Located an hour’s drive outside of Ushuaia, along the Beagle Channel in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina this small ranch serves as the launching pad for zodiac trips out to a small nearby island. The island is home to a seasonal colony of some 4,000 Magellanic Penguins and approximately 50 Gentoo Penguins which live there year-round.
This photo was taken of two old boats, dragged ashore and forgotten long ago. As you can see, the boats were well past their glory days but still managed to retrain a certain charm. Despite a late-December visit (their summer), the weather was still fairly cool. Though, I suppose that’s to be expected when you’re just a few hundred miles from the northern tip of Antarctica.
When I set out to explore Argentina over the course of a 21 day trip in December 2010 I was drawn by the stories I had heard of Buenos Aires. Stories of passion, romance, great food and tango dancing so sensual it would leave you with goose bumps. I expected Buenos Aires to be the highlight of my trip, and the place I’d fall in love with during my visit. The embarrassing truth is that the time I set aside for exploring the rest of the country was done almost as an after thought – an added bonus if you will.
Wow was I wrong. While Buenos Aires is an incredible city, the Argentina I fell in love with is the Argentina I experienced in Tierra del Fuego, Patagonia, and Misiones. These regions feature some of the most incredible scenery I’ve seen anywhere on the globe, but don’t take my word for it – here’s footage I shot featuring four of my favorite destinations:
1. Iguazu Falls (Misiones)
This somewhat difficult to reach series of falls is often ranked as the 2nd most impressive waterfall in the world just behind Victoria Falls in Africa. The falls are one of the few “must visit in your lifetime” destinations I suggest to everyone. As an added bonus, if you get lucky it’s sometimes possible to swim on a small beach along San Martin island. Cool right?
2. El Chalten & Mt. Fitz Roy (Patagonia)
The area around El Chalten is stunning. The colors of the rocks in the mountains give off rich colors while seeming to glow. The rock formations are mind boggling and the combination of exotically colored river water, glaciers, and rugged peaks will leave you awed.
3. Perito Moreno Glacier (Patagonia)
This massive glacier is located just a few miles outside of El Calafate. The clean whites and deep rich blues of this glacier are captivating. The towering mountains on either side humbling. The flowers in bloom and waterfalls flowing down and into the glacier amazing. When you visit, make sure to do a hike out onto the glacier. You won’t be disappointed!
4. The Beagle Channel (Tierra del Fuego)
Accessed through Ushuaia, the world’s most southern city and gateway to Antarctica, this video features a day trip out to a small island that serves as home to more than 4,000 penguins from two species. It also highlights spring in one of the world’s most southern locales.
Having limited myself to two full days in Tierra del Fuego I quickly decided that the National Park was a must-visit during my second day. Admittedly, it was a difficult decision given it was the park or traveling via a day trip out to the lighthouse which would have presented the opportunity to witness elephant seals and more time spent boating the Beagle Channel. In retrospect I’m glad I made the choice I did as the weather was beautiful, the flowers in bloom, butterflies out and about, and the hike was absolutely gorgeous.
The morning of I stumbled down to the front desk, checked my watch, and was able to walk on the shuttle out to the national park. While technically a tour, it was basically an organized bus to/from the park and cost (if memory serves) around 50 Pesos. The park is about 11KM outside of Ushuaia which makes for a fairly short trip. En route we paused at the entrance gate to pay the park’s admittance fee of around 50 Pesos (for international travelers) before identifying which of the four walking paths we were interested in hiking. The bus driver strongly recommended the seaside path and eventually convinced the majority of us to opt for it.
As the bus pulled away I took in my surroundings. I was along a coastal channel, had beautiful partly cloudy skies, and quickly noticed a small dock/hut offering the ever popular and terribly gimmicky tourist passport stamp. Seldom one to indulge, I made an exception and paid the $2 for a massive “Fin del Mundo” or end of the world stamp complete with several stamps, dates and a large sticker. As I went through the process, I continued to strike up a conversation with several American guys my age and a gal who they had already befriended. Before long we’d joined up for the hike and merged into one cohesive group. In retrospect it worked out beautifully, as it might have been a somewhat lonely/long hike otherwise despite the incredible beauty. the path was, after all, some 8km long.
As we made our way along the coast I was once again struck by the natural richness of the region. It’s easy to forget that you’re near the southern most tip of the worlds major continents and in a region and climate which is brutally cold, barren and harsh the majority of the year.
The path was awash in life. From a plethora of flowers in bloom, small butterflies and rich green moss the air hung with the fresh scent of perfect, clean air lightly salted and flavored by the ocean’s gentle kiss.
As the path wound along the channel it was constantly framed by a beautiful winding maze of tree branches. Fighting for sunlight and similarly growing to stand against the region’s violent storms they snake upwards, outwards and at times sideways in their pursuit of the perfect position.
As our group wound along the gently used earthen path we found ourselves pausing regularly in our stories to take in our surroundings. The distractions varied, but usually consisted of flowers in bloom, odd branches, or old gnarled trees. All the while we worked to combine our collective knowledge to identify what little we could manage.
When I say that nearly everything was in bloom, I’m barely exaggerating. Of the multitude of plant species we ran across, I’d guess that at least 10-20 species were either in bloom or bearing berries of some sort.
Throughout the first half of the walk we had an excellent view of a beautiful, snow capped mountain range across the channel. The mountains and far half of the channel are actually in Chile and for those interested, near the end of the hike one can make their way up to/along the border.
As the path continued on and along the vegetation thinned slightly as it wound down onto and among the narrow stone and rock beaches that lined the channel.
From there it was back in along a small stream which then wound up a steep embankment and eventually spilled us out on top of a small cliff which offered a beautiful overlook back along the way we’d hiked. The view also made it easy to see just how clear, rich and clean the water was. Crystal clear with blue hues to it, it had the look of cold near arctic water but still felt alive and awash in sealife.
The colors weren’t just limited to the flowers in bloom. Many of the trees offered their own fanciful display, mixing together different species and various parasitic vines for brightly colored combination’s.
The tidal zone served as home to a mixture of different creatures. Most prolific, however, were huge colonies of miniature horseshoe mussels and limpets. Covered in small barnacles they decorated the region’s blue green rocks in massive blanket-like clusters.
Though mostly disguised by moss and lush foliage we’d periodically stumble on evidence winter’s harsh hand. The left over skeletal remains of shattered trees, cracked trunks, and splintered branches created beautiful portals full of contrast and depth.
Where there was sunlight there was life. The above image highlights how even among a bed of dead leaves flowers flourished and small sprouts had begun to take hold.
Others harbored a more alien appearance with long finger-like blooms that looked extraterrestrial in nature. Some stood alone, others combined with large bushes to create whole walls of vibrantly colored, red spear-esque flowers.
And then there were the odd circular parasitic/fungal growths which decorated many of the trees. Grown out of gnarled knots in the trees, these silver dollar sized orange balls had a spore-like nature to them, were squishy, and seemed more like some sort of delicious candy than wild growth. Most decorated the trees, but some had fallen to the ground. Note the deep black color of the soil in the image above.
In some areas the balls were so common and brightly colored that they gave the illusion of some sort of odd Fae colony hiding a bustling ferry civilization from prying human eyes.
Shortly after taking the above photo we all paused at a large tree which had naked branches running out parallel to the ground. Once there we climbed into it, and spent a good 30 minutes monkeying around. Literally. From hanging and posing on tree branches, to using them as swings we had a good go of it before pausing for a final “hear no evil, see no evil, say no evil” photo op.
As the path prepared to head inland for the final 1/3 of the hike we paused briefly for a snack and to rest our legs. The wind had begun to pick up and the temperature was dropping, but still generally pleasant. As we sat and played with our cameras a large hawk landed near by. Fairly tame and familiar with tourists he allowed us within 3 feet of him, all the while turning a wary eye to us. With a stout body and beautiful coloring he was a an impressive creature.
Even as we sat and relaxed I turned to the left, only to notice a small plant in bloom. Sandwiched into little more than a tiny crack in the rocks, it embodied the balance between rugged climate and the beauty of life.
From there it was up a steep embankment and then through several thick stands of trees which were decorated by thick moss and delicate white blossoms.
The forest would break periodically for small bog-like areas. These were mossy and looked like tundra with small streams flowing through them. Most were broken periodically by the sun bleached, skeletal fingers of long dead trees.
As we made our way across one such marsh, I was surprised to see the beige and brown grasses give way to a beautiful set of lily-esque leaves set just beneath a gorgeous old wooden walkway.
Tired, footsore, hungry and cold we eventually reached the end of what had been a spectacular hike. While Tierra del Fuegno National Park may not be as impressive as what you’ll find in Patagonia and Southern Chile it is a fantastic introduction to the region and one which I thoroughly enjoyed. Just make sure you’ve got the time and weather to enjoy it properly!
My shoes made a soft squishing noise as I stepped off the paved path and onto a narrow band of muddy earth which wound its way between the road and a small set of kiosks along Ushuaia’s main pier. The morning was crisp, partly cloudy and smelled fresh. The air prickled my skin and teased at a refreshing day. The sky over the Beagle Channel of Darwinian fame was gorgeous and set the perfect backdrop for the day’s adventure.
I’d be using Pira Tours which is somewhat expensive but it is the only group that has rights and access to actually disembark on Martillo Island where the penguin colonies are located. Eager to begin the adventure, I tracked down the 16 person mini-bus that would transport us out to the Harberton Estate where we’d catch a zodiac out to a small island located in the middle of the Beagle Channel.
The drive east along the coast was a beautiful one. The first 1/3 was on pavement and wound through snow-capped mountains with lush but rugged vegetation on either side of the road. The trees were green and moss-covered with foliage and moss serving as a dense carpet below. Despite the lush verdant colors everything maintained a hearty look that hinted at the harshness of winter and the brutal nature of the landscape.
Our first stop – well, more of a pause really – was near the 2/3 mark. We’d wound through rich forest and along the base of tundra-esque valleys before eventually bursting out of the underbrush and returning to the coast. The scenery had been fascinating. I noticed recent work had been done on the road and there were whole stands of trees that had been blown over or literally snapped in half. I’d later learn that the damage had happened a mere 3 days previous during an incredible micro-burst. Yikes!
Our first pause was along a stone beach covered in horseshoe muscle shells, urchin bodies and other small, vibrantly colored seashells. The view looked out over an old fish smoking/drying stand at the Beagle Channel and the Chilean coastline to the south. The water was clear, fresh, and rich with life. It made for a grand start.
Eager to continue along our way we re-boarded and watched as the forest gave way to open grassy areas, small bogs with gnarly, protruding, sun-bleached branches, and a rugged mixture of hearty trees that stood valiantly with snarled branches and a perpetual tilt as if trying to shrug off the wind.
Shortly thereafter we arrived at the Harberton Estate – a fun little cluster of buildings with an old dock, a few animals and several boats. There we were introduced to our guide – a perky gal in her late 20s/early 30s whose face was decorated almost completely by a birthmark. Her wide smile and a twinkle in her eyes oozed character and hinted that she’d be every bit the spunky guide a trip out to spend time with penguins demanded. We boarded the hard-bottomed zodiac and let out a collective sigh of relief when we noticed that a plastic wind cabin had been installed to protect us from the cold weather.
The boat ride was fairly quick and smooth. The water was calm and largely protected from the harsher conditions one might expect. Eventually, we killed the motor and slowly floated in towards a black pebble beach dotted with thousands of tiny white and black feathered bodies.
One by one we awkwardly slid over the side of the zodiac’s rubber bow and down onto the beach. There we paused and took in the incredible world we’d arrived in. The island serves as home to a colony of some 4,000 Magellanic Penguins for 6 months of the year and another permanent colony of some 50 Gentoo Penguins who reside there year round.
I’d opted to use Pira Tours because the island has a cap which only allows around 40 visitors a day. Based on the advice received at the hostel, Pira Tours is the only group in the region with the rights to disembark passengers onto the island. Standing on the beach I knew my choice had been worthwhile.
As we paused and collected ourselves our guide explained the ground rules. No chasing, feeding or touching the penguins. Stay within the driftwood outlines which have been laid out. Don’t wander off. Watch where you step and make sure you don’t collapse a penguin burrow. Easy enough right?
Our first stop after the main beach was the Gentoo Penguin Colony. This smaller, permanent colony was located in the middle of the island in a flat space and offered a cluster of small craters built up into nests by the birds. A smaller and better established colony, the surrounding grass had been ground to dirt. The penguins stood with backs to the wind relaxing and periodically running some small errand or another. Larger and more colorful than the Magellanic penguins they have a more recognizable look which one might readily identify as a staple of animated films.
As we continued to make our way across the island I couldn’t help but pause and relish the view. At times it struck me as unique. Others moments I had to pinch myself and remember that I was at the southern-most continental point in the world…not the northern-most. The landscape could have easily been confused for a bay, mountains and island in the far north and reminded me of my time spent in Alaska above the Arctic Circle.
Unlike the Gentoos who built their nests above ground, the Magellanic penguins opt to dig small burrows. The island is covered in small holes, most of which have at least one baby penguin inside. The babies were adorable, fluffy little creatures that hunkered down in their holes for safety and relaxed under careful parental eyes.
The island’s penguins have two primary predators. The first are the large hawk-like Skua pictured above with two young hatchlings. These birds will raid penguin nests for eggs if the opportunity presents itself but don’t offer a significant threat to the birds once hatched. The other main predators, though far less common on the island, are elephant seals.
The Magellanic penguins are highly social creatures which can be seen in their general behavior. It was not uncommon to see a couple out strolling along the coast, or through the grass. I couldn’t help but chuckle and think they looked like human couples out for a stroll while dressed in their winter finery. I’ll admit the mountains, bay, tress and beach made for quite the romantic backdrop.
As we neared the central part of the island, we came upon a small wooden staircase which had been constructed to ease our way up onto a large grass field. Proving that even in nature some animals are more entrepreneurial than others, several penguins had burrowed out hollow spaces underneath the stairs allowing them well-protected nests.
The grassy area served as the primary nesting ground for the Magellanic penguins. They would take advantage of the large clumps of grass and burrow under them, or near them, while using the grass to block the wind, visibility and to reinforce their burrows.
As we walked along the small dirt path it was difficult to avoid recently dug penguin burrows and not uncommon to suddenly become aware of them as they moved mere inches away from your feet. Overall they were fairly apathetic about our presence and only spent a moment here or there to evaluate us with unblinking eyes before returning to their daily activities.
From there it was back down to the coast where we paused and watched the few penguins braving the windward side of the island go about their business.
Low and flat, the island is ringed by gnarled driftwood which adds a wild, natural, rugged feel to the environment. The penguins themselves don’t make much of it, other than winding their way through the bleached wood as a castle’s defender might make his way through bulwarks and small defenses.
Once back on the leeward side of the island, I was once again taken by just how many penguins there were and how different each looked. As I sat down and silently began to snap photos I noticed that one of the younger Gentoo penguins had ventured down and was intermingling with the Magellanics.
As I sat and enjoyed the tranquility of it all, I couldn’t help but feel like I’d been transported to another world. This was the stuff of movies, of legends and of tall tales. A rare experience and one I was privileged to enjoy. I sat and relaxed and soaked in as much as I could.
…and then I was shaken from musings by the crunch of webbed feet on rocks as my young, colorful friend waddled his way towards me.
Curious, he made a casual circle down towards me, leveraging the slight incline from the hill to accelerate his haphazard waddle.
Then as quickly as he’d begun my way, he switched directions and began to backtrack. If I didn’t know better he was playing the role of a runway model.
He’d pause to stare, and made sure that he was never out of sight. Though on a pebbled beach, that’s not exactly a challenging undertaking.
Eventually he’d opt to make another quick drive-by. This time he decided to head down and take a close look at one of the women on the trip. In truth it was hard to know who was watching whom. He seemed to derive every bit of the enjoyment watching us, that we found watching him.
As our hour on the island wound to a close we let out a lament-filled sigh and then re-boarded the boat. Before long we were back on our bus and well on our way back to Ushuaia, but not before we paused for a few quick photos at the flag tree. It is one of a series of profoundly stubborn trees that have braved fierce winds and grown to embrace them. Shaped by the winds, they’ve naturally grown into wild shapes that mirror blown grass.
Even those that failed to survive the winds have continued on, adapting to what came their way. In truth, I’d almost say that the tree pictured above has not only survived the wind’s hash thrashing, but embraced it and thrived.
From there it was back to Ushuaia where we disembarked and made our way back to our respective hostels and hotels, but not before a few of us paused at a local restaurant for a delicious Bife de Chorizo (Argentinian steak).
Total cost for the tour? 285 Pesos or about 70 USD. Expensive as far as day tours go, but worth every penny.
The first few days of my Argentina trip had been spent exploring Buenos Aires, socializing, dealing with jet lag and adjusting to the reality that I was back on the road. For me, it was the southern city of Ushuaia where I mentally perceived my Argentinian adventure as truly beginning. I didn’t know what to expect. I knew that the city was the departure base for the majority of the Antarctica tours, it was home to the Tierra del Fuego National Park, and it was my best shot at seeing penguins. Beyond that, I’d heard mixed things. Chief among them was that the town and region were disappointing; that I shouldn’t set aside much time for the area, and my time would be better spent elsewhere.
After exploring Ushuaia, El Chalten, and El Calafate, I can definitely tell where and why people might think the above about Ushuaia. Based on my experiences, I found Ushuaia worth the stop…with a caveat that your level of enjoyment while in Ushuaia seems to depend on where in your trip you see it. The city of Ushuaia is a launchpad destination. It is a city nestled between majestic, snow-capped mountains situated alongside the Beagle Channel of Darwinian fame. With a booming population and nearly 60,000 residents, the city is one of the largest in the region. Yet, despite that, the tourist section of the city stands alone, nestled along the port and on the side of the mountains, it feels more like a town of 5,000.
The flight south is fairly unremarkable, until that is, you go to land in the city. Located in the midst of the channel on a long, flat peninsula the airport is surrounded by large mountain ranges which still cling to snowy cloaks even in the midst of the Argentinian summer. As our plane drifted, dropped, and jumped through the clouds on a turbulent approach, I was awestruck by the view out the window. We weren’t just making a typical approach, we were flying through a large valley and surrounded by/flying over snow-covered mountains. It was spectacular and left me grinning as my mind immediately imagined that famous snow/ramp scene from the James Bond movies. What also struck me was the minute or two which it lasted. Usually landings happen so quickly that you don’t really get anything more than a quick view of the surrounding area. That wasn’t the case with Ushuaia which was a true delight.
The airport is new, modern, and in excellent shape. Fairly small, it’s built for cold weather and as such offers a lot of amenities that many smaller airports might gloss over. There is a cost, however, as both Ushuaia and El Calafate airports are managed by “London Supply” and charge an exit tax for the use of the airport which is NOT covered in your ticket price. The tax is around $8 USD.
After a quick 7 minute cab ride (around 23 pesos) I found myself at the front door of the Freestyle Hostel. The hostel had a nice layout, clean/modern facilities, and a great location just north of the docks. The staff was friendly, helpful and playful once they decided they liked you but tended to be a bit abrasive and sarcastic on first blush. My room offered a great view out over the harbor, was warm despite the cold weather, and fairly comfortable.
Before long I’d settled in, snagged a hearty nap, and was set to explore. Based on a recommendation and drink coupon from the hostel, I headed down (quite literally) the street to the Dublin Pub. A great little pub, it serves as the premier watering hole for travelers in Ushuaia. The place was packed, served a mixture of beers, and was limited to two local options on tap…Red or Black. Both of which were delightful.
Shortly thereafter, I connected with a twitter contact who I’d recently learned was also traveling through Ushuaia. Brendan authors the blog Brendan’s Adventures and has been on the road for over a year. A full time travel blogger he’s done a wonderful job executing a dream that most only talk about. Definitely take a minute to check out his blog and to look him up on twitter at @Brendanvanson.
We chatted travel, adventures, antics, women, and business projects off and on over the remainder of my stay in Ushuaia. Brendan has a wealth of travel experiences and wonderful insights into travel, people, and the ancillary benefits and challenges of being on the road.
Perhaps the most comical of our adventures was an attempt to shoot the lunar eclipse on the evening of my second day. Both eager for the chance to snap what we hoped would be incredible photos of a rare lunar eclipse over the Beagle Channel and Ushuaia, we camped out in the Dublin Pub until 3:30AM when it closed keeping a careful eye on the night sky and watching for the moon. We’d researched the eclipse and found a mixture of data which suggested that it would be visible from our vantage point sometime in the early morning. Unfortunately, it was also right around the time of the summer solstice which made for the shortest nights of the year.
As 3:30 morphed into 4AM and the sun began to rise we let out a collective harrumph, warmed our hands, and admitted defeat. As it turned out the combination of a mere 3 hours of darkness and large mountain range in the way meant that the Moon never showed its pale face. Was it ever visible? It’s hard to know, but as far as we could tel, day won out over night totally obscuring any chance of seeing the moon.
The final adventure of note within the city of Ushuaia itself was culinary. After a wonderful day spent exploring the Tierra del Fuego National Park, I re-connected with three of the people I’d met on the bus/during the hike. Starved from a long day’s exhaustion and a tiny lunch we opted to try one of the city’s all you can eat buffets. They boasted a wealth of meat options with a large in-house grill as well as a wide variety of other seafood and delicious morsels.
After comparing prices and window shopping we eventually settled on an Asian influenced buffet that sported a hearty grill accompanied by a mixture of seafood and a light sushi bar.
A vegetarian’s nightmare, the restaurant was a carnivore’s paradise. The meat was all beautifully cooked and awash in flavor. Predominantly consisting of lamb and beef, I set to sampling as many of the different options as possible.
Each trip back to the grill brought with it a hearty grin from the cook as I worked my way through normal steaks, grilled intestines, sausage, blood sausage and even rack of juicy lamb ribs that melted in my mouth.
With a nod towards ‘healthy’ eating, I also balanced things with several trips to the normal buffet bar where I loaded down my plate with beets, green beans, calamari rings, sliced tongue, clams, fried octopus and baby mussels.
Stuffed and served up with a hearty side of solid conversation as the guys told me about their recent Antarctica trip, we eventually surrendered to our food comas before calling it night. To this day even thinking about the meal makes my mouth water and my feet yearn for a return.
Words of Warning
So, here’s the scoop. If you start your trip through Southern Chile and Argentina in Ushuaia, you’ll probably love the place and enjoy the experience. It’s a decent city to start with and offers solid hostels, a beautiful national park, fun penguin excursions and medium-sized mountains all set to a pretty harbor with gorgeous sunsets. However, if you’ve already done Southern Chile, seen the glaciers and mountains in El Calafate and/or El Chalten and found penguins somewhere along your way, you’ll risk disappointment.
It’s also worth noting that a visit to Ushuaia guarantees exposure to amazing photos and stories from Antarctica which will no doubt trigger an intense desire to make the trip. I know that for my part what started as a passing pre-trip desire has now blossomed into a post-trip obsession!
Please note that this post breaks with my typical chronological format and focuses exclusively on my time spent in the city of Ushuaia. I spent my first complete day in Tierra del Fuego on a penguin tour and my second exploring the Tierra del Fuego national park. Stay tuned for future posts covering both day trips in detail.