Tierra Del Fuego

So you have arrived to southern Chile or Argentina and you are about to go to Tierra del Fuego, the place that invokes deep memories because you remember its cool mysterious name from your childhood (like me) or just because you’re simply fond of remote locations and the untouched nature they come with. Well, it all begins with the crossing the Strait of Magellan, a term that holds the appropriate volume of the adventure that’s ahead of you.

Punta Arenas

But let’s start a bit north of Tierra del Fuego, in Chile’s Punta Arenas. This largest human settlement in this part of the world (pop. 110 000) is an outpost town with friendly locals and rich history connected mainly to extreme exploration. It is therefore natural that eversince the end of the Pinochet era (1973-1990), the tourist industry begun to play a significant role in the local economy.

Before visiting one of the penguin colonies in the region the area is famous for, one can get educated in one of the town’s museums, I’d say that particularly Braun Mendez and Naval y Maritimo museums deserve some attention. Furthermore there are also some historical shipwrecks to be seen and if you like beer, you can head to the world’s southernmost brewery (Austral Beer) to try the tasty lager or IPA they make here.

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Straight of Magellan and Punta Arenas from mirrador Cerro de la Cruz

Other than that, Punta Arenas has very strong winds (hold onto your hats), massive ugly looking oil industry and rather flat/boring surroundings. It comes with everything any outpost should come with, from both positive but also from the negative point of view.

Personally, I found the city a bit miserable, with all do respect. For some reason, it reminded me of Ranong, the north-western outpost town in Thailand one has to visit if going to the gorgeous hippie-ish island Ko Phayam. I guess it depends on what time of the year one arrives and what conditions are there to meet him.

Penguins

The biggest attraction that puts Punta Arenas on the tourist map is the town’s close proximity to Isla Magdalena, an island that hosts a large colony of Magellanic Penguins (estimated population of 120 000). You can visit Isla Magdalena with multiple agencies offering the tour for 60 000,-CLP (80), if the weather permits. The wind can get very intense and crossing the Strait of Magellan could become rather dangerous and authorities are sometimes forced to block the sea traffic for safety reasons.

And that was the reason why I’ve ended up on a different trip, which takes you to Tierra del Fuego‘s Bahia Inútil where there’s a small nesting colony of King Penguins. Unlike the speedboats that are used for Isla Magdalena trips, this tour boards a large ferry, which is more likely to pass and it’s therefore apparently guaranteed that you’ll be on your way in the morning.

The tour also cost 60 000,-CLP + the park entrance fee of 12000,-CLP. It’s a whole day tour (8:00-21:00), although we had to wait on the island for couple of hours for authorities to open the sea traffic to get back to the mainland, which was blocked for the smaller ferries that are crossing the Strait in the northern part of the island.

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King Penguins @ Bahia Inútil, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

After crossing the Strait of Magellan by a huge ferry in 2 hours, which was for me one of the highlights of this tour, we have arrived to the small town of Porvenir. The town itself, takes “there’s nothing to do” to a whole new level, especially if we’re looking at the social and cultural aspects of life. Porvenir however holds a small museum and a “square” that commemorates the original inhabitants of the island Selk’nam, also known as the Onawo or Ona people, who are now extinct 😔

The worst of the occidental human nature that first took form of fighting over controlling the strategic trade routes connecting Atlantic and Pacific oceans, followed by the discovery of gold as well and the introduction of farming in the region has led to a drastic decline in the numbers of the indigenous population, in a process that is now described as genocide.

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Selk’nam Square in Porvenir, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

One can imagine how horrible the politics must have been in the days of British East India Company and their mass murdering profit driven counterparts in this region of those days. To give you just a hint of how things worked back then, here is one rather illustrative historical fact: a local government would pay a pound sterling for an ear or a hand taken off a local tribes members.

And the tour?

Diego, the tour manager was very informative and it was him, who made this trip more interesting than it would otherwise be. Overall, it was a lot of driving through the boring north-west side of the island and few stops on the way. It’s not a trip I would exactly recommend to take but I am glad I went for it.

Apart from seeing the super cool and cute beings above, I’ve learned a lot about the region’s history and I didn’t have to stay in Punta Arenas the whole day. The next day I took the 12hrs bus back in the same direction to Ushuaia, the end of the world.

Porvenir takes “there’s nothing to do” to a whole new level

Ushuaia

Unlike 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 more south), Ushuaia meets the term outpost with pride, glory and beauty.

It’s dramatic mountain range surroundings help that a lot as opposed to the rather flat nature of the rest of the island. The temperatures are apparently going from -1C to 17C all year round. A lot of the friendly locals are often working in the End Of the World-related tourism going on, which includes the stunning Parque Nacional de Tierra del Fuego.

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The park itself is huge 630 km2 (240 sq mi) but not all parts are accessible for tourist to preserve the nature and the rich variety of wild life inside it. There are various treks one can pick from, ranging from short and easy up to medium-difficult. I’ve personally opted for Costanera trail, a beautiful walk along the Lapataia Bay (see above). It was very tranquil and easy trek with many rewarding views.

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Tierra del Fuego‘s Lapataia Bay with Chilean Isla Navarino in the background

Another popular short (and free) trek around Ushuaia is Glaciar Martial, which you can access for free from the city and takes about 4 hours (return), offering the beautiful view of the city and Beagle Channel. Other activities are various boat rides in the channel, taking the replica of a historical train which used to transport the prisoners to the park, and so on. Everything is well organized, trails are well marked – things and services basically work there.

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Ushuaia from Glaciar Martial with Beagle Channel and Isla Navarino in the background

What would I do differently with my current knowledge of Tierra del Fuego now?

I’d cut down time spent in Punta Arenas and extend my time in Ushuaia and Tierra del Fuego National Park. I’d try to take the Isla Magdalena trip instead of the one to Bahia Inútil. There are supposedly some cheaper penguin tour options in a high season (Dec-Feb) I could not explore because I was there in November. I would also pay the $100 for a boat ride to the iconic light house in Beagle Channel near Ushuaia. Furthermore, if I had enough money, I’d sail to Isla Navarino over the Beagle Channel to take upon a challenge of the Dientes de Navarino trek.

Practical notes:

Please note that unless you have your own, preferably an off road kind of transport, it is impossible to get from Porvenir to Ushuaia. I had to return to Punta Arenas and take the 12hrs bus from there to Ushuaia the next day.

To get to the Tierra del Fuego National Park from Ushuaia, you board a van for about ARS700 (€14) return at the bus terminal. The entrance to the park is 420,-ARS (€9). Make sure you’ll arrange your return trip for the particular time and spot in the park, as there are 3 bus stops.

Alternative routes

There are cheap flights to Punta Arenas from Santiago starting at €25 operated by Sky Airlines. Needles to say – the flights are stunning if it’s not cloudy – one can observe the Andes below, given the window seat was an option. To get to the town, there’s a transport from the airport to the centre for 5000,-CLP (€6,50) or taxis that start at about the double of that amount.

Bus from Punta Arenas to Ushuaia takes about 10 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 to wake 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, if you are in a rush. The flights are not as cheap as flying within Chile but you can get a good deal from about €30 upwards.

Furthermore, there’s also a 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. For more options about ferry travel in this part of the world, please click here where I listed and described all the possible public ferry transport rutes in the region.

Sleep

  • Punta Arenas: I’ve stayed in Airbnb place (which appeared to list cheaper alternatives than its competition in this part of the world) called Austral Logging. Peter was a good host, constantly improving his accommodation. In case he had finished doing what he was doing, it might now be a good place to stay. For about $17, I’ve had my own comfy room, which was one of the cheapest places in town at the time btw.
  • Ushuaia: Airbnb’s Habitación CANAL II also belongs to my top favourite places I’ve stayed in during my 8 months trip around 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, small wardrobe and a little desk with chair. Bathroom is shared between you and other two rooms only. The owner Marina is super-friendly and attentive person who lives on the property with her two cute kids and a friendly dog Ramón, I’ve played with in 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 15 minute walk from the touristy centre, located in a residential area of town.

Other popular destinations near by

  • To visit the iconic Torres del Paine park, visit the town of Puerto Natales
  • To meet a contender in one of the best memories in your life, visit the Argentinian town of El Calafate to reach the stunning Perito Moreno Glacier
  • Only a few hours ride north, there’s a cute little town of El Chaltén that will allow you to take upon some of the many treks the Los Glaciares National Park comes with, including many views of the iconic Mt Fitzroy)

Just how south Ushuaia is?

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 between Dublin and Belfast. So Belfast’s hypothetical southern hemisphere brother is beyond the end of the world.

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