Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 20, 2021
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Tierra del Fuego

Last September, my wife Réjeanne and I went to Buenos Aires to attend the Fourth World Congress of Pediatric Cardiology and Cardiac Surgery. After the meeting, we took the opportunity to travel around Argentina, and headed to the tip of South America, to the town of Ushuai and Tierra del Fuego National Park.

Our flight left Buenos Aires two hours behind schedule. So, when we landed in Ushuaia three and a half hours later, it was already dark and we couldn't enjoy the beautiful scenery this region offers from the air.

Ushuaia ("bay that penetrates to the west" in Yámana) is the capital of the province of Tierra del Fuego and the southern Atlantic islands. It is located on the north shore of the Beagle Channel, named for the ship which passed through in 1832 with naturalist Charles Darwin aboard.

Argentineans, and the local inhabitants especially, proudly claim it as "the southernmost city in the world." This is challenged by the Chileans, who claim that that title belongs to Puerto Williams, a few kilometres away in Chilean territory. Argentineans argue that Puerto Williams is not a city but a naval base, and as such doesn't qualify. Although I have an opinion on this matter, I will keep it to myself, in order to preserve my friendships on both sides of the border.

This is one of many contentious issues between the neighbouring countries. In the late '70s, the two nearly went to war over ownership of three islands in the middle of the Beagle Channel. Armed conflict was narrowly avoided by the intervention of an envoy from Pope John Paul II. The Picton, Nueva and Lennox islands have since become part of Chile.

Ushuaia was founded in 1884 by the Argentinean government to maintain its sovereignty over the southernmost part of its territory. A few years later, a prison was built. The first group of prisoners arrived in January 1896 aboard the Primero de Mayo, the ship which was for many years the link between the region and Buenos Aires.

The group was comprised of 11 men and nine women, all recidivists who went voluntarily. The prison was made of stone and built by the inmates. In 1947, it was closed because of overcrowding, and a naval base was built next to it.

Today, the buildings hold the Maritime and Prison Museum of Ushuaia. The museum contains numerous artefacts and photographs dating from the early days of the city, as well as a unique collection of model sailboats and ships that have sailed the waters of the south Atlantic for the last 500 years. Touring both facilities takes about an hour total and is well worth the entrance fee of 15 pesos.

The city of 50,000 inhabitants is small enough to be visited on foot and can be explored in half a day. Most restaurants and shops are located on San Martin and Maipo Avenues, which run parallel to the harbour. Visitors will find the usual variety of stores, gift shops and restaurants, a few bar-coffee shops, but only two "cafés" (both on San Martin). Make sure to buy a bags of roasted nuts from the streets vendors with the blue carts; they're delicious.

Pole Position
Another of Ushuaia's claims (this one undisputed) is that it is the closest port to the Antarctic, 1000 kilometres away. As such, it is the most common starting point for cruises to the subcontinent. Every year, between early October and the end of March, a few dozens ships make no less than 360 departures for cruises lasting six to 60 days. The trip through the dreaded Drake Passage lasts two days and passengers must be prepared for some rough seas, but all agree that the suffering is worthwhile.

Ushuaia is one of the fastest growing cities in Argentina, and this is reflected in its "spontaneous-looking" architecture. Most of the houses and buildings seem to have been built without much planning, so the overall appearance is that of a disparate assemblage of new and old, chic and run down. Near the western entrance to the city, you'll find the memorial to the Falklands War of 1982; the inscription clearly indicates the townspeople's opinion regarding ownership of the islands.


Other points of interest include the Iglesia de la Merced, city hall (also built by inmates), the provincial government building and the post office. The Museo del Fin del Mundo contains collections of stuffed birds, utensils from aboriginal cultures, historical documents, and objects from early explorers and sailors.

Apart from visiting the city, a number of tours are offered to surrounding areas. On our first day, we went to Tierra del Fuego National Park, which is near the Chilean border and covers 63,000 hectares. The forest in the park consists mainly of three species of southern beeches: guindo, nire and lenga. In the fall, the last two lose their leaves, but not the guindo --' it remains green all year long.

Some trees are draped by a lichen known as barba de viejo (old man's beard) which gives the forest an eerie look. Others have yellow or orange knots on their branches caused by a fungus called pan de indio (Indian's bread); these are edible but quite bland.

The entrance to the park is only 10 kilometres from the city on National Road 3. Not far from the gate is the station for the Tren del Fin del Mundo (train to the end of the world) which runs seven kilometres along the banks of the Pipo River. Further on, a side road leads to the world's southernmost post office. There, you can buy postcards and envelopes with the official stamp of the post office at the end of the world.

A trail along the bay offers a lovely view of Redonda Island and of the mountains on the south side of the channel. A few kilometres to the west, at the top of Lapataia Bay, National Road 3 ends. The road forms the last stretch of the Transamerican Highway which extends from Alaska to the tip of Argentina hence, the designation of this spot as the end of the world.

Leave it to Beavers
While travelling through the park, we spotted an interesting Canadian connection: beaver dams. Around 1950, 25 pairs of Canadian beavers were brought to the island with the idea of developing a fur industry. Because the winters are not cold enough (the average temperature in June and July is -3°C) the beavers' fur was not of good quality, and the industry never developed.

But the beavers multiplied and there are now 50,000 of them. They have no natural predators on the island, but the beavers don't know that, and they have built houses and dams to protect themselves. In doing so, they have destroyed large tracts of forest, not only in the national park, but elsewhere on the island. The government is looking for ways to get rid of them but, as Canadians know first hand, this is no simple task.

The next day we took a tour of the nearby lakes. After passing through the industrial section of the city, the road followed the Olivia River (from the word uliwaia meaning "sharp harpoon" in Yámana) through a series of beautiful valleys and mountain ranges that reminded us of the Canadians Rockies. Soon after leaving the city, we saw the two highest peaks of the region: Mount Olivia at 1328 metres and the Five Brothers at 1280 metres, named for the five sons of Reverend Thomas Bridges.

This English missionary arrived in Tierra del Fuego in 1871. Fifteen years later, he established the Harberton Ranch on the shore of the Beagle Channel, on land given to him by the government in recognition of his work with native peoples. He compiled the only dictionary of the now-extinct Yámana language.

Tierra del Fuego is an island bordered by the Strait of Magellan to the north and the Beagle Channel to the south. Slightly more than half of it and the Strait of Magellan itself are Chilean territory. Contrary to the situation in the rest of South America, here the Andes are oriented in an East-West direction. Ushuaia lies to the south of the mountains and is therefore the only Argentinean city "behind" the Andes.

About 50 kilometres east of Ushuaia, the road ascends to the Garibaldi Pass (427 metres), named after Luis Garibaldi Honte, the son of a native American mother and an Italian father. From the roadside belvedere, we had a beautiful view to the north and over Lake Escondido to the east. The lake can be reached by a 30-minute walk from the lookout down a gravel path through a lenga forest. The path is wide enough, but it's muddy and not well maintained; walking or running shoes are recommended.

Continuing eastward on the highway, we reached Lake Fagnano. Standing on the south shore of the 110-kilometre-long lake, our guide pointed out one of the particularities of the southern hemisphere. While the sun still rises in the East and sets in the West, its path over the sky is to the North. There we were at noon, facing North, looking straight at the sun! With regards to the age-old question of whether water goes down the drain clockwise or counterclockwise, from our limited experience the evidence was inconclusive.

On the way back to Ushuaia, we stopped for lunch at Las Cotorras, a cross-country ski centre which also offers dogsled rides in winter. The roasted lamb is a treat not to be missed, as is the special house coffee which was more like a liqueur.

On our last day there, we were planning to take a tour of the Beagle Channel aboard a catamaran, but the harbour was closed due to high winds. It would have to wait until our next visit.

In the early evening, our flight out was only half an hour late. This time, we could appreciate the beautiful aerial view of the bay, the channel and the mountains. Wonderful memories to take home --' along with a promise to return, perhaps even on our way to Antarctica.


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