Forming the southernmost extent of South America, Tierra del Fuego is as enticing as it is temperamental – at times gorgeous, archaic, and mystifying. The winds that sweep through these far-flung islands carry a strange reminiscence of a bygone era characterized by mysterious firelights, wrecked ships, and forlorn explorers.
Meaning “land of fire” in Spanish, Tierra del Fuego’s legend holds that during Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition in 1520, he and his fellow maritime explorers spotted numerous burning fires on the islands at night. Magellan and his crew grew weary that the indigenous islanders were waiting in the forests, armed and ready to ambush their armada.
Indeed, many tall tales made their way back to the Iberian Peninsula from these parts. Magellan, Sir Francis Drake, and other seafaring explorers wrote of the Patagones, a mythical gigantic race of people 12 to 15 ft. in stature that inhabited the islands. Sadly, the Fuegan natives described in the early depictions faced an all-too familiar fate in The Land of Fire. Local populations were devastated by Old World diseases, and the native Ona, Alakaluf, and Yahgan indigenous groups all died out by the 1880s.
Weathered by persistent winds and salty seas in every direction, Tierra del Fuego’s landscapes are rugged and worn by the elements. Withered peat bogs and moss-grown forests give way to cragged Andean peaks and icy streams rushing from the mountains to the sea. The region’s unique medley of natural features offers profound, galvanizing landscapes that are seldom seen and hardly explored.
While many only pass through Ushuaia en route to Cape Horn or Antarctica, those who delve deeper into Tierra del Fuego’s backcountry often discover a complex travel destination rife with natural beauty and adventure opportunities. Here one can hike, trek, ski, fly-fish… you name it.
Gateway to Antarctica and Cape Horn
For travelers, Tierra del Fuego and Ushuaia are the gateway to Antarctica with frequent cruises traveling to and from Ushuaia carrying swaths of aspiring photographers eager to capture a shot of Magellanic penguins, sea lions, and any other wildlife they may encounter.
Like the Galapagos of the Far South, wildlife-focused cruises trace the wakes of early explorers through the Strait of Magellan, the Beagle Channel, and the southern seas all the way to Cape Horn. Indeed, the most popular way to experience Tierra del Fuego is by way of the sea, and there are a wide range of vessels and itineraries available. Most of these biologically-focused cruises depart from Ushuaia, although there are also cruises from Punta Arenas, Santiago, and Buenos Aires.
Tierra del Fuego Practical InformationShared between Chile and Argentina since 1881, Tierra del Fuego is an archipelago separated from the mainland by the Strait of Magellan. Isla Grande is the largest of the islands and comprises nearly 40% of the total surface area. The rest of Tierra del Fuego lies within a series of smaller islands in the southern and western regions of the archipelago.
Prior to the construction of the Panama Canal, the Strait of Magellan played an integral role in marine transportation, connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans and facilitating trade between Europe and Africa with the western coast of the Americas. To this day, the Strait of Magellan remains, arguably, the world’s most significant and strategic natural passageway.
The population remains low with less than 150,000 inhabitants in the entire region. Rio Grande is the largest city on the Chilean side of the border, and Ushuaia is the largest city on the Argentine side with just over 60,000 inhabitants. A former naval base and penal colony, Ushuaia is considered the southernmost city in the world and a hub for Antarctica and Cape Horn cruises.
Tourist infrastructure in Tierra del Fuego’s interior is primitive at best, and much of the territory remains uninhabited and inaccessible by road. The public transportation system is poorly developed, so travelers are best suited to hire a private driver to make their way through the interior. Travelers looking to experience Tierra del Fuego’s backcountry are advised to use Ushuaia as a base for exploration and spend a minimum of four nights in order to fully explore the surroundings.
One of our favorite ways to experience Tierra del Fuego is by boat aboard the Australis. This award-winning cruise line offers two different ships with unique itineraries throughout the region, often traveling one way from Punta Arenas, Chile, to Ushuaia, Argentina, or vice versa. Those who are destined for Los Glaciares National Park and are severely limited on time may be able find a flight from Buenos Aires to El Calafate with a 24+ hour layover in Ushuaia. While this option doesn’t allow much time for exploration, it does allow time to eat some fresh King Crab and savor a night at the end of the world.