I used to work for a travel agent and when sat in a stuffy office in London, typing the airport IATA code USH into the system always provoked a pang of jealousy disproportionate to any other. There was something about the idea of travelling to the most southern city in the world, that really just struck a chord with me. Granted, there is some minor debate about which is the most southern major settlement in the world, but as far as cities go, it’s Ushuaia.
The bus journey from Punta Arenas to Ushuaia is a long one and best done during the day. It’s really the only time you get a real sense for what life must have been like before the arrival of Europeans and for the scale and unusual nature of the landscape. The journey winds across the fantastically monotonous landscape of Tierra del Fuego. The landscape, for the most part, is broken only by the odd hillock or patch of tufted grass. Beyond that, it is featureless, windswept and vast.
This continues for many hours until you draw nearer to the south eastern corner of Tierra del Fuego, where the remnants of the forest that used to cover most of the island begin. I’ve never seen a forest like it though. It’s thick, short, gnarled and if you are lucky enough to be there in autumn, a real kaleidoscope of colours. Every imaginable shade of green, yellow, orange and red is present and only broken up by the appearance of dead, white tree trunks that have resisted the pressures of the infamous Patagonian winds and almost spitefully push their skeletal fingers skywards.
Only right at the very south of Tierra del Fuego does the landscape begin to change from plains and forest. The Cordillera de los Andes swoops down across the southern tip of South America and out into the ocean. The bus begins to snake around tight mountain bends and where previously the land was flat and featureless, it is now pockmarked by mirror lakes, towering spires and even the odd ski resort. It’s a remarkable transformation.
Ushuaia is perched right at the base of the mountains, and looks like it could slide wholesale into the Beagle Channel and disappear forever. Given its location the town inevitably rises sharply up from the waterfront and doesn’t stop until, if like us you had to walk right to the top of town to find your B&B, you are cursing the town planners.
There is something very endearing about Ushuaia. Whether it is just the setting, or the fact that you know you are really as far south as you can go by conventional means, and are tantalisingly close to the Antarctic, or just that the people seem to have an added warmth about them, perhaps as a result of being so remote.
In terms of things to do in Ushuaia, you’re not short of options. If you’re seriously splashing out, then you can hop on a cruise to Antarctica. They almost all leave from Ushuaia, and you’ll see people wandering about in Quark Expeditions jackets the whole time you’re there. Alternatively, if you’re not quite in that league in terms of budget, then here are a few options for you:
1. Take a boat out into the Beagle Channel
There’s something very romantic about the Beagle Channel. Perhaps it’s because I’ve always been fascinated by the golden age of exploration. Anyway, go out into the Beagle Channel and you’ll get a little taste of what those guys experienced. Only with the benefit of a powerful motor, some lifejackets and depending on the boat you go out on, a craft beer tasting. Don’t go on one of the massive boats capable of taking several hundred people at a time though. Go on a small boat, that might take a dozen people at most, and you’ll get a much better experience. You can actually walk on one of the islands and experience the incredible winds and see just how wild it is down there. We went out with Yate Tango and had a great time. We also were lucky enough to meet a lovely Argentinian family, who invited us to come for an asado when were back in Buenos Aires, which we took them up on. So you never know who you might meet. You can book a boat tour on the day down at the waterfront, just opposite the Tourist Information Office.
2. Visit the Tierra del Fuego National Park
A short bus journey from the town is a beautiful national park, which has a number of very easy walks you can do and some amazing landscapes. The buses leave from the waterfront regularly and although fairly expensive, are cheaper than a taxi and definitely worth it. The national park itself is also the start/end (depending on which way you’re going) of the Pan American Highway, so you’ll see plenty of mad cyclist and motorcyclists who are having their obligatory picture taken with the sign that marks this.
3. Visit the old prison
The old panopticon style prison is fascinating and has a very rich history of the use of some of the islands in the Beagle Channel as prisons in the early 20th century and some of their more gruesome inmates, before the appalling conditions and terrible weather forced the government to close them. There’s also a good history of shipwrecks in the Beagle Channel and even pirates. All that said, it really is rather excessively expensive to visit, so we wouldn’t blame you if you skipped it. At the time we visited it worked out at about £20 each.
Perhaps the creepiest story from the prison is of the inmate Cayetano Santos ‘Big Ears’ Godino, who was a 16 year old serial child killer, who murdered four children in Buenos Aires, attempted to kill seven others and committed several arson attacks. He evidently terrified the other inmates so much they didn’t bother him, despite his diminutive size and comical physical appearance. He has become a bit of a local legend and even features in local street art.
4. Explore the glaciers above the town
We didn’t actually do this, so we can’t offer any advice on the logistics I’m afraid, but we heard from the guide on our boat that you can explore the glaciers that loom above the town, and even go under them, which sounded amazing, but we ran out of time to do so.
5. Go skiing!
We were there at the wrong time of year, but Ushuaia has several ski resorts nearby that offer you the chance to ski in the most southern ski resorts in the world. Cerro Castor is the biggest and although pretty small, looked like it would be worth a visit. It’s in a pretty stunning location and if you were in Ushuaia during the winter, you could do a lot worse than get in a day’s southern hemisphere skiing here. You can also go husky dog sledding, it’s almost worth us coming back in the winter just for this. But it’s rather a long way to come back to the end of the world…twice.
Where to stay
Classic backpackers – El Refugio del Mochilero
Not on any of the online booking sites and a bit hidden away just up from the waterfront, this is the classic Ushuaian backpacker hostel and has been around for donkey’s years. It’s a great place to chill out, hide from the occasionally turbulent weather and meet other travellers. The staff are also very warm and welcoming and speak excellent English.
B&B option – Isla Bella B&B
Located at the top of the town, but worth the walk. This is a lovely, very homely B&B, run by a very friendly and welcoming couple, who really treat you as if you were just another family member. If you’re looking for somewhere a little off the beaten backpacker path and with a bit more home comfort, this is the place for you.