Misleadingly named, Museo Marítimo de Ushuaia (Yaganes and Gobernador Paz, tel. 02901/437481, museomar [at] satlink [dot] com) best tells the tale of Ushuaia ’s inauspicious origins as a penal settlement for both civilian and military prisoners. Alarmed over the South American Missionary Society’s incursions among the Beagle Channel’s indigenous peoples, Argentina reinforced its claims to the territory by building, in 1884, a military prison on Isla de los Estados (Staten Island), across the Strait of Lemaire from the Isla Grande’s southeastern tip.
Barely a decade later, in 1896, it established Ushuaia’s civilian Cárcel de Reincidentes for repeat offenders; after finally deciding, in 1902, that Isla de los Estados was a hardship station even for prisoners, the military moved to Ushuaia. In 1911, the two institutions fused in this building that, over the first half of the 20th century, held some of Argentina’s most famous political prisoners, celebrated rogues, and notorious psychopaths.
Divided into five two-story pavilions, with 380 cells intended for one prisoner each, the prison held up to 600 prisoners at a time before closing in 1947. Its most famous inmates were political detainees such as immigrant Russian anarchist Simón Radowitzsky, who killed Buenos Aires police chief Ramón Falcón with a bomb in 1909; Radical politicians Ricardo Rojas, Honorio Pueyrredón, and Mario Guido (despite the name, today’s Radicals are an ineffectual middle-class party); and Peronist politician Héctor Cámpora, who was briefly president in the 1970s. Many prisoners, though, were long-termers or lifers such as the diminutive strangler Cayetano Santos Godino, a serial killer dubbed “El Orejudo” for his oversized ears.
Life-size figures of the most infamous inmates, department store dummies clad in prison stripes, occupy many cells. One particularly interesting exhibit is a wide-ranging comparison with other prisons that have become museums, such as San Francisco’s Alcatraz and South Africa’s Robben Island.
The museum manages to justify its name with an exceptional exhibit of scale models of ships from local history, such as Magellan’s galleon Trinidad, Fitz Roy’s Beagle, the South American Missionary Society’s three successive sailboats known as the Allen Gardiner, and Antarctic explorer and conqueror Roald Amundsen’s Fram. In addition, it covers Argentina’s Antarctic presence since the early 20th century, when the corvette Uruguay rescued Otto Nordenskjöld’s Norwegian expedition, whose crew included the Argentine José María Sobral. On the grounds is a full-size replica of the Faro San Juan de Salvamento, the Isla de los Estados lighthouse that figures in Jules Verne’s story “The Lighthouse at the End of the World.”
In addition, this exceptional museum contains a philatelic room, natural-history exhibits, and admirable accounts of the region’s aboriginal peoples. In fact, it has only two drawbacks: There’s too much to see in a single day, and the English translations could use some polishing—to say the least.
The Museo Marítimo is open 9 a.m.–8 p.m. daily from mid-October to the end of April; the rest of the year, it opens an hour later. Guided tours are at 11:30 a.m. and 6:15 p.m. daily, but schedules can change.
Admission costs US$7 per person, but on request the staff will validate your ticket for another day; since there’s so much here, splitting up sightseeing sessions makes sense. There are discounts for children under age six (US$1.50), students and senior citizens (both US$2), and families (US$12 including up to four children). It has an excellent book and souvenir shop, and a fine confitería for snacks and coffee.