Ushuaia, Argentina is the gateway for sea voyages to Antarctica, but the harbor town at the tip of South America is worth a visit in it own right
By Bob Berwyn
Sipping a Beagle beer at the Banana Bar in Ushuaia, Leigh and I contemplate the trip ahead. If everything we’ve heard about the Drake Passage is true, we figure this may be our last pint for quite a while.
We’re about to board the M/V Professor Molchanov for a 10-day adventure cruise to Antarctica, and the formidable weather of the Southern Ocean is on our minds. Unimpeded by land, the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans all mingle in a circumpolar maelstrom of waves, current and wind. It can be rough — very rough, according to the guidebooks and blogs of previous Antarctic voyagers. Nearly everyone gets seasick during the crossing, we read. Alcohol may not be the best idea, but despite the warnings, we chug the last of our brews and head for the pier.
Our short stay in Ushuaia has been exceedingly pleasant. Ana, Marcello and the rest of the staff at the Posada del Fin del Mundo have made us feel completely at home. On the first day, we share the cozy breakfast nook with several researchers who just returned from Antarctica. We eagerly listen to their stories, hardly believing that soon we’ll be floating among icebergs.
The gritty little harbor town puts on a clean frock for tourists, dressing up its main street with shiny souvenir stands, electronic shops and internet cafés. But what we enjoy the most is hanging out with the many well-behaved and friendly dogs that each patrol a section of sidewalk. Every morning, there’s a parade of canines outside the posada, all wearing collars and purposefully trotting down the street toward some unknown destination or rendezvous. We befriend an especially cute mutt living just down the street for our lodge. He runs the length of his fenced-in yard each time we walk down Rivadavia to reach the waterfront.
Toothy crags decorated with ice form a dramatic backdrop. There are even a few small ski areas near town, including at the Martial Glacier, near the head of a heavily forested drainage just a few miles from downtown. Lupines, Shasta daisies and rose bushes are still blooming in the surprisingly warm maritime climate. Strolling the commercial district and residential neighborhoods, we find a pleasing hodgepodge of houses, from tiny wooden A-frames reminiscent of Icelandic huts, to new wood-framed homes built with brightly painted corrugated metal.
The local martime history museum tells the story of the early explorers who first traveled these waters in their quest to circumnavigate the globe: Sir Francis Drake, Captain James Cook and Ferdinand Magellan are all among the notables who sailed the maze of fjords and headlands of the archipelago at the tip of South America.
After sending a few postcards, we visit a waterfront fishmonger to buy portions of seafood salad studded with chunks of apple. It’s made from king crabs. The spiny, long-legged denizens of deep southern ocean waters are starting to move south closer to Antarctic shorelines as currents and water temperatures shift under the influence of climate change. It’s a first taste, literally, of what we’re going to learn about how global warming is affecting Antarctica, and especially the Antarctic Peninsula, where temperatures have warmed five times faster than the rest of the planet during the past few decades.