ushuaia: the end of the world

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Ushuaia is the capital of Tierra del Fuego, Argentina – a beautiful mountain-framed city that is the gateway to Antarctic expeditions. It is located in a bay on the southern coast of Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego, bounded on the north by the Martial mountain range and on the south by the Beagle Channel. I spent some time here while waiting for my expedition ship to Antarctica. By plane, Ushuaia is approximately three and a half hours from Buenos Aires.

Ushuaia has long been described as the southernmost city in the world. While there are settlements farther south, the only one of any notable size is Puerto Williams, a Chilean settlement of two thousand residents. As a center of population, commerce, and culture, and as a town of significant size and importance, Ushuaia however clearly qualifies as a city

In the late 19th century, the land that is now called Ushuaia was inhabited entirely by Yamana Indians and a handful of missionaries. Today, there may only be one living Yamana who speaks their language. Ushuaia is now growing fast as a result of increased tourism. The government has encouraged this growth by designating Tierra del Fuego a virtually tax-free zone to encourage people to settle (many of the inhabitants of today’s Ushuaia come from Chaco, in the north of Argentina. The cost of living however, is relatively high as all goods have to be transported long distances, usually by container ship.

The climate Ushuaia is warmer than many assume; although the southernmost city in the world, it is no further south than Belfast is north, and temperatures rarely drop below 14F [-10C]. However, summers tend not to climb much above 53F [12C] and, as in all of Patagonia, strong winds add a significant wind chill factor.

Interestingly, despite its remote location, on December 29, 2009, the first same-sex couple to marry in Latin America were married in Ushuaia. Although the Civil Code of Argentina at that time did not allow marriage between people of the same sex, Governor Fabiana Ríos issued a special decree allowing the couple to wed there. The marriage was annulled when the decree was reversed by Tierra del Fuego’s judiciary, since the Civil Code did not support it. Same sex marriage became legal nationwide in Argentina a few months later, on July 15, 2010, after the approval of a gender-neutral bill by the Argentine National Congress.

[Ushuaia photo by Robert Wren]

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