As the plane lowers, the jagged edges of Tierra del Fuego and its dominant colors become clearer: the dark blue of the icy sea, the greens, yellows and reds of the vegetation and the white and black of the final mountains of the Andes and the houses of Ushuaia.
Landing requires a reversal of direction. We flew, in a circle, over the Beagle Channel and came across Ushuaia's glittering houses, spread along the foothills of the Darwin Mountains, here at an altitude of about 1500 meters. When we can't see it, the plane lands, as per the rules, against the wind and softly.
The Warm Reception of Ushuaia
For pure fun, we curse the panoply of winter clothes that clutter our backpacks. We know that at 54,48 degrees south, almost summer moments like the one we find are as rare as coconut trees and that, from one moment to the next, the cold air masses from the frozen continent regain their territory.
It was not the sunny days of these confines that have gone down in history. Nor are delight and comfort the sensations that are most withdrawn from the adventures of the adventurers who explored it.
Even so, a lot has changed since then. As in the time of Magalhães and Fitz Roy, Ushuaia and Buenos Aires are still 3500 km away, but Tierra del Fuego is no longer just a region of trials and privations. Its capital enjoys the title of southernmost city in the world.
In 1975 Bruce Chatwin narrated it “in Patagonia” as “a city without children with residents whose faces have blushed from the cold and who cast hostile glances at outsiders”. Even so, Ushuaia enchants, every year, thousands of visitors far less fearless than its pioneers.
With 64.000 inhabitants, Ushuaia is only 97a city of Argentina. For some decades, the status of the southernmost city on the face of the Earth has granted it privileges that make up for its smallness.
The Dispute for the Title of the Most Austral City
This status is envied by the usual suspects, whenever border or geographic issues of these parts are debated: the Chilean rivals.
On the other side of the Beagle Channel, further south, distant but real, is Puerto Williams, the Chilean counterpart that the Fueginos want to remain without a natural gas supply and deprived of the status of a city so that the epithet of Ushuaia does not jump there from the border.
With the aim of conquering the civilizational momentum that benefited the Argentine neighbor, Puerto Williams frequently claims the title. Franco, the owner of a sailboat on which we sailed along the nearby coast, explains to us the seriousness of the matter, as he tidies up the deck: “Friends, you are here for a few days.
It is difficult for you to understand what is involved. Just to give you an idea… despite the financial loss, the Argentine government blocks the supply of natural gas to Puerto Williams to prevent it from developing. Impressive isn't it? In my opinion they do very well. I don't even want to imagine the damage our economy would suffer if they passed the city.”
Puerto Williams' attempts are as ambitious as they are difficult to achieve. The local population is made up of just two thousand inhabitants, mostly military families based in the surrounding bases.
Every time Chileans reclaim the title, Ushuaia defeats them citing legislation that officially defines a city as an urban entity with more than 5000 inhabitants. Incomparably less than those in Ushuaia.
The Missionary Origin of Ushuaia, the Last of Cities
Ushuaia began to be formed, in 1870, through the action of the Missionary Society of South America, a British religious institution that built its branch there in Tierra del Fuego, to approach and convert indigenous people, especially those of the Yahgan ethnic group.
Shortly thereafter, the Argentine rulers built a prison.
From 1884 until around 1947, thousands of troubled neighbors joined the small town: the country's most feared criminals and political prisoners.
At that time - the second half of the XNUMXth century -, as a result of its privileged position, Ushuaia assumed itself as a naval base of great military importance for Argentina and its allies.
For the same reason – plus significant financial benefits granted by the Argentine government –, more recently, several companies have been set up, mainly in the assembly of electronic components.
High wages and low taxation provoked an influx of new inhabitants, Argentine newcomers and foreigners. With the additional advent of tourism, the city has developed to its current size and appearance.
Rise to the Martial Glacier and a View to the Last of Cities
The same morning we arrived, we set off towards the mountains and the Martial glacier, which we are told have ideal views to appreciate and understand Ushuaia's dramatic location.
After a long climb that combines hiking and cable car, through a dense forest that is still turning yellow, we reach the first panoramic point.
High above the verdant forest of slogans quality Nires, the half-slope of Martial mountain range – where the namesake glacier surrenders to global warming – reveals the blue vastness of the Beagle Channel, the sinuous peninsula on which Ushuaia sprawls and the colorful, dense and numerous houses that, in part, fill it.
We then understood, better than ever, how the last city negotiated its existence with the mountain range and the sea.
Only the natural component of this panorama existed, in 1520, when Fernão de Magalhães he led his expedition across the northernmost straits, and discovered an unexpected passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.
At that time, Magallanes came across, there, indigenous tribes Alakaluf, Mane'kenk, Selk'nam and Yamaná, the natives who shared the area. He was surprised by the solution they arrived at to survive the southern cold, always equipped with small fires, including, when traveling, on their canoes.
Inspired by the strange abundance of bonfires, Magalhães named the region Terra dos Fumos. The name would later be changed to the one that lasts and defines the last of the Argentine provinces: Tierra del Fuego.
Every time the sun beats the clouds, it is reflected off the metal roofs of the houses, made of zinc and aluminium.
Many are painted. This gives the houses a multicolored look that projects itself in the vivid blue of the Beagle channel, beyond the urban limits.
And in the varied tones of the beech leaves that cover the mountain all the way to the glacier's surroundings.
Calle vs Calle, in the Last of the Austral Cities
We return to the foothills of the mountain range and resume walking around Ushuaia.
We soon realized that the urban center of the city is reduced to a few streets that repeat themselves in a linear fashion, sloping and delimited by low-rise buildings. covers two streets the main ones, Maipu and Deloqui.
At first glance, the real attractions are scarce. Of particular note are the historic buildings of the Provincial Legislature, the Iglésia de la Merced, the Casa Beban and the Presidio.
We don't see signs of street vendors or customer solicitors pressuring passersby but, despite being quiet, this cientros It soon proves to be a commercial trap, full of souvenir shops, winter sports clothing and equipment, small tour agencies, bars, restaurants and ice cream parlors.
But it was not tourism that was at the origin of the foundation of Ushuaia. Is the capital fuegin it remains unwilling to rely solely on outsiders.
The abundance of fish and natural gas makes the task easier, and the Argentine and Tierra del Fuego governments have done their part by granting tax incentives that have attracted several technological multinationals such as Grundig.
We reached the end of the slope. There we discover the Ushuaia Bay and the firm landscapes of the Cordillera Darwin, retouched by the soft light that always falls on this southern corner of the world.
The Unexpected French Invasion of Ushuaia
We continue along the bay until we reach the jetty that welcomes the military, cargo and passenger ships moored in the city. We watch them from the Tourist Wharf until, suddenly, from and a huge French war frigate at the end of the dock, several set sail. zodiacs loaded with sailors.
They are advancing, at great speed, towards us. They disembark exactly on the walkway on which we find ourselves, which goes from a quiet refuge to “Gaul territory”. A justified frenzy is formed if it comes from a crew that has not set foot on land for many days.
When nothing made him predict, we found ourselves photographing groups of sailors frankius who make a point of eternalizing themselves in front of the sign that says “Ushuaia: fin del mundo”. "La derniére, monsieur, s'il vous plait! "
Antarctica: Towards the Last Frontier
From the Molhe do Turista, you can see ships that have just arrived or are about to set sail for the frozen continent. They are old Russian, Argentine and American scientific or military vessels: the “orlova", the "M/V Discovery", the "Antarctica AA", the "M/V Grigoriy Mikheev“, among others, and even an old Dutch boat – the “Bark Europe” – that the newly discovered tourist potential of Antarctica made them to be transformed into ferries, albeit artillery against gigantic waves and white, semi-solid seas.
Waiting for the journey of their lives to begin are passengers with full bank accounts. The frozen continent is just 1000km away but adventure is not for everyone. The most affordable programs are around $3000 for 9 to 15 day trips.
Sounds like money well spent. By observing the itineraries, we detect mythical places: the Falkland (Malvinas), Cape Horn, South Georgia and the South Shetlands even before anchoring in the Antarctic Peninsula.
We walk the jetty from top to bottom and share some of the excitement and anticipation that hangs in the air.
There is a strike at the airport in Ezeiza, Buenos Aires. Delayed, passengers arrive at dropper. While these are received by the crew and their luggage is lifted by crane, those who managed to comply with the schedule coexist on board.
The rush is relative. The official embarkation was to take place that afternoon, but the boats did not leave until the following morning.
The Anachronistic Bark Europe
We pay special attention to the Bark Europa, a three-masted vessel, powered by a maximum of 30 sails but, when necessary, supported by engines. It was built in 1911 and restored in 1994 to carry out the most diverse expeditions.
It has recently been awarded an annual itinerary starting in Amsterdam, passing through Lisbon and Tenerife, continuing to Salvador and Ushuaia where it remains from the end of November to the end of February operating successive expeditions to Antarctica.
The crew of the “Bark Europe” is made up of fourteen professional sailors but includes dozens of volunteers who can fulfill the dream of sailing the old-fashioned way in those challenging parts of the Planet.
From the pier, we watched one of the resident crew perform various tasks across the latitude of the masts and the maze of ropes that hold the sails.
Dressed in a denim overalls, in the bold fashion of sailors of our times, he moves with the lightness gained in endless days of training but also with the security of acquired experience.
On deck, passengers admire the maneuvers, chat and savor wine. In the meantime it gets dark. Let's investigate another boat, anchored ashore.
After an invigorating night's sleep, the next morning, the ships and passengers on the long dock will leave Ushuaia, beyond the End of the World.