Ushuaia, Argentina: Land of Fire at the End of the World
When a place calls itself Fin del Mundo – “the end of the world” – you know it must lay claim to some pretty serious bragging rights. And when you add the phrase Tierra del Fuego – “land of fire” – into the description, it’s a safe bet that you’re in for a fascinating time.
Ushuaia, Argentina, population 57,000, is considered the southernmost city in the world. Only Puerto Williams, a small town in Chile, is geographically farther south. Ushuaia is the capital of the Argentine province called Tierra del Fuego, an archipelago off the southernmost tip of South America. Bounded on the north by the Martial mountain range and on the south by the Beagle Channel, the city is also a gateway to Antarctica, with ships arriving and departing from the port throughout the summer.
The January morning was chilly and overcast when the Quest docked at the Port of Ushuaia. Still needing our warm Seabourn parkas – I felt like I was going through orange parka withdrawl ever since we’d left Antarctica! – Herb and I headed to the nearby Tourist Information Office to get a taxi to Tierra del Fuego National Park. The TI staff was friendly and helpful and offered to stamp our passports, an official acknowledgement that we’d made it to the end of the world.
The taxi stand was run by a bi-lingual gentleman who served as the dispatcher for the group. We had planned to be dropped off at the park, but it turned out that the taxis had a specific three-hour route – a sort of “greatest hits” of Tierra del Fuego – that covered much more than we could have possibly seen on our own. And with our extremely limited Spanish and our driver Andres’ equally limited English, it was a terrific option.
We quickly left the center of town and headed westward toward Tierra del Fuego National Park. After a short time, the paved highway became a gravel road that wove in and out of the coast, with views of green hills and distant mountains. Andres pulled over for a photo stop before we arrived at the park entrance.
Our first stop inside the park was the End of the World Post Office. Perched on a pier overlooking Ensenada Bay, it’s one of the tiniest and most charming places for mailing a postcard. Autographed photos, letters, cards and maps line the walls of the small room, and colorful foreign currency covers the ceiling. With its teakettle-topped wood stove, hanging lanterns and personal mementos, it seemed more like the postmaster’s den rather than his place of business.
Back in the taxi, we rode to our next stop, a lookout platform offering beautiful views of the park. Andres dropped us off, gave us as much time as we needed and showed us where he would be waiting for us. This became our routine the rest of the morning, and it proved to be a welcome and efficient way to get an overview of Tierra del Fuego’s key spots and varied and dramatic scenery.
Our last stop was the popular Bahia Lapataia sign, marking the end of the Pan-American Highway. Known as the world’s longest motorable road, the Pan-American Highway begins in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, and runs about 30,000 miles through fourteen countries and every major climate zone.
It was an easy drive back to Ushuaia, where we said goodbye to Andres outside the TI Office and headed into town for lunch. Our destination was Ramos Generales, known for its tasty fare, bakery specialties and signature “submarino” hot chocolate. The café was busy with locals and tourists and had a cozy, welcoming air, with wooden tables nestled around an eclectic mix of memorabilia.
Recharged and ready for the afternoon, we walked to the Museo Marítimo on the eastern edge of Ushuaia. A sign at the ticket office explained that the museum does not receive state aid and relies on funds from the private sector and tourists’ visits. The exhibits were clearly low-tech and harkened back to an earlier time. It felt to me like I was walking through a diorama – one of those shoebox school projects where the box is tipped on its side, displaying a subject surrounded by a decorated backdrop. But however humble, it was an interesting place with a fascinating history.
We began our self-guided tour in the hall of model ships before arriving at the museum’s main attraction: The End of the World Prison. Opened from 1920 until 1947, the notorious prison was where prisoners deemed the most dangerous were sent. Two levels of cells depict daily life at the prison, including mannequins and stories of some of the prisoners.
Another part of the museum houses the original jail, a dank, decrepit space that offers an eerie look into what it must have been like to live there.
Before heading back to the port, we walked through Ushuaia’s main streets. Like the stamp from the post office and the displays at the Museo Marítimo, Ushuaia seemed like a city from an earlier time. Souvenir shops dominated the retail scene, and The Galeria Tematica, with mannequins hanging from the building’s exterior, reminded me of an attraction from a long-ago State Fair.
Ushuaia may call itself the end of the world, but I found it to be more of a starting point, a gateway for adventure-seekers sailing to Antarctica or trekking through Patagonia or hiking the foothills of the Andes. It’s a paradise of a place for those who love all things outdoors, and its remote location as the southernmost city in the world makes it an intriguing spot to spend some time.