Like Charles Darwin, we sail down the Beagle Channel to the end of the world at Ushuaia and discover the majesty and mysteries of Tierra del Fuego.
The snow-capped peaks of Tierra del Fuego basked in the elusive Patagonian sunshine as our ship sailed along the Beagle Channel on its way to the remote Argentine port city of Ushuaia.
The 150-mile waterway is named after the British ship HMS Beagle, which twice sailed through the channel on her voyages of discovery in the first half of the 19th century. On her second voyage in 1832, Charles Darwin joined the crew of Captain Robert Fitzroy as the ship’s naturalist, and found 30 unique species in these pristine, frigid waters.
The first European to visit Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego was actually Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan who had been sent by Spain’s King Charles V in 1520 to find a route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. As he sailed in to the straits that separate mainland Chile from the island of Tierra del Fuego and would later bear his name, he was amazed by the many fires lit at night along the southern shore by the indigenous Indians.
As a result, Magellan named the island ‘Tierra del Fuego’ (Land of Fire) and decided to land on the continental side of the strait safely away from the very tall and strange-looking Indians that he derisively called ‘des patagonies.’ The word eventually morphed into the official name for the most southern and remote region of Chile and Argentina – the Patagonia.
While their voyages were three hundred years apart, both Magellan and Darwin were astounded by the primitive nature of the Selknam and Yaganes people who inhabited ‘the end of the world.’ After Darwin’s reports, the Anglican Church of England’s Patagonia Missionary Society established a mission outpost on the bank of the Beagle Channel in an area the Yaganes called Ushuaia.
Lucas Bridges, the son of the first missionary, grew up among the Yaganes, learnt their language and admired their culture so much that in 1948 he published the definitive book on their life in Tierra del Fuego called ‘Uttermost Part of the Earth.’ Tragically, the tribes of Tierra del Fuego, who had survived for 12,000 years in one of the world’s most unforgiving areas, were eventually driven into extinction by western diseases brought to their shores by Europeans.
Today, visitors from around the world come to Ushuaia to see the rugged beauty and natural wonders of Tierra del Fuego, and to begin their cruises to nearby Antarctica. In fact, the day we were in port there were two small expedition ships tied up at the pier getting ready to begin a cruise to Antarctica – the Prince Albert II, and the National Geographic Explorer.
The Martial Glacier lies just 7 km north of Ushuaia, and can easily be reached by taxi. It has a chairlift that takes visitors to the top, where there are fabulous views of the surrounding countryside. The nearby Tierra del Fuego National Park is a 63,000-hectare reserve that features majestic peaks, pristine rivers, and the beautiful Lapataia Bay, as well as walking paths that wind through emerald forests and the rocky bays and inlets of the Beagle Channel. The park can be reached by taking the ‘End of the World’ train (Tren del Fin del Mundo), the southern-most railway in the world that slowly winds its way through stunningly beautiful scenery.
Like much of Ushuaia, the railway was built by convicts sent to the region following the Argentine government’s decision in 1844 to set up a prison here for serious criminals, much like France’s Devil’s Island or Alcatraz in the United States. Today, the prison houses two museums – the Prison Museum, which shows the harsh environment that criminals endured; and the Maritime Museum, which tells the story of Ushuaia and its relationship to the surrounding islands and the sea.
We decided to experience that sea-going relationship by taking a catamaran cruise along the beautiful Beagle Channel. Our catamaran picked us up at the dock and took us past the Isla de los Pajaros (Bird Island), where we saw hundreds of cormorants, including some nesting in the nooks and crannies of a nearby rock. We also cruised alongside Sea Wolves Island, where there’s a colony of sea lions that we found basking in the pale sunshine on the edges of the rocky outcrop. The sea lions can climb the steep face of the rock because they are able to use both sets of flippers, something seals cannot do.
After watching the sea lions, our catamaran sailed past Faro Isla Eclaireurs, which is locally known as the ‘Lighthouse at the End of the World.’ We would be passing by this lighthouse in a few hours on our way south to Cape Horn, but for the moment we were content to admire the spectacular scenery, fauna and wildlife that had fascinated Charles Darwin nearly 200 years before us.