Ushuaia: The most awe-inspiring end of our world
If you’re an intrepid traveller, you’ve no doubt been to a few places which you sarcastically dubbed ‘the end of the world’. Remote places seeming lost in a vortex of utterly unremarkable appeal, a million miles away from any kind of familiarity. But then there’s Ushuaia: the most enticing End of the World you could ever visit.
Drop by Ushuaia on a tour of South America or cruise to Antarctica and you’ll be privy to one of the most special and unique cities in the world. Ushuaia feels as if it’s on another planet, with the outstanding wilderness and harsh climate making you feel every single kilometre which separates you from home. Yet it’s also incredibly cosy, with charming cafes, great shopping and loads of attractions to boot. Plus, there’s an added buzz in the air in Ushuaia, always. Antarctica is here, right there, just around the corner.
Ushuaia: How on earth do you pronounce it?
Right. First things first. How does one pronounce Ushuaia??
Repeat after me…
Uuh-shoo-why-a (when talking to an English speaking person or a local actually living in Ushuaia)
But uuh-swu-why-a (when talking to locals from anywhere else in Argentina!)
In the general Argentinian pronunciation, the ‘s’ is pronounced as salt, whilst for English speakers and local Fuegians it’s more like sugar. PS. The trick here is to speed past the shoo/swu part and hope for the best!
The name derives from the indigenous Yamana language – pronounced ‘shamana’ (don’t even ask) – which means ‘the bay that penetrates to the west’.
One could never say that Anglican missionaries were not a tough bunch, and it is indeed here that they arrived – and set up house – in the 1870s. Yet merely three decades later, the government of Argentina decided this would be an ideal place to imprison the country’s worst criminals, and it was they who built the foundations of modern-day Ushuaia. It makes sense, in many ways, to set up a jail in one of the most inhospitable places on earth. Who needs to worry about building a secure compound when you know the prisoners would have nowhere to escape and survive?
Not only responsible for building their own cells, the prisoners also set up the basic infrastructure on which modern-day Ushuaia is built. They created the first electrical grid of the city, the first sewage system, erected telephone wires and built bridges, roads, a fire department and even a printing press. A beautifully laid out walk-through history is offered at the Museo Maritimo del Presidio de Ushuaia, which served as the main prison right up until 1947. A visit is a must for anyone wishing to learn more about this fascinating place and the interesting characters who created this great city.
The end of the world. Or is it?
Much like the pronunciation of the name, the exact ‘title’ of Ushuaia is also rather problematic. It is, in actual fact, not the southernmost inhabited place in the world. That particular title belongs to Puerto Williams, a tiny Chilean town on a tiny island just across from Ushuaia on the Beagle Channel. Yet in the case of the ‘El Fin del Mundo’ title, it appears that size matters. Puerto Williams is home to merely 2,500 souls and isn’t considered a city, so Ushuaia it is.
Whether or not you skip over to Puerto Williams during a visit to Ushuaia is quite irrelevant. Stand along the waterfront, looking out over the Beagle Channel with a backdrop of snow-capped peaks, and you’ll certainly feel like you’re standing at the edge of a barren yet mesmerizing abyss. And in many ways, you are.
The gateway to Tierra del Fuego
Tierra del Fuego is the magnificent archipelago home to Isla Grande, the island on which Ushuaia rests. Shared by Argentina and Chile, this is a wilderness destination with few rivals that’s unparalleled in South America. Both harsh and incredibly stunning at once, this southern section of Patagonia is a stupendous place to explore for a few days. The spellbinding fjords of Tierra del Fuego, the breathtaking Perito Moreno Glacier, the multi-hued moss forests and the nearby hiking mecca of Torres del Paine.
The springboard for Antarctica tours
We admit that many of our guests on Antarctica cruises only know Ushuaia as the best base from which to explore the White Continent. Yet after visiting, all agree that the city and her surrounding landscapes are reason alone to visit the southernmost tip of South America. Nevertheless, this is the best place from where to join a cruise to Antarctica, thanks to it being home to the largest fleet of southern water expedition ships. These are the smaller vessels, once which carry less than 500 people.
The gargantuan liners are not allowed to take passengers ashore on the Antarctica Peninsula and passengers must do with views they get from deck, thus missing out on arguably the best part of a visit to this incredible polar playground. On a luxury small ship cruise to Antarctica, however, you get to walk among penguins. You’re meant to keep a respectable 5m distance from then, yet considering the penguins seemed to have missed the memo, up close and personal encounters are quite common.
Cruises originating from Tasmania and New Zealand attract a few hundred guests every year, eager to cross the Ross Sea and visit the historic huts used by Shackleton and Scott on their exploratory voyage at the turn of the 20th century. Yet the great majority of Antarctica visitors make their way to Ushuaia from every corner of the globe.
What there is to see and do in Ushuaia
Considering you are standing at the end of the world (nope, that never gets old!) the weather in Ushuaia is not all that harsh, so getting out and about is enjoyable. Most especially during your visiting summer months, when you’ll enjoy more than 16 hours of daylight and daytime temps of about 15 degrees Celsius. Ushuaia is a shopper’s paradise, thanks to it being designated tax-free status. There are some excellent deals to be had on everything from top-quality outdoor gear to an array of souvenirs, and amazing leather goods.
Take a relaxing catamaran cruise along the Beagle Channel and an exhilarating helicopter ride, taking in the sights of the archipelago, her islands and furry inhabitants, from every which angle possible.
The gastronomic delights in Ushuaia are also not to be overlooked. If you love king crab, wine and chocolate then you may want to seek permanent resident status here. They’re really THAT good! The chocolate shops in Ushuaia are quite legendary so plan a visit to Honecker El Chocolate de Ushuaia to devour your bodyweight in delectable, hand-made chocolates.
Fuegian specialties rely on local produce, so you’ll see an abundance of fresh seafood on restaurant menus including said yummy king crab (centolla), mussels (cholgas), and perfectly cooked sea bass (merluza negra) and scallops (vieyras). For a delightfully special meal with views to match, try Kaupe Restaurant, perched right on the harbour front. This is an award winning joint revered for its simple, delicate meals, where the abovementioned seafood treats take centre stage. Their 5-course taster menus are a great way to sample a variety of dishes – including their popular sea bass ceviche – and non-fish eaters will find the delicious carpaccio, filet mignon or chicken Bengali to be exceptional alternatives.
Need to burn off the calorific splurge? Then tackle a hike just 5km out of town to reach stunning Martial Glacier. The hike takes about 3 hours and although moderately challenging it does gift awe-inspiring views of the bay of Ushuaia and it’s immensely worthwhile on a gloriously sunny day. Need to warm up a little on the way back? Then stop by the charming La Cabana Casa del Te for a melt-in-your-mouth ‘submarino’, which is none other than a glass of hot milk with a submerged chocolate bar. Divine to say the least and totally devoid of calories when consumed on a hiking day, naturally!
Ushuaia is the base of our most popular cruises to Antarctica, so if you’re ready for the experience of a lifetime, then pack those warm long-Johns and join us of an unforgettable journey to end of the world.
Author: Laura Pattara
“Laura Pattara is a modern nomad who’s been vagabonding around the world, non-stop, for the past 15 years. She’s tour-guided overland trips through South America and Africa, travelled independently through the Middle East and has completed a 6-year motorbike trip from Europe to Australia. What ticks her fancy most? Animal encounters in remote wilderness, authentic experiences off the beaten trail and spectacular Autumn colours in Patagonia.”