South America Plus 2002-2004 travel blog

End of the World

Tierra del Fuego Camping

Tierra del Fuego Lago


Ushuaia Post Office Mural

Ushuaia Towers

Copyright 2004

David Rich 1900 Words

T h e U t t e r m o s t E n d s o f t h e E a r t h

An electric day it was when I first heard about the uttermost ends of the earth, the gist of it remaining a thrilling memory from way back when they still taught geography in school, about umpteen years ago. The concept of a land beyond which there is none, a land of fires, of Tierra del Fuego, has fascinated me ever since my geography days as a wee tot. Someday I would go, and then I finally went, four months of driving down from Ecuador for two eventful weeks in Tierra del Fuego encompassing Christmas and New Years.

The Island of Tierra del Fuego is the size of South Carolina, or if you prefer, the size of Ireland, sitting at the very end of South America, the last outpost of civilization before arrival in Antarctica, which has practically no civilization whatsoever. To the east of Tierra del Fuego rages the wild Atlantic, to the west and north the comparatively tranquil Straits of Magellan, and to the south almost nothing across the Beagle Channel except Cape Horn one degree farther on where the most outrageous storms in the world collide. Tierra del Fuego Island is easily conceivable in simple fourths, the west Chile and the east Argentina, the north windswept with dots of oil derricks, bogs, and sheep in both Chile and Argentina, the south crammed with glaciers, jagged, snowcapped mountains, a fabulous national park, and the world's southernmost city of Ushuaia. The southeast quadrant in Argentina brags that it offers the best trout fishing on the planet around Tierra del Fuego's largest city, Rio Grande, attracting movie stars, heads of state, and former presidents. Plus, it boasts a bakery—not just any bakery, but a special bakery. The tiny town of Tolhuin unexpectedly presented my favorite bakery ever if I were to believe the guidebooks.

The history of the fiery land is heartbreak and violent death, the four original indigenous groups purposefully slaughtered by Europeans to take native lands for grazing sheep, making fortunes, and building empires for the Europeans, who still rule the land. Less than ten indigenous survive from the Selk'nam tribe or any tribe, all over age fifty, waiting in remote Puerto Eden, Chile, for their own final departure. I bought two pounds of king crab from one of these weather-beaten Selk'nam stalwarts, a quiet stoic chap, when the ferry from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales anchored for a single hour at Puerto Eden (good luck on finding this remote burg on a map).

The southernmost Tierra del Fuegan tribe, the Yamana, lived naked in canoes, surviving the southern winds, rain, and cold by slathering seal fat over every square inch of their bodies, tending fires in their canoes. For these fires Magellan named Tierra del Fuego, the land of fire. Darwin called the Selk'nam "among the most abject and miserable creatures I ever saw." Lest you worry about the hazard of a raging fire in a canoe, they weren't that dangerous because the canoes leaked, rather counter-balancing the exigency.

There's little or nothing to see on the Chilean side of the island, because the southern parts are inaccessible without chartering a boat or paying beaucoup bucks for the single ship that regularly plies these remote waters from Punta Arenas, Chile, down to Puerto Williams on Isla Navarina, the only obstacle between Argentinean Tierra del Fuego and Cape Horn. The only real sight on the Chilean side of Tierra del Fuego is the time-warp town of Cerro Sombrero (Hat Mountain), designed by a Tennessee architect for a Chilean oil company in the 1950s. After stumbling across the windswept plains of Tierra Fuego for uncountable bouncy miles on corduroy dirt roads, it was only slightly more jarring to see a pink church in a roundabout surrounded by pastel houses with white picket fences, smacking one right between the eyes like the similar town in the movie, Pleasantville. Cerro Sombrero is obviously way out of the way so stick, with Argentinean Tierra del Fuego where the roads are mostly paved and attractions abound.

A Silesian Mission sits six miles north of Rio Grande, Tierra del Fuego's largest city of 60,000 people, the mission now reduced to producing excellent cheeses and singing its own praises for altruism, for serving the local indigenous, graphically displayed in its tiny museum. The mission has run out of indigenous to minister; all Argentinean tribes have been extinct for eons, the last ten survivors now in Chile. But the cheese isn't bad.

Entering the windswept city of Rio Grande, you're confronted by an enormous twenty by fifty-foot sculpture of a sea trout, so shocking that most tourists immediately stop to have their pictures takes in front, high red letters proclaiming Rio Grande to be the Trout Fishing Capitol of the World. If you're into huge sea trout weighing up to twenty-four pounds that themselves hook celebrities galore, then stop in Rio Grande, as long as you can afford a license to fish. A fishing license is only a hundred dollars a day, and the catch limit is one trout a day, but then the trout are matchlessly big. You can eat on one for about a month to recoup your investment. This traveler doesn't fish, so I continued to the heartland of Tierra del Fuego, where the wind blows less than fifty miles per hour, to the heart of the heart, which is what Tolhuin means in the local dialect of extinct indigenous.

Tolhuin is a tiny town on the east end of fifty-mile-long Lago Fagano and arguably boasts the best bakery in the world, a claim that gives me pause when searching my memory banks to recall the taste treats offered by bakeries on the left bank in Paris, those in Vienna, and all over Switzerland. But then Tolhuin's Panaderia la Union is open 365 days a year, 366 in Leap Years, to tempt you to Cardiac Hotel. I was there on Christmas and New Year's Days, cadging cappuccinos for thirty-seven cents, almond bark bitter chocolate for three dollars a pound, and pastries in varieties too unfamiliar to list but in infinite assortments from fruit-filled to dark chocolate-dipped, eats to expire for, perhaps literally. Argentinean prices haven't been so low for decades but in 2001 they crashed, along with the dollar-denominated peso, which then traded between 3.3 and 3.6 to the U.S. dollar, recently spiked up to 2.9 per dollar. Prices in Argentina are now the lowest in South America, whereas a few years ago they were the highest. Thus you simply must jet off now while you can afford conspicuous consumption at Panaderia la Union that also features a private zoo of exotic birds and an orphaned Guanaco, free hot water for yerba mate, the tea drunk compulsively and unceasingly by all Argentineans. Check it all out at

In a blink, discounting thirty-seven miles of extremely bad road, I was in Ushuaia, arriving in perfectly sunny weather (no wind) on Christmas Day, little kids trying out spanking new bicycles next to towering cruise ships on the spectacular waterfront, also known as Beagle Channel. This city of 40,000 extremely hardy souls is all superlatives, ringed by chilly black and white mountains, glaciers, extreme waters, and parrillas, Argentinean pig-outs of meat featuring beef, lamb (better than in Greece or New Zealand!), pork, and sausages, spreads to make the stoutest vegetarian blanch, relieved only by a veritable smorgasbord of anything you can think of from fish to pickled beets, five dollars. Like I said, the Argentinean currency crashed, and you are the potential beneficiary/potentate, particularly in Patagonia because all basics are subsidized by the government from fuel to food, causing miniature sticker shock when one ventures too far north into regular Argentina.

Ushuaia has many charms from the Martial Glacier above it, within easy hiking or cable car distance, for great views of town and the Beagle Channel, to fabulous dining, T-shirts and souvenirs, the latter bragging "World's End," "Southernmost City," and the like. But Ushuaia is much more than shallow fun, excellent resort hotels, and views you must pay for. It has two fine museums, both rather kooky in their own way. The small Yamana Museum relates the tragedy of the indigenous in huge three-dimensional pictographs and surviving photos. The Yamana did run around this frigid land naked, living on mussels, moving on weekly while tending the fires in their canoes—chilling.

The huge Maritime, Penal, and Antarctica Museum is housed in a sprawling, five-spoked penitentiary built by and for bad guys and political prisoners (from Russian Anarchist philosopher, Simon Radowitzky to a noted Argentine author, Ricardo Rojas). The maritime portion displays scale models of the important early explorers from Magellan to the Dutch, English, and Portuguese. A huge map of Tierra del Fuego plots the literally hundreds of ships that have foundered and sunk on its shores, several promontories stacked up with over thirty sunken-ship symbols bearing the names of unfortunate vessels. The penitentiary part of the museum occupies two long spokes with dozens of rooms filled by engaging snippets (this chap killed kids for fun, another wrote best-selling books) and graphic vignettes with the prisoners in life-sized papier-mậché. To a man, they were incredibly fortunate to have been removed from frigid and stormily isolated Staten Island, off the tip of Tierra del Fuego in the erratic Atlantic, removed in 1906, allowing them to exercise their building skills to erect a brand new, five-spoked penitentiary. The museum details the most notorious murderers and the politically incorrect, plus providing gobs of info on the exploration of Antarctica, all of which takes at least two hours and less than four dollars.

Ushuaia is the jumping off place for Antarctica, the city from which ninety percent of the world's ships leave for the frozen southland, and which provides an outstanding opportunity to commandeer last-minute fares to Antarctica from $2000 and up and up and up, depending on the number of days. The Antarctic Peninsula is across the Drake Passage south of Cape Horn, two days from Ushuaia by ship. You can go by luxurious cruise ship, if you have a spare ten grand, or by expedition vessel, the latter principally Russian, which have the most experience with Antarctic ice. I snagged twelve days for $3000 plus a four-percent credit card surcharge. Everyone will tell you that Antarctica is the highlight of a lifetime, but most of those who can afford to go have perhaps long forgotten the joys of sex. My trip to Antarctica was rather climactic, but that's another whole story.

My favorite pre-Antarctic part of Ushuaia was right next door at Tierra del Fuego National Park, three-dollar entrance fee, extending west to the Chilean border. The Park offers gorgeous lakes and coves, exquisite because glacier melt is cool in both color and pictures. For some inexplicable reason, our species seems to enjoy shades of bright neon blue. The lakes and the Beagle Channel are littered with exotic islands that sit below the final end game of the snowcapped Andes as they run out of space after a 4000-mile run down South America. You can climb the very end peak of the Andes, Cerro Guanaco, for views (weather permitting) to last a lifetime. Pictures from the top will show the Andes arching northward from their southernmost end, snowcapped all, above Lago Roca far below where they meld six miles away into impassible Chile. To the east are Ushuaia and the Beagle Channel and, if you look closely, Cape Horn is due south sixty miles, the uttermost and final end of the earth, southern-wise.

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