A Land of Fire and Ice – 5 Things to Do in Ushuaia
The city of Ushuaia lies at the southernmost tip of Argentina – the part that looks almost like a tongue that’s trying to lick the ice cream cone of Antarctica. As the southernmost city in the world, it bills itself as El Fin Del Mundo – the End of the World. You might imagine Ushuaia to be a cold place, and you would be right – penguins are frequent visitors, and snow-capped mountains packed with glaciers guard the city’s back as it faces the icy sea. Ushuaia is the last port of call for cruises heading down to Antarctica.
And yet, the land that Ushuaia is capital city of is named Tierra Del Fuego – the Land of Fires. This name had long captured my imagination, as my mind’s eye conjured images of fire erupting from mysteriously smouldering ground.
Turns out, the true image that inspired the name is equally as awe-inspiring: as the early explorers sailed around the region, trying to get from the Atlantic to the Pacific around Cape Horn, they saw many fires glowing in the dark distance, dotting the shoreline at night. It was this way that they knew that the region was inhabited.
Getting to the End of the World
Once again, my visit to Ushuaia was entirely thanks to my friend and travel companion for South America, Val. She grew up watching a French television show called “Ushuaia” that showed adventurous places. Much like Easter Island had been a long-held dream of mine, she had wanted to visit El Fin Del Mundo ever since she was a child. Ushuaia turned out to be an amazing place – yet another unexpected highlight of my South American Journey.
Getting to Ushuaia was no easy feat! It seems that most flights down there from outside the country originate in Buenos Aires, so we flew back to Santiago from Easter Island and immediately caught a connecting flight to BA. By this time, it was quite late at night, so we overnighted at the EZE airport – obviously a ‘thing’ as we saw many other travellers stretched out on the many benches there. Val caught some good sleep but I wasn’t as lucky. When we boarded our early morning flight down to Ushuaia, I was in a right sleep-deprived state.
I perked up immediately after arriving, though – the incredibly fresh air and stunning scenery did more than caffeine ever could to revive my sensibilities. Mountains dropped off into the sea, leaving just a small ring of space at their base for the town to huddle, colourful and cheery in the face of such natural inhospitability. “You shouldn’t be here!” Nature seemed to be saying. “Too bad, it’s really pretty here so we think we’ll say,” the town seemed to cheekily answer. It had that plucky feeling similar to mountain towns in Colorado that speak to the pioneer spirit of determination in the face of adversity.
We decided to stay at an Airbnb that was a little outside of the main town but which had a beautiful view of the Beagle Channel. We needed a car for that, and for all the other places we wanted to go, so we rented a car from an Avis shop in town that we had pre-reserved for about $40/day (though you can also rent them from the airport). This turned out to be a very wise move, as our Airbnb turned out to be halfway up the mountain (this was not obvious on the map, but became immediately clear once we arrived and realized how little of the town was on flat ground.)
Val and I split the driving. I was very excited because I’d only recently gained my manual license in London before departing on this trip, and all the cars they had there were manual. Val soon learned that my driving skills had sadly not improved much since Easter Island, where at least I could blame things on the ubiquitous potholes. Alas, Ushuaia’s roads were all too clear but my shifting still…lagged…as we drove around exploring this beautiful land.
We had just four days in this beautiful, remote part of the world – far too short, but enough time to pack in some amazing highlights and these are the top 5 things to do in Ushuaia.
Things to Do in Ushuaia
If we had more time, I know we would have liked to stay closer to two weeks to just enjoy the beauty of this region. Still, we had almost four full days in Ushuaia, and I’d say that this was the perfect amount of time in order to get a high-level view of what the region has to offer.
1. Explore the Local History via Museums
Ushuaia was another point in my backward retracing of Darwin’s watery footsteps – Galapagos, Lima, Valparaiso, and now here. (New Zealand and Australia would be yet to come.) The narrow channel separating the end of the continent and the smattering of islands to the south is now known as the Beagle Channel, named for the plucky little ship that could – and did – circumnavigate the globe in the name of scientific exploration.
The good ship Beagle actually had an ongoing relationship with Tierra Del Fuego in the form of three Fuegan children that Captain FitzRoy had picked up and taken back to England on one of the ship’s previous voyages. The Beagle was in the process of returning the three – nicknamed Fuega Basket, Jemmy Button, and York Minster – back to their homes. You can read more about their incredible story here.
There is a museum underneath the restaurant Taberna del Viejo Lobo (Old Wolf Tavern) that has great interactive exhibits and photographs explaining the history of the region. I can’t find a website for the museum, but I heartily recommend it, along with the tavern itself for a good meal with a great view. Pictures below are from the museum.
One of the sadder parts of visiting Ushuaia is learning what happened to the local tribes that Darwin had encountered. The fact of the matter is, they were basically exterminated as a matter of government policy. There are beautiful street art renditionst throughout Ushuaia as a tribute to the history of these almost-forgotten people.
A short walk from the prison museum, on Avenue Maipu, is the Museum of the End of the World. Here you will find more information on the local tribes, as well as more on Ushuaia’s maritime history, including bits of shipwrecks. It’s definitely worth an hour or two.
2. Ride the Convict Train
Given its distance from civilization and its rugged terrain, it makes sense that in 1883 the government of Argentina decided to turn the small town of Ushuaia into a penal colony. It shipped prisoners down, and they were used as labour to build their own prison and much of the town. You can visit the old prison, which is now a museum that covers Ushuaia’s maritime history and holds art exhibits as well.
The other thing that the prisoners did was build a railroad – known locally as the Convict Train. This train was used to transport them to the ‘labor’ portion of their sentence, which was felling trees, and to transport the lumber back for use in the city.
Steam trains still ply the route, with various carriages for different levels of poshness. We bought round-trip tickets and took it out to its end, where the national park, Parque National Tierra Del Fuego, begins. As you go along, you can see the stumps of the trees the convicts felled – those that are shorter were felled in the summer, and the taller ones were felled in the winter, when the snow was high. It’s enough to chill your bones to imagine the convicts, dressed in barely protective clothing, being sent out every day in snow up to their wastes to cut down trees and serve away their sentence with the swing of an axe.
The train station is just outside of the city and is easily reachable by car or taxi. Just note that there are only three departure times a day, and they vary between low and high season, so best to check here before you go. The train ride takes approximately one hour, with a brief stop in the middle on the way at a waterfall. You can catch the return train back with a round-trip ticket, though many people choose to take a bus or taxi back rather than wait.
3. Hike Tierra Del Fuego National Park
We, being the train geeks that we are, were not about to miss the chance to ride this piece of history twice! Lucky for us, the train lets you out not far from the entrance to the Tierra Del Fuego National Park. After paying the 200 pesos entry fee, we were free to hike a range of trails. We didn’t have a map, so we just used maps that were posted regularly and followed the blazing provided. Our hike took us through thick forest, beautiful glens, and up to the top of the mountain, where we had incredible views of other mountain range as well as the Beagle Channel. We hiked down to the Channel and lay on the grass, enjoying the view. I’ll never forget how good that felt, realizing that it was a weekday and I should be in the office, but I was instead enjoying one of the most beautiful sights in the world.
4. Hiking Martial Glacier
Having gotten a taste for hiking, we decided to go next to the Martial Glacier, which you can hike directly up to. It was about a 20 minute drive from our hotel to the starting point of the hike. It seemed to be no big deal, so we set out without any gear, much like we’d hiked the Channel. However, it turned out that – shocker here – much of the hike was actually on ice and we were poorly prepared. Still, persevere we did, and we were rewarded by amazing views.
On the hike down, we spotted a cozy little tea house, La Cabana Casa De Te, and we popped in for some much-needed tea and cake (the ultimate post-glacial hike pick-me-up). The warmth and sweetness of both totally hit the spot and started to warm us back up from the inside. Highly recommend this place on your way back to the parking lot.
5. Cruise to See the Penguins!
One of the first things we were dying to do was to go see the penguins – Ushuaia’s most famous residents. There were a number of little huts each that lined the harbour, and we went to each to enquire about their tours. I won’t go into detail, other than to say that one is spoilt for choice: you can go on a large boat with indoor space and a cafe, medium-sized catamarans, or small sailboats that are more intimate.
We chose a sailing cruise partly based on price, partly based on size – we wanted a more intimate experience, and we wanted to sit outside on the sailboat to experience the wind in our hair and the spray in our faces. Luckily, they gave us very attractive waterproof yellow outer gear to help cut down on the cold!
Boat sailed to multiple islands, where we got to see Gentoo and King penguins fairly up close. Apparently they’re there year round, so you can see them anytime. One catamaran tour lets you get off onto the island to see them even closer, but it was more expensive and we felt it was intrusive for the poor penguins as well.
End of the World, End of a Travel Partnership
Unfortunately, Ushuaia marked the end of my journey with Val. We had made the pact to travel through South America together when we were both still students at London Business School. She graduated before me in January and headed out to Asia, and I vowed to meet up with her after I’d graduated the following July, when she’d be heading to South America. We had traversed the entire West Coast together, including detours to outlying isles of the Galapagos and Easter Island, and now we’d run out of continent – literally. Val decided to head back up to explore Patagonia in Argentina, but I’d been a few times before, so I decided to leave LatAm behind and get myself over to another corner of the Polynesian Triangle – it was finally time for New Zealand!