Ushuaia: Out on a limb in Argentina

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Thirty years after hostilities ended, remote Ushuaia still claims the Falkland Islands as its own. But this city is about far more than military history, says Chris Leadbeater.

A major disadvantage of living out on a limb is the fear that everybody else might forget you exist. Perhaps this – a need to be acknowledged, rather than an urge to rabble-rouse – was the reason why earlier this year the Argentinian city of Ushuaia barred two British cruise liners from using its harbour. Both ships had earlier called at the Falkland Islands, and with the fate of the South Atlantic archipelago a renewed source of Anglo-Argentine dispute, the Ushuaia authorities made the big statement of withholding their gangplanks.

But then, Ushuaia is fond of big statements. Pinned to the lower edge of Isla Grande, the largest of the islands that constitute Tierra del Fuego – the fragmented, mist-shrouded foot of South America – its loudest claim is to being the most southerly city on the globe.

How you judge the truth of this suggestion depends wholly on what sort of urban status you confer upon the (admittedly smaller) Chilean port of Puerto Williams, 20 miles to the south-east across the chilly waters of the Beagle Channel. But there is no denying that, huddled 1,400 miles below Buenos Aires, yet only 625 miles from Antarctica, Ushuaia lies off the beaten path. Or that, in branding itself with the romantic motto "fin del mundo, principio de todo" ("end of the world, the beginning of everything"), it does so with relish.

Most visitors venture to the city ahead of a cruise to Antarctica (voyages that sail directly to the frozen continent have been unaffected by the recent fuss) – though in my case, it is for a four-day jaunt around Tierra del Fuego and out to the lonely full stop of Cape Horn.

And in arriving, I am exposed to another of Ushuaia's grand declarations – the Argentine byword for the Falklands rolling off the pilot's tongue as he announces our landing at the city's "Aeropuerto Malvinas Argentinas". This is an interesting idea – not least because Ushuaia lies 350 miles from these craggy bones of contention. But it is an assertion that the city is keen to repeat. Just beyond the airport car park, a colossal billboard brandishes the provocative legend "Ushuaia, Capital de Malvinas" at anyone travelling in or out.

The cause of this chest-beating becomes clear as I drive into town. Ushuaia was a naval base during the 1982 conflict (the ill-fated warship General Belgrano sailed from here) – and at the end of Avenida Maipu, a large memorial remembers the Argentine dead. It is a solemn sight, the outlines of the two main Falkland outcrops caught in outline, blank space cut from iron panels. Opposite, a sticker glares in the window of a wooden home, "Malvinas" written in black on the pale portion of the blue-and-white Argentinian flag. This week marks 30 years since hostilities were ended on 14 June 1982. Emotions here remain raw.

And yet there is much that is welcoming about a city that deserves a day's attention from anyone booked on a cruise to the last horizon. Ushuaia's prettiness is immediately apparent, its houses daubed a merry mix of reds, yellows, blues and greens – a rainbow rising in defiance of the uniform white that cloaks the streets for much of the winter.

Behind, the Martial Mountains prod the sky, their slopes host to Cerro Castor, the planet's most southerly ski area. On the dockside, sculpted heads celebrate the Argentine icons of Antarctic exploration (including José Sobral, the first Argentine to endure an Antarctic winter, in 1902), eyes staring south – though there is warmth galore on the central drag of Avenida San Martín, where fat chunks of beef spit on the open grill at Parrilla La Rueda.

Ushuaia was founded in 1870 as part of the Argentinian attempt to settle this low ebb of the Latin landmass in the face of rivalry from Chile (the pair would define their limits in the boundary treaty of 1881), but did not hit its stride until it became a penal colony in 1902 – its isolation making it ideal for the incarceration of prisoners far from Buenos Aires.

A century on, its once-feared jail now shelters the Museo Maritimo. Walking in, I can detect lingering hints of oppression, the thick walls and vacant cells seeming to hold the temperature at unfriendly depths. But the exhibits within cast light on the city's past: models of the ships that charted these distant realms (including HMS Beagle, ferrying Charles Darwin to the Galapagos in 1833); the lost faces of the Yamana, the indigenous population whose existence was extinguished with horrible speed by European disease and persecution in the late 19th century; photos of ships wrecked on Tierra del Fuego's sharp teeth, and of the Almirante Irízar, an Argentine ice-breaker that specialises in tearing tankers from Antarctica's frosty grip; panels on the inmates who found themselves cocooned here between 1902 and 1947 – and shamefaced reference to "a time of terror during the Thirties, when at least one or two coffins filed through town every week".

These convicts built Ushuaia's other key tourist attraction – the Tren del Fin del Mundo. Constructed as a way of hauling timber into the growing city, the world's southernmost railway now enjoys retirement as an antique steam line. Running year round, its engines tootle into the forested interior of Isla Grande. Here is a journey of such remote beauty that it may be – for all the bluster over the Falklands – Ushuaia's biggest statement of all.

Way beyond the end of the world

Ushuaia's self-proclaimed status that it is the fin del mundo ("end of the world") prompts a natural question: what lies beyond the port? And the answer is: nature, at its rawest, wildest best.

The Drake Passage can be one of the lumpiest, least pleasant stretches of open water on the planet. It separates the world we know from Antarctica. A clue lies in the title of Apsley Cherry-Garrard's book, The Worst Journey In The World, which chronicles Robert Falcon Scott's heroic failure to be first to reach the world's southernmost point. It begins: "Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised."

The driest, coldest and windiest continent is unfit for human habitation. Settlements in Antarctica remain microscopic for a continent twice the size of Australia: a scattering of small research stations around the edges, with another – the Amundsen-Scott Station – at the Pole itself, 90 degrees south. Yet almost all the tourists who venture south from Ushuaia to Antarctica deem it worthwhile: where else are you likely to see an iceberg the size of Terminal 5 drift by, and then land on an island teeming with millions of penguins? The seas and shores of the region comprise one of the most prolific parts of the planet for wildlife, particularly birds: albatrosses, petrels, fulmars, shearwaters and prions are numerous, especially in the sub-Antarctic islands.

About 50 vessels are licensed to operate in Antarctic waters, ranging from small expedition craft, with a few dozen passengers, to larger cruise ships carrying many hundreds. Shore landings are made using rigid inflatable boats ("ribs"). The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (iaato.org) specifies that no more than 100 passengers may go ashore at a time, which can prove frustrating if you are on a larger vessel – though these tend to be cheaper.

A basic 10-day trip from Ushuaia costs about £4,000, including all meals. To this you need to add about £1,500 for the air fare from the UK to Ushuaia. Almost all visits are made between November and March, which corresponds to May to September in the north. Unlike cruises in the far north, which routinely sail well inside the Arctic Circle, very few expeditions venture as far as the Antarctic Circle.

Typically, it takes two days to cross from Ushuaia to the Antarctic peninsula, the arm of land that curls up towards the southern tip of South America – a trip of about 700 miles. Given the uncertainties of weather, you should not set your heart on setting foot on the Antarctic mainland. The broadest definition of Antarctica includes sub-Antarctic isles such as South Georgia, and many Antarctic islands including the South Orkneys and the South Shetlands.

Exodus (0845 863 9668; exodus.co.uk), Explore (0845 163 4498; explore.co.uk) and Hurtigruten (0844 310 1996; hurtigruten.co.uk) have excellent polar programmes, while Discover the World (01737 218802; discover-the-world.co.uk) and Journey Latin America (020-8747 8315; journeylatinamerica.co.uk) offer a range of Antarctic options.

SIMON CALDER

Travel essentials

Getting there

The only airline with a non-stop link from the UK to Argentina is British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), which flies daily from Heathrow to Buenos Aires. Other links to Buenos Aires are operated by Aerolineas Argentinas, Iberia, and Air Europa via Madrid; the Brazilian airline, TAM via Sao Paulo; and a range of American carriers via US hubs. Flights from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia are operated by LAN (0800 977 6100; lan.com) and Aerolineas Argentinas.

Visiting there

Cerro Castor (00 54 2901 499 301; cerro castor.com). One-day lift pass: A$186 (£27). Museo Maritimo, Calle Gobernador Paz (00 54 2901 437 481; museo maritimo.com). Daily 9am-8pm; A$70 (£10). Tren del Fin del Mundo, Ruta 3 Km. 3042 (00 54 2901 431 600; trendelfindelmundo.com.ar). Returns A$155 (£22).

Eating and drinking there

Parrilla La Rueda, Avenida San Martin 193 (00 54 2901 436 540).

Cruising there

Cruceros Australis (00 34 93 497 0484; australis.com) has three- and four-night cruises around Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia. Departures in September 2012 from US$944pp (£594), full board, based on two sharing.

Staying there

Hotel Albatros, Avenida Maipu 505, Ushuaia (00 54 2901 437 300; albatroshotel.com.ar). Doubles from US$171 (£108), room only.

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