There are few places in the world that evoke the old-world romance of true exploration. They inspire nostalgia for a time we never knew, for places to which we’ve never been. We know their names and have heard their tales in the way we’ve heard of Neverland and Narnia: shrouded in layers of myth and lore. Cartagena, Antarctica, the Northwest Passage and Vinson Massif. Even the men sounded greater then: Drake, Amundsen, Livingstone and Shackleton.
Amid these great places lost and found surely lies space for Tierra del Fuego, the southern tip of Argentina and the famed ‘end of the world’, the last huddle of humanity before the wilderness of Antarctica.
It’s with this sense of awe we first set foot in Ushuaia, the capital of Tierra del Fuego nestled between the Martial mountains to the north and the Beagle Channel to the south. Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan was the first European to explore the area. Sailing for the Spanish Crown in 1520, he happened upon the natives’ numerous fires across the land and thus was born the moniker Tierra del Fuego or “Land of Fire”.
In reality, Tierra del Fuego is a frozen land of changing landscapes. In sun, it is clear and crisp and beautiful; under cloud, it is bold, heavy and imposing. We experienced a bit of both in our four days in Ushuaia.
On the face of it, there’s not much to do in winter but look deeper and you will see differently. Within the limits of Ushuaia, there is Cárcel de Ushuaia y Presidio Militar also known as the Ushuaia Jail and Military Prison ($150 ARG / $16 USD), a surprisingly large complex with separate wings focusing on different aspects of life in Tierra del Fuego, from naval and aerial history to modern-day art. Somewhat less interesting is the Museo del Fin del Mundo also known as the End of the World Museum ($90 ARS / $10 USD) which though worth visiting solely for posterity provides little more than 30-45 minutes of entertainment. If you do visit, be sure to ask after the museum’s second section which is housed in a different building. There is a selection of other small museums in town, some of which are closed in winter. Ask at the excellent tourist office for more information (Tourist Pier, Lasserre & P. Naval Street, turismoushuaia.com/en).
We paused at Plaza Islas Malvinas, a memorial dedicated to the fallen soldiers of the Falkland’s War. This offers a scenic spot of reflection. Standing there between the famed Beagle Channel and the imposing Martial mountains, we as Brits once again pondered the incredibly disproportionate effect our country has had on lands far away.
Other points of interest in the area include the Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse, reached by a short boat ride from Ushuaia. The Argentines call it Faro del Fin del Mundo or Lighthouse at the End of the World, not to be confused with the San Juan de Salvamento lighthouse on the more easterly Isla de los Estados, made famous by the Jules Verne novel The Lighthouse at the End of the World. There are various companies that offer tours to the lighthouse as well as visits to Sea Lion Island and Bird Island. These leave daily at 10am and 3pm and cost $500 ARS ($55 USD) for a 2.5 hour trip and $600 ARS ($65 USD) for a 4-hour trip. Tickets can be bought at the tourist office and are subject to a $15 ARS ($1.6 USD) embarkation tax.
Nearby Penguin Island (Isla Martillo) allows visitors to walk among penguins, clearly unmissable but unfortunately not available in winter. We have heard good things about Piratour Travel so book with them if you visit in the right season (see ‘When’ in The Essentials section below).
Also on offer is the scenic End of the World Train ride, which departs Ushuaia daily at 10am and 3pm with an additional conditional departure at 12pm. It’s a 1.5-hour round trip and costs $420 ARS ($45) – ask at the tourist office for tickets. Finally, don’t miss Tierra del Fuego National Park (bus departures at 10am, 12pm and 2pm; returns at 3pm and 5pm; $300 ARS ($32 USD) for the round trip). The departing bus companies are a few minutes from the tourist office but if you pre-arrange the trip, they can pick you up from your hotel. Entrance to the park is $140 ARS ($15 USD) though you may be granted free entrance in winter.
At Tierra del Fuego National Park, we found the isolation we expected, both bleak and beautiful in its snow-capped glory. With expansive panoramas of echoing mountains in the still winter air, the park was undoubtedly the highlight of our trip to the end of the world. After several hours of hiking, we rounded off our visit with a warm drink by an open fire. What better way to spend our last day at the end of civilisation?
What: The ‘End of the World’ at Tierra del Fuego.
Where: Ushuaia and surrounding area of Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. We stayed at a charming bed and breakfast called Mysten Kepen, eight minutes from the centre of town. Hosts Rosario and Roberto are incredibly warm and welcoming (Spanish speaking only) and put on an excellent breakfast in the mornings. The rooms are cozy and comfortable with reliable hot water – much needed in the winter chill. The price was a little rich for our budget but so was the rest of Ushuaia!
When: We visited at the end of May just as the first snow hit the ground. It was beautiful in the desertion but there are more activities available outside of winter. November to March is best for hiking and visiting penguins, mid-November to mid-April is best for fly fishing and July to September is best for for skiing, snowboarding and dog sledding.
How: You can get to Ushuaia by bus from El Chalten and El Calafate (via Rio Gallegos) in Argentina (see Taqsa Patagonia for schedules and prices). Buses also run from Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas in Chile (see Buses Pacheco). Given the time, distance and number of connections, we opted to fly from El Calafate instead. Book via skyscanner.net.