Recently, a young Chilean woman told me she moved to Tierra del Fuego because its clear nighttime skies offered spectacular views of the stars. It struck me, later, that there’s more than one way to interpret what she said.
Divided between Argentina and Chile, Tierra del Fuego is a large but thinly populated archipelago with an international reputation but only a handful of cities and towns. For most foreign visitors on a Patagonia vacation, the prime destination is Argentina’s Beagle Channel port of Ushuaia, the gateway to Antarctica, usually reached by air or cruise ship. For overland travelers, though, the tiny town of Tolhuin, where the land begins to rise midway between the industrial flatlands city of Río Grande and Ushuaia’s scenic sierras, the bakery known as Panadería La Unión has become an obligatory stopover.
In fact, all the buses that travel between Ushuaia and the Chilean city of Punta Arenas, on the South American mainland, stop here so that passengers can load up on medialunas (Argentina’s version of the French croissant) and other pastries, plus empanadas and chocolates for a 12-hour trip that involves a ferry crossing over the Strait of Magellan (there are no longer any flights between Ushuaia and Punta Arenas). So does almost every Argentine motorist en route to “the uttermost part of the earth” (to appropriate the title of pioneer Lucas Bridges’s memoir of his life on the island).
Many of them stop in hopes of glimpsing the Argentine and even foreign celebrities whose photographs cover the walls. Among them are the (now disgraced) President Carlos Menem (pictured above), the Dylanesque folk-rock singer León Greco (pictured below at left; his signature album “De Ushuaia a La Quiaca” spanned the length of the country) and even the US rock drummer Marky Ramone (pictured at bottom; the Ramones were enormously popular in Argentina). In a town that takes its name from an indigenous word meaning the “heart” of the island, there’s also a tribute to the late Buenos Aires surgeon René Favaloro, who pioneered coronary bypass surgery while working in the United States.
However quintessentially Argentine La Unión may be, it has one surprising shortcoming. In a country where almost every remote town offers fresh espresso on the spot, the “bakery to the stars” offers only a coin-operated vending machine to purchase coffee.