No escape: if you visit Ushuaia today you will be allowed to leave –that was not always so / Getty
Cell blocks and Island H

"You know, this is quite warm for us," says the lady at the tourist information desk when I comment on the full-blown hailstone shower that had been whacking me in the face all the way into town. Ushuaia, Argentina's Tierra del Fuego outpost, sits snugly below snow-capped, jagged peaks, overlooking the Beagle Channel. At this latitude I found it best to wrap up. I couldn't help but feel for the hapless criminals who came to serve time here in bygone days.

Although founded by British missionaries in the 1870s, Ushuaia's population only became really permanent when a penal colony, modelled on that of Tasmania, was opened in 1896. The huge facilities, closed in 1947, can be "enjoyed" by the curious visitor, but there is also a more light-hearted way of experiencing the city's history. I opted for the latter, the "themed gallery" on the main street. Life-sized – sometimes uncannily realistic – mannequins are on display on two floors, depicting Fuegian history from its early indigenous inhabitants and colonisation, right through to Darwin and Shackleton and its time as a penal colony. An audio-guide explains each historical stage. The gallery's façade is crawling with "fugitives" wearing stripes, while dangling from windows and balconies are baton-waving law-enforcement officers.

After a morning of hail and history, I was greeted by a pale afternoon sun and opted for a good dose of flora, fauna and sea-faring lore, sailing the Beagle Channel. There are plenty of boats to choose from, but tour operator Tres Marias is the only one visiting H Island, so named because of its shape. Sailing along the Beagle Channel, I took to the top deck for some wildlife spotting and, before long, a large colony of sea lions came into view. The boat sailed past abundant birdlife before making landfall on H Island. The contrast from all that penal history was stark. A prisoner of cell-block H? Far from it.

Footprint's Argentina Handbook is out now, priced £15.99 (