Ushuaia – at the end of the world

Of all the places that I have seen over the last year one area, I had my eyes especially set on:

Patagonia.

While doing research, I started to realise
a) how big the area was and
b) that I better catch a flight from Buenos Aires.
The question was where to?

From what I had heard, the top areas where the Torres del Paine National Park on the Chilean side and the mountains, especially Mt. Fitzroy at El Chaltén. Bariloche, another hotspot was in the North and as I was definitely going to travel South-North it wasn’t the smartest to fly in there.

However, another area to visit came up. Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. That reason alone already sparked my interest; however, I hadn’t heard much about the city, other than it being the starting point for many cruises to Antarctica (which as a backpacker you can only dream about).

I started looking into information online and talked to friends I knew who had been.

Eventually, I googled ‘Is it worth visiting Ushuaia’

Why did I do that? Because traveling that far south meant that you would have to travel up north quite a bit and busses in Argentina are not exactly the cheapest, especially not in remote areas.

Not getting to any conclusion (really, why would I form an opinion from other people?), I decided to go.

And I did not regret it.


I’m going to tell you a little about the areas I visited. I’ll tell you the areas I skipped and what my reasons were. I’m not telling you to go, but I want to give you an idea, what this area can offer.



Let me start by saying that the area in ‘Tierra del Fuego’ is very different from Central Patagonia and Northern Patagonia. The climate is rather fresh and even in summer, you have to prepare for temperatures that rather feel like winter.

The area is all about nature and hiking, so if you’re not into that, then maybe look into other places 😉 Ushuaia itself as a city isn’t what I’d call a ‘highlight’ yet the surroundings make the place.

The main natural highlights to visit (except for Antarctica) are glaciers, mountains, lakes and the Beagle channel.

Compared to Central Patagonia, the area will feel a little more ‘barren’ and the glaciers won’t be as sparkling white as, say ‘Perito Moreno’ close to El Calafate (which you absolutely should visit, no matter how touristy. It’s the most beautiful glacier I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a few). However, there is a certain mystical feeling to it, being at this place so far from everywhere else. I felt like exploring places that weren’t overrun by tourists (yet) and very close to nature. It had a basic and ‘barebones’ feeling to it, making you connect with yourself and nature at its basic level.

Staying at hostels was very comfy, like staying in mountain huts, despite being in the city. Everyone goes out for hot chocolate or to stock up on hiking gear. The stores cater snacks and food for hikers and the general atmosphere reflects that. It is for outdoor people (in case you haven’t gotten that by now ;)).

I stayed in Ushuaia for 4 days. I had planned in 1 or 2 rest days as I hadn’t properly hiked in about 2 years and wanted to make sure my body could adapt.

When deciding upon the places to visit, I chose according to a) price and b) exposure to tourism.

That left out a few popular places. The Beagle channel, for example, offers boat tours to a nearby small island with birds. I wasn’t particularly interested and it was a little pricy, so I skipped it. I heard from other people though, that they were happy with the tour. There are many little stands at the port, each advertising for different tours, so just shop around. Apparently, if you arrive right before the tour leaves you might be able to get one of the last spots at a discounted rate (that’s how a friend of mine did it).

The other place I didn’t visit was the National Park. The mini-shuttle bus to reach the park seemed expensive and from what I felt, it was probably one of the most touristy places as it was easy to reach and tours would go and visit. Pictures looked quite nice to me, but nothing I had never seen.


Which places did I actually end up visiting?

My favorite place was probably the least known: Glacier Vinciguerra and Laguna de Los Témpanos

I don’t want to spoil the whole experience for you, but here’s a little idea of what you’ll get to see 😉

When I enquired about the hike at my hostel, they told me, it was a little tricky to find and that just the day before four people had gotten lost on the trail and had to be rescued by helicopter. They did recommend a tour which we declined. Eventually, they said that we would be ok as long as we had the offline map of the trail on maps.me and made sure to stay on the trail (this was the moment that I finally downloaded this amazing app!!!)

Seeing that it wasn’t one of the main tourist attractions, there was no direct bus to the start of the hike, so we’d have to reach it by a combination of bus+walking an extra 7km or catching a taxi.

A friend and I opted for the cheaper version (of course). We had no trouble finding the start of the hike, which was located next to a café. First, you walk through an (extremely muddy) valley and then you ascend the mountain which is marked by a clear sign. Up to this point, it was very easy but after a while of hiking on the mountain, we realized why we needed the GPS. There was hardly any clear ‘trail’, yet rather colorful markers on the trees that you had to look out for and follow. This was sometimes easy, sometimes a little tricky. We did end up going off trail a little but with the help of maps.me and the GPS got back on track. The hike finally ends up at the gorgeous ice-blue Laguna de Los Témpanos with the glacier as its backdrop. Note, that despite it being sunny and warm in the valley it was very windy and cold on top. You can approach the glacier and I saw some people walking on it, yet we didn’t go too far as it started raining. The view was fantastic though, somewhat surreal or from a sci-fi movie, not a ‘saturated’ colorful view but rather a stark contrast between the ice-blue lake and the white and black glacier. Personally, I absolutely loved it and found it pretty unique.

On the way back, we went off trail a little half-way through to go to another smaller laguna that we found on maps.me. That was a nice cute resting point until we decided to head back down the mountain. By that time, we realized that even though the mountain wasn’t overrun by people, the valley now was. It was a gorgeous day and pretty warm, so many local families were hanging out by the river. It would have been a great picnic spot, hadn’t we already devoured all of our food on the way 😉

We managed to share a ride with someone back into town, otherwise, we would have taken taxis that were waiting around.

This is definitely a full-day hike of about 7h, so make sure you start early!

Grab a friend and maps.me and discover this beauty!


Among the other places I visited was the Glaciar Martial right above the city. This one you can easily reach by taxi and walking (if you share the taxi with friends it’s really affordable as the ride isn’t far and it saves you walking up the asphalt road towards the start of the hike). It is probably one of the most-visited areas in Ushuaia and the glacier is very small and not particularly spectacular, however, the view over the Beagle Channel and Ushuaia are extraordinary. Top tip: There will be a trail leading to your left when you descend the mountain. Take it and walk for 10-20 minutes. You’ll be rewarded with a much more panoramic view than from the glacier. Return the way you came and then descend the mountain.




The third place I visited was ‘Laguna Esmeralda’. Again, a rather popular spot but not too overrun. It was easy to reach by shuttle bus (400 pesos return from the bus station next to the harbor). In hindsight, it would probably have been possible to hitch-hike as the road out of town led right next to it.

This hike was about 4h and you walk through marshland towards a blue lagoon. The lagoon itself was unfortunately quite busy with tourists hanging around, listening to music when I was there, however, the walk was very scenic, with an ice-blue gulping river running through the area and majestic mountains as a backdrop.

A final piece of advice: No matter where you go hiking, it will be extremely muddy, so don’t take shoes that can’t get dirty and best, wear water-proof shoes. Always take a raincoat and a wind-proof jacket, as well as a hat and gloves, you might need it, no matter what the weather looks like in town!!

These were my experiences in Ushuaia. I’m really glad I got to visit this little corner of the world and I hope it helped you decide whether it is for you or not. Happy travels!

What 14 months in South-America taught me

I spent 14 months in 2018 and 2019 traveling around the whole continent.

Having ended that trip a couple of weeks ago, I wanted to do a little reflection on what lessons I learned from traveling through these countries. I am glad that I had so many opportunities to live with host families and locals who’ve given me an authentic look into their life.

In no particular order:

Patience

Calling myself a patient person might still be an exaggeration. But there is something about things taking more time, whether that is the bus ride, your friends arriving for a party, the queue at the supermarket or the repairman that was supposed to fix your internet and shows up a week later. It has taught me that life will get things done when it thinks they should get taken care of, not when you personally believe it should be done.

I’m not going to lie, I celebrated the speed of German cashiers when I came back, but I hope this experience will leave a trace of ‘patience’ in me in our fast-paced, ‘time-efficient’ world.


Unusual ways to fix things

This was something I first smirked at, and later highly appreciated. I encountered so many situations where something broke, and instead of quickly proclaiming – ‘That’s it we need to buy a new one,’ I saw people going at lengths and with great creativity to repair things. From what I saw, I got the feeling that people care a lot more about keeping an item functioning and in a good state than simply replacing it with a new one.

Making things from scratch

I’ve always been a person who liked to make food from scratch. I find the ready-made meals and other products full of ingredients I don’t want to put into my body. There are times though when I’m happy to simply get something from the deli, something to take out from the supermarket. That wasn’t the case in most countries in South-America. In most countries, except for Brazil – and surprisingly – Paraguay, there weren’t any deli sections, and you had to make all food from scratch (unless you went out to eat, of course, or went for fast food).

I learned how to make legumes from scratch, having previously mainly purchased them in a cooked form, mostly canned (I really never learned to make them except for lentils before…).

Haggling

This is something I used to absolutely hate! I remember being in Asia for the first time, 10 years ago, and I realized that you had to haggle to get the item for the price you ‘should be paying.’ It was agonizing for me, and I felt ‘betrayed’ and ‘ripped off. These days I’m almost assuming that through a friendly chat, I might be able to get a better price for something, and I’m proud when I manage. I have seen how you can find prices that are fair for both sides, so I now take it as it is (when it’s applicable in a country, of course).

Small talk

Small talk – something I will probably never completely get used to. I can definitely hold a bit of small talk; however, the German in me will always think that it’s so inefficient and not necessary.  I really had to force myself at times, when instead of merely paying and leaving a place, people wanted to chat for a second and ask me questions, make some comments about the weather/what I was purchasing, etc.… I wouldn’t say that I love it, but I have accepted how it can be part of some cultures and that in order to appreciate this culture one might have to work a little on their small talk skills 😉


Being careful of reviews

The last year taught me to be wary of reviews. I always really believed in rating and reviews for restaurants, tours, etc.… and in a way, I still do. However, I realized how a lot of businesses give their customers incentives to leave them with good reviews. Many walking tours I went to, for example, would urge us, in the end, to leave them a rating on TripAdvisor. I was on a tour where we were brought into an office, given wifi, and promised a keychain if we wrote a review right there on the spot. Talking about customers’ honest and unbiased reviews here…

Also, you really have to be careful of people who give you travel advice. Most people do want to see the same things more or less, but you still have different tastes after all. If someone tells me that I absolutely have to visit a city because it’s great and then I find out it’s because it’s great for shopping and nightlife, two things I’m not super interested in, then I’ll not take that review too seriously.  

The importance of family connection

Family time. People here are big on their family gatherings, being with the family as much as possible, even if it means just dropping by for a few minutes to say hi and have a quick chat.

I’ve been brought to bus stations several times after workaways with the whole family standing there, seeing me off. Young adults still live with their parents if there are not married, and it seems very normal. Sundays are for meeting up with your family, having a BBQ, chatting, catching up on the latest gossip…

People were always shocked when they heard about how little I see my family. Also, compared to their families, our extended family would not constantly spend time together as many people live in different places scattered around the country.

I don’t feel homesick most of the time, but it was interesting for me to see how close families can be and how much they depend on each other. Personally, I like how independent I am, and most of the time, I don’t need support from my family, but it taught me that that is not the case for everyone, and it helped me to understand where people are coming from a little better.


Nature can provide you with so many helpful resources

Another thing that especially my workaways (work-exchanges) have told me is that nature provides you with so much more that you could even think of.

At one of my workaway, I learned that there are so many edible plants that we are not aware of, and that could enrich our nutrient intake at no cost (because people see them as weeds, flowers, or grass). When I was in the Amazon, I went on a hike through the forest, and we were shown a tremendous number of different trees and shrubs that had medicinal, nutritious, constructional value (up to ants that smelled like an insect repellant!)


You don’t always have to fly to cover large distances

Flying between South-American countries is expensive. Domestic flights not so much, but still, how could you resist the cheap bus prices as a backpacker?! Where I was agonizing about an 8h bus ride before that feels like peanuts right now. Once you’ve done 20h in a bus and survived, everything else feels ‘fast.’ 

I’m also glad that I can travel without having to pollute the environment so much. My dad had always told me from a very young age (before this was all over the internet), that flying is very bad for the environment.  Therefore I really tried to limit the flights I took over the last year, knowing that I could go by bus to pretty much any place (without cities in the Amazon, that you HAVE to fly to (Iquitos, Peru; Leticia, Colombia; Tabatinga, Brazil..)


I found gratitude for having grown up in a country where recycling is the norm.

I have spent many months walking around areas where I felt that recycling and not throwing trash on the ground/into the river/ocean was not totally ingrained in people’s heads (though I definitely noticed efforts in certain places to educate people!).

This was very upsetting for me, but I also found gratitude that I grew up in an area where I was aware of these issues from a young age. I am proud that I was taught to take a reusable bag with me to a store, always politely refusing the plastic bag that my groceries were supposed to be bagged into. In South-America, I would try and always bring my own water bottle and reject all the single-use plastic cups that were offered to me (I would instead fill up my bottle with water, even at parties, BBQs – I did not want to support the trash!). I always told park rangers who would point out that we were not to throw trash on the ground that I would NEVER think of doing that. It was a given for me to either take my own trash with me and dispose of it later or to take it to a trash can (really not a given in most countries in South-America, sadly…). 

Realising the necessity to speak a foreign language

Whenever I asked Brazilians whether they spoke Spanish pretty much, everyone said ‘no.’ To me, this was shocking as pretty much half of the continent, and 90% of the countries on it speak Spanish. So why wouldn’t people learn it?!

I realized it was about (not) seeing the necessity of learning it. I do feel as if in Europe or at least in Germany, people are more aware of the fact that speaking another foreign language might help them in their future than on other continents. My idea is that we see the need more as there are so many different languages on the European continent. As soon as you start spending your holidays outside your own country, meaning maybe just a few hours’ drive away you’d wish you spoke French, Italian…. Or at least English.

I do think many people realize the need to know English; however, I was surprised that that was the sole focus.



Lastly, I wanted to say that I have felt a lot more shifts in my mindset, and I am going to write more about that once I have acknowledged them fully and seen them manifest outside of my travel lifestyle.

Edit: I’m currently writing on a travel insights series, reflecting on my old (elaborate) Facebook posts and what these thoughts mean to me back in ‘normal life’. You can find the first post here or an overview here.