A train ride into the heart of Tierra del Fuego

Clouds of steam from the Train at the End of the World ('El Tren del Fin del Mundo') — Pictures by CK Lim
Clouds of steam from the Train at the End of the World ('El Tren del Fin del Mundo') — Pictures by CK Lim

USHUAIA (Argentina), May 7 — We are at the end of the world.

No, not quite Antarctica, not the land of ice, not the South Pole. Perhaps it will be more accurate to state that we are at the end of the known inhabited world.

We have arrived at Ushuaia in Argentina, the southernmost city to be found anywhere, the final outpost before the frozen reaches of Antarctica.

So it’s easy to imagine that many a landmark or activity here would qualify as the southernmost anything in the world.

Flags from around the world greet visitors at the Ferrocarril Austral Fueguino (the Southern Fuegian Railway) station
Flags from around the world greet visitors at the Ferrocarril Austral Fueguino (the Southern Fuegian Railway) station

For example, drop by the only Chinese restaurant in town and you’d be served the southernmost fried rice in the world (unless the researchers at Antarctica are handy with a wok too).

And we are about to travel farther still. We head west of Ushuaia, where less than 10 kilometres away the Tierra del Fuego National Park awaits us.

What’s another stretch of pristine wilderness after all the seemingly endless stretches of pristine wilderness before, you ask? Well, where else could we board the final train on Earth?

Indeed, for those with the time, money and inclination, a lengthier journey starting all the way up north — from Alaska 17,848 kilometres away to Buenos Aires, where it’s another 3,079 kilometres to Ushuaia via Ruta 3 — is possible.

We’re less adventurous and concede to only attempting the final eight kilometres that runs into the heart of Tierra del Fuego.

The steam locomotive Camila was constructed in 1995 in the UK (left). The thunderous Macarena Waterfall (right)
The steam locomotive Camila was constructed in 1995 in the UK (left). The thunderous Macarena Waterfall (right)

At the entrance to the national park, we join the queue to buy our tickets. Snow-capped mountains loom majestically in the background.

The buildings in this part of the world stay low, lacking the hubris to scale and scrape the sky. Perhaps that’s why by comparison the trees appear to grow taller, the mountains reach higher.

Clearly Tierra del Fuego doesn’t need a single train for us to marvel at its natural splendour.

But it does have trains. We enter the tiny train station of Ferrocarril Austral Fueguino (the Southern Fuegian Railway), all burnished, golden wood.

Flags from just about every country in the world hang from the rafters. Is this a boast — “We have welcomed visitors from each corner of the earth!” — or an ambitious declaration of achieving the same? Maybe it’s a meta way of saying that, after a fashion, all paths — be it by rail or road, be it by sea or by air — lead here?

It’s almost time to board.

A wild horse grazing in the Tierra del Fuego National Park
A wild horse grazing in the Tierra del Fuego National Park

The train conductor checks our tickets. He’s dressed in a classic station master ensemble: white shirt and black tie, a weather proof jacket and that requisite, vintage-looking cap. Everyone murmurs excitedly. How long has it been since most of us have been on a train, honestly?

Our train is green, the colour of billiard table baize. It’s not that long, fewer than 10 carriages, and steam is already billowing out from the pilot — puffs of grounded clouds returning to the heavens above.

Our steam locomotive is christened Camila and constructed in 1995 in the UK, fashioned to mimic antique locomotives that ran on the Lynton & Barnstaple Railway (which operated from 1890 till 1935).

Like its forefather in design, Camila has more solid heft (to the tune of 7.5 tons) than speed. There’s something to be said for taking it slow, however, don’t you agree?

Camila starts chugging away. The platforms melt away. Dense shrubbery and thickets give way to wider open spaces as we crawl towards the gentle slopes of Mount Susana.

Convicts used to take the same train ride towards the gentle slopes of Mount Susana
Convicts used to take the same train ride towards the gentle slopes of Mount Susana

The further we get from the train station, leaving all signs of civilisation behind, with only the train tracks hinting at anything man-made, we can’t help but feel that we have indeed fallen off the edge of the world.

We have stepped into a different time, slipping easily into the past when the stunning landscape that surrounds us was the backdrop for darker journeys and cruel punishment.

For this train ride tells a bleak story almost impossible to square with the breathtaking views outside the large carriage windows.

You see, the little train at the end of the world did not always carry happy, paying passengers; instead it transported prisoners, many to their doom. This was a convict train.

For Ushuaia, despite all its windswept beauty, was first built as a penal colony in the late 19th century.

Convicts were transported from the prison camp to the forests to get materials to construct a proper prison. Inmates were treated appallingly and there was nowhere to escape; the harsh terrain and climate a certain death sentence.

Fortunately today the train is no longer Tren de los Presos (Train of the Prisoners) but given a fresh lease of life as El Tren del Fin del Mundo: the Train at the End of the World.

The train route follows the flow of the River Pipo closely
The train route follows the flow of the River Pipo closely

We cross the River Pipo on the Puente Quemado (Burnt Bridge), where the ruins of the old bridge lie beneath its replacement.

Next a brief stop at Estación Cascada La Macarena (Macarena Station Waterfall). We climb the steps to admire the thunderous Macarena Waterfall; below us the entirety of the Pipo River Valley, grand and full of ghosts.

As we continue, going deeper into the Tierra del Fuego National Park, following the flow of the River Pipo, we enter the so-called “Tree Cemetery” where the convicts had spent half a century cutting down trees.

Stumps of dead trees, appearing almost petrified, dot the ground. Life persists; we see wild horses grazing amid the eerie landscape.

Passing by the Turbal, a sphagnum moss bog, our train finally arrives at the Estación del Parque (the National Park Station). The entire journey spans no more than seven kilometres and less than an hour, but it feels like the journey of a lifetime.

Many lifetimes, in fact, as we sombrely remember the unfortunate souls who used to toil in these unforgiving lands, laying down the railway tracks and building the foundations of what will one day be the southernmost city in the world.

El Tren del Fin del Mundo (Train at the End of the World)
RN3 km 3065, V9410 Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina
Open daily 9am-3pm
Train fare: AR$ 1200 (RM112) per person

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