Tuesday, April 5, 2011

To the Ends of the Earth

Alli in the National Park of Tierra del Fuego
My first encounter with Tierra del Fuego (the Land of Fire) was through Bruce Chatwin’s book, In Patagonia. His words created images of far flung settlements struggling in sparse, windswept landscapes. His ability to weave the passion of the people and the harshness of the terrain were enough to make me want to undertake my own Patagonian adventure.

For years, I’d dreamt about travelling to the Land of Fire, and in particular, Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world (although, the Chileans dispute this—don’t get them started). Located on the icy shores of the Beagle Channel and surrounded by the Martial chain of mountains, Ushuaia could easily be mistaken as a seaside town in Scandinavia. Now used as a stepping-off point for boat trips to Antarctica, Ushuaia has a rich, and at times, seedy history. A visit to Presidio, the city’s old prison, will set one straight.

In 1902, Ushuaia was designated as a place to lodge re-offenders. Its remote location and inhospitable environment meant anyone crazy enough to escape would perish in the cold and harsh elements. Prisoners were indentured to build a jail and by the time they finished in 1920, the prison housed murderers, thieves, political prisoners, and military deserters. Originally designed to inter 380 prisoners in single cells, the jail housed 800 men.

Walking through the cold, echoing passages, it’s not hard to imagine the suffering and dog-eat-dog behavior that once ruled these halls. But all wasn’t lost on those willing to make good. Prisoners with a proven record of good behavior received the chance to earn wages and work inside the workshops or even outside the jail. They undertook trades the community desperately needed—printers, cobblers, carpenters, bakers, and pharmacists among them. Because of these services, the residents of Ushuaia didn’t have to rely so heavily on the ships arriving once a month to deliver goods. Thanks to the skills of the inmates, Ushuaia grew into a flourishing, self-sufficient community.

The prison closed in 1947 but visitors can relive life there through the small, but fascinating museums that fill Ushuaia. The Museo de Presidio, also houses the Museo Maritimo (Maritime Museum) and the Antarctic Museum. The central hall of the prison is hired out as a function and lecture room and, from there, the cells sprout off like a spinning wheel. Many of the small rooms contain keepsakes from past prisoners. Pabellón 4 (Pavilion 4) delves into Tierra del Fuego’s history, including the history of Ferdinand Magellan, the Portuguese explorer who sailed for the Spanish Crown and discovered this island in 1520. 

The second floor of Pavilion 4 hosts the Antarctic Museum. It displays tools used by polar expeditions and biological materials, including a comprehensive history of expeditions to Antarctica. There are incredibly detailed models of famous ships, built to scale, providing a glimpse into the region’s history. The most appealing part of the museum, to me, is the willingness of the curators to not only celebrate history, but use it to build on present and future explorations of the snowy continent.

And if you can’t get enough history, then the Museo del Fin del Mundo (Museum of the End of the World) might help in that department. The stately building was once a local branch of the Banco de la Nación Argentina (National Bank of Argentina) and played an important role in the settler’s success in this remote part of the world. The displays represent aboriginal groups, along with the story of how Tierra del Fuego got its name. Turns out, when Magellan first sailed into the strait, he spotted fires burning along the shores. The flames belonged to the Yaghan people, so Magellan and his men originally christened the island as the Land of Smoke, later changing it to the Land of Fire.

The library holds more than 3,400 tomes devoted to history and sciences, such as anthropology. But it’s the Colección Reservada that gets book geeks like me all excited. Tucked away in a vault is a collection of original books written by scientists, explorers and influential people between the 16th and 19th centuries. At the time I visited, this vault was off limits to tourists, and I’ve been unable to find out if it’s available for viewing today. But just the thought of it for me feels like a little piece of heaven. I can imagine my nose twitching from the mold, spines of books snapping as they’re opened, and pages crinkling as I gently turned them with white cotton gloved hands. 

The Land of Fire offers a lot more than museums though. It’s been the subject of many novels, including the lighthouse on the Isla de los Estados (Island of the States) which inspired Jules Verne to write The Lighthouse at the End of the World. A week in Ushuaia is barely enough to take in the museums, hiking, skiing, boating, estancias (ranches), penguins, and Train to the End of the World. And let’s not forget the Irish Pub. (Come on, did you really think I’d neglect to mention such an important attraction?)

It’s easy to spend hours strolling up the hills and gazing out over the Beagle Channel. With Antarctica as a neighbor, Ushuaia is a city steeped in history and frontier culture.

1 comment:

  1. A prison museum? Someone really thought of that! Now I'm wondering if the Russians will ever make Gulag museums. Maybe they already did.