USHUAIA, the provincial capital and tourism hub 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 city 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, city 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 otherworldliness that used to make Ushuaia special, but if you are coming expecting a Chatwin-esque frontier town, you will be disappointed.