In today’s world, people living in big “concrete jungle” cities specially during lock-downs have yearned to slow down, escape the rat race and reconnect with nature. When you’re busy with social obligations and caught up in work it can be difficult to imagine there is a place where life has taken on a friendlier, relaxed pace offering a more satisfying and enriching experience.
The Island of Tierra del Fuego was once described as “The Uttermost part of the Earth” by E. Lucas Bridges, a son of the earliest settlers, and continues to be Argentina’s least populated province, with 170,000 inhabitants concentrated in the cities of Río Grande in the north and Ushuaia in the south. The rest of the island is the realm of wildlife and pristine beauty.
Explorers of this remote part of the planet must start in Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world – a claim disputed by Chile’s Puerto Williams which owing to its smaller population is generally considered to be a town. Nestled between the Andes’ towering snow-capped mountains, the site’s first permanent European settler was Reverend Thomas Bridges who landed at Ushuaia in 1871 with his wife Mary Ann Varder and had four of their children on what would become the first successful mission to the indigenous peoples in Tierra del Fuego. The city would then be officially founded in 1884 by Augusto Lasserre who also established the San Juan del Salvamento lighthouse on the Isla de los Estados which is believed to have inspired Jules Verne’s book ‘The Lighthouse at the End of the World’.
Until the middle of the twentieth century, Ushuaia was a sleepy town used by the Argentinian government as a penal colony. The former prison now hosts the Museum of the Ex-Presidio where one can get a glimpse of the city’s recent past as well as read the prisoners’ stories on the walls of their cells. A freight line, known today as the Train of the End of the World, was built to serve the prison and operates as a heritage railway connecting the city with the Tierra del Fuego National Park, a gorgeous space which combines marine, wood and mountain environments including a marine coast, waterfalls, lakes, lagoons, peatbogs and great forests. It is especially popular amongst bird watchers as a consequence of the land and sea encounter which attracts kelp geese, black – browed albatrosses, flying steamer ducks, oystercatchers and seagulls. Further into the forest hide austral parakeets, thrushes, woodpeckers and thorn-tailed rayaditos. Some of the island’s autochthonous mammals can also been seen here including the Southern river otter, guanacos and Fuegian foxes.
The city has since grown, especially thanks to the province’s oil and gas reserves and the special economic zone status it obtained in 1972, however it continues to be a touchingly humble place where the waterfront and snowy mountain views are the star. The port, set on the Beagle Channel, is recognised as the best Antarctic cruise springboard of all with a large range of vessels and some of the most reasonably priced options to explore the ices of the Antarctic. Boats can also be hired here for half day tours to see Magellanic and Gentoo penguins in their natural habitat.
7 kilometres north of the city, overlooking the Beagle bay is the Glacier known as Glaciar Martial which offers a great trekking experience and is easily accessible in contrast to most glaciers in the area which can only be reached by boat. The regional government plans to reopen a skiing resort in this location but till then, Cerro Castor, a further 19km north, will continue to be the most southern ski resort in the world offering a legendary experience between June and October.
Ushuaia is also the departure point for Arakur’s 4-wheel-drive jeep Safaris through the island offering visitors an excursion they’re sure to remember for a lifetime. At the hand of charming tour guides like “Coco” the region’s mysticism and history merge into a personal voyage of discovery bringing a sense of wonder to all who are fortunate enough to experience it.
Soon after leaving the city you’ll start to see guanacos, the wild ancestors of llamas and the only native ungulates of Tierra del Fuego who have taken over its windswept plains becoming one of the region’s gifts to visitors. They were described by British explorer H. Hesketh-Prichard as “tame as English park deer” in his 1902 book “Through the Heart of Patagonia” and it is common for their curiosity to lead them to approach the jeep to within less than 20 metres and engage in a hypnotic gaze.
Arakur’s jeep experience is a voyage through the mist-shrouded Patagonian steppe and into the dense magical forests which are inhabited by furrier creatures like beavers, minks, muskrats and foxes. But, as the tour guide explains, the lenga tree, or Nothofagus, is truly one of Patagonia’s greatest treasures and the archipelago has always interested botanists becoming one of the most studied areas in South America. Dating back from Gondwana times, these southern beech trees are packed with lichens known locally as “old men beards” which are a signal of air purity and add an aura of mysticism to the environment. These lichens actually live in harmony with the trees using them only as a substrate and are one of the many examples of collaboration in nature you’ll see on the subpolar archipelago. Feathery mistletoe also grows on these trees playing a vital role in the ecosystem by feeding the birds who act as pollinators and seed dispersers.
The banks of the rivers which flow through these ancient woods are unique spots to take a break and share a cup of Argentine yerba mate with your fellow adventurers. Traditionally served in a small, cut-out dry pumpkin, this herbal tea is made from the green leaves and twigs of the Ilex paraguariensis plant and known as “the drink of friendship”. It is drunk through a silver straw known as a bombilla and sharing it is an essentialproof of friendship and centralto the Argentine way of life. Gauchos described yerba mate as a “liquid vegetable” and it sustains expeditioners during the day and revives them on their journey. The ancient beverage is even written into Argentinian law as the ‘national infusion’.
During the adventure be sure to ask to stop in the mid-province town of Tolhuin where fewer than 2,700 people live. Here you’ll discover how much the locals love chicken Milanese as well as savour some of the chocolate delicatessens the team at the Panadería La Unión produce on a daily basis. Other culinary delights of the region include the Fuegian lamb served at the Grande Hotel or the Patagonian toothfish in crab sauce one can find at Rio Grande’s La Posada de los Sauces.
Between Ushuaia and Tolhuin, the Gleaming glacial lakes of Fagnano and Escondido await to welcome you on your route. Both are rich fisheries where one can find lake brown trout, rainbow trout, brook trout and enclosed salmon amongst other varieties. In fact, the region’s famous Rio Grande is estimated to host as many as 70,000 trout including some of the biggest in the world. The local sea-run brown trout which were first stocked in Tierra del Fuego in 1935 grow to unbelievable sizes and every week of the season 20-pound fish are released by enthusiasts. The keenest anglers must visit the Estancia María Behety, an exclusive hotel and working ranch which was founded by Asturian wool baron José Menéndez. Its 620 square kilometres are home to 39,000 sheep, a golf course, the world’s largest shearing shed and tributaries brimming with record-breaking trout. Argentine criollo horses run wild through the estate’s yellow and green steppe in a virtuoso performance.
Pristine beaches are the norm on the island. The cool sands south of cape San Pablo, where the Desdémona shipwreck lies, are an impressive place to dip one’s feet in. One could stare for hours at the uncanny contrast between the calm blue sea and the massive rusting man-made object that rests for eternity on the shore. The derelict giant serves to remind us of the bravery of those who once sailed across these icy waters and some of the sunken ship figureheads can actually be seen in Ushuaia’s Museo del Fin del Mundo.
Arakur’s expedition leaders are profoundly knowledgeable about Tierra del Fuego’s history and will allow your mind to travel back to the days when Charles Darwin traversed its waters and shores. Your imagination may take you to the moment when Ferdinand Magellan sailed through the strait that now bears his name and saw his first Guanaco describing it as “a camel without humps». In fact, Magellan, who masterminded the Spanish expedition that completed the first circumnavigation of the planet, is credited with having given the island its name upon seeing the fires the native Selk’nam and Yaghan people would light to keep themselves warm. Among the locals, the Selk’nam, Manek’enk and Yaghan tribes are revered for their deep and complex spiritual beliefs.
History-lovers can’t miss the Salesian mission at Rio Grande as it includes a modest yet fascinating collection of photographs about the way of life of these awe-inspiring indigenous people. One cannot help feeling heart ache at the tragic loss of these mesmerizing tribes. Interestingly, the Selk’nam faith was centered on one main deity and they lived communally with no concept of private ownership and moved around the harsh climate wearing nothing more than a kaross cloak made of animal skins. The original mission was founded by monsignor José Fagnano in 1893 to serve as a town for the Selk’nam natives and the mission which still stands today was constructed in 1897 a few kilometres away from Cape Santo Domingo. Today, Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria continues to serve as an agricultural and technical school and has been training Fuegians people since 1946.
Rio Grande is known as the capital of trout fishing but is marked by the war of Malvinas which scarred hundreds of Argentine conscripts who were in their twenties. The surrounding waters are of great economic importance and the Argentine national government held an offshore bid round in 2019 awarding several blocks for exploration and development off the coast of Río Grande in the Malvinas Basin. The coastal town’s Ioshlelk Oten boat club can organise trips to visit the magnificent Isla de los Lobos to observe the South American sea lion in its habitat.
Surrounding oneself by the sheer beauty of the Fuegian scenery and reconnecting with nature grants thrills and profound mental and physical benefits. If you’re looking for an experience that offers the chance to submerge yourself in nature, Tierra del Fuego is ideal.