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 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.
Though comprising a number of islands, it’s 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.
The majority of the region’s visitors arrive during the summer (Dec–Feb), when places such as Ushuaia can get very busy. The best time to visit is between late March and the end of April, when the mountains and hills are daubed with the spectacular autumnal colours of the Nothofagus southern beech. Springtime (Oct to mid-Nov) is also beautiful, if rather windy. For winter sports, you need to head for Ushuaia between June and August; the area is good for cross-country skiing, especially around Sierra Alvear, though the downhill facilities are best suited to beginners and intermediates. The climate here is generally not as severe as you may expect given the latitude, and temperatures rarely reach the extremes of mainland continental areas of Patagonia, though you’ll need to be prepared for blizzards and icy winds at any time of year.
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, or “Land of Fire”, much 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 FitzRoy 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 that 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.
Today, Tierra del Fuego’s economy is dependent on the production of petroleum and natural gas, fisheries, forestry and technological industries such as television assembly plants, attracted to the area by its status as a duty-free zone. 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. Hopes run high for the fast-expanding tourist industry centred on Ushuaia.Read More
The indigenous peoples of Tierra del Fuego
The indigenous peoples of Tierra del Fuego
The lands at the end of the earth were home to several distinct societies before the arrival of the Europeans. In 1580, Sarmiento de Gamboa became the first European to encounter the Selk’nam, one of the largest groups. He was impressed by these “Big People”, with their powerful frames, guanaco robes and conical headgear. It was not long before their war-like, defiant nature became evident, though, and a bloody skirmish with a Dutch expedition in 1599 proved them to be superb fighters. Before the arrival of the Europeans, Selk’nam society revolved around the hunting of guanaco, which they relied on not just for meat – the skin was made into moccasins and capes, the bones were used for fashioning arrowheads and the sinews for bowstrings. Hunting was done on foot, and the Selk’nam used stealth and teamwork to encircle guanacos, bringing them down with bow and arrow, a weapon with which they were expert.
The other sizeable group was the Yámana (Yaghan), a sea-going people living in the channels of the Fuegian archipelago. Their society was based on tribal groups of extended families, each of which lived for long periods aboard their equivalent of a houseboat: a canoe fashioned of lenga bark. Out on the ocean, work was divided between the sexes: the men hunted seals from the prow while the women – the only ones who could swim – took to the icy waters, collecting shellfish with only a layer of seal grease to protect them from the cold. When not at sea, the Yámana stayed in dwellings made of guindo evergreen beech branches, building conical huts in winter (to shed snow), and more aerodynamic dome-shaped ones in the summer (when strong winds blow). Favoured campsites were used over millennia, and, at these sites, middens of discarded shells would accumulate in the shape of a ring, since doors were constantly being shifted to face away from the wind.
The arrival of European settlers marked the beginning of the end for both the Selk’nam and Yámana. To protect colonists’ sheep farms in the late nineteenth century, hundreds of miles of wire fencing were erected, which the Selk’nam, unsurprisingly, resented, seeing it as an incursion into their ancestral lands; however, they soon acquired a taste for hunting the slow animals, which they referred to as “white guanaco”. For the settlers, this was an unpardonable crime, representing a drain on their investment. The Selk’nam were painted as “barbarous savages” who constituted an obstacle to settlement and progress, and isolated incidents of attack and retaliation soon escalated into bloody conflict. Reliable sources point to bounty hunters being paid on receipt of grisly invoices, such as a pair of severed ears. The assault on Selk’nam culture, too, was abrupt and devastating, led by the “civilizing” techniques of the Salesian missions, who “rehoused” them in their missions. By the late 1920s there were probably no indigenous Selk’nam living as their forefathers had done and when pure-blooded Lola Kiepje and Esteban Yshton passed away in 1966 and 1969, respectively, Selk’nam culture died with them.
Meanwhile, the arrival of settlers in 1884 triggered a measles epidemic that killed approximately half the estimated one thousand remaining Yámana. Damp, dirty clothing – European castoffs given by well-meaning missionaries – increased the risk of disease. Missionaries promoted a shift to sedentary agriculture, but the consequent change of diet, from one high in animal fats to one more reliant on vegetables, reduced the Yámana’s resistance to the cold, further increasing the likelihood of disease. Outbreaks of scrofula, pneumonia and tuberculosis meant that by 1911 fewer than one hundred Yámana remained. Abuela Rosa, the last of the Yámana to live in the manner of her ancestors, died in 1982. Nevertheless, a few Yámana descendants still live near Puerto Williams on Isla Navarino.