It’s a five-hour ride from Torres del Paine National Park to Punta Arenas, where I will board the Stella Australis cruise ship to Ushuaia, Argentina. I wander on a street parallel to the Strait of Magellan, looking for the port, and pass a sleeping stray dog; he springs up immediately and starts walking ahead of me, occasionally looking back as though he’s guiding me there. I follow and sure enough, he leads me to a building where I will await embarkation, and leaves me there.
Once I finally reach the ship’s boarding stairs, the stray lay there napping. My momentary spirit guide makes me feel comfortable, but soon I’m in a small cabin with a very small shower, cueca music blaring from the intercom. I have a feeling I’m in for a long four days at sea.
Already the pisco sours and calafate sours are pouring when I attend the cocktail reception with a couple of mates I’ve befriended from Explora Patagonia, Julien and Gerald. We would share every meal at a table with a sweet Englishwoman traveling alone for the first time since her husband passed, and a French couple from Brittany, accompanied by the girl’s father and sister. The couple have already spent half a year journeying through distant lands such as Nepal, Thailand, Vietnam, and now they will finish the last half of their year-long expedition touring South America. Though the Frenchman won’t have a chance to indulge his love for bossa nova in Brazil or son cubano in Cuba on what he considers a short stay in South America. “Not this time,” he says. “But life is long.” Among them and my French-Australian and Austrian friends at the table, I feel the least cultured of the bunch. Tonight we go off the grid until we reach Ushuaia and I feel my sense of isolation kick in.
In the morning I feel stranded somewhere in the middle of Ainsworth Bay, but luckily we will disembark here. We all have to put on orange life vests and board zodiac boats that will take us to a beach within Alberto De Agostini National Park, named after an Italian priest and explorer who was one of the first to cross the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. We pass a few icebergs floating in the meltwater of the nearby Marinelli glacier. Once on the island, all the passengers are grouped by language; all of the Australis guides are multilingual.
Our English guide is Ricky, a small Chilean guy who walks us through the island, educating us about the local flora and fauna. He shows us the abandoned lodges built by non-native beavers that were introduced to Tierra del Fuego from Canada. Having no natural predators in the area, the beavers proliferated and bulldozed much of the indigenous forests, their dams causing floods that drowned vegetation and cattle grazing pastures, re-engineering the ecosystem even more than humans have. But as we stroll through the Magellanic evergreen forest, much of the beauty is still in tact here.
Ricky encourages us to touch the trunks of the coihue trees and feel the life energy they radiate. We taste a local berry called the chaura, which looks like a very tiny red apple, and even has a remotely apple-like texture to the bite. Ricky stops by a pond where the forest meets a cliffside, everything speckled with chartreuse-colored moss. He asks us to share a moment of silent awareness with him. Some close their eyes, while I can’t take my eyes off of the brilliant shades of green that decorate every surface. We listen to the trickle of the waterfall and breathe a quality of air that exists in few places in the world.
Once we emerge from the forest, a cambro of hot chocolate—and some whiskey to spike it with—is waiting for us. It’s the quintessential, warm pairing to the view of the Marinelli glacier in the distance. In the afternoon we ride the zodiacs around Tuckers Islets to meet a colony of Magellanic penguins, and a cormorant colony on nearby De la Fuente Islet; the stench of their nests composed of their own waste fills the air.
The onboard entertainment for the evening is a karaoke night. Honestly, nothing sounds more ridiculously fun when you’re sequestered on a cruise ship in a remote part of the ocean than singing hit songs with strangers; though it’s obvious when I ascend on the Darwin Deck and see just about fifteen passengers sitting, while a couple of guides sing a Spanish song, that this is not such a popular activity. Oh well, we’ll make the most of it. Many of the passengers there are brave enough to sing a few songs while some just hang back and watch. It must look like a fiasco: our United Nations of lunatics singing group renditions of songs by old rock bands.
It’s my Austrian friend’s birthday, so I convince him the most memorable way to celebrate is to butcher Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” with me. By the end of another song by Queen, most of the room is arm-in-arm screaming, “We are the champions!” A moment like this reminds me how the spirit of adventure—in this case, venturing to make a spectacle of yourself with a microphone in front of an audience—can be just the thing that inspires comradery among people, no matter the place, no matter their ethnic background or culture. That, and the pisco sours.
I wake to the voice over the intercom saying something about being near Desolation Island, which sounds, well, desolate. But the memory of karaoke night makes me laugh anyway, enough to keep me from feeling lonely.
The zodiacs weave through the icebergs in Pia Fjord that have carved off of the Pia Glacier. Our driver, Canito, gazes at the glacier, inhales the crisp air, and exhales in Spanish, “I love Patagonia.” The zodiac slows and stalls out against an iceberg halfway between the Stella Australis and the glacier. Canito looks perplexed as he examines the gear shift and engine, when it suddenly starts back up again. He laughs and so do we once we realize he was just teasing. The joke continues as he sings the tune to Chopin’s Funeral March.
We make it safely to land and spend forever staring at the massive Pia Glacier, waiting to witness carving. First we hear a loud crack and a boom like a cannon being fired, but as we scan the colossal glacier looking for the spot where the carving has occurred, only a giant splash finally gives us a hint of where the iceberg fell, like looking to the sky after a rolling thunder to find that the lightning is long gone. We hike up to a panoramic viewpoint, though the scenery is somewhat tainted by the spattering of orange life vests and brightly colored North Face jackets.
Once we return to the Stella Australis we cruise through Glacier Alley, home to one hanging glacier after another, each named after European countries (and one river). As we journey through Spain, Romanche, Germany, Italy, France, and Holland, the servers on the Darwin Deck surprise us with hors d’oeuvres inspired by each glacier’s namesake country. At the Germany glacier, we nosh on little sausages and sip mini glasses of German beer. As we move to Italy, little slices of pizza make the rounds. Once we reach France, we’re clinking glasses of champagne. I step out onto the weather deck and a double rainbow arches fully from port to starboard, adjacent to one of the glaciers. It doesn’t get more picturesque than this; as passengers snap photos of the elusive moment, the rainbow vanishes within minutes.
When there aren’t glaciers and double rainbows to stare at, time can move slowly on a boat, so when I’m asked to participate in a fashion show that evening, I’m game. The guides deck us out in Patagonia fleeces and Cape Horn baseball caps and we strut—awkwardly—for the couple dozen passengers that have congregated on the Darwin Deck for bingo night. After a few rounds of bingo I turn in early for the big, final disembarkation on Cape Horn the next day.
* * *
Our first stop on the last day is Navarino Island in Wulaia Bay. Patricio leads us on an easy stroll along the coast, telling stories of the Yamana, also known as Yaghan natives who inhabited this island. These nomadic aboriginals traveled and hunted by canoes that they built by hand with tree bark. Patricio shows us a replica of a Yaghan canoe in the little museum that has been established by Australis on the island. Their system of hunting involved men at the front of the canoe spearing fish and sea lions while the women rowed from the back. “These women were amazing, very strong women,” says Patricio. “As they rowed, they would look in the water for shellfish and then do you know what they would do? They would dive in the cold water and catch them with their hands.” The Yaghan were always naked despite the bitter temperatures they lived in, only slathered in the blubber of the sea lions they hunted.
Captain Robert FitzRoy of the HMS Beagle attempted to “civilize” some of these aboriginals by bringing them back with him to England. One was named by the sailors, Jemmy Button. A year later the natives were returned to Patagonia, and it was only a matter of time before Jemmy Button was back to his primitive ways. The English continued to intervene on the Yaghans’ way of life and their habitat. The clothing that English missionaries convinced them to wear infected them with foreign diseases; immigrants who introduced sheep farming to Navarino Island hunted Yaghans, who “stole” their sheep only because they had no understanding of the English concept of property. It’s alarming to learn that from the mid 19th–century to this day, an entire culture has been reduced from about 3,000 to just a single person—the last living full-blooded Yaghan, Cristina Calderon—her heritage hanging by a thread in one austere little building on an island near the edge of the world.
All day the guides have been warning us about the conditions around Cape Horn, a notoriously dangerous ship passage where the open ocean can bring on unpredictable winds and currents. They tell us there is a 50/50 chance that it will be safe enough for us to disembark on Cape Horn National Park, and even then, it’s likely to be a “wet landing.” I’m not a sailor but I suspect the caution is slightly dramatic—maybe to add to the storied mystique of the Cape—though no discredit to the crew’s diligent attention to safety. After a few guides ride a zodiac out to check the conditions, we’re given the go-ahead.
I search the skies for an albatross. Once we reach Hornos Island we’re spared a “wet landing.” I climb an infinite amount of stairs and then stagger against blustering winds along a wooden pathway to the Cape Horn monument: a sculpture of a silhouette of an albatross. From the monument, I look to the south and consider that I’m the closest to Antarctica that I probably ever will be for the rest of my life (just about five hundred miles).
On the opposite end of the pathway there’s a chapel and a lighthouse; a family lives there. Each year an officer from the Chilean Navy, along with his family, is stationed here to be the keeper of the lighthouse. I presume this must be a lonely fate for any family, to be isolated from civilization and faced with brutal weather conditions for the good part of an entire year. Then my awareness reverts back to the orange life vests all around, and I realize that the keepers of the lighthouse actually receive many visitors each week from the Australis cruises and other sailors that venture to round the Cape.
When I meet the officer, Andres, his wife, Paula, their son, Matias, and his little dog, Melchior, they seem poised. Andres even seems honored to hold the post. But the only real answer I’m able to draw from him about their experience living on Hornos is, “Good, it’s a new experience,” with a complacent smile plastered on his face.
I can’t help myself from feeling sympathy for the little boy who has to live at the edge of the world, his little dog his only companion to join him in exploring this short radius of an island. Then I remember the fancy-free guides and the gauchos from Explora, and my spirit dog, and the Australis guides singing karaoke and dancing tango on the Darwin Deck. And I remember something my guide Patricio told me: “The Yamana had a good life.” He showed me pictures of Yaghan spears with patterns carved into them as proof. For the Yaghan people, despite the lack of shelter, clothing, and sometimes food, it was still worthwhile to relax and create something beautiful. This evidence that the human spirit can be manifested in this way—unconditionally—is a reminder of the absolute truth that life is really, really good.
Weeks later, back home in Los Angeles, I hear an excerpt from a poem by Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, that would completely encompass my own Patagonian journey:
“And that’s why I have to go back
to so many places
there to find myself
and constantly examine myself
with no witness but the moon
and then whistle with joy,
ambling over rocks and clods of earth,
with no task but to live,
with no family but the road.”
Photo by Julien Capmeil
This is Part 2 of my story about traveling through Southern Patagonia. A version of this was published in Conde Nast Traveler China’s November 2015 issue.