Editor’s note: This article was published before the coronavirus pandemic, and may not reflect the current situation on the ground.
At the southernmost tip of South America, the End of the World train isn’t just a striking railway journey past the soaring Andes—it’s also an insight into the colorful, sometimes criminal, history of Tierra del Fuego.
With a piercing whistle and a bellow of acrid smoke, the southernmost train on earth chugs off at the pace of a leisurely Sunday stroll. Built by some of Argentina’s most notorious criminals in the early 20th century, the Tren del Fin del Mundo is today an unashamedly touristy experience.
Camila, a pint-sized, olive-green steam locomotive built in the UK, is on duty for my journey. I’m wedged into a snug, overheated carriage as a booming voice on the PA interrupts tango muzak to recount, in the style of a Hollywood trailer, Tierra del Fuego’s history as a penal colony.
Behind us, the End of the World station, a kitsch construction resembling an Alpine chalet, slowly disappears from view and we pass through the thickly-forested Toro gorge, the original wooden tracks periodically visible beneath their modern replacements.
After 15 minutes, we pull into La Macarena station, manned by staff in yellow-and-blue-striped prisoner uniforms. Several tourists urge the ‘inmates’ to pretend to chase them while their friends snap photos—one American man goes a step further, asking to be mock-throttled as his wife captures the moment for posterity.
As tempting as these activities look, I opt instead for a quick walk up to the waterfall that gives the station its name, a gentle cascade tumbling down from the Del Martial mountains. Nearby are some rough wooden shelters, replicas of those once used by the indigenous Yaghan people. They don’t look like they would have provided much comfort during the region’s bitter winters, when temperatures often plunge well below zero.
Although it has the air of a theme park ride, the Tren del Fin del Mundo provides a striking insight into the history of Tierra del Fuego.
Back on board Camila, passengers in the first-class and ‘premium’ carriages are served empanadas (pastries), alfajores shortbread biscuits filled with caramel-esque dulce de leche, and glasses of Malbec. The rest of us make do with views of the ragged, snow-streaked Andes, a magnificent sight even when partially obscured by persistent drizzle.
As we travel on through the Pipo valley, we are joined by a fawn-colored, semi-feral foal who trots alongside the train for a few minutes, nuzzling at the door handles and braying gentling.
Although it has the air of a theme park ride, the Tren del Fin del Mundo provides a striking insight into the history of Tierra del Fuego. In the 19th century, the southern tip of Patagonia was a harsh frontier land akin to the Wild West. The first European settlers were Christian missionaries in the 1850s, followed by sheep ranchers and gold prospectors from around the world. In the process, the region’s indigenous peoples were virtually wiped out.
During this period, sovereignty over Tierra del Fuego was disputed by Argentina and Chile. In 1896, the former attempted to cement its claim by establishing a prison in the town of Ushuaia . The ‘Siberia of the south’ hosted an array of fearsome characters including anarchist Simón Radowitzky and teenage serial killer Cayetano Santos Godino, dubbed the ‘Petiso Orejudo’ (Big-Eared Short Man).
By 1902, the authorities decided a larger prison was required. In an ironic twist, inmates were forced to construct their own cells, as well as new homes and municipal buildings for Ushuaia’s rapidly expanding population, and a railway line to transport timber from nearby forests.
The first Tren de los Presos (Prisoners’ Train) steamed into town in 1909, and the track was later expanded several times. It was backbreaking work, but a look around the prison—now a museum, the excellent Museo Marítimo y Presidio (Maritime and Prison Museum)—shows why it was preferable to the tiny, comfortless, frigid cells. Inside one is a moving quote from a former inmate: “Laboring is the only way of defeating the prison. I’ll go on in the wood. At least I can breathe some air and see the sun.”
The convicts left a lasting impact on the wilderness around Ushuaia. Beyond La Macarena station, the Tren del Fin del Mundo criss-crosses the Pipo River—named after a prisoner who escaped briefly before freezing to death on the riverbank, the on-board narration explains—and enters Tierra del Fuego National Park.
A swathe of denuded forest comes into view, the withered stumps surrounded by a carpet of dandelions. Eventually, the trees reappear, stretching up to the lower reaches of the Andes as the range pirouettes from its north-south route and heads east before finally collapsing into the South Atlantic.
The railway helped Ushuaia to flourish, but it finally ran out of steam in 1952 following the closure of the prison and a devastating earthquake. The line remained idle until 1994, when a seven-kilometer section of the track was painstakingly restored and the line relaunched as the Ferrocarril Austral Fueguino (Southern Fuegian Railway). Replica steam locomotives now run two to three times a day along a 500mm-gauge track from the Fin del Mundo station, eight kilometers west of Ushuaia, to the National Park station.
… peat bogs, sub-Antarctic tundra, thick forests of southern beeches, and ice-cold lakes and bays, all in the shadow of soaring Andean ranges. It’s a dramatic landscape, but one under fierce attack.
Peering out through the carriage’s increasingly fogged-up windows, I watch the landscape grow steadily wilder. Camila chugs through dense clusters of beech and lenga trees, their trunks covered with barba de viejo (old man’s beard) moss and bobbly pan de indio (Indian bread), an orange fungus once eaten by the region’s indigenous peoples. In the branches are red-headed Magellanic woodpeckers and green austral parakeets, the world’s southernmost parrot.
After 45 minutes, we arrive at the National Park station, gateway to a reserve that covers some 630 square kilometers of mossy sphagnum peat bogs, sub-Antarctic tundra, thick forests of southern beeches, and ice-cold lakes and bays, all in the shadow of soaring Andean ranges. It’s a dramatic landscape, but one under fierce attack.
I hike along Lapataia Bay, which branches off the Beagle Channel, following the eight-kilometer-long Senda Costera trail. Periodically I come across patches of destruction, where a section of the forest has collapsed into a tangled mass of felled trunks and brittle, bark-stripped branches. It looks like a natural disaster, but the devastation is the result of human error.
In the 1940s, the Argentine government introduced 50 North American beavers (known locally as castores) to Tierra del Fuego, aiming to create a profitable fur trade. But the industry failed to take off and the beavers, free of natural predators, reproduced prolifically and spread throughout the archipelago. An estimated 25 per cent of Tierra del Fuego’s forests have been damaged by beavers, who now number around 200,000. Eradication programmes are underway but face an uphill battle.
“They became a plague,” explains local guide Mariela Cornejo. “It’s a big, big problem. They grow double the size that they do in Canada, they destroy forests and change the course of the rivers. Now they’ve even crossed the continent into mainland Patagonia and reached the cities of Rio Gallegos and Punta Arenas.”
Back on board Camila, the carriage doors click shut and we set off on the return journey. En route the narration explains that beavers were not the only introduced species to cause havoc. European rabbits were brought over in 1880 too, but soon proved a menace for the region’s many sheep farmers.
In a real-life version of ‘the old woman who swallowed a fly’ nursery rhyme, gray Patagonian foxes were introduced to deal with them—unfortunately, the rabbits were not to their tastes and both species prospered. It was yet another lesson in the dangers of unintended consequences on the railway at the end of the world.
The Tren del Fin del Mundo runs 2-3 daily return services throughout the year with tickets from AR$1200 (around US$32), plus an additional AR$420 (around US$11) for entry to the national park. The Tren del Fin del Mundo station is 8 kilometers west of Ushuaia. In Ushuaia, the writer stayed in the Arakur hotel.