A place such as Ushuaia tantalizes us map-addicts. It’s such a delicious name, rivaling others such as Addis Ababa, Ulaanbaatar, Kalamazoo. And it’s in such an end-of-the-world place, too! There’s just something special about places that crowd the edges the way Ushuaia does.
As the cold November winds rise in the northern hemisphere, I’m mindful that spring is beginning to blow its more moderate breath upon those living at the other end of our globe. Way down south from my home in North America, the ski season is winding down in Ushuaia, Argentina. Soon, the floods of Antarctica-bound tourists and research scientists will return, as will the migratory birds, swelling avian numbers at the nearby national park to ninety species or so.
The wider world has known about this area since Magellan sailed through in about 1520, although indigenous peoples known as the Yaghan (or Yamana) were already there, and others had been in residence for about 10,000 years. Magellan named this area “Land of Fire,” and Ushuaia is the capital of this “Tierra del Fuego.”
On our brief visits to Ushuaia, I found myself captivated by the circumstances of life on an island located at the very tip of South America. It was easy, when strolling the streets of the small town, to witness a fair degree of whimsy and eclectic taste in architecture. And the Pan-American Highway (aka Argentina National Route 3) ends here, too. Or does it begin here? Depends on your perspective, I guess.
Ushuaia is rich in the history of sea-faring people who had to negotiate the turbulent waters at Cape Horn via the Drake Passage to gain access to the next ocean over (Atlantic to Pacific, and vice versa). Then, too, there is the history of the seal – and whale – ships plying the Southern Ocean in the 19th and early 20th centuries in search of their oil.
Like the outpost of Australia, Ushuaia seemed to some a good place to colonize with convicts. The first arrived aboard a naval ship in January 1896, and in 1902 a military prison elsewhere was moved to Ushuaia “for humanitarian reasons.” When we visited the prison (now a museum), it was difficult to perceive the situation as being a step up. For one thing, the harsh, remote environment certainly put a damper on escape efforts. Of course, the convicts were conscripted to build the prison themselves, between 1902 and 1920. At one time, more than 600 convicts called the place home, until it was closed in 1947.
Hemmed in by the Martial mountain range (locals call them “Andes Fueguinos”) and the Beagle Channel, Ushuaia is home now to about 57,000 persons. The town motto is, “Ushuaia, end of the world, beginning of everything.” Indeed.