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Celebrating the End of the World – Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Celebrating the end of the world
Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

The difficult approach to Ushuaia airport killed Tierra del Fuego’s governor in 1984 as his plane tried to negotiate the adjacent jagged mountains. The short Argentine runway at the tip of the Latin American continent and over 3,000 kilometres from the capital, Buenos Aires, is on an outcrop connected to the mainland by a narrow and winding gravel road. Metres from the end of the concrete, solid ground slips away over large rocks and into the grey Beagle Channel. Until seconds before the reassuring clunk of the landing gear, only the aeroplane’s shadow skimming across the murky water is visible immediately below.

Ushuaia Seen From the Beagle Channel
Ushuaia Seen From the Beagle Channel
The town itself is a low-rise collection of white and grey houses with corrugated iron roofs and peeling paint. The surrounding snow-capped peaks are hidden by thick cloud from which frozen rain floats lazily down, reflecting light from illuminated windows. On the main street, travel agents vie for custom with colourful neon displays and blown-up photos of penguins and smiling horse riders. Across the water lies the Chilean half of the islands and Puerto Williams, Ushuaia’s rival for southernmost settlement in the world. It is midsummer and I need to buy a second fleece. The cold, however, is a welcome relief from southern hemisphere season-lag, brought on by sweating in Buenos Aires over a Christmas dinner in t-shirt and shorts. The town holds a celebrated annual marathon, but otherwise depends on tourism and a run-down naval base for its existence. A cruise ship headed for Antarctica docks and discharges elderly American couples in a surge of fogged-up spectacles, crimson cheeks and Columbia jackets. Each has paid some two thousand dollars to see the white continent, but they are still in transit and huddle together expectantly, drinking thick hot chocolate in coffee houses.

I stay at Torres al Sur youth hostel, painted in cheery primary colours and with a roof angled as severely as any Swiss chalet. On the inside it is small and cramped, but redeemingly friendly. The hostel is only four blocks from the city centre, but already the road is bereft of tarmac and when the earth is dry, a plume of dust marks the passing of each battered vehicle. It is also cheap at less than £4 a night.

The 2001 devaluation of the currency has overwhelmed the proud country that was once the envy of Latin America. In the 1990s, with the peso pegged to the dollar, middle-class families could afford to shop in Miami; the minimum wage is now less than £70 per month. The poor have been reduced to desperation. Every night an army of workers descends on Buenos Aires to comb through the city’s rubbish bags in search of scrap paper and glass to sell for next-to-nothing. Ushuaia, too, has its makeshift shacks and rubbish sifters. In the centre of town, the cruising Americans are approached by a teenage girl with an outstretched hand and a baby swaddled in a red blanket, its eyes screwed shut with the cold.

I walk to the summit of the Marcial glacier with a view out towards Cape Horn. The snow covering the mountain pass is knee-deep and hard going, although for company I join forces with three intensely blonde Bavarian girls. They wear plastic bags over trainers and are clearly freezing. From the top, the sea is a dirty smudge beyond Chile. I hope that Cape Horn is dark and brooding, but it is still deceptively flat and grey. On the way down, the trio speed off into the distance, sliding on their supermarket bags.

In the evening I speak to Soledad. She works part time at the hostel and also at a café in Ushuaia, despite her broken arm. Sole, as she is known, tells me about two cyclists aiming to pedal to the length of the continent to Alaska. They were telling everyone their destination, she remembers, but the very next day they took a ferry to Puerto Williams. She says with a wry grin: “I had to stop myself pointing out that Alaska is the other way!” She then embarrasses me with a friendly quip about the Falkland/Malvinas Islands: “When will you pirates let us have them back?”

Away from town, at the Tierra del Fuego national park, the coastline is craggy and swept by a salty breeze that bows the trees nearest the shore. Small, rocky islands, housing colonies of penguins and blubbery sea lions, jut up over the skyline. I spend a day walking with a Spaniard from the Canary Islands. He insists that his name is Wenceslas, even though he introduces himself as Marcos. At my disbelief, he brandishes his passport in front of my eyes. A younger face with a crooked grin stares back at me, although I have to concede that he is right. He wears a yellow jumper and green beret that I can recognise from a great distance, even as the light begins to fade.

New Year is carnivorous. I eat slabs of bloody meat with hunks of bread and strong Malbec wine, while a token salad bowl sits, untouched, in a corner. My dinner companions are a multinational mix of people tucking into the juicy Argentine beef with equal relish. In the far corner lounges Pablo, a 45-year-old architect from Madrid, singing with Marcos. Next to them is Guy, an Israeli sailor looking to hitchhike to the Falkland/Malvinas Islands and Jan, a German exchange student from Erlangen-Nuremburg University. After dinner, I sit with five Argentines from Rosario drinking mate, the national infusion drunk from a hollowed-out gourd with a metal straw, and playing truco, a card game almost as subtle as bridge and much more fun. The sky at 2.00 a.m. has an eerie pre-dusk quality; it is not yet fully dark at this latitude. Three hours later, I watch the early sunrise, shivering on a small wooden dock between weathered craft that creak in the light surf.

I leave Ushuaia on a military passenger plane, complete with turquoise and white roundels, piloted by a uniformed officer sporting Top Gun sunglasses. The Air Force is oddly in direct competition with Aerolineas Argentinas on domestic flights. £8 is all that separates a two-hour flight from a 32-hour bus ride to El Calafate; I decide to brave that short runway a second time.

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