Leaving Antarctica we started heading back north towards the South American mainland. As we did so however we arrived at the unpopulated area of Tierra del Fuego as our first landfall. Here we were met with a brutal, unforgiving and unprotected landscape that had a single lighthouse perched exposed to the elements.
High on the hill, up from the lighthouse is the Monument to the Albatross. The monument is a large sculpture featuring the silhouette of an Albatross in honour of the sailors who died while attempting to ’round the Horn’.
It has been estimated that 10,000 lives and 800 ships have been lost in this region alone.
It was erected in 1992 through the initiative of the Chilean section of the Cape Horn Captains Brotherhood.
From the outcrop we continued through the Beagle Channel past some of the most amazing arctic landscapes that you will ever find. We were headed west towards the southernmost city on the planet, Ushuaia, Argentina.
Ushuaia has a population of around 82,000 and sits below 54 degrees south latitude. The name is derived from a native word meaning “bay towards the end”. The city sits on the bay and is surrounded on the north by the Martial mountain range and on the south by the Beagle Channel.
The area had been inhabited by indigenous people for more than 12,000 years. It was first encountered by a European in 1520 when spotted by Ferdinand Magellan. Even after Argentina achieved independence, this territory remained under indigenous control until the 1870s. European immigration followed due to a gold rush and rapid expansion of sheep farming on large ranches in the area.
With so many maritime deaths and such hazardous wind and ocean conditions it is unsurprising to find a naval station in Ushuaia and a heap of statues dedicated to the lost souls of mariners who have perished in these waters.
The people are friendly and the welcome is authentic. A smallish town with some very odd choices of architecture, given the temperatures that are about. I was very surprised to see tiny little houses made of corrugated iron. Some had the steep roofs that you would expect but others just seemed out of place, especially when the Martial mountain range, with its snow-covered peaks, loomed everywhere.
Along with being the southernmost city on the planet, Ushuaia is known as the launching point for two main forms of adventure tourism. These are the many Antarctic Cruises (noting that only ships of under 300 people can get onto the ice) headed south and the many motorcycle tours headed north through Patagonia. So arrival here will see a bunch of both boats and adventure tourer motorcycles.
I must say that my original plan was to ride through Patagonia on motorcycles, but if this is the summer temperature, then I might rethink that plan. On the flat at sea level the wind is brutal and the temps are chilling. I can only imagine what they would be like on some of the windy and icy mountain passes.
And of course, in this part of the world, you will see your fair share of albatrosses. With 11 foot wingspans, they are the master of gliding and picking up wind currents. We watched some soar for over 20 minutes without a single flap of their wings.
In the Beagle Channel, there are several small islands that are inhabited by a range of seals, cormorants and penguins. And there are tours operating daily that will happily take you out to get your fill of photographs.
As has become a thing for us, we took note of some of the very cool street art that is dotted around the town. It really is a way of adding interest to otherwise drab walls and when done well can be an attraction in its own right.
The refreshing thing for us about being in Ushuaia (as it has been throughout Argentina) was the pricing. Things are not obscenely priced. Being so remote we expected to be destroyed on the prices being charged but were very pleased to find that a beer could be obtained for as little as $1.50 and $10 would get you a meal as well.
For about $22 there was an all you can eat crab and lamb shack. The lamb was on racks, roasting over open fires while the smell and smoke filled the air. But having been on a ship, this sort of eating was unnecessary, even if incredibly tempting.
We were here in the height of summer and the place maxed out at about 8 degrees Celsius. This was a once in a lifetime style destination and while it was nice, I cannot see us making our way back here anytime soon.