Overland miles: 8358 Bus hours: 265.25 Empanadar: 26
We arrived bleary-eyed in Punta Arenas sometime on 28 December, not knowing if we were awake or asleep. Having gone the whole night with virtually no kip, apart from a couple of hours on the last leg of our journey, we were experiencing a new level of extreme tiredness and another new landscape. Not so long ago, we’d left behind the lush greens of Colombia and Ecuador for the acres of brown coastal dessert in northern Peru. Now we found ourselves in an alien landscape. The Andes were long gone, replaced by short, thick tufts of grass, gorse bushes and patches of heather. Shack-like pre-fab houses, that somehow stayed up despite the fierce wind, dotted the countryside, sporting tiny front gardens filled with lupins. And it was cold, very cold.
After sleeping off some of our tiredness in our hostel we wandered into the town centre to plan stage 2 of our time in Patagonia – a trip to Puerto Williams, on Isla Navarino – officially the southernmost settlement in the world. Ushuaia in Argentina also claims a similar title: la ciudad el mas austral en el mundo (‘the southernmost city in the world’), but for those wanting to get as far south in Latin America as they can (unless you’re counting Antarctica, which isn’t owned by anyone and is mainly populated by Emperor penguins and bearded scientists), little Puerto Williams is the place they need to head to.
The companies that help you get there have yet to embrace Internet booking systems so we had to go direct to their offices to get our tickets. We were in (partial) luck with the airline DAP: they could fly us but had nothing free until after the New Year. We had less luck with the 30 hour ferry through the Beagle channel that we’d hoped to take back (Jovian was already determined to complete the overland/sea route from this point on). The twice weekly boat was full for the next fortnight but we discovered we could return via Ushuaia, a short trip across the channel. Problem solved – we just had to hang out in Punta Arenas for a few days more than planned.
We entertained ourselves with a visit to a penguin colony (which Jovian will fill you in on), and ate Queque de Navidad (Christmas cake, our first festive food of the season) and drank Earl Grey tea at the very quaint Cafe Inmigrante, a teashop run by Croatian immigrants whose family first moved to the area in the mid nineteenth century. New Year’s Eve was celebrated with our hostel companions with a fine spread put on by the friendly owners.
Finally, January 2 rolled in and we were definitely ready to leave Punta Arenas, having been blown down all its streets and taken shelter in all the cafes with free wifi. Our plane (unfortunately not the advertised twin otter we’d hoped for, but a rather sturdier small jet), flew low over the stunning snow-topped mountains of Tierra del Fuego (land of fire), then bumped its way to a hurried landing across a tiny strip of Tarmac on coast of Isla Navarino. We headed into the large-ish shed serving as the airport’s terminal and met the proprietress of our hostel, Refugio El Padrino, the indomitable Cecilia. After receiving deep embraces, we were bundled into her ageing four wheel drive and introduced to life at the end of the world.
(Click on a picture to see the full gallery)
The town itself has just 2,000 inhabitants, most of whom work for the navy, the rest in construction and tourism. To use the Internet you have to go to the library, museum or yacht club. Crime is nonexistent as there’s nowhere to go with your swag. Anyone that’s not a local is generally there to do the demanding five day ‘Dientes de Navarino’ circuit, or is flying in and out solely to tick a box. We were somewhere in the middle. Nowhere near capable or desirous of spending five days at the mercy of nature, but wanting to experience the splendid isolation of a remote Patagonian outpost, we decided to take a few days to get to know the place. Luckily, we discovered plenty of shorter, day-long walking and cycling options available for novices like us. We trekked up snow-topped Cerro Bandera, the steep mountain climb that is the first day of the Dientes circuit, cycled along the coastal road and visited the indigenous village of Ukika, home to Patricia, aka the last surviving speaker of the Yahgan language.
Thanks to Cecilia’s local connections, we found out the ferry was making an extra trip that week, to pick up gas from the mainland. They were taking passengers too, although they weren’t telling that to anybody. And so it was that our return journey back to Punta Arenas – against an eery backdrop of glaciers and mountains – was spent with just four fellow passengers, a few empty gas tankers, and a family of seals playing in the icy waters.