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Ushuaia, the most southern town in the world

Being so close to the bottom of the world is a special feeling.

Ushuaia, pronounced [Ushuaia’s population of more than 60,000. As Ushuaia is commonly regarded as the “southernmost town,” it leaves Puerto Williams with the title of “southernmost village.”

To the northwest of Ushuaia is the town of Punta Arenas, Chile, which is a third contender for the title. Punta Arenas has a population of over 120,000 which qualifies it as the “southernmost city” in the world.  How about the southernmost settlement in the world? In other words, what is the furthest south any humans have been living continuously for an extended period of time? This would exclude Antarctica which only has temporary settlements comprised mainly of scientists rather than being continuously inhabited.

Reaching the far south on a flight from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, Argentina

Reaching the far south on a flight from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, Argentina

Puerto Toro is a tiny continuously inhabited settlement south of Puerto Williams and also located on Isla Navarino, Chile. Puerto Toro is home to about a hundred people. Amongst them are fishermen, teachers, policemen and sailors who live here with their families.  It has a significant seasonal population during the fishing high season, mainly focused on the extraction of spider crabs. The town was founded in 1892 during the gold rush when the Chilean government wanted to have an administrative colony in this region.

Much further south, just 600 km (370 mi) northeast of the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula is the settlement of Orcadas on the South Orkney Islands. The islands are claimed by Argentina’s province of Tierra del Fuego as well as by the British Antarctic Territory. The Argentine Navy has maintained a permanent base at Orcadas on tiny Laurie Island since 1904. While the current population is less than 50, under the Antarctic Treaty System all sovereignty claims have been frozen as the island lies south of the parallel 60° and is regarded as part of Antarctica. Being a stateless island, Orcadas on the South Orkney Islands should get the title of the “southernmost settlement” while the runner-up is Puerto Toro on Isla Navarino, Chile.

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Ushuaia Town

Now that we have cleared up the titles, let’s get back to the “southernmost town” in the world: Ushuaia.  Ushuaia is located in a wide bay on the southern coast of the island known as “Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego.”  Guarded on the north by the Martial Mountain range and on the south by the Beagle Channel, the town has a sizeable population of more than 60,000.  The first humans to settle in the Tierra del Fuego dates back about 10,000 years when the Selk’nam Indians, also called the Ona, arrived. Their southern splinter group, referred to as the Yaghan or Yámana, occupied the area which now is known as Ushuaia.

British missionaries founded the town of Ushuaia in 1884 and the town’s population slowly grew. However, colonists they spent much of their time building the new town of Ushuaia with timber collected from the lush forest around the town. They also constructed a short railway to transport rock, sand and timber to expand the prison and the town.

Ushuaia, Argentina

Ushuaia, Argentina

The original train was constructed in 1902 and shuffled around on wooden rails with flatbed wagons pulled by oxen. In 1910 a steam engine was brought in and the gauge was widened – presumably with steel tracks. The 1949 Tierra del Fuego earthquake caused a landslide which blocked much of the line just two years after the prison was closed, so gone were the labourers to remove the blockage. The blockage was cleared by non-prisoners but again closed in 1952 due to a lack of money.

In 1994 the line was reopened and upgraded, which included the addition of a brand new steam engine from England. Now known as the “Southern Fuegian Railway” or “End of the World Train,” it serves champagne and dinner to tourists on a few kilometres ride along undisputable labelled as the “southernmost railway in the world.”

Ushuaia, Argentina

Streets of Ushuaia, Argentina

The original jail, which was closed in 1947 by President Juan Perón, today serves as a museum known as the “Museo Marítimo de Ushuaia.“ The most southern museum in the world, we assume! One of the cells known as the Ala Histórica remains almost intact to demonstrate the mysterious and dark atmosphere inside the cells, complete with memorabilia from the last prisoners who lived here.

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Tierra Del Fuego

It is a pleasant day trip into the nearby Parque Nacional Tierra Del Fuego. Established in 1960 and expanded in 1966, the park is well known for its dramatic scenery with waterfalls, forests, mountains and glaciers.  Also look out for several species of mammals, including the guanaco, Andean Fox, and the North American Beaver. Ignore the many European Rabbits as they don’t belong here, and neither do other introduced species such as the Canadian Beaver, the muskrat, the mink and the armadillo.

A pair of European Rabbits was introduced to the Chilean side of Tierra del Fuego island in 1936 and knowing rabbits, they multiplied rapidly. Due to these unwelcome bunnies, the ground in many parts of the park became riddled with holes and some areas became denuded of vegetation.

Black-faced Ibis, Tierra del Fuego National Park near Ushuaia, Argentina

Black-faced Ibis, Tierra del Fuego National Park near Ushuaia, Argentina

Back in 1953 their numbers were estimated to be a whopping 30 million. In an attempt to control them, Grey Foxes, which never existed on Tierra del Fuego Island, were released in 1951. The Grey Foxes and the native Patagonian Fox did not do much to control the rabbit population, so the much feared myxoma virus was introduced which almost decimated the rabbit population. However, there are still plenty of rabbits to be seen within the park.

Among the many species of birds are the Kelp Goose, Upland Goose, Torrent Duck, Southern Crested Caracara, Austral Parakeet, Andean Condor, Blackish Oystercatcher, and the Magellanic Oystercatcher.

Upland Goose, Tierra del Fuego National Park near Ushuaia, Argentina

Upland Goose, Tierra del Fuego National Park near Ushuaia, Argentina

In addition to the fauna and flora, the park is also famous for being the southern terminus of the Pan-American Highway (National Route 3), a highway which runs 3,045 kilometres (1,892 mi) all the way from the nation’s capital, Buenos Aires.

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Beagle Channel

Another pleasant day trip is to explore the Beagle Channel and Lapataia Bay by boat. The channel, named after the explorer Charles Darwin’s ship which sailed here in 1833-34, separates Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego from the southern islands of Navarino, Nueva, Lennox, Picton, and many other smaller islands.  As your boat sails past many islands, look out for breeding colonies of Sea Lions, Imperial Cormorants, Dolphin Gulls, and Steamer Ducks.

Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse, Beagle Channel, Ushuaia, Argentina

Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse, Beagle Channel, Ushuaia, Argentina

Boating along the Beagle Channel, just five nautical miles east of Ushuaia, spot the red and white Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse perched on the most northeastern islet within the group of the Les Eclaireurs Islets.  The 10 m (33 ft) high lighthouse, which is known to the Argentines as the “Lighthouse at the End of the World”, should not be confused with the San Juan de Salvamento lighthouse on the east coast of Isla de los Estados.  The San Juan de Salvamento lighthouse was made famous by the French novelist, Jules Verne, in his 1905 posthumously published novel entitled “The Lighthouse at the End of the World.” In the 1971 movie based on this novel, Kirk Douglas and Yul Brynner played the leading roles of pirates taking over the lighthouse on this rocky island.

Sea lions on La Isla de Los Lobos, Beagle Channel, Ushuaia, Argentina

Sea lions on La Isla de Los Lobos, Beagle Channel, Ushuaia, Argentina

Sea lions on La Isla de Los Lobos, Beagle Channel, Ushuaia, Argentina

Sea lions on La Isla de Los Lobos, Beagle Channel, Ushuaia, Argentina

Sea lions on La Isla de Los Lobos, Beagle Channel, Ushuaia, Argentina

Sea lions on La Isla de Los Lobos, Beagle Channel, Ushuaia, Argentina

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The Martial Range

The Martial Range of mountains just to the north of town offer good ski runs. Taking the Aerosilla chairlift to the top during any time of the year offers spectacular panoramas over the mountains, Tierra Del Fuego Park, Ushuaia, and the Beagle Channel. At the exit of the chair lift is the Club Andino Ushuaia Glaciar Martial has shrunk dramatically over the past century, as is shown in the photographs on display in the shelter’s café.

Up the mountain to Martial Glacier, Ushuaia, Argentina

Up Mountain to Martial Glacier, Ushuaia, Argentina