Tierra del Fuego

Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire) is a region that many people have heard of but far less would be able to pinpoint exactly on a map. Somewhere in the south of South America. In fact, it is an archipelago separated from the South American continent by the Strait of Magellan. On a world map, it is the far southern tip of South America.   

Ushuaia & Around

Ushuaia, the world’s southernmost city, is located on a beautiful bay surrounded by the majestic Martial mountain range. It is located at the Beagle Channel, named after the famous ship that carried Charles Darwin around South America. I am currently reading his superb book about the journey. Ushuaia is the main access point to the Southern Ocean and many of the cruises to Antarctica leave from here. I arrive the 8th of April and the last ship to Antarctica is leaving soon, it is autumn and the season is coming to an end. It will leave without me. I would love to go to Antarctica, I have never met anyone who was not impressed by this continent. Travelling there is expensive though, usually the trips start at around 7000 $. Very rarely, cheaper last-minute opportunities are available in Ushuaia but not this time.

Arriving to Ushuaia is like reaching the end of the South American continent, it is a turning point, I have travelled south most of the time but from now on, I will travel north. In fact, it is possible to travel further south to the village of Puerto Williams in Chile but it is not set up for tourism as easily. In France, Ushuaia is a symbol for remoteness, there was a long-running TV show called Ushuaia Nature, that presented another far-away place each week. In my memory, Ushuaia is a place of great beauty that I would always love to go back to.  

The Cruz del Sur hostel is neat. Everywhere are signs what you are allowed to do and what not. It is well thought out though and there is everything you need. As we come back from a hostel-organized trip to the beautiful Laguna Esmeralda the owner awaits us with several brushes and directs us straight to the back of the house where we can clean our shoes. No dirt inside, please. He can be an idiot though as well, berating a French girl for not knowing how to speak Spanish. He himself speaks very little English and no French. Generally, I am surprised how little English is spoken in South America, knowing some Spanish definitely helps.  

I hike up the mountain to the Martial Glacier behind Ushuaia to get a view over the city and the Beagle Channel. Clouds cover the ocean but as the sun gets stronger, they disappear and it makes sense to take the afternoon boat to see the birds and seals around the Les Eclaireurs Islands with the cute lighthouse. The next day, there is a general strike and no transportation is running. Reminiscing about my time in Argentina, it is striking how many protests I encountered. I rent a bike to cycle along the coast to the Tierra del Fuego National Park, bikes are allowed to pass at the roadblocks.

A sign at the Port of Ushuaia declares that British vessels (which it calls “British Pirate Ships”) are not welcome here. All over Argentina, the 1982 Falklands War comes into mind when stumbling upon memorials and declarations that the Falkland Islands are Argentinian territory (“Las Malvinas Son Argentinas”). To be honest, it makes me angry. We are talking about a war that Pink Floyd dedicated the following lines to: “Galtieri took the Union Jack, and Maggie, over lunch one day, took a cruiser, with all hands, apparently, to make him give it back. Ouhouhouhouhouh, ouhouh. Take all your overgrown infants away somewhere, and build them a home, a little place of their own. The Fletcher Memorial, home for incurable Tyrants and Kings.”

The Falkland Islands is a windswept group of islands about 400 km east of Tierra del Fuego. Combined, they have a territory of about 12,000 square kilometres making them slightly bigger than Jamaica or the Lebanon. Despite this, they have a population of only 3,000 people. It has long been an obscure group of islands with no permanent inhabitants where ships would occasionally land to take fresh water or to claim the territory for various empires (French, British, Spanish, later for Argentina). It ended up in British hands and for a long time Argentina did not care, on Argentinian maps the islands were marked as British territory. In the 1940s that began to change and from 1965 onwards the British and Argentinian governments began negotiations over the future of the islands. The British government was in principle ready to cede control of the far-away islands but demanded autonomy rights for the population of the Falklands who had never lived under Argentinian rule and who were not interested in coming under Argentinian sovereignty. Various Argentinian governments rejected these autonomy rights and requested full control of the islands. With Argentina coming under military rule, the window to find a solution basically closed. Nonetheless, in practical matters the Falklands were connected to the outside world by the Argentinian State Airline operated by the military. 

In 1982, the military dictatorship under General Leopoldo Galtieri came to consider a quick military victory as a good way to make Argentinians forget about the desolate economic situation and the human rights violations all over the country. The Falklands were basically unsecured, British Prime Minister Margarete Thatcher confessed that she didn’t think Argentina would be as stupid as to take military action, and were quickly taken over by the Argentinian forces.

Argentina’s decision to use military force was widely condemned. Britain, despite previously giving many indications that they would be ready to cede control of the territory, in fact many Falklanders had feared a “sell-out”, decided to fight back. No easy feat tens of thousands of kilometres away from home and thousands of kilometres away from the next military base but after two months, the islands were firmly back under British control. The single most deadly incident was the sinking of the cruiser General Belgrano that left 323 sailors dead. In total, 3 Falkland Islanders, 255 British citizens and 649 Argentinians lost their lives for absolutely nothing. The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges has fittingly described the war as “a fight between two bald men over a comb”.

That’s why the constant reminders about the “Malvinas” in Argentina make me angry. I do not, in any way, object to Argentinians mourning their dead. I do object though to claims on the islands. These claims have been renewed by every Argentinian government since the defeat of 1982 and are mainly used, at least in my eyes, to distract from political problems at home. I get especially angry when pictures from the war are subtitled with slogans like “As inanimate soldiers, well lined, the bullets are ready to feed the cannons that wait in the trenches.” What the f***! The memorial in Ushuaia contains the following lines: “The people of Ushuaia to those… who with their blood watered the roots of our sovereignty on the Falkland Islands… Let’s go back!!!” Nationalism clearly gone astray. The claim on the Falklands is massively popular though and even most left-leaning Argentinians, of which there seem to be many, are absolutely certain that British control of the Falklands is a massive injustice. They do not seem to care what the Falkland Islanders want, and they do not seem to realize that even if Argentina would take control of the islands under the mantle of decolonization, they would, in fact, just replace one colonial power with another. For me, making claims on the Falkland Islands is a sign of a failure to critically engage with Argentina’s history.

King Penguins

The general strike is over and buses are leaving Ushuaia again. The ride to Punta Arenas is one of the most boring of my life. It takes all day; the windows are all steamed up because of the weather, the road is bad and the landscape is flat and boring. After several hours we cross the border to the Chilean part of Tierra del Fuego. Chile takes it seriously that you are not allowed to bring in any fresh foodstuffs. All bags are x-rayed at the control post and a dog is sniffing around. He somehow likes my backpack. The border guard takes me aside. I tell him about the vinegar and the olive oil I have but that is not fresh. He asks me if I have anything else. No, I do not. He let’s me go without checking my bag. As we take the ferry over the Strait of Magellan, we leave Tierra del Fuego behind. The strait is only about three kilometres wide at this point but the ship is fully seaworthy, indicating how rough the seas can get in this area.

The next day, I am already back on Tierra del Fuego. There is a small colony of king penguins, that I am desperate to see. It is the only colony outside obscure islands in the Southern Ocean. Together with a few guys I had met in Ushuaia we rent a car and take a ferry back. The penguins are amazing although you have to keep quite a distance. I forgot my zoom lens but the only other visitors have brought a perfect lens for my camera that they allow me to use. How nice.