Shafik Meghji | 16 July 2022
Chilean Tierra del Fuego: A journey to the end of the world
Chilean Tierra del Fuego is a wild, remote and storied land, home to the southernmost city and trek on the planet...
Chilean Tierra del Fuego is a wild, remote and storied land, home to the southernmost city and trek on the planet...
High above the glinting rooftops of Puerto Williams, the summit of Cerro Bandera – ‘Flag Hill’ – was dusted with snow, racked by gale-force winds and utterly deserted. Still puffing from a precipitous hike through a forest of beech trees, I sheltered behind a half-collapsed cairn and watched a faded Chilean flag thrash at its pole like a fish on a hook. Nearby, a stream of snow-melt trickled over the stony terrain, which was chequered with moss, the only plant hardy enough to grow in the sub-polar tundra.
To the north, on the opposite shore of the Beagle Channel, was the Argentine side of Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost tip of South America. I snapped a few photos before turning 180 degrees to face the Dientes de Navarino, a range of fang-like mountains, the last gasp of the Andes. Aside from a few Chilean naval officers on Cape Horn and a handful of scientists at Antarctic research stations, there was nobody between me and the South Pole.
Beneath Patagonia, across the choppy Strait of Magellan, South America crumbles into a labyrinth of sparsely populated islands, rocky outcrops and serpentine channels before dissolving completely into the Southern Ocean. Divided between Chile and Argentina, Tierra del Fuego (‘Land of Fire’) is one of the world’s last surviving wildernesses.
Most travellers only visit the Argentine section of the archipelago, flying in and out of the port city of Ushuaia. Once a missionary settlement, then a notorious penal colony dubbed the ‘Siberia of the South’, Ushuaia is the starting point for most Antarctic cruises. But to really experience life in this far-flung region, you need to continue south across the Beagle Channel to the Chilean island of Navarino. Its little-visited capital, Puerto Williams, was upgraded to city status by the Chilean authorities in 2019, despite having a population of barely 3,000. This redesignation allowed it to claim the coveted title of most southerly city on Earth from its far larger, and now rather miffed, rival Ushuaia.
But while I was initially drawn to Puerto Williams by its sense of isolation, during my three-night stay I found I became increasingly captivated by Tierra del Fuego’s turbulent history, which encompasses scientific expeditions, missionaries, gold rushes, ranchers, epidemics, repression, polar explorers and devastating rodents. At the heart of these tales are the region’s often overlooked Indigenous communities. The more I learned about them, the further I wanted to explore.
Unless you fly, getting to Puerto Williams takes time, patience and a degree of luck. The first stage of my convoluted journey – made before the pandemic – started in Punta Arenas, a Chilean Patagonian city whose stately architecture is testament to the wealth generated by the sheep-farming boom of the 19th and early 20th centuries. I caught a bus east to Punta Delgada, where we joined a motorcycle club for the ferry ride across the Strait of Magellan to the Chilean section of Isla Grande, Tierra del Fuego’s largest island.
The landscape resembled the steppe that spans much of southern Patagonia: solitary estancias, flocks of sheep, shallow grey lakes and the occasional skittish guanaco, a wild cousin of the llama. After crossing into Argentina at the San Sebastián border post, the bus bore south along Ruta Nacional 3, the final leg of the Pan-American Highway. We pulled into Ushuaia in the early evening, 11 hours after setting off from Punta Arenas. A sign at the port announced we had reached the ‘Fin del Mundo’ – End of the World.
After a bout of stormy weather – not uncommon in Tierra del Fuego, even in the summer – the next morning was sunny and still. For the first time in a week, the Beagle Channel was calm enough for the Cruz del Sur motorboat to make the 45-minute crossing to Isla Navarino. En route we spotted colonies of sea lions sprawled along the uninhabited islets dotting the waterway.
I was the first foreign arrival at the Puerto Navarino border post for nine days. As the immigration officer checked my passport, a fisherman hauled a net of writhing centollas – king crabs – onto the slippery dock. It was a one-hour drive to Puerto Williams along a gravel road. Hugging the shoreline, Argentina’s snowy peaks still visible across the water, we passed empty coves, clumps of orangey-red Chilean fire bushes, and trees leaning at 45-degree angles, sculpted by the near-constant winds. Ancient middens – mounds of mollusc shells discarded by Indigenous communities over the centuries and then gradually overgrown – formed a series of gently undulating hills.
Thick forest lined the road, but patches appeared to have been struck by a hurricane. These tangles of broken branches and denuded trunks were actually the work of the descendants of 20 Canadian beavers introduced to Tierra del Fuego in the 1940s by the Argentine government in an attempt to develop a profitable fur trade. It was a catastrophic mistake: the industry floundered and the beavers took advantage of the lack of predators, reproduced prodigiously and spread across the archipelago. Despite eradication efforts, they now number around 200,000 and are estimated to have damaged a quarter of the region’s forests.
Periodically, we passed lonely houses, but didn’t see another vehicle on the road until Puerto Williams. Overlooking a shallow bay, the city was shielded by the looming Dientes – “Teeth” – of Navarino, their dark flanks streaked with snow.
Founded in 1953 to serve as a naval base, Puerto Williams is less than 1,000km north of Antarctica; Santiago, by contrast, is more than 2,400km away. Although officially classed as both a city and the capital of Chile’s Antarctic province, it resembles a small frontier town.
The naval officers and their families, the majority of the population, live in a grid of identikit houses with white walls, picket fences, well-tended lawns, Chilean flags and, more often than not, a dog house. Beyond them is a jumble of one- and two-storey homes with corrugated iron roofs, oversized satellite dishes and piles of firewood, interspersed with a few A-frame churches, some simple guesthouses and a dozen shops and restaurants. Stray horses roam the streets, pausing to nibble at daisies poking out of the dirt. Passersby invariably say hello.
“This is a tranquil place,” said the owner of the Minimarket Yagán. “We have no delinquency – people leave their keys in their cars and their front doors unlocked. It’s a real community.” Puerto Williams is also more cosmopolitan than you might expect. Over a lunch of grilled chicken and salad at a Colombian-run cafe, I chatted with Laura Ogden, a cultural anthropologist at Dartmouth College in the USA. A regular visitor to the city, she was working on a research project with the Indigenous Yagán community and writing a book about Tierra del Fuego. I later met an Estonian researcher who was studying the geopolitics of Antarctica.
Nearby, guarding the entrance to the naval base, was another link with the wider world: the grey-and-black prow of the Yelcho. This Chilean naval tug played a key role in one of the famous stories of polar exploration of the 20th century. In 1916, it rescued 22 members of Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated Endurance expedition, who had been stranded on desolate Elephant Island for four and a half months.
As the sun set, a flotilla of fishing boats – which, alongside the navy and tourism, provide most of the jobs in Puerto Williams – cast long shadows on the pebble beach. A pod of dolphins skimmed across the Beagle Channel, while petrels, gulls and oystercatchers flashed through the darkening sky.
The next morning, I visited the Museo Antropológico Martín Gusinde to learn about the history of Tierra del Fuego. Through exhibits such as a Yagán canoe and a set of finely worked bone harpoons, it shows how Indigenous peoples have lived in the region for more than 10,000 years, creating flourishing societies in some of the harshest environments imaginable. The first European settlers were British Anglican missionaries, who arrived in the mid-19th century. Some of them lived in Casa Stirling, a prefab cast-iron house that now sits in the museum’s grounds. They were followed by waves of Europeans and South Americans eager to make their fortunes from sheep ranching and gold mining. This devastated the Indigenous population: many died of diseases such as measles and smallpox brought over by the settlers; others were killed or displaced by ranchers and bounty hunters. It is often described as a genocide.
Today, only small Indigenous communities remain in Tierra del Fuego, notably Villa Ukika on the eastern outskirts of Puerto Williams. Founded in the 1960s, it is home to around 50 Yagán residents, a community centre and the Kipa-Akar, a replica of a traditional Yagán dwelling that sells arts and crafts. Villa Ukika’s most famous resident is Cristina Calderón, who Ogden described as a “grandmother figure for the whole community”. As we chatted in her living room, Calderón showed me a book about her life and some of the items – socks, gloves, scarves – she had knitted. “Puerto Williams is a very beautiful place,” she said. “Now there is lots of work going on, and they are building new things. There’s lots of change.”
The Yagán community has long been overlooked, but awareness has grown in recent years, thanks to a successful campaign to prevent the opening of a huge, and potentially destructive, salmon farm near Puerto Williams. This attracted widespread media attention, as did the 2021 election of Calderón’s daughter, Lidia González Calderón, to represent the Yagán people in the citizens’ assembly that will draft a new Chilean constitution.
Beyond its striking history and sheer remoteness, Puerto Williams is surrounded by some of South America’s most dramatic landscapes. On my final day, I hiked the first section of the Dientes de Navarino circuit, one of the continent’s most challenging treks, following a woodland trail scattered with dandelions, passing a cascading river and patches of beaver destruction. From the summit of Cerro Bandera, the view south provided a snapshot of the trek as a whole: sloping scree, dark-green moorland, dense forests, crystalline lakes and the sight of the Dientes themselves.
I only saw one other hiker, but back in Puerto Williams the streets were unexpectedly crowded. A cruise ship heading to Cape Horn had docked for the afternoon, disgorging a stream of red-jacketed passengers. It was a reminder that, although neglected by the Chilean authorities for much of its existence, Puerto Williams is developing fast.
The waterfront hummed with construction work, there was a new elevated boardwalk, and a health clinic was in the pipeline. This is just the start. Over a dinner of centolla gratin, I read in a local newspaper about plans for a large, modern dock to allow bigger ships – including touristic and scientific vessels bound for Antarctica – to visit the city.
Although tourism was slowly increasing before the pandemic, Puerto Williams still feels like the end of the world. But as I waited for my flight back to Punta Arenas, I learned there is actually another settlement slightly further south. At the one-room airport, I scanned a map until I found Puerto Toro, wedged into an inlet on Navarino’s south-east coast. Only accessible by boat – though a road to Puerto Williams is currently being built – the hamlet’s population hovers around 50, though can double during the lucrative centolla-fishing season.
I briefly entertained the idea of skipping the flight and chartering a boat to visit, before the boarding announcement ended my reverie. It was probably for the best. No matter how far you travel, there’s always further to go.
Get the very best of Wanderlust by signing up to our newsletters, full of travel inspiration, fun quizzes, exciting competitions and exclusive offers.