In 1982 the Argentine military junta tried to take the islands by force. The invasion was briefly successful but it then backfired, as Britain with all its military clout recaptured the islands in a 74-days-long war – a conflict that is documented in more detail than most and whose legacy still looms large.
For those dark tourists who are really into the category of battlefield tourism
there are few better places in the world to engage in this, though it takes determined planning in advance and good guiding on the ground.
More background info:
Let's get straight to raising the crucial question: why does Argentina
claim the islands and why does Britain
not accept this? If this was a perfectly straightforward question then there wouldn't be such an enduring dispute.
This is not to say that there is no simple answer – there is (namely: the Argentine claim is ultimately not justifiable). But in order to arrive at it and properly understand it, you have to delve rather deep into the islands' history. And because that requires a lengthier discussion than would be appropriate at this point, it is given its own separate chapter here:
In April 1982, this dispute even led to war, when Argentina invaded the islands, triggering an unexpectedly resolute military response from Britain. The British Task Force sent halfway around the world to retake the islands achieved this goal – against many odds – by mid-June the same year. For a summary of this conflict and its outcome see this separate special chapter:
Overall, the outcome of the war brought significant improvements for the Falklands' inhabitants. Not only was a permanent military base established to deter any future Argentinian aggression, its airfield also brought the first runway that regular-sized commercial airliners could use (see under access
). There was also lots of investment in other infrastructure (e.g. roads).
The economy shifted from sheep farming as the former main source of income to fisheries and especially lucrative fishing licences within the 200-mile zone around the islands. All this brought unprecedented prosperity to the islands – currently even markedly higher than in mainland UK!
Tourism also benefited. The Falklands are still far from being a mainstream mass tourism destination, but compared to what it used to be before the 1990s, it's a massive increase.
The local population increased too (to a significant degree through immigration – mainly from Britain
, St Helena
). But the Falklands remain a very sparsely populated place – with only about 3000 residents occupying a land mass more than half the size of Wales (plus about 1500 military and support personnel at the Mount Pleasant base). And over two thirds of the inhabitants live in the islands' capital and only "town", Stanley
. The rest of the land – "Camp" as they call it – is largely empty save for the few settlements. West Falkland has only about 150 permanent residents in total! Most of the smaller outer islands are uninhabited, others may have a single farm.
People are far outnumbered by sheep, even though their total number has decreased somewhat from once over a million to now "only" about three quarters of a million or less. At the same time wool production has gone down while meat production is on the up.
A whole new economic prospect lies in oil. Over the last few years oil prospecting has been going on in the waters around the Falklands, and the beginning of extraction seems to be imminent. We all know what influence oil can have on territorial claims and the willingness to resort to military force over it ... so the increased sabre-rattling over the Falklands by Argentina
in recent years may not only have to do with the settling of old historical scores and national pride ...
Finally, it should be noted that the 1982 war was not the only time these remote islands played a role in war history. They had kind-of a walk-on part in a brief episode in another war, namely World War One
. In December 1914 there was a naval battle between the Royal Navy and the Imperial German Navy in the waters just off the Falklands, ending with an overwhelming victory for the former, while Germany
lost the majority of its ships engaged in the battle. There is a memorial in Stanley
commemorating this episode of the Great War.
Today, however, peacefulness is the prevailing impression of the atmosphere in the Falklands. And I do hope it stays that way. I loved every minute I spent there during my far-too-short one-week stay in this fabulous far-away place ... It was certainly one of the top off-the-beaten-track highlights in my already pretty rich travelling career!
What there is to see:
dark tourism in the Falklands almost exclusively takes the form of battlefield tours – mostly indeed out in the field, but also including a number of museums covering the 1982 conflict
. The following principal places, and areas covered by such tours, are given their own separate entries here:
In addition there are also war-related sites scattered all over the rest of the islands, including countless individual memorial stones or cairns as well as yet more plane crash sites e.g. near Paragon House and Hammond Point in Lafonia or on Pebble Island.
In fact when I first started planning my trip to the Falklands (see below
) I had intended to go to Pebble Island
as well, but at the time the lodge there had closed down and only reopened when I had already made other plans. So I cannot say to what degree the extra excursion to that outlying island would have added to my impressions.
On Sea Lion Island (see combinations
) south of the main islands there is a memorial for the lost HMS Sheffield
(see Falklands War
) as this was the closest place on land to the spot where the destroyer was sunk on 4 May. The memorial is located at Rockhopper Point – and is indeed surrounded by colonies of rockhopper penguins. That gives the site a rather bizarre contrast in atmospheres ... the solemnity of the memorial on the one hand, and the hustle and bustle of the penguin colony minding its own business (and defending itself against constant aerial attacks by skuas ... which adds yet another element of irony, I found).
One type of the vestiges of war that is almost omnipresent in large parts of the two main islands are minefields
, in particular around Stanley
. You'll see loads of them, on the coastline, inland, and right by the roadside, clearly marked by fences with warning signs on them – which absolutely must be heeded!
The minefields make a pretty grim sight, but the islanders are actually quite relaxed about them. There have been no casualties due to landmines in the Falklands since the war (and the immediate post-war clear-up efforts). So some islanders even argue that the minefields should simply be left alone (and the money for clearing them would be better spent in countries like Vietnam
where the problem is infinitely more acute and deadly).
One type of sign you can find by the main road out of Stanley even gives rise to a bit of black humour: it has the usual skull-and-crossbones image and underneath it says "slow minefield", which frequently results in comments from guides along the lines of "you see we don't have any fast minefields here". You even get these signs reproduced on fridge magnets for sale in the tourist shops in Stanley.
Unrelated to the 1982 war but also of a certain dark appeal are the numerous older shipwrecks
along the Falklands' coasts. If you can (like me) appreciate the aesthetics of such wrecks and the beauty of decay in general, then some of these are really quite impressive. The very best example of the lot, the wreck of the Lady Elizabeth
, can be seen right in Stanley
harbour. But the Falklands' coast are littered with many dozens of wrecks in various stages of disintegration ... and seeing some of these can be included in more wide-reaching tours around the islands (cf. Fitzroy
Speaking of the tourism industry here. By far the largest numbers of visitors that reach the Falklands come by cruise ship and only go ashore for a short day excursion ... or do no more than storm the souvenir shops in Stanley. I was very glad that no such modern touristic invasion took place while I was there. The atmosphere of both Stanley and the Falklands at large is so much more genuine when it is not overrun by such hordes.
Of the much smaller number of tourists who make it to the Falklands and actually stay a while, the majority come for the wildlife – see under non-dark combinations
and also the photos
But battlefield tourism is the third largest category in the Falklands tourism industry. That is quite unusual. Here is a place where dark tourists are under little pressure to justify their "quirky" interests. At least as long as you go with the flow of how battlefield tours are conducted.
These tours are usually done very much from a British perspective, of course. In reference to the fallen British soldiers you will hear words like "gallantly" and "heroic" quite a lot. In contrast, the lingo is different when reference is made to the other side, such as when Argentinian positions are "cleared" or "taken out". It's traditionally the prerogative of the victorious side to also have sovereignty over the sort of language that is used to retell the war ...
For the most part, however, an effort is made to avoid referring to the enemy side as "Argies" (though it does slip out on occasions!). So the propagandistic tone that some tabloid papers adopted in reporting the war in Britain back in the day has nowadays given way to a less directly anti-Argentinian choice of language. Or at least I did not encounter this during my visit. (One extraordinary exception to this, involving the image of General Leopoldo Galtieri, I found in the gents at the Victory pub in Stanley
Gleamingly patriotic pro-British statements, on the other hand, are absolutely ubiquitous ... on doors, or in the windows of houses, even on rooftops (painted like a Union Jack), as stickers on cars, and so on – and of course the flag of the Falklands (which incorporates the Union Jack) flies everywhere.
By the way: in Argentina
, in contrast, you do not only find nationalistically patriotic statements in reference to the Falklands/Malvinas and the 1982 conflict (mostly demanding the islands "back"), but this is also frequently coupled with open and often quite aggressive anti-British propaganda (cf. Ushuaia
). That is not universal, however, and does not necessarily represent a uniform view amongst ordinary Argentinians.
Portrayals of the war from an Argentine point of view are not necessarily so politically one-sided either. I can especially recommend a feature film entitled Iluminados por el fuego
(which translates as either "illuminated" or "blessed" by fire). This was made in 2005 and depicts the cruelty of war from the perspective of simple Argentine conscripts and shows the hardships they had to endure (especially at the hands of their superiors!). It is brutally realistic in its battle scenes too, so definitely not for the faint-hearted (I needed two sessions to sit through the DVD). But it provides a valuable insight into the suffering on the "other" side, i.e. that of the Argentinians ... on a personal level. As such it can serve as a certain antidote to a depersonalized view of that "enemy" side (without any impact on the political dispute
I hasten to add).
But back to the islands themselves, as a (dark) travel destination today. Even without the sites related to the 1982 conflict, the Falklands would have had a certain appeal as an "end of the world" or middle-of-nowhere
destination, thanks to both their extremely remote location and their general barrenness
. They are a windswept, bleak terrain, virtually treeless (except for a few protected trees planted at the settlements) and dominated by a rough climate.
When driving through the countryside (or "Camp" as everything outside the capital Stanley
is locally known) you often do not pass or see another vehicle for hours – let alone any houses. The whole atmosphere is that of an empty, unforgiving, harsh land. But it is anything but unwelcoming. First of all, such rough scenery has an undeniable appeal of its own – certainly for me! I loved every minute of it, regardless of the weather. Also I find bleak beautiful!
And then there are the people
! Seldom have I encountered a friendlier, more welcoming, nicer lot. It may have to do with being an island (other example of British overseas islands that stunned me with their friendliness were St Helena
) and also with being only sparsely populated. But there is also the British factor. Brits are overall rightly regarded as mostly a polite and friendly people (hooligans and the like excepted). In the Falklands this is multiplied due to the general peacefulness of life (as long as no invading soldiers cause trouble, that is) and the mutual solidarity within the close-knit community. And visitors are made extremely welcome too.
Incidentally, these days Argentinians are also allowed to visit the islands again – initially only relatives of the fallen could visit the graves at Darwin
, but now in principle everyone can go. A few restrictions apply. First and foremost: the waving or hoisting of the Argentine national flag (or similar displays of nationalism) is a criminal offence! Nor should any objects be taken from the island. With regard to what can be left
as tokens or private memorials pretty strict rules apply too. These rules are not always strictly observed, unfortunately. But in general, Argentinian visitors are now welcome too – if sometimes a little grudgingly. I personally met a couple of islanders who were still not quite prepared to forgive and forget and can't quite suppress some degree of resentment at the presence of any Argentines on the islands to this day.
This only goes to show that we are dealing with a conflict that hasn't yet passed completely into history, but is still vividly alive in the memories of those who were personally involved – be it as civilians suffering under the occupation, or soldiers who in quite a few cases suffer from PTSD as a result of their experiences in the Falklands War ... on both sides! This has to be borne in mind when visiting the place and especially when going on a battlefield tour. Appropriately respectful behaviour is required!
Far away from almost anywhere, out in the South Atlantic
, some 300 miles (450 km) off the southernmost end of the South American continent, i.e. off the eastern coast of Argentina
, and only about a thousand miles from the northern tip of the Antarctic
Google maps locators:
Access and costs: transport connections and accommodation options are both limited; and it's really quite an expensive destination overall.
Details: The Falklands have their own currency, the Falkland Pound, whose exchange rate is tied to the British Pound. GBP is also legal tender on the islands too and very common. Unless you want to keep a note as a souvenir, make sure that you remember to exchange any Falkland Pound notes for GBP at the end of your stay as Falkland Pounds are not accepted anywhere else!
since these are very remote islands, you can only reach them by air – or a long sea journey. Since all connections to Argentina
remain severed, and since that country even boycotts ships bound for or coming from the Falklands, the only sea connections that are available are cruises, sailing from either Uruguay or Chile
, or occasionally South Africa
. There are no ferries or other regular sea connections open to ordinary passengers. That leaves only cruise ships – and the Falklands are indeed often a stop on longer cruises that also take in bits of Antarctica
(and possibly also South Georgia
Coming by cruise ship may be the most common way of tourists getting to the Falklands in absolute numbers – but these visits are typically only very short shore excursions, and they are of no use to the dark tourist for that reason alone. No, if you really want to experience these islands and do some battlefield tours (as well as more extensive wildlife-watching perhaps), then you have to fly in and stay a week or two (or three).
There are currently commercial flights once a week, every Saturday, from Punta Arenas in Chile
(with onward connection to Santiago
), and now also from Sao Paulo in Brazil on Wednesdays. These are not exactly cheap but still a lot more affordable than the only other alternative – and that is: getting one of the seats allocated to civilian passengers on the twice weekly military air bridge flights from RAF
Brize Norton in Britain
. These take 18 hours, with a refuelling stop on Ascension Island (cf. St Helena
) or Cape Verde
. But the price tag is quite prohibitive: over a thousand GBP per person per leg, so an equivalent of approximately five thousand euros in total ... just for getting there and back. (Resident islanders, by the way, get cheaper special rates – in case you wondered.) Compared to that, the commercial flights offered by LATAM (formerly LAN Chile) are a bargain!
Note: even these commercial flights land at the air force base at Mount Pleasant, which has the only paved airstrip suitable for regular jet airliners (as well as military fighter jets, of course). So it's important to remember this when searching for flights to the Falklands online: make sure you enter "Mount Pleasant", or its airport code MPN, rather than Falklands or Stanley into the search boxes! UPDATE: apparently there are now also flights once a month that have a stop-over in Argentina, so it should in theory be possible to catch a flight to the Falklands from there; but for most tourists from other countries that will most likely not be a particularly practical route.
Staying on and getting around the Falklands, once you have made it here, will mostly be quite expensive in any case.
options are pretty sparse. There is one proper full-service hotel in Stanley
, with 35 rooms, which are pricey, plus a number of even smaller and comparatively more affordable "boutique" hotels, guest houses and B&Bs, but out "in Camp" (i.e. outside Stanley) there are only a few self-catering cottages or lodges at farm settlements that offer full-board accommodation. These lodges are quite comfortable and offer good services, but again are fairly pricey. Some more so than others.
The most sought-after of the lot, the lodge on Sea Lion Island (see combinations
) is seriously expensive ... if not to say over-priced (well let's face it and say it: it IS overpriced – at the time when I went it was 160 GBP per person per day). The ones of more relevance to dark tourists charge less excessive rates, but are still not cheap – see Port Howard
and Darwin & Goose Green
. But they do offer a lot for the money. The only not-so-dear accommodation options on the islands won't do much for the dedicated dark tourist/battlefield tourer, as they are mostly not in the right kind of location and are more intended for bird-watchers.
Note that there really isn't much choice in accommodation options especially outside Stanley, so you absolutely have to plan and book well in advance!!! Take it from me – I know what I'm talking about: I had originally intended to go at the end of 2012 so I started making enquiries as early as late in 2011, well over a year ahead of time. But nevertheless it soon became clear that out of all the places I wanted to go to, several were already fully booked that far in advance. So it came to the point that what was still available would have been too much of a compromise. Therefore I decided to postpone the trip by another year. With a time-frame of two years booking in advance it was then possible to put together the trip in a form that I wanted.
For getting around longer distances and between islands, there is the Falkland Islands Government Air Service (or F.I.G.A.S. for short, pronounced ['fai,gæs]) which operates a small fleet of BN-2B Islanders, a suitably sturdy 7-9-seater propeller plane that can land on grassy airfields. Flights are scheduled as required by the joint logistics of getting locals, goods and tourists around on the best combined routes. Exact departure times are thus only announced at rather short notice, but they really are quite efficient in getting their job done. Cheap they are not, as you may have guessed by now. To give you an indication: I paid a total of ca. 440 GBP for three flight connections (which came to four individual flights, as one included a stopover in Stanley). Per person that is! Luggage restrictions are severe: 20 kg for everything, including hand luggage and camera equipment and the like. And you have to declare your own body weight prior to booking as well! But these flights are an essential part of the overall Falklands experience. Personally I love flying in such small planes at low altitudes and speeds – it's so much more scenic than in a jet airliner. But some people may find this type of flying a bit too wobbly (potentially air-sickness-inducing) and even scary.
The only ferry connection that exists in the archipelago is one that connects East Falkland with Port Howard
on West Falkland. But that is unlikely to be especially useful to tourists and is more for locals.
On land, road transport
is mainly by 4x4s. There are paved roads suitable for regular cars in Stanley
and at Mount Pleasant, but even though the main roads between settlements have been significantly upgraded over the last couple of decades, they are still only gravel tracks. It is in theory possible to hire cars (including 4x4s), but this won't make so much sense for the dark tourist interested in going battlefield touring. To get to the isolated spots in question you need to go off-road, and the terrain can be very tricky indeed, requiring very good off-road-driving skills, especially in wet conditions (which are frequent). Even experienced locals sometimes get bogged down – and then have to phone for help to be pulled out (but who would you phone?). Moreover, finding these spots requires astute knowledge of the terrain – so you will need a good guide-cum-driver in any case.
Finally a word of warning about the climate. As they say, you can have all four seasons in one day here ... though summer will be clearly under-represented! When I was there in December 2013/January 2014 it was supposedly summer down there, but the maximum temperatures I encountered stayed well below 10 degrees Celsius the whole time, even when the sun did briefly break through. In winter it gets even colder and bleaker still, of course.
And then there's the wind-chill factor! The South Atlantic is notorious for its strong winds (the "Roaring Forties" and "Furious Fifties" are legendary for good reason) and indeed I have rarely encountered gales so powerful that you can literally lean into them at an angle of nearly 45 degrees without falling over. In practical terms this means that you have to dress accordingly, best in layers, and that has to include wind- and rain-proof outer layers, a woolly hat, as well as good sturdy hiking boots.
When it does get sunny, don't forget that you are in subantarctic latitudes of the southern hemisphere, i.e. due to the thinned-out ozone layer the sun is fierce and can give you sunburn within minutes. So pack a very high UV-factor sunblock and do not forget to use it!
For most visitors intending to stay on the islands and who come in on the more affordable commercial airline link from Chile
, the length of the stay is firmly predetermined by the fact that there is only one such flight a week, every Saturday. So you have to decide whether you want to spend one week minimum or more weeks. One week is quite tight if you want to see everything war-related, but two weeks will do fairly comfortably. If you also want to exploit the wildlife-watching potential of the islands, then even three weeks can easily be filled. Few visitors stay longer than that (unless for work or research).
Combinations with other dark destinations:
The geographically nearest country of interest to the dark tourist is of course Argentina
, but since all transport links to that country remain severed, you would have to go via Chile
, which itself also offers a lot of dark tourism options.
Within Argentina the place most thematically linked with the Falklands is Ushuaia
on Tierra del Fuego. It's the southernmost city in the world and the place from which "Las Islas Malvinas" would be governed were they indeed handed over to Argentina (not likely in the foreseeable future). They do make a big thing out of this in Ushuaia, where there is not only a large 1982 war memorial, but also huge graffiti proclaiming the rightful ownership of the islands as well as a sign by the harbour specifying that "English pirates" are not welcome. All this symbolic muscle-flexing with regard to the Falklands dispute aside, however, Ushuaia's main asset in terms of tourism generally is that it is the main departure point for cruises and expeditions to Antarctica
The nearest territory to the Falklands in an easterly direction is South Georgia
– but getting there is extremely difficult on an independent basis. In effect you'd have to charter a suitable boat and crew to make the 3-4 day crossing (and back), which obviously would come with a totally disproportionate price tag. The only regularly available way of reaching South Georgia is as part of a cruise – and many cruises in the South Atlantic
do in fact combine the Falklands and South Georgia in their itineraries, mostly before or after a dip down to Antarctica
as the principal destination.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: The Falklands are indeed not only of dark interest, but are also a fabulous and unique wildlife paradise. And in tourist terms this primarily means bird-watching, first and foremost: penguins!
sports the largest colony of king penguins
in the Falklands (thousands of them!) – and they truly are the most majestic of all the penguin species. You can visit this spectacular spot as a day excursion from Stanley
, but those seriously into their kings can even overnight at Volunteer House. The warden of Volunteer Point is Derek Pettersson, who was also the guy who organized everything within the Falklands for me for my trip in December 2013/January 2014. As far as I can tell, you couldn't find anyone better suited for this!
Sea Lion Island in the very south of the archipelago is sometimes referred to as the "Galapagos of the South Atlantic". And that's indeed quite a fitting analogy given the incredible abundance of wildlife on this little island. It is a mere 5 miles long (ca. 8 km) and under a mile and a half at its widest (so it's all quite easily walkable). Yet you can see most of the Falklands' penguin species assembled here: gentoos have a number of rookeries right by the lodge, Magellanic penguins burrow everywhere too, a bit further away to the west there are colonies of rockhopper penguins, and sometimes the odd couple of king penguins also show up on the beach. Other bird life includes the aggressive but beautiful skuas – who constantly attack the penguin colonies from the air to scavenge for scraps, eggs or snatch unfortunate chicks. Also remarkable are striated caracaras, giant petrels, dolphin gulls, all manner of other gulls, geese and ducks, as well as various endemic small birds. Many are remarkably fearless: they come so close you fear you might tread on them!
In addition there are of course the eponymous sea lions (better to be viewed from a safe distance!) and the biggest brutes of the seal world you'll ever see hauling themselves on to dry ground: elephant seals. These giants can be quite relaxed, though, basking on the beach like huge boulders of blubber (and then you can get pretty close) – but in season, when the bulls fight over the harems of cows, it can get a very bloody spectacle (you better not get in the way). Orcas, or killer whales, can sometimes be spotted circling around the islands and the display of remarkable collective hunting behaviour of orcas has been observed at Sea Lion Island. Human visitors stay in comfort at the island's single lodge that provides full board (at quite a steep price, though).
Other outer islands that are of special interest to naturalists and wildlife-spotters include Saunders Island
(especially for albatross!), Pebble Island
, Bleaker Island
and Carcass Island
. But there are also a variety of wildlife hotspots on the "mainland", i.e. East Falkland, some reachable as excursions from Stanley
. One major such site is Bluff Cove
, but unfortunately this is only available as a shore excursion for visiting cruise ship passengers.
Other than wildlife-watching – or battlefield tours – the main tourist activities on the islands include fishing, hiking, experiencing farm life (sheep shearing!), water sports and even shooting ... no joke! Shooting is a major sport in the Falklands and has generated numerous champions.
What little the Falklands have to offer that isn't outdoors-related is almost exclusively concentrated in Stanley