The Siberia of Argentina

Ushuaia draws hordes of tourists eager to visit Tierra del Fuego and experience life at the “end of the world”, as Argentina’s tourist authorities like to style it. Few visitors to this picturesque and beguiling spot realise, however, that among the city’s first settlers were some of the country’s most dangerous criminals, who had been sent to what was once known as the “Siberia of Argentina”.

Museo Maritimo y Presido (c) Shafik MeghjiIn an effort to consolidate Argentina’s sovereignty over this region of Tierra del Fuego and open it up for further settlement, the Argentine government established a penal colony here in 1896. The early city’s buildings and infrastructure – including the railway that runs to Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego, 12km west of Ushuaia – were built by forced convict labour.

Overlooking the icy Beagle Channel and backed by a snow-covered mountain range, the prison itself must surely have been the most beautifully situated in the world. Not that the views would have provided much comfort for the inmates, who suffered truly horrific conditions, as a tour around the prison – which closed in 1947 and is now an atmospheric museum, the Museo Marítimo y Presidio – starkly illustrates.

The prison was designed in the panopticon style – the wings radiating out like spokes from a half wheel – to allow the wardens to observe inmates without them knowing they were being watched. The wings have now been opened up to the public; two host artworks and maritime exhibits, while wing four tells the fascinating tales of some of the most notorious residents, giving an all-too-real insight into the horrors they endured.

Conditions in the prison were spartan to say the least. Each of the cramped cells had a tiny window, a wooden platform that functioned as a bed, a rudimentary chair and a narrow counter. The only personal possessions a well-behaved prisoner was allowed were a couple of books, stationary, sugar and mate (a type of herbal tea, Argentina’s national drink). Dangerous convicts were kept in check by heavy shackles and bulbous ball-and-chains.

A couple of small heaters outside in the corridor were the only source of warmth for the whole wing. Today, even if you visit during the height of summer, there is a noticeable chill in the cells – what conditions were like in the depths of winter, when temperatures in Ushuaia can plunge well below zero, hardly bears thinking about.

For those inmates deemed fit enough to work, backbreaking days were spent felling trees in the dense forests surrounding the prison, hacking at rocks in the quarry or laying railway tracks, labours brought vividly to life by a series of evocative black-and-white photos. Anyone who stepped out of line was sent to the “dungeon”, which is just a bleak as it sounds.

One of the most famous prisoners here was Simón Radowitzky, an anarchist militant jailed in 1909 for the murder of a brutal police chief, Colonel Falcón, responsible for eights deaths at a May Day protest in Buenos Aires. He spent over 20 years in the prison – aside from a brief escape in 1918 – before being exiled from Argentina in 1930. (Radowitzky’s tale is told in illuminating fashion in Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia.)

Museo Maritimo y Presido (c) Shafik MeghjiYou can also visit the cells of other notable inmates, such as Mateo Banks, an estate owner of Irish descent who in 1922 was convicted of killing eight people – including three of his siblings – and Cayetano Santos Godino, a criminally insane child murderer nicknamed El Petiso Orejudo (The Big-Eared Short Man).

The most evocative part of the museum, however, is Wing 1, which has been left largely untouched. Stepping into it eerily transports you back a century or more: there are no exhibits, information panels, heating or – generally – any other visitors, leaving you alone with just the empty cells and the peeling paint work for company. The only sounds are the echoes of your own footsteps and – when I was there at least – the plaintive mewlings of an unseen cat. It is a sinister, unsettling place that – when you leave the prison and head back into town – makes you very appreciative of your own liberty.

A version of this article first appeared on www.roughguides.com.

A Welsh corner of Patagonia

In 1865, 153 Welsh men, women and children boarded a tea-clipper, the Mimosa, in Liverpool and set out on an 8,000-mile journey to what they hoped would be their Promised Land. Fleeing cultural and religious persecution in the UK, the pioneers wanted to create a “little Wales beyond Wales” – a place where they could retain their national identity.

After two months at sea the Mimosa landed in the Golfo Nuevo in northeastern Patagonia, an isolated, inhospitable and – at the time – largely unpopulated land. The pioneers faced serious hardships including brutally cold winters, flash floods, crop failures and food shortages. Some of them returned home, others died. Yet despite these unpromising beginnings the community survived and subsequently flourished. In doing so the Welsh helped to cement Argentine claims on the western section of Patagonia and opened up the region to foreign settlers from around the world.

Today, almost 150 years later, this corner of Patagonia retains a distinctive Welsh flavour, especially in the cities of Puerto Madryn and Trelew and the town of Gaiman. More than 50,000 people in the region claim Welsh descent, and significant numbers speak the language.

At Punta Cuevas in Puerto Madryn, it is still possible to see the foundations of the first Welsh houses in Patagonia. A commanding statue – the Monumento al Indio Tehuelche – marks both the centenary of the arrival of the Welsh and pays homage to the Tehuelche, an indigenous group who provided invaluable help to the pioneers during the early days.

Nearby a fascinating little museum tells the story of the settlers, while outside, a trio of flags fly. Alongside the Welsh and Argentine flags is another, featuring a red dragon on a white background topped and tailed by thin blue strips – the symbol of Welsh Patagonia.

Gaiman teahouseAn hour’s drive inland from Puerto Madryn is the region’s hub, Trelew; the name means “village of Lew” in Welsh, a reference to its founder, Lewis Jones. Local children have the option of studying Welsh at school here, and cultural delegations from Wales visit regularly. Every September 0r October, Trelew’s central square plays hosts to the most important of the region’s eisteddfodau, festivals of Welsh culture, music and literature. The highlight of the Trelew Eisteddfod is the award of two prestigious prizes – the Sillón del Bardo (The Bard’s Chair) for the best Welsh-language poet and the Corona del Bardo (The Bard’s Crown), which is handed over to the Spanish-language equivalent.

The most obviously Welsh place in the region – known as the Lower Chubut Valley – is the town of Gaiman. Images of red dragons are prominent here, while street names include “Michael D. Jones” and “J.C. Evans”. The town’s British-built railway station has been turned into a fascinating little museum that looks at the challenges – and triumphs – of pioneer life.

Gaiman’s key attraction, however, is its collection of traditional Welsh tearooms. These casas de té serve up the finest afternoon teas in Argentina, if not South America. Among the delights on offer are torta galesa and bara brith (rich fruit cakes), sweet and savoury scones, hot buttered toast, home-made jams and preserves, and an array of pastries and baked goods, as well as – of course –  a pot of perfectly-brewed tea.

Traditional Welsh teaThe tearooms – many of which are run by descendants of the original settlers – are based in atmospheric, immaculately-kept cottages decorated with old family photos, Welsh-language posters, tea-towels with red dragons on them, paintings of Wales, and other knick-knacks from the old country.

While you work your way through your té gales – a feat that requires at least an hour or two given their prodigious size – it’s easy to forget that you are in Argentina at all.

This article was first published on the Rough Guides website.

Tango with a twist in Buenos Aires

The origins of tango are hotly debated. According to Jorge Luis Borges, it was “born in the brothels” of Buenos Aires. Others argue – less evocatively but perhaps more accurately – that it developed in the city’s dance halls and courtyards. What is certain is that the music and dance form reflects Buenos Aires’ European, indigenous and African cultural heritage.

Today tourists flock to the city’s famous tango venues – notably Café Tortoni, which has attracted the likes of King Juan Carlos of Spain and Hillary Clinton – for classes and shows. Many of these are worth checking out, but if you want to see where Porteños dance the tango, you’ll have to head off the beaten track to places such as La Catedral in the barrio of Almagro.

Tucked away behind an unpromisingly scruffy door, this vast, low-lit venue has a bizarre shabby-chic appeal. A vast warehouse with modern art covering the walls, mismatched tables and chairs near the bar, and a dance floor that’s a world away from the city’s traditional tango halls.

Locals and expats alike attend the friendly beginner classes on Tuesdays – lessons for more adept dancers are held throughout the rest of the week. Many sessions are followed by displays by the instructors and milongas (a tango dance event), and there’s decent, healthy food on offer too (the vegetarian empanadas are particularly good).

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