Tourists waited in line like modern pioneers, with smiles and selfie sticks, anxious to document their visits to the far south of the world. An old, hand-painted wooden sign read “Fin del mundo.” The town of Ushuaia sits on a tiny sliver of Argentinian land in the Tierra del Fuego province, between the foot of the Andes mountain range and the Beagle Channel. From there onward, there is only a slice of Chilean territory and then the ocean, until the ices of Antarctica.
Ushuaia is the world’s southernmost town, making it one of the most isolated places on Earth. But even that distance hasn’t protected it from the social, political, and economic forces shaping the rest of the world. A visit in December revealed a community emboldened by tourism and manufacturing, but fractured by the effects of creeping globalization and uneven distribution of resources. For some, Ushuaia offers adventure and the promise of economic opportunity; for others, it is the backdrop of a lifelong struggle.
For thousands of years, the area was populated by the Selk’nam, a group indigenous to the region. By the mid-20th century, their population had been decimated by European colonizers. Ushuaia’s development into an urban center began in the 1800s, when British settlers occupied the land. In an effort to secure permanent residents and to help establish Argentine sovereignty over the province, then-president Julio Argentino Roca promoted the establishment of a penal colony for re-offenders, where criminals considered to be the most dangerous were sent.
Today Ushuaia counts around 56,000 inhabitants. Thanks to its appeal as an outpost at the “end of the world,” it’s a desirable destination for domestic and international tourists. Among those travelers are adventurers with a major goal in mind: Antarctica.
Antonio Guglielmo, a professional skipper from Rome, has traveled the freezing waters to Antarctica several times on a 46-foot sailing ship called La Pinta. “Now it’s been 16 years that I live my life between Italy and Ushuaia,” he said. We first met him on the town’s touristic dock, a crossroads for people embarking on organized cruises or on sailing boats chartered for smaller groups.
“It’s impossible to put in words what it means to cross the Drake Passage,” Guglielmo said, sweeping the ship’s wooden cabin. “They call it ‘the Everest of the seas’ because in that part of the ocean that divides the South American continent from Antarctica, everything can happen.” Some photos he took during his last crossing looked like a big-budget action movie. “Waves as high as buildings, and the wind that blows you away. You must know exactly what route to follow because it only takes a little distraction to put you in danger,” he said.
In addition to Guglielmo’s ship, there was a handful of other boats getting ready to set sail in the next few days. They few flags from all over the world. Just standing still on the dock, watching the pre-departure agitation, emanates the feeling of adventure. Tourism in Ushuaia is very much built on the concept of adventure and extreme experiences. It has become a legitimate industry almost entirely run by local tourist agencies who profit through organized excursions of the town.
But the industry isn’t without controversy. Because of a monopoly allowed to tour companies, many natural sites cannot be visited free of charge. “This is something that as a citizen makes me very angry,” said Cali, a former employee of the Ushuaia municipality, as we walked through a mountainous forest close to the city center. He led us up a hill, the path growing tighter and tighter among the trees until it opened to a peaceful clearing overlooking a small waterfall. “This is the kind of things we should be proud of. Everyone should benefit this and not those commercial tours sold by the tourist agencies along the main boulevard,” he said.
“Not so long ago, a good friend of mine, a young and brilliant touristic guide, was forced to quit his job because he promoted to his clients free-of-charge hikes and excursions, which were outside the touristic agencies’ business,” said Cali, who moved to Ushuaia from Buenos Aires. He and his partner, Veronica, and their daughter, Morena, were among the first families to live in a neighborhood called Las Raices (“the roots”). Las Raices is one of 52 occupied districts in Ushuaia that sprung up spontaneously in the past 25 years, after a public housing program was shut down by the local administration.
With only temporary employment and unable to afford rent in town, dozens of families began peacefully occupying plots of land around Ushuaia, building their homes step-by-step. “I’ve done back and forth with my car, I don’t know how many times, to carry all the necessary stuff to build my home,” said Pao, a young mother of three who lives in Dos Banderas (“two flags), a neighborhood not far from Cali’s. “It has been a very hard time, because back in those days, police established a checkpoint at the entrance of the neighborhood to inspect all the vehicles coming in to avoid the smuggle of construction material. I’ve had to cut all the wood I’ve used to build my house in small parts so I could hide it easily in the car.”
In the past, government officials and local police tried to evict people from these occupied areas, claiming that the land was designated for new hotels and touristic facilities. More recently, the government began a dialog to address the problem. “It’s a matter of keep fighting every day for our rights,” said Pao. “Fundamental rights, like the housing one, should be the basis of every modern society.”
On the drive back into the city center, Pao’s description of Ushuaia’s social conflict feels clear. In the same woods occupied by 350 struggling families is the Arakur Hotel, the town’s most expensive five-star hotel. “The building has been recently renewed to offer our clients the best comfort we can during their stay at the end of the world,” said Nicolas Garcia, a manager at Arakur. He spoke proudly about the structure as he led us toward the hotel’s gem: an external heated swimming pool with a breathtaking view of the city and the Beagle Channel. In one of several large halls, a group of American tourists tried on technical gear before embarking on a cruise to Antarctica.
“We have so many guests, there’s an endless turnover every week, especially during summer season because of the cruises leading towards the South Pole’s ices. We have Americans, Europeans, Brazilians, Japanese, you name it, people from all over the world,” said Garcia.
From the Arakur’s panoramic terrace, it’s easy to spot the industrial district on the east side of town. It’s where most of Ushuaia’s commerce is done, in the middle of an outstanding landscape. Due to harsh climate conditions, the town relies almost entirely on produce imported from the northern regions of Argentina. Almost everything that arrives in Ushuaia is kept in hundreds of colorful containers belonging to international import-export companies that work with local factories that assemble electronic goods. At one plant belonging to the Chinese electronics manufacturer Huawei, workers build mobile phones.
To attract business to the isolated Tierra del Fuego province, lower taxes are offered. An attempt to turn it into a manufacturing hub means the steady arrival of migrant workers, from the north of Argentina and from neighboring countries like Chile and Bolivia, in search of economic opportunity and a better life. For some, the end of the world offers the hope of a new beginning.