Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Tierra del Fuego

Returning from the Antarctic Peninsula, I stayed a few extra days in Ushuaia in order to explore the world’s southernmost National Park. I wish I had stayed longer. Populated by jagged mountains, lakes, wild rivers, glacier carved valleys and cirques, and forests of southern beech the mystical landscape of Tierra del Fuego is primeval.

Teirra Del Fuego is Spanish for “Land of Fire”, a name that derives from the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, who sailing for the Spanish Crown in 1520, was the first European to visit the southern tip of the Americas and witness the many fires of the Yaghan Indians.

The native Yaghan and Selk’nam people first arrived in Tierra del Fuego around 10,000 years ago. Sadly, like many indigenous peoples, conflict and persecution by European settlers, infectious diseases, and forced emigration dramatically reduced their population. Today only a few of Teirra Del Fuego’s fist inhabitants remain.

The Beagle Channel divides the archipelago. The largest island is known as Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego or simply Tierra del Fuego. Originally claimed by both Chile and Argentina, no European settlement occurred until the second half of the 19th century. The Boundary Treaty of 1881 divided Tierra del Fuego between the two countries.

The western part of the main island, and most of the smaller islands, belong to Chile. The eastern part of the main island, and a few small islands in the Beagle Channel, belong to Argentina. This includes the regions largest city—Ushuaia.

The world’s southernmost city was founded in 1870 when British missionaries established a small settlement they called Ushuaia, a native Yaghan name for the area. Mislead by bogus rumors of large gold fields many wishful gold prospectors soon arrived.

During the first half of the 20th century, the city hosted a prison built by the Argentine government to increase the Argentine population and ensure Argentine sovereignty over Tierra del Fuego. Transferred from Buenos Aires, highly dangerous and political prisoners became forced colonists spending much of their time building the town with timber from the surrounding forest. In 1947, Argentinean President Juan Perón responded to numerous reports of abuse and unsafe practices and closed the prison. Today the prison is home to the Ushuaia Maritime Museum and well worth a visit. 

While the main economic drivers remain fishing, natural gas and oil extraction, sheep farming, tourism is gaining in importance. Do to its location on the Beagle Channel and close proximity to Antarctica, Ushuaia plays a key role in supplying Argentina’s Antarctic bases as well as stepping off point for Antarctic bound cruise ships.

The southern most extension of Andes (the longest continental mountain range in the world) Tierra del Fuego is mountainous and home to alpine lakes, wild free flowing rivers, deep glacier carved valleys, fjords, and two distinct eco-regions; Altos Andes and Patagonian Forest.

Encompassing 63,000 hectares, Tierra del Fuego National Park is bounded on the west by the Chilean border, on the north by Lago Fagnano, and on the south by the Beagle Channel

Tierra del Fuego's maritime climate of short, cool summers and long, wet, winters, has preserved many ancient alpine glaciers. The Martial Glacier is one such bastion of Pleistocene ice. Located just ten minutes from downtown Ushuaia, the Martial hosts a small ski area and provides a convenient venue to earn a few turns.

The island is covered in primarily in Southern Beech including deciduous Antarctic Beech (Nothofagus antarctica), the southernmost tree on earth. The larger Lenga Beech (Nothofagus pumilio), an evergreen, can grow 30 meters high.

A logistical easy way to experience the Park's wildness is the 25 kilometer Paso De Ovejo Trail that connects the Valley De Andora with Canadon De La Oveja and thereby circumnavigating Ushuaia and Montes Martial.

While it's reasonable to complete the 25-kilometer Paso De Ovejo loop in a day, spending one or two leisurely nights camped within primeval Patagonian forests is highly recommended.

Zorro Culpeo (Dusicyon culpaeus) Track

The Zorro Culpeo is Tierra del Fuego's largest predator. Possessing a prized reddish-brown pelt, these native foxes have been hunted and trapped extensively. Regardless, we frequently found their distinct 4-toed and clawed canine tacks along the muddy trail.

Carancho (Caracara Plancus)

A small raptor, Carancho are frequently seen in Patagonian beech forests hunting for small mammals and other prey.

Shorter hikes along in Lapataia Bay are located a short shuttle ride from Ushuaia. These pleasant tracks accommodate leisurely walks along a rocky coast adorned by elegant stands of southern beech.

Timberline, Valley De Andora

"Among the scenes which are deeply impressed on my mind, none exceed in sublimity the primeval forests undefaced by the hand of man; whether those of Brazil, where the powers of Life are predominant, or those of Tierra del Fuego, where Death and Decay prevail. Both are temples filled with the varied productions of the God of Nature: no one can stand in these solitudes unmoved, and not feel that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body." - Charles Darwin

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