First 24 hours in Ushuaia, Argentina

It’s where most Antarctic expeditions start, but should you linger any longer than a day?

5 mins
There are two types of visitors you’ll see in Ushuaia. Those who are waiting to go to Antarctica and those who’ve just got back. The ones who are waiting walk around in a heightened state of anticipation: they’re excited, they’re nervous about who their shipmates will be, and they’re still wearing their own coats.

Those who have just got back, however, have a near-permanent smile of satisfaction plastered on their faces. They’ve seen landscapes and enjoyed wildlife encounters that they never imagined in their wildest dreams. Tales of penguins pecking at their boots and whales breaching alongside their Zodiacs spill effortlessly off their tongues. They are contented, relieved it went to plan and – inevitably – are wearing the bright coloured jacket given to them by the expedition company with which they travelled.

Ushuaia at night (Shutterstock)
Ushuaia at night (Shutterstock)

I’m oversimplifying of course but the fact is, aside from the backpackers and grown-up gappers on a tour of South America, most of the visitors to this southernmost Argentinian outpost, wedged between the Beagle Channel and the jagged Martial Mountains, are south-bound.

Many visitors leave Ushuaia as soon as they’ve returned from the White Continent, but they’re making a mistake. There are intriguing museums that give a fascinating insight into 6,000 years of local history. This runs from the native Yámana to the missionaries who arrived in 1870 to ‘save’ them; from the establishment of the town as a penal colony in 1902 to the prison’s closure in 1947; to the many shipwrecks dotting nearby waters.

For those who want to get a little more active there are many reasons to linger. In Ushuaia there are fantastic mountain walks, on which you can come face to face with glaciers, practically on the doorstep; adventures in Tierra del Fuego National Park are a short bus ride away; boat rides on the seabird-rich Beagle Channel are easy to arrange.

At the airport

Sitting 4km south of the city, Ushuaia International Airport is small but modern. There is no currency exchange but take US dollars and you will be fine until you get into town – most places accept them. The airport has a small coffee shop and souvenir stall as well as free Wi-Fi.

Getting into town

Most pre-booked Antarctica cruises include an airport pick-up as part of the package. Otherwise, the best way to get into town is by taxi. Make sure the driver turns the meter on before you set off.

Other ways to arrive

Buses link Ushuaia to Buenos Aires (as well as several other Argentinian cities). Journey time is from 36 hours; see bus company Andesmar for more info.

Essential info

Population: 70,000
Languages: Spanish; English is widely spoken/understood in the city
Timezone: GMT-3
International dialling code: +54
Visas: Not required by UK nationals. There is a departure fee of US$20 cash.
Currency: Argentine peso (ARS). ATMs are available but many don’t take UK cards. US dollars are widely accepted; note, change may be given in pesos.
Highest viewpoint: Martial Glacier offers views of Ushuaia and the Beagle Channel.
Health issues: Tap water is safe to drink; beware uneven pavements and potholes.
Recommended guidebook: Argentina (Lonely Planet, 2014)
Climate: Maritime: in summer (Nov-Mar) expect temperatures around 15°C; in winter (Jun-Aug) 0°C. It can rain at any time so packing good waterproofs and warm layers is essential.
Getting to Antarctica: Many expedition cruises depart from Ushuaia. The author travelled with Quark Expeditions.

First day's tour

If the weather is good begin by taking a taxi up Martial Glacier. From the drop-off point you get great views of the town, which get even better as you trek up into the mountains. Varying well-marked trails are available so hike as much as you like then return to the start for a well-earned lunch at the quirky La Cabaña Casa de Té teahouse.

Glaciar Martial (Shutterstock)
Glaciar Martial (Shutterstock)

Grab a taxi back to town (the café will call one) and go to the tiny but excellent Museo Yámana (Rivadavia 56) where you can learn about the native Yámana people who called Tierra del Fuego home thousands of years before the arrival of the Europeans in 1869. Dioramas depict scenes from their lives and old photographs and stories (in English) help you imagine this place years ago.

Skip the Museo del Fin del Mundo (Avenida Maipú 465), an odd collection of shipwrecked items and stuffed seabirds. It’s poor value compared with the excellent Museo Maritimo & Museo del Presidio, which has myriad exhibits on Antarctica, pirates, wrecks, explorers, art and naval history, all housed in the former prison where nearly 800 convicts were held ‘at the end of the world’ between 1920 and 1947.

Finish in Bar Ideal – the food is average but the atmosphere is buzzing with pre- and post-Antarctica excitement.

Where to stay

Top end: Cabaña de Aldea Nevada is a cluster of log cabins nestled in trees and surrounded by birdlife, 2.5km above the city. It’s a more secluded, bijou way to experience a night in the world’s southernmost city. Breakfast ingredients are left in your room, so you can eat at leisure.

Mid-range: Las Lengas is worth a stay for the views from the breakfast room alone. Perched above Ushuaia’s bay, a ten-minute walk into town, it has small but comfortable and clean rooms plus free Wi-Fi and breakfast included.

Budget: Antarctica Hostel is centrally located and a great place to meet other travellers.

Stay or go?

Stay. Many people make the mistake of returning from the pristine landscapes of Antarctica and catching the next flight up to the bustle of Buenos Aires, but this small city is the perfect place to decompress after the seventh continent.

Once you’ve visited the museums and hiked Martial Glacier you could sign up for a cruise on the Beagle Channel to spot marine mammals and seabirds.

King Cormorant colony on an Island in the Beagle Channel (Shutterstock)
King Cormorant colony on an Island in the Beagle Channel (Shutterstock)

For land-based exploration, catch one of the regular shuttlebuses into Tierra del Fuego National Park from the car park on Avenida Maipú, next to the Aduana de Ushuaia building. Note, only pesos are accepted for the entrance fee. The buses pick-up and drop-off at a number of points in the park until 8pm. Most stops are at trailheads, each offering three- to four-hour hikes. Recommended is the Senda Costera trail, which starts at the post office and explores forests once home to the Yámana people.

Main image: Ushuaia Harbor (Shutterstock)

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