Ushuaia: Out on a limb in Argentina

By Chris Leadbeater

Chris Leadbeater visits the city Argentina claims is the most southerly on the globe.

The Martial Mountains, home to planet's most southerly ski area, prod the sky beyond the Argentine port city of Ushuaia. Photo / Thinkstock
The Martial Mountains, home to planet's most southerly ski area, prod the sky beyond the Argentine port city of Ushuaia. Photo / Thinkstock

A major disadvantage of living out on a limb is the fear that everybody else might forget you exist. Perhaps this - a need to be acknowledged, rather than an urge to rabble-rouse - was the reason why earlier this year the Argentinian city of Ushuaia barred two British cruise liners from using its harbour.

Both ships had earlier called at the Falkland Islands, and with the fate of the South Atlantic archipelago a renewed source of Anglo-Argentine dispute, the Ushuaia authorities made the big statement of withholding their gangplanks.

But then, Ushuaia is fond of big statements. Pinned to the lower edge of Isla Grande, the largest of the islands that constitute Tierra del Fuego - the fragmented, mist-shrouded foot of South America - its loudest claim is to being the most southerly city on the globe.

How you judge the truth of this suggestion depends wholly on what sort of urban status you confer upon the (admittedly smaller) Chilean port of Puerto Williams, 32.1 kilometres to the south-east across the chilly waters of the Beagle Channel.

But there is no denying that, huddled 2253km below Buenos Aires, yet only 1006km from Antarctica, Ushuaia lies off the beaten path. Or that, in branding itself with the romantic motto "fin del mundo, principio de todo" ("end of the world, the beginning of everything"), it does so with relish.

Most visitors venture to the city ahead of a cruise to Antarctica (voyages that sail directly to the frozen continent have been unaffected by the recent fuss) - though in my case, it is for a four-day jaunt around Tierra del Fuego and out to the lonely full stop of Cape Horn.

And in arriving, I am exposed to another of Ushuaia's grand declarations - the Argentine byword for the Falklands rolling off the pilot's tongue as he announces our landing at the city's "Aeropuerto Malvinas Argentinas".

This is an interesting idea - not least because Ushuaia lies 563km from these craggy bones of contention. But it is an assertion that the city is keen to repeat. Just beyond the airport car park, a colossal billboard brandishes the provocative legend "Ushuaia, Capital de Malvinas" at anyone travelling in or out.

The cause of this chest-beating becomes clear as I drive into town.

Ushuaia was a naval base during the 1982 conflict (the ill-fated warship General Belgrano sailed from here) - and at the end of Avenida Maipu a large memorial remembers the Argentine dead. It is a solemn sight, the outlines of the two main Falkland outcrops caught in outline, blank space cut from iron panels.

Opposite, a sticker glares in the window of a wooden home, "Malvinas" written in black on the pale portion of the blue-and-white Argentinian flag. This month marks 30 years since hostilities were ended on 14 June 1982. Emotions here remain raw.

And yet there is much that is welcoming about a city that deserves a day's attention from anyone booked on a cruise to the last horizon. Ushuaia's prettiness is immediately apparent, its houses daubed a merry mix of reds, yellows, blues and greens - a rainbow rising in defiance of the uniform white that cloaks the streets for much of the winter.

Behind, the Martial Mountains prod the sky, their slopes host to Cerro Castor (website in Spanish), the planet's most southerly ski area.

On the dockside, sculpted heads celebrate the Argentine icons of Antarctic exploration (including José Sobral, the first Argentine to endure an Antarctic winter, in 1902), eyes staring south - though there is warmth galore on the central drag of Avenida San Martín, where fat chunks of beef spit on the open grill at Parrilla La Rueda.

Ushuaia was founded in 1870 as part of the Argentinian attempt to settle this low ebb of the Latin landmass in the face of rivalry from Chile (the pair would define their limits in the boundary treaty of 1881), but did not hit its stride until it became a penal colony in 1902 - its isolation making it ideal for the incarceration of prisoners far from Buenos Aires.

A century on, its once-feared jail now shelters the Museo Maritimo.

Walking in, I can detect lingering hints of oppression, the thick walls and vacant cells seeming to hold the temperature at unfriendly depths. But the exhibits within cast light on the city's past: models of the ships that charted these distant realms (including HMS Beagle, ferrying Charles Darwin to the Galapagos in 1833); the lost faces of the Yamana, the indigenous population whose existence was extinguished with horrible speed by European disease and persecution in the late 19th century; photos of ships wrecked on Tierra del Fuego's sharp teeth, and of the Almirante Irízar, an Argentine ice-breaker that specialises in tearing tankers from Antarctica's frosty grip; panels on the inmates who found themselves cocooned here between 1902 and 1947 - and shamefaced reference to "a time of terror during the Thirties, when at least one or two coffins filed through town every week".

These convicts built Ushuaia's other key tourist attraction - the Tren del Fin del Mundo. Constructed as a way of hauling timber into the growing city, the world's southernmost railway now enjoys retirement as an antique steam line. Running year round, its engines tootle into the forested interior of Isla Grande.

Here is a journey of such remote beauty that it may be - for all the bluster over the Falklands - Ushuaia's biggest statement of all.

- INDEPENDENT

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