115,000, has the closest decent airport to Torres del Paine, the mind-blowing national park a day's drive away. That's reason enough to get down here.

But as towns, well . . .

Cruise ships sailing around Cape Horn stop at one or both, and they deserve that. They would even be worth an extra day if the big boats weren't in so much of a hurry.

That's about it.

Both towns claim to be the world's southernmost, which matters mainly to people who sell mugs and T-shirts and, this being South America, to passionate locals.

On local signage and souvenirs, Ushuaia declares itself fin del mundo -- end of the world. And yes, Punta Arenas, speaking latitudenally, indeed is north of Ushuaia.

Ah, but there are technicalities.

"Ushuaia is on an island," notes a veterinarian who happens to be Chilean, specifically Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego. Punta Arenas, she further notes, is not. It's on the mainland.

"If we allow islands," she ultimately notes, "there is Puerto Williams." Which is a modest (population 2,000) settlement south of Ushuaia, on a Beagle Channel island, in Chile.

So Chile's Puerto Williams, strictly speaking (and not counting Antarctica, whose largest town is a few shacks with instruments), is at the fin del mundo.

But chances are you won't go there, though you can. The "southernmost" vote here is for Ushuaia, but the restaurants are a little better in Punta Arenas, which, in the fin, is all that matters -- aside from both being surrounded by Tierra del Fuego and the rest of Patagonia, which counts for something.

And one last point:

Both Ushuaia and Punta Arenas have accessible penguins.

Ushuaia

If you don't mind how far it is from everything, the setting is nice. It's on the Beagle Channel, which separates Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego (which is half in Chile, half in Argentina) from Isla Navarino (all Chile's), and is framed most of the time by snow-dusted peaks.

In the era before regularly scheduled airline service, it was home to a prison -- location, location, location -- and was a lively port for exporting wool, timber and a little gold. The prison closed in 1947 and is a museum, the gold didn't last, timber is scarce these days and the wool business isn't what it was, which leaves tourism as the primary local industry.

It shows.

The main drag, Avenida San Martin, looks like a hundred other tourist strips around the world, a concentration of souvenir shops, lodgings, restaurants, tour offices, photo processors, Internet cafes and places to quench thirst. Plus a casino.

What differentiates this one from, say, Jackson Hole, aside from the direction water swirls down toilets and the reality that Antarctica is the next major stop south, is the weather.

You know that thing about, "If you don't like the weather, wait a minute"? They say it in Chicago and Iowa and Oklahoma and just about every place but San Diego, but here, it's absolutely true.

"We have the high pressure and the low pressure," explains taxi driver Ignacio Rodriguez, "and all the time they are fighting, you know?"

So when you book a boat ride to see the penguins . . .

"If you wake up in the morning and it's raining, it doesn't matter," he says. "You take your things and you go. In a couple of hours, you can have sun."

Which is exactly what happened when we did it: rain at the start, sunshine soon enough, rain that night.

Several dockside companies offer variations of the ride. Ours, sold by Rumbo Sur (about $61; price subject to change;http://www.rumbo sur.com.ar/ingles/indexeng.htm), took us through the channel and right alongside rocks populated by sea lions, gulls, cormorants, albatrosses and, most popularly, Magellanic penguins. It's a knockout boat ride.

"It is a special place," the boat's guide, Maria Schroder, tells us. "The mountains, the sea, the penguins . . . special."

Penguins. Even before they became movie stars, they were irresistible. They are irresistible here.

For a few dollars more, the boat tours include a stop at Estancia Harberton, once a thriving sheep ranch and now mainly a place where boat tours stop.

"We were isolated at first," says biologist Natalie Goodall, who came here with her husband, Tom, in 1963 to run the place and stayed. "We didn't have a road." They had a small plane. "Tom would go to town once a month or once every two months . . . "

And she tells tales of Tierra del Fuego . . . Land of Fire . . . this island at the End of the World.

"The natives built fires for their initiation ceremonies," she says. "The Europeans were afraid of the fire."

So the quaking Europeans -- specifically, Ferdinand Magellan, the explorer -- gave the place a name, eventually overcame their fear of fire and finally, as Europeans tended to do, took the place from the natives.

Today, for a small fee, we're allowed to poke around Tierra del Fuego National Park.

There are many ways to do it. There's a train ride, for one -- but really, this is a park that should be climbed, kayaked, mountain-biked or, minimum, walked.

My walk was a 6-miler along Lapataia Bay -- a beauty -- a mix of beach, rocky shoreline, forest, wildlife and fine mountain views, along with congenial fellow hikers from all over the world like Hollanders Anieka and Pieter. They came all the way here from Utrecht for . . .

"The adventure," says Anieka. "The name 'Patagonia' says 'adventure.' And it's 'the end of the world.' People are drawn to the 'end' of things."

Speaking of "ends": We may be seeing the end of Ushuaia as we've known it. Many of the old corrugated metal and wood homes and commercial structures from the frontier days, some more than a century old, are threatened by deterioration, commercial expansion and other forces.

"We're happy to be growing and to have new hotels and blah-blah-blah," said a woman who works for the city, "but part of the charm is these old buildings.

"I think it happens all over the world."

Even, regrettably, at fin del mundo . . .

Punta Arenas

Let me tell you about the wind in Punta Arenas.

The guidebooks say the city sometimes puts ropes up around the city square -- Munoz Gamero Square -- for pedestrians to grab when the gales get silly, and those, I didn't see.

But this one Saturday night, as I was returning from a late dinner, the wind was really something.

Other pedestrians seemed oblivious. Stray dogs dealt with it. A few disco-bound female adolescents squealed a bit as they sensed all their primping was being violently unprimped, but they coped.

I don't have the m.p.h. numbers, but I was clinging to the sides of buildings -- and I'm from Chicago.

"Nice night," I said, breathlessly, upon returning to my hotel. I was attempting irony.

"Si," said the night clerk, who probably meant it.

That bit of meteorological local color aside, this isn't a bad little city.

For sure it's got history. Like Ushuaia, they stashed prisoners here (location, etc.). Antarctic explorers Roald Amundsen and Robert Scott spent some time here, though not in irons. So did Magellan, whose name graces the strait upon which Punta Arenas sits as well as the region's predominant penguin. He's celebrated by a statue (c. 1920) in the square that's both lovely (lots of greenery) and a favorite gathering spot for those stray dogs as well as locals who just like to sit in the park or chat.

It's also a daily marketplace for clothing and artwork and, especially, souvenir penguins of every conceivable material.

As with Ushuaia, tour companies sell boat trips to a main penguin colony -- here, Isla Magdalena, home of more than 100,000 of the little guys. Expect to pay about $42 for that five-hour excursion (tryhttp://www.comapa.com , the town's big tour company) on seas that might be a tad choppy (see reference to wind that's really something, above).

For about half the price and in less time (about four hours total), your hotel will arrange a minivan tour that drives you to a much smaller beach colony (just a couple thousand) of the exact same penguins -- at Seno Otway -- without the risk of rough water.

I did the drive. Liked it. You make the call.

Tour companies can also set up quickie trips to Torres del Paine that give you a few hours in one of the most spectacular, and (speaking, yet again, meteorologically now) finicky environments on the planet. By all means get to Torres del Paine -- but not just for lunch, or there's a good chance all you'll see is horizontal rain.

And as with Ushuaia, there are Antarctica options here, though they're less conventional (mainly fly-ins rather than boat trips) than the ones offered on the Argentina side.

OK, back to Punta Arenas, the city. When the wind isn't making your eyes water and whipping your hair to a frenzy, it's actually a very pleasant place to be, even if it does only take a day or two to exhaust the possibilities.

The city cemetery, walkable from the center, is fascinating for the design and, sometimes, the extravagance of its memorials set among the cypress trees. There are a couple of museums and some fine eating places to try the local delicacy, congrio, a kind of eel (better than it sounds) best enjoyed either in soup (caldillo de congrio) or fried (congrio fritto). Nice people, just enough of whom speak English.

So. There you have it.

Ushuaia and Punta Arenas. Come visit.

And if the visit is short?

It's not the end of the world.

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asolomon@tribune.com

MORE STORIES ONLINE

For previous stories on Torres del Paine, rounding the Horn and flightseeing to Antarctica, go to:

chicagotribune.com/headingsouth

- - -

IF YOU GO

Punta Arenas

American and LAN Airlines (Chilean) both offer two-stop service (Miami, Santiago) to Punta Arenas out of O'Hare; a recent check found fares at $1,573 and $1,697 (subject to change).

GETTING AROUND

Aside from excursions to see the penguins (tour options abound) or the longer trip to Torres del Paine, this is a walking town. Just about anything of tourist interest is within a few blocks of the central square, Plaza de Armas; the most remote attraction is the picturesque cemetery, and that's just a comfortable eight-block walk from the center.

STAYING THERE

The better hotels are all within two blocks of the Plaza de Armas. Two are right there: the handsomely refurbished Cabo de Hornos (doubles from $200, subject to change;http://www.hoteles-australis.com ) and the small, elegant Hotel Jose Nogueira (from $190; http://www.hotelnogueira.com ). A block and a half away, the Hotel Isla Rey Jorge (from $146; http://www.islarey jorge.com) has the feel of a cozy English hunting lodge; two blocks the other way from the square, the doubles at the Hotel Finis Terrae (from $176; http://www.hotelfinisterrae.com ) are a little tight, but everything is clean and congenial. There also are hostels galore. (Rates are seasonal, with high season mid-October to mid-April; all rates listed are high-season.)

DINING THERE

Surprisingly good for a town at (or near) the end of the world, and like the hotels, all those listed are an easy walk from the square. I've only had better lamb once (at an inn in Quebec) than the minted, roasted version ($13.25) discovered at the convivial Restaurant Damiana Elena, on Avenida O'Higgins. Congrio, a conger (that's eel) that isn't eely at all, is a staple here, found in a nice soup ($5.85) at a locals lunchtime favorite, Dona Maria, near the Isla Rey Jorge, and perfectly fried ($7.11) at La Luna, a favorite of tourists and local families on another part of O'Higgins. Two of the best, both a bit of a splurge: Brocolino (try the lamb sweetbreads in champagne cream sauce, $7.60), steps from La Luna; and anything at Sotito's Bar, down the street from Brocolino, which isn't a bar but a fine restaurant whose seafood and lamb and king crab attracts a knowing Chilean clientele. Untried but recommended by people I trust: the Saturday-Sunday dinner buffet in the sixth-floor restaurant at the Hotel Finis Terrae; the parrilla at Los Ganaderos; and a Spanish restaurant overlooking the square, La Tasca.

INFORMATION: Chilean Tourism Promotion Corporation, 866-YESCHILE;http://www.visit-chile.org .

Ushuaia

Aerolineas Argentinas will get you from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia and back for about $634 (subject to change); a recent check found Mexicana with the lowest one-stop O'Hare-Buenos Aires fare, at $852 for the round trip; United, American and Delta also do one-stops at fares ranging from $943 to $993. So we're talking about $1,500 to $1,600 for the whole trip.

NOTE: You can do the whole circuit -- O'Hare to Ushuaia, Ushuaia to Punta Arenas, Punta Arenas to O'Hare, using a variety of airlines -- for a total cost within a couple of hundred dollars of that Chicago to Ushuaia fare. You might want to see a travel agent to work that out.

GETTING AROUND

If you're staying in the center, you'll walk everywhere. When walking isn't an option -- airport runs, getting to Tierra del Fuego National Park, trying a restaurant on the fringe of things -- metered taxis are surprisingly easy to find and refreshingly inexpensive, never more than a couple of dollars. Supplementing the taxis are buses, the best way into and out of the national park. There are multiple companies, which generally charge 25 pesos (about $8) for the round trip.

STAYING THERE

Most attractive of the in-town lodgings is a relatively new boutique hotel, the Hotel Lennox ($170 doubles, subject to change and seasonal variation;http://www.lennoxhotel.com.ar ), with stylish rooms, a dazzling rooftop breakfast area and location right in the middle of things. The Hotel Albatros ($160; http://www.albatroshotel.com.ar ), nearby, is larger and almost as nice. Next door to the Albatros is the Hotel Canal Beagle ($134; http://www.hotelcanalbeagle.com.ar ), plain, clean, competent and nothing special -- but OK for the price. Across the street from the Lennox, the spotless Hotel Cesar Hostal ($60; http://www.hotelcesarhostal.com.ar ) is a good-value option -- yes, rooms have private baths -- but some rooms are pretty tight; consider upgrading to a triple for the $10 difference. The only five-star (for now) is the Hotel y Resort Las Hayas ($262; http://www.lashayas.com.ar ), way above the city (but only a $2 or $3 taxi ride), boasting awesome views and, in its Martial Restaurant, the handsomest dining room around. A few steps up a path and sharing Las Hayas' owner and great views (but not its facilities), the new four-star Los Acebos Ushuaia ($185; http://www.losacebos.com.ar ).

DINING THERE

Aside from the Las Hayas restaurant, Ushuaia's dining scene is largely casual with a Buenos Aires flavor: lots of beef, milanesas (breaded veal), pastas and pizza. Avenida San Martin, the main drag, abounds in parrillas -- places featuring char-broiled steaks and other cow parts -- though we went for a local speciality, spit-roasted lamb, at La Estensia Parrilla ($7.65). Also enjoyed, at cozy Bodegon Fueguino a couple of blocks away, lamb chops with spring onion and leek sauce ($7.65), one of its several saucy options. Being on the water, there's plenty of fresh fish and seafood here, notably centolla -- king crab -- in lots of variations. At La Casa de los Mariscos, we had the crab, a generous portion, in a tomato-based sopa ($5), then in a crab-octopus cazuela (that's a casserole, $15.60) that was bread-sopping good. Also yummy: tallarin (like spaghetti) and seafood sauce ($9.25) at La Cantina Fueguina de Freddy. Also, for snacks, we found empanadas, those luscious little meat pies. You will too.

INFORMATION: Ushuaia Tourist Board,http://www.e-ushuaia.com ; or the Argentina Tourism Office, 212-603-0443; http://www.turismo.gov.ar.

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