Tierra del Fuego, the land of fire, is an archipelago at the (almost) southernmost tip of South America, separated from the mainland by the Strait of Magellan. The main island is know as Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego. The western side of it is Chile and the larger eastern side is Argentina. At the bottom of the island is the city of Ushuaia that sits on the Canal Beagle (or Beagle Channel in English). This city has the honor of being the furthest south city in the world! The area surrounding Ushuaia is very unique because it is the only place in South America where the Andes Mountains run west to east and into the ocean and create fresh water ecosystems with glacial melt water fed rivers and lakes. Ushuaia is also the gateway to Antarctica through the Drake Passage, which is the shortest distance from a continent to Antarctica. Many cruise ships come through the town and you can book passage to Antarctica for as low as $4500 US. Needless to say we could not afford this. There is also an airport here that sits out on the Beagle channel.
Ushuaia is basically surrounded by mountains in all directions since across the Beagle channel is another mountainous island called Isla Narvarino that belongs to Chile. The Martial mountain range here is unlike any we have experienced because they are so vertical and the flora is so different. The highest peak here is only 4,270 ft but that looks very high since in town you are at sea level. The best comparison I can give you is Breckenridge, Colorado. The town sits at 9,600 ft and you have peaks nearby at around 13,000 ft so it is all relative. You can see the tree lines easily with snow caps and glaciers in the distance, even though it’s summer here. The lenga trees here dominate the landscape flaunting their tiny leaves and hosting a plethora of a lichen called old man’s beard!
We had a nice Airbnb apartment for 4 days here to get to explore the city and its surroundings. The whole city sits on a gradually climbing hill from the downtown area off the channel sprawling up to the mountains. Our apartment was 6 blocks north of downtown so we had a great view! The downtown is very touristy full of shops, restaurants and bars, tour companies, and hotels. But usually people can associate the word touristy as negative – not so here! Lots of local dives, old general stores, and cool converted old buildings mixed in, all you have to do is accidentally wander into one. We found a good handful of local craft beer bars here that boasted locally made brands such as Cape Horn, Beagle, Oshovia, & Muntzer.
Oshovia is east of downtown and calls itself the brewery at the end of the world, since it is technically the furthest south brewery. They showed regular hours online so we ventured the 20 minute walk over to check it out. We walked right into not a taproom but the small brewhouse where the brewer was happily working away! He did not speak any English but was happy to show us around and explain that they only sold cans and kegs to local bars and restaurants. He gave us some recommendations of where we could try his beers but would not let us walk out the door empty handed. Pulling out 3 glasses, he tapped the smallest keg we have ever seen to produce an unfiltered IPA that had been dry hopped to infinity and beyond! I have never tasted such hop juice before, so juicy and fruity, with only the slightest bitterness all complete with many hop flower particles floating about. After thanking him many times over, we walked back into town tasting those hops still lingering in our mouths the whole way back as if we had the exquisite nectar still in our mouths! This was such an awesome experience and something that customers in the US often would pay a lot of money to get to do.
Our best experience by far though was our tour we booked on our second day. There is a ranch east of Ushuaia along the channel called Estancia Harberton. It was the original settlement in the 1800’s that was a land grant given by Argentina to the Bridges family. Now it is a guest ranch with a restaurant, tea house, and a museum filled with skeletons of the local marine life.
Our tour company, Piratour, took us there in the morning by bus to visit the ranch. From there we departed by small boats to visit the nearby Martillo Island where there are penguin colonies! Piratour is the only company with permission to walk on the island. When we landed, we were met by a colony of Magellanic penguins all squawking about the beach. There were thousands of them! At first they were scared of the boats, but once we all had gotten on shore, the penguins became curious little dudes coming up inspect the newcomers. We weren’t allowed to touch them because they will peck you, but they were sometimes inches away from us. The guide said this colony numbers 15,000!
Next we walked over to see a larger species, the Gentoo penguin. It is the 3rd largest breed of penguin and were happily chilling in bunches while a few would waddle flippers out down to the water for a tasty fish. These puffy, fluffy, funny guys reminded me of that picture of that fat bluebird you see everywhere.
We were so taken aback by the penguins that we didn’t even realize our surroundings – mountainous islands in all directions! It was a paradise that few people get to witness. There were all kinds of sea birds flying and swimming around us. Some coexist with the penguins while other feast upon their eggs and little chicks! We also saw vultures feasting upon a penguin carcass.
To top it off, we were incredibly lucky to see a king penguin and a chick! Only recently had a pair of king penguins come to the island and had a baby. This is very rare since the king penguins usually only inhabit Antarctica. They are the 2nd largest penguin after the emperor penguins. The adult was taller than my waist, maybe 3 1/2 feet tall. What a splendid array of color from bright yellow to deep orange on top of its classic tuxedo body. Such beauty.
We spent an hour on the island visiting different areas. On the north side we walked among the burrows of the Magellanic penguins. The penguins here were starting their moulting process as the summer was coming to an end. Our guide told us about how the new chicks were mostly already fully feathered but there were still some that had their adolescent grey feathers. The chicks would take turns calling out, saying they were hungry and waiting for their parent to take them fishing. It was quite a show of flapping and running about the beach.
At last it was time for us to depart back to the ranch. It will forever be one of our favorite hours spent. Once all of our tour group was gathered, we boarded a small yacht that would take us on a 2 1/2 hour journey back to Ushuaia along the Canal Beagle. They served us pizzas and we toasted some Beagle golden ale, very apropos. After eating we decided to brace the winds and explore the upper deck to take in the views. Not 5 minutes later we were graced with another lucky spectacale: Humpback Whales!
A mom and a large calf had made their way into the channel and put on quite the jumping show! It was awe-inspiring, being so close to these huge, magnificent sea creatures…a hush came over the whole ship as we watched them play in the water, fin slapping the surface and jumping in and out of the water. It really does just fill you with joy and a feeling of thankfulness for being in the right place in the right time. A rare gift to we blessed few on the boat from Mother Earth. That’s the best I can describe the experience, but it still really can’t fully be captured in words.
I think Gabrielle was the first one to see them because she yelled out and pointed, and then everyone up top turned and the boat switched direction to head near to them. Talk about a spotter!
Getting closer to Ushuaia, we stopped by a few small rock islands where the original lighthouse of the city stands. Here lives sea lions and fur seals fishing the kelp beds around the rocks. Once again we were lucky to see an elephant seal up close napping as the king of the rock! There were also an abundance of black and white cormorants swimming about. They had claimed one of the rocks for themselves and their poop had bleached the rock white. The cormorants are hunted by another type of bird: the Sooty Shearwater. They dive down as the cormorants are coming back up to the surface and can peck their head to pierce the skull and kill them on the watery ascent.
One of the best days we have had on our trip – we were sad to get off the yacht. Seeing such natural wonder in its untouched surroundings is a life high that carries you for a long time after.
A few days later we packed up and took a bus west into the Tierra del Fuego National Park to camp and do some hiking. We found a great spot right next to the river just down from laguna verde – its a translucent turquoise. The Pan-American highway ends here in the park coming 11,000 miles from Anchorage, Alaska. So David has now been to the beginning and the end! We hiked to the endpoint which reminded us of the crowded walkways to the top of Iguazu Falls. Fortunately, we found a side trail that took us even further south along the bay to a secluded spot far less crowded.
Our second day we attempted the hardest hike in the park which took us far above the trees into the beautiful Patagonian alpine tundra! It was very vertical and challenged us with our big packs. Unfortunately, is was raining that day so we ran into a lot of mud and couldn’t finish the last part of the ascent up the steep rocky slope to the peak, as it would likely be too trecherous. But David was determined to get above the tundra to get the best view for pictures!
The decent was way harder than normal as we slid all over the place down the steep muddy trail. Legs shaking and wiped, it was still well worth it to be able to take in as much of the park as we could. It was a good thing we didn’t wait another day since we woke up the next morning to find the mountain tops snow packed!
In the park we were greeted by many more species of raptors and waterfowl unknown to us.
We stayed one more night in Ushuaia before catching the bus back north. It was Carnaval Monday and there was supposed to be a celebration downtown. Walking through the streets we found no such celebration…womp womp. Not to worry though, because we stumbled upon IceBar Ushuaia! It was a bar that had an entire room where everything was made of ice – the bar, the glasses and shot glasses, the seats, even the floor! Oh, and it was the balmy temperature off -14 degrees Celsius. The best part: It was all you could drink for as long as you could stand the cold! (or 30 min) We were fitted with mittens and cloaks and had a blast shooting whiskey, trying the house drinks and taking pictures. The bartender finished us off with a local favorite, dulce de leche liquor!
Last we went to the local Irish pub called Dublin, which we were told by several people it was not to be missed. Classic, rowdy and fun Irish bar – South American style with R2D2 to greet us at the door.
A memorable and heartwarming place, el fin del mundo (the end of the world). We recommend it to anyone in want of some isolation, one-of-a-kind interactions with wildlife, mountain scenery to swoon over, and (on the clear nights) starlit skies that will leave you gobsmacked and at a loss for words.