Tierra del Fuego
13 January 2020
Discovery of the land of smoke and fire
Tierra del Fuego puts the “full stop” to the American continent and our discovery of Patagonia. It is overwhelmingly promoted as the end of the world. The name itself has some lovely stories attached to it, none of them likely to be true. The best comes from Bruce Chatwin’s “In Patagonia” who wrote that when Ferdinand Magellan discovered the island it was covered in smoke. He therefore named it Tierra del Fumar, but on returning to the Spanish court the Emperor Charles V corrected him and said “where there is smoke, there if fire, therefore it is the land of fire – Tierra del Fuego.”
Adventures at the end of the world
To the south-west of Tierra del Fuego is the Pacific Ocean, to the west and north is the Magellan Strait, to the east is the Atlantic Ocean, and to the south is the Beagle Channel. Equally divided between Chilean and Argentinian Patagonia, the island contains the tail end of the Andean range, and the surrounding waters are a hunting ground for penguins, sea lions, whales and a diverse range of bird life. Exceptional features include King Penguins at Inutil Bay, sea lions and cormorant colonies on Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego National Park, and Cape Froward at the southern tip of the continent (across from the island on the Magellan Strait).
In the Argentinian part of the island, Ushuaia is the starting point for many wildlife and island tours, and the Tierra del Fuego National Park. The city is also a port for Antarctica cruises. It is a buzzing centre of activity that successfully mixes cruise-ship and adventure tourism with a tax-incentivised manufacturing economy. Punta Arenas, on the other side of the Magellan Strait, is a Chilean alternative to Ushuaia. Punta Arenas is a great base for adventure tourism, and to explore sea-life off the Strait, national parks and reserves, albeit subject to high winds and changing weather conditions.
The Yamana people of Tierra del Fuego
Nomadic fisherman of Patagonia
While the Emperor’s correction to the name of Tierra del Fuego is no doubt a legend, the arrival of Europeans was very real, and within a few generations 80 per cent of the Yamana people had died from our diseases. There is only one pure-blood Yamana alive today, a 94 year old elder living in the Chilean part of the island. There is also persistant speculation as to why the Yamana people had so many fires: to keep warm (they lived naked), or perhaps to warn each other of the explorer’s arrival.