January 30, 2015
Here is the second claimant to “end of the world.” Ushuaia is a newer town than Punta Arenas. It was founded in 1870 by missionaries from the Falkland Islands wishing to convert the natives of Tierra del Fuego. Add to that some sealers and you get a strange mix. Argentina needed to solidify its claim to part of Tierra del Fuego so it made it a penal colony in 1884, first sending both male and female prisoners hoping they would breed. Later it became a more conventional prison with cell blocks. Prisoners were sentenced to forced labor and built a railway into the woods of Tierra del Fuego so the convicts could cut wood for building and fuel. Like Punta Arenas, between the world wars many Croatian immigrants moved to this town. At the end of the Second World War a lot of Italians came.
Ushuaia doesn’t have the fine old mansions of Punta Arenas. Its older buildings are steep roofed corrugated metal with gingerbread trim, corrugated gothic. Modern buildings are interspersed with the old buildings. The city is in a beautiful setting on the Beagle Channel and climbs steep hills. It has somewhat the feel of Juneau although bigger. It also has Juneau weather, but today was sunny and warm. Too warm according to local people we spoke with. Its industry is manufacturing in the duty free zone and tourism. It is the major jumping off place for Antarctica. Two “adventure sized” ships carrying between 100 and 200 passengers left for Antarctica while we were there. I feel sorry for those on the ships because they headed into a gale. Prinsendam’s master elected to stay extra time in Ushuaia and wait for better weather so we had more time in port than planned. The smaller ships went out into gale force winds and 30 foot seas.
There is an Antarctic office in Ushuaia, I guess administering Argentina’s claim to a slice of that continent, and we saw an Antarctic research vessel preparing for a voyage, stocking up on supplies. Ushuaia has signs posted around town proclaiming that not only is it the “end of the world” but the capital of the Malvinas (Falkland) Islands. And if that isn’t enough it is the geographic center of Argentina, an intriguing concept for a town that claims to be at the end of the world. How can the end be at the center? Someone figured that since Argentina claims a slice of Antarctica down to the South Pole, if you measure the distance from the far North of Argentina to the pole Tierra del Fuego is roughly in the middle. That same someone posted a map to prove it.
We spent our time in port riding the Train at the end of the world (I will be posting on that separately) and wandering town. We were accosted by a giant beaver. Beavers were imported from Canada after the Second World War to try to start a fur industry. They became an invasive species and are playing havoc with the environment of the Tierra del Fuego national park, which we also visited. Suzi and I waded in the waters of Ensenada Bay on the Beagle Channel in the park. The beaver gave us a tourist brochure. As he handed it to Suzi we heard drumming and walked up the hill and down the main street to find a carnival troupe made up of high school students dancing and passing the hat to raise money for their Fat Tuesday performance. The giant beaver joined in the dancing.
Dinner was in a bar made of yellow corrugated metal. It was a mixed crowd, locals, a lot of fit and young adventure explorers and a few old cruise ship passengers. While we had Argentine pesos (with Eva Peron on the 100 note) the bar took dollars, giving us a 25% exchange benefit over the bank rate.
On the way back to the ship we passed the new monument to Maria Eva Duarte Peron. Her name is formally written on the plaque but a wooden sign next to the monument says “Evita.” We watched earlier in the day as workers smoothed the cement in front of bust of Ms. Peron. The cement hadn’t yet dried. Two dogs found their way to the monument and left their paw prints pressed into the new concrete. Next to the monument is the Maria Eva Duarte Peron bus stop with her picture etched into the glass of the bus shelter. We walked back the ship watching sunset over the port and mountains beyond.