Visiting the end of the world

Travel Destinations — By on June 19, 2007 at 3:23 pm

Ushuaia, Argentina, is the southernmost city in the world, sitting at the tip of South America, just 700 miles from Argentina. Hence, the city gets a lot of tourist mileage out of its claim to be situated at “the end of the world.” The Los Angeles Times just ran a story on Ushuaia and its growing cachet as a travel destination.

Once marked on maps as Terra Incognita (Unknown Land), this is believed to be the last place on the globe that prehistoric humans reached by foot as the ice shelf retreated about 14,000 years ago.

Over the years, Ushuaia has served as an indigenous campsite, Anglican mission, prison colony and way station for corsairs, whalers, pirates and gold-diggers, among others. The indigenous peoples, convicts and shipwreck survivors are all gone, replaced by guidebook-toting, exotica-seeking sightseers in waterproof gear and hiking boots. Tourism pumps more than $120 million a year into the economy.

Amid the worldwide eco-awareness boom, Ushuaia has gained global traction as a base to visit receding glaciers, observe penguin and sea lion colonies, follow the path of Charles Darwin and even trek (with sunscreen) beneath the ozone hole, which occasionally extends above the city, though it can’t be seen. Ushuaia is also the southern terminus of Patagonia, another tourist brand oozing cachet…

But the onslaught of world-end chic hasn’t shattered the allure – not yet, anyway. Although some unsightly development mars the town, nearby parks and waterways offer access to a largely unspoiled landscape of inlets and moorlands, forests and bays.

“There’s something here that touches the imagination,” says Gotz Bernau, violinist and concert-master of the Berlin Symphonic orchestra, seated at a picture window in a pricey hillside hotel as cottony snowflakes fell on the pines outside. “This could be Sweden or Switzerland. But you know it’s the End of the World.”

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