We made it! After 681 days, 43850 km, and $6755 CAD in gas, we arrived at the southernmost city in the world. It was a dream come true…and somewhat of a miracle. We made it the whole way without any show-stopping breakdowns, a rare occurrence for vintage vans like ours. Lucky was definitely living up to her name.
The final stretch to Ushuaia involved a bit of meandering. Gregor discovered that we were running out of propane while we were camped in El Calafate, Argentina, (870 km north of Ushuaia). We used our propane-fuelled furnace and stove a lot in Patagonia’s chilly weather, and we expected temperatures to keep dropping as we drove further south. We needed to refuel ASAP to stay warm and comfortable at the End of the Road.
In South America, there aren’t many places to re-fill North American propane cylinders or on-board propane tanks. We ended up taking a 150-km detour to a propane fuel station in the port city of Punta Arenas, Chile.
Estancia San Gregorio
On our way back from Punta Arenas, we stopped in a historical site called Estancia San Gregorio. It’s an abandoned sheep ranch that was built in 1870 along the shore of the Strait of Magellan. The site felt like an eerie ghost town, but it was really interesting to explore.
There was an ancient shipwreck on the ranch’s shoreline, which made the place seem even more eerie. The wreck was a sombre reminder of the notoriously high winds that blow through the Strait of Magellan.
Entering Tierra del Fuego
After snapping photos at San Gregorio, we headed for the ferry port to cross the Strait of Magellan. The strait is a natural passage that connects the Pacific and Atlantic oceans and it separates continental South America from the Tierra del Fuego archipelago. With no bridges connecting the two land masses, the only way to cross is by ferry.
Ferry crossings are scheduled every 30 minutes, but they’re sometimes cancelled when wind speeds are dangerously high. When we arrived at the terminal, we met a Swiss couple who waited overnight because all the ferry crossings were cancelled the day before. Fortunately, we got onto the next ferry and reached Tierra del Fuego without getting seasick.
Seeing the “Welcome to Tierra del Fuego” sign was an exciting moment in our journey. We had officially entered the southernmost region of South America and we would arrive at our end goal in a few days. First, needed to do another border crossing from Chile to Argentina.
Every time we leave a country, we need to get exit stamps for Lucky and ourselves. Chilean Customs happened to be on strike when we wanted to leave, so the border control office was only open for three non-consecutive hours each day:
8:00 – 9:00 am
noon – 1:00 pm
4:00 – 5:00 pm
We missed the lunchtime opening by 5 minutes, which meant that we had to wait another 3 hours for the next opening. The border officials instructed us to take a number for 4:00 pm queue. We were #65.
When the border control desks opened up again, it was pure chaos. Tired families, frown-faced couples, and smelly truckers piled into the small administrative building waiting for their number to be called.
When it was our turn, we spent a mere 10 minutes at the kiosk and then hustled back to the van to complete our journey south.
That night, we slept at a gas station in Rio Grande, right beside a noisy air pump. All night, cars kept driving up to the pump to fill their tires with air. Like, ALL NIGHT.
As each driver pulled up, we heard the sound of Latin American dance music blasting from the car, followed by the beeps and hisses of the air pumping machine. We thought it was just an off-day for Argentine tires, but other overlanders who slept at the same gas station since then confirmed that this particular air pump is very popular at night. Strange, but true.
The Day We Arrived in Ushuaia
The next morning, we started our final driving day to Ushuaia. We only made two stops along the way: One at Tolhuin, to pick up the legendary empanadas at La Union bakery, and the other at Paso Garibaldi, the pass that marks the transition between Tierra del Fuego’s rolling steppe and the mountains of the Fuegian Andes.
And finally we were there. Gregor and I left Calgary on Dec 31, 2014, with the goal of driving the Americas to the southernmost city in the world. We stood at the city gates almost two years later. It was a joyful moment.
We made it to Ushuaia with the support of our friends, family, followers, and fellow travellers, and with the help of the welcoming Latin American people we met along the way. As we drove to the waterfront and gazed across the Beagle Channel, we felt waves of gratitude and excitement.
World’s Southernmost Selfies
That afternoon we wanted to celebrate our arrival with a local beer. I specifically wanted to have a bottle of Cape Horn, which is marketed as the “World’s Southernmost Beer”. After scoping out several restaurants, we eventually found it at the Dublin, an Irish-style pub.
After our celebratory beers at the Dublin, we stumbled back to our “camping” spot on Ushuaia’s waterfront. We went to bed feeling happy and grateful.
End of the Road
Ushuaia is known as the world’s southernmost city, but it actually isn’t the southernmost point on the Pan-American highway. Argentina’s national highway Route 3 (Ruta 3) terminates in Tierra del Fuego National Park, located 20 km west of the city. After finishing our breakfast on Ushuaia’s waterfront, we drove to the End of the Road.
There was one important thing that we needed to do at the End of the Road: find a hidden treasure. Six months earlier, our Canadian overlanding friends, Patrick and Shannon, arrived at this very spot and cached a gift for us to find. They tracked our journey south on Facebook, and as we got closer to Ushuaia they sent us instructions to find the cache.
Our gift was hidden under a concrete block, tucked beneath a cluster of trees. It was a Russian Army flask filled with rum! We sipped from the flask and it filled us with fuzzy warmth.
We made it to the End of the Road – this deserved another celebration! This time it was a charcoal-BBQ dinner with a bottle of Malbec wine. Gregor cooked steak and sausages over the campfire and ended up charring his eyebrows in the process. It was well worth it, because the food was absolutely delicious.
Tierra del Fuego National Park
We hiked for a couple of days in Tierra del Fuego National Park among pretty lakes, peaks, and forests. We learned that beavers are a real problem in the region. Introduced by European settlers, beavers take down forests and build dams that change the waterways where other animals breed and feed. We didn’t see any beavers or any other mammals. However, there were some interesting birds.
Fun fact: There are no amphibians in Tierra del Fuego Island
One of the hikes we did in the park was called Cerro Guanaco (“Guanaco Peak”). We started on a dry forested trail and entered white-out conditions above tree line. The trail markers started to disappear in the snow about a kilometre from the peak, so we turned around before the howling wind covered our tracks. The last thing we wanted was to get lost at the End of the World.
Tierra del Fuego or “land of fire” got its name from Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, who saw fires burning along the shores of the archipelago when he arrived in 1520. These fires were the warming fires built by the indigenous people who lived along the coastline. It would have been nice to have a fire so that we could warm up and dry our clothes after the hike. Instead, we turned on the propane furnace in our van.
Birthday in Ushuaia
I celebrated my 43rd birthday in Ushuaia – what a treat! I had two birthday wishes: a hotel room and a restaurant dinner. We stayed at a charming bed and breakfast called Posada del Fin del Mundo (“End of the World Hostel”) and made dinner reservations at Paso Garibaldi restaurant, which served Fuegian cuisine with a gourmet flair.
I was so happy that our American friends, John and Paula (Our Bigger Picture), were able to join us for my birthday dinner. Over the course of two years on the road, Gregor and I met up with John and Paula in a total of 10 countries. They celebrated all our Latin American birthdays with us: Gregor’s in Guatemala and Bolivia, and mine in Panama and Argentina. We are very fortunate to have such faithful friends.
So Close to Antarctica
I once did an elementary school science project about emperor penguins. Ever since then I dreamed of traveling to Antarctica to see these beautiful birds with my own eyes. When we started our Pan-Am journey, we imagined ourselves getting on a boat in Ushuaia and sailing to the penguin colonies on the Icy Continent.
It’s possible to get last minute deals in Ushuaia for Antarctic cruises, but the best offer we could find at the time was a 10-day cruise at $6800 USD per person. That works out to about $9,000 CAD per person (after tips, drinks, and car storage) or $18,000 CAD for both of us. Spending 10 days on a boat was the equivalent of 6 months in the van. Unable to justify the cost, we opted out.
After spending 12 days at the End of the World, it was time to turn around and head north. The plan was to drive to Santiago, Chile, and load Lucky into a shipping container bound for Oakland, California. From there, we would drive her back to Canada.
As we left Ushuaia’s city limits, it felt like we were going home after a pleasant vacation – refreshed and happy to have spent quality time in a special place.
One Last Thing…
When we crossed the border back into Chile, we visited a king penguin colony at Parque Pinguïno Rey. The king penguin is the slightly smaller cousin of the emperor penguin, but equally beautiful and fascinating.
After visiting the park, I happily scratched off “See emperor penguin” from my bucket list. Mission accomplished.