Seeing a Different Side of Tierra del Fuego

A five-day expedition cruise in Chile’s southern reaches reveals a side of Tierra del Fuego that few people get to see. it’s an edge-of-the-world adventure complete with majestic fjords, calving glaciers, and penguins aplenty.

The 100-cabin cruise ship Ventus Australis at anchor off Pia Glacier.

It was springtime in southern Chile, and the rocky beach I was walking on was covered in fresh snow. Enormous flakes of the stuff had been falling since the Ventus Australis dropped anchor in Wulaia Bay an hour ago. But that hadn’t stopped any of the ship’s full complement of 210 passengers from pulling on waterproof clothing and piling into Zodiac boats, which crunched through chunks of ice before depositing us at the very spot where Charles Darwin came ashore in 1833 during his five-year voyage on the HMS Beagle—the same journey that took him to the Galápagos and on to eventual fame.

The weather in this part of the world is unpredictable, to say the least. Yesterday, the sun was so bright and the sky so blue that I got a tan sitting on the ship’s deck; a day earlier, the rain was torrential and needle-like against my skin. And now there was powder—a lot of it—as we laced up our boots for the slippery trek through a native forest of lenga, canelo, and coigüe trees, their branches sagging with snow. We climbed to a lookout point and emerged into a clearing of black rocks polished smooth millennia ago by glacial ice. The bay below appeared as a tableau of white peaks and purple islands, our ship a mere dot afloat in a watery wilderness.

The Ventus Australis in Pia Fjord.

It was our final day aboard the 100-cabin Ventus, one of only two passenger ships with the necessary permits to explore Tierra del Fuego, a vast archipelago that hangs off the bottom of South America. (The other ship is Ventus’s older sister, Stella Australis; both are operated by the Chilean cruise line Australis.) Here at the end of the world, scrub plateaus seem to stretch on forever, and the jagged mountains are speckled with glaciers and wizened trees bent permanently by the wind. There’s also one of the most extensive fjord systems on the planet, with kelp forests, channels, and estuaries providing shelter for dolphins, sea lions, and adorable Magellanic penguins. When not covered in ice, the shore bristles with a distinctive mix of temperate and subantarctic flora, from deciduous beech trees to edible calafate. It’s wild, untouched Patagonian beauty, and restrictions on tourist numbers are easy to understand: this fragile ecosystem could easily disappear under the trample of thousands of cruise passengers.

When we disembarked the Ventus Australis (whose name is Latin for “south wind”) at Wulaia and other anchorages, we did so in small groups. We walked along carefully mapped paths so as not to damage the habitats, and we were cautioned not to pick the plants around us. “When you come ashore, it looks like you’re the first person ever to have stepped on this ground,” explained our expedition guide, Cristóbal Villanueva. “You’re the only ones here now, and we want the next visitors to feel the same way.”
We had boarded the Ventus three days earlier in Punta Arenas, a blustery port city situated 3,000 kilometers south of Santiago, the Chilean capital. Punta Arenas has traditionally attracted last-chance settlers and, more recently, hikers en route to the dramatic wilderness of Torres del Paine National Park. There’s also the occasional cruise liner in port, a magnet for locals eager to hawk trinkets and raincoats to queuing passengers.

Guide Cristóbal Villanueva mapping out a hike.

From here, the ship’s south-bound route threads through fjords and around bays that have been the centuries-old fascination of explorers, traders, fortune-seekers, and mariners from all corners of the globe. In 1520, Ferdinand Magellan and his mostly Spanish crew became the first Europeans to cross from the Atlantic to Pacific oceans when their small fleet navigated a treacherous 600-kilometer-long passage—today’s Strait of Magellan—between Tierra del Fuego and the South American mainland. Darwin’s Beagle followed a similar route, although under rather scandalous circumstances: its crew kidnapped several Fuegian youths and carried them back to Britain as a “social experiment.”

Having sailed smoothly through Almirantazgo Fjord—an offshoot of the Strait of Magellan that cuts deep into the main island of Tierra del Fuego—the Ventus’s first stop was Ainsworth Bay in the vast Alberto de Agostini National Park. Part of the Cordillera Darwin Ice Field, this lengthy coastal inlet is fed by meltwater from Marinelli Glacier, which is now in a state of prolonged retreat. It’s also an important habitat for southern elephant seals and dozens of bird species. We braved the icy rain and traipsed through peat bogs and along boardwalks before finding shelter in a fairy-tale cave, its walls lined with mosses and lichens that only grow here and in Antarctica.

Trekking above Wulaia Bay.

To help us defrost, our guides poured generous mugs of hot chocolate laced with whisky, not caring that it was only mid-morning; in this part of the world, the consumption of hard liquor is dictated by the temperature, rather than the hour. We sipped in silence, enjoying the light mist that settled on our eyelashes and created rainbows through fleeting moments of sunshine.

To ensure against cross-contamination between habitats, our shoes were hosed off on the deck of the Ventus before we set sail again, venturing west through the sound to the nearby Tucker Islets. These tiny drops of land are home to thousands of Magellanic penguins, which come here to breed from October through March. We also spotted king cormorants and oystercatchers, as well as Chilean skuas, kelp geese, dolphin gulls, and an Andean condor with a wingspan of almost three meters.

We swapped bird-watching for glacier-hopping on day two, when the Ventus navigated the western end of Tierra del Fuego and entered the narrow Gabriel Channel. After rounding a rugged peninsula, we moored in a fjord and were welcomed by the spine-tingling crack of hundreds of kilograms of ice calving into the ocean. The size of a city block, the color of an Ice Mint, and tiered like an elaborate crown, Pia Glacier is one of the most active in southern Chile. Today, its frozen wall was backdropped by an impossibly blue sky, creating a scene so vivid it was like someone had taken the glasses off my nose and cleaned them for the first time. The calving ice sent waves toward our Zodiacs as the boats cautiously surfed to shore. It was completely exhilarating, and slightly unnerving, particularly given our proximity to the glacier and the frequency of the thunderous splashes.

The Ventus’s forward-facing Yámana Lounge.

Back on the ship, we spent the afternoon gliding through Glacier Alley, a stretch of the Beagle Channel where tidewater glaciers cling to the rocks like gleaming jewels. Naturalists provided insightful commentary along the way—it didn’t surprise me to learn that Patagonia’s ice fields contain the third-largest reserves of fresh water in the world, after Antarctica and Greenland.

We were now sailing among the last belchings of land before Antarctica, 800 kilometers away. There were plenty of public spaces aboard the Ventus from which to admire the views, but I opted for the bed in my neatly fitted cabin. The rooms on the Ventus, which was launched early last year, are a tasteful union of tan leather and powder-blue accents, each with big windows that frame the scenery like a moving postcard. I retired to my cabin just in time to see a pod of Peale’s dolphins fizzing under my window as they crested the water’s surface.

On the last morning of our cruise, most passengers were up before the sun. There was a hum of excitement despite the early hour—we were hopeful we’d have the chance to land at Cape Horn, a sheer rocky promontory overlooking the turbulent Drake Passage. This is the end of the habitable world, the tailbone of the Americas.

A Magellanic penguin.

Our captain, Adolfo Navarro, had warned us that fierce weather might impede our landing: the “Furious Fifties,” as the winds at this latitude are called, are legendary, and they give rise to equally fearsome waves that have claimed hundreds of ships over the centuries. We spent an hour assessing the conditions as the Ventus crawled along the island’s coast into roaring winds. Finally, Captain Navarro announced there would be no disembarkation here today. Instead, we would sail around the Horn, something that had only been tried once in the ship’s previous 17 sailings. (According to seafaring tradition, only sailors who have “rounded the Horn” are entitled to wear a gold hoop earring and dine with one leg on the table.)

It was a bumpy ride. We got close enough to the cape to spot its lonesome lighthouse-keeper’s cottage and Chilean sculptor José Balcells Eyquem’s nearby memorial to the sailors who had perished while undertaking the exact circuit we were currently attempting. These were also the first signs of human presence we’d seen since leaving Punta Arenas—there had been no roads, no streetlights, no villages. The only other such encounter came later that day at Wulaia Bay, where a former Chilean Navy radio station is now a small Australis-sponsored museum detailing the megalithic settlements of the Yaghan people, the region’s original canoeing inhabitants.

Selfie time in Glacier Alley.

Leaving Wulaia behind, we crossed the Beagle Channel one last time on our way north to Ush-uaia, a windswept city in the Argentinian portion of Tierra del Fuego. The Ventus dropped anchor there as dusk fell—magic hour—and the fading sun dramatically silhouetted the Martial Mountains that rise up behind town. That night, some passengers attended lectures summarizing the trip’s highlights, while others gathered on deck with a glass of malbec, enjoying the calm waters of Ushuaia’s harbor after a day of serious swells. I found a quiet corner to curl up in with a worn copy of Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle.

I was intrigued to read that upon arriving in Tierra del Fuego, the famed naturalist was not as smitten with the archipelago as I have been. “The climate is certainly wretched: the summer solstice was now passed, yet every day snow fell on the hills, and in the valleys there was rain, accompanied by sleet,” he wrote. For me, the region’s unpredictability and elemental emptiness were exhilarating and humbling. I felt insignificant here, but in a good way. Then again, I did have the comforts of the Ventus to come home to after a day of windswept explorations at the end of the world.

The Details
The next cruise season for Chile-based Australis begins in September and runs until the beginning of April. The five-day “Fjords of Tierra del Fuego” itinerary described in this story navigates the Chilean coast between Punta Arenas and Ushuaia, Argentina, with rates from US$1,565 per person. Punta Arenas is four hours by plane from Santiago, a route plied multiple times a day by LATAM Airlines. Be sure to book a window seat, as the flight passes over the third largest ice cap in the world. Daily flights between Ushuaia and the Chilean capital on Aerolíneas Argentinas are via Buenos Aires.

This article originally appeared in the April/May 2019 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Patagonian Passage”).

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