Inching towards the far end of the earth: Exploring Ushuaia

Inching towards the far end of the earth: Exploring Ushuaia | Shutterstock

Popularly dubbed as the 'End of the World,' as Ushuaia is placed at the Southernmost tip of South America, this scenic resort town hovers between the Martial mountains, the bay and the beagle channel, making it one of the most popular destinations of Argentina. When you are there, try their unique train ride that snakes its way to show you some of the most spectacular sights of Ushuaia. The Southern Fuegian Railway or the Train of the End of the world is a 500 mm gauge steam railway in Tierra del Fuego Province (7 kilometers outside Ushuaia). Initially constructed as a cargo line to serve the prison of Ushuaia, for transporting timber, it now works as a heritage railway into the Tierra del Fuego National Park (the southernmost functioning railway in the world).

It drives us through Patagonian lakes, lagoons, and rivers, passes Mt Susana, briefly halting at Macarena Waterfall Station, Redonda and Estorbo Islands, Sampaio Mountains, Roca Lake, and the Condor Hill. It remains one of the most beautiful sights in the world.

Ushuaia: Last remnants of American colonialism

It was Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan (who apparently was a regular visitor to India) who discovered the Tierra del Fuego Island (divided between Chile and Argentina) in 1520. It was Magellan who christened the settlements Tierra del Fuego or Land of Fire after the many bonfires the natives built. By the middle of the 19th century, Europeans and missionaries had landed, displacing the native population to give way to the civilization it had become today. It also coincided with the Patagonian sheep farming boom and gold rush. Tierre del Fuego is known for petroleum extraction along with tourism today.

The history of the railway

During the 19th century, the Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego (Big island of the land of Fire) later occupied by Ushuaia, was used as a penalty colony to house prisoners by the Argentinian government. Built like a panopticon (It is a central observation tower placed within a circle of prison cells. From the tower, a guard can see every cell and inmate, but the inmates cannot see into the tower) it was near impossible to escape from the prison as the island was placed in isolation. The city was built with the timber procured from the adjacent forests. Initially this railway was used to transport the construction goods and the first rails were made from wood and were called Xilocarril (Wooden railroad). Bulls were used to drag the wagons. But in 1909, the prison officers rebuilt the rails using steel and steam locomotives. Soon the train became operational to pick wood and stones for cooking prison food and other building constructions from the prison to forestry camps. It was called ten-de-los-presos or the prisoner’s train.

When they ran out of timber, the railway, already with the Decauville-type rails, developed rapidly, with the network stretching on the slopes of Cerro Susana, inside the valley of the Pipo River and reached the Cañadón del Toro. That is how it turned into the magnificent Train of the end of the world you see today.

Two events changed the course for the emergence of Ushuaia-when the jail was shut down in 1947 and the end of the Falklands war (10-week undeclared war between Argentina and the United Kingdom) in 1982. The re-emergence of Argentinian democracy rescued the city and its iconic railways from anonymity. Soon the railways were restored into a 500 mm gauge steam railway and made available for tourist consumption. That is how the ten-de-los-presos came to be rechristened as the Southern Fuegian Railway or the Train of the End of the world.

The Tren del Fin del Mundo railway moves from Ushuaia towards the Tierra del Fuego National Park, following the 100-year route of the historic Convict Train. It passes macarena waterfalls, beech forests, peat bogs, and a glimpse of the timber-felling worksites of Ushuaia prisoners from 1901 to 1941. It can carry 16 passengers in an hour long train ride to the National park. It is also a memorable ride back to the bygone era of steam railway engines and some old-world nostalgia. There are several great tourist packages available online for those who want to visit this part of the world.  

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