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Destination Argentina

Tierra del Fuego, National Park Where Boundaries Blur

Even the name of this national park, “Land of Fire,” is contradictory; it is really covered in snow. The trails of the Tierra del Fuego National Park in southern Argentina lead to a place where everything gets mixed together: fresh water with salty, the Atlantic with the Pacific, the Andes with the ocean coasts.

By Marcela Gómez
Photos: Demian Colman

Lake Roca started out as a glacier. When the ice melted and the water was trapped between the mountains, it became a fjord. Later the sea came in and covered it with salt water, making it a bay. But then the sea receded and now it’s a fresh water lake once again.

Lake Roca thrills me. And it’s not just its crazy geological history. I am thrilled by its eternal universe of snow, mountains, water, and glaciers. The waves arrive frantically on the beach, pushed by the wind. The timid sun barely peeks out from behind the clouds, announcing a warm moment that very soon will be conquered once again by the cold. And the scenery is so bewitching. The last tourist bus recently departed and now there is only human silence and the noise of the water that, at one point, was an ocean, and much earlier in time, a glacier.

Perhaps the white caps are trying to tell me about the waters that, one after another, have inhabited this now-placid cavity, so far and yet so close to the ocean currents. I dream of you, Lake Roca, when I dream of the Andes. I have inhabited you in my dreams as a traveler. I missed you, even before I ever met you. The memories of an afternoon whose warmth was denied by the Antarctic wind bind me to you now. You make up my idea of the Andes: snow, mountains, and water, but you are also the Andes of waves and the sound of the sea.

This is a place where everything gets confused. The Andean backbone that runs south in a perfectly vertical line turns suddenly to the left here, drawing a horizontal line from west to east. Then everything changes. Argentina lies on one side of the Andes and the snowy mountains of Chile on the other, separated by the Beagle Channel. The Beagle Channel: Ah, what an unparalleled landscape of gray skies and rounded mountains!

Roca was the name Latin Americans gave you after the celebrated embrace in 1899 between Julio Roca, the president of Argentina, and Federico Errázuris, the president of Chile, aboard the cruise ship O’Higgins, putting an end to a border dispute. But you know nothing of borders; your waters flow without taking heed of limits and today you look proud of the old name the Yámana people gave you: Acigama (long bag).

I walk along your broken shores, which at times are gently outlined by white or rocky beaches and at other times form gullies, from atop which I observe you silently. Occasionally the path penetrates the dense lenga forest that surrounds you, and I can delight in your lace made of trees and leaves. We walk swiftly, since it is now late and we want to reach milestone twenty-four. It’s not that milestone twenty-four has something special, it’s just one more of the twenty-five milestones that the two governments originally traced to define their borders. The goal is to walk along the edge of you, embrace you, see your snow-crowned triangular horizons and listen to your silences. You were like this when the Yámana people observed your universe: they tried to decipher your language of shapes, movements, colors, sensations, and absences, coining an expression: maia-ku. Allow me some maia-ku, since according to your original inhabitants only in seeing the universe in this way is it possible “to grasp it.”

I arrive at Lake Roca in search of one of the main landscapes of Tierra del Fuego National Park. It is an area that covers almost 200,000 acres that include lakes, inlets, mountains, rivers, and flooded valleys where the American geography fractures before definitively leaving the land to enter polar waters. And although I stop at Lake Roca for long hours to enjoy its peaceful silence, the truth is that there are other milestones that I need to see.

Now I am at the Alakush Lodge, at the southern end of the lake, in the exact place where the Lapataia River emerges. The 1.2 miles of the Lapataia River run entirely inside National Park territory. From my lonely second floor balcony, where the wind whips past disrupting the silence, I enjoy an extraordinary view of Cóndor Hill and manage to see the origin of the river and how its blue water divides the green valley. The river also has a geologically historic network, since its riverbed was carved by the glacier that in the final phases of the quaternary descended from the mountain range, advanced through the valley, and joined with the gigantic glacier that was then the Beagle Channel.

The river’s course is very flat, continually opening and closing, giving rise to the several islands that make up the Archipelago of the Cormorants. But the river also flows capriciously outside its channel, thus forming the valuable Patagonian wetlands known as turberas (peatlands). I walk through these marshy areas that remind me of the Colombian moors: a land of mist and water in the highest part of the tropical Andes, where the moss protects the water. That’s just the way peat bogs are, the most abundant plant is moss. It seems that all along their course through South America, the Andes constitute ecosystems that unite the countries to the north with those to the south.

The peatlands keep the water from thawing too quickly, which allows the melting ice to slowly provide the land with water during the summer, just like the moors. They have also stored vegetable matter in the subsoil since the time of the glaciers and continue to store carbon in a process that is the opposite of greenhouse gas emission. This ecosystem is so important for the planet that, although it only covers 3% of the world’s surface, it contains twice the carbon of all the forests on Earth.

The wonderful lenga forests and peat bogs of Patagonia do, however, face a tragic threat. In 1946 twenty Canadian beavers were introduced to the area with the aim of creating a fur industry, without taking into account that in the south, beavers have no predators. The fur industry did not prosper, the beavers were abandoned on the shores of Lake Fagnano, and today they have reproduced to reach a population of approximately 150,000, more than the human population of the entire province. But that’s not the only serious problem.

Beavers are the most sophisticated engineers in the animal kingdom and often knock down the forest trees to dam the rivers and create their habitats for shelter and reproduction. The trees of the northern hemisphere, mostly pines, sprout again after being cut by the beavers’ teeth, but not the lengas of the south. The lengas die after being cut, while the floods caused by the beaver dams destroy the peat bogs. The environmental damage has already affected a patch in Patagonia two times the size of Buenos Aires.

It is now time to search for the road leading to the exit. In the distance we hear the legendary sound of the steam train, the southernmost operating railroad in the world.

It was built in 1909 to transport wood and materials that were used by the prisoners of Ushuaia Prison, the prison at the end of the world. Today it takes tourists along just the final five miles of its original route (formerly 15.5 miles), but the railroad is still part of the legend of these mythical places.

La Ensenada is our last National Park attraction. Several tour buses are here and we can see the fascination foreigners have with the exotic personality who lives here: Carlos de Lorenzo. He is the postman at the end of the world who declared Redonda Island an independent republic; the national stamp he created is stamped in the tourists’ passports.

He is the kind of character who arises in the midst of so much exuberance, so much craziness, in a place where there are low but snowy peaks and rhythmic waters that have decided not to be oceans.

Here I say goodbye to the sights of Patagonia. The Andes: I am not at your heights, but it seems I could be. I am at sea level, but so close to your snowy peaks. I can imagine why a man like De Lorenzo came here, a man who wanted to build a kingdom without laws, selecting this exact place where the Atlantic is not the Atlantic and the Pacific is not the Pacific. Where the Andes run crosswise and the countries get confused.