Ushuaia, the capital of Tierra del Fuego, is famously the southernmost city on Earth. That alone gives it a kind of end-of-the-world appeal, but its main draw in terms of tourism is that it serves as the most popular jumping-off point for cruises to Antarctica
. But it also has a few dark-tourism attractions in its own right (especially the ex-prison-turned-museum) that make it worth including Ushuaia in a trip down to the southern tip of Argentina
and Latin America.
More background info:
Tierra del Fuego was the last extreme end of the Americas to get colonized. It wasn't until well into the second half of the 19th century that the first settlers and missionaries arrived. Europeans had only passed through before that, from the first discovery by Ferdinand Magellan in 1520 to Charles Darwin aboard the HMS Beagle in the 1830s (cf. Darwin & Goose Green
). The body of water that Ushuaia lies on is named after that ship: Beagle Channel.
But until decades later control of the country lay still with the Amerindian tribes that had lived here for many thousands of years, including the Yamana (or Yaghan) who called the area around what is today Ushuaia their home.
Around 1870 the first European settlers arrived, in particular British
Anglican missionaries. Most prominent amongst the latter was one Thomas Bridges, to whom the famous first ever dictionary of the Yamana language is owed. The friendly relations with the natives that he aspired to were soon to be undermined, though.
Not only did the Yamana succumb to diseases brought by the Europeans that the natives' immune systems could not cope with. They were also actively persecuted, expelled and killed, especially once the new estancias (sheep farms) were established.
As for Ushuaia, the settlement as such was first established around the year 1870. Not long after, Argentina
expanded its interest to the area and, annoyed by the British presence, decided to affirm their territorial claim to Tierra del Fuego by setting up a penal colony at Ushuaia. However, Argentine sovereignty was only formally established through the boundary treaty with Chile
in 1881. A gold rush during the 1880s that brought in yet more Europeans proved short-lived, but in 1885 Ushuaia was made the capital of the province of Tierra del Fuego and a first governor took office.
A little aside: it is kind of ironic that the Argentinian establishment of their hold on Ushuaia and Tierra del Fuego was pre-dated by a British presence that the young republic of Argentina was not happy with. A few decades before, a similar territorial dispute
started with regard to the Falkland Islands
... only with the reverse outcome. Here Britain reasserted its presence shortly after the precursor to the Argentine state tried to snatch the islands (when a French businessman who had emigrated to Buenos Aires tried, with British consent, to establish a farm industry there, which however ended in chaos) – see under Falklands sovereignty dispute
It is ironic in this context because Argentina
, as part of its continued pronouncement of the islands being part of its territory, claims that they should be administered from the regional capital of Ushuaia (as they regard the South Atlantic
islands to be part of the same province) ... But that's odd because at the time that the initial territorial dispute over the Falklands took place in the 1830s, neither Ushuaia nor Tierra del Fuego had even been colonized yet, let alone become part of the emerging state of Argentina
. One should bear this in mind when evaluating all the "Malvinas" propaganda that is to be encountered in Ushuaia today (see below
Anyway, once Ushuaia had become an Argentinian penal colony, its growth really took off ... if somewhat artificially, through more and more prisoners being sent here. The large prison – today's Museo Maritimo
– was built in the early 20th century and the surrounding infrastructure kept growing too. This included the building (again, by prisoners) of a railway line into the surrounding woods – now famously the southernmost rail line in the world (see below
Ushuaia remained very much cut off from the rest of the world for many decades more, though. Ships, and later planes, were the only connection with the outside world.
The prison was finally closed in 1947 and in 1950 a naval base was established in Ushuaia – partly to support Argentine territorial claims in Antarctica
. Transformed from a penal colony into a military base, the town remained cut-off and mostly out of bounds for travellers until 1983. That was the year when the rule of the military junta was brought to an end – a dictatorship that had brought the "dirty war" (see esp. ESMA
in Buenos Aires
) and the disastrously lost Falklands War
Only after the re-establishment of democracy in Argentina
did Ushuaia begin to open up to tourism – slowly at first, but more rapidly after the end of the Cold War
and the demise of the Soviet Union
. Ushuaia then became the prime departure point for Antarctica
cruises and expeditions on ex-Soviet icebreakers. In the wake of the emerging Antarctica tourism, Ushuaia itself also attracted other travellers too, especially those pursuing the adventurous allure of the wild lands of southern Tierra del Fuego.
This boom made Ushuaia grow to around 60,000 inhabitants – and it became famous as the "southernmost city in the world". That title, however, is sometimes contested by the Chilean
town of Puerto Williams a bit further away to the south across the Beagle Channel. Given that its population is barely 3000, though, Puerto Williams can hardly be classed as a "city".
The big economic boom that lasted almost two decades has meanwhile cooled off, but Ushuaia remains a prime port of call for cruise ships – not only those that head down to Antarctica
– and is also a popular destination in its own right.
What there is to see: As a city, Ushuaia can hardly be described as attractive, but I liked it all the same. Its backdrop could not be more dramatic – surrounded by jagged peaks and the waters of the Beagle Channel, the scenic setting could give most other places in the world a run for their money. But the town itself is comparatively bland. OK, some old colonial buildings have been restored and the waterfront spruced up, but most of the architecture is boxy and functional.
The building that is undoubtedly Ushuaia's prime attraction, however, is at the same time also the main point of interest to the dark tourist here, and is therefore given its own separate chapter:
Other than that there are a few further museums, some of which may be of (at least) marginal interest too. The second most important museum in Ushuaia is probably the Museo del Fin del Mundo (i.e. "end of the world museum"). It's mostly about Ushuaia's and Tierra del Fuego's history, including the native Yamana and Selknam people, early European colonization and development, and also includes bits about the penal colony and prison. An outdoor part has mock-ups of a Yamana "dwelling" (they were mostly nomads – hence the temporary "camping"-like appearance of their shelters). The museum is on Av Maipu 175 near the central stretch of the waterfront. The museum is open daily from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. in season (November to February) and only from 12 noon to 7 p.m. in winter (closed Sundays), admission is ca. 50 pesos (6-7 EUR).
Just round the corner at Rivadavia 56, there's another small museum dedicated to the Yamana, called Museo de Maquetas Mundo Yamana. It is said to be very good, but I cannot vouch for this myself as I didn't have time to visit it. It's open daily 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., admission ca. 30 pesos (2.50-3 EUR).
When I got there, a brand new arrival in Ushuaia's museum portfolio was pointed out to me too, namely what they call "Galeria tematica – Thematic Gallery" – Historia Fueguina. The inclusion of the prison/penal colony theme was quite apparent even from the outside, with dummy prisoners in yellow-and-black dress "escaping" by rope from a window and dummy prison guards going after them with guns ... it all looked rather kitschy and fun-fair-like. I did not go inside to check whether it's possibly any better as a museum than the facade threatened. Going by reviews I read I still suspect that it's not for everyone (me included) but others are raving on about it. It mostly consists of life-size dioramas, including some walk-in ones, depicting natives, explorers, colonists, penguins and prisoners. You go through with an audio-guide. It's located right on Av San Martin towards its eastern end. Opening times: in season Monday to Saturday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday 5 to 9 p.m., admission: 80 pesos (ca. 7 EUR).
Museums apart, what will certainly be of prime interest to dark tourists, especially anybody with an interest in the Falklands War
, is Ushuaia's own "Islas Malvinas" memorial monument
. It's found near the waterfront at the western end of the city centre. Its core consists of a large slab of stone out of which the silhouette of the Falklands' main two islands is cut. Surrounding this are some relief-like half-sculptures poking out of the stone. I failed to work out the symbolism or other significance of the figures, but the inscription at the foot of the monument spelled out predictable patriotic messages about the islands being "ours", about spilled blood and about going back or some such thing.
Next to the original monument is a newer one, inaugurated in 2012 for the 30th anniversary of the conflict. This one is in a more traditional design, with a wall of names (presumably of the fallen) and an eternal flame. Set a bit apart from this is a separate memorial stone commemorating the sinking of the General Belgrano
by a British submarine in the earlier stages of the conflict – see under Falklands War
Further south-west is another memorial park of sorts about the war. One part of it involves a wall of individual plaques, e.g. by different military units – but the Kirchners have their own one too. Poems about the war also appear on plaques. Set apart from this on a traffic island is a row of photo panels showing selected scenes from the war, mostly from the Argentine side but also including a few British ones. While not being graphic in any way, the tragic aspects of the war are not swept under the rug here. There are images of parents seeing their sons off to war and one of a mother welcoming her surviving son back after the war. There are short explanatory captions under the pictures (in Spanish, English and Brazilian Portuguese). I found the whole ensemble had an altogether more sober atmosphere to it than all the usual, overly patriotically charged Argentinian propaganda.
To see more of that sort of in-your-face propaganda, head east along the waterfront. For starters there's a huge mural along the wall facing away from the waterfront on Av Maipu just below the Museo del Fin del Mundo – it is about a hundred yards long, painted in the Argentinian flag's colours and it proclaims that Ushuaia is the "capital of the Malvinas". It's a bit like someone just shouting louder when he's run out of factual arguments ...
The most aggressive mural of them all, however, was to be seen right by the harbour entrance (by the gate for road access, that is). Here a crossed out Union Jack is accompanied by a pronouncement that "English pirates are not welcome". (Argentina does indeed refuse access to its harbours for any ships/boats that fly the Falkland flag or have been there previously – which also causes problems for some cruise ships that take in these islands as part of their longer Antarctica
cruises.) This sort of overt anti-British propaganda made my English wife feel somewhat uncomfortable. On the other hand, we never encountered any real-life animosities against British tourists during our two visits to Argentina
... So I wonder what "ordinary" Argentinians think about this propagandistic policy of their country's government(s) ...
There is a also a set of plaques on a wall to the right of the harbour gates (flanking a "welcome to Ushuaia port" sign!) that assert the Argentine sovereignty claims over the islands of the South Atlantic
(not just the Falklands
but also South Georgia
and the South Sandwich Islands) even though it is noted that they have been under "illegal occupation since 1833" by Great Britain
. But actual arguments, especially as to why that should be illegal, or why 1833, or in what way the British claims are supposedly less substantiated than the Argentinians', are, of course, not put forward. See under Falkland sovereignty dispute
The war aside, there's also a shipwreck in the bay. Beached not far from the waterfront, it is a marine landmark of sorts. It's a rescue tug that was originally built in the USA
, then served in the British Royal Navy as HMS Justice
, and was then sold to an Argentinian and renamed Saint Christopher
. In 1953/54 she took part in a failed attempt to salvage the wreck of a German passenger liner that had been shipwrecked in the Beagle Channel 20 years previously, and in the process she got into trouble herself. She was beached in the bay of Ushuaia and has remained there ever since to serve as a monument to the treacherousness of the waterways down here.
At the bottom of the slope that the oddly-shaped government house sits on you can find a little Evita memorial shrine (cf. Recoleta cemetery
, Buenos Aires
). And at the western end of the city centre is Ushuaia's walled little municipal cemetery – but when I was there I found it locked, so can't say anything more about it.
All in all, I found Ushuaia quite a nice place to visit – it offered a very good balance between exciting dark tourism sites such as the ex-prison, comfortable facilities and culinary delights (see below
) as well as a stunningly scenic backdrop. All that compensated more than sufficiently for the lack of architectural appeal. And the fact that you can say that you've been to the world's southernmost city certainly adds a special bonus too! No, overall Ushuaia is really quite a cool place!
in the south-western corner of the Argentinian
part of Tierra del Fuego at the southern end of Latin America, almost 2000 miles (3000 km) from Buenos Aires
, and "only" ca. 500 miles (1000 km) from the northernmost bits of Antarctica
(but still almost 2500 miles/4000 km to the South Pole).
Ushuaia is Argentina
's only city that lies on the "other" side of the Andes, i.e. beyond the mountain range that bends round eastwards at the end of the continent and peters out into the Atlantic
. Ushuaia sits on the northern shores of the Beagle Channel that separates Tierra del Fuego from the smaller islands further south (including Cape Horn) – and also forms the border with the southernmost bits of Chile
(again including Cape Horn). Hence the mountains you see across the Beagle Channel to the south and west are actually Chilean territory.
Access and costs: easy by plane, less so by other means of transport; not necessarily cheap, but need not be too expensive either.
given its remote location, Ushuaia is most easily reached by plane. There are plenty of connections to the rest of Argentina
, including daily flights to the capital Buenos Aires
. Given the distance they are not actually too expensive. Overland access is naturally trickier, but possible if you have a suitable vehicle. The famous Ruta Nacional 3 road that ends just beyond Ushuaia goes up in the other direction all the way to Buenos Aires, i.e. traversing the entire length of Argentina. There's also said to be a bus connection to Rio Gallegos (and onwards connections to Chile
from there). A large proportion of the tourists that visit Ushuaia come by cruise ship (or they fly in just to embark on a cruise here).
Getting around is mostly possible on foot; the city centre isn't very big, so most of the attractions and hotels/guest houses are within walking distance. Otherwise use taxis (they are metered and supposedly reliable – though I have no personal experience with this).
Accommodation in Ushuaia covers a very wide range for a city this size, including a few budget options, though the range widens a lot at somewhat higher price levels. But they needn't be excessive. Antarctica tourism may have inflated general price levels a bit, but shopping around or going through an agent with good connections can yield fairly affordable options. I stayed at the Las Lengas hotel and could not fault it ... even though it was slightly out of the city centre and required a climb up a hillside to get back to it – but you're rewarded for this by good views.
As for food & drink
, there are again plenty of options around, ranging from fast-food grub to proper restaurants, some rather pricey, but including some that are superb and well worth the money. One of the best meals I ever had in the whole of South America was at an Ushuaia institution called "Maria Lola" – the seafood starters (including king crab), seafood stew and Beagle Channel sea trout were all absolutely superb. For atmosphere, the museum-like Ramos Generales is also a very good place, if only for a snack and a sample flight of local craft beers.
The climate down here is not as harsh as the subantarctic location may suggest, with average winter lows not exceeding minus 10 degrees centigrade, though it rarely gets warmer than 10-15 degrees in summer either. Strong winds add a chill factor, however, and the weather can change from bright and sunny to blustering horizontal showers in a matter of seconds. So flexible clothing, with a rain- and wind-proof jacket as the outer layer, is paramount.
The main climate-related hazard to bear in mind down here is the sun. Given the depletion of the atmosphere's ozone layer over the southern polar regions, especially during the summer months, even a few minutes' exposure to sunshine can result in sunburn! So bring strong sunblock and don't forget to use it.
Time required: about two or three days should give you sufficient time to see everything of importance here, as long as you confine yourself to the city itself. Add more time for excursions beyond to explore the wider area around Ushuaia.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
not much at all, unless you count the extreme remoteness of southern Tierra del Fuego as a kind of darkish middle-of-nowhere
attraction in itself.
But of course Ushuaia is significant as the world's most popular departure point for cruises to Antarctica
– for those fortunate and affluent enough to be able to afford it.
Good flight connections also make Ushuaia easily combinable with the rest of Argentina
, e.g. Buenos Aires
(served by daily flights).
Travel to Chile
, on the other hand, even though it seems to be only a stone's throw away, is more complicated. There are currently (as of 2014) no direct flights to Punta Arenas any more, so one would have to go via other stopover destinations (e.g. Rio Gallegos or El Calafate).
Even though Argentina claims that Ushuaia is or should be the administrative capital of the "Islas Malvinas", i.e. the Falkland Islands, there is no way of travelling between the two. The only way to get from one to the other is by a substantial detour via Punta Arenas in Chile, from where the only commercial flights to the islands depart once a week. This is what I did in December 2013/January 2014, when I first flew into Ushuaia via Buenos Aires and then carried on to El Calafate in Argentinian Patagonia, from where I travelled overland to Puerto Natales (near Torres del Paine National Park) over in Chile, and onwards to Punta Arenas to catch my flight to the Falklands. So any combination of the Falklands with Argentina adds several extra days of travelling.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: The city centre itself is really a mainstream tourist trap of sorts, with countless souvenir shops, fake Irish pubs, restaurants and duty-free outlets. The waterfront, though, is less contaminated by all this commercialism and well worth a peaceful stroll – for the views of the Beagle Channel and the surrounding mountainscape alone!
When I was in Ushuaia (in December 2013) I also went on a standard city sightseeing tour in a London double-decker bus (but painted blue!). I normally shun such mainstream bus tours, but it was included in my programme by the company I used for organizing the Latin America leg of my trip, so I went along ... and I must admit it was quite enjoyable! The greatest advantage offered by the tour was the fact that it went across the causeway to the Aeroclub Ushuaia from where the best panoramic views of the city and its mountainous backdrop are to be had. As it would otherwise have involved a rather unpleasant walk to get there on foot from the city, the tour was worth it for this alone. It also included all the major landmarks in the city and came with an informative narrative about Ushuaia's history and pointed out the significance of some odd buildings such as the cultural centre at the western end of the city centre. Its chapel-like style is apparently the work of the Croatian immigrant who built it.
Another very touristy attraction offered in the vicinity of the city is a ride on the narrow-gauge railway line that was originally built by the convicts of the "presidio" (see maritime museum
). It is famous as the southernmost train line in the world and is marketed these days as El Tren del Fin del Mundo
, riding part of the historic line within the Tierra del Fuego National Park. The departure station is a few miles out of town so you'll need some form of transfer (by taxi or bus – some packages include this). It is a very touristy affair – and more for those into the romance of steam trains – though it does go through some splendid scenery. It's not cheap: a regular ticket costs in the region of 25-30 EUR plus the ca. 10 EUR National Park entry fee. First class, premium or VIP special packages that include dinner on board the train are much dearer still (up to ca. 90 EUR per person).
In winter you can even go skiing here – but at the (summer) time I was there the ski slope above the city was green with grass. I was also told that snowfall had been insufficient in the past couple of years so that the slope had not been used in a while. But I have no way of knowing whether that's correct. There are certainly several functional ski runs in the surrounding mountains in any case.
Further afield: those who love the great outdoors in rugged terrain are well catered for in these remote parts. There are plenty of hiking opportunities of all levels of strenuousness. Tierra del Fuego National Park (see above) is obviously a prime area for this.
Easier are organized excursions to the remote estancias
(sheep farms) such as Estancia Harberton
further east (it was the former home of Thomas Bridges – see above
). And so are the many tourist boat tours offered from Ushuaia harbour. The latter include trips to glaciers as well as wildlife spots such as Isla de los Lobos, where southern sea lions can be seen. Bird watchers can go and see nesting colonies of cormorants and other seabirds as well as penguins.
And finally you can also go on cruises locally on the Chilean Mare Australis
and Via Australis
(expensive and booked out early) or try to get a last-minute ticket on one of the cruises to Antarctica
. Don't expect prices to drop to anything approaching "cheap", though. It will still set you back several thousands (it's rare to go below 2500-3000 EUR for a ca. 10-day voyage even at literally the last minute).