A GAUDY neon sign repeatedly flashes its message: “FIN DEL MUNDO”. Warmly wrapped against an icy wind, I walk late at night along Avenida San Martin, the main drag. If this is the “end of the world”, I quite like it.
I’ve just left one of the street’s many Argentine-style restaurants where tourists at the next table ask about vegetarian options. “An omelet,” suggests the waiter. They seem disappointed.
Vegetarian options? That’s an overly optimistic expectation in this proudly carnivorous nation where more beef per capita is consumed than anywhere else. Mind you, in ocean-hugging Ushuaia there’s seafood aplenty.
The waiter smiles, greets me but doesn’t take my order. Instead, he brings a steak, a succession of beef dishes and a groaning board of sausages. It’s delicious – but more beef than I’d normally eat in a week.
Near the eatery, an elderly man in a heavy overcoat sits on a bench quietly sipping mate (say mah-tay), Argentina’s national non-alcoholic and non-addictive drink. Mate – also called yerba mate – grows on a bush, resembles herbal tea when dried and, with hot water, is imbibed through a metal straw from a gourd-like cup.
A pick-me-up – and common tourist souvenir – it’s a national obsession throughout Argentina and Uruguay, with locals walking and drinking much as we do with cardboard coffee cups. Shops in Ushuaia (pronounced Oosh-why-uh) do a roaring trade in the brew.
Calling itself “the end of the world”, Ushuaia boasts being the world’s southernmost city – more than 3000km south of Buenos Aires but only 950km from Antarctica’s northern edge.
More Antarctic cruises start in Ushuaia than elsewhere. Nearby Cape Horn and Drake Passage are commonly the roughest parts of voyages.
Capital of Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego province, this fast-growing city has only 60,000 people. It slopes from a backdrop of snowy peaks to a calm harbour on the Beagle Channel (Canal Beagle in Spanish).
The Beagle Channel – named after Charles Darwin’s ship, HMS Beagle – is a waterway between islands in Tierra del Fuego archipelago. Located where South America has tapered to its narrowest, the channel traverses Argentina and Chile.
Ushuaia surprises first-time visitors, many of whom board Antarctic cruises. They expect a muddy backwater but discover a modern, sophisticated, tourism-embracing city. Along the main street and nearby are numerous hotels, restaurants and bars, a casino and shops (including stores specialising in warm, rainproof gear).
The city merits several days’ exploration, perhaps before or after visiting Antarctica. There’s plenty to do.
One example: “the train at the end of the world” (El Tren del Fin del Mundo). A historic locomotive pulls carriages deep into Tierra del Fuego National Park’s dense cold-climate forest. It replicates a train carrying convicts from inmate-built Ushuaia Prison to daily woodcutting duties deep in the forest. They returned each evening with timber for cooking and heating – a ritual continuing until the 380-cell jail housing 600 convicts, closed 68 years ago.
I follow my train trip with a visit to the prison, now one of Argentina’s best museums called Museo Maritimo de Ushuaia. Exhibits unveil a rich maritime history, the prison’s past and much about Antarctic biology.
Far less sombre is the next day’s activity: a picnic in the wild. An asphalt ribbon winds into 630sq km Tierra del Fuego National Park – the world’s most southerly – skirting lakes and snow-covered peaks.
Other diversions, during three days in Ushuaia include a half-day Beagle Channel cruise.
On another day I travel 90km by minibus to the area’s oldest farm, Estancia Harberton, where a 15-minute cruise whisks me to protected penguin colonies. With a guide I wander amid Gentoo and Magellanic penguins, two of Earth’s 17 varieties (and both common in Antarctica).
Come evening, I catch up with a local guide at a popular tourist hangout called the Dublin Irish Pub on Avenida San Martin. Over a couple of Argentina’s Quilmes beers, she complains that her home town is less well-known than it should be.
“It’s the fault of visitors’ families and friends,” she argues. “They ask ‘How was your trip to Antarctica?’ because they haven’t even heard of Ushuaia. So, soon the tourists themselves forget about Ushuaia. The memory fades.”
But, she adds, “this is gradually changing. Finally, more visitors to South America are discovering Ushuaia’s attractions.”
I suppose I should be pleased. After all, Ushuaia offers much to see and do. But, somehow, I rather enjoy having the place (almost) to myself.
The writer was a guest of Inca Tours.
Chile’s LAN is easiest. It flies from Sydney (connections from other Australian cities) to Santiago, Chile, connecting to Buenos Aires and then Ushuaia.
Inca Tours and other Australian operators sell Antarctic packages with Ushuaia stopovers that can be extended.
Ushuaia has numerous hotels in all price categories – from backpacker dormitories to opulent boutique lodgings. A large, centrally located, full-service option with harbour views is Canal Beagle.
Many visitors stay before or after Antarctic cruises. South American highlights include Argentina’s Buenos Aires and Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro. Galapagos cruises are increasingly popular, reached by non-stop jet flights from Ecuador’s Quito or Guayaquil.
WHEN TO GO
Antarctic cruises operate from November to March. Ushuaia is least busy midyear but the southern hemisphere winter’s popularity is growing among Argentinian tourists because prices are lower, crowds smaller and businesses more welcoming. Boosted promotion is also attracting more foreigners in winter for snow sports — including heli-skiing, cross-country skiing, regular skiing and hiking (encompassing undemanding walks along snowy forest trails).