Located on Isla Grande at the southernmost tip of Argentina, Ushuaia is the ideal base for adventures in the region known as the End of the World. Wedged between the southern Andes and the frigid waters of the Beagle Channel, the provincial capital of Tierra del Fuego has long served as a jumping-off point for excursions on land and sea, from Antarctica cruises to glacier explorations.
Thanks to the city’s booming tourist economy, visitors no longer have to settle for rough-and-tumble accommodations. Luxury hotels are beginning to spring up next to the nondescript housing built to provide housing for workers lured by high wages. While the dramatic landscapes that surround the city remain the city’s star attractions, there are an increasing number of cosmopolitan things to do in Ushuaia as well.
A fun excursion in the area is to Lago Escondido and Lago Fagnano in the southernmost stretches of the Fuegian Andes. The Pan-American Highway out of Ushuaia goes through beech forests and past beavers’ dams, peat bogs, and glaciers. The lakes have campsites and fishing and are good spots for a picnic or a hike. Lago Fagnano is by far the bigger lake and belongs in small part to Chile. The trip can be done with a rental car or as an organized seven-hour tour, including lunch and a local guide.
No trip to the Tierra del Fuego archipelago is complete without a close encounter with penguins, and Martillo Island offers visitors an experience that won’t soon be forgotten. This small island in the Beagle Channel east of Ushuaia is home to thousands of Magellanic and Gentoo penguins. Tours lead small groups to sheltered rookeries where visitors can watch the adult penguins jockey for the best nesting area, tend to their chicks and fend off attacks from the occasional predatory seabird. The penguins appear to take their human visitors in stride.
The first ranch established in Tierra del Fuego, the Estancia Haberton was founded in 1886 by Anglican missionary-turned-pioneer Thomas Bridges. His descendants operate the estate today as tourist attraction, offering visitors a glimpse into the area’s long and storied past. In addition to the family farmstead and the reconstructed homes of the region’s original inhabitants, the Yámana people, there’s a natural history museum worth visiting as well. The Museo Acatushun features the remains of marine mammals found in the Beagle Channel. If booked in advance, lodging and meals are available on the estancia too.
Skiers can hit the slopes at the End of the Word at Cerro Castor, Ushuaia’s premier ski resort, which is located in the Sierra Alvear northwest of the city. Founded in 1999, the resort boasts 30 trails ranging in difficulty from beginning to expert. There are several four-people chair lifts, three T-bars and four magic carpets. The resort offers an array of additional outdoor activities as well, from cross-country skiing and ski tours to sledding. A luxury ski lodge and seven restaurants make Cerro Castor a travel destination in its own right.
The “train to the end of the world” offers visitors the chance to ride the railroad built to shuttle prisoners from the island’s penal colony to the forests to chop wood. The 45-minute ride is narrated in Spanish and English by tour guides who provide interesting information about Ushuaia’s history. The train departs at the End of the World station west of the city and takes passengers as far as the Tierra del Fuego National Park. There’s a stop at a scenic lookout along the way.
Exploring a glacier is a can’t-miss activity in Tierra del Fuego, and Ushuaia makes it easy for anyone to share the experience. Located a short distance outside the city is a ski lift that whisks visitors up to the Glaciar Martial in just 15 minutes. There’s also a zigzagging trail that adventurous travelers can hike to the top in around 90 minutes. The glacier itself is relatively small compared with others in the region, but the views it offers of the city and the channel are breathtaking. The charming teahouse at the base of the ski lift offers the perfect end to a day of adventure.
One of the most popular walks around Ushuaia is the hike to Laguna Esmeralda northeast of the city. Getting there involves a short but muddy tramp through a peat bog, but the views offered at this gem of a lake make the journey more than worth it. The lake’s unusual color comes from sediments pulled from the rocks by slow-moving glaciers. Tour buses drop visitors off at the trail head. From there, the relatively easy climb to the lake takes about 45 minutes. The best time to view the lagoon is in the morning when the sun makes everything sparkle.
The modern city of Ushuaia owes its existence to the penal colony established on the shoreline in 1896. Closed down in 1947, the prison complex is now home to four museums, which are collectively referred to as the Museo Maritimo. While the Maritime Museum, the Antarctic Museum Jose Maria Sobral and the Marine Art Museum are all worth exploring, it’s the Prison Museum that most attracts visitors. In addition to information about punishments, prison life and the penitentiary’s most famous prisoners, a section of the original prison has been kept intact and is open for exploration. Wandering through the empty and unheated cells is a truly memorable experience.
As the only national park with a maritime coast and the easiest to access, the Tierra del Fuego National Park is one of Ushuaia’s top natural attractions. Tumbling waterfalls, crystal-clear rivers, forests and glacial mountains are just some of the wonders that visitors can expect to see along the well-marked trails. From kelp geese and buff-necked ibis to southern sea otters and the Patagonian grey fox, the birds and animals that live here are just as diverse and beautiful. North American beavers introduced to the park thrive here, and treks through the region offer close-up views of the dams built by the industrious creatures.
The Beagle Channel is a strait in the Tierra del Fuego Archipelago separating Isla Grande from various smaller islands to the south. The channel is one of the three navigable passages around South America, the other ones are the Straits of Magellan to the north, and the open ocean Drake Passage to the south. A boat trip from Ushuaia is the best way to view the Beagle Channel, with attractions such as the sea-lion colony at Isla de los Lobos and the Penguins on Martillo Island in addition to great views of the mountains bordering the strait.