Visiting Tierra del Fuego and Chilean Patagonia from Argentina

A beach in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina.

A beach in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. Photo © Indrik Myneur, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

If Patagonia is exciting, Tierra del Fuego—the “uttermost part of the earth”—is electrifying. In the days of sail, its subantarctic weather and ferocious westerlies obsessed sailors whether or not they had ever experienced the thrill—or terror—of “rounding the Horn.” After Richard Henry Dana survived the southern seas en route to California in 1834, he vividly recounted conditions that could change from calm to chaos in an instant:

“Here comes Cape Horn!” said the chief mate; and we had hardly time to haul down and clew up, before it was upon us. In a few moments, a heavier sea was raised than I had ever seen before, and the little brig plunged into it, and all the forward part of her was under water; the sea pouring in through the bow ports and hawse-hole, and over the knight-heads, threatening to wash everything overboard. At the same time sleet and hail were driving with all fury against us.”

Map of Tierra del Fuego Chilean Plateau in Argentina

Tierra del Fuego and Chilean Plateau

In Dana’s time, that was the price of admission to the earth’s most spectacular combination of sea, sky, land, and ice. In a landscape whose granite pinnacles rise nearly 2,000 meters straight out of the ocean, only a handful of hunter-gatherers foraging in the fjords and forests knew the area with any intimacy. Today, fortunately, reaching the Fuegian archipelago involves less hardship—not to mention motion sickness—than Dana and his shipmates suffered.

Two ferry routes connect the Chilean mainland to Tierra del Fuego: a shuttle from Punta Delgada, only 45 kilometers south of Argentina’s Santa Cruz Province, across the Primera Angostura narrows to Puerto Espora; and a daily service from Punta Arenas to Porvenir, one of the widest parts of the strait.In his memoirs, pioneer settler Lucas Bridges labeled Tierra del Fuego the “uttermost part of the earth” for its splendid isolation at the continent’s southern tip. The “Land of Fire” is still a place where fur seals, sea lions, and penguins cavort in the choppy seas of the strait named for the celebrated navigator Ferdinand Magellan, where Charles Darwin sailed on the Beagle, and the first ’49ers found their route to California. From the seashore, behind the Argentine city of Ushuaia, glacial horns rise like sacred steeples. The beaches and southern beech forests of Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego, west of the city, are the terminus of the world’s southernmost highway.

Tierra del Fuego may be an archipelago, but the Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego is South America’s largest island. Chile shares the territory with Argentina; while parts of the Argentine side are urbanized, the Chilean side has just a few small towns and isolated estancias. Roads are few but improving, especially on the Argentine side; the unpaved roads, though, can be hell on windshields, which are most cheaply replaced in the Chilean mainland city of Punta Arenas.

Two ferry routes connect the Chilean mainland to Tierra del Fuego: a shuttle from Punta Delgada, only 45 kilometers south of Argentina’s Santa Cruz Province, across the Primera Angostura narrows to Puerto Espora; and a daily service from Punta Arenas to Porvenir, one of the widest parts of the strait.

Chilean Patagonia’s exact boundaries are imprecise because, in a sense, the region exists only in the imagination. In Chile, Patagonia has no juridical reality, though nearly everybody would agree that both Region XI (Aisén) and Region XII (Magallanes) are at least part of it. Other more northerly areas would like to be included to partake of the Patagonian mystique; this chapter, however, covers only Magallanes, a popular destination in an area where travelers cross borders frequently.

Chile’s most southerly region has acquired international fame thanks to the Torres del Paine, the magnificent granite needles that loom above the Patagonian plains. Pacific storms drench the nearly uninhabited western cordillera, feeding alpine and continental glaciers and rushing rivers, but rolling grasslands and seemingly unstoppable winds typify the eastern areas in the Andean rain shadow. Along the Strait of Magellan, the city of Punta Arenas is the center for excursions to a variety of attractions, including easily accessible penguin colonies and Tierra del Fuego’s remote fjords. The region has no direct road connections to the rest of Chile—travelers must arrive by air, sea, or through Argentine Patagonia.

Administratively, Region XII includes all Chilean territory beyond 49° south to the South Pole, as Chile claims a slice of Antarctica between 53° and 90° west longitude. It also takes in the Chilean half of the Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego, west of about 68°35′, and most of archipelagic Tierra del Fuego.

Over the past decade, improved cross-border communications have meant that many visitors to the Argentine side also visit Chile to see Puerto Natales, Torres del Paine, and other Chilean attractions. As in Argentina, January and February are the peak months. Prices drop in the off-season—though many places also close. Like El Calafate, the area enjoys a lengthening season.


Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Argentina.

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