In Ushuaia, Argentina, Discovering A Land Of Extreme Beauty

End of the World City Sign, Ushuaia, Argentina
End of the World City Sign

Polar winds whip snow against me as I stand beneath the looming mountain.  Gray afternoon half-light.  It’s the end of the line.

Granted, “end” in Ushuaia, Argentina, is a word that long ago passed beyond cliché, considering every empanadería, Claro cell-phone kiosk, and leather-goods outlet in town has seen fit to append “del fin del mundo” to its handle.  But here, where I am, it’s the end of the line in a very literal sense.  A nec plus ultra.  A final destination.

Where I am is the last stop on the Train at the End of the World, the southernmost railway in operation on the planet.  A two-hour trundle through peat bogs, downward-smoking cascades, and the eerie stumps of a tree cemetery, and here I am, shivering under a wet snowfall along the icy glass of the Pipo River, hands burrowing ever deeper into my pockets as the hissing locomotive winds down, swathing everything in steam.  Above, a crag rises in the mist.  Among the rocks, a lone horse feels its way along the stream’s edge.

The last stop on the last line of track at the very last, extreme tip of the Americas.  Beyond this, only Antarctica and polar night.

Ushuaia still affords glimpses like this, despite its touristification in recent years.  Glimpses of a desolation that’s also profoundly beautiful, a forlorn landscape that obscurely awakens the spirit to ultimate horizons.  Things may have changed since Bruce Chatwin passed through back in 1975, en route to writing In Patagonia, but the new faux-chalet hotels and Gore-Tex outerwear stores haven’t entirely displaced the dingy, jerry-built cannery town of the nomadic author’s pages.  Beneath the cruise ships and commerce, it’s still possible to catch sight of the missionaries, pioneers, and convicts that wrenched this last human outpost in the Americas out of the badlands more than a century ago, as well as the immense wilderness against which they measured themselves.

Meanwhile, out past the edges of the town, Andean glaciers still tower silently above the insignificant streets, and the gray, skeletal beechwood forests still await their explorers.

Maritime and Prison Museum, Ushuaia, Argentina
Maritime and Prison Museum

In the Penal Colony

The guard at the door had said Ward 1 was un lugar malo, an evil place.  Even so, I wasn’t wholly prepared for what awaited me.

There is, first, the cold.  In most of the Museo Marítimo y Presidio, the penitentiary-turned-museum I’m visiting, the wings are warm and brightly lit, having some time back been converted into history exhibits and colorful art spaces.  Here, though, in the one cellblock left in its original condition, a weird chill pervades the stone corridors, not easily explicable from the outside rawness.

Then there’s the claustrophobia.  The cramped cells, the cement passageways receding in a geometric mise en abyme, like some nightmarish Borgesian trap: the horrors the convicts experienced don’t bear thinking about.  My palms are moist as I grip the steel handrail, uneasy, glancing around for the exit.

Sinister and unsettling though it is, the role of the prison in Ushuaia’s history is unmistakable.

That role dates from 1883, when this “Argentine Siberia” was first proposed by President Julio Argentino Roca as a punishment for the country’s hardest of hard cases.  In those days, Argentina was disputing its southernmost territories with Chile, and the thought was that a penal colony would bring forced settlement to the area, consolidating the state’s claim to these austral lands.

It worked.  Prison construction began in 1902, with the convicts themselves doing the constructing, and when the penitentiary opened in 1920 it had room for 380 detainees—600 with the inevitable overcrowding.  Those detainees were put forcibly to work, installing electrical grids, sewers, bridges, telephone wires, all manner of infrastructure to draw residents to the town, whose population kept pace with the prison’s own.  Each day, in freezing rain or hail, they’d take the convict train—later to be resurrected as the Train at the End of the World—out to the vast forests, hauling timber, rock, and sand back to Ushuaia, slowly tearing civilization from the hard land.  The few would-be escapees always came back penitent, half dead from exposure.

This continued for a quarter century, till President Juan Perón finally shuttered the prison in 1947.  The train dragged on for a few more years, but it too closed in 1952.

All this means Ushuaia is a convict town, to the marrow of its being.

Here in Ward 1 I’m looking at the legacy of this violent history.  Many of the inmates were supremely dangerous, like Cayetano Santos Godino, the criminally insane child murderer the other prisoners called El Petiso Orejudo (Shorty Big Ears).  But others were political criminals, like Simón Radowitzky, a Russian-Jewish anarchist sentenced to life without parole for tossing a lethal bomb into the cab of a brutal Buenos Aires police chief.  After a desperate but unsuccessful escape attempt through the maze of channels near Ushuaia, he was caught and returned to the prison, before being finally pardoned by President Hipólito Yrigoyen in 1930 and sentenced to exile.  He died, a broken man, in Mexico in 1956.

For the curious, these episodes are evoked by a black-and-white photo exhibit in one of the prison’s other, refurbished wings.  But here in Ward 1, there are no exhibits, no explanatory plaques, no nothing.  Only chipped paint and silence, and row upon row of empty cells.

I listen.  The only sound is of dripping water, echoing from somewhere in the freezing halls.  Everyone has gone.  I’m totally alone.

Does violence permanently taint the place where it occurred?  Was that the evil aura the guard was referring to?

Five minutes later, I’m outside, and blessedly free, welcoming the harsh wind as I leave behind the prison of Ushuaia.

Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina
Tierra del Fuego National Park

Human Traces

I’m squatting on a garbage dump, sifting through debris.  As I lift my head, I scent the air.  It’s cold and fragrant, smelling of pine and wild herbs.

This is not surprising.  The conchal I’m crouched upon has long since been rubbed clean by time.  A refuse heap of shells and bones, it was left by the Yahgan Indians that once inhabited the area, a kind of sacred mound dating back 10,000 years or more, to the obscure mists of Patagonia’s prehistory.

That prehistory has left an obvious mark on Tierra del Fuego National Park, where I currently am.  Here the landscape abounds not only in tumuli like these—easily mistaken for grassy knolls by heedless hikers—but in other, grander outcroppings of geologic time: glaciers, peat bogs, rocky escarpments, gnarled beech forests, trees warped by unrelenting winds, sandy trails along the shores of lakes that reflect the low, imposing gray clouds.  The reserve comprises all of this, extending for hundreds of square miles, from Lake Fagnano in the north to the terminus of the Pan-American Highway, Argentina’s Ruta Nacional 3, in the south.

What most affects me, however, are the traces of the people, post- as well as prehistoric, that once lived here.  Humanity’s struggle amidst nature’s indifference.

Such traces are hard to come by, given the sparseness of settlements in this hard terrain.  For millennia, Tierra del Fuego’s only inhabitants were tribes like the Yahgan and Selknan, who scratched a scanty living out of the area’s woods and streams.  In 1869, Anglican missionaries arrived, hoping to redeem the natives, and in the process touching off a gold rush in the late 1880s and -90s.  But even with all this, outside the city of Ushuaia itself, humanity’s impress on the land has remained minimal.

I’m scanning the streambed as I walk.  The park ranger said some tourists had once found a gold prospector’s rusty pan along one of the watercourses.  So far, no luck.

After some time, I come to a flat sheet of water.  Tierra del Fuego National Park teems with shoreline—it’s possible to watch cruise ships sailing for Patagonia and Antarctica from its boundary along the Beagle Channel—and here the wide expanses of Lapataia Bay give onto broad views southward.  A plover touches down on the sand.  In the swelling tide, cormorants strut, stabbing the sand for minnows.

The bay too attests to humans’ presence, in a singular way.  Off to the right, in the middle distance, what looks at first to be a small spit of land turns out to be, upon examination, a beaver dam.  Brought by the Argentine government in 1946 in a misguided attempt to start a fur trade, these non-native rodents have reached crisis levels.  Today some 200,000 of the critters are gnawing through the reserve’s forests and disrupting the ecosystem, unchecked by any natural predators.  Or almost: Argentina and Chile have mounted an extermination campaign, but so far the animals have remained one step ahead of the governments.

The light is failing.  It’s late afternoon, so I decide to head back.  In the east, a waxing moon.

I soon arrive at a place where humanity’s presence is unmistakable.  Ensenada Zariategui Bay, on the Beagle Channel.  Here tides lap the sand along the shore, which is green with metamorphic rock.  I’ve one last errand before I go.

I walk out on Puerto Guaraní pier, where wind is whipping the flags above a tiny tin shack.  I enter.

“Una tarjeta postal, porfa.”

The old man with the mutton-chop sideburns doesn’t say a word.  Unhurriedly, he reaches over for the rack.  There’s no real rush, here at the (what else?) Post Office at the End of the World.  He sells me the 30-cent postcard.  I address it to my father in New York.  After watching him stamp it, I ask if he gets a lot of mail, in his diminutive postal fiefdom.

“Claro,¿ cómo no?” he smiles.  “Here,” he taps the counter, “is where it all starts, where all the action is.”

We talk a few minutes, about tourists, his impending retirement, loneliness.  He pauses a moment, reflecting.

“Tierra del Fuego is beautiful.  I sometimes think this would be a place for a good death.”

Through the window, we watch muted streaks of red, floating gently in the west.

As I step outside, the wind has increased.  I pull up my jacket collar, braced for the trudge back to Ruta Nacional 3.

Don’t Forget to Share This Post!