What is the origin of the name Tierra del Fuego in Chile ?

But where does the origin of the name Tierra del Fuego come from? Why is this southern land called Tierra del Fuego?

Tierra del Fuego owes its present name to an explorer

The Tierra del Fuego at Ainsworth Bay in Chile
The origin of the name Tierra del Fuego

The story goes that when Magellan arrived in 1520 off this archipelago at the end of the world. He noticed a significant number of fires and smoke along the coasts. Therefore, he called these lands the Island of the Land of Smoke before changing his name to the Land of Fire. A name which became by the transformation of the Tierra del Fuego.

The reason for the fires in this part of the world

Traditionally, the people who lived on this archipelago lived naked or wore very little clothing, even during winter time. The local people even mastered fire but also lived protected from the prevailing winds, where their huts made of branches and animal fats allowed them to face the harsh climate of the extreme south of Latin America. Still, the people of these faraway lands were far from being acculturated savages. The Selk’nam or Onas and the Yagans were the peoples who occupied these lands at the end of the world. Before being exterminated by the explorers and the survivors decimated little by little diseases. The Yagans or Yamanas survived until the beginning of the 20th century but have now disappeared as a homogeneous group. The language of the Yamanas, with more than 32,000 words, also remains an enigma. For it is to this day the most abundant and most accurate language ever known.

The reservations of the most widespread explanation about the origin of the name Tierra del Fuego

If you’ve had the opportunity to sail at Tierra del Fuego, you may have been surprised to find that it’s not easy to see what’s happening on the shore. So even if you make a fire on the coast, it’s pretty hard to detect it. The same is valid with smoke. Tierra del Fuego has the peculiarity of being windswept. Out even with smoke, the smoke is dispersed relatively quickly with a moderate or even light wind.

Tierra del Fuego in a land of ice

Tierra del Fuego and land of ice
A glacier at Tierra del Fuego in Chile

Tierra del Fuego is part of an Antarctic polar zone. And ironically, there are many glaciers there, especially in the strait nicknamed Glacier Avenue.

Another explanation for the origin of the name Tierra del Fuego

A other explanation the origine of the name Tierra del Fuego
Armeria maritima, a small flower which gives an impression of fire in Tierra del Fuego

When one has the chance to walk in Tierra del Fuego one can be brought to meet a rather exceptional flora. One of them is very pretty, and it covers some of the plains of Tierra del Fuego. It is called “flor del Papel” or Armeria maritima of the Plumbaginaceae family. It is orange and sometimes parma in colour, giving the appearance of a burning plain, and this may well explain why Magellan may have named the tip of Latin America Tierra del Fuego. Although the idea of fires along the coasts seems to be a beautiful story, the probability that Armeria Maritima is the plant that gave Tierra del Fuego its name is not as crazy as it sounds if you look a little closer.

Acknowledgements: Australis, a Chilean exploration company specialized in navigation and discovery in Tierra del Fuego. Aboard one of their two ships, live an extraordinary experience from 1565 US dollars, all-inclusive and per person. you can book directly through www.australis.com (no track link guaranty)

Live five days and four nights on a small boat, designed for navigation in the Chilean fjords. Australis is first and foremost an eco-responsible shipping company, committed to protecting the environment, participating in the monitoring of the national park and actively collaborating with Chilean scientists and academics.

Exploring Tierra del Fuego
Disembarkment at Ainsworth Bay with Australis in Tierra del Fuego

photo credits: Yann Vernerie