Ushuaia Patagonia Argentina
Ushuaia, known as the southernmost city in the world, is the capital of the Tierra del Fuego province that includes the Argentine arctic islands and the Islas Malvinas. It is a mystical land located on the bay of the largest island of the province. Situated at precisely 54 degrees latitude south and 68 degrees latitude west, the only thing south of Ushuaia is Antarctica at only 1,000 km. The small capital is tucked in between the trailing end of the snowcapped Andes in the north, and the expansive shore of the Beagle Channel in the south. This impressive and majestic scenery along with the rich variety of outdoor activities available make Ushuaia an unforgettable trip of a lifetime.
I recently visited Ushuaia and I wish I could have stayed longer. Ushuaia is one of those surreal places that makes you remember the wonder of nature in the rawest and refreshing way possible. It is a strangely bizarre yet beautiful place. Not surprisingly, the world’s southernmost city is an environment of extremes. Where the sun rises at 5 am, and sets at 10 pm in the summer and rises at 10 am and sets at 5 pm in the winter. The jagged peaks of the martial glaciers of the Andes hover the town and sharply lead into the bay facing the Arctic. Although I visited during the peak of the summer season while hiking up a relatively small mountain, it had managed to drizzle, hail, and snow pretty hard all in the span of 20 minutes. By the time I finished the one hour trek, it was sunny, and the sky was clear. A local running joke in the town is that if you don’t like the weather in Ushuaia, just wait 10 minutes.
To understand this extreme city, a little local history is necessary. Just forty years ago, the provincial capital was home to a population of 5,000 residents. Today, it is estimated that nearly 150,000 people call Ushuaia and its vicinity home. This 11-fold increase in population from 1970 to 2015 makes it one of the sharpest population growths in the world. This boom is due in part to the growth in tourism, in which many visitors come to the area as a cruise gateway to Antarctica. However, it is also a product of repopulation programs spearheaded by the Argentine government.
In the 16th century, explorer Ferdinand Magellan stumbled upon the Beagle channel. There he saw lots of smoke rising from bonfires lit by the indigenous Yamana people as a way to warn neighboring tribes in the area of strangers. Magellan thus named the place “Tierra del Fuego” or land of fire. As had happened in other places, with the introduction of early settlers and missionaries the indigenous Yamana people, subject to disease and murder, became virtually extinct by the end of the 19th century. An 89-year old woman by the name of Cristina Calderón is the last known full-blooded Yamana and is the only remaining native speaker of the language.
For much of Argentina’s national history, the province of Tierra del Fuego was considered as the country’s Siberia. Some Argentine immigrant families settled in the remote region as missionaries and pioneers in the vast land. Taking advantage of Ushuaia distance and isolation, the Argentine government set up a penal colony there, where repeat offenders and political prisoners were sent (today the old jail functions as a museum). From 1902 to 1947, the prisoners labored in constructing the town. In the mid-20th century, the Argentine government feared possible land encroachment by Chile (the frenemy next-door), and consequently, began implementing incentivization programs in efforts to stimulate internal migration and to the area. Soon after, national industries, especially the electronics industry, began to set up shop in the province’s capital. Meanwhile, the Argentine navy established a significant naval base. With this rapid influx of commerce and tourism, however, Ushuaia and Tierra del Fuego has since faced environmental issues, overpopulation, and housing problems. After walking around the humble and charming town, the fast pace of the city’s growth becomes evident in its jumbled housing, chaotic city planning, and the occasional decrepit infrastructure that struggles to keep up with the pace of change.
What to do in Ushuaia
Ushuaia is an outdoor adventure hub. Beginning in the shoulder seasons into the winter, cross-country ski fields, notably Cerro Castor, and dog-sledding excursions in the Martial mountains provide are challenging endeavors, not for the faint-hearted. Most tourists, however, come to Ushuaia to enjoy the summer months (December to March), where the days are the warmest and sunlight lasts around 16-18 hours. As I noted earlier, weather during the summer varies greatly, but one can more or less expect temps in the low to mid-teens. It is a good idea to pack thick socks to pair with comfy hiking boots, a sports jacket, and warm hat.
One can spend a day roaming around the town and exploring the port. A city tour operates from September to April and provides an excellent introduction to the contradictorily sleepy yet bustling port town. The city also has three museums that are worth visiting if you find yourself stuck in (temporary) lousy weather: Museo Del Fin Del Mundo, the Museo Maritime, and the Museo Yamana.
However, the main draw of Ushuaia is its striking and wildly spectacular natural scenery. If you aren’t one of lucky few you gets to go on an Antarctic expedition, make sure to take a boat tour of the Beagle Channel that guides you through the breathtaking and chilly waters of the channel, around the little islands inhabited by sea lions and native bird species, and offers jaw-dropping views of the mountain range along the strait. Most tours last about three hours and are easily bookable at the tourist stands located along the port. The majority of boat tours leave in the morning at around 9 am and again in the afternoon at 1 pm.
One experience I highly recommend, and one that I will never forget, is the Penguin Tour at Harberton Ranch offered exclusively by Piratour. This excursion takes you a few hours away to Estancia Harberton, an enormous ranch established in 1886 by an Anglican missionary by the name of Thomas Bridges, who also happened to write the only dictionary on the Yamana language. Under the ownership of Bridges’ direct descendants, visitors on this excursion can tour the grounds, gardens, and museum of natural history, Museo Acatushún de Aves y Mamíferos Marinos Australes that focuses on the region’s native marine mammals and bird species. However, the main attraction of this tour is the navigation by boat to Isla Martillo, a 20-minute ride once inside the estancia, where one can walk amongst the Magellanic penguins in their native habitat. You actually get incredibly close to the hundreds of penguins that call the tiny island home. It is almost indescribable. If you’re lucky enough to go in during the summer months, you will get to observe the penguins raising their cute little penguin baby. Piratour’s excursion costs around AR$2500 pesos and includes a guide, an hour walk with the penguins, transportation by bus and boat to and from the estancia, a tour of the estancia, and a guided tour of the museum. It does not include the entrance to the Harberton ranch at around 200 ARG pesos. Although this experience does not come cheap, I highly recommend it. Excursions run daily from 2:30 pm from their office on the port and last about 6 hours. Booking and more information can be found on their website here.
Arguably the best way to enjoy and take in the wild side of Ushuaia is to visit the Tierra del Fuego National Park. The protected national park itself is huge, covers 620 sq km, though only a tiny portion of this land is accessible to the public. The park is reachable by car along route 3 at just 12 kilometers west from the center of Ushuaia. The country’s only coastal national park is full of dramatic, postcard-worthy landscapes of bays, beaches, valleys, forests, glaciers and rugged mountain peaks. Tierra del Fuego offers boundless opportunities for hiking, climbing, fishing, and kayaking– to name a few. It is recommendable to take a car rental as it makes it easier to navigate the park to the different hiking paths, but you can also organize a bus or hire a taxi in town.
For serious outdoor trekkers, I recommend the Senda Costera (Coastal path), an 8 km hike from Ensenada bay to Lapataia bay on the Lago Roca. It is one of the most iconic views in the park and can only be reached by foot. If you haven’t had enough hiking, combine the Senda Costera with the Pampa Alta trail that connects to the Ensenada Bay and offers stellar views of the channel.
If you don’t consider yourself super outdoorsy person, not to worry! Neither do I. If I can enjoy Tierra del Fuego as much as I did, anyone can enjoy it. Some shorter walks that are worth it include Sendero Laguna Negra: just 400m takes you to a dark lake stained by the fauna and variety of walks that lead from the main port that offer a beautiful view of the park’s rugged, snow-covered peaks. Also, be sure to check out the Train of the End of the World, which is exactly what it sounds like. The old, steam-powered train, built by prisoners to carry firewood, takes you along 25 km of the park’s valleys and forest along the Rio Pipo, lasting about one hour.
When you visit the park remember that camping and fires are only allowed in designated areas. Be sure to ask the friendly park rangers for a map and more information upon entering. There is a park center with a restaurant, bathrooms, an information stand, a gift shop, and temporary exhibitions. If you bring food in the park make sure to keep food away from animals: the foxes are used to human contact and try to take advantage of the food. Daily entrance costs about 140 ARG for foreigners with discounts available for seniors and children.