I traveled all of the way to the End of the World and found that there was a post office there.
It took two days of flying, through five different airports, two bus rides and some walking to get here. Almost 10,000 miles later I’ve finally arrived.
Ironically, many people who take this journey only use this place as a stopover to BEGIN their journeys on an Antarctic Voyage. But the end of the world is a worthy destination in and of itself.
I’m in Ushuaia, Argentina, which is the southernmost populated city in the world. It’s referred to as “El Fin del Mundo” here, which means “End of the World.” Technically speaking, the town of Puerto Williams in Chile is a few miles further south. But in reality Ushuaia is the end of the civilized world as we know it. In a few days I will be boarding a ship headed to the Malvinas Islands (Falklands), South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands (with its rich and abundant wildlife), and finally crossing the dreaded Drake Passage to visit my sixth continent (Antarctica). But we will talk about these in subsequent posts.
For being considered to be the end of the world, Ushuaia is a bustling municipality. It is the center of commerce for the region of Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. Located on the shores of Beagle channel with high mountains and glaciers for a backdrop, it also is the hub for local adventure tourism for both land and sea.
The dock is the center of tourism activity for the city. Many cruise ships, both large and small, make port here. The Plancius (center of picture above) is the ship I will be taking. The advantage of a smaller ship means more time ashore. Also, smaller day cruises are available from the dock to cruise up and down Beagle Channel for sightseeing or to visit Penguin colonies, or to look for whales.
Once just a seaport and transportation and shipping hub with a Naval base and a fishing fleet, the town now has a thriving commerce built largely on tourism. The city is built on a hillside, with streets in a grid pattern. If you could compare it to somewhere else, it would be like a Spanish speaking Juneau, Alaska, only without the bears. Also, one would need to substitute penguins for the bald eagles.
With the cafes and chocolate shops you might think you were in Bariloche, Argentina. But the smell of salt air would tell you otherwise. But before you buy anything, you should have brought a lot of cash either in dollars or euros. But don’t expect a good exchange rate at anywhere else except a few exchange houses (Casa de Cambio). The official government rate was only 160 pesos to the dollar. If you use credit cards, businesses have to go by the official government rate. However, at exchange houses they will give you between 280 and 290 pesos to the dollar. Be sure to ask for the “dollar blue” rate. Just make sure the bills you are trading are larger ones ($50 or $100, and not torn or wrinkled). Inflation is rampant in Argentina and the economy has been crashing and the peso is in a free fall. In 2009, the last time I was in Argentina, there were four pesos to one dollar. Most of the collapse has happened recently. Devaluation is a weekly occurrence. And you thought that inflation was bad where you live!
Now that you have a lot of pesos in your pocket, you are ready to enjoy the town. Craft beer has made its way this far south, and you can sip on a Cape Horn Beer from the world’s most southernmost brewery at the Casa Olmo (Avenida San Martin 87).
Ushuaia even has a Hard Rock Cafe (Avenida San Martin 594). Most of the tourist shops and eating and drinking establishments are located on this avenue, which is parallel to the coast and one block uphill.
But Ushuaia is more than just city life for cruise ship tourists. The region of Tierra del Fuego is a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts, with hiking, climbing, and trekking options available in almost any direction. I did two hikes starting from town. One day I hiked up to the Martial Glacier above town. The views are stunningly beautiful. For the less energetic, one can take a taxi most of the way uphill, which will shorten your hike. Remember that it is the south-facing slopes that receive less sun in this part of the world. I didn’t bring my ice axe with me, and as it is only late Spring here, I didn’t climb high up the snowy slopes.
One other hike I took from town was suggested to me by a friendly local. It follows the shoreline to the east of town, first through the industrial district along Hwy 3. Then as Hwy 3 curves to the left, you take a dirt road paralleling the shoreline until you reach Playa Larga (Long Beach). There is a nice park there with picnic areas and a nice view of the city.
After walking Playa Larga, you can hike back up to the dirt road and continue down the coast until you reach the trail to Estancia Tunel, which continues for another 8 km along the coast. As it was very windy that day and I had already hiked a long way, I chose to only walk another 1.5 km further before turning back and hiking back to town. In all I hiked about 14.5 miles that day. For those who want less walking, take a taxi to the beginning of the hike to Estancia Tunel and cut off about 8 km of hiking through the industrial part of town.
Most hikers who come to Ushuaia and spend a few days here will end up visiting Tierra del Fuego National Park, which is several kilometers to the west of the town. The bus ride costs 3,500 Argentine Pesos (about $12.50 if you changed your money at a casa de cambio; almost $22 if you pay in foreign cash or credit card). This does not include the park entrance fee which is an additional 3,200 pesos for foreigners. I was sure glad I changed my dollars to pesos at the better rate!
There are several great hikes to take in this park. One could spend several days here. If you do, subsequent days are half price. I chose to go early and hike like mad for one full day. I got off of the final bus stop at the end of Hwy 3 and hiked back to the Alakush Visitor center, which is the only place to get a coffee and some lunch. From there, I took another trail along Acigami Lake until I reached Hito 24 (border marker 24) where there is a small tower demarcating the border between Chile and Argentina.
From here I had to hike fast to get back to Alakush and catch a ride to the Senda Costero trail. The Fin del Mundo post office is located at the beginning of this trail. As the day was getting late, I did not have enough time to hike the whole trail, but I did manage to mail a postcard from here before the post office closed. After a brief hike, I caught the last shuttle back into town.
I could have spent several more days exploring this region, but my ship is leaving tomorrow. My first stop will be in the Falkland Islands, but we don’t use that F word while in Argentina. They refer to them as the Malvinas Islands, and there was a war between Argentina and the United Kingdom over those islands just 40 years ago. All over Ushuaia you will see pro-nationalist signs and statues about the Malvinas and it is ingrained in the national psyche.
I will be posting a few more times about the journey I will be taking as I prepare to leave the End of the World and journey into the unknown. Next stop…..Las Malvinas.