The end of the earth doesn't look like I expected. I had an image of desolation - a bleak, windswept shoreline; a few weather-beaten houses; a flag snapping on a promontory. But Ushuaia is a quaintly rough-hewn city of about 50,000 residents.
Plenty of souvenir stores exist, but most of the businesses are of the sort that townspeople shop at - hardware and clothing and grocery stores. The city's hilly, densely packed downtown streets are lively with shoppers and restaurantgoers dressed more for comfort than for fashion.
Built into a mountainside, surrounded in the distance by the snowcapped Andes, and overlooking the islands in the dark blue Beagle Channel, Ushuaia is, more than anything, a charming town enveloped by almost inconceivable beauty.
Ushuaia is the capital of the Argentine province of Tierra del Fuego, or "Land of Fire." Separated from the mainland by the Strait of Magellan, Tierra del Fuego is the largest island of an archipelago at the bottom of Argentina and Chile. Ferdinand Magellan, the first European to visit the land, named it for the many beach fires lit by the native people of four Indian tribes.
An Anglican missionary founded the settlement in the 1870s, but it was put on the map a few years later when the Argentine government turned the area into a penal colony for criminals and political dissidents. The city grew up around the prison, which was closed in 1947. In recent years, due to tax breaks for manufacturers and increased tourism, its population has exploded from about 5,000 in 1970.
Fully aware of their place on this earth - and its commercial potential - the locals have nicknamed their city Fin del Mundo, or "End of the World." (Puerto Williams in Chile is farther south than Ushuaia, but consists primarily of a naval base and about 2,500 residents, not enough to be considered a city. There are even smaller settlements on islands farther south.)
The outskirts of town are a hodgepodge of wood, tin, and prefabricated houses, attesting to the city's rapid growth. In town, two- and three-story storefronts edge the treeless, paved sidewalks. The air smells not so much of the sea, as one might expect, but of clean mountain air.
That evening, we eat at a seafood restaurant across from the Beagle Channel. The channel is named for the H.M.S. Beagle, which brought Charles Darwin here in 1832. Beyond the channel is Cape Horn, once famously disastrous to ships (several old wrecks lay on the shore), and, further past, Antarctica. The menu includes local catch, such as centolla fueguina (spider crab), black hake, codfish, and sea bream.
A family tradition is to challenge the freshness of the catch. "Where is the fish from?" Sam asks the waiter. The waiter points out the window to the rippling waters of the Beagle Channel.
Okay, fresh enough.