Tierra del Fuego
If Patagonia is exciting, Tierra del Fuego—the “uttermost part of the earth”—is electrifying. In the days of sail, its sub-antarctic weather and ferocious westerlies obsessed sailors whether or not they had ever experienced the thrill—or terror—of “rounding the Horn,” where conditions could change from calm to chaos in an instant.
But back then, that was the price of admission to the earth’s most spectacular combination of sea, sky, land, and ice.
Today, fortunately, reaching the Fuegian archipelago involves less hardship—not to mention motion sickness.
The “Land of Fire” is still a place where fur seals, sea lions, and penguins cavort in the choppy seas, 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.
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. While prices are higher in Chile than in Argentina, they are also stable and, after the initial surprise, most visitors adapt accordingly.
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.
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. 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.
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.
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Argentina, 3rd edition