Across the Magellan Strait from mainland Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego is a land of windswept bleakness, whose settlements seem to huddle with their backs against the elements: cold winters, cool summers, gales in the spring, frost in the autumn. Yet this remote and rugged archipelago, tucked away at the foot of the South American continent, exercises a fascination over many travellers. Some look to follow in the footsteps of the region’s famous explorers, such as navigator Ferdinand Magellan, naturalist Charles Darwin or, more recently, author Bruce Chatwin. Others just want to see what it’s like down here, at the very end of the world. While it may be expensive, fast-developing and time-consuming to reach, Tierra del Fuego offers up an easily accessible national park, epic mountain scenery, diverse wildlife, a truly fascinating history and an array of outdoor activities – from hiking and skiing to boat trips and dog-sledding. There’s nowhere else quite like it on Earth.
Though comprising a number of islands, Tierra del Fuego is more or less the sum of its most developed part, Isla Grande, the biggest island in South America. Its eastern section, roughly a third of the island, along with a few islets, belongs to Argentina – the rest is Chilean territory. The major destination for visitors is the Argentine city of Ushuaia, a year-round resort on the south coast. Beautifully located, backed by distinctive jagged mountains, it is the base for visiting the tremendous Beagle Channel, rich in marine wildlife, and the wild, forested peaks of the Cordillera Darwin. With the lakes, forests and tundra of Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego just 12km to the west, and historic Estancia Harberton, home to descendants of Thomas Bridges, an Anglican missionary who settled here in 1871, a short excursion from the city, you could easily spend a week or so in the area.
Lago Fagnano, and the village of Tolhuin at its eastern end, is the main focus of the island’s central area, which is of considerably greater interest than the windswept plains and scrubby coirón grasslands in the north. The southeastern chunk of Isla Grande, Península Mitre, is one of Argentina’s least accessible regions, a boggy wilderness with low scrub and next to no human habitation, while, to its east, lies the mysterious Isla de los Estados, known in English as Staten Island. It is an extremely difficult area to visit, even more than the great white continent of Antarctica, which can be reached from Ushuaia – at a price.
In 1520, Ferdinand Magellan, in his attempt to be first to circumnavigate the globe, sailed through the straits that were later named after him and saw clouds of smoke rising from numerous fires lit by the indigenous Selk’nam along the coast of Isla Grande. He called the land Tierra del Humo (Land of Smoke); it was the king of Spain who thought Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire) would be more poetic. Early contact between indigenous groups and other European explorers was sporadic from the sixteenth century onwards, but this changed dramatically in the latter half of the nineteenth century, with tragic results for the indigenous population. When Robert Fitz Roy came here in the Beagle in the 1830s, an estimated three to four thousand Selk’nam and Mannekenk were living in Isla Grande, with some three thousand each of Yámana and Kawéskar in the entire southern archipelago. By the 1930s, however, the Mannekenk were virtually extinct, and the other groups had been effectively annihilated.
White settlement came to Tierra del Fuego in three phases. Anglican missionaries began to catechize the Yámana in the south, and Thomas Bridges established the first permanent mission on Ushuaia Bay in 1871. From the late 1880s, the Italian Roman Catholic Salesian Order began a similar process to the north of the Fuegian Andes. From the mid-1890s came a new colonizing impetus: the inauspicious-looking northern plains proved to be ideal sheep-farming territory, and vast latifundias sprang up. Croat, Scottish, Basque, Italian and Galician immigrants, along with Chileans from across the border, arrived to work on the estancias and build up their own landholdings.
The issue of the international border has been a contentious one over the years, as it has been along other sections of the Argentina–Chile boundary. Frontier disputes at the end of the nineteenth century required the arbitration of Great Britain, who in 1902 awarded Argentina the eastern half of Tierra del Fuego; land squabbles were still going on over eighty years later, the two countries almost coming to war in 1984 over three islands in the Beagle Channel. This time it took the intervention of Pope John Paul II, who, possibly to even things up, gave the islands to Chile. A cordial peace has reigned since. In 1991, the Argentine sector gained full provincial status and is known as the Provincia de Tierra del Fuego, Antártida e Islas del Atlántico Sur. Its jurisdiction is seen to extend over all southern territories, including the Islas Malvinas/Falklands Islands, which lie 550km off the coast, and the Argentine segment of Antarctica.
Tierra del Fuego’s economy is now dependent on the production of petroleum and natural gas, fisheries, forestry and technological industries, attracted to the area by its status as a duty-free zone. Meanwhile the tourist industry, centred on Ushuaia, continues to expand. Luxury items are comparatively cheap, but basic items such as food are much more expensive than in other parts of the country, owing to the huge distances involved in importing them.