After navigating barren scrubland, deserted forests, and former prisons-turned-cities, I reckon visiting the Tierra del Fuego is like journeying to another age.
The Tierra del Fuego is the set of islands right at the bottom of South America. Two to three weeks is plenty of time to sample its sights, sounds and sensations, and some of the grandstand attractions nearby.
These 19 tips are essential knowledge if you’re tempted to set your compass to ‘south’ and keep going until you freeze.
Ushuaia makes a strange impression
The Tierra’s foremost city is also the southernmost city in the world, so expect to meet many cyclists starting and ending barmy Alaskan odysseys here. I almost thought the 15-hour journey from Puerto Natales was worth it for the cheesy ‘Fin Del Mundo’ sign and passport stamp.
Ushuaia tries to cater to all budgets, so its high prices and Antarctic theme-park streets are a turn-off. But stay for the gorgeous mountain surroundings, and free glacial and beach walks overlooking the rusted portside. Add unique museums, and some top hostels, and you’re set for a memorable stay.
Don’t mention the war(s)
Rifled through by explorers, before an uneasy sharing agreement between Chile and Argentina, it’s no surprise that tempers still run high over control of the archipelago. Hence if you head south-east of Ushuaia, you somehow end up back in Chile. The constant border-jumping can make for a disorientating ride.
It explains, in part, the strength of feeling around the Malvinas (Falkland Isles). Though reports of anti-British feeling are exaggerated, you’re best advised not to discuss them in unknown company.
It’s so beautiful it hurts
Much of the island terrain drifts by in beige, but there are landscapes to savour as you race south. Take the highway from Rio Grande to Ushuaia, or wind-ripped Puerto Williams, where vast evergreen forests swing up and collapse down at all sides.
Here, mine was one of a few heartbeats moving through the scores of glacier-capped mountains and grey lakes that greeted each swooping turn. It was poignant and humbling that this could exist so far from my home and imagination.
Everyone wants to maté with you
Meaning they want to brew bitter tea leaves in little wooden cups and share it with you.
Maté is a ubiquitous part of Argentinean life – a social act and a chance to bond with strangers. Your classic maté is an acquired taste – a smoky, intensified take on green tea – but I sampled fruitier versions on the way round too.
Watch for people of all ages cradling huge thermoses of maté as they climb onto buses, boats and even rollercoasters. And don’t even think about trying to take it off them – you might as well ask to kidnap their child.
Get your thumbs out
Here it seems everyone’s just aching to pick up lost-looking travellers and ferry them from A to B.
So if you’ve hiked a kilometre too far, stick your thumb out. Before long you’ll be sat in the cabin of a stinking lorry or souped-up Fiat. Last time I tried this, I got swept up in a family outing passing round babies and steaming cups of maté. If you try and burble a little Spanish, you might even get dropped at your door.
You’re not the first explorer here
Among the Fuegans’ visitors was Sir Francis Drake, who passed through during his 16th Century explorations. So too did Charles Darwin, Robert FitzRoy and Captain James Cook. As a visitor, you’re in esteemed company.
But Sir Drake’s tendency to rout Spanish ships means he’s not so popular in Argentina; the Ushuaia tourist board describes him as “a fearsome pirate hording caves of gold in the Tierra del Fuego”.
Seriously, wear sunscreen
Remember hearing about ‘The Hole in the Ozone Layer’ and thinking – “I hope I don’t get stuck under that”?
Uh-oh. If you’re down this way, you’re right under that hole. So that means wearing sunscreen even on the most innocuous-looking cloudy day. Otherwise 18 hours of raw sunshine will be bouncing off glaciers straight at your unprotected face, and that’s a recipe for disaster.
Its prisons are poignant
South America’s southern cities were first established as penal colonies for the naughtiest Argentineans and Chileans. With the bleak expanses that surround these cities even now (population density is roughly 4 per square kilometre), it’s not difficult to see how.
Prison museums like Ushuaia’s show the role these places have played in the development of Human Rights Law. Without the neglect suffered by these prisoners in the past, the global picture of what’s now acceptable might look very different.
You’re pretty well connected
Traversing the Tierra can be a drag sometimes (see below), but you’re never short on ways to move around. Long-haul boats connect Chile’s southerly Puerto Monnt and Punta Arenas with Ushuaia, and an extra little voyage drops you in Puerto Williams, even further down the Beagle Channel.
In Argentina, daily flights link major Patagonian towns like Bariloche and El Calafate with the southern coast.
And whilst the bravest cycle and hitchhike, the rest of us are well-served by the trusty old buses. Huge journey times are standard before arriving in Rio Gallegos or Rio Grande with a ferry hop over the Strait of Magellan. Offices for all are accessible in town centres, and occasionally online.
Book ahead, or suffer
In high season, trying to be fleet-of-foot is a perilous business. Time after time I’d arrive to Patagonian towns and would trudge around trying to find a bed.
Often I’d get a resigned shrug and “you’re an idiot” expressions from hostel staff. Although I always found a cheap bed, it was often at the ninth or tenth attempt, and for one night at a time. As much as every backpacker wants to play it by ear, you might feel a bit of a wally if you do it here.
On transport, be prepared for some high fares, long waits and general rushing around if you don’t pre-book in summer. I found popular airlines were difficult if I tried to book a same-day flight. Others wouldn’t take online bookings, and would charge extra, because I was foreign.
It’s worth the hassle, but sometimes you wonder…
Set course for Antarctica
Can you really say you’ve done the southern hemisphere if you’ve not crossed the Southern Ocean to the world’s biggest, highest and freezingest desert?
You can expect to witness some of the world’s most untamed environments and fascinating aquatic wildlife – scores of penguins, elephant seals, orcas and blue whales. But, starting at £2700, people will probably understand if you don’t.
For thrifty travellers, Ushuaia’s museums document the first Antarctic expeditions in beguiling style. And it costs nothing to stare wistfully at pure white maps, and pore over footage of the Aurora Australis. You’ll rarely be more aware of nature’s awesomeness, even if you’re stuck on dry land.
Blue is the colour
For the moment at least, there’s no point in withdrawing Argentinean pesos from ATMs.
The Argentinean economic crisis means there are locals everywhere trying to swap their decaying pesos for the sturdy US dollar. That means you’ll get a much better rate if you take $50 and $100 bills into the country, and gazump the official exchange rate by changing them on the street. This is known as the ‘blue dollar rate’.
It’s illegal, but everyone’s at it, and it’s really only policed where the amounts are large enough to be linked to other crimes. Even the Ushuaia lawmen are rumoured to be in on the act – but I didn’t test that out. Rates are a little lower in Tierra del Fuego, but still far better than any bank or travel credit card.
Tent hire 101
So, you’ve got your ducks in a row for days spent hiking in the Patagonian wilderness. The only keystone is finding a tent – but in the world’s trekking capital, nothing could be simpler, right?
Well, not quite. After three hours of visiting every hire shop in town, following rumours of ‘the last tent in the Tierra’, I knew better. My tip is to hire in the evening, when others have returned their gear. Or you could buy your own tent, and sell it on. Or just be lucky.
But once it’s sorted, your tent will cost you $3-$4 a night. Perfect.
Pack an extra fleece
The Tierra del Fuego is cold at every time of year. The wind that rattles off the Beagle Channel can ground planes, tip boats and flatten tents – so it can certainly nip through your Berghaus.
And the rain, when it comes, is like being showered with icy bullets. So layer up, forget about your hairstyle, and enjoy the exhilaration of being battered by Mother Nature.
It’s one of Patagonia’s most seductive traits; much of the Tierra del Fuego’s freshwater runs straight from the glaciers, so if there’s a river running by your walking route, you can just stoop down and dip your bottle. You’ll retrieve the freshest, coldest, tastiest water you’re ever likely to drink.
Remember to keep your waste (food and otherwise) away from the fresh water. Clean water is such a privilege, and should be protected.
Don’t be a twisted firestarter
Sadly due to tourist carelessness, Chile has lost swathes of its protected forests to fires. So now you’ll be urged time and again never to start open fires in the national parks.
It’s a pity that the negligence of a few has hampered the freedom of tourists at large, but you’ll understand when you see the charred remnants of huge sections of Torres del Paine.
Like the fresh water, it’s a small price to pay to safeguard one of the world’s most beautiful, and vulnerable areas.
Go without sleep
18-hour days, and crystal clear nights; the pyrotechnics of a Fuegan twilight in summer are an unbeatable sight.
I whiled away many evenings watching rare cloud formations glow in pastel colours until the near-midnight sundown. And if I was feeling energetic, I’d wake up three hours later to catch the Milky Way and Austral constellations racing overhead in the dazzling night.
Get up close with incredible wildlife
The Cape Horn archipelago hides many secret spots packed with unique wildlife, all available via boat or, if you’re fortunate, on foot.
You can find Magellanic and Emperor penguin colonies a short ride from Punta Arenas, Rio Grande and Ushuaia. Condors and eagles wheel over silent austral forests. There’s seals, beavers, whales and a gamut of seabirds too.
Expect tour prices to rise as you push south, but take your chances – the memories will last longer than your bank balance.
Set yourself up for the big attractions
Here you’re no more than a day’s bus from some of the world’s most celebrated backpacking spots.
Delapidated Punta Arenas was my favourite town in Patagonia. The seafood’s cheap, the dolphins are leaping and the people like a party. Its central cemetery, huge duty-free zone and occasional beer festivals are some of its oddball sights.
There’s Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, where the slowly advancing Glacier Perito Moreno deafens as it bursts apart on warm afternoons.
And the stunning hikes around Mt Fitz Roy and Torres del Paine offer many multiple-day camping routes. Join the Andean condors picking paths amongst cobalt glacial lakes, flying peaks and pulses of skinny trees.
Ed Cuffe-Adams is a marketer, musician and writer. He lives for shoestring travel, weird history and urban adventures. He’s roughed it in South America, Asia, Siberia, the US and Eastern Europe, and he loves to share what he sees. Tweet at him @thephrasebook!