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.
Continue reading to find out more about...
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.
Central and northern Tierra del Fuego
The second-largest settlement in Tierra del Fuego, Río Grande is also the only town of significance in Isla Grande’s central and northern sector. The sterile-looking plains that surround it harbour fields of petroleum and natural gas that generate millions of dollars of wealth annually, with huge quantities of gas transported each year to Ushuaia and as far away as Buenos Aires. North of town, the RN-3 runs through monotonous scenery towards San Sebastián, where you cross the border into Chile or continue north on a dead-end route to the mouth of the Magellan Straits at Cabo Espíritu Santo. On the way to Río Grande from Ushuaia, the RN-3 winds up to Paso Garibaldi, where you have majestic views over Lago Escondido, and then bypasses Tolhuin, crossing the woodland scenery of the central region. This stretch is marked by a string of ripio branch roads, the rutas complementarias, which wiggle away from the RN-3; those headed west take you to a couple of fine estancias, and those headed east into the Península Mitre, the windswept land that forms Isla Grande’s desolate tip.
One of the northern region’s principal tourist draws is its world-class trout-fishing, especially for sea-running brown trout, which on occasion swell to weights in excess of 14kg. The river, also named Río Grande, currently holds several fly-fishing world records for brown trout caught with various breaking strains of line. The mouths of the Río Fuego and Río Ewan can also be spectacularly fruitful, as can sections of the Malengüeña, Irigoyen, Claro and Turbio rivers, and lakes Yehuin and Fagnano.
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 wasn’t 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 guanaco, 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 impact of the European settlers
The arrival of European settlers marked the beginning of the end for both the Selk’nam and the 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 buildings. 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.
The measles epidemic
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.
Cresting the Paso Garibaldi some 45km out of Ushuaia, the RN-3 descends towards Lago Escondido, the first of the lowland lakes, accessible via a 4km branch road to the north, before heading alongside the southern shore of LAGO FAGNANO. This impressive lake, also called Lago Kami from its Selk’nam name, is flanked by ranges of hills, and straddles the Chilean border at its western end. Most of its 105km are inaccessible to visitors, apart from dedicated anglers who can afford to rent a good launch. Travelling along the RN-3 as it parallels the lake, you’ll see several sawmills, denoted by their squat, conical brick chimneys, used for burning bark.
Near the eastern end of Lago Fagnano, the road splits: the left fork is the more scenic, old, unsealed RN-3 route, which cuts north across the lake along a splendid causeway; the right is the RN-3 bypass, the more direct route to TOLHUIN, the region’s oddest little town. Created in the 1970s, Tolhuin was designed to provide a focus for the heartland of Isla Grande – indeed, the name means “heart-shaped” in Selk’nam – but as a place of unassuming houses that hangs together with little focus, it has an artificial commune-like feel. It does, however, make a useful halfway point to break the journey – as most buses do – between Ushuaia and Río Grande.
To Río Grande: the RN-3 and the rutas complementarias
The main route between Tolhuin and Río Grande is the fast, paved RN-3, but if you have the time it’s worth exploring one or more of the unsealed rutas complementarias (RC) that branch off it – alphabetized roads that provide access to the heartland of Argentine Tierra del Fuego but are only really accessible to those with their own transport. Dotted around this inhospitable land are some hospitable estancias, worth the journey for the authentic experience of seeing a working Fuegian farm, or for the opportunity to gallop on horses across the steppe.
Some 40km north of Tolhuin, the most beautiful of the central rutas complementarias – the RCa – branches east through golden pastureland towards the coast and the knobbly protrusion of Cabo San Pablo. A wonderful panorama stretches out from the south side of Cabo San Pablo, encompassing the wreck of the Desdémona, grounded during a storm in the early 1980s – at low tide, you can walk out to the ship – but the area is mainly of interest to fishermen. Beyond the cape, the road continues for 17km through wetlands and burnt-out “tree cemeteries” and past the odd beaver dam to the Estancia Fueguina, from where you’ll need a high-clearance 4WD to progress any further.
The RCh and RCf loop
The RCh, which branches off the RN-3 22km north of Tolhuin, and the connecting RCf, which joins the RN-3 some 10km south of the bridge over the Río Grande, form a 120km loop that passes through swathes of transitional Fuegian woodland and grassy pasture-meadows (vegas) populated by sheep. Along RCh you’ll see cone-shaped Mount Yakush and pyramid-like Mount Atukoyak to the south before the road joins the RCf by Lago Yehuin, a popular fishing locale and a good place for spotting condors, which nest on Cerro Shenolsh between the lake and its shallow neighbour, Lago Chepelmut.
Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego
PARQUE NACIONAL TIERRA DEL FUEGO, 12km west of Ushuaia, is the easiest to access of southern Argentina’s national parks. Protecting 630 square kilometres of jagged mountains, intricate lakes, southern beech forest, swampy peat bog, subantarctic tundra and verdant coastline, the park stretches along the frontier with Chile, from the Beagle Channel to the Sierra Inju-Goiyin (also called the Sierra Beauvoir) north of Lago Fagnano, but only the southernmost quarter of this is open to the public, accessed via the RN-3 from Ushuaia. Fortunately, this area contains much of the park’s most beautiful scenery, if also some of the wettest – bring rain gear.
The quarter is broken down into three main sectors: Bahía Ensenada and Río Pipo in the east, close to the station for the Tren del Fin del Mundo; Lago Roca further west; and the Lapataia area south of Lago Roca, which includes Laguna Verde and, at the end of the RN-3, Bahía Lapataia. You can get a good overview of the park in a day, but walkers will want to stay two to three days to appreciate the scenery and the wildlife, which includes birds such as Magellanic woodpeckers (Carpintero patagónico), condors, Steamer ducks, Kelp geese – the park’s symbol – and Buff-necked ibis; and mammals such as the guanaco, the rare Southern sea otter (Nutria marina), the Patagonian grey fox and its larger cousin, the native Fuegian red fox, once heavily hunted for its pelt.
Parrots and hummingbirds
Most visitors to South America associate parrots and hummingbirds more with the steamy, verdant jungles of the Amazon than the frigid extremes of Tierra del Fuego. However, it is also possible to see them both in Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego. The unmistakably garrulous Austral parakeet is the world’s most southerly parrot, inhabiting these temperate forests year-round. The Selk’nam christened it Kerrhprrh, in onomatopoeic imitation of its call. Once upon a time, according to their beliefs, all Fuegian trees were coniferous, and it was Kerrhprrh who transformed some into deciduous forests, painting them autumnal reds with the feathers of its breast. The tiny Green-backed firecrown is the planet’s most southerly hummingbird, and has been recorded – albeit rarely – flickering about flowering shrubs in summer. Known to the Selk’nam by the graceful name of Sinu K-Tam (Daughter of the Wind), this diminutive creature was, curiously, believed by them to be the offspring of Ohchin, the whale, and Sinu, the wind.
When to visit Tierra del Fuego
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, 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.