Just like Robben Island off Cape Town and Alcatraz off San Francisco sit at a distance from the cities, Ushuaia, the southernmost town in Argentina, is where miscreants were imprisoned and kept at arm's length from the genteel folks of Buenos Aires. In time, the prisoners laid the town's foundations by logging and hauling and building its bridges, streets and buildings. Today, the prison is a museum and Ushuaia is a roaring port city with a population of 70,000. It is a haven for skiing in June and July, a beautiful escape for nature and wildlife lovers, and the setting-off point for those heading to Antarctica, particularly in the summer months from December to February. For those who intent on setting foot in Antarctica, even if they are from New Zealand, (the other launch pad), Ushuaia is the preferred gateway. Most cruise ships set off from here and this is the closest mainland to South Georgia Island and the Antarctic Peninsula, renowned for their beautiful landscapes and abundant marine wildlife. Ushuaia's lively streets bustle with filmmakers, photographers, marine biologists, climatologists, geologists, and adventurers.
Rinky-dink and ramshackle in parts, the first drive through Ushuaia may not beguile the visitor, but when the clear blue ocean and peaked tops of the mountains come into view, its charms are apparent. We stopped to take in the gardens filled with blooming lupins and the adjoining colourful cottages. The Andes, lining up as straight as a vertebra all along the Argentina and Chile divide, suddenly turn east west here, making Ushuaia the only town in Argentina to lie on the other side of the mountains. Rainy, dark winters give way to action-packed summers. Fourteen flights a day arrive from Buenos Aires alone, hauling day trippers on their way south. In the beautiful, warm December days, one each way from Antarctica, we visited the famous prison, explored the bustling Avinida San Martin close to the waterfront and I particularly enjoyed the poignant exhibit of photos, artefacts and films of the indigenous tribes at the Yamana Museum. The native Indians, who lived in these parts have been pretty much wiped out, and little remains of their traditions.
In the peat bogs and choked rivers of Ushuaia were several enormous beaver nests. Brought in by the Canadians decades ago with the intention of tapping their fur, beavers became hugely prolific without any natural predators. River otters, guanacos, red foxes and Magellanic penguins are also part of the rich wildlife here while Andean condors, petrels and albatrosses are seen circling the skies. Tierra del Fuego National Park is few minutes away from the town, a beautiful wilderness where the high Andean steppes meet the lowland beech woods. One can drive through the forest, walk its pathways and camp besides the lakes. We breathed-in the greenery deeply, for the next stop, Antarctica, the land of snow and rock, is devoid of a single blade of grass.
Why visit Ushuaia: It is the best gateway for visiting Antarctica and the islands surrounding it. From May through July, people also come here to ski and explore the forests.
How to get there: Fly to Buenos Aires, then onwards it's 3.5 hours to Argentina's southernmost town.
Where to stay and eat: Ushuaia is bustling with hotels and restaurants along Avinida San Martin.
What to see: The Yamana museum and the Historic Jail and Military Museum.