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 strait, and there are other trips as well: to historic Estancia Harberton and its 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.
In 1869, Reverend Waite Stirling became Tierra del Fuego’s first white settler when he founded his Anglican mission among the Yámana communities here; the city takes its name from the Yámana language, 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. Bridges went on to found the first estancia in Tierra del Fuego. 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.
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. 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.
The international airport, Malvinas Argentinas, is 4km southwest of town. There’s no public transport; a taxi to the centre costs around $250. The Aerolíneas Argentinas office is at Maipú and 9 de Julio, and LADE is at Av San Martín 542.
There’s no single bus terminal; buses depart from their respective company offices. Buses Pacheco and Bus Sur (book both through Tolkeyen at San Martín 409) and Tecni Austral (book through Tolkar at Roca 157) run to Punta Arenas via Río Grande and Tolhuin; Bus Sur carries on to Puerto Natales; Río Gallegos is served by Taqsa, also via Río Grande and Tolhuin; change in Río Gallegos for buses to El Calafate. These timetables are for the Nov–March period; out of season, services are reduced drastically.
Avis and Hertz have offices at the airport. Most companies do not permit you to take your rental car out of Argentina. Roads are fairly reliable Oct to early May; outside this period, carry snow chains and drive with caution.
Cruceros Australis operates luxury cruises between Ushuaia and Punta Arenas, with three-, four-, seven- and eight-day trips, including one retracing the route of Charles Darwin.
The tourist office is opposite the Muelle Turístico. There’s also a smaller branch at the airport.
Serious trekkers and climbers should contact the Club Andino Ushuaia, at Leandro N. Alem 2873, which can advise on longer treks outside the normally visited areas of the Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego and put you in touch with qualified guides. Register here or at the tourist office before embarking on any independent trek or climb.
Canal Fun & Nature and Rumbo Sur offer a range of tours and day- trips, from kayaking and beaver-spotting to horseriding and dog-sledding. Birding Ushuaia provides birding-, wildlife- and nature-focused tours in and around Ushuaia, the national park, Estancia Harberton and the region as a whole.
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. Most runs are for beginners and intermediates, but several companies, such as Gotama Expediciones 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 away.
Better runs are to be had, however, in the Sierra Alvear, the resorts of which are accessed from the RN-3. These include the modern Cerro Castor centre, 27km from Ushuaia, 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 dog-sled trips (trineos de perros), including Valle de Lobos and Nunatak. Bear in mind that winter this far south entails short days, and it can be bitterly cold.
Ushuaia lies 1000km north of Antarctica but is still the world’s closest port to the white continent. Most tourists pass through the city to make their journey across Drake’s Passage, the wild stretch of ocean that separates it from South America; the two-day crossing is notoriously rough.
The grandeur of Antarctica’s pack ice, rugged mountains and phenomenal bird and marine life will leave you breathless: whales, elephant and fur seals, albatrosses and numerous species of penguin. Kayaking, hiking, Zodiac boat trips and diving are among the activities on offer.
Regular cruise ships depart from November to March and most cruises last 8–21 days. Some of the longer cruises also stop at the South Atlantic islands (Islas Malvinas/ Falklands, South Georgia, the South Orkneys, Elephant Island and the South Shetlands) en route. Some ships are huge, carrying 500 passengers or more; travellers generally report a better experience on smaller vessels, plus the biggest ships are banned from landing passengers on Antarctica.
As an alternative to the cruises, several agencies, including Quark, also offer packages in which you fly from Punta Arenas (Chile) to Antarctica, explore by Zodiac boat for several days, and then fly back.
Cruises are very expensive, but you can sometimes get last-minute discounts (bringing trips to around US$4000/person in some cases) in Ushuaia, especially on the newest ships and on the companies’ last cruises of the season. Ushuaia’s Oficina Antártica, next to the tourist office, has details of current sailings and can advise on what each trip involves. Otherwise, try contacting the following agencies: Antarpply; Canal Fun & Nature; Rumbo Sur; or Puerto Williams-based Sim Expeditions.
Whoever you book with, make sure they are a member of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), which promotes safe and environmentally responsible travel.
Ushuaia has a wide range of hotels, guesthouses and hostels, many of which are clustered along the first four streets parallel to the bay. Nonetheless, most get booked up in the height of summer, and all are expensive. The most attractive options tend to be up the mountainside on the road to Glaciar Martial, west towards the national park, or on the northeastern outskirts; some of these have shuttle buses into the centre.
The city centre has plenty of places to eat or grab a coffee, but many are tourist traps. You’ll get better-quality food at lower prices – and, often as not, breathtaking views into the bargain – if you move around a bit. The quality of cuisine in Ushuaia is generally pretty high and there are several places where you can splash out on a memorable meal and sample the local gastronomic pride, centolla. Prices are high; those on a tight budget should consider self-catering.
The best place to start exploring Ushuaia is down by the pier, the Muelle Turístico (Tourist Dock), where an obelisk commemorates Augusto Lasserre’s ceremony to assert Argentine sovereignty in this part of the world. Overlooking the sea from the other side of the street is the late nineteenth-century Antigua Casa de Gobierno, originally the governor’s house before being used by the local government and then the police. It has been restored to reflect its original use, so you get an idea of how the wealthy would have lived in Ushuaia’s early years.
The worthwhile Museo del Fin del Mundo, a five-minute walk from the Antigua Casa de Gobierno, has exhibits on the region’s history and wildlife, including the polychrome figurehead of the Duchess of Albany, an English ship wrecked on the eastern end of the island in 1883, and a rare example of a Selk’nam–Spanish dictionary.
Ushuaia’s former prison is now the must-visit Museo Marítimo y Presidio, and houses a motley collection of exhibits, including meticulous scale-models of famous ships from the island’s history in the maritime section as you first enter. The prison building itself, though, is the main draw, an example of the panopticon style popularized by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, its wings radiating out like spokes from a half-wheel, most of which have now been opened to the public.
The cells in wing four are complete with gory details of the notorious criminals who occupied them, and details of prison life, with informative panels in Spanish and English. The most celebrated prisoner was early twentieth-century anarchist Simón Radowitzsky, whose miserable stay and subsequent brief escape in 1918 are recounted by Bruce Chatwin in In Patagonia.
Upstairs, fairly dry displays tell something of Antarctica and the history of its exploration, as well as prisons around the world. Wing three has been given over to an art museum and a gift shop, while wing two contains an art gallery with regularly changing exhibitions.
Finally, wing one, which has not been restored and contains no exhibits at all, is perhaps the most interesting – the unheated and bare cells with peeling walls are quite spooky, and give something of an idea of what it must have been like to have been locked up or working here.
Southwest of the centre, the Antigua Casa Bebán is a pavilion-style building with
a steep roof and ornamental gabling prefabricated in Sweden in 1913. It hosts exhibitions of photos and artwork, as well as occasional films, and is the venue for the Ushuaia Jazz Festival every November.
For first-rate Beagle Channel views, head up to the hanging (and fast receding) Glaciar Martial. A chairlift (currently closed) runs from beside the Cumbres del Martial hotel, which has a great tearoom. During the winter, Glaciar Martial offers the closest decent skiing to Ushuaia. Canopy tours are on offer in peak season.
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 strait. 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. Look out for 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, and the occasional minke whale.
Top image: A view of Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego © ocphoto/Shutterstock