Tierra del Fuego
Tierra del Fuego, or the Land of Fire is an archipelago that rests upon the very southern most portion of South America. It was 'discovered' by European explorers (Portuguese to be exact) who were trying to find a passageway to Asia for trade purposes. The European explorers who discovered the region named it the Land of Fire, because of the many fires that were lit near the shores of this land by the indigenous groups when they first came across the archipelago region.
Tierra del Fuego is a very interesting region which now belongs to both Chile and Argentina. There has been much controversy, arguments, and almost a war that has erupted over which country the island region actually belongs to. The largest island of the cluster of islands is known as Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego. The archipelago also contains one of the most dangerous and famous sea traveling locations, known as Cape Horn. Cape Horn is notoriously known for being a difficult location to travel by sea due to the strong currents, wind, massive or rogue waves, and icebergs. It is a well known location of hundreds of shipwrecks throughout the past few centuries.
My trip to this region that suffers from volatile and savage weather began in October of 2015. It was an unexpected side trip that took about 3 days all initiated by my desire to see penguins in the wild. They are known to seek refuge from Antarctica in parts of Tierra del Fuego during October and November. And so after returning from Torres del Paine and dropping off a friend at the airport in Punta Arenas, I took off with one other friend in search of the mighty King Penguins.
I'm glad that we decided on making this unexpected adventure to find the penguins. There were quite a few unexpected surprises along our way. The first of these unexpected surprises was driving through
the near ghost town known as San Gregorio. This was a very cool area. According to Wikipedia, the population is slightly under 300 people, but this coastline town felt pretty abandoned of human presence, minus the occasional car traveling through on the highway. Many of the buildings in the area were still intact, but they look like they had seen better days.
Another interesting feat about this abandoned coastline area is that there are two beached ships that rest upon the shores just a short walk from the abandoned buildings. The first of these ships is known as the Ambassador, which is a tea clipper from Europe. It was built in the late 1860's. It reached it's final resting place in San Gregorio in 1899. All that remains of the ship is it's frame. It truly is a remarkable thing to see.
The second ship which is more intact, is a steamship known as the Amadeo. The Amadeo was built in the early 1880's and she found her final resting place on the beaches of San Gregorio, Chile in 1932. When approaching this beach it reminded me of the scene in the original Planet of the Apes when Charleton Heston is walking on the beach and discovers the State of Liberty lodged in the sand.
It is interesting to see the difference in these ship's designs. It is amazing how well preserved they are, especially since the Ambassador has been there for over a century. What makes it even better is there is no admission prices to see any of this! Be careful if you wander around on the Amadeo, rust has taken its toll on the infrastructure of the ship.
After finishing up in San Gregorio we continued east along the coastline until we reached the ferry that would bring us across to Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego. The ferry runs pretty often as this route sees frequent use by service vehicles, semi trucks, and I assume a good mixture of tourists. It should be noted that there is also a ferry service that departs from Punta Arenas and arrives in the port city of Porvenir which will be discussed later.
After reaching Isla Grande we took off once more exploring this island. It was not long before we came across a flock of Flamingos hanging out in a empty field next to a large pond. This was definitely not in my list of things I expected to see. I had always thought flamingos hung out further north, and not in a region which is known for being cold and windy. I was wrong.
After stopping to take pictures of the pink Chilean Flamingos we continued on, soon finding another abandoned area.
This time it was in a coastal bay. This was in a rather remote area, and had a eerie presence about it. I have not been able to find out much information, but from the likelihood of the buildings, it was a old oil refinery/port. If someone can enlighten me about what this area was, please let me know! It definitely had a post-apocalyptic feel to it.
We did not wander around long as there was many warning signs and no trespassing signs, though they looked quite aged. I typically like to wander about and generally ignore signs like this as long as it doesn't cause destruction to the environment, but we had that creepy feeling as if we were being watched. Whether or not we may have been, it still gave us a eerie uncomfortable feeling about being there, so we took off pretty quickly.
After this last stop we began to realize we were running out of time and daylight. We then booked it towards our destination city of Porvenir. A small port city on the west side of Isla Grande. Porvenir is a neat little city with a population of around 5,000. The city has a lot of Croatian influence, and it can be witnessed through some of the types of restaurants and people living in the town that are from Croatian decent.
We ended up staying at a cozy little hostel that goes by the name of Yendegaia Hosteria, I recommend this hostel, if you ever find yourself in Porvenir and it has vacancy.
It was managed by a very friendly and hospitable young couple along with their newborn daughter. They were very welcoming and had lots of suggestions for things to do in the area, and restaurants to try. I should also mention they serve a great breakfast here, and make great handmade American style pizzas.
I still remember playing a Spanish version of Settlers of Catan with the managers at this hostel both nights I spent here. It was a blast! Check out their website which can be located by clicking here. They were great hosts and they went above and beyond at being friendly and helpful.
They also notified us that the area the penguins were in could not be accessed on the day we planned to visit, but solved that issue by calling the person who was running/protecting that location and asking him if we could still go. It was a very friendly gesture of them! Had we not gone to this hostel, our trip to find penguins could have been entirely wasted due to time constraints!
Porvenir is a great resting point if you are exploring the Tierra del Fuego area, and a good point to start off the adventure. There are a few different cities or towns in this region, but this is one of the easiest to access. Also, there is a ferry for hire that can bring you back to Punta Arenas if you have to catch a flight back to Santiago or Buenos Aires etc.
There are a decent amount of good restaurants in the area, if its during the tourist season. There is grocery stores and gas available to get supplies prior to moving onward into Tierra del Fuego too. There is also a neat little historic park by the downtown area that provides some information about the history of Tierra del Fuego. And no the weird costumed people in the photo below are not devolved KKK members, they are actually the original people who lived in this region before their way of life and population sadly died off
On our first and only true full day in this region, we took off early to go find the penguins and then check out a large lake recommended to us by the couple at the hostel. It was a few hours drive and aside from the coastline, it was a pretty barren area. The wind was also quite rough from what I remember of that day, though this region of the world is known for excessive winds.
We finally reached the bay that is known for being a home to King Penguins when they migrate north to South America from Antarctica. There are very few places in the world that King Penguins can be found, and we just happened to be heading to one of their spots on this trip! I was very determined to see penguins in their natural habitat versus seeing depressed penguins in a zoo exhibit.
It was not quite as awesome as I thought it would be unfortunately. There were about 80 penguins when we got there, but they weren't being very social, playful, or interactive! I had hoped they might be wandering around and playing, but I think the weather had impacted this, that and the fact that I don't think King Penguins are quite as frantic and animated as say Magellanic penguins. Instead they mostly stayed huddled together for warmth during my time spent at the penguin preserve. Below are the pictures I was able to capture of the odd looking birds. Also for your information, I was not able to spot Danny Devito at all in the penguin crowd, despite his uncanny resemblance to one which he portrayed in Batman Returns.
After our morning spent with the penguins, we had one more destination before we wrapped up our brief Tierra del Fuego adventure. We were told about a cool lake further south on the island called Lago Blanco. So we set off in direction of the mountainous area that contained this lake. It was a lengthy drive on a bumpy, and unkempt winding road. It brought us through empty grassy fields and eventually to hilly and thick forests.
One thing I noticed that was oddly unique while on the drive to Lago Blanco is how the trees grew in this region. They often times were not very tall, were very gnarly, and grew in the direction of which the wind blew. I cant imagine how long it took for these trees to form this way. It really was quite cool that wind can impact and sculpt the trees in such a way. It is a true testament to the power of nature.
Once we were close to the lake, we had to take off on a rougher muddy road. There was not a lot of room for maneuvering as it was basically a single lane, and it was surrounded by the thick forest. The forest itself had a magical feel about it, as if at any moment one of the trees may suddenly become animated, move around, and speak like the Ents in Lord of the Rings. I can't imagine how quickly this forest would go up in flames if it ever caught fire. There were dead trees scattered everywhere on the ground.
After several miles of driving on the rough road we finally reached a clearing, and the massive Lago Blanco was before us. It was super windy, but yet a stunning view. Forest and mountain landscape surrounded the lake for as far as the eye could see. There was a campground nearby, but it looked completely unoccupied, given this was a non-tourist time of year.
The evidence was very prevalent everywhere in regards to the volatile weather this region faces. Lots of the trees, especially near the edge of the forest had grown pointing towards the eastern direction (wind comes typically from the west, blowing east). In one of the photos below, many trees on a side of a hill are knocked over from what I can assume was either very strong winds.
After reaching the lake and exploring for a brief while, we determined it was time to conclude our journey into Tierra del Fuego. We took off to Porvenir and took a ferry back to Punta Arenas the following morning. There was so much more to Tierra del Fuego that we did not get to see. There are lots of options for boat tours to explore the many smaller islands in this archipelago. Also, more species of penguins can be found on these other islands too. I blame myself partially for not researching the area more, and the lack of time we had to explore. Hopefully this article will help who ever is reading to learn from my mistake.
There was a lot of great things to see even just through the short time we spent here. There was some great coastline drives as well. I would definitely recommend making a side trip down here if you ever find yourself at the end of the world, so to speak! The distance from Antarctica from this area of South America is not far at all.
There are lots of hiking opportunities once you get down to this region, and there are some great trails further south from what I read. It gets a little bit tricky figuring out which country you are in, and you may switch between Chile and Argentina several times depending on how far south you go, and what method travel you take. At the time of this writing it is no longer necessary to pay the Argentinian reciprocity fee which was $160.00. This is what stopped us dead in our tracks. It was not worth the amount of money to cross over for maybe a day or two.
If we had been able to cross for free we would have definitely visited Ushuaia(population of about 55,000), which is the biggest and technically southern most city in the world. Though, Chile likes to claim it's Puerto Williams takes the honor of southern most city. I imagine this is sort of ongoing arguing point between the two countries's tourist industries and claims to fame. Both of these cities provide great opportunities for starting points for adventures and excursions.
When to go?
As most readers of this blog are typically from the United States, it is going to be opposite seasons compared to back in the States. The best time of year to go to Tierra del Fuego, and Chile/Argentina in general, is December, January, and February. These are the summer, and warmest months of the year. Regardless of the time of year, there is frequent cloud cover, rain, and wind. Temperatures can average in the 60's ( Fahrenheit) in the summer.
Another thing to consider is that during the winter months the days tend to be drastically shorter versus the potential 17 hours of day light in the summer. Thus by going in the summer it stretches out the time you have for activities. Given these more popular times of year though, the tourist population will be higher.
What to bring and how to get there?
This is another adventure destination, and when planning an adventure vacation, it is important to have all the essentials that might be required. A lot of the gear I would recommend bringing would allow you to be warm, dry, and active. There is lots of hiking, and poor weather conditions here. Be prepared for all types of inclement weather, especially items that help with cold, wind, rain, and snow! Bring your typical adventure travel gear. In the near future I will be making a blog highlighting some of the most important items that can be used for this type of travel, so stay tuned for that!
Bring medical supplies for the typical scrapes, cuts, and blisters from hiking. Sunglasses and sunblock are another unexpected necessity for this region. It would be advisable to bring a camera as this area is stunningly beautiful. There's a reason why this area was chosen to film parts of the recent blockbuster movie, "The Revenant" staring Leonardo Decaprio,
There are a multitude of different ways to reach Tierra del Fuego. The easiest option would likely be flying into Ushuaia's airport. Aside from that, it is possible to take ferries or other various ships down here. Bus lines offer shuttles to Ushuaia, and a few other cities in the region as well. If you are feeling more adventurous you can rent a car and do it all by yourself, there aren't too many roads to get lost on. You may feel like you're heading in the wrong direction though! Be prepared for lousy road conditions, and a long drive if you do, but I think this is still the best option for accessing the largest island of Tierra del Fuego. Obviously, it doesn't help for accessing the many islands throughout the archipelago.
Also consider kayaking in the region if you are down here. This is an awesome way to explore some of the islands. Don't let this be your first kayaking trip ever though. It is not a very forgiving environment to learn how to kayak.
Tierra del Fuego is a great destination for the adventure seeker. There is a lot of activities and adventures to be had. It is a very undeveloped region aside from a few cities, mainly Ushuaia and Porvenir. Humanity has not wrecked much of this area, yet.
This is not a region for those who want a relaxed vacation either. It will be tough, and weather will not be favorable all of the time. But the beauty lies in this area's pristine ruggedness. I know I will be back here to explore more in the future. There was so much I missed due to my brief and unplanned visit here.
Torres del Paine and Patagonia - An amazing Chilean national park that sits just to the northwest of Tierra del Fuego. Click here to read my blog and review about Torres Del Paine and Patagonia.
Antarctica- You're already basically at the bottom of the world, why not keep going?! I hope to make arrangements to go here sometime in the next 5-10 years!
Tierra del Fuego National Park- Its the actual National Park of this region, of course it's going to be cool!
Cape Horn- One of the most dangerous sailing routes in the world? Why wouldn't you want to visit here?! It looks like a pretty cool island and area to see. Not many people can say they have ever been here. This also is probably not a good location to try kayaking out for the first time, unless you like taking major risks!
Ushuaia- As mentioned above, it's the largest city in this region, and a great starting point for adventuring in Tierra del Fuego.