By: Julia Henríquez
Photos: Demian Colman
Ushuaia is the capital of the End of the World. There you’ll find the postman at the End of the World, the train at the End of the World, and the museum at the End of the World. Far from apocalyptic, this destination derives its name from the fact that beyond the city lies nothing but ocean. Ushuaia is the last stop on a long route that starts in Alaska and winds its way through countless cultures and histories. Here, maps turn upside down as if to say, “your south is our north.”
The city of Ushuaia was founded in 1884, in the deep south-of-the-south, when only adventurous geographers and English missionaries had made contact with the natives in what is now known as the Tierra del Fuego province. Until then, only whales and penguins visited this beautiful bay on the Beagle Channel that is surrounded by snowy mountains.
Missionary Thomas Bridges gave the official welcome on the day that Argentina founded the city. Soon the village began to grow in color and spontaneity. Today, its steep, curved streets are lined with homes –some, beautiful spaces where time seems to stand still and others left unfinished, abandoned to their fate.
The city’s tourist center– is a collection of wooden houses painted in bright colors that come alive with activity in the summer, offering a huge variety of tours of the city and the surrounding area.
The arts and crafts center at the heart of the port invites all kinds of artisans to display their work to entertain and informs tourists, encouraging them, naturally, to return home with a unique souvenir.
The Thematic Gallery of Fueguian History, a museum featuring some 36 dioramas with 120 life-size figures, opened its doors in 2013. The brainchild of historians, anthropologists, researchers, and artists, the museum tells the story of this amazing place in an entertaining and educational way, bringing together ancestral customs, the arrival of the English missions, Argentine colonization, the old prison, and modern history.
The Old Prison
The Maritime and Old Prison Museum explores the history of Ushuaia and Tierra del Fuego through its most emblematic construction: the Old Prison, which was Argentina’s initial venture into these mythical lands. The museum is divided into four parts: Maritime, Old Prison, Antarctic, and Marine Art Museums.
The museum offers guided visits every day of the week, featuring details of what went on inside the enclosure. And because Argentina loves theater and games, you can even become an actor in one of the “dramatized” visits and put yourself in the shoes of those who once walked the icy corridors.
In addition to the Old Prison horror stories, two mountain peaks hang over the city. Mount Olivia, at 4,350 feet above sea level, is the highest peak in the mountain range surrounding the city.
The neighboring Cerro Cinco Hermanos is nearly as high. At 3,400 feet, the peak challenges the bravest of mountaineers to conquer it before enjoying a mate in the snowy silence.
The entrance to 3,444-foot Martial Glacier lies along a paved road just a few miles from the city. Inside this park, you can experience nature in a number of different ways, depending on the season.
During winter it functions as a ski center, with a chair lift that makes the climb easier and offers breathtaking views of the landscape. In summer, hike the paths that run through forests, meadows, and green valleys into the deep, shining glacier.
One of the most fascinating “end of the world” tours takes you to Lake Esmeralda, which must be approached on foot along a detour that starts at Kilometer 20 of Route 3. A walk through this forest –with its peat bogs, rivers, and beaver-built dams– leaves you feeling as if you’ve experienced all of Tierra del Fuego. At the top, the bracing winds affirm that what you’re seeing is real.
On the banks of the lake below, hikers picnic or just stretch out on the ground to enjoy nature’s reward for exploring the area respectfully. The peace experienced here takes you out of everyday reality and into new sensations.
During our tour we noticed patches of devastated forestland and later learned that the dams we’d admired while searching for a glimpse of their creators are directly responsible for the desolation.
In 1964, hoping to create a leather industry, twenty-five pairs of beavers were imported from Canada, but this human intervention did more harm than good; the animals have no predators in Tierra del Fuego and they multiplied by hundreds.
Photo called beaver (dam sent by mail)
Beavers can modify their environment at will. Their strong teeth never stop growing and require continuous activity, so they fell huge trees, carving and stacking them to create the dams where they live and feed.
Les Éclaireurs Lighthouse
Ushuaia deserves more than just a continental exploration. To experience many of its hidden treasures, go to the port and choose from one of the thousands of options for sailing the Beagle Channel.
Les Éclaireurs Lighthouse stands tall atop one of the islands facing the city. Although this isn’t the legendary End of the World Lighthouse described by Jules Verne (located a few miles further south), the island is well worth a visit.
Sea lions sunbathe near the lighthouse, unperturbed by the daily visitors who arrive by boat to greet them.
H Island is one of the few islands that can be explored on a fairly easy hike. To protect and conserve the region’s flora and fauna, tours must be taken in the company of a guide, who points out birds’ nests, shrubs, and the national flowers and provides information regarding their importance to the environment.
The islands’ history and environmental evolution are visible in every step and visitors are encouraged to remain silent and respectful of the surroundings. The tour is a magical encounter with the biodiversity in the region.
Martillo Island: The Icing on the Cake
Every trip must come to an end and, as the years go by, no matter how many landscapes a traveler explores, each finds its own special place in our memories. And yet, there is inevitably one moment that towers over the rest. In Ushuaia, the high point is definitely Martillo Island.
On Martillo Island you can practically stroll hand in hand with these incredibly “well-dressed” characters. Their unique waddle and friendly faces make you forget the cold and any desire to leave.
How to Get There
From North, Central, South America, and the Caribbean, Copa Airlines offers daily flights to Argentina’s main cities through its Hub of the Americas in Panama City. There are three daily flights to Buenos Aires, two to Córdoba, one to Mendoza, and one to Rosario.
Domestic airlines offer direct flights to Usuaia from Córdoba and Buenos Aires.