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.
Continue reading to find out more about...
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.
Ushuaia lies 1000km north of Antarctica, but is still the world’s closest port to the white continent – and 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 grandeur of Antarctica’s pack ice, rugged mountains and phenomenal bird and marine life will leave you breathless: whales, elephant seals, albatrosses and numerous varieties of penguin are just some of the species you can hope to see. Regular cruise ships depart from November to mid-March and most cruises last between eight and 21 days, some stopping at the South Atlantic islands (Islas Malvinas/Falklands, South Georgia, the South Orkneys, Elephant Island and the South Shetlands) en route.
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.
Patagonia’s most historic estancia, Estancia Harberton is 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 who 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 Yámana 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, which displays the remains of all the main families of such animals – whales, dolphins, seals and the like – found in the surrounding waters.
The king of the crustaceans
A fixture on menus throughout Tierra del Fuego, 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.
Winter sports at the end of the world
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.