Struggling to get into snow pants, winter jacket, boots and a life jacket, I’m thinking “What on earth have I got myself into?” I’m no sailor, not really into outdoor adventure, either, but here I am getting ready to muster for my first shore excursion from Cruceros Australis’ Stella Australis.
As it turned out, I was into an amazing journey through the remote waterways of Patagonia, cruising between Punta Arenas in Chile and Ushuaia in Argentina.
That morning’s adventure was to Ainsworth Bay in Alberto de Agostini National Park, a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. Marinelli Glacier and the Darwin Mountain Range are a striking background to our trek into the developing forest created from a retreating glacier. Along the way, we passed a family of elephant seals basking on their own private island.
Our guides were knowledgeable and passionate about the environment, and very good at explaining what we were seeing and why we were seeing it. While the setting was impressive, the truly magical moment came when everyone put their cameras away, and we all stood and listened to the sounds of the surrounding forest. The rain played a symphony on the leaves, bark, rocks – even the hoods of our jackets. Unforgettable.
That afternoon it was back in the snow pants and life jacket for a bouncing Zodiac trip to Tuckers Islets where we observed Magellanic penguins and cormorants at their nesting sites.
And how was I doing as an adventurer? Absolutely loving it!
In fact, I couldn’t wait for the next day’s excursion, which was a visit to Pia Glacier in Pia Fjord. Once again we climbed aboard the Zodiac boats (an exhilarating trip itself) and headed for shore where we marveled at the expanse of the icefield, stretching from high in the mountains right down to the ocean. We had another of those magic moments when life seems to stand still. Again everyone put the cameras and the conversations down and we stood listening to the wind whistling across the water, the birds calling overhead and the ancient ice cracking and groaning as it grinds its way to the sea. It made me feel just a little insignificant.
Back onboard, the cruise continued along the northwest arm of Beagle Channel through Glacier Alley. We alternated between the warmth of the ship’s Sky Lounge and the windswept upper deck, watching glacier after glacier slip past. There were five in all – Romanche, Gemany, France, Italy and Holland.
It seems fitting that the final day of the cruise stops at the “End of the Earth”, Cape Horn National Park, also a UNESCO World Biosphere. At the top of the 160-step staircase are the Cape Horn Monument, unbelievable views, a gift shop and a lighthouse. Although it seems lonely, the keeper and his family told us they would find it hard to leave when their tour of duty was up.
That afternoon I suited up and boarded the Zodiac for the last time. Destination? Wulaia Bay, one of the region’s largest Yamana aboriginal settlements. This is where Charles Darwin first made contact with Yaghan aboriginals and where Cruceros Australis is transforming an old naval radio station to a centre to preserve the area’s historical and archaeological heritage.
Back on the dock in Ushuaia, I felt like a seasoned adventurer. The scenery may look untouched, but no traveller can return from Patagonia without being a little changed.
Built in 2010, the Stella Australis boast 100 cabins spread over three decks and can accommodate 210 passengers. Life aboard ship is relaxed, with lectures in the afternoons and documentaries and films screened in the evenings. The food was excellent, with breakfast and lunch served buffet style and a formal dinner service, with menu choices, in the evening.
Safety, so prominent in the news these days, was foremost throughout the cruise. Briefings were held before the ship sailed, and all excursions were scouted by ship’s staff fore weather and shore conditions before embarking.
Bookend City: Punta Arenas, Chile
Set directly on the cobalt waters of the Strait of Magellan, Punta Arenas (at 53 degrees south) is the largest city below the 46th parallel. While remote, this is no far-flung village – with 120,000 residents, it’s a city in every sense of the word, a regional capital complete with an international airport, a bustling shopping district and a port that serves as the primary launch point for ships headed even further south, to Antarctica.
And although it is a rugged place (windswept, with corrugated steel the primary building material), it is home to a number of worthwhile attractions. Take in the impressive statue of Ferdinand Magellan in the centre of town (and tarry awhile to pick up some knick-knacks from the local sellers that gather there), then head to the engaging regional museum, a mix of curiosities (think two-headed calves and four-horned rams) and authentic items of historical interest, including a replica of Darwin’s Beagle and artifacts from the mountaineer priest Alberto de Agostini. And speaking of curiosities, a visit to the municipal cemetery is also worthwhile – a mix of the extravagant tombs of the very wealthy and working-class mausoleums (that resemble tenement housing blocks), with each small square decorated for its occupant.
Bookend City: Ushuaia, Argentina
Huddled in the shadow of the majestic, snow-capped Martial Range, Ushuaia is commonly regarded as the southernmost city in the world. A former penal colony and an important naval base, this pretty city on the Beagle Channel is now an important adventure centre. Visit an outfitter in town and enlist the services of a local guide to explore the wonders that surround – walk along the aquamarine waters of Lago Roca, take a trek up to one of the nearby glaciers, or swoop down the slopes of Cerro Castor on skis or a snowboard.
And if the weather is foul – as it is wont to be this far south – pay a visit to the fascinating Museo Marítimo & Museo del Presidio; housed in a former prison, it showcases penal life in Ushuaia. And, this being Argentina, the city is also home to plenty of places to raise a glass, including Kaupé, an intimate spot with great seafood and an extensive list of Argentinian vino.
A number of great explorers navigated the difficult waters of this region. Here are three of the greatest.
• Ferdinand Magellan: The man who captained the world’s first circumnavigation, Magellan piloted his fleet through the broad strait that now bears his name way back in 1520. Unfortunately, his personal voyage would not finish on fair shores – he was killed in the Philippines before completing the circumnavigation.
• Sir Francis Drake: A knight, a sailor and a privateer, Drake sailed through the Magellan Strait – en route to the world’s second circumnavigation – in 1578. And while he would make it back to queen and country, his voyage was also plagued by hardship – losing a number of ships from his fleet, and many men.
• James Cook: One of the greatest explorers of all time, Cook came this way more than once – on the way to Tahiti on his first voyage, in 1768, and even further south, to the fringes of Antarctica, in 1774.
Before & After
If you’re looking for even more adventure, here are a few Patagonian experiences that you can explore pre- or post-voyage.