More like 'Land of Beautiful Mountain Views, Flat Coastal Hikes and Quiet Campsites', but we're not complaining
After 10 weeks of riding dubious collectivos, hiking perilous cliffside trails and pitching our tent everywhere from under the desert sun to in pouring snow, we found ourselves looking forward to closing out the South American leg of our trip with a more a laid-back national park experience. A short (30 minutes) but expensive ($100 USD pp) ride on a tiny ferry got us from Puerto Williams, Chile to Ushuaia, Argentina and within striking distance of Tierra del Fuego National Park.
Ushuaia is a small, friendly port town that serves as a jumping-off point for the Antarctica tourism industry and for us became a welcome stopover in our time between continents. We came in through the Argentinian dock customs (easily the most laid back in all of South America) and headed, as all tourists do, to the centrally-located Ushuaia Tourism Information Center. For such an out-of-the-way place, they were exceptionally well prepared for backpackers and set us up with maps of the national park, a list of hostels in the area and as much free wifi as we wanted. It was a welcome change from having to nurse a cup of coffee in a cafe to use the internet and even nicer to already have a map in hand of where we wanted to go. This, it turned out, was especially important in Ushuaia where prices have dramatically inflated to take advantage of the steady supply of tourists and even coffee houses were no exception.
Tierra del Fuego National Park, named for the fires that the native Yagan people lit on its shores, sits just outside of town but feels a world away. While the streets of Ushuaia run thick with parka-clad tourists, king crab buffets and even a Hard Rock Cafe, a short 20-minute shuttle ride (arranged by our hostel, $40USD pp, round trip) took us past the outskirts of town, and almost immediately into a densely-wooded, undulating coastal forest. Gravel roads meandered through the cloudy hills and from behind the shifting mists one could see the edges of huge mountains hanging over the waterways that form the park's southern boundary.
The logistics of getting in and around the park aren't too hard- Tierra del Fuego isn't too big and drivers seem generally amenable to picking up hitchhikers for short rides in and around the park. This is made up for in the less-than-generous entrance fee ($30pp) that allows you admission into the park and to camp for no more than 2 nights. Unfortunately, our plan had been to camp for longer and save money, so this sped-up timetable meant we had to move faster and could not relax as much.
The park has several camping areas and we opted for the one by Ensenada Bay because it was centrally located and so that we could tackle more of the hikes that we had our eyes on. Sadly, it was the least stunning of the sites but was definitely the quietest- on our first night we were the only two in the entire campground (a welcome change) and on the second night we shared it with only two groups: one group of Chileans and a pair of British researchers returning from Antarctica. Thick tree cover separates the 6 camping spots and a small, muddy stream winds around the perimeter. We found horse sign everywhere but saw none in person- funnily enough, it was foxes that the rangers warned us about, telling us not to leave any food in our tent or anywhere that it could be stolen.
What can the fox steal?
The first day there we hiked up a short trail from the campsite to a bluff overlooking the Beagle Channel. In addition to being sticklers for campground check-out times, the Argentinian parks department also has a flair for educational displays and had one of the better bits of trail signage that we had seen in months: as we hiked up towards the bluff, placards with a digitally rendered tree (complete with a face) dispensed educational tidbits about forest health and watersheds. Upon reaching the top, there was simply a sign that said 'Welcome!' with the same tree (minus the face) standing there in real life. It was an uncommon bit of panache for a South American park and we were surprised to encounter it.
The (Information) Giving Tree
On our second day we headed out on the beautiful Coastal Hike, that leaves from the nearby Ensenada Bay and follows the coast for several hours. This hike proved to have some of the best views of the park as it wound through low forest and over rocky rises, bringing the jagged coast in close and then veering back away into the hills. We enjoyed the beaches covered in tidal pools and shells, curious hawk-like birds and some steady winds...
Banner over the Beagle Channel
Coastal Trail View
Essential backpacking gear, as always
The easy coastal hike was a nice change from some of our more recent trekking adventures (we had been in the Dientes only 3 days earlier!) especially when we were able to hitchhike back from the trails' terminus. It's worth noting that in addition to the signed tree hike, Tierra del Fuego also has an excellent bilingual informational center about the area's ecology and history, a bird hide and a restaurant, making it the most in-depth and informative park that we visited in South America.
Tierra del Fuego ended up being an excellent final stopover before we began travelling in earnest again. It was easy to navigate, relatively cheap to get around in (cheaper than in town at least) and a real pleasure to explore. While not as dramatic and dangerous as other parks to the north, it makes up for the calmer waters and gentler peaks with thoroughly enjoyable day hiking and a rich interpretive aspect.
Tierra del Fuego National Park, By the Numbers
Nights spent in the park: Only 2, and the ranger actually came around to check
Varieties of postcards for sale at the 'Post Office at the End of the World' inside the park: At Least 50
Could you actually do all the hikes in the park with the 48 hours your permit gets you: Yes, but only if you're trying to prove something
Strange, hawk-like birds that stalked us while we had lunch on the beach: 3, and it was as weird as it sounds
So how many parks in South America was that in the end: If you count the Dientes de Navarino (and we do), then Tierra del Fuego National Park was #10