Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego

Tierra del Fuego is an archipelago off the southernmost tip of the South American mainland. The name means ‘Land of Fire’ in Spanish and was coined in 1520 by the explorer Ferdinand Magellan, the first European to discover the area, and refers to the many bonfires which the local inhabitants had burning and which he could see from his ship.

Human habitation is thought to go back at least 8,000 years and even for 350 years after Magellan’s voyage the area was left in the hands of its indigenous people.  But after 1880 colonization by Chilean and Argentine nationals was sparked by the introduction of sheep farming and the discovery of gold.  An increasing stream of adventurers arrived bringing conflict, persecution and infectious diseases to which the natives had no immunity. Today descendants of the original inhabitants are few in number.

In 1881 a boundary was agreed upon giving Argentina and Chile each a portion of the area.  The main island, Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego, which is 48,100 sq km (18,572 sq mls) in total, is divided giving Argentina the larger eastern portion, and Chile the western section, plus the islands south of the main island and separated from it by the Beagle Channel.  The Chilean section of Isla Grande contains the mountain range known as the Cordillera Darwin which contains many glaciers that reach the ocean.  Its highest peak is Mount Darwin at 2,488 metres (8,163 feet). 

Only 30% of the islands have forests.  The northeast is made up of steppe and cool semi-desert, while the southernmost islands possess a sub-antarctic climate typical of tundra that makes the growth of trees impossible.  However six species of tree are found in Tierra del Fuego, mainly evergreen except for two types of southern beech.  Drimys winteri (winter’s bark or canelo) is a dominant tree in the coastal evergreen forests.

Wildlife in the area is notable for its birds and sea mammals.  Among the former are austral parakeets, kingfishers, condors, king penguins, owls and firecrown hummingbirds.  The waters around the archipelago are home to whales of many different types including southern right, humpback, blue and southern minke.  Also inhabiting the area are South American sea lions, South American fur seals, leopard seals and southern elephant seals.

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