Ushuaia, the End of the World, the Land of Fire, the southernmost tip of South America is truly a unique part of Patagonia: in lanscape, vegetation, marine-life, and general atmosphere. It is a land of contrast: a bustling city neighboured by a tranquile National Park and desolate islands. Quiet, barren, forests and violent seas teaming with life. Low-lying snow-capped mountains and glaciers where it is possible to ski in the winter. This once remote location has developed into a transport hub that takes thousands of tourists to Antartica every year.
But to get to Ushuaia by land, takes perseverance! The bus ride from El Calafate (depature 3am) to Ushuaia, was exhausting! It lasted 18-hours, of which a third is spent waiting for a connecting bus, or for the ferry crossing, or at the 4 border controls as we have to cross over into Chile for part of the journey (here again all our ‘dangerous’ fresh food was taken from us!).
Our first day was spent on the usual planning and logistics: booking a boat tour (at 150 euros each, we really splurged on the budget!), inquiring for our camping trip in Tierra del Fuego National Park and shopping for food. We had a hard time finding a gas canister for our cooker, as it turns out most so-called camping shops in Ushuaia only sell luxury outdoor clothing! We were also highly annoyed with our hostel Cruz del Sur, probably the place in all of South America with the most rules!
We managed to squeeze into our afternoon a few hours at the Ushuaia Maritime and Antartica Museum which is located inside old Presidio prison. This is where all the hard-core Argentinian convicts would be sent to be exiled from society, for a few decades during the 19th and 20th centuries. They participated in building the train tracks and port that would link Ushuaia to the rest of world. The most notorious of these convicts was Godino, who by the age of 16 had already tortured and murdered dozens of babies and young children. We learnt that the ‘ultimate’ punishment in the prison was to deprive the inmates of food, then water, and lastly ‘Mate’, which is a kind of tea that, even to this day, Argentinians drink day in and day out! We got to visit a cold, gloomy wing of the prison, left in its original state.
The rest of the Museum explained about the history of the discovery of the Magellan Straight in 1520 (Magellan being the first explorer to have found a passage around the southernmost tip of America), and then the Drake Passage (by Sir Francis Drake), further South, which would be controlled by the British. Many explorers and entrepeneurs, and then European missionaries and colonies came and went, looking to found a base for the commercial, sealing and whaling ships that needed to stop-over here. Due to its hostile environment and unforgiving weather, the area was notorious for its shipwrecks and it took over 2 centuries for Ushuaia to finally become a permenant settlement and develop into the transport hub it is today.
Betwen Ushuaia and Antartica, all seal and whale colonies were exploited to near extinction in less than a few decades, to produce oil from their fatty flesh. The first encounters with Antartica were probably by the crew of these hunting ships and ‘floating factories’, looking for oil further and further South. It is ironic that today, the Arctic is being discreetly claimed and exploited in a similar way, by our generation’s fossil fuel companies. Even more ironic was that the museum’s ‘Antartic Marine Life’ expo was sponsored by the oil giant Total…
We especially enjoyed the accounts of the international scientific expeditions sent to the Antartic from the late 19th century onwards. The stories of how they discovered the peninsula and built bases there, and gradually mapped-out the whole of Antartica and its islands, surviving winters and inland expeditions, waiting for the following summer to be ‘picked-up’ with no way of communicating with the outside world. The North Pole was finally discovered, almost simultaneously in 1910, by an international expedition led by Norwegian captain Amudson, and an independant British team, led by Captain Scott, who perished on the return journey. We admired the instruments used for navigation (optical theodolites, sonars, mechanical sensors), which were sophisticated for the time.
The following day, the weather was beautiful, a good start to getting our money’s worth on our boat tour! We jetted-off eastwards in the Beagle Channel, Argentina to one side, Chile to the other. On the way to Estancia Harberton we stopped at a few rock islands home to seal and cormorant colonies. The two species side by side made quite a contrast: the seals lazy and dead-looking, the cormorants busy and noisy, like a scene from Where’s Wally! We were also followed by other species of marine birds, including huge albatros flying-low to have enough speed to race our boat!
We had our lunch outdoors at the Estancia, and visited the Marine Museum while the other group were out visiting the nearby penguin colony. As the visits are strictly controlled to protect the penguins (number of people, time of visit, distance of approach), we were seperated in 2 groups. The museum tour was too fast, and despite our guide’s best efforts, about the only things we learnt were: a killer-whale is actually a dolphin, and what differientiates dolphins from whales is that the former have teeth, and the latter have ‘filtration fins’ instead (don’t know what the correct term is!).
It was finally our turn to see the penguins! After our short boat ride, we disembarked on a pristine beach, just a few meters away from a large group of Magellanic Penguins. These are plain black and white, smallish and very playful. It was entertaining watching them waddle around and peck eachother.
After a closer look, we could see mixed in with them a few Gentoo Penguins. These have much clearing lines and striking orange beaks. The different types of penguins get on fine, there is hardly any competition. It was humbling to be in such close proximity to these strange, ungraceful, creatures.
The Star of the day had to be a lone King Penguin, who are usually more commonly-found in the Antartic. They are the second largest penguins in the world, after the Imperial Penguins. This young one had wandered far up North, in search of food and calm waters. He had definitely come to the right place!
We completed our hour-long visit with a short walk through the Magellanic Penguin’s nesting area. It was cute to see the teenagers still half-covered in feathers and helping eachother out to pick the remaining ones off.
And just when we thought the day couldn’t get any better, on the return boat journey, we were blessed with a rare Humpback Whale sighting, quite close to the boat. We had already seen a few today as a few pods were passing through the Chanel this week, following schools of fish migrating from the Pacific to the Atlantic. But this sighting was exceptional as it was so close, and the Whale stayed with us a long time, putting on a real show: splashing his tail, blowing water into the air and jumping in and out of the water! What a treat to end-off this unforgettable day admiring Ushuaia’s rich marine-life!
On the way back we saw a cruise-ship and an ice-breaker destined for Antartica, just 1000km away!
We were now heading to Tierra del Fuego National Park, to admire the on-land wonders of this region, exchanging an expensive boat-ride, for our walking shoes! We would leave Ushuaia a few days later, on a plane to Buenos Aires, our last destination in South America.