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Tierra del Fuego
Map of Tierra del Fuego
Public DomainMap of Tierra del Fuego - Credit: Harlock81

Tierra del Fuego: Land of Fire. The uttermost end of the earth. A graveyard for ships. 

Tierra del Fuego is an archipelago at the bottom of Patagonia, with a main island divided between Chile (29, 485 sq. km) and Argentina (18, 507 sq. km).

Many of the islands are uninhabitable and have a subantarctic climate; even the main island is subpolar, with temperatures rarely rising above 10ºC. The main towns are Rio Grande and Ushuaia (Argentina), and Punta Arenas and Porvenir (Chile). Chatwin visits them all. He also goes to Navarino Island and the Chilean naval base at Puerto Williams; Harberton on the Argentine side of the Beagle Channel; Cape Horn, the southernmost headland of Chile: Dawson Island on the Chilean side of the Strait of Magellan; and Puerto Natales, still in Chile. And he follows Charley Milward as he attempts to round the Cape and gets stranded on the South Shetland Islands (of no sovereignty).


Elephant Island
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeElephant Island - Credit: Wofratz

A brutal, sometimes terrifying place, Tierra del Fuego provokes contemplation, induces madness, and can inspire man to implausible acts of courage. Before the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 it was the only shipping route from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It attracted explorers, and they came to make their conquests. Many perished. It was 'discovered' by the white man in 1520 when Ferdinand Magellan became the first to navigate the treacherous Strait that would subsequently take his name. Tierra del Fuego had officially been 'found.' But Yaghan Indians had already been living there for 10,000 years, apparently in relative peace, and indeed it was their cooking fires seen from afar that inspired the Spanish name for the region.