Clumps of brownish scrub—winter seaweed—dappled the coastline of Ainsworth Bay. Bluish tinted ice floes, the buoyant remains of the Marinelli Glacier, drifted lazily toward the banks. For a photo opportunity, I flopped like an elephant seal, rather unceremoniously, atop one of the larger bergs stranded on the shore. In the distance, late afternoon clouds kissed the snowy mountain peaks of the Darwin Cordillera. Quite literally, my husband Gustavo and I were at the southernmost tip of the American Continent, in Tierra del Fuego Chile, for a week-long expeditionary cruise aboard the Stella Australis.
Suitably dubbed ‘the Land of Fire' by the Spaniards, as they stared from their galleons at the blazing bonfires of Selk’nam tribesmen, this was the last vestige of the mainland before the South Pole. I discovered a land where glaciers, mountains, and oceans converge in Tierra del Fuego.
Exploring Tierra del Fuego
We had just trekked with our tour guide for an hour through virgin woodland, through thickets of deciduous lenga trees. The excursion followed in the footsteps of the 16th-century explorer, Ferdinand Magellan, even as we had sailed the strait that bore his name. Our group toasted to our adventurous spirit with a whiskey on the rocks…’ the rocks’ being actual glacial ice, millenniums old. Despite that momentary swill of warming liquor in my belly, I opted to nurse a hot chocolate instead, while waiting for our Zodiac back to the boat.
As I looked across the tranquil bay waters, toward the purple haze that had settled on the mountainous crests, I imagined myself as part of Darwin’s expeditionary team, charting a course across the Beagle Channel. Sailing to the outer fringes of the planet’s vast oceans, in search of unknown cultures and untold treasures.
Settling in on the Stella Australis
The fleet of Cruceros Australis, specially-designed vessels with ice cutters at the bow, forged the channels of the Chilean and Argentine Patagonia. For myself, an adventurous traveler who enjoys visiting remote corners of the globe, but still appreciates the nuances of fine cuisine and accommodations, the Stella Australis perfectly fit the bill. Eight days of exploring the isolated terrain, at world’s end. Untouched by man, untarnished by Father Time.
The panga finally arrived to return us to the cruise ship where we feasted like royalty and drank cocktails long into the night. All-inclusive. I was hesitant about tasting the congrio (eel), having seen the snake-like fillets hanging in the fish market at Sangelmo earlier in the week in Santiago. But the chef was a culinary master; to put it simply, he wowed me. I finished every morsel and nearly licked the pattern off the plate trying to savor the last traces of sauce.
A Glacier Adventure in Tierra del Fuego—Brookes Bay
With morning’s approach, we were off on another glacier adventure—Brookes Bay. The sun had abandoned us and a dreary fog lay across the top of the glacier, like a mantle. Nevertheless, we all herded into Zodiacs and surged through the salty waters of Admiralty Fjord.
We disembarked onto a playground of granite-like boulders that resembled hardened volcanic ash. A pall of sleet momentarily disturbed our viewing, enough to necessitate the return of our photographic equipment to the protection of our backpacks. It faded away and the expedition carried on.
A Glacier Adventure in Tierra del Fuego—Pia Fjord
The following day, the Stella Australis sallied into Pia fjord. Gustavo and I trailed behind the rest of the crowd onto the viewing platform. Like an artist’s canvas, chunks of ice, both titan and teensy and striated with blue, floated through the inlet—discarded jetsam from the retreating berg.
“Let’s sit here for ten minutes of silence. Have your cameras and video recorders ready,” the tour guide advised. At his suggestion, we sat, completely devoid of voices, the quiet only broken by an occasional cough or someone changing position on the uncomfortable stone. Waiting. Two hundred people from the Stella Australis waiting patiently to witness the calving of a glacier…to see Mother Earth work her magic. She didn’t disappoint.
I wasn’t lucky enough to photograph the moment the ice sheered from the wall. But Gustavo caught the eardrum-shattering ‘crack’ of the melting berg on video, as it dispersed into the water. I felt inconsequential against this display of nature’s raw power. And glad to be at a safe distance. The Arctic thaw tumbled into the bay like an explosion of dynamite, causing a sudden voluminous wave—more than enough to engulf a Zodiac.
We giggled like schoolchildren as we shuffled back to our motorized rides. Once onboard, I perched myself on deck, near the prow, ready to embrace that polar wind. Edging away from the Canal de Ballanero, the cruise ship maneuvered along the northwestern arm of the Beagle Channel, and leisurely navigated the fabulous ‘Avenue of the Glaciers’.
I ‘oohed’ and ‘ahhed’ at one ventisquero after another—’snowdrift’ glaciers that seemed to descend right down from the sky.
My jaws stood gaping wide, awestruck by the passing landscape. The reflection of the majestic ice fields shimmering across the tranquil Patagonian sound, to be frank, took my breath away.
Navigating Cape Horn
Nearing the end of our journey, we prepared for the entrance into the Drake Passage where the headwaters of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans converged. Through Murray Channel and Nassau Bay, our captain steered us into non-stop blustering winds and churlish seas, guiding us around the Cape (Cabo de Hornos). Cape Horn, that is. A craggy boneyard for ships tousled by the raging seas.
I had felt the subtle change the last night when we left the relative calm of the channel and entered the open ocean. I had stared out the cabin windows, mesmerized by the swirling froth below. Giant swells and constant reeling of the ship had dispelled the gentle rocking motion of the last few days. Sleep came with a different tempo.
The Stella anchored away from the jagged headland of the Cape, forcing us once more into the Zodiacs for the harrowing excursion to shore. I felt the saline spray on my face as the water splashed over the side of the panga. A crusty layer of salt dried on my lips. The taste of the sea…testament of my visit to this tempestuous archipelago in Chilean Tierra del Fuego.
At the landing, I clung to the railing and stumbled onto the wooden boardwalk. Flanked on both sides by roiling ocean and frigid, buffeting winds, the desolate staircase of Cape Horn yawned before me. Gustavo and I ascended 1394-ft. of sheer cliff-face to the lonesome albatross statue on the far side of the promontory, an artfully-sculpted memorial to mariners claimed by the sea.
Forged from 100 tons of steel, the silent sentinel stood as a grave marker for marooned vessels and seafarers lost to the surly depths. It was hard to believe we were standing at the most austral pinnacle in Patagonia, just shy of the South Pole.
Sailing into Wulaia Bay
Late afternoon found the ship cruising into Wulaia Bay, the home of ancient aboriginal Indians, the Yamanás.
By the time we trekked uphill to the overlook, which offered a panoramic view of the surrounding fjords, the sun was just beginning its slow descent, casting sparkles of iridescent light into the cove. Sinking below the horizon…one last sunset before our arrival at Ushuaia, and the end of the first leg of our journey.
Sailing into Ushuaia—Gateway to Patagonia
The second half of our expedition began at another lookout point, at the entrance to el Pase Aerosilla (the chairlift pass)—atop Glaciar Martial, in Argentina, where a rocky trail to the snowy peaks ran alongside the ski lift. I particularly enjoyed the view going down…wooded brush-land approaching a town of colorful pastel houses perched at the edge of a bustling seaport. Yachts and frigates sailed through the freezing waters, tourism catamarans too, while freighters and supertankers crowded the pier of this most southerly city in the world. Ushuaia—the gateway to Patagonia.
As we re-boarded the cruise ship for our eventual return to the Magellan Strait, I felt a tinge of sadness to be leaving this South American town located at the end of the world. Instead of a city buried beneath the snow and wracked by howling arctic gales, I found a quaint, cosmopolitan town with all the amenities—cinemas, libraries, schools, even well-stocked bodegas for shopping. All the comforts of home, just a stone’s throw from Antarctica…well, 1238km of a stone's throw, if you want to be exact…the way the albatross flies.
Final Stop in Tierra del Fuego—Isla Magdalena
I couldn’t wait for our last stop at Isla Magdalena, a protected reserve of pingüinos (penguins). With fishing banned by the government twenty miles in a complete arc around their island, the resident penguins could languish for hours in the frigid currents, ferreting out their dinner, without fear.
Clothed in tuxedos, they waddled clumsily toward the coastline; once in the ocean, though, they glided through the tides like Olympic swimmers. These penguin colonies went about their daily routines, oblivious to our droves…slinging sand building their hole-in-the-ground nests, dancing, a few even romancing.
After the rookery, the ship would be obligated, once more, to pass by the Cape. Again, I pulled the knit cap down over my head, adjusted my fleece neck-warmer, grabbed my husband’s arm, and began that long upward climb. We stood together, side by side, on the edge of the bluff, staring out into that expanse of the endless ocean. Holding hands…and staring glassy-eyed at the rogue waves. Here, on this arctic peninsula of the Americas, deep in Tierra del Fuego Chile, in the country of my husband’s birth.
The surf continued to beat the rock-strewn shores, whilst the unrelenting winds wailed across the jutting headland; I couldn’t be sure if the ringing in my ears was just the blustering breezes or the chattering of my teeth. For more on Australis cruises or to book your cruise to Tierra del Fuego Chile, filled with wow moments visit the website here. Also, find more exciting articles about travel in South America by Wander writers.