Ok, if we were hardcore intrepid travellers, our journey to Ushuaia wouldn’t have been as simple as boarding a flight in Salta, spending a night in Buenos Aires and then boarding another flight to Ushuaia. What we would have done is spend days on a southbound bus, or maybe even hitchhiked, all the way to the bottom of the South American continent.
Missing out on seeing a whole lot of wild, virtually empty landscape and a little wildlife isn’t a big issue, with us. Plus, we had a deadline and would be seeing some pretty spectacular landscape soon-after, anyway.
The small, remote city of Ushuaia can be found on the southern coast of Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego, an island that’s occupied by both Argentina and Chile. The island is separated from the mainland by the Straight of Magellan, where the Andes sink into the water and reappear further south as Cordillera Darwin. This is where the Martial Mountains form their dramatic backdrop to the city with the moody Beagle Channel lapping at the front.
The city itself is compact, and its downtown area – which centres around Avenida San Martín – is easily walked from one end to the other. Ushuaia is a popular ski destination in the winter months and a hiking and adventure spot the rest of the year, so it comes as no surprise that outdoor stores saturate the city centre. It actually feels like one big ski resort.
A variety of restaurants, cafes, souvenir stores, bakeries and chocolate stores fill the main drag, and those on a smaller budget will quickly notice how expensive this town is. As was the case, with us. Once accommodation is factored in, there isn’t a great deal left to splurge on meals at parrilla restaurants or go crazy on the local specialty – king crab.
Thanks to the two short-staffed La Anónima supermarkets in town, ingredients can be bought there and assembled in your room or hostel kitchen. At least the beer and spirits at the supermarket are cheap! Remember to bring your own shopping bags, though, as there are none given at the supermarket.
The food scene isn’t all doom, gloom, instant noodles and salami & cheese baguettes from the supermarket, however. There’s still plenty around town that can satisfy the budget traveller.
How about we start with one of my favourites – Dody. It’s difficult to not stop, whilst walking down San Martín, when you spot a shopfront window quite literally filled with glistening, sugar-coated pastries in all shapes and sizes.
This pocket-sized bakery is inexpensive, has no seating and barely enough room for five adults to stand in front of the counter. As much as you’d like to take your time pondering which donut, pastry, dulce de leche or white chocolate-dipped churros to buy, you may be brought back to reality by an impatient staffer that just wants to get on with it.
Dody, Avenida San Martín 857
On the upper streets of town are a few smaller bakeries that cater more to the locals. Not as many tempting baked goodies as the ones downtown, but you can still stock up on breads, pastries and pan dulce – those cylindrical breads studded with dried fruit and candied peel, sold around Christmas.
Two blocks away is their other more modern and better stocked branch which sells sandwiches, as well.
La Verdadera Eureka, Juan Manuel de Rosas 399
Drop into Tante Sara Pastelería on the main drag and be tempted with the stunning cakes they have on display. Alfajores, tarts and many specialty cakes such as this Torta Rogel or another ensemble that involved meringue and dulce de leche. They’re open for brunch on certain days, plus lunch and dinner.
Tante Sara Pastelería, Avenida San Martín 175
As many folk came here for the breakfast buffet, we simply dropped into Marcopolo Freelife for a coffee. The surroundings are bright and modern, there’s a very decent selection of herbal teas displayed up on the counter and the menu features the likes of burgers, sandwiches and soups. The veg, vegan and gluten-free free crowd are looked after here, as well.
Marcopolo Freelife, Avenida San Martín 748
While the only things Irish about this popular watering hole may be the shamrocks hanging from the ceiling, The Dublin sure does pack them in every night of the week. The atmosphere is great, its cosy and it gets pretty damn rowdy.
There’s a selection of imported beers, plus local Beagle beer on tap. The menu is typical pub fare, though the popular choices are the pizzas. Nothing outstanding, just heavy in cheese with thick bases – just as Argentina likes them to be.
Get in early, or it’s standing room only.
Dublin Irish Pub, 9 de Julio 168
With its club-like decor and diner-style menu, Cafe Bar Banana is open from 8am through to midnight with no siesta time during the day. A bit of a rarity in a part of the world that likes to close up business in the middle of the day.
Pizzas, sandwiches, lomitos (steak sandwiches), pasta and burgers and breakfast are just some of the things on the mid-priced Banana menu, and they sell booze as well.
The milanesa (129) is generously sized and served solo; apart from a wedge of lemon and superfluous piece of lettuce. Who needs vegetables, right? This is Argentina, after all. As for the hamburguesa completa (155), it comes layered with a fried egg, some lettuce, tomato and maybe some kind of sauce. Not the most memorable specimen, unfortunately.
Cafe Bar Banana, Avenida San Martin 273
The old school service matches the old school decor in this humble restaurant that’s very popular with the locals. And don’t go thinking there’s anything Turkish about it, despite the name and Turkish character plastered on the front window.
Sit at green tables, on green chairs amongst frilly green curtains and pale green walls and enjoy home-style cooking that features the Argentine usuals of pizza, steak, pasta and milanesa.
Sadly, things like king crab and other seafood were beyond our budget, but my grilled chicken with fries and eggs (150) did me just fine. For something even more simple, a quarter roast chicken (80) may just do it, as well. Lettuce and lemon wedge garnish mandatory.
El Turco, San Martin 1410
Ignoring the fact that they never seemed to be open, the one time we did get into Chicho’s was a very enjoyable one. Specialties of the house are king crab and trout, as pointed out by the very friendly waitstaff, but temptations had to be ignored.
Once again, the menu is typically Argentine with a slight Italian bent. Ravioli with roquefort, anyone?
The pollo al verdeo (140) is to die for, especially that green onion sauce, and the fact that it came with duchess potato balls made it a real treat. I haven’t had these for years!
The suprema maryland (150) is also a winner – generous piece of crumbed chicken with bacon, homemade fries and a whole, crumbed and fried banana. Yes, banana. The creamed corn served separately is like no other. This was like a sweetened milk pudding flecked with corn. Unusual and very tasty.
Chicho’s Restaurant, Pres. Bernardino Rivadavia 72
Step inside this cafe and you get the sense that you’ve entered a vintage railway station. I guess that’s why it’s called “The Wagon”, right? Aside from the vintage pieces, wood panelling, train station signs and rigid booth seating, El Vagón is a place to enjoy a coffee or tea, breakfast, cakes and pastries, pizza and salads. Specialties include a king crab burger and a slow-cooked pork tenderloin – plus several more tempting dishes.
It was the lunch special that drew us in – a very wallet friendly lunch special of milanesa napolitana (155) with fries/salad, drink and tiramisu/flan. Pretty good value, and that tiramisu was seriously good.
El Vagón, Avenida Maipú 773
Aside from eating, drinking and shopping for Gore-Tex jackets and seeking out places that rent outdoor gear, there are other things to do in and around Ushuaia.
Museum buffs can go mad at places like the three-level Tierra del Fuego History Museum – where you can brush up on the history of the region and the people that called it home. Head to the Maritime Museum to see naval models, learn about the history of discovering Antarctica, the first settlers and life in the prison in which the museum is located. The former prison also houses the Antarctic Museum and the Marine Art Museum.
For the great outdoors, there’s plenty to immerse yourself in. There are many companies that can take you cruising on the Beagle Channel – agents can be found all lined up on the waterfront at the commercial port.
Take a ride on the End of World steam train along the winding Pipo River to the edge of the Tierra del Fuego National Park.
Take a bike tour in and around Ushuaia, exploring the city landmarks and surrounding countryside.
Take a walk into the Martial Mountains from the city centre and explore the local countryside – maybe even go as far as Martial Glacier. Follow the winding Luis Fernando Martial road up into the forested valley until you reach the end. The walk takes about 45 minutes from the city centre, but if that’s too strenuous, grab a cab.
Once there, you can drop into La Cabaña Tea House for a pitstop and beautiful outlook into the forest. Tea enthusiasts can also browse the well stocked gift shop after filling up on tea and something to nibble on.
La Cabaña Casa de Té, Luis Fernando Martial 3560
Head over the road and there’s Refugio de Montaña, a small, rustic cafe complete with roaring fire, a menu loaded with pizzas, burgers, salads and drinks, and there’s even free wifi.
The coffee is decent, the homemade empanadas are tasty, and the burger is typical of the region. You can even go zip-lining, if you’re up for it.
Walk further up the trail alongside the chairlift and you can joint another trail that takes you to Martial Glacier. We never made it that far as the weather was closing in and our stomachs needed food.
Refugio de Montaña, Luis Fernando Martial 3551
On the city’s doorstep is the stunning Tierra del Fuego National Park. You can organise a private tour through an agency, or grab a local bus (return tickets ARS$400 p/person) and do it independently. When you reach the park entrance (ARS$210 p/person) you grab a map and jump back into the bus and get dropped off at whatever point you want to start your trek.
There are many trails and walks through valleys, forests, along lakes, waterways and through peat.
All trails are very well marked and signposted and often you’ll see markers indicating what species a tree may be. Sphagnum moss hangs from gnarled trees, bright red ferns poke through patches of native yellow violets and gorgeous dog orchids cluster around tree trunks and roots.
There’s plenty of wildlife around, as well. You just need to keep a sharp gaze. Take a seat on one of the sculptural metamorphic rocks by Bahia Lapataia and you’ll spot diving petrels, black-necked swans, kelp geese and seals grazing in the water. In the nearby marshes and grassy fields there are plenty of upland geese, generally in pairs, foraging for food.