Tierra Del Fuego: The Ends of the Roads

I know it’s been a while.  We took a trip back home for two months and had the best intentions of catching up then, but we were pretty busy.  Alex is working on a post about our trip home, and we should have it out soon.  We are currently in La Paz, Bolivia.  We are headed to Peru next.  This post is about what we were doing in January.  Yeah, I know.

After leaving the show stopper national parks we headed south to Punta Arenas.  The biggest city of Southern Chile.  Set on the north side of the Straits of Magellan it is a historically important stop for ships headed up the west coast of the Americas after crossing the Atlantic.  After checking out the city and enjoying the city life we caught a ferry across the straits to the western side (the Chilean side) of the island of Tierra Del Fuego (Land of Fire).

There has been a lot of controversy between Chile and Argentina over their border, and this area is no exception.  Back in the 1800’s, aside from controlling the Straits and more importantly having a city to host and resupply passing ships, Patagonia was not that important to either country.  Not many people lived down here and aside from a few areas with coal there were not many resources, or at least not yet discovered.  Each county had settlements in different areas and claims to different areas.  This history and a historic treaty, which dictated how the borders would be formed between the two young nations, led to the current borders being pretty strange.  The island of Tierra Del Fuego is sliced almost right down the middle.  The line is based on the longitude of the most easterly edge of the Straits of Magellan.  With Chile controlling the entire Strait.  However, Argentina owns most of the northern side of the Beagle Channel and the all important city of Ushuaia.  Ushuaia holds the claim of being the most southern city in the world, and probably more importantly, the city where most people hop cruises bound for Antarctica.

Blue is our route south and the red is our route north. As you can see the borders are pretty strange.

The Straits of Magellan were first mapped by Europeans in 1520 (only 25 years after Columbus!) and became an important trading route to Asia.  They initially thought that Tierra Del Fuego was another continent and didn’t bother going further south.  We saw a few old maps showing this.  Drake, in 1525, during his circumnavigation, was blown south near the mouth of the straight.  After seeing the great expanse of ocean, he speculated that it was a island.  But because of the crazy weather and the great risks associated with sailing in this part of the world it wasn’t until almost 100 years later, in 1616, that two Dutch ships actually made it around the Horn, proving that it was an island.

Vehicles passing from mainland Argentina heading for Argentinian Ushuaia have to first cross into Chile on the mainland, drive about 30km, hop a Chilean ferry to cross the Straits, then drive another 100 km and cross back into Argentina.  Chile claims some key real estate here, but Argentina can claim the most southern road in the world.  There needs to be an asterisk next to this claim indicating that it is the most southern road with regular ferry access.  Right across the Beagle Channel from Ushuaia is Chilean Puerto Williams with a few roads.  Puerto Williams only has a ferry once a week and it’s a long one, taking 11 hours all the way from Punta Arenas.  This is to say nothing of the roads on Antarctica.  Currently, Chile does not have any roads as far south as Ushuaia on the island of Tierra Del Fuego, but they are working on it.

After crossing to Tierra Del Fuego we started working our way south.  Along the way we passed a King Penguin colony.  This is as very unique thing because like their cousins, the emperor penguins (think March of the Penguins), king penguins typically stick to the Antarctic.  This colony has only begun to come here within the last couple of years!  The conservation organization has built wooden blinds, from which you can watch the penguins.  By doing this, they have done a pretty good job of letting you get close to the penguins without disturbing them.  We spent several hours watching them waddle around, bicker and squawk at each other.  They are incredibly social animals.  It was a great experience.

Leaving the penguins we continued to head south crossing a few small passes and some epic landscapes until we found ourselves at the Fin De Camino, the “End of the road”.  There are actually two of these. (There are actually lots of them. I guess every road ends somewhere.  I guess they all need to be appreciated.)  We didn’t really like the first, and most southern, because it wasn’t very scenic.  Chile is actively constructing more road farther south, making the “end” just a road block in the middle of the forest with a view across the road block to more road under construction.  The one that we liked better was a turnoff about ten miles back that leads towards the west.  It extends about 10 km out to a lonely estancia (ranch) at the end of a long fjord.  The road ends at the estancia set on a beach at bottom of an amazing glacial valley.  A classic glacial valley, U-shaped with snow caped peaks cascading down steep walls that plunge down to a broad flat valley bottom.  We continued walking past the end of the road along the shore and celebrated with beers and chocolate perched on some rounded rocks at the edge of the thrashing sea.  This was truly one of those wonderful end of the world places.  Not more than twenty years ago this estancia was blocked off from the rest of Chile and had no road access.  We saw the bones of an old pier that provided the estancia with it’s only access to the outside world, by boat.

From the Chilean end of the road we crossed over to the Argentinian side of the Tierra del Fuego on a series of bumpy ranch road, and then down to Ushuaia, the worlds most southern city.  Ushuaia is a tourist city where people hop on cruises bound for Antarctica.  Arriving in Ushuaia was a big deal for us.  After traveling south for 3 months Ushuaia marks the start of our journey north, towards HOME.

We hung out out in Ushuaia for a bit more than a week and took a few side trips during that time.  We had arranged to meet up with a couple who we had met on the road to the remote Villa O’Higgins on the Carretera Austral.  We met this couple as we were driving in opposite directions and we both just stopped in the road and chatted through the window for more than an hour.  Martin, Claudia, and Lenny (their van, a VW Syncro) have traveled for the past 4 and half years through the Americas from Alaska all the way south.  Claudia and Martin were wonderful to chat with and a wealth of information.  We stayed in the same campground with them for several great nights, and shared a few meals.  We ended up buying an inflatable kayak from them.  What made being around Martin and Claudia so special was their positive attitude, and wonderful passion for what they were doing.  They were also in the process of deciding what they wanted to do next, it was exciting to be let in on their thinking.  They have a great blog that we recommend checking out. (it’s in German, but if you look at in google chrome it does a great job with the translation)

Martin, Claudia and Lenny

The first side trip out of Ushuaia was east out to Estancia Harberton.  A historic estancia set right on the Beagle Channel.  Camping is permitted on the land so we spent a few nights hiking, walking the shoreline, and testing out our new kayak in the Beagle Channel waters.  The Beagle Channel is pretty magnificent.  It was further down this road that we reached the most southern point of our trip.

As we were getting set to leave Ushuaia a French couple, who we had met several weeks earlier, spotted our van while we were hiking and left a note asking if we were heading to Punta Arenas and if they could catch a ride.  Vincent and Maria had just finished an epic bike ride from Puerto Montt all the way down to Ushuaia, this takes several months.  Alex and I have a ton of respect for cyclists, they make us look like lazy asses that have it easy.  Cyclists, doing this route, sleep in tents most nights and have to deal with whatever the road or sky throws at them.  Whether it be pouring rain, heavy wind, dusty roads, heat or crazy drivers.  We were not headed to Punta Arenas, but we could get them most of the way. We managed to shoe horn their bikes and gear into Lola.  We spent 2 days traveling with Marie and Vincent and really enjoyed getting to know them.  We found that we had similar perspectives on life and how to live it.  Traveling as we do, moving constantly and hopping from one place to the next it is hard for us to really get to know anyone.  It is rare for us to have the chance to spend enough time with people to really get to know them.  This is something we miss about being home.  Getting to know Vincent and Marie was wonderful.  Maybe someday we will visit them in the French Alps!

Our paths separated on the mainland, after making the ferry crossing from Tierra Del Fuego we left them to hitch the rest of the way.  We later heard that they were able to get a ride very quickly that brought them right to Punta Arenas.  We were headed north along the Argentinian Atlantic Coast to see more penguins!

We traveled in Punta Arenas and Tierra Del Fuego from January 22nd through February 9th, 2017.

6 Replies to “Tierra Del Fuego: The Ends of the Roads”

  1. Wonderully fascinating, as always! John

    1. Thanks for reading John!

  2. So you made it out of Mexico City and are headed for more happy adventures. More posts please!

  3. Glad to see your pics of southern Chile and Argentina.
    And glad you’re safely back on the road again.

  4. Beautiful blog! My wife and I took a similar trip last year and going through your posts brings back great memories. We also went to the Fin de Camino on the Chilean side except there were no signs or anything. We just kind of entered a construction site and kept going, because, you know, the roads there just look like construction sites. Eventually we made it to the Ejercito de enginieros and they informed us that we had to turn around. Ahhh. I miss Chile.
    Random question, did you happen to go to the grave site for CC Pringles Stokes, just south of Punta Arenas? If you did, were you greeted by the friendliest, most charismatic dog ever?

    1. Hi Stephen, thanks for reading! We miss those remote roads of Chile quite a bit too. That area is sure to change in the future with Chilé’s interest in ferry service to Ushuaia.

      Unfortunately we did not get to see Cc Pringles Stokes grave…. or the most charismatic dog ever.
      Do you have a blog of your travels? What are you up to now?

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