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Ushuaia: Not Just for Embarkation

Posted August 9, 2011 @ 6:44pm | by TravelWild

by Lyn Cannon, Tour Operations, TravelWild Expeditions

Preconceptions are a funny thing: I’ve noticed they’re almost always wrong!

I’ve been helping people travel to Antarctica for several years.  Our polar expert, Dennis Mense, has been an Expedition Leader on so many voyages that I’m sure he’s lost count. Having been on just about every ship that cruises polar waters, Dennis is an amazing resource for helping people figure out how and where they want to travel and what they want to see when they get there.

Once a client enrolls on a cruise, I guide them through the required forms for each particular ship operator and the preparation for their trip. The variety of questions I am asked is huge. I had a recent opportunity to travel to Antarctica to discover—firsthand—answers to questions such as:  How arduous is the flight? What is there to do when I arrive in Ushuaia? Is a stop-over worthwhile?

Ushuaia, Argentina is the "jumping off" point for most Antarctica cruises

Back to the preconceptions: you know the iconic stories from childhood where you travel back to a place and discover that the “lake” is really a small pond?  Wow, the little town of Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego was like that for me—but in reverse!  For a town that started out as a prison colony (the museum is a must-see), it is very charming.  My impression had been that it was just a little out-of-the-way jumping off place for Antarctic travel.  I’d Google-earthed it and saw how big it was, I’d seen topographic maps and photographs, and I knew there were mountains.  But the reality is fantastic!  The mountains are so close to the town, with just a skirt of treed green between.

Ushuaia is the jumping off spot for a majority of Antarctic cruises.  New Zealand also has a number of cruise departures, but not as many as Ushuaia. I had it in my mind that, other than the locals, everyone would be there waiting to board a ship.

But, ironically, most of the people I saw and spoke with weren’t traveling on to Antarctica.  Rather, travelers from all over the world were in Ushuaia to trek the mountains or to visit Tierra del Fuego.

Almost anything a person could want, from pastries, batteries, meals and general clothing to full outfitting for trekking, skiing or Antarctic traveling, or just souvenirs, can be found along San Martin, the main drag in town.

All of this set along steep hillsides leading right up to sheer rugged peaks decorated here and there with white.

An historic train loops through part of Tiera del Fuego National Park

Another preconception: I’ve traveled to Mexico several times and my Spanish is very basic.  I’ve always reassured myself that at least I can locate a bathroom and order meals.  But what I found in Ushuaia is that just because it’s a Spanish-speaking country, it doesn’t mean the food will be the same!  Although there are a great variety of reasonably-priced empanadas, there are no enchiladas!  Most of the words on the menus were not familiar; I had to do quite a bit of pantomime and pointing, but I didn’t starve.

Jamon (ham) sandwiches are ubiquitous, with jamon crudo being a popular variation.  One little café with a Greek name (we stopped there to get Greek food—just for a bit of variety—but no Greek food) shortened jamon to jam on the menu and, if we’d wanted, we could have ordered a jam and cheese sandwich.  We got quite a laugh out of that.

There are a wide variety of little cafes and pastry shops, as well as full dining rooms.  The original Tante Sara Café has a great atmosphere with a carved dark wood back bar, full menu and lots of tables.  The new Tante Sara is farther east along San Martin, on the same side of the street, and is bright, white and airy, with the specialty being case after case of pastries, along with sandwiches.

Estuary at Tierra del Fuego National Park

I really enjoyed the bus trip to the Tierra del Fuego National Park.  The Rumbo Sur Bus makes stops at all the hotels where people have reserved a tour that morning.  It is a short bus ride to the entrance of the park, and the picturesque little train station was decorated with blooming lupines.

A number of people on the bus tour board the historic trains for a loop through a roadless area of the park, then meet up later with the bus, so the stop at the station takes a while to allow time for the later train rendezvous.  If I had it to do over, I’d take the train trip.  It’s a sweet little train and would be more fun than having extra time at the station.

The gorgeous mountain lake and the platform overlooking the bay at the end of the line were very beautiful.  You can certainly take a taxi or rent a car and spend a more leisurely full day at the park but, being a single traveler, I appreciated the guided tour.  The bus passengers hailed from all over the globe, and many languages murmured in the background.  It was a no-hassle way to see the park for just a half day and still have the other half day to explore Ushuaia.

All this and I hadn’t even boarded the ship yet!

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