Ushuaia - The End of the World
January 29 - February 3, 2005
Rob Jagnow & Jeff Weekley

Sometimes it's hard to tell where one chapter ends and the next begins.

After returning to from Aconcagua to the city of Mendoza, the expedition team reveled in the great abundance of cheap beef and red wine. The following day, Mike and Bruce left for Santiago while Jeff and I rearranged our flights so that we could fly down to Ushuaia - the southernmost city in the world.

Looking north into Ushuaia from the private wharf Looking north into Ushuaia from the private wharf
Ushuaia's commercial wharf at night Ushuaia's commercial wharf at night
The night before our departure, Bruce, Jonny, Jeff and I celebrated with a trip to La Reserva, a small, friendly gay bar in the heart of Mendoza. After only a few minutes inside, we were befriended by Marty and Cesar, an adorable local couple who insisted on taking us to "Estacion Miro," the popular Friday night discoteca.

After loading up on "Green Demons" - highly caffeinated elixirs - we worked our way over to the dance club around 3am. For a city of less than a million, Mendoza certainly knows how to party. The six of us danced for hours to a pounding mix of international house music. The next thing we knew, the sun was rising, and Jeff and I had to make a rapid retreat back to the hotel to catch our taxi to the airport.

Wasting no time, we packed our volumes of mountaineering gear into four enormous bags, which then had to be hauled down two flights of stairs and stuffed into a tiny taxi - a task that might have been simple were it not for a long night of Green Demons. Thankfully, we arrived at the airport in plenty of time to catch our 9:30 flight to Buenos Aires.

From the Buenos Aires airport, we managed to schedule a same-day direct flight to Ushuaia for only $200 round-trip. Had we tried to arrange those flights from the United States, the would have carried more than three times the price. We took a leisurely lunch and then collapsed into the seats of our Ushuaia flight, happy to have an opportunity for a nap.

After the most restful sleep I've ever experienced on an airplane, I woke shortly before landing in Ushuaia, a town of 58,000, nestled in a slender bay at the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego and surrounded by emerald forests and rugged, snow-capped mountains.

With Buenos Aires in the midst of a heat wave, hotels in cooler parts of the country have filled up to capacity, so Jeff and I had to look around for a while before landing at Las Malvinas Hotel, which could only offer a room for one night. On Sunday morning, the Ushuaia tourist information center helped us find a vacancy at Hotel Mustapic, where we were greeted by Anna Mustapic herself, daughter of the original owner. The hotel, which has been operating for 32 years, was the first private hotel in the city. The third-floor lounge, where Jeff and I gorged ourselves on the free breakfast each morning, offers a 360-degree view from the Martial glacier in the north, across the city to the harbor and into Chile across the bay to the south.

At Anna's recommendation, Jeff and I booked a tour with Las Tres Marias, a small yacht that took us to some of the inner harbor islands. The two other members on the expedition were Cyril and Bertrand, an adorable gay couple from France who ended up giving us a lot of valuable advice about touring in the area.

Our first destination on the harbor tour was Island "H", which has historical significance for its vast array of archeological artifacts from the native inhabitants dating back more than 5000 years. Our well-informed guide, who was constantly nibbling on the local vegetation, introduced us to the local flora and fauna, including a large population of rock cormorants that nest on the south side of the island. Following the tour, we joined Cyril and Bertrand for dinner at La Rueda, one of the many all-you-can restaurants in the area that offer dinner for about eight US dollars.

Rock cormorant colony on Island 'H' Rock cormorant colony on Island "H"
Jeff and Rob returning from a harbor tour Jeff and Rob returning from a harbor tour
On Monday morning, Jeff and I took a bus to Tierra del Fuego National Park, about 20 km west of Ushuaia. We started the day with a 7km hike along the coastal trail, which offers stunning views into the Chilean mountains to the south. At one point, I marveled that we had seen hardly any wild mammals since reaching Argentina with the exception of a few guanaco (llama) corpses near Aconcagua. Within ten minutes of that remark, we passed onto a small island where we immediately encountered hundreds of wild hare in an array of colors. The rabbits were remarably cooperative for the camera, as were the wide variety of birds that we encountered throughout the day.

Despite being a national park, we saw very few tourists throughout the day with the exception of a couple of tour buses carrying obnoxious American bird-watchers. It was easy to escape the crowds, which tended not to venture far from the roads.

Looking south into Chile from Tierra del Fuego National Park Looking south into Chile from Tierra del Fuego National Park
Tierra del Fuego National Park Tierra del Fuego National Park
Family of upland geese Family of upland geese
Oystercatchers Oystercatchers
Mussels at low tide Mussels at low tide
Upland goose Upland goose
Wild hare in Tierra del Fuego National Park Wild hare in Tierra del Fuego National Park
Still not tired of hiking, Jeff and I spent Tuesday at the Martial glacier, the panoramic backdrop that rises above the town of Ushuaia. After a 7km bus ride to the base of the mountain, we hiked alongside a peculiar ski lift that provides access to the one and only ski run in the area, which is miraculously accompanied by a ski school and a number of extravagant hotels.

From the top of the ski area, we continued up to the base of the glacier, where we took panoramic photos of the town and enjoyed a leisurely lunch. We then backtracked down the mountain about half a mile where we reached the east fork of the trail, which rises quite a bit higher to the eastern cul beneath the summit. From there, we were greeted by a stunning view into Caņada Negra and the mountain range that lies further to the north.

After descending back to the base of the ski lift, we still had enough time to grab a hot chocolate and a slice of cake before catching the 4pm taxi back to town.

View from the back side of the Martial Glacier into Caņada Negra View from the back side of the Martial Glacier into Caņada Negra
South American snipe South American snipe
Martial glacier Martial glacier
At this point, Jeff and I felt that we had largely exhausted most of the tourist activities in the area, but Jeff in particular felt that our Ushuaia experience was lacking in one particular area - penguins. During the three days that we had spent in town, we had seen only one penguin, fishing for sardines off of Island "H". After doing some careful research, we decided to take a tour to a penguin colony on Wednesday - our last day in Ushuaia.

We rose early Wednesday morning to book our reservations with Pisa Tours, which departs town at 9am. Several tour groups in the area take boats to the penguineria, but Pisa is the only tour group that allows its passengers to disembark and commune with the penguins. To make sure that the tours donīt interfere with the penguinsī natural nesting habits, only three tours are allowed daily, each of which may include no more than 13 visitors and two guides. Biologists carefully monitor the population, looking for signs of stress.

The trip started with a two-hour bus ride to Harberton, a tiny town - or more precisely, a small cluster of buildings - to the east of Ushuaia. Along the way, Natalia - our Britney Spears look-alike tour guide - narrated an impressive history of the town.

Despite its small size, the town of Harborton has an excellent museum of marine mammals. Jeff volunteers a great deal at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, so the museum workers - who were very impressed with his knowledge of marine biology - offered us a personal tour of the research facility. Adjacent to the main museum building, a staff of volunteer workers piece together and catalog the skeletons of various marine mammals. Behind the musuem is the bone house, where whale corpses are cooked and cleaned to remove the flesh before they are assembled into the museum-quality display pieces.

Impressed - as always - with the local hospitality, Jeff and I left the museum to rendezvous with the rest of the group. We then continued our tour with a 30-minute boat ride to the penguineria. Along the way, we saw hundreds of feeding birds. I was most impressed by the albatros, an incredibly graceful bird that barely flaps its wings as it glides near the surface of the water, riding the winds. Their slender wings can reach a span of more than two meters, and the birds land on solid ground only to lay eggs and raise their young.

At the penguineria, we were greeted by over 15,000 penguins, which bespeckle the entire shore of the island. We quietly disembarked and were instructed to stay on the trails and not to come within two meters of the penguins. As it turns out, maintaining a distance of two meters is often difficult on some of the narrow trails, as the penguins have no fear of the tourists, and often stand very close to the designated route.

The island is dominated by Magellanic penguins, with a very small population of a second species. At the time of our arrival, the chicks were quite mature and just starting to molt their fuzzy grey overcoats to reveal the underlying tuxedos.

Flag tree near Harberton Flag tree near Harberton
Albatross Albatross
Colony of Magellanic penguins Colony of Magellanic penguins
Juvenile Magellanic penguins Juvenile Magellanic penguins
South American terns South American terns
Harberton Harberton
Jeff and I were both enchanted by our newfound waddling friends, and it was difficult to leave the island after the hour-long tour had ended.

Having exhausted the major tourist activities in Ushuaia, we spent the remainder of the day exploring new parts of town - the piers, shops, and parks. Inspired by the goofy penguins, we mingled with the kids in the park, playing on the worldīs southernmost swingset, the worldīs southernmost merry-go-round, and the worldīs southernmost teeter-totter.

Next stop, Buenos Aires. Back to hot days, clear skies, and crowded thoroughfares - about as different from Ushuaia as you can get.

Rob riding the world's southernmost teeter-totter Rob riding the world's southernmost teeter-totter
Cow-hoof yerba mate mugs - one of the tackier souvenir options Cow-hoof yerba mate mugs - one of the tackier souvenir options
Wildlife of the Ushuaia tourist district Wildlife of the Ushuaia tourist district
Martial glacier behind Ushuaia's tourist district at twilight Martial glacier behind Ushuaia's tourist district at twilight
Parting shot of Ushuaia Parting shot of Ushuaia

© Copyright 2005 by Rob Jagnow.