The Tierra del Fuego
Wild and untamed Tierra del Fuego is now a place of mystery and legend, perched out dramatically in the roaring swells of the southern Atlantic Ocean and crowning the South American continent with a tip of spikey, snow-tipped mountains, carved ancient fjords, mossy forests and some of the largest glacial formations on the planet. But the wonders don’t stop there, because this land is also home to one of the most remote cities in the world, Ushuaia, which sits elegantly on the coastal flatlands of the archipelago’s Isla Grande, backed by mountains and surrounded by the region’s trademark hinterlands of rock, ice and forest.
But, despite its raw isolation, there are actually few archipelagos in all of South America more shrouded in human history than the Tierra del Fuego. It was here that the first great European explorers cased the very end of the American continent; here that the revered Spanish explorer (although he was actually Portuguese), Ferdinand Magellan first spotted the native tribesmen’s fires on the shoreline (a fact that gave this land of ice its somewhat unfitting name – ‘the land of fire’).
In fact, archaeological finds and other evidence found recently on the Tierra del Fuego have indicated that human settlement in these remote parts began as early as 8,000 years BC. Dig sites on the small, Chilean-owned Navarino Island, have further indicated that the cultural traits of these settlers mirror the native Yamana tribesmen that can still be seen inhabiting the very extremities of South America right up to the iconic Cape Horn, although, today in much smaller numbers.
Now, the Tierra del Fuego draws some of the most adventure-hungry crowds in all of Argentina. They come here to cross the wild Strait of Magellan and explore the mountain ranges and valleys where few feet have trodden before, spot sea lions and whales in the waterways of the coast and hike to the formidable glacial walls of Martial and Fuego’s other great ice sheets. But there’s also more than just tourism lurking in these wilds, with some of Patagonia’s most striking natural habitats and plenty of smaller settlements to explore, there’s nature and local character to boot.
Given the overarching wildness of this Argentinian province, there’s little question that the major pull for most coming to Tierra del Fuego is its adventure travel offering. This ranges from dramatic glacier hikes to world-class scenery, and includes some of the most adrenaline-pumping activities on the continent.
Hiking wise, unquestionably the most popular route trodden here is the path up to the dramatic Martial Glacier. Not only is it easily accessible from the province’s capital city at Ushuaia, but the path is well-maintained for hikers during the summer and provides some of the most dramatic views of the Tierra del Fuego’s inland mountains on offer. What’s more, even during the colder months, when Martial’s trekking routes become clogged up with ice and snow, the large ski field atop the peak remains accessible from the town’s chairlift, offering a range of on-piste and cross-country skiing opportunities.
However, hikers, nature enthusiasts and history buffs alike should be sure not to leave Fuego before casting their gaze over the five-kilometre wide Beagle Passage that shoots its way between the islands of the archipelago, connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific seas with one of the few navigable passages past Cape Horn. By far the biggest claim to fame for this narrow little waterway is the luminary naturalist its eponymous boat was carrying as it headed for the Galapagos Islands in 1833; for it was between these lands that Charles Darwin passed on his famous journey of discovery.
If you’re interested in exploring Fuego’s famous waterways a little further then there are plenty of cruises and excursions now available from the region’s capital. These include guided sea kayak tours around the glacial coasts, to organised cruises down the Beagle Channel and beyond, affording visitors more time to glimpse the wilds that crown the South American continent at its very end.
By far the easiest way to arrive in the region is by direct domestic flight from one of the country’s major travel hubs. Connections are currently available to and from Buenos Aires, while international connections into Ushuaia also run to nearby Punta Arenas, in Chile. However, for those looking for a little adventure, taking the ferry crossing past the Strait of Magellan will take around 20 minutes (departing from the closest port, which actually lays in neighbouring Chile) and offer up some of the most dramatic panoramas of the archipelago’s north side along the way.