This article has been updated on December 27, 2020
Tierra del Fuego is an archipelago located at the very south of South Americas. The territory consists of the main island, Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego and a group of many islands, including Isla Navarra, Cape Horn and Diego Ramírez Islands. Territory-wise, the islands cover 73 746 km2, which makes it a wee bit smaller than Czech Republic, for comparison.
We’re therefore talking about a considerably large subpolar archipelago with a low density of population of about 135000 inhabitants who make their living mainly of fishing, kettle farming, oil industry and tourism. The most populated and also most accessible is the main island, which has its 48100 km2 area (which is nearly the size of Slovakia) split between Chile and Argentina.
Why the name “Land of Fire”?
From the occidental point of view, the archipelago was ‘”discovered” by Ferdinand Magellan in 1520, hence the name of the strait that separates the islands from the mainland. Because of the local weather conditions and the neglected state of the 16th-century garment industry in the region, Tierra del Fuego‘s aboriginal inhabitants burnt fires to keep themselves warm.
Ferdinand and his fellow sailors saw those fires on the shores when sailing around back in 1520 and the rest is the result of their poor copywriting skills. I don’t blame them for that, I guess the job requirements for conquistadors weren’t exactly expecting them to be good with words. Actually, the “explorer’s” skill set was exactly opposite to that, which was to be demonstrated in more than a drastic fashion for the local population in the years to come.
Genocide (1860 – 1910)
The arrival of the European “civilisation” unfortunately proved to be rather tragic for the original population. The whole territory was first only strategic for providing the naval routes because prior to the construction of the Panama Canal (1914), as all ships heading to the Pacific coast in North America had to sail around here, which wasn’t that bad for Yaghan, Ona and Alakaluf people at the time because they weren’t in the way much and the colonial powers were fighting each other to control the trade routes.
However, with the discovery of gold and the introduction of kettle farming, the indigenous population began to feel the power of a “civilised” society. To cut the long and ugly story short, let’s jump to the policy the British Admiralty introduced back then: a pound sterling bounty for an ear or a hand taken off a local tribes members. Those aboriginals not killed for His Majesty’s money died from various infectious diseases they weren’t immune to, brought to them unintentionally by Christian missions via the clothes distribution and so on ):
The results of this ethnic cleansing campaign proved to be beyond drastic): At present, there’s just one surviving member of the tribes living in Puerto Williams. Her name is Cristina Calderón, she’s been 92 in 2020 and here is her story as written by Terralingua. In case you were interested to know more about the local history, here‘s Britannica‘s article on the subject.
Things to do and see in Ushuaia
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Unlike the Chilean outpost on the mainland Punta Arenas, this little outpost town of 60 000 inhabitants earned a space in my heart instantly. Being the southernmost large human settlement (although there’s a small town, Puerto Williams, across the Beagle Channel in Chile that’s even further south, where Mrs Calderón lives), Ushuaia meets the term outpost with pride, glory and beauty.
To be fair, I must acknowledge the fact that the dramatic mountain range surroundings help a lot as opposed to the rather flat nature of the rest of the island. The temperatures are apparently going from -1C to 14C all year round. A lot of the friendly locals are often working in the End Of the World-related tourism machinery, which includes the stunning Parque Nacional de Tierra del Fuego.
Tierra del Fuego National Park
The park spreads on an area of 630 km2 (240 sq mi) but not all parts are accessible for tourist to preserve nature and the rich variety of wildlife inside it. There are various treks one can pick from, ranging from short and easy up to medium-difficult. All options are listed on the official website here. I’ve personally opted for the Costanera trail, a beautiful walk along the Lapataia Bay. It was a very tranquil and easy trek with many rewarding views.
To get in and out of the park, there are vans running between the town and park the whole day. The return ticket is sold for about €14 at the bus terminal. The entrance to the park works out around €9. Make sure you’ll arrange your return trip for the particular time and spot in the park, as there are 3 bus stops and the vans don’t run the whole night. There’s also an option to camp in the park in designated areas. Please note that the only camping site with facilities, such as refugio with dorm beds and a few cabañas as well as a cafeteria are at the stunning Lago Roca.
Glaciar Martial and Estancia Haberton
Another popular short trek around Ushuaia is Glaciar Martial, which you can access for free from the city and takes about 4 hours (return), offering a beautiful view of the city and Beagle Channel. It’s a nice and easy walk and in spite of the steepness it sometimes reaches, you don’t have to be 100% fit to make it. And it’s free, which is makes it something of a rarity down here.
Estancia Harberton was established in 1886 by the missionary pioneer Thomas Bridges (1842-1898). As its website states, you can “travel back in time and bring to life the captivating history of the first Estancia of Tierra del Fuego” The site that btw also offers lodging and “a great variety of activities” is apparently currently managed by members of the fifth and sixth generation of the family.
More challenging trekking options
The region obviously provides options for more challenging trekking, if you feel fit enough to tackle the Martial Mountains above the city. Arguably closest is a tough 3 days/26km Montes Martial Circuit that goes around Montes Martial and Glacier Martial. If you are an experienced trekker, you could also consider 5days/51km Sierra Valdivieso Trek that goes deeper into the mountain range.
Across the Beagle Channel, on Isla Navarino, you could challenge yourself to take upon the popular and ultimately remote Dientes de Navarino 6day/30km trek. Apologies if I am stating the obvious but if you considering taking upon some of these or other treks in the area, please do not overestimate your fitness levels as the weather as well as general conditions in this part of the World could be rather harsh.
Most of these treks are guided for which you have to pay considerable sums of money. Here‘s an example (not a recommendation as I haven’t used their services) of one of many companies providing such service. Needless to say, whatever company you’ll pick, make sure that you’ll pick a legit/honest company with exceptional experience and customer-focused service.
As I’ve mentioned above, except the south-western part, most of Tierra del Fuego Isla Grande is rather flat. There are also a few lakes and settlements that are attractive for travellers to visit. Probably the most popular as well as visually stimulating would be Lago Fagnano and the small Tolhuin settlement near its shore.
The eastern/Argentinian side of the island is also more populated than its western Chilean counterpart because Argentina has dropped VAT and federal taxes on the island to promote industrial development. Rio Grande, with nearly 70 thousand inhabitants is probably the largest of them all but except the well-reputed local fish restaurants, there’s not much to explore here, unless you’re into wind, kettle or fishing itself.
When it comes to the western shore, I should mention at least the Pingüino Rey Park AKA Bahia Inútil King penguin colony. If you’re driving, you can get there by cutting across the island or by ferry from the Chilean mainland’s Punta Arenas via Porvenir, a small city on the western side of the island. Please be aware of the fact that the island has only a few gas stations if you have decided to enter the even less populated areas of the island.
Other activities in and around Ushuaia
Ushuaia is an all-year-long destination, in the Austral winter, you could enjoy its skiing facilities. Other activities in town are various pricey but stunning boat rides in the channel, such as the one to the iconic Faro Les Eclaireurs lighthouse, or further west to the so-called Glacier Avenue to sail by four majestic glaciers located nearly next to each other. You could also consider visiting Museo Marítimo y del Presidio de Ushuaia to check out the naval exploration history as well as harsh conditions the settlers/prisoners had back in the days.
I shall also mention that some people take the replica of a historical train which used to transport the prisoners to the park. Another attraction of sorts is to get your passport stamped in the port with a special Ushuaia “El Fin del Mundo” stamp. Then there’s an “End of the World” post office in the park you can send a cool postcard to a friend or family and in a little over 8 months (that’s how it took for my postcards to arrive in Europe), someone you care about will get the cool surprise 😉
Go Out in Ushuaia
Being an all-year-round tourist destination, Ushuaia also comes with considerably vibrant nightlife a lot of which is concentrated around the city centre. If you fancy a drink, you could pick from the huge mix of various Irish Bars, Ice Bars, Disco Clubs tango places and so on. I have personally found them all a bit pricey and rather unauthentic-touristy, although I admit, most of them weren’t as much as fake and soulless as their counterparts in European tourist hot spots.
Get around and Safety
There are local buses running even to the tourist destination from the central bus terminal but I haven’t managed to master their schedules, to be honest. The town itself is rather walkable and for the and quite a few metered taxis are also available.
When it comes to crime, Ushuaia as well as the whole island, well, more or less the whole Patagonia so to speak are all very safe. If there’s any danger, it would be most likely caused by Mother Nature, if you overestimate your physical abilities in challenging those geographical as well as weather conditions.
How to get in and out of Ushuaia
Bus from Punta Arenas to Ushuaia takes about 10-12 hours for around €48. There are various companies operating in the area. I opted for Bus Sur and it was a comfy and bit boring/sleepy/semi hangover ride. The last hour or so it’s worth waking up to observe the mountains at the south of the island. You can also fly there from Argentinian cities by the local low cost airlines. There are some great deals available when it comes to the local flights but only internally. Country-to-country flights prices could get mad.
Furthermore, in case you wanted to visit the smaller islands, there’s also a (pricey) ferry sailing from Punta Arenas to Puerto Williams (Isla Navarino) that could apparently be rather stunning, if the weather permits, from what I gathered reading about it. If you fancy taking a ferry in the region, I’ve listed and described your options here.
Please note that unless you have your own 4WD, off-road sort of transport, it is impossible to get from the Chilean Porvenir to Argentinian Ushuaia on the main island. If you do so, it will give you a lot of freedom, however, please be aware of the fact that the island has only a few gas stations and cash points and accommodations are not very common either so make sure you’re stocked up and aware of the local weather conditions 😉
The centre is literally filled with various hotels and hostels. I’ve however stayed with Airbnb’s Martín Y Marina’s place, which btw also belongs to my top favourite places I’ve stayed in during my 8 months trip around the Americas. The price of $9 for a single room gives away the fact that it’s a basic place but it’s made and maintained with love. You get a single bed, a small wardrobe and a little desk with a chair. The bathroom is shared between you and the other two rooms only.
The owner Marina is a super-friendly and attentive person who lives on the property with her two cute kids and a friendly dog Ramón, I’ve played within the patio. If you don’t mind simple places – I definitely recommend this place – plus you’d support a superb person if you stay with Marina 😉 It’s about a 15-minute walk from the touristy centre, located in a residential area of town, which is often my preference to feel more “local” 😉
Sort of conclusion
IMHO, everything tourism-related in Ushuaia is basically well organised, trails are well marked, people are attentive and trained – things and services basically work down there. More details and activities could be found here, on the official tourism website of the city.
One thing I didn’t like much in the region was something I called: “$100 dollar activities”. I mean that after few days of exploring this part of the World, it feels like you need to pay around $100 for any tourist activity, whether it’s going to see the penguins, or taking up a boat trip to see something you haven’t seen before.
While it feels cool to have so many options, you quickly realise, especially if you’re a long term traveller, that you can’t keep spending $100 a day per activity (plus the pricey Patagonian expenses). So unless you came only to check out the region for few weeks, you have to choose wisely to keep your long-term travelling budget cool…
Don’t get me wrong, I understand why things are like that. Every remote spot popular with tourists appears to be overpriced because people have a tendency to compare it with normal prices. We get to forget that there’s a significant cost of getting the goods here, plus we get to forget that life could be quite hard, while opportunities could be rather limited.
Useful and interesting links
- Ushuaia tourism website (services, attractions, community, etc…)
- Ushuaia Events Facebook page
- New World Encyclopedia article about Tierra del Fuego that includes history, fauna, flora and more
Curiosity: just how south Ushuaia is? Or let’s say how far north would Ushuaia be if it was located in the Northern hemisphere?
A little geographical curiosity to end this statistical piece with: An interesting fact is that the southernmost city of Ushuaia AKA “The End of the World” is not as much south as one can go north on the other side of the planet. To illustrate that imagine that Ushuaia‘s northern equivalent city would lie somewhere nearby Leeds or somewhere in between Dublin and Belfast. Belfast’s hypothetical southern hemisphere counterpart would therefore beyond the end of the world (:0
Other popular destinations near by
- Isla Magdalena: check out a huge, 120000 colony of Magellanic penguins nearby Punta Arenas, only 12hrs away by bus. More info here;
- Puerto Natales: only 3 further hours north from Punta Arenas, there’s the gateway to the iconic Torres del Paine park. More details are here;
- Perito Moreno Glacier: just 5-6 hours away from Puerto Natales, visit the Argentinian town of El Calafate to reach the stunning glacier. A little guide to visit the glacier could be found here;
- El Chaltén: Further up north, I recommend checking out the little town with multiple trekking options in Los Glaciares National Park, including the iconic Mt Fitzroy. More details could be found here.
Traveller’s Guides to the Patagonian countries of Chile and Argentina
For more complex information about both countries that are home to Patagonia, please click here, respectively here. Expect learning about basic history, cuisine, general tourism info and safety, popular as well as off the beaten path places to visit and more.
The featured picture is the iconic Faro Les Eclaireurs lighthouse near by Ushuaia. Image by Andres Zorko from Pixabay