Tierra del Fuego is an archipelago in the most southern regions of the South American continent. The archipelago forms an unofficial boundary separating the region of Patagonia from the Drake Passage, which serves as the gateway to the Antarctic continent.
Today, the Tierra del Fuego archipelago is a favorite tourist destination for people who love exploring remote locations across the world.
Given its proximity to both South America and Antarctica, the environmental conditions on the islands are influenced by the effects of both continents. The Andes mountain range extends onto the western stretch of the archipelago, while glaciers and snow-capped mountaintops highlight the archipelago's proximity to the most southern continent on the planet.
Tierra del Fuego archipelago is known for its snowy mountains, glaciers, tundra and wind-sculpted trees. Photo: AdobeStock
Early history of Tierra del Fuego
There is plenty of fascinating history in Tierra del Fuego.
Anthropological studies have found evidence that the first Indigenous inhabitants of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago settled on the islands approximately 8,000 years ago. For centuries, the human inhabitants of the islands were members of the Yaghan and Selk'nam tribes.
During the height of colonisation, the fleets led by Ferdinand Magellan and other European settlers sailed towards the Americas and found the settlements of the land's original Indigenous inhabitants. The Tierra del Fuego archipelago was one such area that Magellan's explorers sailed towards, establishing contact with the Indigenous peoples on the islands.
Interestingly, the fires that the Indigenous tribes used for cooking and to send signals communicating to their fellow tribesmen were what inspired Magellan to name the archipelago “Tierra del Fuego,” a nickname that means “land of fire.”
While Magellan gave the archipelago its name, perhaps the most important explorer to navigate the area was Charles Darwin, who undertook a voyage of South America from 1832-1835. In what became known as “the Beagle voyage,” he went through an arduous journey to learn more about the land, and chart a southern path towards the colonies in Oceania.
Where is Tierra del Fuego
The main island, Isle Grande, is over 45,000 square kilometres, and is often categorised as two separate regions. The western half of the island lies within the boundaries of Chile, while the eastern half of the island is considered part of Argentina.
Hiking, birding and wildlife-watching lure visitors to the Tierra del Fuego archipelago. Photo: AdobeStock
The archipelago also includes dozens of smaller islands, including the prominent Cape Horn on the southeastern borders of the archipelago, and the Diego Ramirez Islands that border the Drake Passage.
Cape Horn has an interesting fact that makes it a very unique destination amongst the entire archipelago. The edges of Cape Horn are where the Atlantic, Pacific, and Southern Oceans all converge, which is how European explorers attempted to circumnavigate through a southern passage.
The island of Cape Horn became a gateway to the rest of the archipelago in fabled attempts to travel through the Southern Ocean, near Antarctica, in an effort to connect directly with the Orient in Asia.
How to visit Tierra del Fuego
Since Tierra del Fuego is an island archipelago, the only options to access the island chain are by sea or by air. Unfortunately, there are no functional airports or landing strips anywhere on the island chain, so a sea voyage is the only option to safely arrive anywhere in the archipelago.
Luckily, Quark Expeditions has one of the best expeditions to explore the archipelago in our special Essential Patagonia: Chilean Fjords and Torres del Paine adventure. This is a 15 day journey that begins in Buenos Aires, Argentina, with a direct flight to Ushuaia near the northern edges of the archipelago itself. The timing of the adventure is scheduled for one of the best times to visit Tierra del Fuego throughout the calendar year, ensuring you get the voyage you most desire.
You'll spend several days exploring different parts of the archipelago. Select stops are made on the island of Cape Horn, which was once an important trade route for past explorers, and the Diego Ramirez Islands.
You'll also sail towards Glacier Alley, one of the most famous locations from the Beagle voyage undertaken by Charles Darwin. The Pia and Garibaldi glaciers are the highlights of this leg of the journey, providing unforgettable photographic opportunities as local seabirds hover above the glaciers themselves.
A colony of cormorants along the Beagle Channel. Photo: AdobeStock
Photography opportunities in Tierra del Fuego
What should you know when you plan your trip to Tierra del Fuego? The islands are teeming with wildlife that wildlife photographers will find endlessly fascinating.
Your adventure guide will educate you on some of the habits of local wildlife, and they can even point out some of the best locations to patiently wait with your camera for the optimal photographic shot. If wildlife photography is one of your favorite pastimes, make sure you remember to pack your equipment before you depart for your voyage.
Some of the most common animals to see across Tierra del Fuego are penguins. Due to the archipelago's proximity to Antarctica, penguins are known to migrate to the islands and establish rookeries to lay and nurse their eggs.
The most common species of penguins you'll see on the Tierra del Fuego archipelago are the Magellanic, Gentoo, or Rockhopper penguins. These animals will sometimes migrate to different regions of Patagonia, the larger region of South America that includes the Tierra del Fuego archipelago, so you may see penguins both coming towards and departing from the island chain.
If nature itself is more your thing, there's no shortage of natural wonders to see across Tierra del Fuego. Glaciers and ice-capped mountains provide bountiful sights to capture on camera from your ship or up close and personal when you disembark onto the land.
Beautiful fjords flow into some of the smaller islands on the edge of the archipelago, creating a calm, serene environment that helps you feel disconnected from the rest of the world around you. Some truly stunning scenery awaits you in this corner of the world.
What to do in Tierra del Fuego
One of the most attractive things to experience in Tierra del Fuego is the Tierra del Fuego National Park.
The park is located near the southern border of the archipelago and stretches for over 600 square kilometres. Two of the most beautiful lakes in the entire archipelago landscape are located within the borders of the national park. These are the lakes of Fagnano and Roca that are renowned for their crystal clear blue water.
Another popular feature in the national park is the El Parque train station near the southernmost city that serves as the terminus of the archipelago. It's at this train station that the famous End of the World train passes through Tierra del Fuego as part of a 7 kilometre railway exploration of the land. Some of the other sights to see on this train include the Pipo River valley, Mount Susana, and various forests, tunnels, and lakes near the terminus station in Ushuaia.
Tierra del Fuego wildlife
There are many wild animals that make their homes across the Tierra del Fuego archipelago. The various penguin species previously referenced are just some of the wildlife you can expect to see on your journey through the archipelago.
One of the most impressive flight species is the Andean Condor, which is a South American Cathartid vulture that's native to the Andes mountains. The Andes continue onto Isla Grande in the archipelago, and the Andean Condor likes to soar above this mountain range in search of food. You may be lucky enough to spot one of these rare vultures during your journey, so make sure you have your camera ready in case an opportunity presents itself.
Tierra del Fuego is also famous for sightings of the Huemul Deer, which is colloquially referred to as the South Andean deer. Like the Andean Condor, the Huemul Deer is also native to the Andes, and they love to roam through the mountain range that expands into the archipelago itself.
One thing to keep in mind about the Huemul Deer is that it is an endangered species. Sightings are very rare so you may or may not be lucky enough to see one galloping across the edges of the mountains on your journey. Your adventure guide can help point out locations where the deer are most likely to appear.
Best time to visit Tierra del Fuego
Since Tierra del Fuego shares similarities to most polar destinations, it's often a matter of timing.
The windy conditions during the winter months can make it difficult for ships to navigate through the waters, and the choppy waves are often too strong for people to safely pass through. For that reason, plan your Tierra del Fuego adventure between the months of March through May, which is when the water is safe enough for ships to navigate.
The timing coincides with the scheduled departure times of our Antarctic Explorer: Discovering the 7th Continent Plus Cape Horn and Diego Ramirez adventure. This is a 13 day journey that will take you to the borders of the Lemaire Channel in Antarctica itself. Very few people can say they've visited one of the southernmost locations in the world, but you have that opportunity on this unforgettable voyage.
The leg of the journey that passes through Tierra del Fuego occurs early in the voyage. You'll depart Ushuaia and travel towards the Beagle Channel. Along the way, you'll make stops at Cape Horn and the Diego Ramirez Islands to experience the wonders that wait in both locations.
Your adventure guides will fill you in on the history of some other adventurers who passed through these waters. They'll also point out some of the best locations to shoot photos of wildlife or amazing scenery, so make sure you have your camera ready to point and shoot!