Ushuaia, fin del mundo, principio de todo.
January at the End of the World, and a light drizzle is settling in for the day. Although it’s the height of summer, the temperature hovers around 10’C and a cold wind blows down from the mountains.
Squeezed between the Martial Range of the Andes, and the Beagle Channel at the tip of South America, the single long drag through town, is lined with shops selling Gore-Tex clothing, hiking boots, waterproofs, camping equipment, maps and guide books, as well as offering tours, excursions, plus car and bike rental.
It feels very much like a frontier town, as if straying too far, you might fall off the edge of the earth into dragon territory.
It’s a beautiful place, in a rugged, end of the world sort of way; a real jumping off point, and this is why we are here, about to set sail for the great white continent of Antarctica.
Ushuaia is a hub for increasing numbers of southern expeditions, the port filled with cruise ships big and small, preparing to take on passengers, but it’s also a base for exploring the ancient forests of Tierra Del Fuego National Park, for glacier trekking, skiing, dogsledding and fly-fishing, while tours of the harbour offer the chance to encounter sea lions, penguins, and many other sea birds.
Luxury cruises disgorge thousands of passengers at a time, anxious to experience the most southerly city in the world. Crowds of tourists dressed for adventure, and loaded down with camera equipment, busily peruse bars and restaurants for a taste of Argentinian barbeque, or search for an ATM that hasn’t already been emptied of cash.
We send postcards, it’s not often you get post from World’s End, and hunt for souvenirs; maybe a figure of a penguin carved from Patagonian stone, available in colours from rose pink to malachite green; or perhaps a book telling the story of the indigenous nomadic Yamana people, who despite the climate, preferred to remain naked than to wear rain soaked animal skins. Charles Darwin branded them the lowest form of humanity on earth, and today just one single elderly native Yamana woman survives; Cristina Calderón, born in 1928.
As a reward for our shopping purgatory, we treat ourselves with a visit to the pub, a clapboard shack, which appears to have been a makeshift construction in 1951, but is still in use, almost unchanged, more than 65 years later. It occurs to me that the whole town has the same feeling of impermanence, of rapidly erected makeshift buildings, which nonetheless have resisted time and weather, and no doubt will last well into the future.
Here we sample the produce of the Cerveza Artesanal Beagle brewery the world’s most southerly producer of craft beer. The hops are imported from England, the barley from Belgium and Germany, but their pure, clear water comes directly from the Martial Glacier.
The drizzle has stopped and the skies have cleared revealing a backdrop of sparkling snowy mountains, with a promise of adventure from the cruise ships filling the harbour. Colourful lupins brighten gardens and waste ground alike. The South beckons, but our visit has been far too brief.
Ushuaia is an explorer’s paradise.