Ushuaia, Patagonia, Argentina – Tiera del Fuego (land of fire) and El Fin del Mundo (“End of the World”)
After circling Cape Horn our ship headed north through the narrow Mar del Sur channel en route to Ushuaia. We then proceeded west through the Beagle channel and at 3:30 am the ship slowed its course and soon stopped off the coast of Puerto Williams for custom clearance before crossing back from Chile into Argentina. Needless to say we slept through this stop to the gentle rocking of the ship. Once we received clearance we continued en route to Ushuaia, part of the Tiera del Fuego archipelago of South America.
Tiera del Fuego, meaning the land of fire, was named by Ferdinande Magellan when he saw the huge bonfires lit by the native Yaghan tribes who lived in the area. The landscape is stunningly beautiful with snow capped Andies, forests, glaciers and tundra all set against the magnificent water of the channel.
Ushuaia is referred to as the southernmost city in the world although there are communities further south in the archipelago. It is nestled in the protected cove of Ushuaia Bay (Ushuaia in native Yaghan language means deep bay) along the Beagle Channel at the foothills of the magnificent Martial Range glaciers. The colourful homes set against the mountains is a sight to behold coming in from across the bay.
Ushuaia is a gateway to Antarctica and its port serves as the port of choice to expeditions heading to the Drake Channel and Antarctica. It is the closest deep water port to Antarctica and is a popular stop for cruise ships sailing in these icy waters. It is a destination for tourists and adventurers visiting the Tiera del Fuego to hike, ski, experience the forests, sail, sightsee and enjoy the fresh seafood brought in daily by local fishermen. History buffs like ourselves flock here to experience the routes the explorers traveled through, allbeit in the comfort of modern age.
The jailhouse and End of the World Train
Interesting enough, it is the jail in Ushuaia that made it famous in Argentina and the prisoners were considered the first settlers of this remote location. The prison population varied from violent criminals to political prisoners and everything in between. Prisoners were brought here in early 1900s and provided the labour to built the jailhouse that consisted of 380 individual cells. Good behaviour enabled prisoners to work outdoors in the magnificent but harsh countryside chopping down trees to use for construction materials. Inmates scheduled to work outdoors were chained and taken by a small train to the forest where they got the lumber and shipped it back on the train. Prisoners were employed for pay in workshops that included tailoring, shoe repairs, medial services, bakery, pharmacy and carpentry. These workshops provided supplies to the Ushuaia’s residents and freed them from dependency on ships arriving periodically. The prison became integral part of living in Ushuaia and in a way made life there possible. Today the prison is a museum and cultural center and you can still view some of the original cells.
This same train that took the prisoners to the Tiera del Fuego forests for lumber still runs today but as a tourist attraction known as the “End of the World Train”. We boarded the vintage railcar pulled by a steam locomotive for an easy 8 km ride into the forests of the Tiera del Fuego to see where the prisoners worked. Cut tree stumps are still visible there today and the scenery is quite beautiful with the river Pipo cutting through the valley and the majestic mountains rising above.
Beagle channel wild life cruise
We were also interested in a short cruise along the Beagle channel to see sea life up close. We bundled up and boarded a catamaran right at the harbour and set for a few hours of cruising along the channel hoping to catch a view of a whale and whatever other species was willing to present itself to us. Ushuaia looked so beautiful from the water, picture perfect and so unique. The snow capped mountain in the back cascading down to the Beagle channel with the colourful homes separating the water from the mountains. Mount Olivia, Mount Escarpado and Cinco Hermanos Hills were some of the beautiful peaks that surrounded the city.
We didn’t have to sail long before we started spotting wildlife. A rocky island known as Despard Island is home to a large flocks of King Cormorants (aka Imperial cormorant), large birds with glossy black feather, white neck and chest and pink feet. There were thousands of them on the island and around the channel. They shared the island with other birds such as petrels ducks, the famed albatross, South American terns sporting a bright red beak, white body and a stylish black strip along their back, and kelp gulls, a type of greyish white local seagull.
We continued west toward Isla de Los Lobos (Sea Wolves Island) home to fur seals and sea lions as well as hundreds of king cormorants, all competing for space on the rocks grunting and barking to assert authority.
On the way the captain of the catamaran stopped the vessel and turned off the engines. We were wondering what was going on and they explained that they are waiting for whales living in the channel to present themselves. sure enough, a few minutes late two whales and a calve surfaced side by side splashing their giant tails on the water’s surface. It was pretty quick and I didn’t have a proper lens to catch it but believe me when I say that it was spectacular and fun to see.
Faro les Eclaireurs – the lighthouse at the end of the world
The trip would not be complete without a good view of the special “lighthouse at the end of the world” Faro les Eclaireurs, in the middle of the channel. The conical red and white lighthouse was built in 1920 and is still in operation today, emitting light every 10 seconds to a distance of 7.5 nautical mile and operated by remote control.
The thought of explorers navigating this channel was on my mind throughout. The stunningly beautiful Beagle Channel was named ofter the ship Darwin sailed on when he was 26 years old, the HMS Beagle making notes that eventually became On the Origin of Species. The Beagle Channel, the Straights of Magellan and the Drake passage are the three navigation routes between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and all three claimed lives of many mariners. The Beagle Channel is about 240 km long and 5 km wide and wraps itself around a number of islands, the main of which is the Isla Grande de Tiera del Fuego.
After the catamaran ride we were ready for a good lunch and what else to have but their local King Crab knowns as centolla. We asked around and were told the place to have it is at El Viejo Marino right across the street from the harbour. We walked over but the restaurant was closed. A look at the notice on the door indicated the restaurant will open in about 20 minutes. We were advised to go early as the tables fill quickly and they may also run out of food. Well, I don’t have to be told twice. We stood by the door as a few locals begun to join the line and were first to be seated when they opened the doors. The restaurant was just what I crave when we travel. Real, authentic, unpretentious and cozy. We settled at a table for two by the window overlooking the harbour. The restaurant owner came over, we discussed the menu and ordered Sopa de Centolla o Mariscos (soup of crab and seafood) and Centella Entera para dos personas (whole king crab for two). A little more discussion and local beer was chosen and we sat with anticipation of what was to come. In minutes both small rooms of the restaurant were completely full with what looked to me local residents. Our timing was perfect.
Soon the soup arrived and it was superlative with the aroma wafting gently and tantalizing my palate. The stock was intense in flavour and and light in texture, made with seafood, paprika and herbs and it was full of delicious morsels of crustaceans that I think included mussels, clams, shrimps, crab and fish. Tomatoes and onion added a perfect acidic balance. It was fresh, hearty and satisfying and I could have made an entire meal out of this bowl of soup.
Then the crab arrived, red and spiky all over and accompanied by rice, salad and a basket of bread. The owner delivered it himself with a pair of scissors for each of us and did a quick demo showing us how to cut the shell on the underside and expose the tender flesh. It wasn’t hard as the underside of the shell is quite soft (the top is rock hard). The crab was tender and sweet with saltwater flavour, delicious. We cleaned it out completely and felt quite good about our newly acquired expertise. The beer was a perfect accompaniment to the crab
There must be some sirens there luring me to return. I feel a pull to go back and explore more. I have heard that once you visit Patagonia, you always want to come back.