We had arrived on a Sunday morning and nothing was open in town, not even a travel agency. We walked and walked the hilly streets on a chilly March morning, finally finding a reasonably priced hotel for our two nights. Ushuaia is expensive – for starters you’re lucky to get there for anything less than $400 return from Buenos Aires, and hotel nights average around the US$80 for a double room in the mid-season. So if you’re coming here, you’re budgeting accordingly.After our hotel trek, we had pretty much cased out all of Ushuaia, which is probably the smallest city we’ve ever visited. It’s not particularly hard to find a last minute deal in Ushuaia as they’re well advertised in the shop windows. The going rate in most places was about 50% of the advance-booking full price. We were hoping for better though, as I had been talking by Skype to a US travel agent more than a month earlier who was already offering half-price. Our instincts told us not to book that far in advance, but we gathered a lot of “intelligence” from this helpful agent and I kind of felt bad for not giving him the business. No matter how hard we looked on the streets of Ushuaia, travel agency after travel agency was offering us the same rate but also charging us a credit card surcharge of between 3-5%. With a last minute price of around US$4,000 per person, 5% is a big deal.
Into day 2, and we had still not booked, and our preferred boat was leaving the next day. I called the boat operator directly, a Dutch company, but they were also insisting on the credit card fee; we’ve become used to paying credit card fees on top of published price during our travels, but from a European company we were annoyed. How many people pay US$4,000 in cash? We were thinking it would have been cheaper (and less stressful) if we had just booked with the US travel agent a month ago, but in the end our bargaining paid off. Running out of options, we visited Rumbo Sur travel agency on the main street, and finally got the deal we were looking for – a half-price deal with clothing rental included for free and no credit card fee. So what exactly did that equate to:The Boat: The Plancius – not the cheapest, but better class of boat and a better itinerary – across the Polar Circle
Cabin: 1 x Superior Cabin with double bed
Extras: No credit card fee, exchange rate of US$1 = AR$4.08, free rental of coat, ski-pants and gloves, free kayaking (this was a long-advertised offer which had expired, but after much insistence from our part and help from our agent we got the final space confirmed by the operator due to a late cancellation – if you don’t ask, you don’t get)
Itinerary: 12 days, 11 nights Antarctic cruise beyond the polar circle including a continental landing
Total Price: $4,395 each (yikes!) We opted at the last minute to take a superior cabin at an extra cost of US$400 each, but relative to the total cost of the cruise, it was money well spent as the superior cabin turned out around twice as big as a standard cabin, and was available with a double bed instead of two singles. We became the 97th and 98th (out of 98) passengers booked on the Plancius. Our work was done, so all we had left to do was be giddily excited about our upcoming adventure, and celebrate it by feasting our remaining 24 hours on some of Argentina’s best fish and seafood.
Ushuaia’s main industry is tourism, and there’s no shortage of restaurants, although separating the good from the bad is a tricky task. You can’t visit Ushuaia without sampling the Centella (King Crab), and we tried the Parmesan Gratin of King Crab and a seafood paella in a homely little restaurant called the Casa de los Mariscos which had been recommended to us. We had also heard some great reviews about a restaurant called Kaupe with great food and great views over Ushuaia, and seeing as it was on the next street from our hotel and the only restaurant that was not including a long uphill promenade as an obligatory digestif, we put it to the test. Food and service were exceptional, giving us an opportunity to savour the local black merluza which is generally excellent, but even more so in Kaupe. Overall, a fitting send-off from South America, and proof that there’s more than red meat in Argentina.
Ushuaia is the end of the human world, and tomorrow we set sail to leave that far behind as we begin our most adventurous voyage yet to the white continent of Antarctica, the true end of the world. We don’t really know what to expect, but we expect that to be unlike anything else on Earth.
For travel tips, see below the photo.
1. Crossing the Polar Circle is an option only available at the end of the season when the ice on some of the Antarctic seas has melted enough.
2. Do research in advance to get an understanding of prices before you go to Ushuaia. We used US travel agency website www.polarcruises.com which was by far the best source of info and prices.
3. Two days in Ushuaia is enough to visit all the agencies and get quotes etc. If you want to explore Tierra del Fuego National Park, add more days.
4. Some boat operators are based in Europe and require your booking by close of business European time, the day before the cruise departs. Don’t leave it too late!
5. Make sure you have enough credit available on your credit card.
6. Have a back-up plan. We had two options of boats leaving in the same week in case one was sold out, and had booked our plane tickets to suit both options.