It would have been very cold, very draughty, and, even compared to the low bar set by late-19th-century prisons, altogether rather unpleasant. But if you could sneak to a window, what a view!
This was where they sent the prisoners they didn’t want to deal with in Buenos Aires so they could forget about them. The violent ones. The re-offenders. It was the jail at the end of the earth. It might not have been as cold as the salt mines in Siberia, but it was hardly a picnic.
At one point, not long before the jail was built, Ushuaia was a gold rush town. But there never was any gold–it was all just rumors.
With the sea being so strong in Ushuaia’s historical bloodline it’s only fitting that it has a very good maritime museum. And in the old jail (or presidio), it has an unusual and surprisingly functional home.
The Maritime Museum sits on the eastern edge of town, part of the naval base. The cells that were once home to inmates are now filled with exhibits.
Most of Ushuaia’s Maritime Museum consists of meticulous scale models of tall ships, maps of exploration routes, and explanatory text. There’s a small wooden boat outside the main entrance perishing in the elements. There’s a replica lighthouse in one of the courtyards. But there’s surprisingly little in the way of original artifacts. It’s the fascinating history that carries it.
The Maritime Museum, though, is not the only museum in the oddly shaped building. The original jail building has five spokes radiating outward from a central hub. Each hub has two levels lines with cells. That leaves space for other things other than purely maritime. So this is really four museums in one.
One spoke is kept mostly untouched from its original state as a jail (or presidio). It’s rickety, cold, draughty, and falling apart. You can only go so far into it before it becomes dangerous to walk on the rotting wooden floorboards. But it gives a vivid sense of what it must have been like to call this home in the day.
Another spoke is a gift shop and Maritime Art Gallery. At the time I was there, the exhibit focused, naturally enough, on penguin art. Statues of penguins. Paintings of penguins. Even origami of penguins.
Upstairs of the main spoke is an Antarctic Museum, and for many visitors this will be among the most interesting (especially for visitors waiting to board a ship heading south to the frozen continent). There are more model ships here, but there’s also a very interesting collection of original artifacts from the whaling days, as well as artifacts from early Antarctica exploration and bases. Among the most striking is an original explorer suit to deal with the harsh Antarctic weather. And you can also brush up on your identification of the different species of penguins with some taxidermied specimens.
Another section of the building is devoted to a history of the jail. Original furniture and mannequins help in visualizing what life was like for the inmates.
And connecting each of the hubs is the main multipurpose hall that was used for recreation, meetings, eating, and anything else that wasn’t done in the cells or the communal washrooms.
It all makes for a fascinating diversion while you’re waiting to board the ship south (or the plane north, as the case may be).
Photos of Ushuaia’s Maritime Museum & Presidio
What To Know Before You Go
- Your entrance ticket is good for in-and-out for two days. That’s a good thing–Ushuaia is not exactly brimming with attractions to explore if you’re looking for a way to fill in some time if the wind is up and it’s cold out. (There are, of course, diversions outside town.)
- Despite its shape, the museum is quite compact and can be comfortably appreciated in an hour or two.
- Food and drink options are limited to non-existent, depending on whether the small cafe counter is open. But it’s only a very short walk back into town.
- There are lockers at the entrance for storing bags and coats.
- You might think that one gift shop is plenty. But no–there are actually two gift shops in the complex that provide all sorts of Ushuaia, Antarctica, and penguin-themed souvenirs. It’s not like Ushuaia is lacking in souvenir shops, but some of the options here are more interesting than in the shops in town.