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  • Writer's pictureMarion Marquardt

Wild, windy, wunderful – Tierra del Fuego or the end of the world

On the way to Ushuaia, the (almost) southernmost city in the world
Potatoes and onions - small sacrifices for smooth border crossings
Renaturation of species and nature preservation in Parque Pingüino Rey - the king penguin colony of Bahia Inutil
Untouched nature and strong winds - we explore the Chilean part of Tierra del Fuego

We have almost arrived in Tierra del Fuego, only a border crossing and a ferry ride separate us from the southernmost province of Argentina. The climate is getting harsher, the winds stronger. Our windbreakers are constant companions. On our journey south we can finally put away our summer clothes. The landscape changes dramatically. You can hardly see any hills, and the flora is very monotonous. No trees, only rarely bushes or shrubs, mainly grass. Nevertheless, the landscape has something magical for me. You can still see guanacos on every corner. The robust animals defy all wind and weather with their thick fur. Sheep and horses are far less common. And even more rarely are people. We stay overnight at Laguna Azul. We chose the location for strategic reasons, only 9 km from the Chilean border, to start the border crossing early in the morning. But the place has more to offer than just its good location.


Laguna Azul Tierra del Fuego Argentina, Chile Feuerland Patagonia
Laguna Azul in the evening light

We have prepared well for the border crossing. Chile is said to have very strict controls on plant and animal products. So we’ve eaten up our fresh supplies as best we could and hidden the rest - except for two potatoes. We must declare that we have goods on board that fall under the regulations of the Department of Agriculture (SAG). This is the only way we can avoid a potentially high fine in the event that something is discovered. And that is very likely. To a probability of 99% the vehicle is inspected. In fact - customs look conscientiously in all drawers and soon find our potatoes to confiscate them. They are no longer interested in the cheese and dairy products in the fridge. Puh! What luck. We have one more border crossing – back to Argentina – ahead of us on the same day. However, nobody wants to know anything about our supplies. Nevertheless, we don’t do big food shopping in Argentina. In a few days we're off to Antarctica. Until then, we'll use up our perishable food.


The dimensions of Tierra del Fuego are immense. We have some hours of driving ahead of us before arriving in Argentina's southernmost city, Ushuaia. The landscape changes dramatically again. In the northern part of Tierra del Fuego there is literally nothing. Only desolate, flat pampa. No settlement, no trees, just endless expanse. Only at the height of Tolhuin there are trees again, and suddenly we can see snow-capped mountains rising in the distance. Lush green, crystal clear rivers and mystical forests line the road. We feel thrown back to Alaska (aside from the wildlife). The winds are a bit more bearable down here. Ushuaia itself is a nice little town that lives mainly from tourism. The Argentines market their jewel as the last city in the world quite well (Editor's note: In fact, Lapataia is Argentina's southernmost town, and Puerto Williams, on the Chilean island of Navarino, is the southernmost city in the world). In addition, many ships depart from Ushuaia for the Antarctic, including ours.



After our incredible stay in Antarctica, we are back on the South American continent. We have to manage a few things, such as laundry, hairdresser, money withdrawal, motor oil change, etc. And after our return we are also (shortly :-)) happy to be back in civilization. We spend quite some hours in the internet café. Above all, we are working on our blog and planning our further journey. On our Antarctic expedition we received numerous recommendations from the guides, which we are going to sort through first. And then there are, unfortunately, a few things we have to book. We try to travel spontaneously as much as possible, without a schedule. Unfortunately, that doesn't always work. One of our highlights is the Dientes de Navarino Trek, on the Chilean island of Navarino, in Tierra del Fuego. The southernmost trek in the world is not so easy to reach. As of 2020, ferries from Ushuaia, Argentina, to Puerto Williams, Chile, have been suspended and it doesn't look like it’s going to change any time soon. For us, that means we have to fly in from Punta Arenas, Chile, or take a 30 hour ferry ride. We choose the former. Then Torres del Paine National Park is on the bucket list. Although quite crowded, we don't want to miss this highlight. However, it is mandatory to book the campsites for the multi-day trek, in our case the so-called O-Trek, in advance. Things like that really get on my nerves, as they keep you busy for hours on the laptop.


After we have managed the most important things, we are drawn out into nature. And we look forward to physical exercise after so many days at sea. The hiking trail to the Vinciguerra glacier starts right next to our campsite. 10.2 km, 8 hours for the loop, announces the sign at the trailhead. Wow, that must be difficult terrain. We start hiking at cloudy sky and light rain. The path meanders through the valley. The landscape looks really mystic in between those trees covered by moss. Then the ascent to the glacier begins. Already at about 600m altitude we pass the tree line and the glacier can be seen in the distance. After almost 2 hours we reach the glacier lake. The trailhead sign seemed to exaggerate a bit. The view is awesome! The turquoise blue lake is located idyllically in front of the huge glacier. In the meantime it has cleared up, now and then the sun peeks through the rapidly drifting clouds. Not to bad at our spot - sheltered from the wind. A very picturesque day hike. On the way back we stop at a small bar that advertises beer and WIFI. The landlord has his own brew. I don't really like beer, but this was actually very tasty!


Vinciguerra Gletscher in Ushuaia Argentina Feuerland Tierra del Fuego
Vinciguerra glacier, Ushuaia


With this highlight we say goodbye to Ushuaia. We want to spend a few more days on the Chilean side of Tierra del Fuego. Of course, that means a border crossing. This time we arrive late in the evening. And believe it or not, it was the fastest border crossing ever. Within a few minutes we are done on the Argentine side, and the Chilean officials don't make it a big deal either. Of course we prepared well again, declared our victim, this time an onion, and put it in the kitchen drawer. However, customs don’t even want to take a look in our car. After several critical questions as to whether we really only have one onion of fresh food on board, they let us continue without any inspection. It has to be said that we had wind speeds of over 60 km/h that day. Maybe they just didn't want to leave the building :-)


Our first destination after the border is Parque Pingüino Rey, a penguin colony in Bahia Inutil. King penguins have been settling here for 10,000s of years. In former time, the aborigines of Tierra del Fuego used their bones to make tools. The colony is quite small, currently counting around 140 individuals, but nonetheless stable - thanks to a project started in 2011. Again and again man-made events have brought this colony to near-extinction, such as the use of penguin fat for cosmetic purposes in the 1950s and its trade as pets for Asians in the 1980s. The project has established a protected area for the colony with the opportunity to observe it in their natural habitat. Always accompanied by biologists like Aurora, the park manager. The king penguins stay in this place all year round. Unlike other penguin species, they do not migrate to the sea outside of the mating season. King penguins only lay one egg every 1.5 years. Some are breeding. When we get there, we see four chicks. Unfortunately, the rest of the chicks didn't make it. They either fell prey to foxes or one of the parents did not survive the hunt for food. In the first 3-4 months after hatching it takes both parents to take care of the chicks. One must constantly stay at the nest, the other go hunting for food. The average survival rate is 20% - 80%, this year it's on the lower end in Bahia Inutil. The chicks differ from the colony because of their dark, very fluffy fur. They only molt at the ago of 9 months, to reveal the typical black and white penguin dress underneath. The specific characteristics of king penguins, such as the orange beak and ears, as well as the yellow-orange color on the chest, only develop over the years. At the age of 3-6 years they are adults and therefore sexually mature.


Parque Pingüino Rey Königspinguine Chile Feuerland
King penguins in Parque Pingüino Rey

The king penguins are the second largest penguin species after the emperor penguins, with a height of approx. 120 cm. With the exception of this colony on Tierra del Fuego, they are only found on sub-Antarctic islands between 45° and 55° south latitude. So not easy to see them in their natural habitat. South Georgia or the Prince Edward Islands, for example, are not easy (and cheap :-) to reach. We have enough time to admire and photograph the cute animals. All at a distance of about 50m, so as not to disturb them. Unfortunately, close-ups like the ones in Antarctica were not possible. Nonetheless, a worthwhile visit. Aurora takes a lot of time to tell everything about the penguins and the project. We can feel her passion.


Now we are heading further south in Tierra del Fuego, this time on the Chilean side. We want to go as far south as possible. We only know that a road to Yendegaia is being built. The journey is long. On the gravel road we can only go at 40 km/h. Not too bad. We've seen worse. On the Chilean side of Tierra del Fuego, snow-capped mountains rise further south. The landscape turns from pampa without any vegetation and elevation, into forests and finally mountain ranges. That way it doesn't get boring, at least for the eyes. However, we want to feel the nature! We stop at Caleta Maria, a bay in the southeast of Tierra del Fuego. All we have to do is try to open the door and we can feel it - especially the 80 km/h wind gusts. The weather doesn't really feel like hiking. And boat tours are simply impossible.


Caleta Maria KaroKinka Nationalpark Feuerland Highlight
Caleta Maria - an unreal place



We continue towards the “end of the road”. The panorama is fantastic. Micha stops for a picture to capture the magical landscape. A fatal stop... the engine won't start. Oh dear! This has never happened to us with our extremely reliable Toyota. Not the best place for such an event. We haven't had mobile signal for more than 8 driving hours and seen anyone either. Only 14 km away, at Caleta Maria, we met Benjamin, who organizes boat tours in the summer, at his caravan. Micha's diagnosis - the starter battery is empty. A well-educated guess. We started the engine a few times that day and charged many of our batteries while driving. We are trying to transfer power from our "Housing LiPo battery" to the starter battery. I'm so glad that Micha knows how to put everything together. My solution would probably have been to run to Benjamin and ask for help. We bridge the waiting time with a coffee. Aaaaand - Hugo starts. What a relief!


At the end of the world, the best thing is help yourself.


Nonetheless, we continue driving into the wilderness. What the hell. Now we know how to help ourselves :-) After just a few kilometers we reach a barrier, the official end of the road. The road continues behind, construction work was probably going on somewhen. Unfortunately, the barrier is really well done. A combination lock secures it and all potential paths around are made impassable with stones and tree trunks - even for our off-road vehicle. We stop to walk a bit. Unfortunately, the trailhead of the hike we were looking into is about 10km away. This will not work. But at least we want get a bit further. As we put on our hiking boots, a pickup truck appears out of nowhere. Three men in camouflage look get out and speak to us in German. Really!?!? As we see bow and arrow on the pickup, the picture is perfect. Gert and his friends grew up in a German colony in Chile and are in Tierra del Fuego for hunting. The primary target are beavers, which are a real nuisance here. Since they were introduced in 1946, they have spread without natural enemies to such an extent that they have become a real ecological problem. There are only three species of trees on Tierra del Fuego, and none of them can survive in the swampy, damp soil created by beaver dams. The governments of Chile and Argentina decided in 2009 to extinct beavers in Tierra del Fuego. However, this plan failed. The inhabitants of the archipelago as well as animal rights organizations and tour operators who offer beaver hikes (really!) did not agree at all. Everywhere you can see traces of the rodents. Huge dams, tree trunks eaten away, hiking trails destroyed. You can't blame Gert and his friends for some "ecological shots".


After a nice chat we start walking… About 5 km further, we reach a base camp; the road workers are probably camped there. At first glance, unmanned. Suddenly 2, 3, 4 youths in military uniform are jumping out of the containers and approaching us. We explain that we want to hike. They reply that we cannot continue, the area is closed due to construction works using explosives. Finally the capo (that's what I call the man with the epaulettes, who later introduces himself as Durán) appears. He recommends a hike to the lagoon of the Svea Glacier. Funny, that's exactly the hike we initially planned. After a few minutes he picks us up with his truck and drops us off at the trailhead. Well, actually, in the middle of nowhere. He points in one direction, telling that we have to cross a river and then will find a path. OK. Probably he knows. We are crossing the river. The beavers did a great job providing some trunks. We just don't find a path. But we are experienced in bushwaking. And indeed, after one hour we are standing on the edge of the lagoon, with a mighty glacier above us! What a view. We have to laugh about so many strange, adverse and at the same time favorable circumstances that have led us there.


Svea Gletscher KaroKinka Chile Yendegaia Tierra del Fuego Feuerland
Svea Gletscher, end of the road


By the way, the way back is really easy. We actually find a path; not easy to see, as it is probably climbed by max 10 people a year, but professionally marked with cairns. Back on the road, the only thing left for us is walking. It's now 6 p.m. Saturday night. Nobody works there anymore. In Germany. In South America it’s different. A few minutes later a car stops. The boys are supposingly delivering a spare part for one of the machines. And so we actually have the honor of driving to the real end of the road! I can tell you, it'll be awesome. The panorama is breathtaking.


Strasse Richtung Yendegaia Y-85 Feuerland Karu Kinka Svea Gletscher
Y-85 road to Yendegaia - end of the road

The aim is to create a connection to Yendegaia in Chile. A port is to be built there, which will connect Puerto Williams, on the island of Navarino, by ferry. The men are working all year round, with any weather conditions, in 20-day shifts. Quite a big project - according to Durán it will take 7 years more to complete. We consider the forecast to be optimistic. The project was started in 2006, so far approx. 90 km of road have been built. According to our estimate, at least the same distance is still missing (bee-line). In any case, a worthwhile route. Chile is working hard to open up Tierra del Fuego for tourists. There seem to be political issues hindering cross-country cooperation with the neighboring Argentina, that has already created a much better infrastructure. This is also reflected in the fact that there are currently no ferries running from Ushuaia, Argentina, to Puerto Williams, Chile. For us, that means a long drive back to Punta Arenas, Chile, from where we fly in.


We split the approximately 10 hour drive up and take a break in the beautiful Valle de los Casteros on Tierra del Fuego. Many guanancos and wild horses are in this green valley. A peaceful place. And almost no wind! We can even bake bread outside. Priceless!


Valle de los Casteros Tierra del Fuego Chile Feuerland Karu Kinka
On the way to Valle de los Casteros


Now it's time to get back to civilization, to Punta Arenas. We are preparing for our next adventure - the southernmost trekking in the world, Dientes de Navarino.

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