Ushuaia is, quite literally, the end of the road. Located off the tip of the South American continent in the archipelago called Tierra del Fuego, it’s considered the southernmost city in the world (although the smaller, Chilean Puerto Williams is giving Ushuaia a run for its money).
As the last outpost before the Southern Ocean and the fabled Drake passage, Ushuaia has a long history as the last stop for Antarctic-bound explorers. Today, over 90 percent of Antarctic visitors begin or end their journey in this town.
Bright flowers grace this typical cottage outside of the city center
I arrived feeling drunk with sleepiness from a two day odyssey from Miami, to Buenos Aires, to Ushuaia. As recommended, we scheduled one night in Buenos Aires and one night in Ushuaia to accommodate any unexpected missed flights or missing luggage. Luckily, we avoided both, but the extra day in Ushuaia allowed us to explore the town and attempt to catch up on our sleep.
Ushuaia is a vaguely industrial looking city, but its location — between snow topped mountains and the Beagle Channel — is striking. Sprinkled among the blocky concrete buildings are splashes of color and alpine architecture. In fact, even the airport, with it’s enormous crisscrossing beams and wooden steps resembled a large ski lodge. The tidy, functional buildings, streets sloping to the harbor, and the whimsically colorful rooftops reminded me of the city of Reykjavik, capital of Iceland. Although the cities are geographically disparate, a similar climate managed to shape them into similar looking cities.
It’s easy to get oriented in Ushuaia — there’s one main drag lined with outdoor gear shops, and running below and parallel to the main street is the Beagle Channel, with the docks housing shipping and touring vessels. Like in many adventure gateway cities, a wide variety of people swarm Ushuaia’s streets wearing outdoor gear of every stripe. A fortune in the latest camera equipment rides on the shoulders and hips of Antarctica-bound “tourists”. I use the word tourist reluctantly, because any one who braves the gauntlet of air and ocean travel to get to Antarctica deserves a more serious designation.
When we arrived, we took a taxi (conveniently available throughout the city and its outskirts) into town from our comfortable Hotel Nires, which was located a five minute ride away. We browsed some of the outdoor stores (confirming that yes, they sell the same gear as REI), shopped for the ubiquitous Alfajores (sandwich cookies filled with Dulce de Leche, recipe here), and examined the film and camera bag inventory of a very well-stocked photography store.
A monument commemorates the workers at El Presidio, the local penal colony (closed in 1947)
We also popped into the much-touted Maritime Museum (Museo Maritimo de Ushuaia) to check out their Antarctic wing, which contains a large collection of ship models of Antarctic explorers. Interestingly, all of the models were created by one master model-maker, who constructed them on the same scale, so it’s easy to compare sizes and features of the various boats. However, unless you’re a model ship fanatic, I strongly suggest skipping the Maritime Museum and checking out the smaller, charming End of the World Museum (Museo del Fin del Mundo), which covers the natural and historical heritage of the area. There you can learn about the original inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego, as well as quirky stories about the sea captains, traders and prisoners that settled in the area.
Because we scheduled one night in Ushuaia, we had almost an entire day to kill before the departure of our boat to Antarctica. Besides shopping and visiting the docks and the museums, visitors to the town can choose from a handful of options for a one-day jaunt. We decided to go with a pre-arranged excursion, because we were boarding our ship, the Plancius, at 4 pm, and we didn’t want to be left at the dock. Standard options are a visit to the Tierra del Fuego National Park, a cruise along the Beagle Channel to visit sea lion and penguin rookeries, a hike up to Le Martial glacier, or . . . horse riding. Anyone that knows me will know that I picked the latter option. In any case, we wanted to avoid a bus tour (national park) and figured we would see enough penguins in the next 10 days. Friends who took the glacier hike told us that the glacier was okay, but the hot chocolate at the refuge at the end of the hike was exceptional. The local hot chocolate specialty (and a must-try item) is the “Submarino” — warm milk with a large, melting chunk of chocolate.
The horse riding was arranged at the ranch, Centro Hipico Fin Del Mundo. It was a typical affair . . . at least for the first half of the ride. As we rode through the forest above Ushuaia, we learned about a sweet tree fungus called “shau shau” (= “sweet sweet), spotted orchids and even parrots, and admired the view of the Beagle Channel, all while walking placidly in nose to tail fashion. But then, perhaps because none of us had fallen off by then, the ride turned unexpectedly into a free-for-all mad gallop, with some particularly excited Italians challenging me to a race. I kept my horse (kind of) in check though, because of visions running through my head of a broken leg mere hours before our departure. I was actually relieved when we were finally forced to walk and ford the last belly deep stream before returning to the stable. It was exciting, but maybe a little too exciting for my taste, since I hadn’t purchased trip insurance . . .
By the time we were delivered back to our hotel to wait for the final shuttle to our boat, my nerves were zinging with a combination of anticipation, anxiety and, yes, boredom. The hour crawled, as a crowd and our luggage gathered in the hotel lobby. Between surveying the fellow passengers (there would be approximately 100 people on our ship) and checking for the bus, we tried to read our books and check last minute emails. Finally, the bus arrived and we piled in. Despite the wide range of ages, nationalities and background, I felt like I was on a Cancun party bus, or at least on a fifth grade field trip to Disneyland.
Next up . . . We meet our ship, the Plancius, and face the Drake Passage in - The Drake Passage: It’s Not so Bad Until It is.
If you go:
- If you have enough time and flexibility, book at least several days in Buenos Aires to explore the city and an additional night in Ushuaia to fully recover from the long trip. Believe me, you don’t want to start your Antarctic adventure with a sleep deficit.
- If you’re really flexible, it’s possible to book last minute, empty spots on Antarctica-bound boats. You can get amazing deals, but do your research.
- The city is known for its King Crab. I don’t eat seafood, but other passengers on our boat raved about it.
- Don’t worry if your hotel is outside of the main part of town. Taxis are cheap and plentiful, and the scenery surrounding the city is spectacular.
- If you run into the wine shop in town, don’t bother stocking up on wine like we did, unless you want to drink alone in your tiny room. Per ship policy, passengers can’t bring their own wine to dinner.
- Enjoy the green. It will be a while before you see it again!