Ushuaia - Walks in the Fuegian Andes

Getting There

Many years ago when we lived in France, one of our favourite television shows was "Ushuaia" - a show about extreme adventure that was named for this city that symbolises the extremities of geography. Ever since, we have always wanted to come here one day; that day had arrived.

It is a long trip by bus from El Calafate to Ushuaia. We were up in the very early hours of the morning to catch the 3am bus to Rio Gallegos; the only time that linked in with the once daily bus departures to Ushuaia. A bite of breakfast in the Rio Gallegos bus terminal and we were on our way again heading south to the southern tip of the South American continent over the open grasslands of the Patagonian steppes; their emptiness broken by the odd flock of sheep, herd of guanacos or a few nandus poking about amongst the grassy tussocks. Ten hours, two border crossings and one ferry crossing later, the landscape was still the same as we headed south across the steppes of Tierra del Fuego.

Finally, it began to change as we entered undulating hills covered in increasingly dense beech forests to reach the impressive snow caps of the Fuegian Andes, the last bastion of this incredible range of mountains.

Following the long valley of Lago Fagnani upwards, we crossed the mountains via a pass above the western end of the lake and descended to Ushuaia, the most southerly city in the world, in its beautiful setting between snow-capped mountains and the sea - it was 9.30pm and the sun was still shining and it had been a very long day.

The Fuegian Andes - southern end of the mighty mountain chain

Images of Ushuaia in its beautiful setting

We had arrived too early in the season to do any overnight treks - snow still lay deep on the passes of the mountains - but you can still get a feel for the Fuegian Andes with well-chosen day walks from Ushuaia. This was the path we took.

Glaciar Martial (6km - 450m ascent - 450m descent)

The quickest way to get a feel for the higher parts of the mountains is to visit Glaciar Martial, a ski area only a few kilometres from town. We caught a taxi out and the chairlift up through the lenga and ñire forest to a large snow-filled bowl below the glacier and surrounding peaks. Here the mountains may only reach 1400m, but they still have the same impressive rugged form of the much higher parts of the Andes far to the north. We set off walking and were soon crossing our first snowdrifts. The track led up a narrow morain, covered in the last low beech trees before the tree-line, for a few hundred metres to emerge onto a grassy bowl with its deep drifts.

Cara cara

Crossing the drifts of Cerro Godoy

We turned eastward and soon were crossing these drifts to traverse upwards around the loose slaty surface of Cerro Godoy to a lookout on its southern slopes, the bright green new foliage of the lenga forest below us. The views out over the town of Ushuaia and the blue waters of the Beagle Channel towards the snow-lined ridges of Isla Navarino were superb, while further west the mountains in the Chilean part of Tierra del Fuego appeared even more jagged than those around us.

View over Ushuaia and the Beagle Channel to the snow-capped peaks of Isla Navarino (Chile)

The snow was deep and soft and it wasn't long before it had worked its way into our boots to melt and saturate socks and feet - still it was a clear sunny day with only light winds and life seemed good. We doubled back to the track turn-off and then headed north to climb steeply up through the cushion plant communities of a snow-free spur towards Glaciar Martial - its small icecap hidden beneath the snow.

Snowboarder below Glaciar Martial

Mountain stream flowing down from Glaciar Martial

The aptly named Cañadon Negro

Heading up to the glacier

At the top we sat for a while, watching a group of Ushuaian snowboarders practicing jumps in the soft spring snow and enjoying the warmth of the sun and the rare combination of sea- and snowscapes intermingled. Then it was back down again - a short walk, but a great introduction to this, the most southerly part of the Andes.

View west to the Fuegian Andes of Chile

Cushion plant community

Laguna Esmeralda (10km - 150m ascent - 150m descent)

The half-day walk up to Laguna Esmeralda, 15km back up toward Paso Garibaldi, was a second easy way to discover the area around Ushuaia. We took a taxi up to Refugio Altos de Valle, a winter dog-sledding base. I confess that the sight of 20-30 huskies individually chained on short leads to a cluster of posts with blue plastic drums for shelter was not one of the sights we had looked forward to - so at odds with images that adorned the walls of the refugio of dogs leaping joyfully through the snow at the head of a sled.

Let sleeping dogs lie

We headed off quickly along a wide track through the beech forest to cross the Rio Esmeralda on a rustic timber bridge. It was a very different day to our walk on the glacier, overcast and still with the vague threat of rain. The track then followed the river course, emerging on to a marshy open area, with views up and down to snow-capped mountains. Yellow dandelions and white-flowering herbs dotted the boggy grasslands. Carefully picking our way across, we re-entered the forest of open lenga to follow an indistinct track upwards across the brown carpet of fallen beech leaves, winding around fallen logs and boulders covered in mosses and lichens.

Fuegian valley landscape in spring

Cerro Bonete above the marshy river flats

Old lenga beech tree

Moss and lichen covered beech forest

Small cascade on the river

The forest was a still and pleasant place, but eventually we emerged again to another open area of bogs, low shrubs and turbal (peatmoss), where many different tracks led across the water-logged and spongy ground. Above us we could see the bowl of Laguna Esmeralda below the snow-covered mountains. We picked our way up the slope in search of higher drier ground, but water lay in shallow puddles or seeped out everywhere and, by the time that we reached the dry surface of a grove of beech trees, our feet were again wet. Wet boots and feet obviously form part of the walking experience in Tierra del Fuego.

We emerged on the far side of the beech grove just below the terminal morain that held back the lake waters. A short climb beside the stream rushing out and down from its outlet and we were there - the waters of Laguna Esmeralda a deep green, even in the pale light of this overcast day.

A fine collection of spongy mosses

Snipe trying to be invisible

The superb setting of Laguna Esmeralda framed by the peaks of Sierra Alvear brightens up a dull day

Picking our way around the white rocks lining the eastern shore, we headed towards the back of the lake and a sight that we had wanted to see - a large beaver pond in the flattish upper valley of the river. Beavers were introduced into Tierra del Fuego in the 1930s to create a fur industry and, like many such ventures only created an ecological disaster as the population of these animals, freed from their predators, exploded. The locals have a love-hate relationship with these rodents, with their high cuteness factor but ability to destroy many areas of stream beds with their tireless construction of dams and felling of trees.

The river snakes away just below Laguna Esmeralda

Reflections of Cerro Cinco Hermanos in the lake

Shallow beaver dam and beaver-killed trees above the lake

As we walked around the lake, we spotted a couple such fallen trees with well-gnawed stumps and knew that we were close. We had never seen a beaver pond before and, when we reached the one behind Laguna Esmeralda, were gobsmacked; the winding wall of interwoven logs, branches and sod stretched between 1-2m high for over a hundred metres, damming a large pond from which the dead trunks of drowned trees emerged and, in the centre of which, was the enormous earth and log dome of their lodge - what an engineering feat! We couldn't help but be impressed by the skill of these nasty little invaders.

The massive beaver lodge in the middle of
the pond built by these environmental vandals

Tree felled by beavers

Impressive 2m high dam wall of the pond built by the beavers

Leaving the beaverworks behind, we leap-frogged across the streams draining into the lake and completed our circumnavigation of it at the terminal morain. From here we followed the winding river course more directly down, avoiding much of the wetter slopes, but eventually crossing the lower marshes with their spongy mounds of reddish-orange peat moss. Re-entering the forest, we retraced our steps back to the refugio and home to Ushuaia.

View down the valley toward 1330m Monte Olivia

Spongy red turbal (peatmoss) community

Return through the forest

This walk was very different to the glacier, complementing it by giving an idea of the habitats of the valleys that dissect the Fuegian Andes and the forests that cover its lower slopes. There is another region close to Ushuaia that is well worth a day's walking - the Lapataia sector of Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego - here you can explore the estuarine and coastal landscapes of southern tip of South America. We did a walk here but that forms the beginning of another adventure, the main reason we had come to Ushuaia and one worthy of a section of this website of its own - a visit to the last continent, Antarctica.