Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Tour of Chilean Tierra del Fuego, January 2017

(click any image to enlarge)

Tierra del Fuego, or Fireland in English, is a name given to the big island to the south of the Strait of Magellan. The island is shared by Argentina on the east, and Chile on the west. The indigenous Selknam people, inhabitants of this windswept land for 12,000 years, were known to build large fires that were seen by Spanish explorers looking for a passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific in 1520.

I had the good fortune to tour the island with Marcelo Noria of Andes Fuegina, a professional guide and mountaineer who lives on the island. He is tenacious about developing a sustainable and responsible tourist industry on Tierra del Fuego. He was my driver, cook, teacher, caretaker, and dear friend for four days. The friendship part will continue long after this extraordinary journey.

The Selknam built stone barriers along the coastline to trap fish at low tide. These barriers are still visible, and were probably used into the early 20th century.

The Selknam probably numbered 4,000 at any one time, and their main source of food was the guanaco, a camelid relative of the llama. The guanaco provided meat, skins for clothing, bones for tools, and sinew for bow strings. Unfortunately for the Selknam and the guanaco, European settlers wanted the land for raising sheep, and massive estancias were created at the end of the 19th century. The indigenous people were viewed as pests and were annihilated. By 1930, these people who lived in complete harmony with their environment, ceased to exist, due to European disease and slaughter.

The first sheep ranch on the island was Estancia Josefina, established in 1894. The administrator was Alexander Cameron from New Zealand, famous for leading the campaign against the Selknam. Here is the current shearing shed, still in use. Sheep farming is lucrative in this gently rolling arid steppe.

The road is not paved, at times gravel, but usually is compacted earth on top of gravel. We will travel over 450 miles round trip in four days.

A visit to the king penguin colony along the coast of Bahía Inútil is a must for every tourist passing by. I apologize for the lack of a zoom shot. These animals stand stoically, guarding their eggs for several months.

We watch flamingos feeding in a lagoon near the road.

Our goal this day is to arrive at Karukinka Park, an important conservation effort administered by the Wildlife Conservation Society and funded by Goldman-Sachs. The park comprises 741,000 acres and reaches to the Admiralty Sound (Seno Almirantazco) in the south.

A three-room cabin is available to tourists. It contains a kitchen, bathroom with hot water, and living room besides the three bedrooms. You must bring your own food. The buildings here were part of the old Estancia Vicuña.

The next morning, we set out to hike the moderate Condor Imaginario hill, which has a spectacular view from the top. Our lodging is seen in the distance, to the right of center. The name of the hill is Imaginary Condor. When naming it, people had heard there were condor here but that day they found none. We saw one.

From the top of Condor Imaginario you can see Pietri Grandi, which we will climb two days later.

photo: Marcelo Noria

Our next goal was to drive south through the increasingly dense nothofagus (southern beech) forest. The landscape is increasingly mountainous. My mountaineer companion becomes more animated as we travel south. Below is a view of Valle Paciencia. There is an icy cold wind that Marcelo says is only a "Magellanic breeze." Click here for a short video. The reddish color of the valley floor represents "turba" or peat bog. Some beaver damage to the forest is also visible.

We arrive at the shore of Fagnano Lake and move into a rustic cabin at the local Estancia Fagnano, home of Germán Genkowsky, son of Polish immigrants who arrived in this desolate land in 1940. Don Germán was born here in 1946. The road only arrived about 2008. Before that there was only a horse trail. It took several days to arrive at his estancia.

Several years ago I was at the opposite end of the lake, 90 miles away, in Argentina. My dream was to arrive at the Chilean end. The lake is where the Scotia and South American tectonic plates meet. The Azopardo River drains the lake to the west, the Admiralty Sound and the Pacific Ocean. It is a land of superlatives. Don Germán's estancia is the only human settlement. The Argentine town of Tolhuin is at the opposite end.

The Chilean military is blasting a road through the rocky terrain, hoping to arrive at the southern shore of Tierra del Fuego at the Beagle Channel. They are now only about five miles south of Fagnano Lake. It will take several more years to complete the job.

We return the next day to Karukinka Park and our rustic lodging. Evidence of the environmental damage caused by beaver is evident wherever there is forest and running water. The animals were introduced here in the 1940s and have multiplied exponentially since then. 

Late in the afternoon we decide to climb Pietri Grandi mountain, so named for the great grandfather of don Germán Genkowsky from Fagnano Lake. Elevation is 5,000 feet via a trail of 4.3 miles. It took us 2.5 hours round trip. You can see almost all of Chilean Tierra del Fuego from the summit. Click here for a 360º view.

Dinner tonight is barbecue of freshly-trapped beaver brought in by the forest rangers at Karukina Park. They take measurements of the animals and occasionally use them for food but it's not a favored dish. I found it tasty but chewy. Best is to apply much salt and garlic.

Our last day is a long drive north, leaving the forest and entering the grassland steppe. At the town of Porvenir, we board the ferry to cross the Magellan Strait to Punta Arenas on the mainland. It was an unforgettable experience made all the more enriching by the expert knowledge and dedication of Marcelo Noria.

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