USHUAIA, the provincial capital and hub of tourism for the whole of Tierra del Fuego, lies in the far south of Isla Grande. Dramatically situated between the mountains – among them Cerro Martial and Monte Olivia – and the sea, the town tumbles, rather chaotically, down the hillside to the encircling arm of land that protects its bay from the southwesterly winds and occasional thrashing storms of the icy Beagle Channel. Ushuaia is primarily a convenient base for exploring the rugged beauty of the lands that border the channel, a historically important sea passage, but be warned that it exploits tourism to the full – prices vary between high and astronomical. Puerto Williams lies just across the channel, on the southern (Chilean) side of the straits, and there are other trips as well: to historic Estancia Harberton, to a small penguin colony, and to nearby Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego. In winter, there’s decent skiing in the Sierra Alvear region north of town; in warmer seasons, it’s also good for trekking.
Every year on June 21 – the longest night of the year – the Bajada de Las Antorchas takes place, with the darkness celebrated by a torchlit ski descent of Cerro Martial’s slopes, traditionally opening the season. Daylight lasts from about 9am until 4pm at this time of year.
In 1869, Reverend Waite Stirling became Tierra del Fuego’s first white settler when he founded his Anglican mission among the Yámana here; the city takes its name from the Yámana tongue, and means something akin to “bay that stretches towards the west”. Stirling stayed for six months, before being recalled to the Islas Malvinas/Falklands Islands to be appointed Anglican bishop for South America. Thomas Bridges, his assistant, took over the mission in 1871, after which Ushuaia began to figure on mariners’ charts as a place of refuge in the event of shipwreck. A modest monument to the achievements of the early missionaries can be found where the first mission stood, on the south side of Ushuaia Bay, and is reached by the modern causeway southwest of the town centre.
In 1884, Commodore Augusto Lasserre raised the Argentine flag over Ushuaia for the first time, formally incorporating the area into the Argentine Republic. From 1896, in order to consolidate its sovereignty and open up the region to wider colonization, the Argentine state established a penal colony here. Forced convict labour was used for developing the settlement’s infrastructure and for logging the local forests to build the town, but the prison had a reputation as the Siberia of Argentina and Perón closed it in 1947.
Nowadays, Ushuaia has a quite different reputation: the most populous, and popular, town in Tierra del Fuego, it depends largely on its thriving tourist industry, capitalizing on the beauty of its natural setting. You’ll soon catch on that this is the world’s most southerly resort, allowing you to amass claims to fame galore – golf on the world’s most southerly course, a ride on the world’s most southerly train, and so on. Ushuaia has plenty of sites worthy of a visit on their own merits, but unfortunately tourism has been allowed to develop with scant regard for the unique character of the town, and has changed it almost beyond recognition in the last decade. At certain moments you can still get a sense of the other-worldliness that used to make Ushuaia special, but if you are coming expecting a Chatwin-esque frontier town, you will be disappointed.Read More
No trip to Ushuaia is complete without a voyage on the legendary Beagle Channel, the majestic, mountain-fringed sea passage south of the city. Most boat excursions start and finish in Ushuaia, and you get the best views of town looking back at it from the straits. Standard trips visit Isla Bridges, Isla de los Pájaros and Isla de los Lobos, looping around Faro Les Eclaireurs, sometimes erroneously called the Lighthouse at the End of the World – that title belongs to the beacon at the tip of Isla de los Estados – on their way back. On boat trips, look out for sea birds such as the Black-browed Albatross, the thick-set Giant Petrel, Southern Skuas and the South American Tern, as well as marine mammals such as sea lions, Peale’s dolphin (with a grey patch on its flank) and the occasional minke whale.
Boats depart from the Muelle Turístico, where you’ll find agents’ booking huts: recommended vessels include the Barracuda, offering good-value, informative tours (daily 3pm; 3hr; $120), and the long-running Tres Marías, a quiet motorized sailboat, whose trip includes trekking on Isla “H” to see Yámana shell middens. There are lots of other trips of a similar length in various size boats available, but bear in mind the large catamarans make it harder to see wildlife close up.
For an alternative perspective, Ushuaia Divers (t02901/444701, wwww.ushuaiadivers.com.ar) runs diving trips into the channel to look for king crabs and sea lions among the seaweed forests.
Estancia Harberton and around
Estancia Harberton and around
Estancia Harberton is Patagonia’s most historic estancia, an ordered assortment of whitewashed buildings on the shores of a sheltered bay. Though Harberton is assuredly scenic, it’s the historical resonance of the place that fleshes out a visit: this farmstead – or more particularly the family that settled here – played a role out of all proportion to its size in the region’s history. It was built by Reverend Thomas Bridges, the man who authored one of the two seminal Fuegian texts, the Yámana–English Dictionary, and was the inspiration for the other, Lucas Bridges’ classic, Uttermost Part of the Earth. Apart from being a place where scientists and shipwrecked sailors were assured assistance, Harberton developed into a sanctuary of refuge for groups of Yámana and Mannekenk.
Today the estancia is owned by Tommy Goodall, a great-grandson of Thomas Bridges, and is open to guided tours that take in the copse on the hill, where you learn about the island’s plant life, authentic reconstructions of Yamaná dwellings, the family cemetery and the old shearing shed. Housed in a building at the entrance to the farmstead is an impressive marine-mammal museum, Museo Acatushún (wwww.acatushun.com), which displays the remains of all the main families of such animals – whales, dolphins, seals and the like – found in the surrounding waters.
Harberton is accessed via the RCj branch road, whose turn-off is 40km northeast of Ushuaia on the RN-3. Around 25km from the turn-off, you emerge from the forested route by a delightful lagoon fringed by the skeletons of Nothofagus beeches, and can look right across the Beagle Channel to the Chilean town of Puerto Williams. A few hundred metres beyond here the road splits: take the left-hand fork heading eastwards across rolling open country and past a clump of flag trees, swept back in exaggerated quiffs by the unremitting wind. The estancia is a further 10km beyond the turn-off, 85km east of Ushuaia.
Winter sports around Ushuaia
Winter sports around Ushuaia
In order to boast that you have been to the end of the world to ski or snowboard, you’ll need to visit between late May and early September – June to August are the most reliable months. The majority of runs are for beginners and intermediates, but several companies, such as Gotama Expediciones (t02901/15605301, wwww.gotama-expediciones.com) offer guided back-country skiing for the more advanced. Equipment rental is reasonable and there are a couple of downhill (esqui alpino) pistes close to Ushuaia: the small Club Andino, 3km from town, and the more impressive one up by Glaciar Martial, 7km behind town. Better runs are to be had, however, in the Sierra Alvear, the resorts of which are accessed from the RN-3 (see Ushuaia to Paso Garibaldi and the Sierra Alvear). These include the modern Cerro Castor centre (wwww.cerrocastor.com), 27km from town, with 15km of pistes in runs, including a few black ones, up to 2km long.
The Sierra Alvear is also an excellent area for cross-country skiing (esqui de fondo or esqui nórdico). In addition, there are several winter-sports centres (centros invernales) along the Valle Tierra Mayor where you can try out snowmobiles, snowshoes, ice-skating and dogsled trips (trineos de perros), including Altos del Valle and Nunatak. Bear in mind that winter this far south entails short days, and it can be bitterly cold.
The undisputed emperor of crustaceans, the centolla (king crab) has spindly legs that can measure over a metre from tip to tip, but the meat comes from the body, with an average individual yielding some 300g. The less savoury practice of catching them with traps baited with dolphin or penguin meat has almost been stamped out by the imposition of hefty fines by both Chilean and Argentine authorities, but despite controls on size limits, they are still subject to rampant over-fishing. Canned king crab is served off season, but is bland and not worth the prices charged; frozen centolla is only slightly better, so always make sure it is fresh.