Bahia Lapataia (Lapataia Bay) is a fjord in the extreme south of Argentina which is connected to the Beagle Channel. Situated along the shore from Ensenada Bay in Tierra del Fuego National Park, it is one of the many highlights of the countryside surrounding Ushuaia.
Tourists descend on Bahia Lapataia for the hiking trails, which wind through stunning coastal scenery and provide excellent opportunities to spot rare wildlife, including Chilean dolphins, sea otters, blackish cinclodes and Pacific steamer ducks.
But Bahia Lapataia was once home to Tierra del Fuego’s first inhabitants, making it a fascinating stop for those hoping to learn more about the history of this now desolate region.
Geographical history of Bahía Lapataia
Lapataia Bay is a product of the glaciation forces that shaped vast parts of Tierra del Fuego, including the Beagle Channel. This bay and the Chilean fjords across the border – similar to the fjords of Norway – were carved out by the movement of glaciers, which wore away at the ground beneath to form deep channels. When the glaciers retreated, the eroded areas were filled with seawater and took on their present states as fjords.
Human history of Bahía Lapataia
Walking around Bahía Lapataia, you’ll likely see the grass-covered mounds comprising shells and animal bones that were left by the first inhabitants of the region, the indigenous Yámana. This nomadic group of hunter-gatherers moved between the islands of Tierra del Fuego by canoe and subsisted on a diet of shellfish and animal meat, making the most of the waters’ plentiful supplies of mussels, limpets, sea snails and king crabs. These mounds are all that is remains here of this indigenous group.
The presence of the Yámana in the region is also clear from its name. Bahía Lapataia, in the local Yámana language, means “Forested Bay” or “Wooded Bay”, a reflection of the Sub-Antarctic forests that make up the majority of Tierra del Fuego National Park.
Modern history of Bahía Lapataia and the surrounding islands
More recently, Bahía Lapataia found its place in the history books with the Beagle Conflict, a border dispute between Chile and Argentina over the sovereignty of the Beagle Channel and the surrounding islands.
During the late 19th-century and into the 20th-century, the exact location of the border between the two countries was contested. The Boundary Treaty of 1881 between Chile and Argentina sought to clearly delineate its boundaries, but controversy continued into the next century, as the two countries disagreed over the sovereignty of the Magellanic Straits.
Between 1971 and 1977, they sought the arbitration of the International Court of Justice at the Hague, who ruled in favor of Chile having a claim to all of the disputed islands. However it was only in 1984, after Argentina rejected a solution proposed by the Pope, that their government called a referendum, which resulted in their people voting to accept the Pope’s second recommendation. As a result, the islands were officially recognized as existing in Chilean territory.
Bahia Lapataia, along with parts of the Beagle Channel, remained part of Argentina throughout the conflict and nowadays this small cover lies a very short distance from the Chilean border.