On Wednesday, February 22nd, we left Puerto Natales and headed to Ushuaia, Argentina. The bus ride was another long one consisting of three different busses and one ferry across the Straights of Magellan. Ushuaia is the southernmost city in all of South America- not to be confused with the southernmost “settlement” which is Chili’s Port Williams just to the south.
Ushuaia is a charming ocean town located on the Beagle Channel connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific. Most people come to Ushuaia for the sole reason of catching a ship to Antarctica. However with its surrounding mountains, lively sea life and many restaurants we found it to be so more than just a layover city. Some of the highlights of our stay were as follows:
- City of Ushuaia: Ushuaia’s business/downtown area lies along two main streets. One hosts all of the commercial shipping ports and tourist port, the other is a busy one-way street with shopping, restaurants, and tourist agencies. Souvenir shops and jewelry stores can be found on every block. Clothing boutiques and outdoor gear stores fill in the gaps. There is no shortage of penguin and whale merchandise to lure the foreign dollar. As you travel up the roads towards the mountains most of Ushuaia’s residents live in small houses intermixed with local venders and apartment complexes. Taxies and “fast and furious” hatchbacks are plentiful. Unlike in Chile, pedestrians do not have the right away. Intersections are not clearly marked who has the right away for drivers either. The old motherly advice of look both ways before you cross the street really comes into play here, thanks mom. As day gives way to night (which typically wasn’t until close to 10:45 PM) the aforementioned hatchbacks run wild with tinted windows and unimpressive loud exhaust systems. A symphony of 4 cylinder machoism echoes until the morning hours. It’s really quite comical. Despite the late night car rumblings the rest of Ushuaia is a peaceful town with friendly inhabitants.
- Walking with Penguins- This may have been the highlight of our stay in Ushuaia! At about 3pm one day, we headed off to the harbor where we boarded a bus to drive us up the coast line to catch a boat to take us to see penguins.
Along the way we stopped at three different locations to help show us some more of the Ushuaian countryside:
- The first was a viewpoint across the Beagle channel at Puerto Williams, Chile. This is the “official” southernmost settlement- a very small town, originally used as a Naval port.
- The second was atop a hill where a local tree takes strange formations growing in the high Tierra Del Fuego winds. They grow in the direction of the wind because the gusts are constant and very strong.
- Finally, at the same location where we caught the small boat to take us to the penguin island, we explored a marine museum where we were educated about many different types of sea life in the area.
After a 20 min lecture in the museum, we boarded a small vessel and headed off toward the penguins. As we pulled up to the small island, several penguins splashed in the surrounding water. The island itself was filled with several thousand penguins of three different species. The black and white striped Magellanic penguins make up the majority. They create underground burrows for their young and can be found all over the island. The second most common were the Gentoo. These are also black and white but have orange beaks and feet. Finally, we were lucky enough to see two King penguins. They are rare at this particular rookery but for some reason they have made their way to the island. The Kings stand about a foot taller than the rest of the penguins. They have beautiful coats of black and white and distinct yellow marking on their chest, back of their head and alongside their long pointy beaks.
The island was full of penguin calls. It’s an entertaining sound of almost a mix between a donkey call and a rubber bicycle horn (the kind used by clowns). Waddling from side to side as they walk we couldn’t help but fall in love with the little creatures. Occasionally falling over from their lack of agility on land, they would take a face plant, pop back up, and keep waddling. With their eyes located along side of their heads, their heads rotate like a puppy when they come over to check you out. Because we are not a natural predator to the penguins, they walked right up without hesitation. We walked from one side of the colony to the other seeing many different portions of the rookery. After an hour or so of mingling with the penguins we headed back to Ushuaia with smiles from ear to ear.
- Sea Lion Boat Trip- Our second excursion in Ushuaia was a boat trip down the Beagle Channel to see a sea lion colony. We chose a company that used a small boat and kept the numbers of people down. The two of us prefer this style so we can get to know the guides and the other people with us.
In the early morning, Derek and I, 5 additional travelers, and two guides left the harbor. We boarded a small boat bundled up, expecting a chilly day our on the water. On the way out to our first destination, a light house on the channel, Minke whales took center stage. Packs of Minke whales had made their way into the channel over the last few weeks prior to our arrival. As our boat navigated away from town occasionally our boat would pass within 30 feet of some of the whale clusters. It was quite impressive to get a glimpse of these huge animals. Once out at the light house our guide pointed out a few native species of birds. They were a fishing species of bird with impressive slender bodies and flew at incredible speeds. Unable to spend too much time here we were quickly off to our next stop and our main attraction, sea lions.
As we approached the sheer rock island we could start to hear strange calls from ashore. The unmistakable spastic cries of sea lions filled the air along with the calls of a small colony of neighboring sea birds. This time of year (late summer), the sea lions literally cuddle all day long in the sun only occasionally heading out to sea to feed. Then it’s right back to snuggling. In each colony there is one dominate male twice the size of the other sea lions. Females surround the male with intermixed pups and juveniles on the outskirts. We watched them interact for about 20 minutes, snapped a few photos and headed off to our last stop.
Our boat and another docked together on an island where we would go for a short hike. The hike consisted of our guides educating us about the history of Ushuaia, its inhabitants, and how they used that particular island. At the end of the trail was a great look out of the Beagle Channel, back at Ushuaia with its mountains standing tall behind it. An hour passed on the island and we headed back to port. This time even more whales could be seen at an even closer distance (an added plus because we would have paid just to see them).
To top off the tour one of our guides poured local amber ale into tall mugs. A nice touch I must say.
- Golfing and the Prison/Maritime Museum- Our final day in Ushuaia, Derek and I separated to do different things we each wanted to do. Derek went golfing, and I spent an afternoon at the local Maritime Museum.
Golfing: One day looking, through some tourist pamphlets killing time, Derek noticed there is a golf course somewhere in Ushuaia. He thought if the weather would get nice enough that it might be a fun thing to do. Of course, like everything else down here it was the “southernmost” golf course in the world (they use that marking ploy for just about everything down here but it does work). On the very last day of our stay, the weather had cleared and it got up into the upper 60’s. Derek decided to hail a cab and head off to the links. After about a fifteen minute cab ride into the mountains he came to a valley. The valley was surrounded by snowcapped mountains and a river divided the golf into two halves. He rented some clubs from the pro-shop and headed out. He could tell right away it was going to be an interesting round of golf, with the steady Tierra del Fuego winds and the ground pretty hard. Going with the wind, he felt like a champ crushing the ball and letting the wind and hard surface carry the ball to almost every green. On the way back, however, it took two extra shots to get the ball the same distance going with the wind. The course itself seemed fairly new. With the harsh year round weather conditions, the grounds keeper was doing an amazing job keeping this course playable. He shot a solid 50 on 9 holes then headed back satisfied.
Prison and Maritime Museum: While Derek was out golfing, I visited the local Prison and Maritime Museum. It was quite a treat! Located at the edge of town, the building the museum is in is an old prison. The town of Ushuaia was actually built as it was a prison for multi-occurrence offenders as well as military and political prisoners. Priosoners were responsible for building the first buildings throughout the rugged landscape.
The museum was very diverse. It had several displays outlining the history of Ushuaia from the time of the natives to the present time, the history of oil and Anctarctic exploration, and the development of the Argentina Navy. It also contained an art museum, and had sections of the prison that were not remodeled, so you walk through the prison as it existed in days when it was in use. You could peer into cells and read stories about the inmates who once occupied them. It was pretty creepy, especially considering some of the crimes inmates had committed were very heinous.
One especially nice thing about the museum was that most of the exhibits had descriptions in both Spanish and English, which made it nice to understand what was going on. I would recommend this museum to any tourist visiting Ushuaia to help put the history of city development into broader perspective.