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Argentina's Ushuaia rides eco-tourism wave

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Ushuaia, Argentina — THIS is a place where "The End of the World" sells. The theme is celebrated in T-shirts, bumper stickers, coffee mugs and posters. You can't get away from it.

"It's the magic of 'The End of the World,' " says Mayor Jorge Garramuño. "As a brand, it is very powerful."

He's talking geography, not Armageddon.

Ushuaia, situated along the picturesque Beagle Channel in Tierra del Fuego, amid a backdrop of jagged, snow-capped mountains, proclaims itself the world's southernmost city.

Chilean officials like to make the same assertion about the town of Puerto Williams, a military settlement slightly to the south, but Ushuaia is by comparison a metropolis, home to more than 55,000. Hotels, casinos and travel agencies have multiplied in recent years like the region's abundant, albeit nonnative, beavers.

Foreign vacationers, mostly from the United States and Europe, can't seem to get enough of this rugged and glamorous terrain at the tip of South America.

Nonstop flights from Buenos Aires touch down daily. Hundreds of cruise ships now anchor here during the relatively mild months between Christmas and Easter. The number of visitors to Ushuaia approached a quarter-million last year, double the total five years earlier.

"A lot of people are surprised when they arrive here because they think they are coming to a village where penguins are waddling on the streets and Indians are riding around in canoes," notes Garramuño, who arrived 27 years ago, when the city had less than one-fifth of today's population. "Instead they find a modern city."

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.

Another lure: The deep harbor is a major gateway to Antarctica, an increasingly hip destination for the environmentally inclined.

The almost honky-tonk ambience during high season takes some folks aback.

"I was expecting a desolate place at the End of the World," says James O'Sullivan, a New Yorker who visited this year. "But I got there and it was as jampacked as 42nd Street."

The helicopter-and-submarine-equipped yacht Octopus stopped by in February, bringing Bill Gates, the Microsoft founder, and a multitude of crew, relatives and friends. Gates' associate Paul Allen, owner of the $200-million-plus Octopus, also was on board.

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."

The Berlin Symphonic was the big draw at Ushuaia's third International Festival, a classical music extravaganza that is the centerpiece of the city's aggressive attempt to push the tourist season into the gray and chilly autumn, when an early dusk beckons and the streets empty. The orchestra played to packed audiences at a hotel ballroom in a city that still lacks a proper concert hall.

"People in Europe even want to have their honeymoons here," says Margarita Uliarte, a festival promoter from Austria.

World's End festivals — arts, food, film, theater — are metastasizing as city promoters sell a Third World alternative to Salzburg, Cannes and Sundance.

"We have broken the artistic stranglehold of Europe and the USA!" declares Leonor Amarante, Brazilian curator of the recently ended 1st Biennial of The End of The World, contemplated as a regular event. "The End of the World is the ideal place for artists to express concerns about the fate of humanity and our planet."

Exhibits included a stylized sunflower sculpture, dubbed a "sentinel" of climate change, and the Polar Project, a video installation featuring clips of humans standing on icebergs.

THERE are in fact no icebergs here, still some 700 miles from Antarctica, but these extreme latitudes have long conveyed a sense of wildness.

"The mountains … rose in one unbroken sweep from the water's edge, and were covered to the height of fourteen or fifteen hundred feet by the dusky-colored forest," Darwin wrote nearly two centuries ago in what is believed to be a description of Ushuaia.

Today, the busy main drag boasts an Irish pub, sundry boutiques, rough-weather outfitters and the inevitable proliferation of seafood eateries, cafes and the ubiquitous parrillas, or barbecue restaurants.

A jumble of boxy buildings marches up from the water's edge, while an industrial strip, the product of a 1980s industrialization drive, sits at the shore of the Beagle Channel, named after the brig sloop that carried Darwin here in the 1830s.

In the harbor, factory fishing ships mingle with cruise liners, sailboats, tour vessels and the occasional research skiff.

"If people want to spend all that money to come here and see some penguins, that's fine by me," says Javier Adaro, who works as a deckhand on a catamaran that ferries visitors through Tierra del Fuego.

The first Europeans to arrive in these parts were 16th century navigators and explorers, such as Sir Francis Drake and Ferdinand Magellan, rounding Cape Horn. Magellan, commenting on the eerie fires and smoke that emanated from unseen native camps, gave the land its current name, Tierra del Fuego, or Land of Fire.

In the 19th century, Anglican missionaries experienced mixed success in converting the Yamana, one of Tierra del Fuego's indigenous peoples, whom Darwin had decried as "miserable degraded savages." Ushuaia takes its name from a Yamana word meaning "the sheltered site."

Thomas Bridges, the most acclaimed of the British evangelist wave, chronicled the Yamana language and the catastrophic demise of Tierra del Fuego's tribes to illness after the Europeans' arrival. Bridges' descendants turned to sheep ranching, still a Patagonian mainstay.

In the early 20th century, Ushuaia was a Siberia-like outpost, and Argentina built a notorious prison compound here, with convicts put to work building roads and other infrastructure. The prison is now a museum, its former cells exhibits on former inmates, Antarctic voyagers and others whose paths have crossed the town.

The Argentine government was keen to spur development after the prison was shut down, but had mixed results over the years.

In the 1980s, several Japanese-owned factories opened in Ushuaia, assembling televisions and other electronic goods. But the industrialization drive floundered, leading to shutdowns, labor disputes and factory takeovers.

Authorities hope that tourism, spurred by the peso's loss of value during the 2001-02 Argentine economic crisis, proves more lasting. There are promising signs. Today, even during the dark and chilly winters, visitors are drawn to the End of the World ski runs.

Residents, many of them migrants from other Argentine cities, seem mostly upbeat about the tourist influx. The city enjoys a relatively high standard of living and low crime, though prices are high since many products must be brought in.

"This town runs on tourism now," says Gerardo Rouan, a sound engineer from Buenos Aires who drives a taxi here and enjoys the tranquillity with his wife and two young children. But "in a few minutes, I can be in the woods with my children, looking at wild animals."

Others worry that the tourism frenzy and unchecked building boom, now featuring multi-story hotels, may obliterate Ushuaia's small-town essence and further degrade the environment — the very features that draw visitors.

"We welcome tourists," says Leonardo L. Lupiano, a writer who has lived here for nearly three decades and who bemoans how construction hammers now overwhelm the calls of seagulls. "But what we worry about is that Ushuaia will become like a little Las Vegas and lose its essential identity as the End of the World. That is a great risk."

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patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

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