Adventure at the 'End of the World'
Land of Fire
So here we are. Submerged and happily sliding into a spectacular and fascinating geography of mountains, fjords, glaciers, forests and lakes. Into the land of Shelkmans and Yámanas. Of sailors, discoverers, shipwrecks and settlers. Hovering condors and guanacos. Dwelling with the spirits of Darwin, Fitz Roy, Sarmiento de Gamboa, Magellan and Drake. This land of adventure, untamed and desolate: it is isolated and unpopulated, away from everything, at the edge of the map… We are, indeed, at the end of the world.
It was October 31, 1520, when Portuguese explorer Fernando de Magallanes discovered the entrance of the strait that would later bear his name. During the crossing of the strait he saw many campfires that lit the indigenous trees inside the lands south of the canal and campfires, which burned for days producing lots of smoke. So he decided to simply call it ‘Land of Smoke’. Charles V wittily said that ‘there is no smoke without fire’ and changed its name to the more dramatic ‘Tierra del Fuego’.
“It’s going to be a pretty exciting flight. Please don’t unfasten your seat belts. If you hear strange sounds, don’t panic, it’s the propellers’ anti-ice system”
SOUTHERNMOST CITY IN THE WORLD
“It’s going to be a pretty exciting flight. Please don’t unfasten your seat belts. If you hear heavy shocks, don’t panic, it’s the propellers’ anti-ice system. When flying over the Beagle Channel there will be northern wind and it will be a complicated landing.”. I’m on a little plane about to fly from Punta Arenas to Ushuaia, feeling slight pangs in my stomach. They’re pangs of fear. It’s definitely time for adventure!
We land in what at first glance looks like a Patagonian Innsbruck: Ushuaia, a city on the edge of the Beagle Channel and at the foot of the imposing snow-capped mountains of the Martial range, at the point on the map where the Andes ends – or begins. On the way to the harbor, my eye catches the St. Cristophe, a stranded freighter which in 1940 ran the same fate as the ship he was trying to refloat. It’s a Tramp Steamer, to be precise. Ironically, at the port a sign prohibits (by law) the entry of English pirate ships.
I feel like a little Fitz Roy as I sail down the Beagle, the Hunters’ Channel. “In the Channel the same thing happens as in the air: the weather can be calm one moment and change into a tempest the next.”, the captain tells me. Formerly the territory of the indigenous Yámanas, today it’s divided between Chilean territory to the south and Argentina to the north, with the 68th parallel marking the disputed border. “Patagonia is one region, it does not distinguish between Argentina and Chile!”, our Canalfun guide tells me. Sierra Sorondo shows us its sharp peaks to the north: outlined magnificent mountains with backlit clouds. It’s very common to see rainbows here, sometimes several at the same time. We head to Gable Island, the largest in the Channel, with its characteristic cliffs shaped like a flat roof. The map shows me estuaries, channels, arms, islands, straits and bays… a maritime labyrinth in which the Yámana people have moved around with their canoes. We stop to observe a colony of sea lions resting peacefully on a large rock. A condor perches on the iconic lighthouse of Les Eclaireurs, the ultimate symbol of the end of the world.
The map shows me estuaries, canals, arms, islands, straits, bays… a maritime labyrinth in which the indigenous Yámana people moved around with their canoes
The contours of the Dientes de Navarino make us dream of alpine adventures on the Chilean island with the same name. The small town of Puerto Williams has not grown as much as Ushuaia, probably because of the lack of re-population measures that its neighbor has had. Ushuaia, which has grown around its infamous prison, grew from having a thousand inhabitants in 1947 to thirty thousand in the 1980s, partly thanks to the industrial promotion law that gave facilities to factories and workers willing to settle in the southernmost city on the planet. The sight of a lone sailing yacht in the distance gives us a feeling of real bravery at sea. Seals greet us by jumping, before announcing the visit of two small humpback whales that bring a big smile to all the crew members. “When the going gets tough, the tough get going!”, the captain says as he dodges small islands populated by flocks of cormorants. He steams on towards Estancia Harberton farm, an iconic place in the area, named after Anglican missionaries from that particular English city.
Ushuaia was built from the prefabricated houses of a mission that Reverend W.H. Stirling built in 1896, next to the shacks of the Yámana Indians. For 16 years Anglicanism, orchards and Indians flourished, each in their own way. Until the Argentine navy arrived, the British families were expelled and the native Indians sadly died of measles and pneumonia.
As a noun, the word ‘yámana’ originally means ‘people’. Paradoxically, as a verb, ‘yámana’ means ‘to live, to breathe, to be happy’.
We eat in a small wooden hut, decorated with postcards, maps, pictures and fishermen’s gear such as nets, oars and rudders. “Quality is the key to good meat,” says Juanita, the cook who has made us the delicious Creole steak we plundered from the dish, accompanied by a beautiful Malbec named ‘Postcard from the End of the World’. We do a one-and-a-half hour trek along an unmarked trail, between the typical mantle of flowering flora of shrubs and windswept forest with the classic hanging lichens “old man’s beard” that give them that ghostly touch. Lichen are an indicator of pure air, since they need a 98% air purity to live. A good sign.
The cook has made us a delicious Creole steak that we plunder from the dish, accompanied by a first choice Malbec named ‘Postcard from the End of the World’
We hike on a sloping path through mud and ice and past abandoned beaver dams. Yes, indeed: beavers. An invasive species that was introduced from Canada, and now hunted to avoid the aggressive effects that their way of life has on the landscape. The mountains show us snowy south faces and peeled north faces. Flocks of birds fly over the channel crossing our ship. A pink sky and clouds caress the snowy mountains as we pass through the remnants of Yámana shelters, recognizable by the mountains of mussel shells around. A ship from the Piratur agency brings us to Isla Martillo, the only island with penguins in the area and privately owned. “You have to be careful with the penguins, it’s our big attraction, No one knows why several couples came to live right on this island. But don’t give them food, don’t get too close and of course don’t try to catch them!”. Penguins.. aren’t they adorable?
We spend the night in the Hosteria Kaiken, located next to Lago Fagnano, the largest lake in Tierra del Fuego, and very close to Tolhuin, the town considered the heart of Tierra del Fuego. La Unión Bakery was founded in 1972 by Emilio, a crazy guy who settled when there was nothing here and nobody around in the area. However, it was right on the route that connects Ushuaia with Rio Grande, so it became a mandatory stop for truckers and travelers. Today it is worth visiting, if only to taste delicious sweets, cakes and empanadas, but also to admire the numerous photographs that practically created a historical museum.
SAN PABLO LIGHTHOUSE
“Never judge a day by the weather”, it reads on a sign in the office of the 4×4-tour company Tierra, which will take us along Route 3 linking Ushuaia to Buenos Aires. As we move north the horizon opens up and the forest starts consisting of nothing but ‘ñires’ (Antárctic Notofagus), a small tree that likes cold and hard soils. The terrain has become progressively more arid as the storms usually enter from the south and unload in the mountains of Ushuaia. En route we come across some remarkable objects and sceneries. Road signs warning for crossing guanacos. A crashed truck in the ditch loaded with mattresses. Patches of black ice. A burnt car in the gutter. We continue on Selkmans’ indigenous land, the Selkman people having been mostly guanaco hunters and having sadly been exterminated by violence and disease. We see huge horizons of barren lands, with meandering streams which reflect the dim sunlight in the frigid morning. Lichens and pastures frozen by the morning cold. Isolated groups of cows feed on ochre pastures that contrast with the green forests of ñires. Our guides take a pitstop to drink maté, the local herbal drink, inside the a farmhouse. We see quad bikes parked all over the place, now doing the tasks that were done on horseback in a bygone era.
The inhabitants of these lands cannot imagine what it would be like to live in a village, let alone in a city!
We cross Chapel River, which marks a transition between the southern forests and the northern steppes. We pass cattle grids in the pampa and beautiful farm houses. “Winter is knocking on our door,” our guide John tells me, “we are still waiting for the first big snowfall, which could happen any time now.”. A large layer of cirrus threatens to change the weather shortly. It’s a very lonely place, “but just like we can’t imagine living in a place like this, the inhabitants of these lands can’t imagine what it would be like to live in a town, let alone in a city!”, our guide adds. A stop at a viewpoint allows us to admire the reflection of the sun in the vastness of the Atlantic, with the coastline lined with trees, bent by the insistent winds of this area. Scavenging Chimango Caracara fly above us. In 1949 a strong earthquake with epicentre in Fagnano destroyed the lighthouse that was being built in Cabo San Pablo. “Don’t point at it,” Anne says, “the Selkman believed that pointing to the mountains brings bad weather.”. A black–chested buzzard–eagle soars high in the sky. A walk along the sand dunes precedes the ascent to the lighthouse, from where the views invite you to do nothing but admire the landscape. A rainbow draws its curve in St. Paul’s Bay, where a stranded freighter has been resting for decades.
“Bad name for a ship”, says John. “Disgrace”. In view of his fate, cornered on an end-of-the-world beach, Othello’s character has proved unsuitable. Bad tongues say the ship-owner ordered the captain to beach her to collect the insurance. The rust barely allows to see the inscription of Buenos Aires on its decrepit hull. A decadent touch to a wild landscape. I walk around the fishermen’s homes with their corrugated roofs and signs selling the catch of the day, but I see nobody. Curtains of rain glide over the horizon. We haven’t crossed paths with anyone: just guanacos and caranchos. A gaucho on his horse returns to the house surrounded by a large pack of dogs. Occasionally snowy mountain ranges on the horizon contrast with the pastures of the pampas in the sun, while tree lichens glow in the light of the setting sun and black clouds announce the first snowfall of winter. It’s time to shelter now at Garibaldi Mountain Craft Beer Brewery.
We haven’t crossed paths with anyone: just guanacos and caranchos. A gaucho on his horse returns to the house surrounded by a large pack of dogs
Outside the Kaiken Hosteria the wind is roaring. The next day the snow covers forests, roads and mountains. It makes me dream of adventures with skis. “The mountains of the area are not excessively technical”, says Sebastian, guide of Antartur, “But in many cases the problem is usually the approach, which can be one or more days”. Mount Cornu, the tallest in the area, tempts me in the distance. We skirt Lake Fagnano, 645 km2 in circumference and surrounded by a chain of sharp hills and mountains. The Selkmans called it Khami, the big lake. In it are two faults, which makes the area very seismically active. Interesting fact is that the tectonic geography causes Ushuaia to separate 1cm a year towards Africa.
The snow has made a radical change to the landscape and today it’s even harsher and more impenetrable. Wind swirls shake the snow from the trees as we drive towards the eye of the storm. We turn off onto a track with more than 15 cm of accumulated snow that crosses a dense Finnish style forest. The 4x4s progress slowly and with difficulty through the snow, ice, huge mud puddles and felled trees, but all goes well thanks to the expertise of our drivers. Finally, we arrive at a small wooden shelter in the forest, in the middle of a powerful blizzard that has accumulated almost half a meter in twenty hours. The trees have been dressed in their best winter gala dresses. Snow blesses everything it touches. Grilled meat and Argentine wine give us back the heat and the desire to continue. It is time to visit the Winter Center Tierra Mayor, founded in 1976 by the polar explorer Gustavo Giro, the first Argentine to reach the South Pole in 1965, and pioneer in the development of winter tourist activities in Ushuaia. “The Ushuaia cold reminded him of his youthful wanderings”, says his daughter, who now runs the center. “He discovered that lots of snow was accumulating in this area and it was perfect to build his little Antarctic corner in Tierra del Fuego.”. Today they provide snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and dog sledding circuits.
The winter center Tierra Mayor was founded in 1976 by polar explorer Gustavo Giro, the first Argentine to reach the South Pole in 1965
The Agency Antartur offers us a snowshoe tour in the middle of the night. Dogs bark in their cabins and howl excitedly when they notice our presence, perhaps at the prospect of a walk on a cold snowy night. The path progresses through a pampa marked by a meandering stream. The sound of unspoiled snow under my snowshoes relaxes me. Torches show us the way to a great teepee in which an evening awaits us in the light of a large bonfire. Paul plays the guitar as the sparks ascend to the starry sky and the snow falls from the trees around. A “hachero coffee” warms us nicely and brings life back into our bones before returning outside, on the way to the Nunatak shelter: it’s time to break the trail in over half a meter of fresh snow in the dark. We see small streams crossed by wooden bridges, but there’s no trace of the scarce fauna of foxes and hares in the area.
At dawn the Ushuaia season is 100% winter. The profiles of the mountains, despite ‘only’ having a height between 500 and 1200 meters are sharp and intimidating. Lights mark the city’s boundaries at dawn. The suburbs have a Greenlandic touch. Sometimes the wind is so strong that it even actually lifts and moves the houses! “A simple ‘windy day’ in Tierra del Fuego would elsewhere be described as a day with a hurricane.”, this you hear often. Here, as in Iceland, you can experience four seasons all in one day.
“This is the cherry on the pie,” says Juan, guide to the Ushuaia Outdoors agency who will guide us in our canoes through Lapataia Bay, one of the icons of the end of the world. “The good thing about getting to know the park by canoe is that it takes you away from the hot spots where more people are concentrated, plus you get to see the Park from a different perspective”. Tierra del Fuego National Park has 68,909 hectares. It is the only one in Argentina where the marine environment and the Patagonian Andean forest come together. Just to illustrate: you could see a sea lion and a fox in one go. “The differences in landscape according to the time of year are huge and the foliage-colors vary a lot,”, says Juan. “What’s your favorite time of year?”, I ask him. “Autumn is spectacularly colorful. However, winter is always an adventure; you can’t stick to a plan like in summer, you have to know how to adapt to the weather conditions.”
USHUAIA’S FIRST BACKCOUNTRY SKIER
Legend has it that Ernesto Krund arrived in Ushuaia as the crewman of a ship from which he jumped when it returned to Germany. In his long and random life he was a gold-digger, a guide and a member of the territorial police. But his most remembered work was as a postman, taking mail from Ushuaia to Rio Grande on horseback, when Route 3 did not yet exist. In winter he made the journey in several days with rudimentary wooden skis made by himself. In each section there were log cabins that served as a shelter, in which he spent the nights accompanied by countless dogs that had once again saved his life. One of those ranches was near Las Paratorras, at the foot of the hill that bear the same name. He used to do long-distance ski tours. Some people tried to follow him to the ranch, but Krund –a.k.a. Colorado- was inexhaustible. His skis looked like they were part of him, and nobody could chase him. We are re-living the pioneer era with a snowshoe hike to a replica of the cabin he used, looking – again – for good food and the heat of a stove.
In his long and colourful life he was a fox hunter, golddigger, guide and a member of the territorial police, but his most reknowned job was as a postman
The next day we travel to the military airport that serves as the base of operations for Heliushuaia, the tourist flight company that opens the doors of its helicopters to enjoy the hypnotic landscapes of the city with a bird’s eye view: the port, the city, the first mountains. And then, suddenly, the view of the Carvajal Valley and the Emerald Lagoon opens up in front of us, which activates our neural receptors as well as the numerous electronic devices with which we try to immortalize the views. The light of the sunset illuminates the Five Brothers, Mount Olivia, all solemn mountains that welcome us. They leave us completely ecstatic at the panoramic landing zone on Cerro Le’Cloche, where a glass of champagne awaits us to celebrate the moment. This was an essential experience.
CLOUDS, SNOW, ROCK AND WATER
“Prepare for an unforgettable flight,” the co-pilot tells me before taking off. Indeed, I have heard wonders of the sights of this flight flying over steppes, mountains and fjords of Tierra del Fuego. I will never forget the flight between Ushuaia and Punta Arenas aboard that small DAP plane, which progressed quietly by a heavenly stamp with the light of dawn was aguino turning on the fjords and snowy mountains of the Darwin Range, also known as the Andes Fueguinos. With the help of the map I locate a glacier called, as well as Mt. Sarmiento, which at 2,500 m is the highest on the island. I think about the amazement and sorrow of the first discoverers of these places that I admire from the air. At Punta Arenas airport they confirm that we have just saved ourselves 14 hours by car. And here, another story begins.
OPERATORS IN USHUAIA
- Piratour: piratour.net
- Canalfun: canalfun.com
- Earth: tierraturismo.com
- Land of Fire Adventure: tierradelfuegoaventura.com
- Antartur: antartur.com.ar
- Ushuaia Outdoors: ushuaiaoutdoors.com.ar
- Ushuaia Blanca: ushuaiablanca.com.ar
- Heliushuaia: heliushuaia.com.ar
Do you want to embark on an idyllic journey through the fascinating geography of Tierra del Fuego? El Mundo Yourway proposes a five-day itinerary in Argentinean lands and five days in Chilean lands, completely made to measure all your expectations.