Travelling to the end of the world: Tierra del Fuego and Ushuaia

I’m not going to lie: the Tierra del Fuego is far from everything.

This piece of land, situated at the very southern end of the south American continent, and whose land belongs to Argentina, is named for its geological activity. Tierra del Fuego means ‘land of fire’, and is made up of lots of relatively small islands created by the volcanoes of the region.

Let me explain: Tierra del Fuego is situated right at the intersection of three tectonic plates: the South-American plate, the Scotia plate and the Antarctic plate. And what happens where plates meet? Volcanoes, earthquakes, mountains, the whole shebang, basically. And while it makes for a rugged, slightly unpracticable landscape, it’s rather lovely on the eye.

We spent three days in the land of fire. After the uneventful crossing of the Magellan strait (where every ‘dolphin’ we spotted turned out to be a graceful penguin), we spent our most memorable night of the trip, wild camping in the fields surrounding an abandoned house we made ours. Only its walls can tell the story of our terrible, terrible dance moves…

The next two days in Ushuaia were filled with penguins, pan de queso, sea lions, walks, penguins, meat, penguins, the most wonderful lighthouse at the end of the word, and penguins.

To be rather honest, I didn’t enjoy Ushuaia much. I had imagined a small wind-battered town where only lovers of nature came to spot icebergs and walk arduous trails that led to Cape Horn. As it turns out, Ushuaia is a large, urban and very touristic city, filled with fashion shops, restaurants and casinos. There are three different Irish pubs. The magic was lacking.

But one thing slightly made up for it: I got to stamp my own passport! I’m not sure it’s an entirely okay thing to do, but that made it even better…

Hiking to Mount Fitz Roy in El Chaltén

El Chaltén gives off a feeling of a completely artificially created village. Small and lost on the outskirts of Los Glaciares National Park, it was in fact created in 1985 to provide a base for those coming to hike the many trails that surround it – and offer views of the spectacular Mount Fitz Roy. It’s a bit of a mess of a town. The one ATM never works, the supermarkets are tiny, busy and empty of anything but packet pasta sauces and browned fruit, the roads are often barely more than trails, and a lot of the houses seemed to be only half finished. But it’s got a few good places to eat, a wonderful ice cream shop, and obviously, terrific surroundings.

El Chaltén takes its name from the mountain that looms over it; in the local indigenous Tehuelche language, meaning ‘smoking mountain’. But the peak’s official name is Cerro Fitz Roy, after the captain of the Beagle, the ship of Darwin’s 1834 expedition.

I walked two of the main trails in the area – first a short one to the Cerro Torre viewpoint, an easy and mostly flat walk that leads to a very windy albeit beautiful view of Laguna Torre and the mountain of the same name. I’ve sadly got no photos of Laguna Torre, because the wind blew so much water into my camera that all my shots are decorated with water droplets…

But it was nothing like the next day’s hike: longer, at 10k each way, with a tricky uphill last kilometre that took a lot out of us (especially on a moderate hangover). But then we got this view.

I’ve always been more of a city person than a lover of nature. I’ve got a huge thing for the ocean, and will happily sit for hours starting at waves, but mountains don’t have a special place in my heart. But Patagonia showed me the emotions that come with a long, exhausting hike to a monumental bit of nature. And the icy blues and pure whites did right by the sucker for colours that I am. I think only the landscapes of Iceland and the beaches of Brittany top this view for me.

Our first peek at Fitz Roy during the hike

The view from the first viewpoint

Starting a trend that would last throughout our time in Patagonia, the clouds surrounding the top of Fitz Roy cleared just as we arrived, and the weather turned right as we stared walking away, gracing our hike back to town with an apocalyptic ‘winter is coming’ background.

But the whole way down I was feeling this exact level of happiness: