Ushuaia: no place for old people

Down here, you can almost feel the edge of the earth pulling you forward.

From Buenos Aires, you fly south over water first, for hours. Then you approach Ushuaia low over snow-streaked valleys, where ice smooths the cavities of sunless slopes far into December’s summer.

A wedge of dwellings and sharp-edged warehouses, Ushuaia turns its back to the unimaginable wilderness of the Andes. Half an eye checks the serrated Beagle Channel, which opens to the frigid southern ocean, but mostly Ushuaia paces back and forth where it can, tracing and retracing its own streets and tracks and pathways.

Almost all tourist trips to Antarctica start from here: passengers (like me) fly into Ushuaia’s long-runwayed airport, out in the bay – where Concorde once landed, but where mostly workhorse A319s and B737s now shuttle in from southern Argentinian and Chilean outposts – before transferring (like me) to one or other of the cruise ships that line the dock, for the voyage south past Cape Horn.

Not many visitors hang about here. Few feel the need. Ushuaia certainly doesn’t lay out any red carpets, even though 5,000 hotel beds for a city of 70,000 people might say otherwise.

“The people here are empty-minded,” said Paula Garcia, glancing over at me to make sure I understood. I didn’t really, but after half a day at the end of the world, I felt like I caught her drift.

Nailed onto the southern wall of Tierra del Fuego island, Ushuaia is Argentina’s – and, give or take, the world’s – southernmost town. Capital of its own province, it is also the seat of Argentina’s first female governor. In her first term, Fabiana Ríos, elected in 2007 at the age of 43, memorably thumbed her nose at Argentina’s Catholic establishment by approving the marriage of Alejandro Freyre and Jose Maria Di Bello, making them the first same-sex couple to marry legally in Latin America. It made her sound rather intriguing.

“Huh,” muttered Paula. “She’s just the one that stole the least.”

Ushuaia’s electors returned Ríos to office in 2011. I wondered about Ushuaia’s electors.

The history of the place is miserable. Tierra del Fuego, the Land of Fire, was named by European explorers for the columns of smoke they saw rising from the island during their coastal forays. That smoke came from fires lit by the Selk’nam, one of the four indigenous peoples who lived here, along with the Manek’enk, Kawesqar and Yámana.

The Selk’nam roamed the interior, hunting guanaco; the others remained on the coast, fishing. All went naked, or near-naked. Despite the chill, the rain and the fierce winds that sweep down from the high summits, they kept warm by carrying fire everywhere (on the Yámana fishing canoes, it was the job of the children to build and stoke the fire) and by habitually squatting on their haunches, to reduce their surface area exposure.

On a summer’s afternoon, as I blinked into horizontal rain on a tussocky hillside outside Ushuaia, facing a glowering sea and mountains streaked with ice, such toughness dropped my jaw.

We killed them all, of course. Measles and smallpox started the job, then we went out on hunting parties to shoot the survivors because they didn’t understand that the sheep we’d brought to farm weren’t simply nature’s bounty. After that, we stripped the ocean of seals and whales, denying them protein.

Anyone who was left we killed with clothes. Naked, even in Tierra del Fuego’s downpours, you could dry in minutes by a fire. Clothed, you spent day and night wet. Pneumonia finished the strongest.

When HMS Beagle came this way in 1830, its captain, Robert Fitzroy, kidnapped four Yámana. Three survived the voyage back to London, where – in European dress, speaking English, tutored in Christianity – they briefly captured the public imagination in the summer of 1831. Beagle’s second voyage returned them a year later to Tierra del Fuego. On board, the young naturalist Charles Darwin remarked: “I could not have believed how wide was the difference between savage and civilised man.”

A few Kawesqar survive in Chilean villages, and the last full-blooded Yámana – Cristina Calderón – lives in Puerto Williams, just across the water from Ushuaia. She is 86.

But Ushuaia has pretty much forgotten the people who used to live here. There’s a couple of small museums, but if people remember anything from the past here, they remember the 1982 war with Britain over the Malvinas.

That’s what Paula meant about being empty-minded. There’s no folk memory. The Argentines built a prison here in 1896, in an attempt to encourage population – but nobody stayed. Staff and, when they could, inmates fled back to “the continent”, meaning anywhere but Tierra del Fuego.

In the 1970s and 80s, the government tried again, introducing tax breaks for industry. Manufacturing still stayed away, but deals spurred the growth of oil and gas refineries, sawmills – timber is big business here – and huge plants assembling cellphones, computers and washing machines.

But everything is exported, and even the locals don’t shop here. If there’s a big purchase to make, people prefer to take a weekend jaunt to Punta Arenas, a cheaper, Chilean town 600km away.

As for Buenos Aires, well, that’s a journey of more than 3,000km: three days behind the wheel. There’s only one road – and halfway up Tierra del Fuego it crosses out of Argentina, deteriorating to a dirt track for a stretch in Chile. Then you wait for a ferry over the Straits of Magellan, before re-entering Argentina for the long haul north across Patagonia.

Rolling along the half-empty boulevards lining Ushuaia’s harbourfront, and out to where forests crowd the eastern edges of town, dealerships are what catch my eye, Mercs and Chevrolets and Audis. It’s those tax breaks, Paula tells me. Cars are much cheaper in Ushuaia than “on the continent” – and after three years of ownership you’re permitted to sell the car at a premium “on the continent”.

So you see them, little huddles of men by ramshackle intersections, watching for cars more than three years old, pointing and gesturing to drivers in the hope of an instant sale. It’s like the Wild West.

Behind Ushuaia in the Valle Andorra, where tough-minded frontier folk take advantage of non-existent zoning laws to clear some forest and make a home in a tin shack, or a shipping container, or a log cabin, drawing electricity illegally from the wires and drawing water legally from the glacial rivers, every dwelling on every mud-rutted lane has a new car out front.

We take a drive up here, Paula and me. The houses, hand-built, many of sheet metal and chipboard, look desperately hard places to raise a family.

“Nobody feels that Ushuaia is home,” she remarks. “Everyone has arrived from somewhere else.”

Relatively high salaries are a big draw. An unskilled factory job pays US$1800 a month, while at entry-level in the public sector worker you could be on US$2200. With Tierra del Fuego partially protected from the economic freefall elsewhere in Argentina, a cashier in an Ushuaia supermarket earns about as much as a doctor in Buenos Aires.

It’s even better for teachers. Tierra del Fuego can’t build schools quickly enough. Paula tells me her daughter does the middle shift at her school in Ushuaia, from 1.30pm to 6pm. Other kids go from 8am to 12.30pm, while the older teenagers are in classes from 5.30pm to 11pm every weeknight. A teachers’ salary here can be three times what it might be in Buenos Aires, with an extra hardship allowance on top.

Even so, to be told that this home (pictured) in the Valle Andorra – on, basically, a dirt track in the forest – costs around a quarter of a million US dollars, only pushes Ushuaia even further into the realms of fairyland.

So I drank in the pubs, and I ate in the restaurants, and I walked up and down the main street on a Sunday morning searching in vain for a decent cup of coffee, but, in truth, Ushuaia and me, we didn’t really hit it off.

The government is still trying to persuade people to settle here. Social housing is cheap – only $300 a month to pay back an interest-free loan, and you own the place after 15 years. If you factor in the high salaries, there are options to save good money in Ushuaia.

But it doesn’t work. There’s hardly anyone here over 40. Paula is 34, and after sticking it out for twelve years, isn’t sure how much longer she’s got.

“Ushuaia is not a place for old people,” she says. “They leave, they can’t stand the weather.”

The weather is the least of it.