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Tierra del Fuego

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There is a land on the southernmost extremity of South America that is unique unto itself. It is an archipelago full of high mountains capped with snow. The first explorers saw the campfires of Native Americans here and they named it Tierra del Fuego, which is Spanish for Land of Fire.


The land stretches from Punta Arenas at Latitude 53.9° S, Longitude 70°55' W to Cape Horn at Latitude 55°58' S, Longitude 67°17' W, where the ocean is renowned for its fits of bad weather. Many ships throughout history (including the Whaling Ship Essex) have had a rough time trying to reach the Pacific Ocean by this route. Divided between Chile and Argentina, Tierra del Fuego includes all the islands between the straights of Magellan and the Drake Passage. The largest of these islands (Isla Grande) includes the City of Ushuaia which, being situated at 54°S, boasts that it is the southernmost city in the world.


The first Native Americans in Tierra del Fuego were members of four tribes. These were the Yaghan, the Ono, the Alacaloof, and the Aush. It was their fires that gave the region its name. When Magellan visited in 1520 the land south of his strait was known as Terra Australis Nondum Cognita and was believed to connect to an unknown continent at the South Pole. Today we call this continent Antarctica and there is some 600 miles of water separating it from America. Magellan did not know this. In 1578, Sir Francis Drake first set eyes on what is today called the Drake Passage after going through the Strait. At that time, it was thought that Terra Australis Nondum Cognita continued unbroken and the only connection between the Atlantic and Pacific was via narrow channels in an isthmus1. Drake failed to fully understand what he had seen, and he turned and went west. Later, in 1615, a Dutch navigator named Le Maire travelled from the East around the Cape, but he thought the small island to the east of his route was part of Terra Australis.

It wasn't until 1641, when Brower sailed east of Staten Island, that they finally decided that the connecting isthmus to the Southern Continent did not exist. Perhaps this 600-mile-wide stretch of water should have been named the Brower Passage. In 1769, Captain James Cook passed here on his way west, and in 1831 HMS Beagle (bearing naturalist Charles Darwin) made a closer study of the land, passing through what is now called the Beagle Channel. In warmer climates colonisation followed quickly but Tierra del Fuego remained without colonists into the 19th Century. It was then that a missionary named Thomas Bridges started a family there. The livestock and sheep which they raised had to be brought in from elsewhere.

Modern Tierra del Fuego

In modern Tierra del Fuego, the native language is Spanish, but many people also speak English. During all seasons, world travellers come to Ushuaia as tourists. In the Winter (June through September) it is a ski resort, and in the summer a seaport and a jumping off place for anyone wanting to visit Antarctica by the shortest route. It is a place of charm and incredible beauty and, like Punta Arenas, Ushuaia is accessible by both sea and air. Whether sailing in through the Beagle Channel or flying into its airport visitors will find Ushuaia a great place.

1A narrow piece of land with water on each side which joins two larger areas of land.

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