A Park at the Planet’s Edge: Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego National Park
If this scene reminds you of what the edge of the world might look like, it’s because it’s close.
This is the view over Lapataia Bay at the southeastern corner of Tierra del Fuego National Park, a body of water that extends towards the Beagle Channel which itself leads towards the Southern Ocean north of Antarctica.
It’s also very much the end of the proverbial road, the end point of Argentina’s National Ruta (NR) 3 and as such the southern terminus of the Pan-American Highway. Alaska is 17,848 kilometers (11,090 mi) due north. Coupled with nearby Martillo Island on the Beagle Channel, it’s the furthest south I’ve ever set foot.
(It’s also the furthest south I’ve ever suffered from diarrhea, but that’s a story for another time. I hide it well, don’t I?)
That’s the case for most travelers who reach these windswept, isolated reaches of Tierra del Fuego, the large landmass and archipelago that was sliced from South America by the frozen waters of the Magellan Strait some 9,000 years ago. The area had already been inhabited for about two millennia by then, primarily by the nomadic hunter-gatherer Yaghan (aka Yagán, Yahgan, Yámana or Yamana).
They were all but wiped out from the area by 1960 when Tierra del Fuego National Park was established to protect 630 square kilometers of one of Argentina’s –and the world’s– most diverse landscapes, an impossibly beautiful melding of alpine lakes, glaciers, jagged summit peaks, southern beech forest, swampy peat bogs and subantarctic tundra. It stretches along the border with Chile, from the Beagle Channel to the south to Lago Fagnano to the north.
The vast majority of those 155,000 acres are off limits to the public, but a nice cross section is not. It’s designed primarily with day-trippers in mind; situated just 12km from Ushuaia, the world’s southernmost city, it’s easy to get to as well. If you’ve come this far, there’s no reason not to go another dozen kilometers further.
The area open to visitors is broken down into three main areas: the Lapataia Bay area to the south, Bahía Ensenada and Río Pipo to the east, near the entrance, and Lago Roca (Acigami) to the west. I arrived early enough in the morning to manage to cover much of the first and third, both lower elevation areas.
Hiking in Tierra del Fuego National Park
With most of the park off-limits, most visitors to stay near the shores of the lake and bay. Trails are well-maintained and well-marked, with the map in the brochure you’ll receive upon entry detailed enough to adequately guide you.
Some of the trails on offer:
Pampa Alta Trail – A 5km (3.2mi) walk offering a bird’s eye view of The Beagle Channel and the Pipo River Valley. Begins at the Ensenada Bay campsite and follows Piloto Creek. One hour. Moderate.
Costera Trail – An 8km (5mi) trail that largely follows the shoreline of Lapataia Bay before crossing inland and ending at Roca (Acigami) Lake. Three hours. Moderate.
Hito XXIV Trail – A 7km (43mi) walk that begins along the northwest shore of Roca (Acigami) Lake and ends at a marker on the Argentine-Chilean border. Crossing the border is prohibited. Three hours. Moderate.
Cerro Guanaco Trail – A 4km (2.5) hike to the summit of Cerro Guanaco (973m /3192ft) from Roca (Acigami) Lake. Steep at times. Four hours. Moderate/strenuous.
And in the Lapataia area, the park’s most visited, several shorter more family friendly walks:
Paseo de la Isla (The Island Hike) – a 600m (0.4mi) trail along the Cormoranes archipelago along the banks of the Lapataia and Ovando Rivers. A good spot for birding. Easy.
Laguna Negra Trail – a 1k (0.6mi) trail to a peat bog. Easy.
Mirador Lapataia (lookout) – a 1km (0.6mi) trail offering a panoramic view of Lapataia Bay pictured above. This trail connects with Del Turbal (see below) offering the option of reaching the bay through a deciduous beech forest. Easy.
Del Turbal (Peat bog hike) – a 2km (1.2mi) trail that also leads to Lapataia Bay via a peat bog. Easy.
Castorera (Beaver Lodge hike) – a 500m (0.3mi)) hike to an active beaver colony that allows easy observation of the impact that this non-native species has had on the area. Easy.
Above and below is Acigami, a lake shared by Argentina and Chile, facing west. Few lakes on the planet are situated further south. It’s about 11km long with an average width of 1.5km; two-thirds of the lake lies within Chile where it’s known as Lago Errazuriz. It was called Lago Roca by Argentineans until 2008 when its aboriginal name, which means “elongated basket” in Yaghan, was officially restored.
On the day of my visit the conditions were typically Tierra del Fuegan: partly sunny, overcast, chilly and warm, with some rain and lots of wind. In short, a three season experience within a matter of a handful of hours. That also shows in the photos here, some dominated by dark and heavy clouds and others by simple white puffs. Dress for rain because you’ll likely get at least a little wet.
Elevations in the park range from sea level at Lapataia Bay to the 1450m (4757ft)-high summit of Monte Vinciguerra, with the landscape dominated by Antarctic beech and mossy lenga beech trees, the latter native specifically to the Andes.
For those on the lookout for wildlife, the most common sightings will involve the area’s rich bird life. Following the shoreline, I observed and followed several Upland or Magellan geese (Chloephaga picta), below. Males are gray and white, females darker with chestnut heads.
Magellanic woodpeckers (Campephilus magellanicus) are also fairly common; here’s one I crossed paths with further north in El Chalten.
My visit was marred by lots of mosquitoes, fairly aggressive ones too. They’re generally considered an anomaly, but are becoming more frequent. But don’t let that stop you. Just pick up some repellant on your way to the bus station. Speaking of which…
Day trip organizers are plentiful in Ushuaia, with several offering organized day trips to the park. But the easiest way is with Transporte Lautaro or Transporte Ushuaia who alternate hourly buses daily between 9am and 4 pm to two different drop-off and pick-up points in the park. Keep in mind that the tickets are not interchangeable: you’ll have to return with the same company that delivered you. US $18 (round trip) as of late 2015. You can book at your hotel or hostel or most tourist agencies and outfitters.
Admission to the park is 140 Argentine Pesos (US$ 9.75, EUR 8.63) for non Argentine nationals, 40 Argentine Pesos for Argentine citizens.
Another option is the Tren del Fin del Mundo from Ushuaia; my local hosts described it as a “completely touristy” seven-kilometer experience but it does give train cognoscenti the bragging rights of traveling on the planet’s southernmost steam train, one whose original purpose was to transport prisoners into the forest to chop trees. Remember: like its southern hemisphere cousin Australia at the other end of the Pacific, Ushuaia was founded as a prison colony.
I was disappointed that I wasn’t in a condition that would have allowed me to bike to the park. You feel the isolation as you draw near; that feeling is certainly amplified a dozen times if arriving slowly on two wheels.
There is no lodging within the park but there are four organized campgrounds offering free rustic sites at Río Pipo, Las Bandurrias, Laguna Verde and Bahía Ensenada. There is also a commercial site, Campamento Organizado Lago Roca, which offers hot showers, a restaurant, store and a refugio, or shelter, that accommodates up to 20.
Snacks, meals and souvenirs are also available at La Confiteria, near where most buses will drop you off and pick you up.
And finally a 110-second video notebook, with a pair of time lapses and a few odds and ends to give you a general feel.
I visited Tierra del Fuego National Park in February 2013; all the information provided here is current as of February 2016 and will be regularly updated. Have you visited lately? If so, I’d love to receive more more current information whenever available. Please get in touch.