Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego, or simply Tierra del Fuego, is a territory where it is hard to distinguish myth from reality, pure legend from objective truth. It is possibly this uncertainty, this almost magical atmosphere of mystery that covers the island, that draws so many tourists.
Is it possible that the world's end lighthouse has ceased to be a product of Jules Verne's Fantasy to Become Reality?
Is it imaginable that a distant island that was once inhabited by aborigines, gold diggers, prisoners, missionaries, and castaways, has now become an enchanting place full of undiscovered areas and kind and helpful people?
Is it possible that an archipelago the maps of the last century described as "Terra Australis Incognita" is today within reach and has become the doorway to the Antarctic?
Is this myth or reality?
The answers to these and to other questions lie in the southernmost inhabited territory, in the real "World's End".
Paradoxically, it is accessible and welcoming.
Tierra del Fuego is an island separated from the continent by a strait that joins the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. It was discovered in 1520 by Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese at the service of the Spanish crown, who undertook the first voyage around the world. Even though he died before knowing it, he offered the first proof that the earth was round.
The southern limit of the island that separates it from the Fuegian channels and later from the Antarctic, is established by the Beagle Channel, named after the ship Darwin Charles Darwin used to study this region, and to sail around the planet between 1831 and 1836.
It was Magellan himself, who sighting a great number of fires burning day and night along the coast, baptised the island "Tierra del Fuego". These fires were actually large bonfires lit by the Yamana indian who lived in the southern part of the island, to ward off the low temperatures in the area.
Known as "Indios canoeros" (the canoe indian), this tribe spent a great deal of their time fishing and hunting from their canoes. They also used to carry a lighted fire aboard. To the north of the island was another ethnic group; the Ona or Shelknam indian, who were hunters and had an interesting mythology.
One of the most valuable testimonies available today about the original inhabitants of the island is the dictionary of the rich Yamana language, written by the Protestant missionary Thomas Bridges who, together with his family, was the first white permanent inhabitant in the region.
Bridges learned the language of the native peoples and showed that it was possible to live in peaceful harmony with them. His son Lucas Bridges, born in Ushuaia in 1874, continued the task his father started by writing about his experiences with the Ona and Yamana natives in the fascinating book known as "El Ultimo confin de la Tierra" (The Southernmost Point on Earth).
This literary tradition in the family continues today through Natalie Prosser de Goodall, author of one of the best guides available on Tierra del Fuego. It has excellent descriptions of the fascinating beauty, in a state of environmental purity that seems to bring together on one island the best of nature's creations.
The descendants of those hardy pioneers occupy the Harberton Hacienda, on the outskirts of Ushuaia, which is today the capital of the province of Tierra del Fuego, a welcoming place that gives the visitor an insight into life on a Fuegian ranch.
The adventure and the unforgettable first contact with the extraordinary Fuegian scenery starts when the plane flies over the Beagle Channel towards Ushuaia airport. One can also appreciate the excellent location of the city, the only one in the country west of the Andes mountain range, in a maritime-andean surrounding affording a spectacular 360° view of an imposing beauty, from any point.
A visit to the world's End Museum allows, based on the testimonies to be found there explains the primitive aborigine cultures, the devoted missionaries who carried the Word of God and civilization, the hardworking settlers who contributed to building the first towns and their later development, the gold diggers who persisted in their quest until they lost hope, the anthropologists, naturalists, and researchers who managed to understand the signs of nature and prehistory in this lonely part of the world, shipwrecks and the castaways whom the circumstances obliged to settle in the place, and many more who unknowingly were the transcendental characters of the island's history.
Those for whom the term "World's End" had a real sense, were the prisoners who saw out long sentences in a maximum security prison with strict discipline. Today it no longer serves as one and has become a tourist attraction.
A large part of Ushuaia history is related to the penal colony. As time went by, some of the prisoners found jobs in urban tasks and, when released, many integrated themselves in society and joined the free inhabitants of the city.
In Tierra del Fuego, rather than finishing, a new world seems to begin, where the scenery overwhelms the imagination and captures the observer by imposing a nature in its purest state that lays the laws, a land of rich natural wealth, where the snows convert into runs for skiers and glaciers, and the latter into crystalline lakes, drinking water for man and a habitat for fish prized by sportsmen and food-lovers alike.
Visiting Tierra del Fuego National Park, is one of the best ways of appreciating the area´s outstanding beauty; situated just 20 kms from Ushuaia, this reserve is a treasure of magnificent virgin places, lakes, brooks, woods, and coasts that can be visited following established pathways. You can view the coasts of the national park in Bahia Lapataia.
In the singular ecosystem of this park, the turbales, a species of spongy carpets, grow. They are formed by the decomposition of layers of aquatic vegetation, ferns, and moss, that accumulate in what used to be marshy land, currently in the process of carbonation.
It is also the habitat of a strange carnivorous plant, the small "drosera unifora" that feeds on live insects thanks to its tempting fruit in which its victims get stuck until they are devoured. This can be found along the paths of the Negra lagoon.
The park can be entered using the Austral Fueguino railway, a narrow gauge train which, until 1947 was used to transport the prisoners who worked cutting trees which were later transported to the prison sawmill.
Another interesting visit is the path that leading to the Martial Glacier, located 10 kms from the city. The chair-lift, with the best views of the Beagle Channel, takes the visitor on to the path that leads, after a three-hour trek, to the foot of the glacier.
The southernmost ski runs in the world are situated in the very same Martial chain and in its valleys. Cross-country skiing is predominant. Another attraction that captures the preference of the tourists is navigation in ocean-going sailboats, in catamarans for excursions, or in luxury cruisers. Leaving Ushuaia harbour in any of these vessels, one can reach the picturesque island of Los Lobos, sail the Beagle Channel to the Harberton Estancia, and even enter the Fuegian channels, the name given to the labyrinth of isles, floes, and narrow sea water channels, much like the Norwegian Fjords, that extend south, to the Beagle Channel. There are even excursions in larger vessels bound for the Antarctic, that leave Ushuaia, the harbour closest to the White Continent.
For golf lovers, the challenging southernmost Golf Course in the world is in Ushuaia, visitors with handicap are welcome.
There are many more attractions to be visited in the region. As an example, the days never seem to end, December 21st being the longest, nor do the nights, like June 21st, the longest; or arriving at the solitary and strange island of Los Estados, an important reserve of autochthonous species of fauna where the world's End Lighthouse, though inactive, still stands. Food-lovers can savour the delicious dishes prepared in the style of the islands: Fuegian spider crab and lamb; or go trekking, sail in kayaks, fish, go horseback riding through spectacular scenery, witness the Snow Festival, or simply live the fantasy of discovering the southernmost point of the earth, or witness and even touch the waters where two oceans meet, in an unique and enchanting place.