Daniel Garcia  /  AFP/Getty Images
Aerial view of The Andes mountain near Ushuaia City in Tierra del Fuego province, Argentina.
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updated 9/27/2006 1:45:33 PM ET 2006-09-27T17:45:33

Journey to the end of the world – the tip of South America – and explore a wildly romantic land that will tug your soul.

When I was a haughty 15-year-old, I once bragged to my friends that my girlfriend would follow me to the end of the world if I asked her to. She broke up with me shortly afterward. So I never expected to find myself with a woman I barely knew, years later, at the End of the World Train Station, ready to board the End of the World train, in the end of the world island of Tierra del Fuego.

I’d met Maria over hot chocolate about two hours earlier in Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. She’d been traveling the globe and upon arriving on Tierra del Fuego, at the southern end of Argentina, fell in love with the frontier spirit and wild purity of the place and decided to stay.

As we rode the toylike steam-powered train into Tierra del Fuego National Park, about six miles from Ushuaia, breathtaking views rolled by the wide windows: beech forests, fields of deep red firebushes, snow-edged mountains and the slate-colored rivers that wound through this raw landscape. But to really know Tierra del Fuego, Maria told me, I’d need to walk it. I’d need to feel the sharp bite of the Antarctic summer wind, experience the thousand shades of amber, yellow and green and hear the unruly cries of seabirds.

This unrefined environment is why people come to this southern outpost. The landscapes and seascapes are that rare combination of feral and transcendant. Most visitors spend their days outside, kayaking, walking and exploring places that provide a heavy dose of bragging rights at the end of the day.

When Magellan discovered the area in 1520, he christened it Tierra del Fuego, the Land of Fire, because of the many fires that burned on the horizon. Despite the cold and erratic weather, fires were kept lit by a native race called Yamana Indians, who roamed, hunted and generally thrived in this frosty land absolutely naked. As Maria recounted this, I looked at the rime crystals that etched the corners of the train’s picture windows and cozied up my several layers of Polartec and Gor-Tex.

We drove back to Ushuaia, a rapidly growing city of 50,000 nestled between the Beagle Passage and the southern Andes mountains. As we toured, Maria pointed out rugged gardens filled with purple lupines and orange-flowered Calafate that shook in the cold wind.

After warming up on more of the world’s best hot chocolate at a tea shop, we participated in what seemed to be the local pastime – feeding seabirds along the busy harbor. We were joined by several boisterous locals, all toting their ever-present bombillas full of yerba mate, a distinctly Argentine cultural drink (introduced by the Guarani Indians), similar to hot tea, that you see everywhere in this South American country. Maria insisted that I try the yerba mate. Among its many alleged benefits, it stimulates mental and physical stamina. It works on the locals. They have that Wild West zest for life. Yerba mate tastes like hot, slightly muddy lake water, and I gamely drank the entire vessel if only to impress Maria. I felt an odd tingle, not unlike the times I’ve actually swallowed lake water.

The next morning Maria and I met at the Ushuaia waterfront for an expedition around Beagle Passage, named after the ship that carried Darwin through this area. We boarded a heated catamaran and Maria armed me with binoculars and a bombilla of yerba mate. We cruised among Islas de Los Lobos, the rocky islands and rookeries a few minutes from the harbor, which were alive with loafing sea lions, and to Isla de Pajaros, filled with cormorants that posed on rocks like feathered kings. We saw elegant petrels, albatrosses, jittery birds by the thousands and senses all the associated smells and jarring sounds that go with them. Seeing these animals in such numbers so close was mesmerizing. I watched Magellanic penguins slip in and out of the water and a passing right whale distracted us, if only briefly. We ended the tour by circling the Lighthouse at the End of the World, a stark building on an even starker rock.

Once back in Ushuai, I immediately extended my stay by two weeks. I was captivated and for the next fortnight I followed Maria to the far corners at the end of the Earth through spellbindingly wild cordilleras, to an eerie black-water lagoon called Lago Negra, to the great vistas around the bays of Lapataia and back, again and again, to the sea by kayak or boat, or just along empty stretches of beach that looked out over the famously perilous waters off Cape Horn. I never wanted the adventures to end and had found companion in Maria, for whom life was a constant quest, curiosity and discovery.

I flew off on a still day with an impossibly blue sky, but we kept in touch intermittently until her wanderings left just a memory on the icy southern sea. I often wonder whatever happened to Maria, but I do know that when my travels take me to the far edges of our rapidly shrinking planet, in some wild corner of my heart she will peek out and approve, and the undeniable grip Tierra del Fuego will again tug my soul.

Each issue of ISLANDS Magazine explores the most beautiful island destinations in the world, from tropical island outposts to the sophisticated gems of the Mediterranean. Our top-rate photographers and writers discover the quiet beaches, boutique hotels, and unique cultural experiences that make island travel unique.

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