Finding Winter

for GoNomad, March 2019

I am going to the end of the world mostly to seek out penguins. It isn’t until halfway through the 48-hour bus ride from Buenos Aires that I am informed that they will be gone for the season, migrated or in hibernation. But by then the flat, brilliant expanse of Patagonia at dawn out the window, endless long grass dusted with pink and purple, is reason enough to keep going. June, mid-winter, is precisely the wrong time to visit Ushuaia. The city breathes to the rhythm of the tourist season, inhaling in October when the spring rolls in, exhaling in March as the autumn deepens.

I arrive the following evening. I am this hostel’s lone guest for the week. The main drag by the water, la Avenida Prefectura Naval Argentina, is empty of crowds but for a few scattered visitors, and peppered with shuttered tourist stalls, closed for the winter. Their exteriors advertise boat tours, wildlife excursions, and cruise options to Antarctica, some 620 miles away.

I wander the near-abandoned city, a dark blue pervading the air, in and out of those gift shops that have remained open through the off season. I buy a stuffed penguin. There are images of penguins everywhere in Ushuaia, somewhat surreal when the penguins themselves are on vacation. I climb the mountain, away from the docks, into quiet residential neighborhoods - ramshackle homes and modest apartment buildings built into the steep incline.

“The End of The World,” or “El Fin Del Mundo,” is a gimmick which, it seems, enjoys infinite reincarnation. The hostel at the end of the world, the restaurant at the end of the world, the gift shop at the end of the world - all these businesses compete with others bearing the same tagline. And here, in the dead of winter, with relentless winds and daylight spanning only a few hours, the apocalyptic air of those words likely rings truer than during the warmer, busier months. Part tourist trap, part ghost town, it feels like the end of the world.

But for all the duplicate business names, there is only one Train at the End of the World. From an old station that lies a taxi ride outside the city, the train departs, swerving through a breathtaking landscape of snowy woods and frozen streams, and the tour includes a bilingual audio guide. The recording details the city’s history as a penal colony in the mid-to-late 19th century, with mostly anarchist political prisoners shipped into the region to build the town and the railway, to cement Ushuaia as a viable metropolis for continued migration. The train is comfortable, and for an additional fee, one can ride first class. After the ride, once the other handful of passengers have disembarked, I sit in the first class coach with the train staff and together we nibble the leftovers from the complimentary snack plates provided to those who paid extra. Tiny alfajores and instant coffee. When I step out, the gift shop offers ample prison-themed kitsch, but I have no use for a vintage style jailhouse uniform.

The history of the city’s development throws its present into stark contrast - ambling through rows of cheery gift shops, one would hardly stop to think of decades of freezing prison labor. Tierra del Fuego as a site of wealthy settlement well before its transformation into a center of tourism would have been impossible were it not for the physical toil - and death - of Argentina’s political prisoners, and this knowledge somehow deepens the early dusk as it falls over a city lying in wait for the spring.

My time in Ushuaia lasts just under a week - one largely of solitude, spent roaming mostly empty alleyways in the snow and watching the fleeting daylight, of an ethereal, almost mystical quality in the deep southern winter. The morning my return bus leaves, I oversleep and miss the departure, and after hitchhiking back across the Strait of Magellan to catch the next one from Rio Gallegos, the bustling avenues and sunlight of this other place make Ushuaia seem like a dream. 12 hours to go before the bus departs. I lay my head on a stuffed penguin on a bench in the station and sleep.