Ushuaia: The City at the End of the World

Cumbres del Martial, Ushuaia

Half the articles out there about Ushuaia reference the “end of the world” or the “fin del mundo.” Yes, the title has become a cliche, but this is precisely Ushuaia’s claim to fame: it is the legendary city at the edge of the earth. In the old days, this is where they used to draw dragons and prophesy that sailors would sail into the abyss. In modern times, we’ve toned down the rhetoric and refer to Ushuaia as the “southernmost city in the world.”

Ushuaia, gateway to Antarctica

As for many visitors, Ushuaia is our starting point for the ultimate exploration, the holy grail for adventure enthusiasts and travel bloggers everywhere: a trip to Antarctica. But the city at the end of the world, which doubles as the capital of Tierra del Fuego, is a destination in its own right. Backed by snowy peaks in the “heat” of their midsummer season, the city and the surrounding region was tailor-made for hearty explorers.

Cumbres del Martial, Ushuaia

From the windows of our hotel Cumbres del Martial, we look out over a lenga forest at the Beagle Channel and the mountainous islands of Chile beyond. The body of water below us was named after the ship that carried Charles Darwin on his famous voyage around the world. When he sailed the channel, these islands were the domain of the Yaghan tribe, a group of people famous for surviving in this harsh region without wearing any clothing.

Beagle Channel, Ushuaia

It seems totally incomprehensible to me that people could live here through the cold summers let alone the snowy winters without protective clothing, but there are old faded black and white pictures to prove it. The Yaghan survived for thousands of years by smearing their skin with seal fat and constantly maintaining fires. They even carried fire with them in their canoes as they hunted. Those fires were seen by early explorers who gave the region the name Tierra del Fuego, the land of fires.

Yaghan people, Tierra del Fuego

The Yaghan believed that clothing which was constantly damp due to the region’s drizzle and snow was worse than being cold. Apparently, the Selknam people to the north didn’t share that opinion. Unfortunately, missionaries and whalers introduced several diseases which largely wiped out the extraordinary Yaghan. Today, Cristina Calderón, who lives across the channel on Isla Navarino, is the last surviving Yaghan speaker. She is 87.

Hiking outside Ushuaia

One huge advantage of our beautiful hotel is that it sits right at the start of the trail to Martial Glacier. Thomas and I literally stepped out of our room and began the hike up through the ancient, gnarled lenga forests towards a series of jagged peaks. Because this part of the Andes is so far south, we passed the tree line at just a few hundred meters above sea level. The views down the U-shaped glacial valley overlooking the Beagle Channel were more impressive than the modest glacier. It’s really those views and the natural amphitheater of rocky peaks that bring in most of the hikers.

To be honest, Thomas and I were far more fascinated by the plant life. The slow-growing forests of gnarled trunks and limbs created a fairytale atmosphere heightened by low hanging clouds and mists. The bark on the trees looked like thick, wrinkled animal skin. One photo I took of a knot on a tree could easily be mistaken for an elephant’s eye!

Tree bark

Plant life, Tierra del Fuego

Gnarled forest, Ushuaia

Beyond the forests, a thick carpet of normally high-altitude plants formed a surreal macro-jungle that swept up towards the slopes. The closer we looked, the more color and shape we discovered in the plant life. After a few moments, both of us were down on our knees taking close-up pictures of the spectacular plants much to the confusion of passing hikers who could not figure out why we were off-trail on all fours staring at the ground.

Hiking to Martial Glacier

Motivated by the beautiful nature, we decided to hike the seven kilometers from our hotel into town via a series of back country trails we discovered along the road. The paths wound through a fantasy landscape of beautiful forest, over small canyons, along a winding river until we popped out at a gorgeous field of high yellow flowers on the edge of town. If you are one of those people who speeds from Ushuaia to Martial Glacier in a taxi, you are missing some really nice forest walks!

Forest walk in Ushuaia

The city of Ushuaia itself often gets more mixed reviews than the nature by people who speed through on their tour of Patagonia. The sprawl is spreading at a geometric rate as the local standard of living is much higher than the Argentinian average. Like Alaska in the U.S., the remote location has created high earnings as well as a high cost of living. That also means that hotel and food costs are quite high. There’s a reason why those travelers are speeding through. To make the situation worse, there are only a few options for exchanging money at blue market rates.

Ushuaia street art

Having said that, we loved walking along the waterfront and bird-watching at the Saint Christopher ship wreck, which is usually swarming with birds. The main port buzzes with activity and each day there was a new collection of passing cruise ships and smaller Antarctic expedition ships. There’s a palpable sense of adventurous anticipation that permeates the town. It’s the closest thing to a frontier port that travelers can find in the 21st century.

St. Christopher wreck, Ushuaia

We also enjoyed walking around town and discovering the old traditional wood houses with yards full of blooming flowers. San Martin street, which cuts through the center of Ushuaia, is filled with shops full of overpriced cold weather gear for all those visitors who need to make last minute purchases before their trip to Antarctica. Unfortunately, those shops are closed half the day while Argentinians take their sub-Antarctic siesta (much to the annoyance of visiting tourists wandering around the windy streets wondering why everything is closed.)

Flowers in Ushuaia

One possible escape from those windy streets is the Museo Marítimo de Ushuaia. From 1884 – 1947 isolated Ushuaia served as a penal colony. The huge prison which then housed the prisoners has now been converted into a sprawling museum which features a seriously eclectic mix of exhibitions including maritime history, the history of Antarctic exploration, Antarctic wildlife, the history of political prisons, and contemporary art. Where else can you see a penguin statue featuring a portrait of Marilyn Monroe and read about Mandela’s imprisonment on Robben Island? We weren’t joking when we said eclectic.

Modern art at Museo Maritimo de Ushuaia

How you react to Ushuaia will directly relate to why you’ve come, your budget, the weather conditions you experience, your expectations, and how many opportunities you have to get out into the surrounding natural attractions. There are plenty of potential excursions including nearby penguin and sea lion colonies, the Tierra del Fuego National Park, sailing on the Beagle Channel, jeep adventures into the surrounding wilderness, and expeditions to remoter locations in the surrounding islands. (We will be doing some of the things after our return from Antarctica, so keep an eye on upcoming posts.)

Hike between Martial Glacier and Ushuaia

Yes, some people will be thrilled to simply set foot in the world’s southernmost city. That provides a certain sense of geographic achievement. But Ushuaia was made for adventurers and explorers, the more you get out and explore, the more you will enjoy the destination. Extreme nature at the edge of the world was the definite highlight for us. Walking in the footsteps of the Yaghan and Darwin, remembering the waves of explorers and missionaries, contemplating the penal colony, and tiptoeing along the edge of the world through fairytale forests definitely made this a travel high for us.

Thanks to Cumbres del Martial Mountain Lodge

Cumbres del Martial in Ushuaia

We would like to thank Cumbres del Martial for hosting us in Ushuaia before our trip to Antarctica. The quaint forest lodge and its spectacular location at the Martial Glacier trailhead overlooking the Beagle Channel felt like our home away from home in Ushuaia. The owner Maria, Belen, Antonella and visiting German intern Valerie went out of their way to make us feel welcome from the moment we arrived.

Room at  Cumbres del Martial

The beautiful red architecture of Cumbres del Martial so came to represent remote Ushuaia for us that we made the unprecedented decision to choose the hotel entrance as our lead picture for the entire Ushuaia post. We loved wandering around the charming grounds and sitting on the rocks next to the Buena Esperanza stream that flows by the hotel. We also really enjoyed that sauna to warm up a bit after our hike to the glacier.

Even if you don’t stay in the hotel, try to stop by at the teahouse for a meal or a hot drink, or at least drop into the gift shop. That will give you a chance to soak up a bit of Maria’s unique forest fairytale vibe and check out the pretty buildings.

If you would like to find out more about Cumbres del Martial’s different rooms, restaurant and tea house, visit them at www.cumbresdelmartial.com.ar.

Breakfast at Cumbres del Martial

Disclosure: While staying in Ushuaia, we were guests of Cumbres del Martial as well as Museo Marítimo de Ushuaia. However, all of the opinions expressed here are our own.

10 responses to “Ushuaia: The City at the End of the World”

  1. avatar Halli says:

    That hotel looks like a little gingerbread house. I didn’t realize Ushuaia was so beautiful. I had two friends who visited when they went to Antarctica a few years ago and they made it sound like a boring grey port.

    • avatar Tony says:

      It probably depends on the weather you have while visiting as well as how much you get out and hike. We loved Ushuaia and there is almost unlimited potential for hiking and explorations further afield.

  2. avatar Shane says:

    Damn, I can’t believe I missed the penguin with Marilyn on it.

  3. avatar Debni says:

    Is it easy to hike from Ushuaia town, or do you need to organize transportation to the starting points? Thanks.

    • avatar Tony says:

      You can take inexpensive public transport to the Martial Glacier trail and there are several trails behind Ushuaia which are within walking distance, but they are not clearly marked, so you will have to ask around. There are also transfers to Tierra del Fuego National Park near Ushuaia where many people go to hike.

  4. avatar Debni says:

    Our time is limited. With just one day, which hike would you do?

    • avatar Tony says:

      @Debni, Both areas are quite nice. If I had to choose, I would probably go to the national park and do the longer hike along the water.

  5. avatar Bama says:

    Never thought Ushuaia would be this interesting. The hiking trail looks beautiful, the hotel pretty, and the museum… interesting! So sad to know that there’s only one Yaghan speaker left. Hopefully there has been effort to study the language to prevent it from extinction.

    • avatar Tony says:

      @Bama, Yes, there’s a ton to do here, but organized options are pricey. The surrounding area has huge tourism potential. There is a Yaghan dictionary and recordings. I don’t know how extensively the language has been documented.

  6. avatar Kelly says:

    Ushuaia sounds fab. We’ll definitely set some time aside when we do our Antarctica trip next year.

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