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Visiting Ushuaia: the end of Patagonia and gateway to Antarctica

You can’t get much further south than Ushuaia. Situated at the bottom of South America in the region of Tierra del Fuego, the very south of Patagonia, it’s the last port of call before heading to the South Pole. However, visiting Ushuaia is not just for those dreaming of following in the footsteps of Scott and Amundsen, as there’s more to the town than just a final calling point before travelling to Antarctica.

Unfortunately, getting to Ushuaia is far from simple. Whilst there are direct flights to/from Buenos Aires several times a day, travelling within Patagonia by road means crossing borders and dealing with lengthy procedures. Potentially more than once, depending on your starting point. I crossed back and forth between Argentina and Chile several times whilst travelling around Patagonia. So much so I filled two pages of my passport with the two countries’ stamps within just a couple of weeks.

I was travelling to Ushuaia from Puerto Natales after my five days in Torres del Paine national park. When I bought my bus ticket the vendor mentioned something about changing buses, but my Spanish wasn’t good enough to understand exactly what he meant. An hour or so into my journey the coach (carrying just six people including me) stopped at the side of the highway. We were waiting for a long time and the driver explained we were waiting for another bus. I assumed we’d broken down, but when we boarded the next coach (which was almost full) I saw two friends I’d met whilst doing the hike in Torres del Paine. We looked at each other thinking ‘What are you doing here?’. It soon became clear this was the transfer I’d been told about.

Looking out from the port of Ushuaia
A crisp wintery morning and views that make a long journey all worth it

We were on that coach for several hours, including a very long border crossing dealing with officials who weren’t the quickest (would you be if you were in the middle of nowhere all day?). Eventually we reached Rio Grande where everyone who was destined for Ushuaia changed onto a minibus as the road ahead was covered in snow and too twisty for the coach to pass through safely. We then engaged in a real-life game of Tetris as we struggled to squeeze everyone’s bags, shopping and a 40-inch television(!), as well as 16-20 people into the minibus. We eventually arrived in Ushuaia some 12 hours and three buses after I’d left Puerto Natales that morning.

Many people go to Ushuaia as it’s the closest port to Antarctica. This is somewhere I hope to go one day and have even tried applying for a job in one of the research stations just to get there. A lot of people have asked me ‘why?’ when I mention going to Antarctica, but why not? It’s somewhere very different and while a lot of tourists visit it’s obviously less popular than many other destinations around the world.

The problem for me is that travelling to Antarctica on a tour is very expensive. The average price tends to be around $6000 and this doesn’t even include your journey to Ushuaia. However, there are ways to do it cheaper. Cancellations often happen and it’s just a matter of waiting in Ushuaia until one turns up. You can generally pick up a cancelled ticket at a fraction of the normal cost. Imagine being on the same boat as people who paid $6000 when it only cost you $1000!

Lighthouse on an island
A postcard worthy shot of the lighthouse just outside the port of Ushuaia

Of course you could be waiting around in Ushuaia for a long time before a cancellation opens up. Even longer if you’re travelling as a pair. Luckily, while you’re waiting for that ticket to become available, there are many things to do in Ushuaia. It’s only a small town but there’s plenty in the way of accommodation, restaurants, bars, etc., although there are several steep hills to deal with when making your way up from the port area. Ushuaia has a similar feel to Reykjavik in Iceland, which given their respective locations is no real surprise.

Looking back at the town of Ushuaia
Looking back at the town of Ushuaia and the surrounding mountains

Close to Ushuaia are several national parks with stunning Patagonian landscapes perfect for hiking and camping (depending on the time of year), plus many outdoor activities such as kayaking. The national parks are easily accessible by local bus or car if you have your own transport. There are also many things to do within the town itself. The highlight of which is to go out on a boat ride from the port. From there you get a great view of Ushuaia surrounded by the mountains with stops at a few of the uninhabited scenic islands just off the coast. There is also an opportunity to see a lot of wildlife from sea lions, penguins, sea birds and other marine life. The animals you’ll see will be very dependent on the season, but a visit to Seal Island will always guarantee hundreds of them laying on the rocks (there’s a reason it got its name).

Seals covering a large rocky island
It’s not difficult to see some of the local wildlife. The seals were perfectly happy to pose for photos

Back in town you’ll find the usual souvenir shops as well as several museums detailing the interesting history of the area, including plenty of exhibits relating to Antarctica and the journeys of Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen. Ushuaia originally belonged to Chile but was taken by the Argentinians while the Chileans were busy fighting the Bolivians to the north. Despite their claims to a certain group of islands (ahem!), the Argentinians aren’t as keen on returning Ushuaia to its original owner any time soon. Funny what a bit of oil makes you do.

Sign at Ushuaia's port banning British ships
The Argentinians are not overly fond of the British. Although they also say English next to a British flag, so maybe they’re a little confused

It might be difficult to get to and a little out of the way, but a few days in Ushuaia should be on everyone’s list of Patagonia experiences. How often can you say you’ve been to the end of the world?

Sign claiming Ushuaia as the end of the world
Says it all really

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