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tierra del fuego


The province of Tierra del Fuego, Antarctica and South Atlantic Islands, established in 1991, is the youngest and southernmost of the Argentine provinces. Its capital, Ushuaia, is located on the northern shore of the Beagle Channel; in Yamana language it means "bay that penetrates deep into the west" (or facing the east, which is more or less the same).

Ushuaia was formally founded in 1884 but, in truth, the first white settlers (a group of Anglican missionaries) had settled there in 1869. Since then and until well into the twentieth century, Ushuaia was little more than a frontier town, a kind of outpost that moved first to the rhythm of the prison (the infamous "Jail of the End of the World") and later due to the establishment of the naval base and port. But from the late '70s and, indeed, from the 80's, Ushuaia has changed rapidly to become what it is today: a city.

The population of Tierra del Fuego has grown remarkably over the last thirty years. The city of Rio Grande, historically dedicated to serving the needs of the farms, became a center of industrial development and a major service center for oil and gas activity. Ushuaia, meanwhile, grew commercially and became one of the most prestigious destinations in Patagonia and the homeport for ships visiting Antarctica.


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In 1520, Ferdinand Magellan discovered the strait that bears his name and completed the first journey between the Atlantic and the Pacific (at that time, the South Sea). While they were sailing the strait, Magellan and his men saw to the south a series of fires along the coastline. And although it was not until a century later that it was discovered to be an island, the land south of the Strait of Magellan has been known as Tierra del Fuego or “Land of Fire”.

In 1570, Tierra del Fuego was rescued from oblivion by Francis Drake, the English privateer, and Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa, his pursuer, who led the first attempts to colonize the Strait of Magellan. During the early seventeenth century, the Dutch sailors came to Tierra del Fuego (including Willem Schouten and Isaac Le Maire, who discovered Cape Horn). And after them, sailors and vessels worldwide engaged in various activities such as exploration, land occupation, the search for trade routes, the hunting of seals and whales or piracy.

However, the true history of Tierra del Fuego had begun much earlier. The first humans arrived in Tierra del Fuego ten or twelve thousand years ago. These people entered the Americas fifteen or twenty thousand years ago via a wide expanse of land connecting northeastern Asia with northwestern North America during periods of glacial expansion and concomitant lower sea levels. As time passed, the descendants of these first settlers adjusted to the natural conditions of Tierra del Fuego . When Europeans arrived, the aboriginal groups living in Tierra del Fuego were four: Kaaweskar (canoe people living on the islands north of the Strait of Magellan); Selk'nam (land hunters distributed in northern and central Isla Grande) Yamana (canoe people living in the coastal area of the Beagle Channel) and the enigmatic Haush, who lived on the Mitre Peninsula.

The arrival of white men marked the beginning of the end for these groups. Their members were decimated not only by smallpox and other diseases brought by Europeans, but by the impact that the transformation of their cultural and value systems had on them. At present, a few descendants of those first Fuegians (particularly those who live on Navarino Island) are trying to rescue some vestiges of the language and culture of their ancestors.

If you pay attention, even today we can see the marks left by these early inhabitants. On the outskirts of Ushuaia and, in particular, along the paths of Tierra del Fuego National Park, you can see the remains of the "middens" (feeding sites) and "quarries" (places where they made their rock’s tools) of the Yamana. Furthermore, at the End of the World Museum you can see a collection of artefacts and photographs that allow us to reconstruct the lifestyle of the aborigines.


Scenically, Tierra del Fuego can be divided in four major areas. To the North, a steppe dominated mainly by seagrass (Festuca gracillima), interrupted by small patches of shrubs (Festuca magellanica). The composition of the shrub layer also involves some other species of the genus Poa , Hordeum and Carex. Other common plant formations are the Empetrum rubrum (murtilla), the Chiliotrichum difuss (mata negra) and the bolax.

The central zone combines both, areas of grassland and areas of beech tree forest (lenga-Nothofagus pumilio- and ñire-Nothofagus antárctica) . To the south , forest rules the vegetation of the area, the most common trees are lenga and guindo(Nothofagus betuloides), alternating with bushes of “calafate” (Berberis buxifolia). Here, the relief is abrupt and the coast is made up of a succession of steep cliff faces, rocky slopes and small beaches. To the east, from Estancia Moat and all along the coastline of peninsula Mitre, rainfall increases and gradually the forest becomes thicker mainly with guindos and canelos (Drymis winteri).

Finally, at altitudes above 600 m, we find the Andean Patagonian landscape with the presence of the typical species found along the Andes range.
The insular position of Tierra del Fuego has a moderating effect on the climate. The temperature range (both daily and annual) is not necessarily great, and the maximum and minimum temperatures are much milder than that of other places that share the same latitude in the northern hemisphere. The mean winter temperature ranges from 5 and 7 °C (Celsius degrees) and in summer from 10 to 12 °C. Rainfall is low in the steppe. Ushuaia, in contrast, receives 700 millimeters to 900 of rainfall, and Isla Grande and Staten Island more than 1.500 millimeters of rainfall per year. Snow occurs during the winter months, but occasionally it can occur at any time of the year.

Ushuaia and the southern area of Tierra del Fuego, is characterized by sudden climate changes. It is well known that you can have the four seasons in one same day.


Although Charles Darwin thought he saw tadpoles from the “Beagle´s deck”, there are no amphibians (toads or frogs) in Tierra del Fuego. You can only find a small number of reptiles. On the other hand, there are different groups of birds and marine mammals living on the island. Along the Beagle Channel, for example, you can see cormorants nesting on the cliffs, and on Isla Martillo (situated opposite Estancia Harberton), a small magellanic penguin colony (Spheniscus magellanicus). Along the coast you can find some birds like seagulls, skuas and petrels. And on the beach, oystercatchers searching for food, and various types of plovers (the “Costa Atlántica Natural Reserve” in San Sebastián Bay is one of the most important breeding areas for several species of coastal birds. )

Among the most distinctive mammals on the island, you can find the guanacos (Lama guanicoe) and the sea lions (Otaria flavescents). Or the incredible Commerson´s dolphin (Cephalorrynchus commersonii), the smallest of all cetaceans. If you´re lucky (and patient) you may have the chance to watch whales (southern right whale, minke or occasionally, the amazing sperm whale)

Rabbits and beavers, introduced with the idea of breeding, have perfectly adapted to the environment and live along the native fauna. In fact, the expansion of these two species has interfered with the natural ecosystem and is partially or directly responsible for the migration of some native species to wilder areas of the island