Visiting Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego and Glaciar Martial

A grassy field leads into a forest of trees with snowcapped mountains visible beyond.

View of Glaciar Martial. Photo © Sebastian Werner, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

For pilgrims to the uttermost part of the earth, mecca is Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego’s Bahía Lapataia, where RN 3 ends on the Beagle Channel’s north shore. It’s a worthy goal, but sadly most visitors see only the area on and around the highway because most of the park’s mountainous interior, with its alpine lakes, limpid rivers, blue-tinged glaciers, and jagged summits, is closed to public access.

Map of Tierra del Fuego Chilean Plateau in Argentina

Tierra del Fuego and Chilean Plateau

Geography and Climate

About 18 kilometers west of Ushuaia, Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego hugs the Chilean border as its 63,000 hectares stretch from the Beagle Channel north across Lago Fagnano (Kami). Elevations range from sea level to 1,450 meters on the summit of Monte Vinciguerra.

The park has a maritime climate, with frequent high winds. Rainfall is moderate, about 750 millimeters per year, but humidity is high, as cool temperatures inhibit evapotranspiration— the summer average is only about 10°C. The record maximum temperature is 31°C, while the minimum is a fairly mild -12°C. At sea level, snow rarely sticks, but higher elevations have permanent snowfields and glaciers.

Flora and Fauna

As in southernmost Chile, thick southern beech forests cover the Argentine sector of Tierra del Fuego. Along the coast, the deciduous lenga (Nothofagus pumilio) and the Magellanic evergreen coigüe (Nothofagus betuloides) are the main tree species; at higher elevations, the stunted, deciduous ñirre (Nothofagus antarctica) forms nearly pure stands. In some low-lying areas, where cool annual temperatures inhibit complete decomposition, dead plant material compresses into sphagnum peat bogs with a cover of ferns and other moisture-loving plants; the insectivorous Drosera uniflora swallows unsuspecting bugs.

Argentina’s first coastal national park, Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego has a seashore protected by thick kelp beds that help incubate fish fry. Especially around Bahía Ensenada and Bahía Lapataia, the shoreline and inshore waters swarm with cormorants, grebes, gulls, kelp geese, oystercatchers, flightless and flying steamer ducks, snowy sheathbills, and terns. The black-browed albatross skims the Beagle’s waters, while the Andean condor sometimes soars overhead. Marine mammals, mostly sea lions but also fur seals and elephant seals, cavort in the ocean. The rare southern sea otter (Lutra felina) may exist here.

Inland areas are fauna-poor, though foxes and guanacos are present in small numbers. The most conspicuous mammals are the European rabbit and the Canadian beaver, both of which were introduced for their pelts but have proved to be pests.

Glaciar Martial

Technically within park boundaries but also within walking distance of Ushuaia, the Glaciar Martial is the area’s best single hike, offering expansive views of the Beagle Channel and even the jagged peaks of Chile’s Isla Navarino. Reached by the zigzag Camino al Glaciar (also known as Luis Martial) that climbs northwest out of town, the trailhead begins at the Aerosilla del Glaciar, the ski area’s chairlift, which operates 9 a.m.–7 p.m. daily. The 1.2-kilometer chairlift (US$6 pp) reduces the two-hour climb to the foot of the glacier by half. In summer there are occasional minibuses to the lift (9 a.m.–9 p.m., US$7 roundtrip) with Pasarela, Eben Ezer, and Bellavista, leaving from the corner of Avenida Maipú and Juana Fadul. Although it is easy to follow, the trail—especially the middle segment—is steep, and the descent requires particular caution because of loose rocks and soil. There is no admission charge to this sector.

Other Sights and Activities

Where freshwater Lago Roca drains into the sea at Bahía Lapataia, the park’s main sector has several short nature trails and a few longer ones; most of the backcountry is off-limits to casual hikers. Slightly less than one kilometer long, the Senda Laguna Negra uses a boardwalk to negotiate boggy terrain studded with ferns, wildflowers, and other water-tolerant species. The 400-meter Senda de los Castores (Beaver Trail) winds among southern beeches gnawed to death to form dams and ponds where the beavers themselves occasionally peek out of their lodges.

The five-kilometer Senda Hito IV follows Lago Roca’s northeastern shore to a small obelisk that marks the Chilean border. If Argentine and Chilean authorities can someday get it together, this would be an ideal entry point to Estancia Yendegaia’s wild backcountry, but at present it’s illegal to continue beyond the marker. From a junction about one kilometer up the Hito IV trail, Senda Cerro Guanaco climbs four kilometers northeast up the Arroyo Guanaco to its namesake peak’s 970-meter summit.

From Bahía Ensenada, near the park’s southeastern edge, there are boat shuttles to Isla Redonda (10 a.m.–5:30 p.m., US$27 pp).

Practicalities

Accommodations and Food

Camping is the only option in the park itself, where there are free sites with little or no infrastructure at Camping Ensenada, Camping Río Pipo, Camping Las Bandurrias, Camping Laguna Verde, and Camping Los Cauquenes. While these are improving, they’re less tidy than the commercial Camping Lago Roca (tel. 02901/43-3313, lagoroca@speedy.com.ar, US$4 pp), which has hot showers, a grocery, and the restaurant confitería La Cabaña del Bosque.

Information

At the park entrance on RN 3, the APN has a Centro de Información where it collects a US$14 pp entry fee. Argentine residents pay half.

Several books have useful information on the park, including William Leitch’s South America’s National Parks (Seattle: The Mountaineers, 1990), which is now out of print. Two good hiking guides are the fifth edition of Tim Burford’s Backpacking in Chile & Argentina (Chalfont St Peter, UK: Bradt Publications, 2001) and the fourth edition of Trekking in the Patagonian Andes (Melbourne: Lonely Planet, 2009).

Birders may want to acquire Claudio Venegas Canelo’s Aves de Patagonia y Tierra del Fuego Chileno-Argentina (Punta Arenas: Ediciones de la Universidad de Magallanes, 1986), Ricardo Clark’s Aves de Tierra del Fuego y Cabo de Hornos (Buenos Aires: Literature of Latin America, 1986), or Enrique Couve and Claudio Vidal Ojeda’s bilingual Birds of the Beagle Channel (Punta Arenas: Fantástico Sur Birding & Nature, 2000).


Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Argentina.

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