Little can prepare you for your arrival into the southernmost city in the world, the city closest to Antarctica, bordered by the last peaks of the Andes mountains and the Beagle Channel (named for Charles Darwin's ship, HMS Beagle) -- surrounded by lakes and bays, forests and glaciers, and one of the fastest-growing tourist destinations in Argentina. More than 300 cruise ships call here during the season (October to May), disgorging thousands of passengers, all of whom contribute substantially to the city's economy.
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 about 2,800.
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, which also includes claims on the Falkland Islands (Las Malvinas) and South Georgia. The area is known colloquially (and on tourist-branded caps and T-shirts) as "Fin del Mundo" -- or End of the World. This 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 far 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 1884, the location was considered too remote for most. The Argentine government 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.
Ushuaia is where the majority of the Argentine navy set sail to do battle in the 1982 Falklands War, and there is a memorial to those who died just west of the town center. You'll also spot signs and graffiti in the town claiming that Las Malvinas are, in fact, Argentine-run. There is no residual animosity evident toward English tourists, but it's probably best to avoid discussing the still controversial topic (the sovereignty issue is far from resolved).
Cruise passengers arriving in Ushuaia are able to take advantage of excursion boats that venture into the Beagle Channel, the historic "Train at the End of the World" and Tierra del Fuego National Park (see Don't Miss). It's an ideal destination for wildlife viewing, fishing, skiing, hiking, biking, dining and shopping. Native spider crabs and king crabs are served in restaurants throughout the city, and all shopping is tax-free (but still eye-wateringly expensive).
The city is growing at an astonishing rate, and development is rampant. Great tracts of forest have been cut down to cater to the burgeoning population, and the outskirts of the city now sprawls along the Beagle Channel. Be warned that nominally duty-free, prices in the main restaurants and shops along Avenida San Martin range from high to exploitative.
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 of branded caps, T-shirts, fleeces and, of course, penguins; the selection is smaller, but the prices are cheaper than in town.
At the very end of the dock 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 Tierra del Fuego National Park and longer trips, if you are staying on after the cruise.
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 Av. 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. Taxi stands and enterprising locals handing out maps and shopping coupons are also found here.
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.
By Taxi: Taxis are cheap and plentiful in Ushuaia and are located, as noted above, at the end of the dock.
By Bus: Bus service is available from the dock area to the big shopping mall to the left and the prison museum to the right.
On Foot: 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. They're not suitable for mobility-impaired visitors.
As there are no ATMs in the dock, you'll need to head east along the main street (Avenida Prefectura Naval) to find banks. Note the Argentine currency is notoriously volatile and is rarely exchanged out of the country, so do not take too much out if you are just here for a day. For current currency conversion figures, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com.
Spanish is the official language in Ushuaia, although English and German are widely spoken.
The options are nearly limitless in this Fin del Mundo gastronomic paradise. Melt-in-your-mouth Argentine beef, meats cooked "parilla" style surrounding a stone fire pit 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: This family-run Alpine-like restaurant is located high above the city with sweeping views over the channel (and your ship). The Vivian family serves steak and seafood prepared with French flair and Argentine passion. (Calle Pte Gral J a Roca 470; +54-2901-42-2704; open daily 6:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.).
Moustacchio: 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 filled with portions of any of the meats you choose. (Avenida San Martin 298; +54-2901-42-3308; Open daily for lunch and dinner.
La Casa de los Mariscos: If it's king crab or indeed any other local crustacean you are after, then you've come to the right place. You can't miss this aptly named, bright red restaurant, which serves an excellent selection of local seafood at reasonable (for Ushuaia) prices. (Avenida San Martin 232; +54-2901-42-1928):
Tante Sara Bakery Cafe and Bar: Stop in for a cup of coffee and try one of the cafe's signature Torte Fueguina, a gooey, chocolate-y concoction made with ingredients from this region. You can buy one packaged to take home, too. (Avenida San Martin 701; +54-2901-42-4579; open daily, 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.)
Ovejitas de la Patagonia: This charming tea house/cafe/chocolatier is a perfect spot to pause for a drink and pick up some reasonably priced handmade local chocolates. (Avenida San Martin 87; +54-2901-42-2824)
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. And of course, it would be remiss not to buy any of the many numerous items (T-shirts, caps, fleeces, bags, etc.) sporting the city's tagline: "The end of the world." It's worth noting that despite its tax-free status, the shops on San Martin are breathtakingly expensive. If you're after a bargain, head east or west to the end of the street where the locals shop.