I didn’t mean to end up at the end of the world when I started planning my Patagonia trip. I fully intended to see the largest colony of Magellanic Penguins in world, which is in Punto Tombo on the Atlantic Coast of Argentine Patagonia. By the time I got around to booking domestic flights, however, only Business Class seats were left flying in and out of the nearest airport (Trelew). Determined to see penguins anyway, I researched my way to the penguin colony on Isla Martillo.
Getting to the penguins required a flight from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia. Ushuaia is in the Argentine province of Tierra del Fuego, and is considered the southernmost city in the world. The 10am flight I booked got changed to 4am “due to scheduling adjustments”… so I had to leave my hostel at 2am (and again, arrive at the next one hours before check-in). That said, as I alluded to in my first Argentina post, every cloud has a silver lining (and vice versa) when it comes to travel! My serendipitous choice to fly Latam Airlines and not Aerolineas allowed me to avoid a strike that cancelled all Aerolineas flights that day. I overheard Antarctica-bound travelers talking about Aerolineas passengers who were forced to shell out for new tickets at the airport to avoid missing their cruise! Can you imagine shelling out $10,000+ for an Antarctica cruise, only to be thwarted by an airline strike?! 🙁 This is apparently not uncommon for domestic Argentine airlines, however – something to keep in mind.
After the exhaustion of my 4am flight, I was starting to doubt my decision to go to the middle of nowhere all by myself. As soon as the plane landed though, I looked out the window…and was blown away. (Almost literally – those winds were crazy!) My taxi driver was super friendly and recommended activities for my short stay, pointing out landmarks and grocery stores on the way to my hostel.
I mostly cooked at the hostel (a good way to meet people), but there are two places I would recommend checking out if your stay is as short as mine. Other than the two places I’ve listed below, the town also has several parillas (Argentinian grill) and nice restaurants to splurge on the king crab that Ushuaia is known for.
- Ramos Generales: This cafe/bakery (previously a general store) came highly recommended by the hostel staff the morning I arrived. I told him I desperately needed coffee and a bite, and he encouraged me to drag my sleepy self to do a little exploring. The weather matched my mood – cloudy and damp – but inside the tiny doorway, Ramos Generales transported me to a different place. It was cozy and warm, and looked exactly like what I imagine when I think of a small-town general store from years ago.
At Ramos Generales, I ran into a girl on my flight who was meeting up with someone going to Antarctica with her. They were getting ready to leave as I sat down, so I people-watched by myself for awhile, sipping on a cafe au lait and medialuna. The waitstaff were in no rush, and neither were the patrons. It was a contrast to the bustling big city I had come from, and a welcome day of rest.
- La Cabana Tea House: This life-size doll house is at the foot of the Martial Glacier. My taxi driver from the airport recommended that I do this, since I didn’t have time to go hike Tierra del Fuego National park. I shared a cab with my hostel roommate Clara to have tea here late, after most of the tourists had come and gone.
In the winter time, you can take a ski lift up to the top of the mountain from the tea house. The lift was closed for summer so we didn’t make it to the glacier itself, but we did start our way up the mountain a bit before turning back. It was after 9pm, and we didn’t want to be stuck in the dark on the way back (in the Southern hemisphere summer, Ushuaia doesn’t get dark until like 10-11pm!) We split several decadent desserts from the pastry case that I couldn’t pronounce, and each picked a pot of tea.
A minor victory of not eating out a lot and being alone in Ushuaia was conquering my fear of lighting matches. My first morning at the hostel, someone informed me that the eggs laid out for breakfast were in fact, not hard boiled – you had to cook them yourself! No problem, I thought – I can scramble some eggs… until I realized the gas stove wasn’t self-starting. This is very much a first-world problem, but I’ve always avoided lighting candles with even cigarette lighters. It freaks me out to have my fingers so close to the flame! Some guy, noticing my struggle, showed me where the matches were kept and I watched as he held the fire to the gas, waiting for the flame to catch. I smiled and thanked him, secretly dreading that I was going to have to do that myself for the rest of my meals. Well, spoiler alert: the next morning there was no one around to help me, so I sucked it up and started my own fire. And I did it about 8 more times in two days because the flame would randomly die as I was trying to grill some bread (no toasters) for my sandwich, or boil water to make rice left behind by previous hostel guests.
- Piratour Walk with Penguins + Beagle Channel Navigation: From all my research, I knew there was only one tour operator that takes you onto the island with the penguins – Piratour. The full-day trip involved a yacht (which sounds fancier than it is), a Zodiac (tiny inflatable boat), and then a bus on the way back. You can pay for just the penguin option, which takes you on the bus both ways (no yacht on the Beagle Channel). I think the Beagle Channel leg of the trip was worth every penny! Before booking the tour, I scoured every blogpost and review I could find to make sure my expectations would be realistic… and I’m happy to say, they were absolutely blown. away.
I communicated and booked with Piratour via e-mail, where they provided me with the payment link on their website. It was slightly sketchy feeling at first, but it’s such a popular tour that I trusted it was fine. The instructions were clear, and everyone in the town of Ushuaia knew about Piratour. I was in good hands! At check-in, I paid a port tax and received a badge to wear, designating which of two groups I would see the penguins with. There were probably ~20 people in each group, as to not overwhelm the penguins.
Both groups were together in one double-decker boat on the way there. Two guides, one speaking English and one speaking Spanish, described the animals and landmarks along the way. I mostly stayed inside on the covered lower deck with viewing windows – occasionally ducking outside for a few photos in the wind and cold of the upper deck. Our first “stop” was an island covered in curious animals: they look like penguins, walk like penguins, swim like ducks, but fly like birds. Well, they are birds – cormorants, to be exact!
Next, we saw two different islands full of South American sea lions basking in the sun. It could not have been more picture-perfect! I could only stand being whipped by the wind for so long, but watching them interact with one another was a welcome distraction from the cold.
We saw the sea lions feeding, playing, and swimming in the water, completely unbothered by stray gulls and cormorants around them. On the boat, we were surrounded by gorgeous snowcapped mountain ranges on either side – half Chilean, half Argentine. At one point we came within 50 meters of Chilean Isla Navarino, and I got a “welcome to Chile” text from T-Mobile. As an unsponsored side note, T-Mobile gets a bad rep for terrible service (and it’s true, in some places), but I love that my plan gives me unlimited data and texting abroad. It really gives me peace of mind when I’m by myself in a foreign country!
The last stop point of interest was the Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse, which looked kind of out of place in an otherwise untamed expanse of nature. People aren’t allowed to go inside, but the lighthouse itself is still actually functional! When we finally reached the Estancia Haberton, half the group took off on the zodiac to see the penguins while the other half (my group) we had a little under an hour to get lunch at the one restaurant on the ranch. There was also a tea house, but I went to the restaurant with some women I met. I ordered a cup of coffee and ate the sandwich I packed, which was a great decision because the food was overpriced and didn’t look great. I could hardly eat out of anticipation to see the penguins!
The 15-minute Zodiac ride to the penguins was bumpy but fun, made more exciting by our enthusiastic boat driver and the energy of the group. As soon as we pulled up to shore, I could see the little guys waddling around through the plastic window of the boat! This old German guy next to commented to me somewhat incredulously, “You’ve never seen penguins before? They have them in South Africa!” I’m sure it may have been a cultural difference where he didn’t mean to come off condescending, I couldn’t help but think, my bad for not having been to South Africa…
There are two types of penguins on the island: magellanic, and gentoo. I had read about a pair of King penguins who appeared last season out of the blue, giving locals hope that they would breed and start populating the colony… but alas, our tour guide told us that there was now only one left.. and he is constantly seen trying to cool off in the water and breathing heavily because it’s too hot 🙁 King penguins are the second largest penguin in the world, after Emperor penguins (of Happy Feet fame) – but they are native to the subantarctic islands like South Georgia and the Falklands.
Part of the gentoo mating ritual is for males to woo females with stones, which the females have to accept …sounds kind of familiar, if you know what I mean? Those stones are used to build nests, which we heard them squawking at each other over, quite viciously. Gentoos are also the Michael Phelps of penguin species (fastest swimming in the world)!
Magellanic penguins mate for life – when they return to their nesting colonies during breeding season, the females recognize their mates by their call… it’s like recognizing the voice of a loved one <3 Penguins are too easy to anthropomorphize…
This is really how close we got to the penguins! The rule was we had to stay “3 big steps” away. At some parts where there were a lot of nests in the ground, wooden planks and some rope separated a makeshift walkway through the colony. Our time with the penguins was up and we got back in the Zodiac for a guided tour of the Acatushún Museum of Birds and Marine Mammals back at the Haberton ranch. They have a shocking collection of whale and dolphin skeletons from dead animals that washed up in the Tierra del Fuego area. I asked a zillion questions of the biologists working there and because I’m a huge nerd, and in another life would’ve been a marine biologist!
After learning about the difference between seals and sea lions, different kinds of whales, and the classification of different marine mammals, we loaded onto a bus to take the highway J back to Ushuaia. I honestly have a thousand more photos I could share, but I’ll wrap up the tour with this shot of the famous “flag trees” of Tierra del Fuego from our stop along the highway:
- shopping along the Avenue San Martin – for anyone who might be unprepared for the weather or various activities in Tierra del Fuego, the main street of Ushuaia has tons of souvenir shops and clothing retailers for browsing on a rainy day. I went at the start of their summer, so many shops were having major sales for winter gear. Surprisingly, not many stores sell Patagonia brand gear in the region and I couldn’t figure out why – North Face, Roxy, Columbia, etc. all were more common!
At some point I discovered that part of my Gorillapod became detached and I was devastated I couldn’t fix it (they are not cheap!). The hostel staff made a valiant effort to fix it for me, to no avail. He ended up recommending a camera shop on Avenue San Martin and the store clerk there was able to fix it for me with a special tool! I was so grateful and relived I wouldn’t be carrying around a non-functional, dead weight of a tripod for the rest of my trip!
- Get your passport stamped – at the visitor center by the tourist pier, you can ask to have your passport stamped with a special Ushuaia stamp!
- Martial Glacier: If you’re looking for a short hike with views of the Beagle Channel and Ushuaia, you can take the chairlift up to the base of the glacier in the winter, or hike up from the tea house.
- Tierra Del Fuego National Park: The Laguna Esmeralda hike is one of the primary attractions of TDF National Park, but unfortunately the park is a bit of a drive from Ushuaia. Antarctica Hostel will book charter buses that pick you up from the hostel to go to the park, but it’s really a full-day activity that I didn’t have time for (and I knew I would be hiking a lot in El Chalten).
- Antarctica Cruises: I met several people who were spending time in Ushuaia hoping to catch a last-minute Antarctica cruise deal. As I mentioned, they typically run 1$10-14 THOUSAND USD, so snagging a cabin on a cruise ship that is looking to fill up at right before departure is one of the most “economical” ways to explore the world’s last frontier.
I kept forgetting that I was literally ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORLD, so it stayed light out until almost 11pm! Thank goodness for one of my hostel must-haves (maybe I’ll do a post on this?) – an eye mask. I stayed in a mixed 6-bed dorm at the Antarctica Hostel, and our room faced a window and balcony that looked out to this view:
(PROS): the mattresses here were very comfy (and I didn’t feel like the bunk was going to collapse whenever the top person climbed up. The staff were all incredibly helpful and friendly. Easy walk to grocery store, shopping, and tourist pier.
(CONS): the rooms are upstairs and the showers are downstairs, so you pass by the common areas on your way to/from the shower. Breakfast was interesting – raw eggs, as I mentioned, and weak coffee. But they provided baguettes that I was able to “toast” on the stove and use to make a sandwich for lunch one day! You have to light the gas stove yourself – BUT, it’s a learning experience!
The guests were definitely older on average, compared to hostels in Europe and Canada. The cost of getting to Ushuaia, in addition to its position as a jumping-off point to Antarctica, is probably a main factor – but I don’t consider this a pro or a con. It just depends on what you’re looking for. I’ve always gotten along better with older friends, and I got to hear some amazing travel stories from people much wiser and more well-traveled than I!
I will always remember Ushuaia – the first place I experienced the emotional roller coaster that is solo travel 🙂
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