After two months in Argentina, I finally made it to Ushuaia, and the town quickly became my favorite destination in the country. Here’s a list of my top things to do in Ushuaia, some of which I did, and some of which are on my bucket list for when I return.
Best Activities to Do in Ushuaia, Patagonia
Along with Iguazu Falls, Ushuaia is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Argentina. Unlike Iguazu, there’s not really a bad time to visit Patagonia. There are plenty of things to do in Ushuaia for every season of the year. We went down at the end of October, which was after the winter sports and before the high season of summer. We had a great time and quickly learned that four days wasn’t nearly enough time.
4×4 Excursion to Lago Fagnano
Most people head straight to Tierra del Fuego, the end of the world, when they reach Ushuaia. However, there are plenty of attractions in the opposite direction, heading northeast of the city. Specifically, there are quite a few large lakes to see, one of which is quite the hike, and others you can visit on a 4×4 excursion.
One company offering such excursions is Tierra del Fuego Aventura. Vanesa and I went on the Off-Road Lakes Tour. The basic itinerary is passing through the Carbajal Valley, stopping at Paso Garibaldi for an incredible viewpoint, splashing along a logging trail to Lago Fagnano, and having lunch along the shores of Lago Escondido before heading back to Ushuaia.
Starting the Tour
We were picked up from our aparthotel Isla Bonita Suites at 8:30 in the morning. Unfortunately, most of the cafes aren’t open at that time, but we found coffee and breakfast at Tante Sara. We picked up one more person and then got on our way.
We drove out of Ushuaia and past the husky farms popular during the winter season. The hike to Laguna Esmeralda was behind one of the husky centers, but that wasn’t part of our excursion. At the end of the Carbajal valley, before we started up into the Andes, we stopped for a photo and drone opportunity. I just loved being surrounded by snow-capped mountains, although I would have preferred it if everything had been covered in snow.
Paso Garibaldi Viewpoint
As we continued up into the Andes, we made a brief stop at a small waterfall where I could drink some refreshing, ice-cold mountain runoff. Our guide Sergio told us about the flora and fauna in the region, specifically the lack of predatory animals. That lack has led to a catastrophic overpopulation of beavers, fifty of which were introduced in the 1940s. Now, entire forests are dead stumps due to diverted rivers from beaver dams.
At a certain point, with almost a perfect line across the mountains, the trees stopped. Above that was a high desert. Most people don’t realize deserts aren’t always hot. While the Sahara is the world’s largest desert, Antarctica is by far the biggest desert in the world. In Patagonia, the mountains are topped with deserts (aka alpine tundra) and very little grows there.
We didn’t make it as high as the tree line before we reached Paso Garibaldi, the peak of the highway. It’s the one time the Pan-American highway crosses the Andes. From the lookout, we had an amazing view of Lago Escondido (the secret lake) stretching into the distance. After several selfies and a drone flight, we began our descent down to the lakes.
At the end of the lake was an old sawmill. When the mill closed a few years ago, the adventure companies in Ushuaia took over the upkeep of these roads, regularly clearing away fallen trees. We took one of these roads down toward Lago Fagnano. It had been raining a couple of days before and many parts of the road were rather large puddles…which of course was the best part of the 4×4 excursion!
What I thought was a 4×4 turned out to be more of an ATV. Sergio barely slowed as we splashed through the puddles. The mud was slippery and some of the branches and logs came incredibly close to the truck, but we just kept on going. Eventually, I jumped out so I could follow behind with the drone to get some amazing footage.
A little over halfway along the road, we stopped in a clearing a little ways up the mountain for a tea and pastries break. In Argentina, drinking maté is quite the ritual, but not something I particularly enjoy (it’s usually served too hot). Thankfully, we had the option of maté, coffee, or tea. I went with tea and a couple of delicious Argentinian pastries.
Sergio had one more treat for us. We went back down to the lake, and then into the water! It’s shallow enough for the 4×4 to get several feet out into the lake. Lago Fagnano really is beautiful, stretching over 60 miles east to west into both Argentina and Chile.
Lunch by Lago Escondido
Our last stop on the tour was at La Casona 2 on the shores of Lago Escondido. The menu was full of regional Argentinian dishes. We started off with several delicious empanadas. For the main course, Vanesa and I shared a lamb stew and a bowl of gnocchi. For dessert, we had banana bread topped with dulce de leche. All very local fare.
Finally, we made our way back to Ushuaia. The tour lasted about six and a half hours and is available all year round. I’d love to take the tour in the winter when everything is covered in snow. Sergio described how the truck slips a bit more on the ice, but that just adds to the adventure in my book.
Climbing up Martial Glacier
As mentioned, Ushuaia is surrounded by snow-capped mountains. Just behind the town is a trail leading up to three glaciers high in the peaks, collectively known as Glacier Martial. There are different stages of the hike, and if you make it to the summit, you’ll get some breathtaking views.
Hiking to the Glacier
The first segment of the hike is from the town center to the bottom of the old chairlift. Just before the Altos Ushuaia Hotel and Resort, there’s a trail that leads up through the forest. This segment takes about 40 minutes at a comfortable pace. If you want to skip it, you could just hitchhike or take a taxi from the center. At the time of our visit, the taxi ride was about $3. Tierra del Fuego Aventura also has a Trekking to Martial Glacier package.
The second segment is from the bottom of the chairlift to the top. Unfortunately, the chairlift was decommissioned several years ago, so no skipping this part of the hike. It’s not really that bad of a hike, taking maybe 20 minutes. You also have two routes – up the stony road or through the forest. We went through the beautiful forest going up and then descended on the other path.
From the top of the chairlift, it’s only another 10 or so minutes to a flat area where some benches are set up with a great view of the glacier. You can take a break here for a snack, or even consider this the end of your hike if you don’t want to go up the hardest part.
The final stage is a switchback trail up the side of the mountain to the glacier itself. Depending on what time of the year you’re visiting, this segment could be very difficult. We arrived in the middle of spring, and there was still quite a bit of snow on the ground. We started up the final segment, but when the snow got too deep, we ended up turning back. Getting to the top will have to wait until the next time we visit Ushuaia.
Lunch at the Tea House
Where the road ends (between the first and second segments of the hike) is a collection of businesses including a restaurant, a fancy hotel, and La Cabaña Tea House. The tea house was very cute, built to look almost like a tree house with wooden walkways leading to it, and native artwork decorating the building and surrounding trees.
Vanesa and I were famished after our hike, so we decided to stop at the tea house for lunch. Well, the idea was to get lunch, but the pastries there just looked amazing. Instead of being responsible and eating something healthy, I had a hot chocolate and a Bailey’s cheesecake, and Vanesa had a smoothie and a layered dulce de leche cake. Everything was divine!
From there, we shared a taxi back into town, splitting the cost with a couple of Israeli guys. I would absolutely recommend a hike up Martial Glacier as a key activity in Ushuaia, but it does require being in relatively good shape, especially if you plan to go all the way up to the top. And reaching the summit isn’t possible in the winter unless you have proper hiking gear for the snow.
Hiking Tierra del Fuego
You can’t fly to Ushuaia and then not hike through Tierra del Fuego National Park. It’s about as close to the end of the world as you can get, without spending several thousand dollars to get down to Antarctica (still definitely on my bucket list someday).
How to Get to Tierra Del Fuego
There are a lot of tours to Tierra del Fuego, including another excursion with Tierra del Fuego Aventura, or you can take the Train to the End of the World. If you want to save a bit of money, there’s a local shuttle van leaving from a shack near the YPF gas station in Ushuaia. Our tickets were $15 round trip to the national park, which included the entrance fee to the park ($11 for foreigners and $3 for nationals).
The local shuttle bus has five stops in the park. The first is close to the entrance where you’ll find the post office at the of the world. The second stop is at the National Park visitor center. The third and fourth stops are different viewpoints, and the final stop is at the end of the road. More specifically, it’s the end of the Pan-American Highway, which starts in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, and meanders 18,640 miles south through the Americas to where we stood with only two gaps (the Darién Gap and a short ferry ride not far from Ushuaia).
Hiking Through the National Park
We got off at the last stop. After some photos at the sign, we walked down the boardwalk to the shores of Bahia Lapataia, the southernmost hiking point of Argentina. Just a week earlier, we had been over 2,700 miles north on the border of Argentina and Bolivia (almost the northernmost point in the country).
From the bay, we hiked back to the visitor center for a nice lunch. That part of the hike was nearly two miles and took about an hour. After lunch, we hiked further north to the shores of Lago Acigami. There, we found a very curious fox posing for photos as he hunted for scraps from the many tourists. It definitely took the attention off the lake, but the lake was beautiful too.
Finally, we decided to hike to the first bus stop where the post office was. The trail is over 5 miles long and took well over two hours. Vanesa was absolutely exhausted by the time we made it to the parking lot. I would have loved to send a postcard from the post office at the end of the world, but it was Sunday so of course it was closed.
After waiting several minutes, she got a bit worried that the bus wasn’t coming to pick us up, as there was no schedule posted or anything. But eventually more people showed up for the van, and just before the park closed, we were picked up and brought back to Ushuaia.
Sailing to the Islands
The second excursion we did after we arrived was a catamaran cruise around the islands to see the wildlife and the lighthouse. We found numerous tour centers along the main street of Ushuaia, but then discovered it was cheaper to go to the pier and purchase directly from the sailing tours. Also, the cruise companies give a nice discount if you pay in cash. Our 3-hour tour was about $22 per person with cash.
The cruises typically last about two hours. It was very similar to our cruise in Seattle’s Puget Sound or my Hamburg Harbor Cruise, with a guide describing all the sights as we passed by. Thankfully, unlike many other tours I’d taken across Argentina, the guide was bilingual, and gave the information in English!
The first few islands were covered in cormorants, which look vaguely like penguins. We were hoping to see the penguins too, but they didn’t come until the summer months. One of the islands had a small group of sea lions sunbathing on the rocks.
Our next stop was Isla Bridges, where a trail led to a viewpoint in the center of the island. I think there’s usually a lot of wildlife on the island, but not when we went. It was also extremely windy that day, and not easy to enjoy the viewpoint. On the shore was a replica of a shelter from the Yaghan, the indigenous people who lived on the island. I was just glad they only let one catamaran disembark at a time. It was crowded enough with the several hundred people from our boat.
Finally, we passed by the Lighthouse of Les Eclaireurs. It’s a small one, perched on an equally small island at the east end of the archipelago. Near the lighthouse, the sunken ship Monte Cervantes has lain since 1930. Sadly, scuba diving to the wreck was not part of our tour. if you want to see a shipwreck, there’s another one on the beach in Ushuaia.
Ushuaia City Train
As the boat tour is only a half-day excursion, we had time for another activity on the same day. There’s a double-decker bus tour around Ushuaia, but instead, we found the Ushuaia City Train…which isn’t a train. It’s another bus tour where the bus looks like a train, and also a bit like a prison.
It’s an hour-long tour around town and stops at two viewpoints for photos, one by a small pond in a beautiful residential neighborhood, and the other on the hillside overlooking Ushuaia for some great photos of the town and surrounding islands. The tour was only a couple of dollars for each of us, and it was a great way to get to know the town.
Activities in Ushuaia for Our Next Visit
We very quickly learned that four days in Ushuaia wasn’t nearly enough time. With every excursion taking up an entire day (except for the boat tour and city bus), we didn’t have a lot of time to explore the city. Some of the other excursions and activities to do in Ushuaia we missed include:
Galería Temática – Historia Fueguina
This is a historic museum for the natives. It’s strange that it doesn’t show up on Google maps as a museum or even an attraction, but it covers a lot of the history of the region with visual depictions (not just information boards).
Maritime and Prison Museum
This museum is certainly applicable as Ushuaia was originally set up as a penal colony. We just didn’t have a moment to squeeze it into our itinerary.
A Full-Day Cruise to See the Penguin Colonies
We were actually planning to do this tour but the day we had scheduled for it, we were told the wind was too strong to get to the colony. Also, we learned that very few penguins had arrived yet. This excursion is better to do in the summer months.
Taking the Tierra del Fuego Train to the National Park
We considered taking the train but found it was a little overrated, and a bit pricy too. It turned out the local van was a great way to the national park, but taking the Train to Tierra del Fuego is still an iconic, bucket list item for the region.
Hiking to Laguna Esmeralda
This is another one of the most popular excursions in southern Patagonia, but it just didn’t fit into our schedule. We’ll have this hike at the top of our list the next time we visit Ushuaia.
I was really looking forward to teaching Vanesa how to ski while we were in Ushuaia. Sadly, we just missed the winter season and the ski resorts were closed. Granted, we saw dozens of skiers up on the glacier, but they had their own gear and they were willing to hike to the top without the use of a ski lift. If you’re visiting in the winter, make sure to have skiing on your itinerary.
Riding a Sleigh with the Huskies
This activity might not be for everyone, but I love huskies and I’d love to ride a sleigh with them across the snowy tundra of Patagonia in the winter months. At least I got to pet a husky puppy at one of the restaurants while we were having lunch.
Attend the Gastronomy Festival in October
I found out we missed the second-annual gastronomy festival in Ushuaia by just a couple of days. As someone who loves food (and is a food tour guide in Edinburgh), I would have loved to have been there for that festival. I’m assuming it will be every year around mid-October.
Obviously, I’ll be back in Ushuaia someday to hike the rest of the way up Martial Glacier and to Laguna Esmeralda, see the penguins, ski, visit the museums, and do all the other activities I missed in Patagonia. Good thing Vanesa is Argentinian and needs to return regularly to visit her family.
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