Our Patagonia Adventure Starts in Ushuaia

Ushuaia - Downtown Boat Dock

We Should have Stayed Longer

Ushuaia is located at the southernmost tip of South America. That is probably as close to Antarctica as we will ever get. We visited in January; summertime in the southern hemisphere and about half way through our family gap year.

Our decision to add Ushuaia to our itinerary had more to do with the $70 tickets we found for a flight on New Year’s day rather than a burning desire to go there. Our lack of enthusiasm had to do with the cold, wet climate and a misguided impression that the city and scenery weren’t going to be that impressive compared to other parts of Patagonia. We got our puffer jackets ready and planned to make it a quick stop.

That is how we made the mistake of only planning a single day for sightseeing before taking an all day bus ride to Punta Arenas. In this article, I share some of the amazing things we experienced and learned in that short amount of time.

One-Hundred Percent Chance of Rain

We booked a somewhat expensive combo tour. It included the End of the World Train in the morning and the Beagle Channel boat tour (where we would see sea lions) in the afternoon. Those are the two main things to see if you only plan to be there for a single day.

With a full day planned for sightseeing, I was disappointed to discover that the day’s forecast was a high of 48°F (9°C) and 100% chance of rain. The entire day. 

On the morning tour, one of the passengers asked our tour guide how people endured the winter if it was this harsh in the summer. She explained that winter wasn’t too bad. Cold and snowy, sure, but the ocean moderates the temperature. Summer was the bigger problem, she informed us. That’s when that you get a side of rain with your chilly Antarctic wind. “But being this close to Antarctica, what do you expect?”

Despite the miserable weather, the tours were totally worth it!

Ushuaia - End of Pan-American Highway
The end of the Pan-American highway, which stretches from Alaska to Ushuaia.

The End of the World Train

The End of the World Train is an old-style steam engine that begins at a cute, touristy train station. It has a gift shop and a place to get a coffee or hot chocolate. The train’s final stop is the national park and takes about an hour to get there. 

Despite being the perfect activity for a traveling family with three little boys, the train was not originally built to ensnare tourists. It was built by prisoners back in the time when Ushuaia was a maximum security penal colony. But more on that in the next section.

The wood paneled interior was cozy and warm. Though rain droplets dotted the windows, we could still view the stunning snow-capped mountains standing guard over the fairytale-like valley. Horses grazed and played around a serpentine river that flowed alongside the tracks. 

At the final stop, our tour bus intercepted us and took us to three different view points. On a sunnier day we might have chafed at the short fifteen to twenty minutes they gave us to get out, explore, and snap our pictures. But the icy drizzle made the tour guide seem merciful rather than stingy.

Trying ease their discomfort, I remarked to the kids that at least we weren’t the original inhabitants who bore the rain and chill almost naked. The tactic backfired. As we imagined ourselves in their non-shoes we shivered even harder.

Ushuaia - Family and Train
All aboard!

Tierra del Fuego – A Brief History

Ushuaia is the capital city of Tierra del Fuego province. The name Tierra del Fuego means land of fire, which at first seems like a strange name for such a damp and frigid island. Oliver, our oldest son, suggested that maybe it was named that way to attract settlers, like Greenland.

In fact, the most popular explanation is that Magellan noticed fires along the coast while navigating the strait that bears his name. Clothing would have been perpetually wet in this environment. The locals preferred fires to keep warm. They even kept fires in their fishing boats. Thus it was called the Land of Fire. Not everyone agrees on that story.

Archeologists have estimated that people have lived on this formidable island for at least 6,500 years. They can tell from the rings of mussel shells surrounding the Yámana peoples’ camps. Never straying far from the shore where they got all their food, they ate mussels like our family eats chocolate-covered almonds. They discarded the shells around their camp and they added up over the millennia like geological layers of sediment.

Like everywhere else in the Americas, most of the original inhabitants either died of European diseases or were pushed aside. Argentina claimed the eastern part of Tierra del Fuego island. Chile claimed the western part. In the early 1900s hardly anybody lived there. It was cold, harsh, and hard to get there or make a living. But Argentina needed people there to cement their claim.

So they turned it into a prison. The towering wall of mountains to the north and the frigid Beagle Channel to the south made it hard to escape. The prisoners were forced to build the prison, the city and the railroad. Actually, they preferred the hard labor to shivering in their jail cell all day. So, of course, when a warden wanted to punish a prisoner, they did so by not letting them work.

Ushuaia - Train
The railroads were built by the former prisoners. They preferred hard labor to shivering inside their cells.
Ushuaia - Southernmost Post Office
The southernmost post office in the world.
Ushuaia - Post Office and Channel
The post office from afar.

Turbulence and Choppy Seas

We got to experience the harsh and unstable climate of southern Patagonia firsthand. 

During the final descent of our flight, we endured the roughest turbulence we’ve ever experienced. As we gazed out the window at majestic mountain ranges lining the shore, it seemed the environment wasn’t content to strike awe and terror visually. It put our little 747 in its place by kicking us around like a child kicking a pebble down the street. The airplane fell onto the runway the moment we were directly over it, as if the pilots wanted to touch ground before it was too late.

Our boat tour was also affected by Ushuaia’s fickle weather. We cruised for an hour along the coast. I ordered a large coffee and Liuan ordered a hot chocolate with rum. Liuan and Oliver went outside onto the front deck while we waited for our drinks. The drinks came and I motioned for them to come in. And not a moment too soon! 

They sat down at our table just as the captain made a 180 degree turn. The waves crashed over the deck (the one where my wife and son were just standing) and onto the observation windows. The tour guide announced over the loudspeaker that it would be too dangerous to continue. We’d have to turn back. 

Smooth sailing got choppy, and choppy got violent, as our boat launched and dove over the waves. A commotion was bubbling up from the thrilled and frightened passengers. “It’s just a wave, folks, nothing to worry about,” chided the tour guide over the loudspeaker. The boisterous passengers soon wore a serious expression. Some closed their eyes and held their foreheads. I wondered how many were seasick. 

Ushuaia - Beagle Channel Tour
On the deck of the tour boat braving the wind and cold drizzle.
That was before the captain made everyone come inside because of the strong waves.

If We Would Have Stayed Longer

If we would have stayed longer, the forecast predicted a few more days of rain and chill. But by the end of the week, the temperatures looked fair and even a bit sunny.

If we had waited, we could have reschedule the boat tour and seen the islands, the sea lions, and the lighthouse that were supposed to be on the itinerary.

We would have been happy to spend more time in the city itself. It gave me the impression of a Swiss town; a colorful skyline with high peaked roofs backdropped by dramatic snow-capped mountains.

There was good cuisine at every turn. We had two great dining experiences by wandering a few blocks and picking a place that looked decent. One of the perks of our tour package was free vouchers for hot chocolate at an artisanal chocolate shop. To our surprise, the drinks were made of high quality chocolate! (I was expecting a pack of powder dissolved in water.) Despite being remote, the city had plenty to offer the literal boatloads of travelers that pass through.

Liuan and I vowed to return someday. Perhaps when the kids are grown up and we get that electric van, we’ll drive instead of fly. And maybe we’ll stay awhile longer.

Ushuaia - Mountains in Background
The view just down the block from our rented apartment.
  • Matt

    Matt is a software consultant by day and a wide ranging hobbyist at night. He enjoys baking, art, music and lives for travel experiences. But what gets him out of bed in the morning is fresh roasted coffee.

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Matt is a software consultant by day and a wide ranging hobbyist at night. He enjoys baking, art, music and lives for travel experiences. But what gets him out of bed in the morning is fresh roasted coffee.

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