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  • Writer's pictureTerry Virts


Updated: Jul 27, 2021

Sunset captured at Tierra Del Fuego
Sunset captured by Terry Virts at Tierra Del Fuego

I didn’t quite know what to expect when I went to Tierra Del Fuego, Patagonia, the southernmost part of South America, where Chile and Argentina end. I had read stories of sailors and explorers trying to round Cape Horn, and the tremendously bad weather they encountered there. It always seemed like a foreboding place.

Tierra Del Fuego from the ISS

The Southern Ocean, just off the coast of Tierra Del Fuego, is famous for its bad weather. From orbit aboard the ISS it was visible in the distance, and I always found it to be covered in strange clouds that were unlike any other on the planet- the low-pressure systems there seemed to swirl differently than other tropical storms in other parts of our planet, and there was something about the colour and the shapes of the clouds that made me glad that I was not sailing on the seas below.

Tierra Del Fuego at sunset by Terry Virts
Tierra Del Fuego by Terry Virts

The Earth is Round – honestly!

I had heard of rogue waves, of massive 60’ swells, some maybe 100’, that had a propensity to swallow ocean going vessels. The explorers, beginning with Magellan, found a safer passage through this land that they called “Tierra Del Fuego,” or Land of Fire. They were looking for a faster route to India, or simply trying to discover what, if anything, lay beyond. I have often wondered how those sailors dealt with the fear of the unknown; at the beginning they were not even sure that the earth was round (spoiler alert- it is, I saw it for myself!) or if they would sail off the edge.

Chilean Landscape by Terry Virts
Chilean Landscape by Terry Virts

I used to think the name “Tierra Del Fuego,” or “Land of Fire,” was so-named because of the thunderstorms there. Well, I was wrong. It turns out the natives have a tendency to build a lot of fires to keep warm. And they do this because, well, they also have a tendency to go naked.

Yup. They do. So they need the fires to keep warm. (which reminded me of the Seinfeld episode where Jerry said “you lose 80% of your heat through your head, so as long as you wear a hat you’re OK…”). In fact, when I reached out to one of the film makers of “The Revenant,” which was filmed in part in Tierra Del Fuego, he warned me “hey the natives like to go naked.” Well, thankfully my crew didn’t see that, but it was on our radar….

Sunset in Tierra Del Fuego by Terry Virts
Sunset in Tierra Del Fuego by Terry Virts

Beavers – An Environmental Disaster

We also encountered a rather unusual environmental problem there. Of course, global warming is the biggest concern when it comes to our environment. But in Tierra Del Fuego I came across one that was frankly surprising. 50 years ago a Canadian gentleman imported 50 beavers, in the hopes of breading them for money. When his business did not work out, they were released into the wild. And today there are over 100,000 of them! To make matters worse, the trees in Southern Argentina and Chile are much softer than in Canada, so the beavers’ propensity to fell trees is much easier down there, and they probably work five times faster than they do in Canada. This all means that the forests in Tierra Del Fuego have been dramatically impacted, becoming material for beaver dams. Finally, the Argentinian and Chilean governments are beginning to cooperate on a solution. An environmental problem that I had not expected, but a very real one nonetheless.

A condor overhead
A mighty condor Photo by Terry Virts

I expected the weather to be cold since it was nearly the winter solstice down there, but I was surprised at how temperate the weather was. Yes it was cool, and even dipped a few degrees below freezing with snow. But to be honest, at 55 degrees south latitude, I really expected much worse. The weather was pleasant, tempered by the proximity of the Atlantic and Pacific and Southern Oceans. Several local taxi drivers told me that life used to be much colder, with more snow. But to be honest the weather was pretty much outstanding. As was the wildlife, especially birds. As was flying over the mountains. As was visiting local schools, seeing the same excitement and wonder in the eyes of the children that I see in every country I visit. As were so many of the experiences we had.

Chilean Landscape by Terry Virts
Chilean Landscape by Terry Virts

I loved Tierra Del Fuego for so many reasons; the beautiful terrain, great food, interesting sights to see, fun people, incredible history. But one thing stood out above all else during my time there, and that was the sunrises and sunsets. Both sunrises and sunsets seemed to last a very long time, maybe because of the extreme southern latitude. In the morning there was an extreme contrast between light and dark, with an intense blue and orange band burning in the early morning sky (thankfully, being winter near the Antarctic Circle, “morning” did not happen until after 0900 local time!).

Bird on the wing over a lake Photography by Terry Virts
Bird on the wing Photography by Terry Virts

But sunsets- wow. Just wow. Words cannot adequately describe them. One evening we were driving to Puerto Navarino on the Chilean side of the Beagle Channel in order to catch our ferry back to Argentinian Ushuaia. And as we rounded a corner by the seaside, I saw the most spectacular sunset. I immediately asked our driver to stop, and he pulled over. Our diligent cameramen Diego and Fabio got out the RED video cameras, and our still photographer Chris got out his professional still gear. And were we ever in for a treat. The sky was ablaze with the most speechless view I’ve seen (on Earth)- pink, orange, fiery yellow circles, purple- they filled the sky from the horizon to overhead. And they hovered there, for the better part of an hour, putting on the best show that humans could hope for, better than any manmade thing.

Tierra Del Fuego Sunset Photo by Terry Virts
Tierra Del Fuego Sunset Photo by Terry Virts

Yes, Tierra Del Fuego was spectacular. I cannot wait to go back. Hopefully with more time to spend next time. And with a good camera in my hand (I had the best on this trip, a Canon 1DX, which was almost more fun than the trip itself).

Terry Virts in a Very Cold Place
Terry Virts in a Very Cold Place

A sample gallery from my Tierra Del Fuego expedition

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