The very word “Patagonia” conjures a primal connection for travelers; you can practically smell the adventure. But there’s a place past Patagonia, beyond it and yet still part of it that remains even more untouched. Tierra Del Fuego (“land of fire”) encompasses the extreme southern tip of Argentina and Chile, a knotty archipelago choked with sky-high fjords, tumbling tidewater glaciers pouring off the Southern Icefield, and albatrosses battling for airspace with condors.
The name comes from when Ferdinand Magellan spied smoke rising from countless fires set by the Yamana locals on his fatal voyage around the world. Those fires still burned almost 300 years later, when Charles Darwin mapped the area with Captain Robert Fitzroy. He spent years navigating what he called “the drowned Andes,” scribbling notes that would later birth The Origin of Species.
The Yamana fires are gone, but outside of the departure town of Ushuaia the landscape remains remarkably unchanged — and that includes the daunting barriers to access that keep Tierra del Fuego blissfully free of Torres Del Paine-style crowds. Mauricio Álvarez has spent his entire life exploring the empty mountain passes and waterways of Tierra del Fuego — a Montana-size backyard to his home base of Punta Arenas. As a director for cruise charter Australis and a private guide, he specializes in giving visitors a taste of the wildest South America has to offer. When not planning ship-based excursions for Australis or leading clients to mountain-ringed lakes, he helps universities around the world conduct research into the understudied flora and fauna of the region.
“Honestly, we know more about Antarctica than we know about this place,” he says. “This is a chance to truly experience the end of the world.”
Patagonian high season is December through March, but April might be the best time to visit. Wild weather is the hallmark of extreme South America any time of year: high winds plus epic rain and snow or hail threaten outdoor travelers even in the summer months. But April often experiences larger windows of settled weather. The amount of visitors drops off, too — meaning you just might get a glacier all to yourself.
Rain and wind are constants in Tierra del Fuego, so shells and insulation are necessary items, even for front-country adventures. But there’s an extra concern: Tierra Del Fuego sits just under the hole in the planet’s ozone layer, meaning UV protection is of paramount importance. Beyond high-powered sunscreen make sure to wear full coverage shirts like the Vista Chill Expedition Long-Sleeve Shirt, even on cloudy days. Adding a Wick-Ed Cool Sun Hat will help keep your face and ears free from burns as well — essential gear when spotting condors on bright, long southern-latitude days.
Tierra del Fuego by Sea
While Ushuaia remains a departure point for plenty of Antarctic cruises, on the Stella Australis you’ll soon lose them as you navigate the tight waterways of Tierra Del Fuego, following the historic routes along Darwin’s Beagle Channel and Magellan’s namesake strait over four days, departing from either Ushuaia, Argentina, or Punta Arenas, Chile. A trip on the Stella brings a unique privilege: They’re the only operator licensed to navigate these waters, and they have the only permit to land on Cape Horn, the southernmost point in the world that isn’t Antarctica. Weather permitting, you’ll bounce by zodiac to the treeless, rugged island, where a short boardwalk hike takes you through endemic plant species to a sunrise overlook and a giant albatross monument to all the sailors who’ve died navigating the treacherous Cape Horn.
In between gourmet meals of Southern king crab and traditional lamb and steak asado, you’ll also disembark to visit historic Wulaia Bay, a Darwin stop and home to a Yamana settlement. Then cruise past the fjords and high peaks of Agostini National Park, where the ice-capped Darwin Range scrapes the sky and a day trip to the Aguila Glacier brings visitors within spitting distance of these frozen rivers. On the final day, a stop at Magdalena Island allows you to walk among a hundred-thousand-strong colony of squawking Magellanic penguins. Upon disembarking in Punta Arenas, we challenge you not to get back on and ride back the other way (which, incidentally, you can do).
Tierra Del Fuego by Land
While several national parks protect the lenga forests and inlets of Tierra del Fuego, access is a problem: Few have trails or even towns nearby, and many remain essentially closed to visitors. Overland travel in Tierra Del Fuego is for the truly adventurous.
Tierra Del Fuego National Park, in Argentina, is the rare exception. A short cab or shuttle ride from Ushuaia, Argentina, drops you off in the park, where a few trails offer an opportunity to explore the region’s diverse ecosystems. An 8-kilometer coastal path winds past quiet bays and forests filled with giant Magellanic woodpeckers to overlooks across the Beagle Channel to the sharp peaks of Isla Hoste. The 5-kilometer Pampa Alta trail offers panoramic views of the tundra and grassy highlands, while peakbaggers can ascend the challenging 8-kilometer climb up Guanaco Hill.
The Chilean side is even harder to access, but offers huge rewards for self-sufficient adventurers. An 8-hour drive from Punta Arenas (including a ferry to Porvenir) takes you to the remote and brand-new Karukinka Natural Park, where condors commingle with guanacos in the mountainous highlands. (On the way, don’t forget to pull over in Bahia Inútul to stop and see a colony of noisy king penguins.) Two lodges on the edges — at Lago Deseado and Lago Fagnano — offer comfortable cabins close to trout-filled lakes and glacier-topped mountain vistas. In April (Fuegian fall), rust-colored lenga trees coat the ridges. Look for calafate bushes, sweet blue berries on thorny bushes said to come with a powerful prophecy: One taste and you’ll be destined to return.