To be in Ushuaia is to be at the end of the world, or so they say. It sounds like tourist claptrap, but maybe here, at the edge of Tierra del Fuego, it’s got some truth to it.
The most southerly city in the world lends itself rather more seriously though as the world’s gateway to the final continent – Antarctica.
With prices ranging from $3,500-$7,000 for 12 days sitting on a boat and looking at blocks of ice on the chance a couple of penguins or sea lions will make themselves comfortable on them, you begin to understand what type of people are attracted to the end of the world. The type of people who view “class” in terms of different makes of Mercedes not social income groups.
This all means the city is expensive, but that shouldn’t put you off. The first thing you’ll notice when you arrive isn’t the expensive asado restaurants, but rather the biting wind. If you are travelling from warmer climates like in Buenos Aires, then be prepared to fetch your jacket getting off the plane. Even in the height of summer, Antarctic weather is never too far away.
As you shelter from the wind and rain, another sight will soon become apparent. The astounding view.
Set on a low plain, the city is surrounded by beautiful mountains. With the Beagle Channel directly to the south, further ranges are visible over the water giving Ushuaia a sense of isolation, further boosted by tetchy relations between Chile and Argentina, which means there’s only one road out of town which doesn’t require stringent border checks.
It is this solitude of the capital of Tierra del Fuego, which gives it its charm. The town can be a lively assortment of English-speaking hordes clad in Montague or North Face, who are determined to splash the cash, but you’re never more than five minutes away from being on a trail to blissful detachment.
Perhaps the most gorgeous of which is the Cerro del Medio trail, where you hike to the peak at 925m. With a view over the whole town on a trail which is directly accessible from the streets below, after a mere three hours, you find yourself squatting down on a windswept – and perhaps snowy – peak with a fabulous view over the expanse at the end of the world.
Weather-dependent of course. This is Patagonia, so at the closest point civilisation has monopolised to Antarctica, don’t expect the weather to be your best friend.
Get in a car or hop on a bus out of town and the undulating territory just keeps revealing itself to you. 18 km north-east is Laguna Esmeralda. It’s an easy half-day hike (three hours up, three hours back), which boasts an astonishing setting with the Fuegian Andes surrounding a pristine and colourful lake. It’s more challenging to ascend to the glacier past the lagoon and you’ll need time on your side, which is a complicated as beaver dams are helpful to navigate parts of the trail. And the beavers don’t get to work till later in the day.
What unfolds in front of you looking back over the lake is astounding. A beautiful setting fit for the end of time and place. And not a relic of humanity in view. If this was the beginning of the world rather than the end, perhaps the metropolises of Buenos Aires, Rio, London or Delhi would be viewed as destroyers of beauty, not centres of cultural learning.
And all of this before even entering the Tiera del Fuego national park. Located 20 km north of Ushuaia close to the Chilean border, it is more expensive than other hiking possibilities, as transport costs (100 pesos/€17) and a park fee entrance (80 pesos/€13) are required.
As it is a national park, the place is considerably busier than the other hiking trails and presents little more than the other more cost-effective routes offer.
This shouldn’t put you off though. If you have the time and the spare cash, hiking in the park will have you uttering that ubiquitous Spanish word “tranquilo” when enjoying the day.
If, like on a conveyor belt, you had to pass through the last point of this earth to proceed further Ushuaia would make quite a nice backdrop for our final moments. Humans carved out culture and industry on flat plains near water – the giver of life – but surrounding us are big imposing mounds of dirt and rock backed by strident, brisk weather. We make the best of the abundant richness of the world, but in the end we must succumb to the feeling the Kingmaker isn’t us, but rather Mother Earth. Sometimes you must travel to the end of the world to realise this.