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51 reviews of Ushuaia

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An important tourism spot

Ushuaia is the capital of the Province of Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost of the Republic of Argentina. Founded on October 12, 1884, it is located on the shores of the Beagle Channel, surrounded by the Martial mountain range. Besides being the administrative centre of the province, it's an important spot for tourism and as a port; it is the gateway to Antarctica. The name comes from the local indigenous language, ush meaning to the bottom or to the west, and uaia meaning bay or cove ... so it means "bay that penetrates the west". The streets are steep, with red-roofed houses, and the people are lovely. The surrounding hills are completely covered with snow in winter, and there's a nearby ski resort, Cerro Castor Ski, the most southernmost ski resort in the world.
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Resilency at the end of the world

In Yaghan, Ushuaia means ‘bay that penetrates westward.’ The largest city on Tierra del Fuego, Argentine tourist boards never fail to call it the world’s southernmost city. Perhaps it is the largest city of its size, but the southernmost it is not. Across the Beagle Channel and directly south of the city lies Chile and Isla Navarino with its largest community, Puerto Williams. The Chilean island chain comes sweeping across southern Tierra del Fuego blocking Argentina’s forward march like an arm catching a precocious child. Argentina and Chile both possess portions of the archipelago, with the latter having the eastern half of the major island and the former occupying the western half plus the area south of the Beagle Channel. The cumbersome way the islands have been divided and divvied-up between the two countries highlights the colonization process that tamed the wind-swept land.

In 1520, Ferdinand Magellan traversed the narrow strait – that now bears his name – between mainland South America and the southern labyrinthine system of inlets, coves, bays and islands. Navigating the unfamiliar water, Magellan and his crew – as legend has it – saw a fires flickering in the night sky – the Land of Fire. Magellan had no interest in the land, never spent any time onshore. Some say the fire were threats from the indigenous groups hiding among the two-meter high conifers and knee-deep in the murky and muddy bogs. Others say they were merely eating salmon or huemel by fire.

The world thinks of the Land of the Fire as an isolated, secluded out-post – a netherworld divorced from civilization’s graces until rather recently. And to a certain extent history reflects this: from Magellan’s time to the nineteenth century very few Europeans set foot on the fish-hooked, desolate isles. Yet, as Magellan witnessed, numerous indigenous groups called these islands home. The Selknams hunted wolves and guanaco by bow and arrow adorning themselves with their fluffy and warm fur. The nomadic Yamanas paddled the Tierra’s secluded beaches, from bark-covered canoes with their whale-boned harpoons raised high scanning the shores for plump sea-lions. The Alakalufs lived in sea-fur covered huts and outside by the hot embers told stories of Watauinewa, the Supreme Being, and how the world came to be.

From the mid-nineteenth century onward, the islands attracted increased attention from the outside world. Catholics established missions in Dawson Island and Rio Grande in the 1850s; the Anglicans followed suit in Ushuaia. In 1879, gold was discovered. European explorers and entrepreneurs were given land grants to further investigate gold deposits in the Fuegian riverbeds. The area was also seen as ideal for sheep farming which required large chunks of land. Both Chilean and Argentine officials encouraged further migration to the area. In 1881, both nations signed the 1881 Boundary Treat which officially carved-up the archipelago.

These developments spelled calamity for the indigenous groups. Mission schools undermined and chastised their culture; government-backed developers stole their lands; and newly-introduced infectious diseases – particularly tuberculosis- decimated the immunity-deficient population. Their numbers plummeted. Missionaries estimated, for example, that the Selknam population dropped from 3000 in the 1890's to less than 300 in 1919.Today, groups of Selknams and Yamanas try to keep their traditions inflamed by passing the rituals and rites onto younger generations. Resilient.

I walk Ushuaia’s few streets, past the tourist shops and Italian restaurants, up a hill overlooking the brightly-colored and triangled metal rooftops and out to the Channel where several cruise-ships sit docked. Behind me, green mountains with snowy spots rise sharp and abrupt like jagged teeth behind the summer-centred town. I see the steeple of one of the town’s few churches rising pompously up to the ashen sky. I wonder if a just God could ever forgive himself for inspiring such horror. I later learn convicts built the church when Ushuaia acted as a penal colony from the early 1900's to 1947. I learn prison labor in fact constructed most of the city. Before the prison was built, they slept in tin huts. I imagine the sound the wind might make – rattling, deafening.

I cross over the bay bridge away from downtown and to the residential area. Lines of wooden, slanting homes follow the paved road. The homes are indistinguishable from each other. I wonder if locals ever wander into the wrong one accidentally. They are hardy and rugged structures. Like the people themselves. It takes a resiliency to craft a home here. I see a group of sail-boats bubbling up and down in the harbor, the sun trying to punch through the gathering clouds. Sailing season is short, I guess. Does it make it all the more magical?

The next day I spend the day at Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina’s only maritime park. The park is mammoth encompassing 630 square km. Most, however, remains inaccessible with only a handful of coastal trails accessible. The trail hugs the coastline before heading into the undulating terrain through thick evergreen forests and murky bogs. Wild horses graze in the open meadows fronting quiet stony coves, the water as still as those same horses asleep as night creeps over the inlets and the moon heads out to sea. The trees are spectacular. Magellan’s beech, or coigue, dot the walkway. Their leaves sprout-out high like elevated cauliflower. Much more beautiful are the wind-molded conifers that seem to pop up everywhere. Their branches bend and twist resembling auto wreckage. They grow among rocks just off shore. Each piece is a work of art.

In the distance, I see a group of dead trees ominously rising up from the marshy ground as if buried alive. Their pony fingers desperately cling to the sinking earth, pointing to anyone or anything that might help them. Could this be the natural regeneration at work or the travail of the great menace of Tierra del Fuego: the North American beaver? Introduced in the 1940's to promote fur-trading, the beavers’ propensity towards engineering has wreaked havoc on the islands, their dams costing millions in flood-related damages. From a few dozen in the 1940's, up to 250 000 now live on the islands.

I stop at a shaded cove. The grassy meadow charges towards the stony beach. I sit and relax. From my vantage point, it is difficult to see who might be coming around the corner. I see only a rock outcrop jutting into the water. I think about the ebb and flow of this place at the end of the world, about the people ve are gone and the people who continue to fight against oblivion. I think about the prisoners, the Yamanas, the beavers, the ranchers and the tourists all coming here at one point in very different circumstances, with very different outcomes. This land breeds resiliency and I hope we witness a rekindling of those embers Magellan saw almost 500 years ago. Around the cove, I imagine a young team of Yamana hunters paddling with those beautiful harpoons chiseled and sanded with sacred knowledge passed down to grateful hands.
Jesse OC
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