When I was a poor, penniless student sharing a house with a bunch of gay social workers in West London we had a huge map of the world in our bathroom. On days when the boys weren’t crimping their hair or painting their nails I would spend hours sitting in the bath staring at this map.
Ushuaia, in Argentinean Tierra del Fuego, was at eye level and seemed to be the antithesis of grim suburban London. Each day whilst brushing my teeth I would stare at the map and imagine what it would be like to be there. Would it be a desolate unforgiving place where wild men told wild stories around smouldering camp fires or would it, like so much of the rest of the world, be overrun with Kodak sponsored Japanese tourists?
For many years Tierra Del Fuego remained a dream; my dream kept me sane during my university finals and during the turbulent and chaotic years which followed but I never gave up hope of eventually getting there. In January 2001, on an overcast Wednesday morning I finally arrived there. After so many years of dreaming and wondering, the serene vista of snow capped mountains and pale blue water stretched away in all directions. It was everything I had hoped for and more. I sat down on a bench and hugged my knees to my chest against the biting wind that was blowing, took out my diary and began to write…
What to Do
Most people go to Ushuaia and actually do very little. There are always a few people rushing around buying supplies for Antarctic trips (bookable in town. A 15 day cruise on a Russian ship costs about US$2000), or doing some serious hiking. However, most people seem just to do a few small day trips then spend the rest of the time sitting in cafes soaking up the atmosphere and writing postcards from the ‘town at the end of the world’.
The Train at the End of the World
This reproduction of the original prisoners train leaves from a station 8km west of Ushuaia and does a sedate loop through some pretty forests, some secluded valleys and peat bogs. I didn’t meet anyone who had actually taken the train but the tourist office highly recommended it.
Tierra del Fuego National Park
This is the country’s only national park with a maritime coast. It has a number of well sign posted walks that take you through deciduous beech trees, peat bogs and secluded marine coasts. Maps are available from stores in town and most people who made the effort had a good day’s walk. Do remember to take plenty of warm, dry clothes as the weather can be bitter even in summer. Some of the popular walks include:
Beginning on Route 3 about 3km away from the parks entrance. A simple track leads you to a panoramic view of the western part of the Beagle Channel and the outstanding Guanaco Hill. This walk is classed as medium difficulty and covers about 5km.
At the end of the road which leads to Bahia Ensenada you will find a footpath which goes west along the shore of the Beagle Channel, allowing you to see a variety of forest and sea coast. The circular walk takes about three hours.
Starting on the geographical border between Argentina and Chile, this track, after crossing the first stream, rapidly ascends towards the right. Four hours later you should be on top of the mountain at 970m above sea level and have, weather permitting, a magnificent vista of the surrounding countryside. This walk is classed as tough by the tourist agency.
Navigating the Beagle Channel
The most popular excursion is the trip to see the sea lion colony on the aptly named Sea Lion’s Island. During the trip you can expect to see a lively colony of sea lions and the more impressive Antarctic fur seals. This trip runs several times a day from mid-October to mid-April (there are lots of tourist agencies in town, all of similar quality). The sea can be a bit heavy and people prone to travel sickness are suggested to consider this when planning their trips.
Oh, the Martial Glacier. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but then again most of my beloved’s ideas normally do when she initially proposes them (normally towards the end of a very drunken evening when I am least capable of resisting). For example, there was the time that she decided that we absolutely had to climb a certain mountain in Japan, despite that fact we both had stonking hangovers and the humidity was 100%. And what did we see when we finally reached the top some three hot sweaty hours later? Absolutely nothing.
On another occasion she tricked me into agreeing to a short bike ride only to find myself having to peddle myself over 45kms of rugged off-road Chilean terrain in search of a waterfall. I should really have learnt my lesson by now but she only has to flutter her eye lashes, whisper sweet nothings to my ear in Dutch and I suddenly find myself saying, “Yes dear, climbing that active volcano seems like a jolly sensible idea. I’ll just get my coat.” The Martial glacier was a classic example. From my diary:
‘…this is bloody stupid. I can’t believe the LP recommends this. I am half way up this monstrous mountain and the wind is cutting me like a knife. At least the fear of falling off this god forsaken scree slope has been replaced by a fear of freezing to death. If I can open my eyes long enough I might be able to take a picture of the Beagle Channel which is somewhere there a few thousand meters below me.’
And then later:
‘Bugger this, I am going to Spain for my holidays next year.’
After two hours of tramping through snow (stop complaining Philip, your testicles aren’t really frozen solid), and scrambling over razor sharp scree slopes we finally made it to the summit where visibility was down to a few feet and the wind howled with savage intensity. Eventually, after what had seemed like an eternity, the mist and cloud lifted for a few seconds and rewarded us with a view of nothing but a sheer drop and a few grim, snow capped mountains in front of us and the Beagle Channel below us. My loved one was terribly disappointed but I was more pragmatic and felt reassured that some things, like her judgement, never change.
Once we had scrambled down to below the snow line, I had to admit that for sheer adrenalin nothing could come close to the climb and if I had been much fitter I would have done it all again the next day. However, I was still confused why the LP guide book had described the views from the glacier as “awesome” when quite clearly the view from the top was at the best of times ‘average’ and hardly worth the long slog.
It wasn’t till much later that we realised that the Martial Glacier was actually a glacial valley which began well below the snow line and was not a true glacier (for example, see the Moreno Glacier guide). We had actually been sitting on the glacier looking at the awesome views down towards the Beagle Channel and had not realised it. Nice one LP! Weeks later I read that “the path to the col should only be attempted in summer because during the rest of the year it’s covered with snow and there is a significant risk of injury”.
10 Reasons for Going to Ushuaia
1. You can brag forever more about having been to the most southerly city in the world.
2. The light in Ushuaia is incredible and on a good day few views compare with the tranquil waters of the Beagle Channel and its snow capped mountain guardians.
3. Landing at the airport is incredible.
4. The bus trip down to Punta Arenas.
5. Great walks in the National park.
6. Drinking hot chocolate from one of the cafes along the main street whilst the rain lashes down.
7. Cruises to Antarctica depart regularly from Ushuaia.
8. Climbing the Martial Glacier.
9. A cruise on the Beagle Channel.
10. Getting your passport stamped at the Post Office at the End of the World.