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.