Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Land of Fire

Waiting at the Strait of Magellan
By Alli Sinclair

I come from one of the world’s largest islands, so it’s only natural I’m a sucker for land poking out of vast oceans. Fortunately, near Australia, we have a fabulous selection of islands with palm trees, pristine beaches, and turquoise waters -- Fiji, Samoa, Tahiti, Vanuatu... the list goes on! But one of my favourite islands in the world doesn’t have a palm tree in sight but it does have penguins and is known as the Land of Fire – it’s Tierra del Fuego in southern Argentina.

My first visit to Tierra del Fuego was after I’d cycled and ridden buses for thousands of kilometres through Patagonia. I’d been on a roll, enjoying the life of a traveller, only to end up stranded at the southern tip of Argentina, staring across the Strait of Magellen. Due to unpredictable wind and ever-changing currents, ferry crossings are commonly stopped until weather improves and my ferry was no different. Six hours later we crossed by boat, where humpback whales swam in the channel that flows between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Once on the other side, I jumped on a bus and travelled through windswept plains where crops of mountains jutted skyward. Arriving at Ushuaia, the stepping off point for ships sailing to Antarctica, I found a hostel on the hillside with views across the Beagle Channel. Not bad for US$10 a night.

The western region of Tierra del Fuego and most surrounding islands are owned by Chile while the remainder of the island is owned by Argentina. Now, depending on who you’re speaking to, you’ll get different stories about the most southern city in the world. Argentines will swear it’s Ushuaia, and Chileans will argue it’s Puerto Williams.

Tierra del Fuego National Park lies only 11 kilometres from Ushuaia, is the first shoreline national park established in Argentina, and it is the world’s most southern national park. It’s easy to access by bike, car, or, probably the most popular option, by train.

The Train to the End of the World is a narrow gauge railway that was originally established in 1910 after the prison in Ushuaia began operating. The steam train travelled along along the waterfront in Ushuaia, then across the eastern slope of Mount Susana and into what we now call Tierra de Fuego National Park. The railway originally connected the prison to the forestry camp within the park, and was known as the Prison Train until the prison closed in 1947. (The original railway closed in 1952 after an earthquake damaged the tracks. Luckily, some train lovers reconstructed and renovated the tracks in 1994. After purchasing a steam locomotive from England, building one in Argentina, and assembling three diesel locomotives, they opened the line to tourism). Now it’s possible to take the train from the outskirts of Ushuaia and travel for 50 minutes along the heritage railway to the Tierra del Fuego National Park.

Once there, you can visit waterfalls, thick forests, pristine lakes, and towering mountains that all combine to make a visit to this park an unforgettable experience. For those who love to hike, it’s easy to spend a few days traipsing the trails, enjoying the wildlife both on and above the ground. If you have a keen eye, you’re likely to spot an Andean Fox, North American Beaver, European Rabbit, muskrat, and guanacos. Looking above, you may spot an Austral Parakeet, Magellanic and Blackish Oystercatchers, as well as the elusive Andean Condor.

As for time of year, from personal experience, I’d say Autumn (Fall) is the most spectacular season to go. Crisp, sunny days, bright blue skies, and fewer tourists means you almost have the park to yourself. And as for scenery, nothing can beat the magnificent orange, red, and yellow leaves of trees clinging to the rolling hills and jutting mountains.

Enjoying champagne and Oreos at the end of the world
And if visiting the southernmost national park in the world then you can add standing at the end of the Pan-American Highway, an impressive roads that stretches for 29,800 miles from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to Ushuaia, Argentina.

Tierra del Fuego is shrouded in mystery, has a colourful history, and breathtaking scenery and nature. It’s easy to spend a week, even two, exploring the surrounds and if you’ve been saving your pennies, sail to Antarctica. For me, the Land of Fire burns brightly in my heart and I can’t wait to take my young family there and share the wonderful experiences waiting for us to embrace.

If you want to learn more about Ushuaia, you can visit another post I wrote here.

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