Guest Post: Trekking in Tierra del Fuego with Kaitlyn Rose Tierney

Itineraries are for suckers. With enough traveling, you quickly learn that careful planning leads to tremendous disasters, and just showing up and figuring out what to do is one of the more joyful and rewarding decisions you can make. It's why I get along so well with Kaitlyn. She fiercely craves freedom and independence, and her commitment to making international traveling as low-impact as possible lead her to a wonderful adventure through South America with just her pack and hiking boots, spending weeks hitchhiking, making new friends, riding busses, and making her way as far south as possible. I'm stoked to feature her adventures here, so enjoy the first of much more to come.

I arrived in Ushuaia on a Sunday. Sundays in Latin American countries are slow-paced, joyful, relaxing—everyone pauses from their usual routine to partake in leisurely pleasures. It’s a lovely practice, but arriving on a Sunday was never my intention. I was in Ushuaia with no plans, no form of transport, and in need of fuel for my camp stove. But of course, everything was closed. I suspected as much, but a short walk down the main drag downtown confirmed my suspicions. 

When well-laid plans go awry, a bit of improvisation comes into play. Without any way to prepare food or get clean water, I quickly walked back into town, away from the mountains that were calling to me. Delaying my backpacking trip even further was a bit heartbreaking, but when I got settled in at Yakush Hostel and started chatting with the other travelers and helpful hostel staff, I knew everything would work out for the best. I dropped my pack down, grabbed my camera, and headed out for a hike with a new friend.

From downtown Ushuaia, heading in any direction will take you somewhere beautiful. Tierra del Fuego National Park lies a short bus right to the west. Martial Glacier is to the north, walkable from anywhere in town. To the east, beautiful pristine coastland looks over the Beagle Channel, dotted intermittently with old, abandoned estancias—relics of late 19th century pioneers and sheep ranchers. We started at Playa Larga, a few kilometers west of the city center, and followed a hiking trail along the coast. After a lovely afternoon ambling through the wind-swept trees and climbing in the ruins of Estancia Tunel, an ornery stallion  blocked our path, letting us know it was time to make our way back.

The people in Tierra del Fuego are utterly lovely, welcoming and kind. We hitched a ride back to town with a small family, squeezing in the back of their sedan next to their young child, while the family dog perched on my lap. At the trailhead and along the road back, we passed plenty of touring cyclists. If you’re cycling down the Spine, I can’t think of a prettier place to pitch camp than the grassy beachside knolls of Playa Larga.   

As soon as the shops opened up Monday morning, I picked up some fuel for my stove and hopped on a bus to the national park. It’s a short ride—and an easy pedal, if you’re lucky enough to have a bike with you. Once in the park, I hiked up the 8-km Costera Trail, which winds along the shoreline of Zaratiegui and Lapataia Bays before cutting up through evergreen beech and winter’s bark forests. The trail meets back up with the main road just before the Lapataia River, but it’s possible to daisy chain some smaller trails to avoid car traffic en route to the free campsites on the other side of the river. Past the campgrounds are many other little trails, probably about another 4-5km or so, traversing beaver dams and peat bogs.

A brief aside about those beavers: 50 beavers were introduced to the region in 1946 to form a breeding colony, supplying pelts for the fur trade. As history has shown countless times, introducing invasive species onto islands with no natural predators is a recipe for ecological disaster. Tierra del Fuego’s 200,000 beavers are slated for extermination, but the havoc they’ve wreaked on the landscape can’t be rolled back so easily. I hiked all afternoon and didn’t spot a single beaver, but the destruction wrought was evident throughout the park in the form of countless dead tree stumps and flooded waterways. 

Aside from the Costera Trail, the other main trails in the park are Hito XXIV (7 km roundtrip) and Cerro Guanaco Trail (4 km one-way). Hito XXIV follows the shores of Lago Roca all the way to the Chilean border, while Cerro Guanaco goes straight up—and happens to be the only way to get above the tree line for the views I wanted. I was pretty dead-set on getting up high, so I ignored the “Closed” signs at the trailhead and just hopped the barrier, unsure of what I’d find beyond, but pretty sure I’d at least find the solitude I needed and the sweeping vistas I craved. I was also hoping to spot some wildlife… perhaps the eponymous guanaco? 

The trail started out steeply and I soon hit some dicey creek crossings. As I scrambled over fallen trees and hopped boulders,  I resolved to follow the trail as far as I could, but realized that summiting was likely not going to be possible. A few more crossings and steep climbs got me up above the trees, and I spotted an Andean condor gliding around the peaks just above me.  As woodlands gave way to boggy muck beneath my feet, the wind kicked up and falling snow swirled around me. When I got to the point where snowmelt had carved deep, dangerous-looking channels into the hillside and the mud was deep enough that my boot was quite literally sucked off my foot, I decided to call it a day and head back down to camp. As I gazed up toward the snowy peak of Cerro Guanaco and out over the alpine landscape, I set my sights to the south, where my next adventure was awaiting me... but that's a tale for another day.