The city of Ushuaia claims to be the “Fin del Mundo”, the End of the World. That may suggest a one-horse town with a few ramshackled huts and a general store and, if so, visitors to Ushuaia will be surprised to discover a clean and modern city of some 60,000 residents that is just strange enough to hold the visitor for a few days – or a few weeks.
Ushuaia is a departure port for voyages to Antarctica so it’s busy during the brief summer between November and March. In winter, the hotels and hostels fill with skiers and snowboarders. But many visitors are now coming simply to reach the end of the road. It’s beautifully located with the mountains of the Andes rising directly behind the glacier overshadowing the city and the Beagle Channel providing the waterfront.
Ushuaia is set against the beautiful snow-capped mountains of the Andes
Despite its casino, coffee shops, bars and tourist shops, the town still has a frontier air about it. Indeed, some of the outer areas look to have changed little since the first settlers put their cabins on logs so they could be rolled to a new site when the ground became too boggy. Apparently some drinking sessions resulted in people returning home to find their houses had been moved elsewhere.
Ushuaia was named by early British settlers from the title the local Yamana people gave the place. And Britain decided that Ushuaia (being on an island, like Australia) was a good place for a prison. The prison closed in 1947, but the building still stands and is now a grim museum of local history.
Surprisingly, it’s not the waterfront that is the centre of city activity but rather San Martin, the street one back from the water and up the hill – the first of many steps in this terraced town. This is where the great majority of shops and restaurants lie – at one end is the prison and the other is the closest Ushuaia has to a mall. If you know that a friend is in Ushuaia, a promenade along San Martin is likely to find them.
In the peak summer period, the whole place can resemble an Alaskan port town with cruise ships disgorging thousands of tourists onto the streets. The town logo, written along the waterfront is now “Ushuaia – end of the world beginning of everything”.
Colourful houses in the Patagonia region of Ushuaia
Flying into Ushuaia is not for the faint-hearted, however. Often it seems that the pilot is seeking a hole through the clouds that isn’t filled with a snow-capped mountain and many take the easy option and let down through solid cloud over the Beagle Channel. Seconds later you’re on the ground at Argentina’s first privately-owned airport. Formalities consist of little more than fighting for one of the few baggage trolleys.
The few who elect to come overland to Ushuaia will find it’s the most civilised city for thousands of kilometres. Getting here by road is an ordeal as you must travel over the endless, grey, windswept, featureless plains of Patagonia. Eventually you run out of the South American continent and have to catch a ferry across the Straits of Magellan to Tierra del Fuego.
Buenos Aires lies on roughly the same latitude as Sydney and Ushuaia stands more than three thousand miles to the south – below the level of Australia’s sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island. Even in summer snow is as likely as a day with the temperature in the 20s.
Out and about
The first excursion for the most visitors is to the 630 square km National Park that really is the end of the road. Here you may see condors flying over waterfalls and mountains and you’ll certainly see the great damage caused by the beavers that were introduced from Canada to start a fur industry.
Train buffs will want to take the 100-minute train trip along the 8 km of rail towards the park aboard the quaint Ferrocarril Austral Fueguino that was built by the prisoners. There are also numerous boat excursions out to see the seals and Magellanic penguins that live along the Beagle Channel – you’ll probably see black-browed albatros along the way, too.
The Beagle Channel is home to an array of sea lions and albatros
One thing that every visitor to Ushuaia should do is eat centolla, the local delicacy. This is very fresh king crab from the Beagle Channel; it has a delicate flavour and is quite like Alaskan king crab at the other end of the world. There are several restaurants that specialise in it – I’d recommend Kalma Resto where the owner and chef was trained at the legendary El Bulli in Spain.
The Cape Horn monument was erected to commemorate the people who lost their lives on the rough Southern Ocean
If you have the time and the inclination to face the bureaucratic challenge, the best trip you can take from Ushuaia is to sail to Cape Horn. You’ll need to get to Puerto Williams on the Chilean side of the Beagle where you complete Chilean immigration formalities. From here it’s about a five-day return sailing voyage to Cape Horn.
Alternatively, there are cruises to the Cape and through the Chilean fiords with Australis Patagonia Cruises.
Cape Horn itself is one of the most feared shipping icons on earth. There are literally scores of wrecks around its shores and when the wind is blowing (as it usually is) and the sea swell is running at five metres or more it’s easy to see why.
However, on a sunny day when the wind has dropped it’s easy to land a dinghy at Cape Horn’s tiny sheltered beach and walk up to the top of the hill to look at the Albatross-shaped memorial to lost sailors and visit the tiny Chilean navy base (pop. 2) that doubles as a post office and gift shop.
On the way to Cape Horn you’ll come to realise that Ushuaia may be the world’s southernmost city but Puerto Williams is the southernmost town and the tiny village of Puerto Toro around the corner can lay claim to be the southernmost community in the world.
Ushuaia has grown in sophistication and facilities so it’s now very much a destination in its own right. If you wish to travel to the end of the world you won’t be disappointed.
Have you been to South America? Where’s your favourite destination?