The Train at the End of the World

Criminals captured by police are often told metaphorically that they have reached the end of the line. In the case of repeat offenders in Argentina in the early 20th century, that statement was literal—they were sent to the prison at the end of the world.

The Prisoner's Train in Ushuia, Argentina
Ellen Klein stands alongside the Prisoner's Train, in Ushuia, Argentina, on a California Native Patagonia Adventure.

Ushuaia is known as the southernmost city in the world. Located at the southern tip of South America, it is an environment of extremes. The city was founded to establish Argentine sovereignty in the Tierra del Fuego region, and in 1896 a penal colony was set up for repeat offenders. To be sent here was seen as little better than a death sentence.

In order to transport the materials needed for the construction of the prison, a xilocar—a narrow-gauge train with shallow cars that ran on wooden tracks and was pulled by oxen—was constructed. However, it was limited in its ability to transport lumber from the forests, so in 1910 construction of a narrow-gauge railway began. The original steam locomotive that operated on the 15.5-mile line earned the nickname “La Coqueta” because of the little jumps and hops that it made as it chugged along the line.

Convicts exit Prisoner's Train
Between 1910 and 1947, Ushuia's 'Prisoner's Train' transported convicts to their daily labor.

The train was vital to the prison and the town itself. It transported prisoners to the surrounding forests to do the backbreaking work of logging. The lumber was then loaded onto the train for transportation back to Ushuaia. The prisoners’ efforts provided wood for cooking and heating during the harsh winters, as well as for construction. A large portion of the town, including buildings, streets and bridges, was built by the convicts, and it was not uncommon in the early days of the town to see teams of prisoners walking down the street.

After over fifty years of use the prison was shut down by Argentine President Juan Perón in 1947, and the train was decommissioned in 1952.

Forty-two years later, in 1994, the prisoners’ train was resurrected under the new name of Ferrocarril Austral Fueguino. It offers tourists a chance to ride along a new line that follows the old right-of-way.

There are three steam locomotives that run on the line, and all are fired by oil, rather than coal, in order to minimize the risk of igniting forest fires. They pull heated antique coaches with large windows that offer great views of spectacular scenery.

California Native founder, Lee Klein, exits Prisoner's Train.
California Native founder, Lee Klein, escapes from the Prisoner's Train in Ushuia, Argentina.

Leaving Ushuaia the train follows the Pipo River through the Cañadon del Toro as a bilingual guide explains the history and ecology of the area. At the Macarena waterfall, passengers can debark to visit a reconstructed campsite of the Yámana Indians. Continuing on through sub-Antarctic forest, passengers may see high stumps that are remnants of trees cut down by prisoners during the harsh winters, when snow could accumulate to tremendous depths. The next stop is at the entrance of Tierra del Fuego National Park. Here passengers can either debark and continue their journey into the park or return on the train to Ushuaia.

Modern Ushuaia, with its hotels, restaurants, internet cafés and shops, is very different from the conditions endured by its early settlers, and it is difficult to imagine the bleak future that loomed before those who were sentenced to imprisonment and forced labor in a time when the town barely existed. Thankfully, we can now leisurely ponder this thought in the comfort of a car on the FCAF line, a huffing and puffing tribute to those who unwillingly toiled to tame the end of the world.

Ham and Cheese Again

It’s a good thing we enjoy a good ham and cheese sandwich. On our recent trip to Argentina and Patagonia, we were amazed at the ubiquity of this tasty combination.

On a mountain top, overlooking the lakes of Bariloche, Argentina, California Native founder Lee Klein enjoys the view and another ham and cheese sandwich.On our very first day in Buenos Aires, exhausted from jet lag and very hungry, we stopped at an empanada stand. Empanadas are a staple of Argentinian food. Basically, they are dough folded around a filling and baked. The name comes from the Spanish verb empanar, meaning to wrap or coat in bread. The available fillings were meat, onions and cheese, or ham and cheese. We opted for the latter. Delicious! OK, it was the first day, but we found a great lunch. Along the way, in other towns, we stopped in grocery stores, bakeries, etc. and ham and cheese was the filling we could consistently count on for empanadas.

As we traveled through the country, on most of our excursions, hikes, and sightseeing walks, a sack lunch was usually included. In the bags were an abundance of items—fruits, chips, salads, snacks and a ham and cheese sandwich.

Because of the size of the Country, it is often necessary to fly from one place to another. We flew on Aerolineas Argentinas, a nice domestic airline that goes everywhere. On each domestic flight, no matter the distance, we were served—you guessed it—a ham and cheese sandwich (with a sweet dessert).

So, we are walking along and exploring a town on our own, and decide to stop at a restaurant or cafe for lunch. Maybe just pick up a quick sandwich? Looking at the menu under sandwiches, there are several options: ham and cheese, ham, cheese, ham and cheese and egg, ham and cheese and tomato, ham and egg…well you get the picture. Substitute the word “Spam” for “ham” and you have a Monty Python routine.

Why so much ham? Much of the cuisine in Argentina comes from the Spanish and Italian immigrants, and hams were very popular in both countries.

Rolling through the countryside and looking at the farmland, we see lots of cows (explaining the cheese and the milk in the wonderful cafe con leche), sheep, horses and other animals, but the one animal that seems to be missing is a pig. I guess all the hams are out to lunch!

Exploring the Glaciers of Patagonia

Visitors get up close and personal with a glacier in an ice field in PatagoniaWhat is blue, white, frosty and cold? If you guessed a type of drink, try again! It is a glacier in Patagonia, and there are hundreds of them to see. The California Native scouting team was on our third trip to explore the area in March. This time we are developing a new itinerary for our adventures not only in Patagonia (Chile and Argentina) but also in other areas of the two countries.

California Native scouts, Lee and Ellen Klein, enjoy glacier in Straits of MagellanIn the first of three weeks of travel in the region, we were able to set foot on Cape Horn (as far south as you can get without being in Antarctica), hiked an island in the Straits of Magellan, crunched our way up an ice field fjord in a zodiac, trekked in Torres del Paine National Park in the shadows of the snow-capped towers, visited the largest and the longest glaciers in Argentina, and even hiked up the glacier itself (crampons on!).

And, that was just our first week! There is a lot of excitement to be had in this region, and The California Native is constantly adding adventures so that you can join us in experiencing these wonders. Stay tuned for more on Patagonia and Argentina.

Don’t Cry For Me Argentina

Argentina Iguazu FallsAt California Native, we are always exploring new and exciting destinations to develop unique itineraries to offer our fellow travel enthusiasts.Lee Rappelling at Iguazu Falls

Last week I returned from a business trip to Argentina, where I was a guest of the Argentina Tourist Board. I interviewed many Argentinian tour operators and hotel owners and found several that appeared to meet the high standards that we set for California Native suppliers. I plan to return to Argentina in a few months to do an in-depth survey of this fascinating country. Then we will develop a new series of unique trips to Patagonia, Iguazu, and the many other wonderful destinations in this beautiful, friendly South American country.Lee on zipline at Iguazu Falls

While on last week’s trip I spent several days at Iguazu Falls, traveled under the falls in a high-speed Zodiac, rappelled down the face of cliffs, zip-lined through the jungle canopy, and hiked to the many beautiful spots where the views of the falls were breathtaking. At California Native, even our business trips are fun because, after all, fun is the business we’re in.