Tierra del Fuego, an archipelago (group of islands) at the southern tip of South America, between the Strait of Magellan and Cape Horn. Tierra del Fuego has an area of about 27,500 square miles (71,200 km2). Most of the archipelago belongs to Chile, the rest to Argentina; the two countries share only the largest island, Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego (about 18,500 square miles [47,900 km2]). The hundreds of other islands include Capitán Aracena, Clarence, Dawson, Desolación, Hoste, Navarino, and Santa Inés.
Except for Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego, which is largely an extension of Patagonia, the islands are part of the Andes. Peaks rise as much as 8,100 feet (2,469 m) above sea level, and many are glaciercovered. The climate is moderately cold, damp, and windy.
Sheep raising is the most widespread economic activity. Petroleum is produced and refined on the main island. There is also some fishing and lumbering. Manufacturing, mostly the assembly of electronic equipment, is developing in the Argentine cities of Ushuaia and Rio Grande. Roads connect many of the towns on the main island, which is linked by air and water transportation with the mainland. The archipelago is sparsely populated, and only a few of the native Indians remain. Virtually all the inhabitants live on Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego; its largest towns are Porvenir (3,600) in Chile and Rio Grande (30,000) and Ushuaia (22,000) in Argentina. Punta Arenas, Chile, a mainland city of 113,661 inhabitants, is the chief commercial center for the islands.
Ferdinand Magellan was the first European to sight the islands, in 1520; he named them Tierra del Fuego (“Land of Fire”) because of the many Indian fires he observed along the shore. The British expedition of the Beagle, for which Charles Darwin was naturalist, explored the coast, 1832–34.