Museo Marítimo de Ushuaia
Misleadingly named, Ushuaia’s maritime museum (Yaganes and Gobernador Paz, tel. 02901/43-7481, www.museomaritimo.com, US$12, US$8 for foreign students; Argentines and locals get a discount) most effectively tells the story of Ushuaia’s inauspicious origins as a penal settlement for both civilian and military prisoners.
Alarmed over the South American Missionary Society’s incursions among the Beagle Channel’s indigenous peoples, in 1884 Argentina reinforced its territorial claims by building a military prison on Isla de los Estados (Staten Island), across the Strait of Lemaire at the southeastern tip of the Isla Grande.
Barely a decade later, in 1896, it established Ushuaia’s civilian Cárcel de Reincidentes for repeat offenders; after finally deciding that Isla de los Estados was a hardship post even for prisoners, in 1902 the military moved its own facility to Ushuaia. Then, in 1911, the two institutions fused in this building, which held some of the country’s most famous political prisoners, celebrated rogues, and notorious psychopaths of the first half of the 20th century, until it closed in 1947.
Divided into five two-story pavilions, with 380 cells intended to house one prisoner each, it held up to 600 prisoners at a time. Many, if not most, prisoners, however, were long-termers or lifers, such as the diminutive strangler Cayetano Santos Godino, a serial killer dubbed “El Orejudo” for his oversized ears (the nickname also describes a large-eared bat native to the archipelago). Julio Ordano has written a play, performed in Buenos Aires, about Santos Godino, titled El Petiso Orejudo.
The museum does justify its name with a collection of scale models of ships that have played a role in local history, such as Magellan’s galleon Trinidad, the legendary Beagle, the South American Missionary Society’s three successive sailboats, each known as the Allen Gardiner, and Antarctic explorer and conqueror Roald Amundsen’s Fram.
In addition, there are materials on Argentina’s Antarctic presence since the early 20th century, when the corvette Uruguay rescued Otto Nordenskjöld’s Norwegian expedition, whose crew included the Argentine José María Sobral. On the grounds stands a full-size replica of the Faro San Juan de Salvamento, the Isla de los Estados (Staten Island) lighthouse that figures in Jules Verne’s story “The Lighthouse at the End of the World.”
In addition, the museum contains a philatelic room, natural history exhibits, and admirable accounts of the region’s aboriginal peoples. It has only two drawbacks: There’s too much to see in a single day, and the English translations could use some polishing—to say the least.
The Museo Marítimo is open 9 a.m.–8 p.m. daily October–April, and 10 a.m.–8 p.m. daily the rest of the year.
On request, staff will validate your admission ticket for another day; since there’s so much here, splitting up sightseeing sessions is a good idea. It has an excellent book and souvenir shop as well as a confitería for snacks and coffee.
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Argentina, 3rd edition