The last licks of a winter gale die away with the morning as storm clouds speed across the snowy peaks of Tierra del Fuego National Park. A solitary train whistle sounds.
The long screech of the old-fashioned locomotive pierces the frosty air, its smokestack belching puffs of white steam."All aboaard!" the stationmaster shouts as two dozen passengers scramble aboard replicas of antique English passenger wagons. For the next two hours they will be riding the "Train to the End of the World."
By tourist train, and later the same day by catamaran over the ice-blue waters of the Beagle Channel, they will explore the southernmost tip of South America.
Tierra del Fuego, the Land of Fire, is a patchwork of mountainous islands and sea channels carved out by glaciers ages ago. Much of this land is uninhabited, its name conjuring up visions of howling winds and towering seas.
Yamana Indians, a canoe people, lived here for thousand of years, nomadic hunters who survived on seal meat and edible plants. European exploration began with Magellan in 1520, followed by whalers and wayfarers, sailors and sealers, and the occasional missionary.
Today, tens of thousands of people visit Tierra Del Fuego each year, mainly in the warmer summer months of December-February. Smaller numbers come in late July and August, when it's winter in the Southern Hemisphere.
It's just as spectacular then.
The English-style locomotive puffs its way out of a wooden station for a roundtrip ride over 4.5 miles of narrow track.
Begun in 1994, the train runs several trips daily, fewer in wintertime, from a station a few miles west of Ushuaia, population 45,000.
The train retraces parts of the route of a convict railway once built and run by prisoners confined to Ushuaia, the southernmost city on Earth, some 1,495 miles south of Buenos Aires.
A former penitentiary as infamous to Argentines as Alcatraz, El Presidio operated from the early 1900s until 1947, when it was closed for humanitarian reasons.
Now it is a museum on the grounds of a naval base.
Black-and-white photos of the era show prisoners in striped uniforms sawing in the forest, pushing logs into freight cars or seated unsmiling on the train's narrow benches.
Chopping firewood from these beech forests is still a year-round task for many in Tierra del Fuego, where long winter months yield only six to eight hours of daily sunlight and the temperature hovers around freezing.
The tiny train chugs past an ice-encrusted stream, frozen peat bogs and jagged mountaintops rendered postcard perfect by a recent snowfall. Icicles drip from the rocks.
"To your right you will see hundreds of blackened, scorched tree stumps," says the tour conductor, Oscar Scheffelaar-Klotz. "This was once a forest where the convicts cut down trees. Sparks from the old freight train started fires here."
The train halts beside a replica of an Indian settlement, then rolls past an old sawmill and fields of wild berry bushes now dormant in the snow as the smokestack's plume rises in the pale winter light.
Further along, the wagons wend through the Cemetery of the Trees, hundreds upon hundreds of acres of trees removed by convicts.
"As you can see, the prisoners cut down many, many trees. And each year they needed to build the train line farther out as they cut farther and farther away from the city," the guide says.
Soon the train enters the Tierra del Fuego National Park, pocked with peat bogs and hardscrabble hills. Across the Beagle Channel, the Chilean mountains of the Darwin Cordillera glow a pale blue-white. Chile and Argentina share the main island of Tierra del Fuego.
Beech forests rise up the mountains and whisper in the wind. Clumps of green lichen - called "devil's beard" - swing from bushes.
With the prisoners long gone, beavers now do the work of felling trees, leaving trunks with chiseled toothmarks.
Snowy footprints, perhaps a fox, lead up a streambank. A cormorant, a seabird whose wingspan can reach six feet, flies in search of an inviting lake as the train ride comes to an end.
Here in Tierra del Fuego, water is as much a formidable presence as land. Voyaging across both can be fitted into one day, with connections between train and catamaran bookable in advance - such as the 100-foot catamaran Ezequiel MB that sails at midafternoon.
Andean flute music is piped into the Ezequiel's enclosed double-deck salon. Black-coated waiters serve white wine while families sip hot Mate tea - an Argentine tra-di-tion.
Warmly dressed tourists step out of heated salons onto the open-air top deck and its panoramic view, as the ship glides from Ushuaia Bay down the Beagle Channel.
One mountain after another slides past: majestic Monte Olivia and a peak with serrated teeth called the Cinco Hermanos, or Five Brothers.
"Oh look! Seals!" a 6-year-old girl squeals as the Ezequiel pulls alongside an islet where dozens of fur seals rollick. The animals slide off black boulders into the waves as tourists "ooh" and "aah."
Another island looms up, topped with grunting sea lions, among them a 300-pound male defending his harem. Tourists crowd the side of the boat to gawk.
"Please be quiet," the tour guide whispers through the boat's microphones as the Ezequiel idles within yards.
Then the catamaran pulls away, a golden winter sunset glinting off the backs of the sea lions. Heading for home, the ship passes islands covered with squawking black cormorants. Some nosedive into the waves for fish.
The day ends as it began: Gray clouds gather atop distant mountains. The wind picks up. The mercury drops.
As waves rise higher and rap against the catamaran's pontoons, the Ezequiel speeds for Ushuaia Bay.
The city lights twinkle warmly, welcoming the tourist back after a winter's day at the end of the world.
If you go
Some things to do and places to go while in Tierra del Fuego:
Train at World's End: Regular roundtrip ticket until Oct. 31, 1998, is $26 for adults, $22 for children. Price increases Nov. 1 for summer high season to $30 for adults and $25 for children. One-way tickets are $4-$5 less. Five to seven departures daily in summer high season, three daily in low season. Roundtrip: nine miles or two hours and 15 minutes starting from End of the World Station five miles west of Ushuaia. More information available from stationmaster in Ushuaia at (54 901) 31-600.
Beagle Channel catamaran tours: Most excursions sail into or out of Ushuaia Bay, past Sea Lions' Island, Birds' Island, and the historical Les Eclaireurs lighthouse. Longer excursions pass Port Almanza and Mackinlay Pass to Martillo Island, home to a Magellan Penguins' rookery. Companies offering excursions include Rumbo Sur S.R.L., with twice daily departures on 21/2-hour outings. But rates and schedules vary, especially for longer day trips of 4-8 hours. Rumbo Sur S.R.L.: San Martin 342, Ushuaia, Argentina 9410 or phone (54-901) 21139.
Other points of interest in or near Ushuaia:
- Martial Glacier. A winding 4.5-mile road climbs from Ushuaia up the Martial chain of mountains, leading to a downhill ski slope with chairlift. From the top, a panoramic view of the Beagle Channel and the glacier. After a two-hour walk it is possible to arrive at the glacier itself. Other sports in and around the glacier and neighboring mountain valleys include cross-country skiing, snow-cat and sled dog rides in winter (June until mid-September, weather permitting). Horseback riding, four-wheeling, bicycling, backpacking, birdwatching and other sports predominate in other seasons.
- Tierra del Fuego National Park. A 150,000-acre protected area of craggy mountains, rivers, valleys and lakes that begins 7.5 miles west of Ushuaia. Park forest frames beautiful views of Beagle Channel. Local wildlife includes black-browed albatross, petrels, rabbits, silver fox, beavers and muskrats. Mountain and shore hiking trails of varying difficulty.
- Maritime Museum of Ushuaia and former Presidio penitentiary, San Martin and Yaganes streets, Ushuaia. Museum at former "Southernmost Prison on Earth," which was begun at turn of century and closed in 1947. Now on grounds of an Argentine naval base, museum provides insights into history of prison and navigation of surrounding archipelago.
For more information: Instituto Fueguino de Turismo, a tourism chamber located at Av. Maipu 505 in Ushuaia. Phone (54 901) 23-340 or 21-423. Web site (http://tierradelfuego.ml.org).