Tierra del Fuego is the stuff of dreams: the end of the continent and the end of all roads, this island hosts Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world and the number one bucket list destination for adventure riders covering the Alaska – Tierra del Fuego route. But while Ushuaia may be the ultimate goal, there’s more to the Land of Fire than the famous “Fin del Mundo” sign.
Tolhuin: Heart of the Island
Whether you’re taking the tiny San Gregorio – Cerro Campo Manantiales ferry from the Argentinean side or the Porvenir crossing from Punta Arenas, Chile, you’ll eventually end up in Rio Grande before continuing south to Ushuaia. Most people ride to Ushuaia in one day, skipping everything in between; it’s doable even with the border crossing (Tierra del Fuego is divided between Chile and Argentina), but if you have the time, stay in Rio Grande for the night and head to Ushuaia the next day. That way, you can stop and explore Tolhuin, a tiny frontier town between Rio Grande and Ushuaia before tackling the Garibaldi Pass and arriving at the Beagle Channel.
Tolhuin is small and, in many ways, unremarkable. Most riders stop there to fill up the tank and grab a quick bite to eat, then hit the road again; the town has just over 2,500 inhabitants, and a first glance, nothing much happens here. Tolhuin is surrounded by Lake Fagnano on one side and an endless, swampy tundra on the other. Wild moorlands and beaver dams crisscross the land here, and the only sign of human life is a lone ranch dotting the landscape here and there. And that’s precisely where the magic lies: this is a lonely, remote place overlooked by tourist hordes and riders rushing to cross the gates of Ushuaia, and stopping in Tolhuin for a while isn’t on anyone’s itinerary. Here is why it should be:
Before the European settlers, Tierra del Fuego was inhabited by native Ona, also known as Selk’nam, people. For thousands of years, the Ona roamed the island living a semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer life. Having uniquely adapted to the harsh climate of the deep Patagonian South, the Ona hunted guanaco and seals, moved camp from forest to mountain to seashore, and evaded contact with Europeans until the nineteenth century when gold was discovered in the rivers of Tierra del Fuego, and colonists began arriving en masse.
After the short period of the gold rush, the Europeans settled Tierra del Fuego for farming purposes, and that was a death warrant for the Ona people: being nomads, they had no notion of private property and, pushed ever inland by the encroaching European ranchers, the Ona began hunting the farmers’ sheep and cattle. In retaliation, the settlers paid bounty hunters to track down and kill the Ona on sight. At the same time, forced displacement by missionaries and Charles Darwin’s experiments (Darwin had visited Tierra del Fuego in 1831 aboard the HMS Beagle with Captain Fitzroy) further reduced the Ona numbers: at the beginning of the 19th century, there were over 4,000 Ona people on the island. By 1919, three hundred were left, and the last full-blooded Ona died in 1974. The Selk’nam language had ceased to exist, and all that remains of an entire culture is the tiny Martin Gusinde museum on Isla Navarino.
Being far from the “primitive savages”, as Darwin called them, the Ona had a unique tradition of recording history and legends in song, usually only sung by the shamans. One of the beliefs that the Ona shared was that they were one with the island they inhabited: when a Selk’nam died, they came back as rock, seagull, beetle, or river of the island, and Tierra Fuego to them was the island of souls. Tolhuin, the name of that little frontier town between Rio Grande and Ushuaia, means “like a heart” in Selk’nam language, likely because of its location near the Lake Fagnano dividing the plains and the mountains.
Into the Wild
No trace of the Selk’nam culture now remains in Tierra del Fuego, but Tolhuin still retains the feel of a place so far-flung it seems frozen in time. The main attractions are the annual sheepdog festival in the nearby Rio Grande and the occasional gathering of gauchos in Tolhuin itself; most of the town’s streets are still unpaved, and the only lodging option is a friendly firefighters’ station. However, if you’re looking to explore Tierra del Fuego’s wild tundra forests and moors on foot or ride some of its off-road trails around Lake Fagnano, away from the touristy bustle of Ushuaia, stop in Tolhuin for a day or two and breathe in the atmosphere that doesn’t seem to have changed since the 1800’s.