Ushuaia, Patagonia – A magical journey to the ‘end of the world’

The appeal of going to a place known as the ‘end of the world’ is that you aren’t quite sure what to expect.  Will it be remote, icy and barren, or will it be like paradise found, with unimaginable species and untold secrets awaiting discovery? 

Ushuaia, the very tip of Patagonia, is magical because it’s both of these.  As the southernmost city in the world, it has been the destination of adventurers and explorers alike, from Magellan to Darwin, who travelled treacherous waters to find new species and chart ocean routes. With its immense mountains and glaciers, Ushuaia sits at the crossroads between Argentina and Chile, and the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean, only a few hundred miles from Antarctica.

We arrived in Ushuaia on New Year’s Day, and our plane touched down on a small sliver of land surrounded by water and magnificent, jagged mountains. As we stepped off the plane, we saw a small village nestled in the folds of the snow-capped Andes. A wide array of ships, fishing boats and freighters idled in the harbour, with abandoned wrecks and metal buildings dotting the shore. It felt like we had just arrived in a frontier town, untouched and unchanged by time. 

Over 150 years ago, the young naturalist Charles Darwin visited Ushuaia aboard the English HMS Beagle. In his field notebook, he wrote: “It is scarcely possible to imagine anything more beautiful than the beryl-like blue of these glaciers, and especially as contrasted with the dead white of the upper expanse of snow.” Of course, when Darwin first arrived, this area was inhabited by indigenous peoples, the Fuegians, who travelled the archipelago in birch bark canoes, clothed in sea lion pelts and lived in small lean-to huts, in utter isolation from the rest of the world.

The Fuegians were some of the earliest known humans to settle in Patagonia, making their presence known by the smoke of their fires (hence the name of the region as ‘Tierra del Fuego’, or land of fire).

That sense of isolate and adventure is still there today. Surrounded by hikers eager to explore the wilderness at the height of summer, we headed to Tierra del Fuego National Park, which stretches 60 km along the Chilean border. Easily accessible from the town, the Park is highly diverse, both in terms of fauna and flora.  In addition to cauguenes (a type of geese), there are foxes, albatross, condors and Patagonian woodpeckers.

Unfortunately, Canadian beavers have proliferated and are causing significant damage. Our guide told us that the beavers were originally brought to the area in an effort to start a fur trade in the 1800s. However, because they have no natural predators, there are now over100,000 beavers and it’s not clear how they will control the population. Beloved by hikers, the park also marks the end point of the 30,000 km Pan-American Highway, a network of roads that begins in Alaska and connects North and South America, making it the longest road in the world.

In Ushuaia, there is magic everywhere. The view from our hotel, Los Caquennes Resort and Spa, was simply stunning. With sunset at 10:30 p.m. the days felt endless. It’s hard to recall a more perfect moment than that first night, sipping Argentinian Malbec, watching shooting stars and a clear, bright moon rise at midnight. I couldn’t resist awaking at 4:00 a.m. to snap photographs of the sun as it began to rise over the mountains.

The town itself is like a postcard from the past. Originally a penal colony, its most popular tourist destinations is the prison museum, which also houses a Marine Art Museum and Antarctica Museum. In similar fashion to other countries which exiled their convicts, Argentina shipped criminals from southern Patagonia to Ushuaia, where they logged the surrounding mountains and built much of the town, roads and perhaps most famously, the Fin del Mundo railroad, which now operates as a tourist attraction.    

Family owned shops are scattered among its main street, and almost every restaurant offers king crab on its menu. As much as I love crab, I simply couldn’t take another bite after having soup, salad and a pasta entrée!   

Eager to explore the water, we took a boat tour of the Beagle Channel. Nature was on our side, and it was a warm, stunning day. We took a winding route between huge kelp beds and treacherous rocks, watching sea lions, pelicans, and penquins lounge on the uninhabited islands. Beneath the waters, king crab, whales, orcas, and dolphins flourish.  

Along the way, we stopped at the famous red and white striped Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse, which marks the point where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet. Our guides recounted stories of early explorers, and their fate as they navigated the Beagle Channel, the Straits of Magellan to the north, and the Drake Passage to the south around South America. 

With its unique combination of mountains, sea, glaciers, and woods, Ushuaia represents nature and adventure in a way that is inspirational and memorable. My 11,000 km journey from home also reinforced that we are connected, regardless of geography. Funny how you have to go to the end of the world to be reminded of that very simple fact.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.