City of Ushuaia
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Little can prepare you for your arrival into the southernmost city in the world, the city closest to Antarctica, the city bordered by the last peaks of the Andes mountains and the Beagle Channel (named for Charles Darwin's ship, HMS Beagle), the city surrounded by lakes and bays, forests and glaciers, the city in which a sunset can bring tears to your eyes and make believers out of heretics. This is Ushuaia, a one-time penal colony, Fin del Mundo, the end of the earth.
Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire) is an archipelago located at the southernmost tip of the South American continent. It's bisected and divided; part belongs to Chile and part -- the portion in which lies Ushuaia -- belongs to Argentina. In fact, there is a friendly rivalry of sorts since Chile claims the southernmost town in the world, Puerto Williams; with a population of less than 2,500, it doesn't qualify as a city, but it is indeed further south.
Ushuaia is the capital of the Tierra del Fuego, Antarctica and Southern Atlantic Islands Province of Argentina, a mouthful usually condensed into three little words, Fin del Mundo. Those words, End of the Earth, can easily conjure images of a bleak and barren landscape, but nothing could be further from the truth. Ushuaia is a land of rainbows and forests, vivid colors and vibrant personality. Its climate is more moderate than assumed as it is well protected by the Martial Mounts of the Andes range, the Beagle Channel and the sea.
Founded in October of 1884, the location was considered too remote for most. Argentine commerce designated it a penal colony in 1896 (the jail was completed in 1902). Up until that time, the entire region was occupied by the Yamana Indians and a handful of missionaries. The last of the Yamanas perished at the end of the 20th century; the penal colony existed through 1947. The old jail is one of the most visited attractions in Ushuaia today.
Cruise guests arriving in Ushuaia are able to take advantage of the excursion boats that venture into the Beagle Channel, the historic "Train at the End of the World," and visits to Tierra del Fuego National Park. It's an ideal destination for wildlife viewing, fishing, skiing, hiking, biking, dining and shopping. The native spider crabs and king crabs are served in restaurants throughout the city, and all shopping is tax-free.
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Other South America & Antarctica Cruise Ports:
Buenos Aires • Lima • Manaus • Montevideo • Puerto Montt • Punta Arenas • Rio de Janeiro • Santiago (Valparaiso) • Santos (Sao Paulo) • Stanley • Ushuaia
Spanish is the official language in Ushuaia, although English, Portuguese and German are widely spoken.
Where You're Docked
Cruise ships dock in the center of town, a short walk along the pier to the Coastal Avenue (Maipu) and just a block from the main shopping street, San Martin.
The dock itself has several shops in glass-enclosed kiosks for those last-minute purchases, but be warned, prices here are much higher than they are in the town itself. There is also a phone and Internet kiosk close to the street.
At the very end of the dock proper is a visitor's center with maps and info about the area, but unfortunately little of it is in English. In the same area, to the right of the dock's end, are several booths for tourist activities and excursions, including boat trips to Wolf Island and through the Beagle Channel, flightseeing to Antarctica, bus tours to the Tierra del Fuego National Park, and longer trips, which don't work with most cruise ship schedules.
To the left of the dock's end is a series of handicraft and artisan's huts, which open at around 11 a.m. Here, you can seek handmade items indigenous to the region.
Before crossing Maipu into the city, there's a comfortable little square with benches, colorfully dressed in flowers and shrubs ... an ideal place to get your bearings and contemplate the mountains and sea surrounding you. Also in that general area are taxi stands and enterprising locals handing out maps and shopping coupons.
Taxis are cheap and plentiful in Ushuaia, and are located, as noted above, at the end of the dock. Bus service is available as well, from the dock area to the big shopping mall to the left and the prison museum to the right. This is a small city with a central downtown core, so if you just want to visit the shopping and dining areas, walking is the preferred method.
Note: Beyond Maipu (the Coastal Avenue) and San Martin (the main thoroughfare with shops and cafes), the streets become steep and uneven; not suitable for mobility-impaired visitors.
Anything with Patagonian sheep's wool is a good bet, as well as leather gaucho hats. Argentinian mate cups (made from hollowed-out gourds), "bombillas" (the metal straw through which to drink the yerba mate), and the "tea" of South America, make excellent souvenirs as well. They have the added advantage of being small and lightweight.
Watch Out For
The weather, even in summer, is volatile, changing from sleeting rain to blistering heat in a matter of minutes. And it's important to note that sunscreen, even on the bleakest of days, is a necessity: The ozone layer here is one of the thinnest in the world, and the sun's rays can wreak havoc on the unsuspecting tourist.
Ushuaia Prison Museum: (Yagenes and San Martin Streets, walkable from the dock) Not only does the prison museum allow you to see the actual cells of the prisoners who were housed here through 1947, a couple of them have been left intact with the last of the miscreants' belongings still visible. The Pabillon 4, another area within the prison, is designated a Marine Museum and offers a history of Ushuaia's settlement from the time of its discovery.
Tierra del Fuego National Park: This park straddles the border between Chile and Argentina, and is a wonderful example of eco-cooperation between nations. Glaciers, pristine lakes, incredible viewpoints, streams, rivers and mountains can be found here, within two hours of Ushuaia itself. Ships offer the park within their excursions, or you can hire a taxi in town for the journey if you want to do it individually.
Hammer Island Penguin Rookery: If your journey isn't one that includes the penguin rookery at Punta Tombo, this is your best chance to see the magnificent Magellenic Penguins up close and personal. And, rather than driving over dusty and bumpy roads for a couple of hours, this trip includes sailing on small vessels or catamarans through Lapataia Bay, past Sea Wolves Island, Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse and archipelago, Bird Island and several other Beagle Channel landmarks. Most ships offer it as a shore excursion, or you can purchase the trip from the tourist kiosks at the end of the dock.
Been There, Done That
The ski lift to the hotels and restaurants above the city. A cab ride of about $5 takes you to the lift, which operates year-round. Here, you can enjoy extraordinary views over Ushuaia and the Beagle Channel while dining on king crab or Argentine beef ... on top of the world at the end of the world.
The catwalk over Bahia Encerrada, which is a small body of water located at the end of Maipu to the left of the dock as you exit. This little bay freezes in winter and becomes the city's ice skating rink; in summer, you can cross it via the catwalk (at the Nautical Club) to get to the peninsula on the other side, enabling fabulous views of the city.
The options are nearly limitless in this Fin del Mundo gastronomic paradise. Melt-in-your-mouth Argentine beef, meats cooked "parillo" style surrounding a stone firepit, or the region's king or spider crabs prepared simply or with an exotic flair can all be found in this little city. If a large meal is too much, there are also several coffee houses and bakery/cafes along the main street (San Martin) through the city. This is a great place to splurge: The most elaborate lunch will cost less than $20 per person, maybe $25 with an excellent bottle of Argentine or Chilean wine.
Kaupe: (Roca 470; phone: 42-2704) Located on the mountainside above the city, this family run Alpine-like restaurant is a favorite of Cruise Critic's Associate Editor Melissa Baldwin and Contributor Joyce Gleeson-Adimidas. Located high above the city with sweeping views over the channel (and your ship), the Vivian family serves steak and seafood prepared with a bit of French flair and Argentine passion.
Moustacchio: (Av. San Martin 298 phone: 42-3308) Walk past the windows of this charming restaurant with its meats grilling over the open stone fire, and you'll want to go in to dine on typical Argentine parrilla: plates covered with portions of any of the meats you choose.
BakeryTante Sara Bakery Cafe and Bar: (Av. San Martin 701, phone: 42-4579, www.cafebartantesara.com.ar) Stop in for a cup of coffee and try one of the cafe's signature Torte Fuegiuna: a gooey, chocolate-y concoction made with ingredients from this region. You can buy one packaged to take home, too.
Tierra Mayor Trekking: Take a tour through the Tierra Mayor Valley Natural Reserve and trek along mountain paths to The Five Cascades, waterfalls tumbling from the Alvear Mountains. Dress warmly, as it gets cold during this hike, but it also gives you an opportunity to experience the beauty and natural wonders of the region. Cost: $55 - $65 USD.
Tierra del Fuego National Park: Just 10 miles outside of the city lies one of the largest natural preserves and maintained National Parks in the world, with 150,000 acres of lush natural beauty to explore. The shore excursions take you to see the highlights of the park, including Lake Roca and vista point looking into the Beagle Channel and Lapataia Bay. Cost: $30 - $45 USD.
Train Ride at the End of the World: Take this replica of a steam-driven "prison train" though Tierra del Fuego National Park and experience what the prisoners felt when they were transported to the region a hundred years ago. This tour also visits reconstructed camps of the original Tierra del Fuegans, the Yamanas, and concludes with a motorcoach trip through scenic areas of the national park before returning to Ushuaia. Cost: $110 - $125.
Staying in Touch
There are several Internet and international phone centers along San Martin, including a large facility, Del Fin Del Mundo, located at San Martin 957. The rate in town runs approximately six pesos (about $2 USD) for half an hour of Internet service; the kiosk at the end of the dock is considerably higher.
For More Information
On the Web: www.patagonia-argentina.com
Cruise Critic Message Boards: South America
Indepenent Traveler: Argentina
--by San Diego-based Jana Jones, who is the creator and editor of lodging Web site Sleeping-Around.com, as well as one of Cruise Critic's stalwart ship reviewers.
--All photos (except for "City of Ushuaia" and "Patagonia Lighthouse") are courtesy of Melissa Baldwin, Senior Editor.