The arrival of man on the island of Tierra del Fuego is estimated to have occurred 10,000 years ago. The Selk’nam are assumed to have been the first to arrive. The Selk’nam group who settled in the southern part of the island in what is now known as Ushuaia were called the Yaghan. Over the centuries there was conflict between the different tribes on the island, but they all shared relatively similar lifestyles. Some lived in temporary structures made from logs and sticks and focused most of their efforts on hunting guanaco. Others lived in more permanent housing along the coastline and collected some of their food from the sea. Many tribes became expert canoe builders and placed their trust in their workmanship by venturing out into the rough waters surrounding the island. It is impressive that these tribes flourished in the extreme weather conditions of the region.
Fast forward to 1520 when the Portuguese explorer, Ferdinand Magellan, sailing for the Spanish Crown arrived to what would become known as the Straits of Magellan. There are several stories revolving around how the island got its name. One states that Magellan saw the fires of the Yaghan and became nervous that they were waiting to ambush him. So he named it the Land of Smoke which was later changed to Land of Fire.
Jump ahead again to 1833. On January 29th, 1833 the HMS Beagle under the command of a familiar name, Robert Fitz-Roy, reached the channel on which Ushuaia now sits. Fitz-Roy had employed a young scientist named Charles Darwin to join him on his journey. Due to the fame the expedition would later gain the channel was named the Beagle Channel. The first non-indigenous people to settle in Tierra del Fuego were British missionaries. It wasn’t until 1873 that the first Argentinian citizens arrived in Ushuaia. Their names were Juan and Clara Lawrence. They moved south to teach. They among others had been encouraged by Julio Argentino Roca (who later served two terms as president) to settle in Tierra del Fuego with hopes of securing Argentina’s legitimacy and sovereignty in the region. Roca also encouraged the creation of a penal colony. Not only would this help the previously stated goal, but it was also a practical move. If criminals escaped, where would they go? They couldn’t survive the rough weather conditions on their own and swimming off the island wasn’t going to happen. Only a few did end up escaping. Several returned on their own accord to avoid freezing and starvation. One made it to Chile only for the Chilean authorities to return him to Ushuaia. One was never accounted for again, but it is assumed he died.
More settlers came with hopes of striking it rich in a supposed gold rush. Unfortunately for them the rumors of gold were just that, rumors. So many of them turned to sheep farming. Later on the Argentinian government made the province of Tierra del Fuego a tax free zone to encourage more citizens to relocate and to encourage companies to place their factories there. As a result most of Argentina’s manufacturing takes place in Tierra del Fuego, especially that of electronics.
Ushuaia itself is a popular resort town for skiing and the main hub in the world for tourists and expeditions heading to Antarctica. It is considered the southernmost city in the world. Chile does have a town to the south of Ushuaia, but it isn’t a city! Our time there was shared with our Swiss friends, Martina and Raphael, as well as Nico’s little brother, Fabrizzio. We went to the prison, the national park, and took a boat ride to see a penguin colony. If you ever want to plan a trip to Antarctica, I highly recommend going to Ushuaia and booking it from there. The prices I saw were SUBSTANTIALLY cheaper than anything you could book online or from another country. I met a retired couple who had just done a 18 day trip around the Falkland Islands/Malvinas, to South Georgia, and then onto Antarctica. Their stories and pictures made me incredibly jealous. The sheer number of penguin species they saw alone would make you want to do the trip.
So what are you waiting for? Start saving and make visiting the bottom of the world one of your action items. Just make sure you bring sea-sickness pills. The seas get pretty rough in those parts.