Penguins, Canoes and Off Roading through Nature.
Ushuaia, Argentina. Also commonly known as the end of the world. It draws travellers keen to visit the very furthest tip of the South American continent. It’s also a jumping off point for expensive excursions to Antarctica and the nearer (less expensive) penguin island colonies. Surrounded by snowcapped mountains and deep green forests it is the perfect place for exploring some of the most remote natural landscapes in the world.
Getting Away From It All.
While we envisioned a remote outpost with a few windswept houses, there was in fact a fully functioning high street. This was complete with all the shops you’d expect to find back home. We wanted a more remote experience (we’d come this far!) and so decided to book a boat tour that day via Catamaranes Canoe Adventures, out to the penguin colony we’d heard so much about.
Sailing the Beagle Channel.
Setting off in the afternoon we boarded a large ship named Elisabetta, with a hundred or so other penguin seekers. It was comfortable and decked out with all mod cons and huge windows. The friendly trilingual guide on board told us what to expect, where we’d be going and what we’d see. Our route would take us up the famous Beagle Channel (named after Charles Darwin’s ship). Then through various islands until we found the infamous penguins.
Soon we came across a small colony of seal lions and fur seals looking pretty miserable. Huddled up together for warmth on a black windswept craggy rock. These guys got the short straw in the game of evolution. Half dog half fish – probably the most unsuited combination of genes on the planet. A few of them wobbled off the rock looking for fish and in turn gave us a cool show in the water. It’s here where they really excel and you suspect they resent having to live on land at all.
We pressed on and came to another island with thousands of huge black and white cormorants. They looked like they were having a better time of it. Surprisingly for its size the boat managed to get up pretty close, almost on shore. Most of the birds didn’t give us a second thought.
Where Oceans Meet.
Our guide explained that we were now cruising on an international land line with Chile on one side and Argentina on the other. They’ve had ongoing territorial disputes for years and every piece of land was hard won and is now closely guarded. There’s a small lighthouse that sits on top of another craggy rock. This marks where the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans join. We left the channel and soon reached the penguin colony on Isla Martillo. There were thousands of the little fellas all shuffling along in their comical way. Again the boat almost beached itself on the island. Instead of running away the penguins approached with their chests puffed out proud. Obviously used to this kind of intrusion.
Three types of penguin live on the island, the Gentoo, Magellanic and King. There were countless of the first two but only one solitary King. He was head and shoulders taller than the others and stood at the back of the colony quietly observing. We spent a good 15 minutes or so watching them play, swim and chatter amongst themselves. The boat then had to begin it’s return journey up the channel. We stayed on deck as we departed but had to retreat inside from the icy wind. On the way back we kept our eye out for humpback whales, known to frequent the channel at this time of year.
Prince of Tides.
Unfortunately we didn’t spot any but were happy enough that we got to see so much else on the trip. In fact just being on a boat ride in this remote part of the world was pretty special. The mountains and landscape all around are breathtaking in themself. It isn’t cheap at around $70USD per person for the cruise, but then nothing is in Tierra Del Fuego. If you make it this far down the continent, cruising the beagle channel is a must see and the penguins make it all the more worthwhile.
Going Off Road.
After our day on the seas we were ready for some land based activity. We arranged a 4×4 excursion with local company Tierra Tours that would take us off road into forests, past lakes and up mountains. This was to be combined with canoeing and a gourmet lunch including traditional asado (Argentinian BBQ). Franco our amiable local guide picked us up from our hostel in his new Land Rover and we headed out via Ruta 3, the only way in and out of the city.
He talked us through the itinerary for the day. Our first stop was a small secret track next to a forest where he introduced us to some of the natural wild plant species native to the area. We also caught our first glimpse of the huge hawks that breed in the forest. We could tell he was incredibly passionate about the natural habitat and was keen to share his knowledge with us.
Cross Country Views.
We soon stopped again, this time on the side of a huge cliff overlooking the incredible Lago Fagnano. Here we could see for miles down the valley and across all the way to the Chilean mountains. Shortly after we arrived at the side of a wide lagoon where there were a number of canoes waiting for us. The lake was crystal clear and as flat as a mirror. We spent a good 40 minutes exploring the surrounds, spotting wild horses and generally soaking up the natural beauty and wilderness. It was unbelievably peaceful and quiet, again reminding us of the reason we’d come this far south on the continent.
Kicking it into Gear.
We pressed on and without warning suddenly veered sharply off the main road onto a muddy track. This is where he kicked in the 4×4 and we started to get into the adventure. At points it felt like we might tip over due to the angle we were driving at. We weaved through the mud, up stony paths and through ditches before coming to a halt at a tall vista looking over the lake. Here we enjoyed a traditional Argentinian mate ritual. You take a sip of a hot bitter tea like drink from a special cup and pass it along. Everyone has a go and then it’s refilled by the host and you start again. I can’t say it’s especially tasty (an acquired taste I’m told) but it was good to try, and the view couldn’t be beaten.
The 4×4 was covered with mud so it needed a bath. We skidded down the hill and powered into the lake until the water almost reached the windows. We drove through the water along the shore until Franco deemed us sufficiently clean.
Finding Our Secret Cabin.
We needed to dry off so drove at speed along the shoreline and then into the forest until we came to another secret track. We got out and walked for a few hundred meters until we found a wood cabin located deep in the forest interior. This was a private property and used exclusively for guests of the tour. Out of nowhere Franco produced the ingredients for our gourmet lunch. We were to have a full Argentine BBQ (Asado), cheese, salamis and several bottles of Malbec. He told us there were over 20 bottles of Malbec stashed in the woods and only he knew where they were.
The guests took a seat inside the cabin which was now toasty warm thanks to the smoking log fire. Food was served shortly after and we tucked into a welcome platter of cheeses and salamis. Then came the asado. Thick cuts of fillet steak and choripan sausage piled up in front of us. There was more than enough to go round and we took our time getting through most if not all that was put in front of us. Washed down with the delicious Malbec wine it was the perfect end to an incredible day getting to know the lesser known side of Ushuaia.
Food Coma Napping.
Stuffed and sleepy we walked back to the car and most of us fell asleep, gently woken up as we arrived back into town outside our hostel. Saying our goodbyes was hard as the group was so much fun and Franco the guide had been amazing. If you’re heading to Ushuaia this is a must do day activity and will show you something totally different that’s rarely discovered by most travellers here.
How We Did It.
Bus Puerto: Natales – Ushuaia (12hrs) $60 USD
Ushuaia Hostel – Antarctica Hostel – Awesome place with friendly vibe and great facilities. Dorm room $29 USD.
Penguin/Beagle Channel Cruise – Canoeoe Adventures – Book online through Hotel Yamanas website or in person at their booth down at the port. Beagle Channel Cruise approx $70 USD.
4×4 Landrover Day Tour Adventure – Tierra Tours – Fantastic tour company run by knowledgeable locals that know the area well and will show you the real Ushuaia off the beaten track. Day tour with full activity program and traditional Argentinian BBQ approx $100 USD.
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