A comprehensive travel guide to Tierra del Fuego, Patagonia
Last week’s blog was an introduction to Tierra del Fuego. This week we get up close and personal with The Land at the End of the World. To make it easier for you we’ve listed Chilean and Argentinean attractions and activities separately. Enjoy the ride…
Things to do on the Argentine side
Ushuaia is the most southerly city in the world, so first things first you’ll need to snap a selfie and update your status message accordingly. If you’re really into such things you could also play a round of golf on the southernmost course in the world, or drink the most southerly microbrew on the planet. You get the picture…
When Bruce Chatwin visited Ushuaia in 1974 it was a very unwelcoming place: “The blue-faced inhabitants of this apparently childless town glared at strangers unkindly. The men worked in a crab-cannery or in a naval yard, kept busy by a niggling cold war with Chile. The last house before the barracks was a brothel. Skull-white cabbages grew in the garden.” A lot has changed since then: countless restaurants sell overpriced crab, there is a youth hostel on every corner and a stack of ‘End of the World’ T-shirts in every store. It’s on the cruise ship circuit, you see.
There are, however, a few excellent day-trips from Ushuaia. A boat cruise on the Beagle Channel is an absolute must: these usually last four hours and there are two trips every day. They offer great views, decent wildlife-watching opportunities (sea lions, cormorants, magellanic penguins) and a touch of history. If you’d like a full-day trip, it’s easy to combine the Beagle Channel with a visit to Estancia Harberton. This historic ranch is the former home of Thomas Bridges, an English missionary who did a lot of great work with the local community (and wrote a dictionary of the Yaghan language). It’s currently owned by Bridges’ great-grandson and is both fascinating and picturesque.
The other essential daytrip is to the Tierra del Fuego National Park. Less than 5 miles from Ushuaia this is a land of glaciers, lakes, mountains and history. There are great views over Ushuaia, and the option of riding the ‘Train at the End of the World’ (immortalised by Paul Theroux in his fantastic travel memoir The Old Patagonian Express is romantic in the extreme.
If you’re into fly-fishing (like I am), the Rio Grande is famed for its sea run brown trout and it holds most of the world records for this species. A number of luxury lodges cater specifically for the fly-fishing market, although their unique brand of gaucho hospitality makes them extremely attractive for non-fishing guests too.
Things to do on the Chilean side
For many the biggest drawcard is the recent establishment of a colony of king penguins near the town of Porvenir (accessible from Punta Arenas by both road and ferry). In 2011, sixteen penguins took up residence on a stretch of beach and since then the colony has grown. In the past you had to go to the Falkland Islands (or should I say Malvinas?) or South Georgia to see king penguins (which look quite similar to the emperor penguins which are endemic to Antarctica), but this recent change has made them much more easily accessible. Check out the park's website for more info.
If you truly want to feel like you’re at the end of the world, rugged and inhospitable Isla Navarino (http://islanavarino.com/) is your best bet. The island has been earmarked as one of 24 remaining true wilderness areas in the world and is home to some of the best hiking on the continent. The Dientes de Navarino Mountains (literally Navarino’s Teeth) are not for the fainthearted, but they certainly reward those intrepid enough to explore them with incredible views and a wilderness experience second to none. If you want to go hiking (especially if you’re planning on doing the 5-day circuit), be sure to take an experienced guide and only go during summer.
Puerto Williams – a three-hour boat trip across the Beagle Channel from Ushaia – is Navarino’s only settlement of any note, and it’s a lot closer to the Ushuaia Chatwin experienced. This is a bustling crab fishing port with quaint wooden buildings and – as far as I could tell – no skull-white cabbages.
The final word
As you can see, there’s more than enough in Tierra del Fuego to fill a two or three week itinerary, but the reality is that most of us don’t have that kind of time to dedicate to one tiny portion of a very large continent. Hopefully this blog has helped you to pinpoint exactly what you want to get out of your Tierra del Fuego expedition.