Dropping in on the end of the world

The T-shirts in souvenir shops along the main street of Ushuaia declare that the town is Fin del Monde - the end of the world.

And so it is. Ushuaia - latitude 54 degrees south, longitude 68 degrees west - is at the southern tip of Argentina, not far from Cape Horn, in Tierra del Fuego, the land of fire.

Here, everyone says "north" when talking about the rest of the world. South of here is only Antarctica.

Tourists come here mainly to enjoy the good winter ski conditions. Or, in the summer, to join ships cruising to the Antarctic.

But Ushuaia itself is worth an extra day or two - especially for the museums and the duty-free shopping. It's pretty bleak and remote.

Snow-capped mountains are at our back and cold Antarctic waters to our front. The town sits on a large island, Isla Grande de Tierra Del Fuego, separated from the South American mainland by the Strait of Magellan.

It is uncomfortably close - for the Argentines - to Chile. The very remoteness gave the town its start, like Sydney, as a penal colony little more than a century ago.

Repeat offenders were sent here, as were political prisoners. Today the old jail is a museum and the town gets much of its living from tourism.

It is also a naval base for the Argentine navy. When Ferdinand Magellan discovered Patagonia (in the local language it means "land of the big feet") in 1520 and the Strait known by his name, he saw smoke rising from the fires lit by the indigenous Yamana on the southern part of the Strait.

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He named this Tierra del Fuego, land of fire. Natives could not get used to Europeans: they surrendered to their illnesses, alcohol and murders. Only the efforts made by some courageous missionaries saved a few of them from extinction. But they're all gone now.

Ushuaia has three museums: Museo Del Fin Del Mundo, the Museo Maritimo and the Museo Yamana, the latter on natives of the region. All are worth visiting.

Forty years ago the town had a population of only 5,000. Ushuaia claims to have had, since then, the highest population growth rate of any town in the world and today has 60,000 people. Apart from tourism and the naval establishment, the town has an electronics industry.

The region has some of Argentina's best ski fields in the towering Martial mountains, the tail of the mighty Andes, that form a backdrop to the town.

The valleys are popular places for cross-country skiing. But the majority of tourists come in the short summer when days are 18 hours long. (Conversely, winter days are only seven hours of daylight.)

Even in summer you can experience all seasons in a day. Expect temperatures barely in the teens and come prepared with warm hat and jacket and a good pair of warm socks.

Take a city tour on an old London bus which operates from September to April. The one-hour trip gives you a good overview of the town which is built on the shores of the Beagle Channel, the sea route to the Antarctic.

The channel - on one side is Argentina and on the other is Chile - could easily be called the shipwreck coast given the number of ships which have come to grief on its rocks.

The 380-cell jail was built over nearly two decades from 1902 when Ushuaia was a settlement of no more than 40 houses. Some of Argentina's worst criminals were sent there.

Prisoners were used to help build the town. You can read about some of them in the cells they occupied in the jail. In 1947 it was closed and the buildings became part of the Argentine Naval base.

Part of the jail is now the Museo Maritimo de Ushuaia which incorporates a prison museum as well as maritime exhibits. The cells are now empty. The walls are peeling. Some have in them relics left by former inmates - relics like a painted window framing a painted garden. The door is heavy and rusted. It has a small peephole. In here the prisoner, in his striped uniform, passed the years in cold confinement.

The surrounding scenery is wild and spectacular. The best way to see it is to head into the Tierra del Fuego National Park. Take the Train of the End of the World, an old, narrow-gauge steam train that runs on 25kms of track built by prisoners to carry firewood for the fledgling settlement.

The one-hour trip starts 8kms out of town and will take you through valleys and forests alongside the Rio Pipo into the park. If you are not going on an Antarctic expedition, take one of the boat tours of the Beagle Channel and nearby islands.

You'll see penguins, nesting cormorants, sea lions and other animals. A number of day trips operate from alongside the main shipping terminal.

Shopping is easy in Ushuaia - and it's duty-free. There's really only one main street, San Martin, where you'll find bars, restaurants, shops and the tourist information office. You must sample parilla - the fabulous Argentine barbecue.

You'll quickly recognise the cafes and restaurants offering these meals from the tent-shaped barbecue grids in plain view in windows facing the road. Local Beagle Ale is a drop to enjoy. It is malty and comes in a dark or light variety.

IF YOU GO:

LAN Chile has flights from Sydney, via Auckland, to Santiago in Chile, with frequent connections to Ushuaia. Quark Expeditions has departures from Ushuaia to the Antarctic Peninsula as well as via the Falkland Islands and South Georgia, between November and March of each year. Cruise costs for a 10-day expedition start at $A5560.

For more information, call Natural Focus Safaris on 1300-363-302 or (03) 9249-3777 or email at infoawsnfs.com.

The writer was a guest of LAN Chile Airlines and Natural Focus Safaris.

AAP

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