End of the World Train: Full steam through Argentina heading to Ushuaia | The traveler

We are aboard the End of the World Train, the southernmost railway on the planet. All around, the smoke from the small steam locomotive mixes with the clouds that envelop the last rattles of the Andes mountain range and with the sleet that falls on the ancient lenga forests and on the meltwater streams. We are in Ushuaia, more precisely at the entrance to the Argentine national park of Tierra del Fuego, and the convoy in which we traveled was once known as the prisoners’ train. In order to assert sovereignty over the region, at the end of the 19th century, the Argentine government decided to install a prison that was active from 1902 to 1947 in these remote latitudes as a way to populate the place. The idea was to build it next to Fort Ushuaia, erected in 1884 as the first representation of the Argentine State in the area. The train, at that time, was used by the prisoners to bring the necessary stone for the construction of the prison and the wood to feed their stoves. Completely renovated, it now serves tourist purposes and recalls the city’s birth as a penal colony.

Ushuaia —bay of the bottom or deep bay, in the Yagan language— is today an important port of goods, as well as the largest industrial and tourist hub in the area, from which, for example, most of the cruise ships that visit Antarctica depart. Excursions on horseback or by boat are combined with the raffles through the mountains and glaciers, and with the sighting of whales, sea lions and penguins that populate the Beagle Channel. With a stable population of more than 70,000 inhabitants, it has always been considered the southernmost city in the world, a title that, with some 2,000 inhabitants, is disputed today by the Chilean town of Puerto Williams.

A colony of South American sea lions in Tierra del Fuego (Argentina).Alamy

Before the Argentine Government took possession of these lands, there was a first unofficial foundation by Europeans. It was the Anglican mission established by Thomas Bridges, an English deacon who settled here with his wife and two other families in what would later become the city of Ushuaia. Bridges was the adopted son of an Anglican pastor assigned to the delegation that the congregation had in the Malvinas Islands, from where they carried out the first evangelizing attempts among the indigenous people of Tierra del Fuego. The first settlement had disastrous consequences: the Indians killed all its members. Discouraged, Bridges’ foster father decided to return to England, but Thomas, aged 18 and having learned the Yahgan language, decided to stay. Thus, with the advantage of being able to communicate with the aborigines, in 1871 he settled on the land where the city stands today. Upon the arrival of the Argentine military, Bridges gladly hoisted the flag of that country, which years later earned him the assignment of 20,000 hectares on which he founded what would be the first cattle ranch in the region: the Harberton ranch, now visitable.

“My family’s history touches me very closely,” says Abby Goodall, great-great-granddaughter of Thomas Bridges, as we tour the ranch facilities. When she got married and had her children she was the only woman for miles around, and when her husband went out to work in the fields—sometimes for days—she had no one to talk to. Recalling those early days of her ancestors in these inhospitable lands is thus quite close to her. Harberton has seen its cattle activity reduced almost to zero and is dedicated more to receiving tourists who want to get in touch with the pioneering spirit of the end of the 19th century in the most remote corner of the planet. The sawmill, the shearing shed, the original house and the cemetery are visited, where the ancestors of the family are buried along with some Yagan Indians who worked there. When Goodall was a child, her father was one of the few pilots who knew the area well. Thus, the commercial flights that began to arrive called him on the radio so that he would indicate to them where it was convenient to enter. In thanks, the pilots dropped gifts out the window that she and her brothers ran to collect. Sometimes it was some candies, others a chocolate. The letters they received reached them through the same rudimentary system.

The story of the founding years was recorded by Abby’s great-grandfather in the wonderful book The last end of the earth (1948), in which its author —Lucas Bridges— recounts his childhood among the aborigines. Before founding a second ranch in the northwest of the Big Island, he settled for a few years in a post located about 10 kilometers from his parents’ house, in Cambaceres Bay. Until there I move on a bicycle that Abby lends me. The bay is still as virgin as when Lucas Bridges inhabited it. On the coast, the circles in which the Yahgan tents were installed can be clearly distinguished, since the mounds formed by the accumulation of shells from the molluscs on which they fed clearly delimit them. I sit in the old camp to watch the afternoon go by and the storms that enter from the Atlantic, and it is not difficult to evoke the days in which the native Yaganes lived in perfect harmony with this beautiful and inhospitable environment, before man white man arrived to impose his civilizing task.

The Les Éclaireurs lighthouse, on the NE islet in the Beagle Channel, off the coast of Ushuaia Bay.
The Les Éclaireurs lighthouse, on the NE islet in the Beagle Channel, off the coast of Ushuaia Bay.hstiver (Getty Images)

Among the main buildings of the Harberton ranch is the Acatushun Museum, which Abby’s mother created to exhibit the specimens of southern birds and mammals that she collected throughout her life. In the city of Ushuaia you can also visit the Maritime and Presidio museums, as well as the End of the World Museum, where you can get in touch with the natural wealth of the area and with the history of the Ona and Yagán cultures. In the downtown restaurants you can taste the Fuegian spider crab and shellfish and fish such as black croaker, sea bream or haddock, as well as the typical Patagonian lamb. Boat tours ply the Beagle Channel, and in the long snow season from June to October, eight winter resorts offer downhill or cross-country skiing, dog sledding and snowshoeing. In the southern summer, raffles and the horseback riding routes through the mountain range are an excellent way to delve into the impressive geography of one of the most virgin corners of the planet.

In a Yagan settlement

The End of the World Train runs the last eight kilometers of the original route, between the End of the World and Park stations. Its wagons, made entirely of wood and in a classic style, move on tracks barely 50 centimeters apart from each other, which gives the convoy the look of a collectible train. Before embarking on the march, we attended the spectacle of the start-up of the three steam locomotives, one of which has the honor of being the first of its kind built in Argentina. Halfway through the route we stop at the Macarena station, the only stop along the way, where we have the opportunity to visit a reproduction of a Yaghan settlement.

At the end of the trip, the people from Canal Fun are waiting for us to take us for a canoe ride. From Lake Acigami we descend the Lapataia River to flow into the bay of the same name, in the waters of the Beagle Channel. A sudden downpour — like all the ones that break out here — makes landfall difficult. In addition to being our landing point, Lapataia Bay is the place where Route 3 ends, the last stretch of the Pan-American Highway that runs across the continent from Alaska to where we are. Further south there are only Navarino Island, Cape Horn and Antarctica. With the mouth of the Beagle Channel opening towards the Atlantic, we can say that we have reached the end of the world.

Javier Argüello is the author of ‘Being Red’ (Random House Literature, 2020).

Subscribe here to The Traveler newsletter and find inspiration for your next trips in our accounts Facebook, Twitter me Instagram.

Leave a Comment