Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire) is located on the banks of the Beagle Channel. Ushuaia is the capital of the province, the most southerly city in the world, and the open door to the immense and mysterious Antarctica.
In total, the archipelago of Tierra del Fuego covers an area slightly smaller than Ireland, with 70% belonging to Chile. The border runs down the middle of the big island and then down the middle of the Beagle Channel.
A Little History
When the explorer Magellan sailed around the great island at the tip of South America, he saw Indian campfires all along the coast and called the island “Land of Smoke”. But it was reasoned that where there is smoke, there is fire and the name was eventually changed to Tierra del Fuego – Land of Fire.
Tierra del Fuego was home to four Indian tribes: Haush, Ona, Yahgan and Alacaluf. Primarily nomadic, they generally dressed in guanaco skins, lived in huts made of sticks, branches and sometimes skins. They hunted with bows and arrows, slings and snares, and fished by harpoons and spears. Unlike Indian tribes to the north, none of the tribes had chiefs or organized religion.
When the first pioneers arrived they found that the natives referred to the beautiful bay that was well protected from winds and surrounded by mountains as ‘ooshooia‘. English speaking sailors, including a certain Mr. C Darwin, bastardised this to Ushuaia in their journals and thus the city was named.
Between the first explorers in the early 1500’s and permanent settlers in the late 1800’s, there were scientific expeditions, pirates, sealers and whalers passing through, occasionally skirmishing with the Indians and introducing European diseases and otherwise negatively impacting the Indians’ way of life. Today there are no true full-blooded Fuegan Indians, the last having died around 1915.
The story of Ushuaia doesn’t really begin to gather momentum until 1869 when an Anglican missionary arrived to ‘evangelise’ the natives. In 1882, the president of Argentina signed the bill for a “penal colony in the south of the republic”. His aim was two fold; to establish a firm footing on this strategically important piece of land and to deal with Buenos Aires’ growing number of undesirables.
The Argentinean flag was first hoisted over Ushuaia in 1884. In 1911, the infamous prison was opened and life changed irrevocably. Perhaps there is no other city which owes so much to convict labour. Within a few years the town had electricity, a pier, a post office and other trappings of a modern city. The prison was closed in 1947 and today serves as a museum and a testament to man’s brutality to man.
I travelled the entire length of South America by bus but there is no real need to undergo such arduous conditions as this to reach Ushuaia. There are many flights from Buenos Aires, Rio Gallegos, Trelew and other major Argentinean towns with good prices for last minute purchases and students.
There are also some flights from Chilean cites. A good bet for reasonably priced flights is Punta Arenas (Chile), where there are several helpful travel agents dotted about town. Flights in general tend to be reasonably priced. For example, Rio Gallegos to Ushuaia is about US$50 for a single. Generally these flights need to be booked a day in advance but during Christmas and holidays you may need to plan a little more ahead. Arriving in Ushuaia by plane is worth every dollar. From my diary:
‘Coming in low now over the Beagle Channel, crisp clean turquoise waters speckled with algae. The new 2.7km runway seems to be floating on an island of liquid amethyst. We dip lower below the jagged snow capped glacial peaks and make a perfect landing at what must be the world’s most spectacular airport.’
The other alternative is to take a bus from Punta Arenas. Buses in South America are generally comfortable, reliable and extremely good value. The bus ride from Ushuaia to Punta Arenas is spectacular to say the least. From my diary again:
‘…our bus has wire mesh on the windscreen to protect the driver from stones thrown up as we speed along the bumpy, unmade roads. The sun is just rising and the snow-capped mountains are made of molten brass. We move through the cloud layer and as the wispy suggestions of clouds thin we see below us is a glitter jewel of a lake. Only the burnt out shells of buses which litter the road remind me that these are in fact the first days of the 21st century.’
Later, whilst waiting at the border I wrote that:
‘We pass through surreal twisted forests of stunted trees whose limbs were heavy with mistletoe. It’s like something out of the Blair Witch Project – Argentinean style. There is nothing moving on the road except us and the road seems endless.’
The other romantic advantage of taking the bus is that the trip includes a boat crossing of the Straights of Magellan. Need I say more?
Unfortunately there are no buses from the airport to the town and there is really no alternative but to take a taxi. However bad Argentinean taxi drivers may drive and however much they like to talk about Maggie Thatcher and the Falkland’s War they are all terribly honest and the prices are always reasonable.
The other advantage of taking a taxi is that the driver will always recommend a dozen or so places to stay. I had planned to stay in a hostel, which turned out to be a very bad mistake. It was only by the help of a kind taxi driver who offered to show me some private homes which rented out rooms, was I able to get a private room in a wonderful house for only US$10 a night (including a substantial breakfast). Almost all of the taxi drivers I met in Ushuaia were clearly in love with their town and were a wealth of knowledge.
The buses to and from Chile arrive in the centre of town, close to all the main hostels. The town itself is small enough to see on foot. For trips further afield there are many travel agents in town which all charge similar prices. Nothing is cheap.
Ushuaia is a terrible place for budget travellers who don’t want to stay in a local person’s home. There are several hostels in town but generally they are of such a disreputable nature that they should be avoided unless absolutely necessary. It was here that I stayed in the worst hostel I have ever stayed in anywhere in the world. Someone I had met in Chiloe had recommended to me El refugio del mochleros (25 de Mayo) as a cheap friendly place to stay. And so, as soon as I arrived in town I checked in.
Although the hostel was spotlessly clean and run by a friendly Scottish girl, it turned out to be the hostel from hell. As night life for backpackers in town is somewhat limited every single undesirable person in a 100km radius descends en mass each night to the hostel for a no-holds-bared drug fuelled orgy. If you are foolish enough to want to sleep before 5am you might as well forget it.
To complicate matters further the owner of the hotel spent every night getting progressively more stoned and propositioning every male in the hostel. More than one person I spoke to had been chased into their room by this Argentinean love machine and sexually harassed. Now, it seems funny but at the time believe me it was the last thing that I wanted after weeks of hard travelling. I strongly suggest people avoid this place like the plague.
The best option is to ask a local taxi driver for people renting out rooms. The multi language speaking tourist agency can also be of assistance but they tend to keep only expensive places on their books. I stayed in a wonderful place which my taxi driver recommended and had a private room looking out towards snow capped peaks for only US$10 a night. The hostess was even kind enough to insist that I had breakfast on the day of my departure at 4am.
A good selection of expensive hotels can be found at:
Where to Eat
Food is very expensive in Ushuaia and for the most part I bought food in the local supermarket and had picnics in the park or sitting on the edge of the Beagle Channel. The supermarkets stock a good selection of empanadas, cooked meats and salads. Beer or wine is also about a fifth of the price in the supermarket than even the cheapest restaurant.
About the Author
The author grew up a few houses away from where Charles Darwin wrote his famous Origin of Species and has followed in his famous neighbour’s footsteps all over South America. He is a regular contributor to BootsnAll and has even been accused of serious journalism at times. When not halfway up a glacier cursing, he can be found in a snug Cambridge pub with a map of Africa and a worried looking girlfriend. He may be contacted at: email@example.com