Cruising solitary waters – Ushuaia to Punta Arenas

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Cape Horn

Cape Horn

It was late afternoon in Ushuaia, capital of Argentinean Tierra del Fuego, not far from the southernmost tip of the Americas. Filled with unbridled enthusiasm, I boarded the impressive blue and white vessel that was to take me to Cape Horn and the southern fjords. For a start, it was sunny in Ushuaia, which is always cause for cheer and the bulk of the Via Australis, looking distinctly solid and reassuring, gave me a splendid sense of anticipation, a feeling that this was the start of a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

The two Australis’ expedition vessels are the only ones to make landfall at Cape Horn (weather permitting) and take in a wide variety of scenery in this isolated and inaccessible part of the world, without the passengers having to “rough it” too much. In fact, there was nothing rough whatsoever about this ship, from comfy cabins to well-stocked bars, complete with panoramic windows. Even the sea wasn’t too rough for the duration of the cruise. As the 114 passengers of 15 nationalities settled in, the gentle giant prepared to “set sail”, leaving Argentine soil for Chile and spending the next 4 days in Chilean territorial waters.

Wulaia Bay

Wulaia Bay

A dinner involving a king crab starter – a speciality in these waters – exceedingly tasty beef with a light mustard sauce for main course and a dessert of cream cheese stuffed papaya, all with a choice of wines, slightly distracted me from the sunset scenery. The following morning, however, you’d have been hard pushed to drag me away from the top deck. There, right before my eyes, was Cape Horn – the southernmost tip of the Americas – bathed in sunshine for the occasion, with a spectacular rainbow hovering over the waters, after a recent shower.

With the weather so favourable, a 7 a.m. landfall was announced and we were all kitted out with waterproofs and wellies before it was time to clamber onto the zodiacs. These are essentially rubber boats completely open to the elements, with us intrepid visitors dangling from the edges with total and complete lack of elegance. The waters were calm enough to make it a pleasant crossing to solitary Horn Island and Cape Horn. What followed was a steep ascent up 160 wooden steps, up to flatter ground and the Cape Horn Monument, a memorial to those lost at sea, erected by the Chilean Navy in 1992. This desolate spot at the end of all land is also home to a small chapel depicting plenty of popes, and a lighthouse, staffed by a member of the Chilean Navy and his family. The landscape, the silence interrupted only by howling winds, the sheer scale of nature all around me, made me feel blissfully blessed, if mightily windswept and the hour and a half spent ashore seemed barely long enough to savour those wondrous vistas.

Pia Glacier

Pia Glacier

After such a fabulous start to the day, what did the afternoon have in store? A puff-inducing 2,5 km hill hike taking in the local flora, starting out from Wulaia Bay, on Navarino Island, with awe-inspiring views. I’m embarrassed to say the 81-year old American lady, one of the oldest on the trip, was vastly fitter than myself and I spent most of the uphill trundle panting desperately, hoping against hope I wasn’t drowning out the guide’s interesting explanations about the flora in this remote corner of Chilean Patagonia. Among other plants, we were introduced to the calafate, or Magellan barberry, a symbol of Patagonia and very popular in jams, sauces and, as I later discovered, liqueurs. The strenuous uphill walk was well worth it for the vast vistas of the islands and inlets, but after a day of tremendous highs, altitude and otherwise, retiring to the panoramic bar to wind down seemed the best option. It was also the perfect place to do some research on calafate liqueurs.

Magellan penguins on Magdalena Island

Magellan penguins on Magdalena Island

Mention the tipple “pisco” to any Chilean and they will immediately tell you why it’s not Peruvian (while the opposite is true if talking to a Peruvian). In order not to take sides, I ordered a calafate sour, a variation on the pisco sour cocktail, which is inarguably Patagonian and involves pisco, sours and either calafate jam or liqueur, depending on how alcoholic you’d like your concoction. By the end of the trip I’d developed quite a taste for this refreshing, slight tart, beverage, making it my cocktail of choice for the voyage.

Over the next couple of days we had exhilarating visits to several fjords and all of five glaciers to look forward to, starting with the Pia fjord and glacier the following morning. We’d been cruising the Beagle Channel overnight, rather gentler than Drake Passage that we’d skirted on the first night, entering the deep Pia fjord in the morning. The wide hulk of Pia Glacier, looking not unlike a long, grey tongue surrounded by snow-covered peaks and icy waters, could easily be viewed from the vessel, or from land, for a better view. I opted for the latter, but the weather was turning sodden, as is often the case in the changeable far south, and I made it a short, but impressive stay. The rain seemed to encourage the glacier to break apart and there was much rumbling and creaking, followed by “mini-tsunamis” that most definitely rocked the boat.

Garibaldi glacier

Garibaldi glacier

The afternoon was spent cruising through the Garibaldi fjord with stunning views all around, getting closer to Garibaldi Glacier, brighter in colour and wider in “girth”. By the end of the next day, although I wouldn’t have said I had “glacier fatigue”, I was certainly getting a bit blasé about these astounding works of nature, having visited another three in one day – Piloto, Nena and Águila Glaciers. From dark grey to deep crystal-clear blue, the glaciers in the southern Patagonian ice field wooed their viewers in any weather, rain or shine. Mostly shine, I’m pleased to say.

The captain’s farewell dinner was a lovely, leisurely, 4-course affair – how on earth would I get used to life back on land, never mind fitting into my trousers? – and the jolly evening continued in the bar with an auction of the trip chart and a slideshow of the passengers’ own photos, put together by the tireless, hard-working staff. A late night was had by all, but we were up at the crack of dawn again for our very last excursion, a pre-breakfast visit to Magdalena Island, a sanctuary for the Magellanic penguin, in the Magellan Strait. Trust me, this place has to be seen, heard, and above all smelled, to be believed. Some 80,000 penguin couples and their chicks, i.e. about 200,000 penguins in total, have completely taken over this island. Penguins waddle in every direction, their cries sounding bizarrely similar to that of the donkey. They can get quite fierce if you get too close to their nests, as some of us found out. Visitors are on penguin turf here, they rule this island and if anything, it’s the visitors who are “fenced off” not the penguins. The place was wonderful to see and terrible to smell.

Magdalena Island is alive with penguins

Magdalena Island is alive with penguins

Arriving in Punta Arenas, later that day, I pondered all the lasting memories from a trip that managed to pack in highlight upon highlight during the four days of cruising. This may have been a once-in-a-lifetime journey, but I, for one, would very much be ready to take to the waters again – I’d even be happy to earn my keep. Mixing a mean calafate sour perhaps?

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Getting there and around:

The Australisexpedition cruises depart from Ushuaia and Punta Arenas on 3-7-night trips, taking in a variety of scenery. Departure dates are usually Oct/Nov to Mar/Apr. Anna Maria travelled on the 4-night Ushuaia – Punta Arenas cruise on Via Australis late Jan/early Feb. Aerolineas Argentinas fly from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, while LAN Chile flies Santiago to Punta Arenas.

Story and images ©  Anna Maria Espsäter

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