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Off to Patagonia

upscale Puerto Madero area, Buenos Aires
upscale Puerto Madero area, Buenos Aires
We were collected right on time from the hotel by a guide who delivered us to the airport and oversaw our check-in for our flight to Ushuaia, then accompanied us to the security checkpoint…a good thing, as it was in a hidden corner of an adjoining building. The guide said that in the past some tourists had not found the checkpoint and thus missed their flights, so now the travel agencies make a point to escort them to exactly where they need to be. My husband was made to check his carryon bag (he had made sure it was under the weight limit, and was of the legal volume for a carryon for that airline, but the elongated-sausage shape of his summit pack caught the eye of the airline person and she insisted on having it checked)…even so, we noticed many people with huge carryon suitcases which must have far exceeded the size and weight limit, waiting to board the same flight. Note to self for the future, don’t have an unusual-looking carryon bag.

Argentina looked flat and golden when we flew out of Buenos Aires, but 3+ hours later, the sunny lands out our window became snowy mountain peaks and cold-looking inlets under a grey sky. Ushuaia looked like one of the little Alaskan towns which huddle at the water’s edge at the foot of massive peaks. We gladly put on our fleece and raincoats before leaving the plane.

By then we were a group of 4 people on the same tour, about to be joined by 2 more coming in on a later flight, so we were escorted to the tour company’s office and then left to wander around the town for a half hour. Ushuaia has a street or two meant for the feeding and shopping needs of tourists (more souvenirs, with little penguin figurines everywhere), but past that the residential neighborhoods are no-nonsense, with small houses (often with corrugated metal roofs), many neglected yards, and the occasional guest house or B & B. Above all of this the wind blew in icy gusts and grey clouds promised rain at the very least. It wasn’t hard to make the mental transition from “spring is almost here” back home, to “winter is around the corner” here in Ushuaia. A half-hour of wandering in the cold wind was plenty! Our enlarged group was taken on a quick drive-around tour of the town, and then to what is probably the major local tourist sight, the Museo Maritimo de Ushuaia. This low building was the site of a national prison (apparently all of Ushuaia was once a penal colony) dating to 1902, but by the 1940s it was used as a hospital for the local Naval Base. Now it is primarily a quite well-done museum of the early days of Ushuaia, and of life in the prison in particular.

From there we were loaded back on the bus and delivered to our ship, the Via Australis. Check-in was simple and informal (nothing like on a mega-cruise ships), and although we had opted for the least expensive cabin type, it turned out to be spacious, with a large window....again a very comfortable lodging. OK so it had twin beds, and the cabin steward didn’t leave a towel expertly twisted into an exotic animal to greet us, we could deal with that. In the elegant dining room, we were assigned a table near the window for meals, mostly in the company of German-speakers (my husband enjoyed this as he likes to practice his German; lucky for me a few of our table mates spoke excellent English as well).

Our passenger complement seemed to be equal parts French, English, German, and Spanish speakers, with the Germans in the minority. As far as I could tell, only 6 of us were from the U.S., and I did not encounter any Brits in the group, but English still seemed to be considered a language in common. The ship dealt with the language issue by having the passengers gather in one of two lounges for any necessary briefings or programs, with presentations given in French in one lounge and in English in the other, often with someone present to offer translation into Spanish. The Germans had to choose between Spanish or English, or be left in the dark.

We had the requisite instructions on emergency lifejacket and lifeboat use, followed by a welcome cocktail (the cocktail of S. America seems to be the Pisco Sour, since we were offered it again and again through the whole trip) and a short tango show by a slender and elegantly dressed young couple. The tango show was a special treat for us, since we had not done the typical tourist activity of attending a tango dinner show (cena show) in Buenos Aires. Then as dusk fell we pulled away from the dock and headed off into the Beagle Channel.

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