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.