It’s not as apocalyptic as it sounds in Ushuaia. ‘El Fin del Mundo’, as Ushuaia likes to call itself, translates as ‘the end of the world’ but they’re using this title in a geographical sense as it’s the last city in the south of Argentina, closest to Antarctica. It’s also most travellers last (or first) stop in Patagonia. It rivals Torres del Paine for expensiveness and there’s a lot of attractions to spend your money on. Luckily, although maybe not for my bank balance, I had four full days to spend here so I had time to do all of them. I realised that I may never come back to Ushuaia so I should make the most of the opportunity and cough up some of my cash.
Day one: El Tren del Fin del Mundo and Tierra del Fuego National Park
Most people consider the train at the end of the world an expensive gimmick but for someone who had never been on a steam train before, I was really excited to experience it. The train is an important part of the penal history of Ushuaia (more on that later) and takes you through parts of the Tierra del Fuego National Park which you couldn’t otherwise see. The carriages are little three-seater compartments which made me feel like I was on the set of the Hogwarts Express (another reason I wanted to take the train) and there is an interesting audio guide which is played during the journey.
I had perfect weather for this day and halfway through the ride we were able to get out and take pictures of the train and amazing surrounding scenery – stamped by the clear impact of deforestation during the time the area was inhabited by the prison occupants. Instead of replanting, this area is left as an mark of the history of the city.
After the train ride, the minibus which had dropped me off at the train station picked me up and took me further into the Tierra del Fuego National Park. The bus dropped me off at the end of Route 3 – the most southern main road in Argentina. From there, there are a number of short walks you can do around the peat marshes and Lapataia Bay area. This is a beautiful place that you could easily spend the whole day strolling around. Annoyingly I only had a few hours so I couldn’t walk all the trails but the bits I saw were outstanding. I didn’t know anything about peat before reaching Ushuaia but it has a lot of positive benefits and it changed the look of the landscape from the rest of Patagonia.
The next day I shelled out for the most expensive day trip of my time in Ushuaia – a cruise of the Beagle Canal. I don’t know a huge amount about the Antarctic expeditions and navigations of the south but I do know that the Beagle Canal was an important part of the history of this period. It’s the only passage through Argentina and Chile out to the Pacific Ocean and I felt very lucky to be able to afford a boat trip along this notary route.
Most of the boat trips include a visit to the (weird) bird island, the sea lion island and the lighthouse at the end of the world. Only some include the penguin island (Isla Martillo), mostly because it’s the furthest away. These trips which include a chance to see the penguins are the most expensive but I decided that I hadn’t come all this way not to see them. It’s only just the start of the season where the penguins arrive so it was a bit of a gamble to go with this option but it was definitely worth it.
The (weird) bird island was the first stop and it was jam-packed with these seagulls posing as penguins. I was momentarily deceived before I remembered penguins can’t fly (thanks Madagascar movie). They weren’t the main attraction of the trip but still pretty cool to see and they were much better than the plain old white seagulls we get in England.
Next was the sea lion island which I thought was very impressive although quite quiet – only a handful of sea lions were perched on the rocky cliffs. They clearly don’t like the boats visiting them because they kept swimming away every time we got closer. It was the first time I had seen a sea lion not in a zoo (and I’m not even sure I’ve seen them in the zoo). They’re so much bigger than you would expect and their ‘lion-like’ qualities are interesting to watch.
Les Eclaireurs lighthouse was the next stop and it really has an unstated beauty. It’s not technically the last lighthouse at the end of the world but that’s what it’s famous for. The distinct red and white against the blue of the sea stands out starkly adding to the meaningfulness of the remote location. I took so many picture of this simple lighthouse – it’s situation is just mesmerising.
Finally we reached the penguins! The gamble was worth it because there were a fair amount of penguins to see. The island housed two types of penguins the Magellanic penguins and Gentoo penguins (I had to look this up because I couldn’t remember their names so I’m sorry if they’re wrong). The Gentoo penguins are bigger and just stood still in the middle of the island. I couldn’t see them so well from the boat but it was nice to see two types of penguins and really I was just glad they were there. The Magellanic penguins were a lot more active and spent a lot of time on the shore. We were really close to them at one point and could observe their flock-like nature as the swam and walked in groups. As always I wanted more time to see them but they were amazing to see and worth spending the extra money on.
Day 3: hiking to Laguna Esmeralda
I thought I had finished my hiking days in Torres del Paine but no. I heard about this popular and moderate difficulty hike to see Laguna Esmeralda – a blue-green lake surrounded by mountains. Although this sight is nothing new in my trip through Patagonia, I had heard a lot of people speak about this hike and I had time to spare so decided I would go to visit it.
What I didn’t know was that the hike is a VERY muddy one through peat marches, bogs and through a very muddy woods. To us English, it was definitely an occasion for wellies but I didn’t have any so hiking boots had to do. Thankfully I picked up a large stick to hike with near the start because I had a number of sticky situations were I was stuck balancing on a stone in the middle of a peat bog. Even when a guide told me I had gone the wrong route I stubbornly persevered and managed to find a route out.
After two hours of hiking through the mud, I eventually reached the lagoon and it was completely free from other hikers. I must have had the perfect timing because I could take all the pictures I wanted without obstruction. The lake was half-frozen and this made it stand out against the others I have seen. The surrounding mountains were clearly visible despite the clouds sitting behind them and I felt lucky to get such good weather.
Day four: the history of Ushuaia
On my last day I had to check out of the hostel at 10am which was quite annoying considering my flight to Buenos Aires wasn’t until 8:30pm. But the hostel did let me leave my big pack there during the day even if I wasn’t allowed to stay. This meant I had time to visit all the museums in Ushuaia and learn about the history of the city.
The best place to learn about Ushuaia is the famous Museo Maritimo y del Presidio (the maritime and prison museum) housed in the original prison. This is a huge museum and after spending two hours there I did start to lose concentration so I definitely could have learnt more about the maritime heritage and Antarctic expeditions but I focused on the prison section of the museum as I’d learn about this on the train trip.
In the start of the 1900s, the Argentinean government set up a penal colony in Ushuaia that was built by the prisoners themselves. It was modelled on other successful colonies such as the UK had started in Australia. I’ve never been inside a prison before and it was really interesting and eerie to visit. The building itself is amazing with five pillars of cells that convene on a circular space used for gatherings. One pillar has been repainted and holds the exhibition about the prison and other is left completely as the prisoners would have experienced it. In the first I didn’t think the place would be too bad to stay, in the latter I quickly changed my opinion. It was freezing and bleak and depressing. The hard manual labour in the forest cutting down firewood for the prison, reached by the train, seemed like a nice escape from this confined existence.
In the afternoon I also visited the small Fin del Mundo Museo which didn’t have much worth seeing expect a large stuffed bird exhibition which was very interesting. I also went to Historia Fueguina (a thematic gallery that’s a bit like Madame Tussaud’s). It was a really interactive way to learn about the history of the southern tip of South America and the cultures that existed before today. I would definitely recommend visiting it for the story of the native cultures and the exploration of the 19th century that brought Charles Darwin to the continent and helped to establish his Origin of Species.
And that’s it, before I knew it my time in Patagonia was over. I had amazing time with all types of weather and landscapes. I wasn’t sad to return to metropolitan civilisation as I really am a city-girl but I will look back on the adventures all the time and hopefully return in the future!