Few places inspire images of rugged desolation more than Tierra del Fuego, but this mysterious and desolate archipelago off the southernmost tip of the South American landmass is actually surprisingly easy to visit these days. Regular flights service the Argentine city of Ushuaia and Punta Arenas in Chile (which is actually situated on the mainland) and there is a well-developed tourism infrastructure throughout the area.
Don’t let this put you off, however: Tierra del Fuego is just as remote, windswept and jaw-droppingly beautiful as it always has been (as a visit to the national park or a boat trip on the Beagle Channel will confirm) and the Chilean island of Isla Navarino (just North of the legendary Cape Horn) is an adventure-seeker’s paradise which is as desolate and far-flung as you’ll find…on this planet, at least.
Tierra del Fuego has been inhabited since about 8,000 BC, when the Yaghan people settled there. The Selk’nam people didn't arrive much later. Tierra del Fuego first entered European consciousness when Ferdinand Magellan sailed past it in 1520. Magellan named it Tierra del Humo, after the smoke which hung above the locals’ many bonfires, but the King of Spain decided that Tierra del Fuego – The Land of Fire – would be more poetic. He was not wrong: the island has inspired dreamers, travelers and writers ever since.
Have you found your muse yet? (Picture: Indrik Myneur)
Darwin visited, and made extensive notes, on the archipelago during his famous voyage aboard The Beagle but it was only in the 1850s that Europeans actually settled there. What followed was a microcosm of the colonial history of South America as a whole. There were well meaning priests, a gold rush and its attendant unscrupulous entrepreneurs, and epidemics of infectious diseases against which the locals had no immunity. The long and the short of it was that the local tribes were all but decimated, and that the islands and their significant oil deposits (there didn’t actually turn out to be much gold!) were eventually divided between Chile and Argentina.
These days Tierra del Fuego remains one of the richest regions in South America (people wouldn’t live there if it wasn’t financially worth their while), as a result of the aforementioned oil industry, a healthy king crab quota, and the ever-increasing role of tourism.
We’d recommend staying in Ushuaia (Argentina) rather than Punta Arenas (Chile): although both are essentially springboards to the rest of the region, the town of Ushuaia offers more in its own right and it’s very close to a number of the main attractions. The (even more southerly) Chilean town of Puerto Williams is also highly recommended.
The border between Chile and Argentina is quite sensitive (Argentina has never forgiven Chile for allowing British troops access to its radar bases in the region during the Falklands war) and although it is easy enough to cross from one country to the other you may want to keep the number of crossings to a minimum.
Due to its remote location, and the fact that oil and gas salaries make it one of the highest earning regions in South America, Tierra del Fuego is more expensive than the rest of either Argentina or Chile. It’s definitely worth it though.
Any activity or attraction in Tierra del Fuego comes with a caveat: ‘weather permitting’. Tierra del Fuego isn’t exactly balmy, and although summer months (November to February) are generally more clement than the rest of the year, there’s always an exception to prove the rule.
There’s too much going on in Tierra del Fuego to squeeze it all into one blog post, so we’ve decided to write about all the specifics in another blog (watch this space!). Spoiler alert: next week’s blog will feature missionaries and lexicographers; king penguins, steam trains and sea lions; enormous trout and vast, rugged landscapes. Not to mention very frequent use of the adjective ‘southernmost’. Enough said?
At 54° South, Tierra del Fuego is only a hop, skip and a jump away from Antarctica, and most cruise ships bound for the White Continent depart from Ushuaia. Although it is sometimes possible to get cheap last-minute berths in Ushuaia itself, you’re probably better off booking in advance. Speak to SA Expeditions about the options: if you plan carefully, this once-in-a-lifetime experience doesn’t have to be prohibitively expensive.
Hard to beat.
Credit to Martin Terber for the cover image of this blog post.