Beneath the Martial range’s serrated spires, on the Beagle Channel’s north shore, the city of Ushuaia is both an end (the virtual terminus of the world’s southernmost highway) and a beginning (the gateway to Antarctica). The surrounding countryside attracts activities-oriented visitors for hiking, mountain biking, fishing, and skiing. In the summer season, Ushuaia gets hundreds of thousands of visitors, many of them merely day-trippers from the hundreds of cruise ships that anchor here.
After more than two decades of economic growth and physical sprawl, the provincial capital is both declining and improving. On the one hand, the duty-free manufacturing, fishing, and tourist boom that transformed a onetime penal colony and naval base into a bustling city has weakened. On the other, it has spruced up the waterfront and restored historic buildings, some of them becoming hotels or B&Bs. The streets are cleaner (though Avenida San Martín is tourist-trap ugly) and there are more parks, plazas, and green spaces. Still, Ushuaia has particulate pollution problems because high winds kick up dust in its newer unpaved neighborhoods.
Even if it has leveled off, Ushuaia’s economic boom provided the wherewithal to preserve and even restore some of the city’s historic buildings. Two are now museums: Dating from 1912, the waterfront former branch of the Banco de la Nación (Av. Maipú 173) houses the historical Museo del Fin del Mundo, while the former Presidio de Ushuaia (Yaganes and Gobernador Paz), dating also from the early 20th century, is now the misleadingly named Museo Marítimo (while not insignificant, its maritime exhibits are less interesting than those on the city’s penal genesis).
Three blocks west of the Museo del Fin del Mundo, dating from 1893, the classically Magellanic Antigua Casa de Gobierno (Av. Maipú 465) once housed the provincial government and is now part of the museum. Five blocks farther west, the Antigua Capilla de la Merced (Av. Maipú and Rosas) is a chapel originally dating from 1898, restored in 1999. Municipal offices now occupy the 1926 Biblioteca Sarmiento (San Martín 674), the city’s first public library (built by prisoners). At the west end of downtown, the waterfront Casa Beban (Av. Maipú y Plüschow) is a reassembled pioneer residence dating from 1913; it now houses an exhibition center.
Museo del Fin del Mundo
Its block exterior handsomely restored, the evolving Museo del Fin del Mundo (Av. Maipú 173, tel. 02901/42-1863, 10am-7pm Mon.-Fri., 1pm-7pm Sat.-Sun. and holidays Oct.-Apr., noon-7pm Mon.-Sat. May-Sept., US$8) features exhibits on the Yámana, Selk’nam, and other Fuegian indigenous people and on early European voyages. There remain permanent exhibits on the presidio, an early general store, Banco de la Nación’s original branch (which occupied the building for more than 60 years), and natural history, including run-of-the-mill taxidermy. Its star artifact is a copy of Thomas Bridges’s Yámana-English dictionary.
An open-air sector recreates a Yámana encampment and dwellings alongside machinery used in early agriculture and forestry projects. There are also a bookstore/souvenir shop and a specialized library focused on southernmost Argentina, the surrounding oceans, and Antarctica.
Guided tours (11am and 2pm daily Oct.-Apr.) are available. Admission includes access to the former Casa de Gobierno (Government House, Av. Maipú 465), also with guided tours (noon and 3:30pm daily).
Museo Marítimo de Ushuaia
Somewhat misleadingly named, the Museo Marítimo y del Presidio de Ushuaia (Yaganes and Gobernador Paz, tel. 02901/43-7481, 9am-8pm daily Jan.-Mar., 10am-8pm daily Apr.-Dec., US$22 pp, US$16 students, US$48 family) most effectively tells the story of Ushuaia’s inauspicious origins as a settlement for prisoners. Alarmed over the South American Missionary Society’s incursions among the Beagle Channel’s indigenous peoples, Argentina reinforced its territorial claims in 1884 by building a military prison on Isla de los Estados (States Island), across the Strait of Lemaire at the southeastern tip of the Isla Grande.
Barely a decade later, in 1896, it established Ushuaia’s civilian Cárcel de Reincidentes for repeat offenders. After finally deciding that Isla de los Estados was a hardship post even for prisoners, the military moved its own facility to Ushuaia in 1902. Then, in 1911, the two institutions fused in this building, which held some of the country’s most famous political prisoners, celebrated rogues, and notorious psychopaths of the early 20th century, until closing in 1947.
Divided into five two-story pavilions, with 380 cells intended to house one prisoner each, it held up to 600 prisoners at a time. Its most famous inmates were political detainees, such as Russian anarchist bomber Simón Radowitzsky, who killed Buenos Aires police chief Ramón Falcón in 1909; Radical politicians Ricardo Rojas, Honorio Pueyrredón, and Mario Guido (the deceptively named Radicals are an ineffectual middle-class party); and Peronist politician Héctor Cámpora, who was briefly president in the 1970s.
Many, if not most, prisoners were long-termers or lifers, such as the diminutive strangler Cayetano Santos Godino, a serial killer dubbed “El Petiso Orejudo” for his shortness and oversize ears (the nickname also describes a large-eared bat native to the archipelago). Life-size figures of the most infamous inmates, department-store mannequins clad in prison stripes, occupy many cells. One intriguing 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 does justify its name with a collection of scale models of ships that have played a role in local history, such as Magellan’s galleon Trinidad, the legendary Beagle, the South American Missionary Society’s three successive sailboats, each known as the Allen Gardiner, and Antarctic explorer and conqueror Roald Amundsen’s Fram. In addition, there are materials on 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 stands 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, the museum contains a philatelic room, natural history and marine art exhibits, and admirable accounts of indigenous peoples. It has two drawbacks: There’s too much to see in a single day, and the English translations could use some polishing to say the least.
Tickets are valid for two days and, since there’s so much here, splitting up sightseeing sessions makes sense. The museum has an excellent book and souvenir shop, and a café for snacks and coffee.