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The prison that helped build 'the city at the end of the world'

Leila Miller, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

Some call this prison the Alcatraz of Argentina. Its inmates helped build what's now known as the city at the end of the world.

Sent here in the early 1900s to populate the country's southern tip, they paved the roads and heated homes with timber they hauled by train from nearby forests. Ushuaia's frigid climate and remote location meant that if inmates managed to escape the prison grounds, they rarely got far.

Nestled along the Beagle Channel with snow-capped mountains behind it, Ushuaia grew into a significant port city of 80,000 and a hub for ecotourism. Ships depart regularly for Antarctica.

The prison has been turned into a museum and "dark tourism" attraction — like Chernobyl — that serves as a reminder that Ushuaia owes its existence largely to the labor of the inmates.

Gift shops tout a seemingly endless supply of prison-themed souvenirs, among them baby onesies and oven mitts in the signature design of prison uniforms — yellow and blue horizontal stripes. The End of the World Train that traverses the Tierra del Fuego National Park simulates the forest journey that prisoners made daily and invites passengers to experience "the charm of an era that has passed."

The kitschiness fuels a debate about whether commodifying "dark tourism" is distasteful or makes history more accessible. Ryan C. Edwards, author of "A Carceral Ecology," which examines the Ushuaia prison and its legacy, said people should not forget Ushuaia's past.


"It's very funny to ride the train, hear the stories, be somber about it and then be happy when you're trekking through the mountains," he said.

But Ushuaia's history as a city and a prison poses an uneasy question.

"The one is because of the other," Edwards said, "and are we OK with that?"

When Argentina established a subprefecture in Tierra del Fuego in 1884, following a treaty with Chile that divided the territory between both countries, the region was populated by Indigenous people and English missionaries.


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