Ushuaia, Argentina: The World's Southernmost City
Like two other South American communities, Ushuaia calls itself the world’s southernmost “city,” a title that varies depending on the size it takes to be defined as a city. Ushuaia doesn’t have the population of Chile’s Punta Arenas which lies more northerly and it doesn’t have the absolute southernmost location of the much smaller Puerto Williams, Chile. Whether or not this is the southernmost “city” or not, one thing’s for certain: Ushuaia is the capital of Tierra del Fuego, a land that has captivated the imagination of travelers since it was spotted and named by Ferdinand Magellan.
Tierra del Fuego or “Land of Fire” is an archipelago spanning almost 30,000 square miles at the tip of South America, separated from the mainland by the Strait of Magellan. At the southernmost tip of Tierra del Fuego lie Cape Horn and the Drake Passage, the route used for centuries by clipper ships in transporting goods around the globe.
Originally this was the land of the Yamana Indians who fished and hunted in this often extreme climate, staying warm with numerous campfires. It was the light of those campfires that inspired the name Tierra del Fuego when Magellan, the first European to travel this region, witnessed the fires on his 1520 voyage.
Development of the region was slow due to its remote location, pirate attacks, and extreme weather. A whaling station was established at today’s Ushuaia on what is now known as the Beagle Channel, a passage of water named for the HMS Beagle, the ship that brought naturalist Charles Darwin to the region. Eventually a prison colony was located at the site; the prisoners were put to work and helped create a town called Ushuaia, named for the native word meaning “bay towards the end.” The prison, which was used to hold many political prisoners, remained operational until the 1940s when it was repurposed as a naval base and today serves as a museum.
One of the projects of those early prisoners was to clear a line for a railway to transport timber. Today that railway continues to run as a tourist train; El Tren del Fin del Mundo or the End of the World Train is the southernmost rail line on the globe.
The railway is just one attraction in Ushuaia, a major jumping off point for Antarctica. The Museo Marítimo and Museo Del Presidio, located in the former prison, cover both the history of the penal institution and the sailing heritage of the region with special exhibits on Antarctic exploration. The region’s natural history is the focus of the Museo Del Fin Del Mundo, and the life of the area’s aboriginal population is explored at the Mundo Yamaná.
On nearby Isla de los Estados or Staten Island, the world’s southernmost lighthouse, Faro del Fin del Mundo, remains although it hasn’t been operational in over a century. The lighthouse was said to be the inspiration for Jules Verne’s novel The Lighthouse at the End of the World –an appropriate symbol for this community which sits almost at the end of the earth.
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