Ushuaia is located in the archipelago Tierra del Fuego at the very southern tip of Argentina. It is known as the southernmost city in the world and has a population of about 80,000 residents. However, just south and across the Beagle Channel in Chile is another town called Puerto Williams. Puerto Williams only has 2,000 residents. Argentinians would argue that Puerto Williams is a town and not a city, therefore Ushuaia still can claim to be the southernmost city in the world.
I visited Ushuaia out of necessity; my cruise to Antarctica departed from there. When I booked the cruise, I knew nothing about it other than its location.
November 12, 2018: The End of the World
In order to get to Ushuaia, I had to take a domestic flight from Buenos Aires. Due to unfavorable wind conditions, most flights leave early. Like super super early. My flight was not the first flight of the day and it left at 4:50 am.
Normally catching an early flight like this would be no problem. I would simply go to bed around 8 or 9 pm. Unfortunately, Argentina is a very late-night kind of place and restaurants do not even open for dinner until 8pm. I had one of the best dinners of my life in Palermo, but ended up going to bed at 11pm.
After waking up at the ungodly hour of 2:15am, I caught an Uber to the Aeroparque Newberry Airport (AEP), Buenos Aires’ secondary airport which handles most domestic flights. It also happens to be much closer to the city (5 minute drive vs 45 minute drive).
Somehow I managed to stay awake long enough to make it onto the plane, which boarded at 4:20 am. The flight took 3 hours and was apparently very turbulent, but I slept through nearly all of it. I was able to strike up a brief conversation with the couple next to me. They were from Midland, Texas and were going to also be on my cruise! I also miraculously woke up for the meal service.
I woke up again just in time to see the dramatic landing over the snowy mountains of Tierra del Fuego. I now understood why people travel from all over the world to visit Patagonia.
Even though I was tired, I decided to walk to my hostel instead of taking a $10 cab. My hostel was on the outskirts of town, so it was only a 30 minute walk. The weather was around 50 degrees F and it was windy!
Eventually I made it to the hostel. The guests were a very interesting mix of Argentinians, Patagonia backpackers, Antarctica cruise-goers, and people who have traveled the Pan American Highway which ends in just a few miles south of Ushuaia. Two people drove here all the way from Alaska. One of my roommates took a motorcycle here from Suriname on South America’s Caribbean coast.
I was so exhausted at this point that I napped for 3 hours.
At noon, I hitched a cab to the Glacier Martial trail just above town. There, I walked 90 minutes through the Patagonian Mountains to reach the glacier. The hike was very pretty and reminded me of Iceland.
At the top, I met two guys from Transylvania who first took my picture but then became my hiking friends. We hiked through the snow to a second viewpoint with a sweeping view of town. Then we got beers in the nearby ski lodge before hitching a cab into town.
My first impression of downtown Ushuaia was not great. It didn’t seem like there was not a lot going on. I ate a bowl of seafood soup (the squid is gigantic here!) in the oldest bar in town and then got my passport stamped at the tourism office. Finally, I took a picture in front of the famous “Fin Del Mundo” sign. Fin del Mundo means End of the World. Many of the t-shirts and souvenirs have that phrase on it.
The walk back to the hostel took an hour. Along the way I noticed a huge monument to the Falkland Islands War (the islands are known here as Islas Malvinas).
The Falkland Islands have been occupied by Britain since 1833 and have claimed it as their own. Argentina has also claimed ownership of the islands, which are only a couple hundred miles off their shore. In 1982, the Argentina was in the middle of a major economic collapse. In order to raise his approval rating by playing the nationalism card, the dictator Galtieri invaded the islands thinking Britain would never respond militarily. Unfortunately for Galtieri, the British did respond. It took 5 weeks, but England wiped out the Argentine forces and regained control of the islands. Argentina is still very bitter about the war not only because they lost control of the islands, but because they looked weak in the eyes of the world.
Argentina is adamant that the islands belong to them even though they lost the war. All the maps in Argentina show “Islas Malvinas” as belonging to Argentina. Signs all over Ushuaia claim that the islands are Argentine. I was advised never to utter the world Falkland in Argentina.
The reality is that Britain is far too powerful and Argentina will most likely never gain control of the islands. The citizens of the Falklands recently voted whether to remain British citizens or join Argentina. 99% voted to stay with Britain.
Back at the hostel, I got pizza with my bunk mate, a guy studying abroad in Buenos Aires from Arizona State. He called Buenos Aires a rougher New York where everyone is out there for themselves. At first he hated the city, but came around midway through the semester and now loves it. He said finding the rhythm of the city was difficult.
November 13, 2018: The End of the Road
I couldn’t sleep, but was so exhausted from a combination of the travel and possible food poisoning that I couldn’t get out of bed until nearly 9 am.
I arranged transport from the hostel to visit the nearby Tierra del Fuego National Park. The bus picked me up from the hostel. Because I was switching to a new hotel, I had to take all my belongings with me on the bus. The ride took 30 minutes to reach the National Park. The driver highly suggested a certain 5-mile hike but I knew I didn’t have the energy for it. So instead I had him drive me to a place called the End of the World. This spot marks both the end of the National Park, but also the end of the Pan-American Highway which runs from the Arctic Ocean in Alaska. A wooden sign marks the spot.
The scenery was quite beautiful here. Forests of dwarf trees surrounded a glacier-carved bay. Somewhere on the trail, I ran into my midland Texas friends!
I then walked my way to the main visitor center about 4 miles away. It had a wonderful exhibit about the indigenous Yamana people. After getting lunch, I took a nap in the nearby forest. Even though it was 45 degrees and extremely windy, I was so exhausted that I fell right asleep on the ground. Eventually the bus showed up and took me into town.
Once in town, I noticed something that I had completely missed the first time around: the main street. Avenida San Martin was lined with shops and restaurants and was very clean and well-kept. It reminded me a lot of Reykjavik in Iceland. I will admit that my first impressions of this town were wrong; Ushuaia is quite nice for what it is.
I checked into my hotel provided by the cruise company. It was nothing special but well-located. There I met my roommate for the next 11 days, Michael from Vienna. Michael is on an 11-month trip around the world and had already been to Africa and has spent three months in South America.
That evening, the cruise company led a short talk on the logistics of boarding the ship the next day. We got dinner at a Chinese restaurant before I fell asleep at 9.
November 14, 2018: A Unique Museum
After 12 hours of sleep, I woke up a new person. The possible food poisoning was completely gone and I was finally well-rested after 3 days without real sleep.
Today I would board the boat that would sail me to Antarctica. But before, I still had most of the day to hang around.
My main activity was visiting the local maritime museum. This museum had a lot more going on than the name suggests. It is housed in a former prison – Ushuaia was actually founded as a penal colony. The prison was built with a radial floor plan first implemented in Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary.
Each wing had a different theme. One wing documented the history of the Ushuaia from the indigenous Yamana people to the early explorers to the city’s founding as a penal colony to the Falklands War to today. Because the museum is located on a naval base, there are also exhibits on Argentine naval history here. Another wing was dedicated to daily life in the prison. It even had a “Prison Hall of Fame” which highlighted famous prisons around the world.
Another wing covered maritime history of Tierra del Fuego and the Antarctic. It had replicas of some of the famous ships. The final two wings were art galleries (random, right?). The whole thing took about 2 hours to go through.
I also became aware that my college friends Zach and Charlotte were going to visit Ushuaia to celebrate her 30th birthday and their recent engagement. Zach responded to my Instagram post in Ushuaia. After casually asking Zach for their hotel information, I took a taxi and left them a note that would be presented to them at check-in.
At that point, it was time for lunch. I ended up meeting up with a group of four girls from New York. Finally, I took in my last few minutes of WiFi and headed down to the dock to board the ship to Antarctica.
Ushuaia is not a top destination in Argentina. While the mountains were undoubtedly stunning, I am certain that better scenery can be found elsewhere in Patagonia.
However, the city and surroundings have a unique aura. Being at the very end of the continent and within striking distance of the Antarctic had all the travelers feeling accomplished and generally joyful for having reached here. Ushuaia draws adventurous travelers from all over the world for a surprising number of different and interesting reasons. Everyone has a cool story.
The other travelers – through their stories and their attitudes- gave me confidence that my choice to live a more adventurous life than most was the right one. In the end, it was those people who made Ushuaia the wonderful destination it turned out to be.