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View from the end of the world, Argentina

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By Peter Neville-Hadley

Meridian Writers Group

USHUAIA, Argentina — A banner along the dock wall visible from cruise ships leaving the harbour says it all: “USHUAIA. End of the world beginning of everything.”

The last peaks in the long chain of the Andes stride above the city, poking into the low cloud and the low, colourfully painted wooden houses that struggle up the mountainside but give up even before the trees do.

The planet’s southernmost city sits at the furthest tip of South America, at 54 degrees South, guarding the Beagle Channel. It earns a living from Antarctic cruise ships, from visitors to the vast Tierra de Fuego National Park and to a list of “southernmost” attractions, including the southernmost railway line, prison, and its most surprising immigrant, the Canadian beaver.

Ushuaia was founded by Argentina as a penal colony and naval base in 1884, with 10 prisoners sent south to build their own prison as well as a much-needed lighthouse, and also to provide the authorities with a visible demonstration of the country’s claim of sovereignty over this far-flung territory, 3,000 kilometres south of Buenos Aires.

The jail’s final incarnation, begun in 1902 and in operation to 1947, remains one of the town’s principle attractions, a short walk east past slightly ramshackle and gaudy houses, mock-Tudor shops selling trekking gear and toy penguins, and restaurants with hearty, meaty menus.

An impressive three-storey, yellow-painted rotunda radiates two-storey arms now functioning as museums of prison life and of Ushuaia’s maritime history. The dimly lit central tower is bizarrely filled with sunshades under which you can sip a cappuccino in the company of the prison cat, at what must be one of the world’s most bizarre cafés. You can also dress in striking blue-and-yellow-striped prison garb and pose for photos.

Displays relate the sad story of the original tribal inhabitants, the Yamaná, who suffered badly under European encroachments. From 1884 measels, pneumonia and tuberculosis drastically reduced their numbers. There were only 45 left by 1925. Although many Ushuaians carry tribal blood, the last pure-blooded Yamaná died in 2005.

Between two of the prison’s arms stands a battered miniature steam locomotive, left over from a 20-kilometre narrow-gauge line the prisoners built to bring wood from the surrounding beech forests, subsequently used by commercial logging operations. Eight kilometres west of town a surviving section now has gleaming, hissing engines and toy carriages that rattle along a stream-side route into Tierra del Fuego National Park.

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