When naval explorers rounded the cape of southernmost Chile, they had no idea of the mysteries they’d leave behind. Cruising at the tip of South America.
Story and Photos by Simon Vaughan
Our aircraft lurched sideways, climbed, then dropped dramatically. “We’ll try for one fly-past,” the Chilean pilot bellowed over the sound of the straining engines. “If anyone gets sick let me know and we’ll pull out.” With that the Twin Otter plunged, leaving our stomachs glued to the padded ceiling. For centuries, rounding Cape Horn—the southernmost tip of South America—has been an ordeal for sailors, akin to conquering Mount Everest for climbers.
But as my shoulder was banged violently into the fuselage and my head snapped emphatically in the opposite direction, I realized that even “rounding the Horn” by air was no walk in the park.
Slipping beyond the final straggling fingers of heavy cloud, we caught our first glimpse of the white-capped gun-metal grey seas roiling below. Rain streaked across the Perspex as the propeller blades battled the violent crosswinds. Isla Hermite honed into view, a wind-worn rocky outcrop ceaselessly battered by towering rollers from the Southern Ocean.
“Cabo de Hornos,” the pilot screamed, pointing forward through the windscreen as we lunged downwards.
Cape Horn is the northern terminus of the Drake Passage, the 1,000-kilometre stretch of water that separates South America from Antarctica, and the Atlantic from the Pacific; it’s one of the most dangerous pieces of ocean in the world. So remote is the Cape that if you were to set sail from it in an easterly or westerly direction you could circumnavigate the entire planet without encountering a single pebble of land along the way.
We dropped lower and Isla Hornos came into view, wedged between grey clouds and grey seas. The lighthouse smudged past just below. We banked around to make a second pass from the opposite direction, the pilot and co-pilot struggling to maintain control in the torrid conditions. After one wing dropped violently the engines were gunned and we were pushed back into our seats as we suddenly climbed into the clouds.
“I’m sorry,” the pilot called. “I just couldn’t control it any longer. At least you saw the Cape though.” With that we climbed higher, before turning northwest back to the very southern Chilean city of Punta Arenas.
• • •
To someone raised on tales of adventure and exploration, Cape Horn, Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego have always been magical names. Synonymous with the edges of the world and the very limits of humanity, southern Chile had long caught my attention.
“The winds are always terrible in Punta Arenas,” someone in northern Chile had forewarned me a few days earlier, when learning of my next destination. “They tie ropes between the lampposts to stop people being swept away.”
It had sounded like an urban myth at the time, but after landing in Punta Arenas and braving the winds for a walk as stray dogs cowered from the elements in shop doorways, I did indeed see ropes on the sidewalk. Whether left over from some construction work or, as my Atacamena friend had told me, to prevent people from being blown off their feet, I never did find out.
Punta Arenas’s first European settlers arrived on the remote shores of the Straits of Magellan in 1584 but were soon driven away by the weather, the scarcity of supplies and the stark isolation. In the 19th century the Chilean government turned it into a penal colony (mostly to establish ownership over the land). And the discovery of gold, arrival of sheep ranchers, and the community’s success as a port led to it becoming a wealthy place.
Today the city’s parks and squares are lined by historic government buildings, elegant churches and 19th-century mansions. Instead of an Austral outpost, Punta Arenas retains the air of a rather chilly, windswept Spanish city.
As I rounded a corner, my eye was drawn to a blue plaque on a building commemorating the city’s important role in polar exploration; the building was once the home of the British Club and in 1916 had served “as headquarters for the explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton when he was planning the rescue of his men of the Endurance, stranded at Elephant Island” (says the inscription).
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Punta Arenas had been no mere mail-drop or supply stop for Shackleton; instead, the city had played a significant role in what is now a well-known epic story of survival. His ship crushed in the ice and his men stranded on the barren and isolated Elephant Island, Shackleton had made a voyage to South Georgia by open lifeboat. After crossing the island’s unconquered and mountainous interior, “The Boss,” as he was called by his men, reached a whaling station, from where he travelled to the Falkland Islands and onto Chile.
In Punta Arenas, Shackleton was feted as a hero, and made the rounds of the city’s rich and influential, in an effort to organize the rescue of his remaining men. The Chilean government offered to assist him, and the local people—from ordinary citizens to wealthy ranchers and merchants—all chipped in to help with the considerable expense.
Finally, after several unsuccessful efforts, Shackleton set sail once more aboard the Chilean naval vessel The Yelcho under the command of the Chilean skipper Luis Pardo. The Yelcho made it through the ice, and Shackleton’s men hurriedly left their rocky outcrop before the conditions could also ensnare their saviour. Upon their arrival back in Punta Arenas, all were greeted as heroes and the legend of Shackleton as the great leader was forged.
Although Shackleton’s plight may be a favourite topic for motivational speakers, what few know is that the prow of The Yelcho rests in Chile’s Puerto Williams; the remote southernmost town in the world and my stepping off point for a trip around Cape Horn.
After consuming a bag of empanadas, I headed across a square to the Bar Shackleton for a nightcap. Located in the former home of a wealthy magnate who had assisted the explorer with his fundraising efforts, I settled in a wood-paneled room in which Shackleton himself had likely dined. Surrounded by photos of The Boss and illustrations of his dramatic journey, I sat and sipped a local Hernando de Magallanes beer and looked ahead to my own trip to The End of the World.
The next day I set sail into the Straits of Magellan aboard the Stella Australis, an expedition cruise ship that plies its trade between Punta Arenas and Ushuaia, Argentina. With shadows lengthening and the chill of a Patagonian spring driving us inside the ship’s comfortable lounge, we headed away towards Alberto de Agostini National Park.
Over the coming days we sailed narrow waterways beneath towering cliffs, our way blocked by mountainous glaciers. For centuries these channels had frustrated ancient mariners seeking a passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It was the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan who was the first European to track the entire strait in 1520. While we spent our evenings gazing skyward at spectacular celestial displays, early explorers had warily watched the shoreline campfires of the local Yahgan people and accordingly dubbed the region Land of Fire: or, Tierra del Fuego.
We explored small inlets by zodiac and walked amid hundreds of Magellanic penguins. Condors soared the winds rising from cliff faces, while dolphins raced ahead of our bow and darted around our inflatables. We returned to Punta Arenas just ahead of a massive blanket of pristine-white fog that engulfed the city, suppressing any sound and even steadying the incessant wind.
Early the next morning I awoke to a blizzard of heavy wet snow. At the airport our pilot greeted us. “I had hoped to take you around Cape Horn on the way in,” he explained. “But the winds are too strong today. Hopefully we’ll still get into Puerto Williams.”
Perched on the northern edge of Isla Navarino, across the Beagle Channel from the island of Tierra del Fuego and barely 100 kilometres north of Cape Horn, Puerto Williams really is The End of the World.
To reach the town is not easy. You can fly from Punta Arenas on DAP, an airline that not only services Chile’s far south but ventures directly down to Chile’s Antarctic stations. You can also take a 30-hour ferry from Punta Arenas that winds its way through the same channels explored by Magellan, Drake and Darwin; or if lucky, hop a boat from the nearby Argentine city of Ushuaia.
After flying over snowcapped mountains, ice-choked bays and heaving glaciers, we glimpsed Ushuaia through a hole in the cloud and slipped across the Beagle Channel. Buffeted by the winds, we started a wide turn and came to a solid landing in Puerto Williams, where we were met by Carina Juhovva, a local official.
“Welcome to Puerto Williams,” she greeted us warmly. A free spirit if there ever was one, Carina left her native Estonia some seven years ago on an epic walkabout that saw her reach the very tip of South America. “I have a dream,” she explained, with widened blue eyes and an enthusiasm that would have pleased Shackleton. “I want to walk across Antarctica. From here to Australia or New Zealand. I don’t know how it will happen, but I know it will.”
When Carina arrived in Mexico having hitchhiked, worked, begged and borrowed across three continents, she didn’t speak a word of Spanish and had barely any money. In fact, it was a Micmac Chief she had met on a train in Nova Scotia who donated the Air Miles that allowed her to reach Mexico. It would have been a physically and emotionally exhausting journey for even the hardiest of adventurers, yet far from exhausted Carina was invigorated by every sunrise and heartened by the generosity of strangers.
“When you are at your most vulnerable,” she said to me with an infectious conviction, “people are good to you. When you have no money, they will help you. It is when you have too much that you find trouble.”
It was never Carina’s intention to halt her journey at Puerto Williams, but the frontier town surrounded by thick forest, towering peaks and the sparkling waters of the Beagle Channel had captured her imagination—by the time I met her she had been there for two years.
“I don’t know how much longer I will stay,” she said. “But I love it!”
We made our way down quiet streets lined with colourful wooden houses beneath a quilt-work of corrugated metal roofs. We passed the headquarters of the Chilean Antarctic Territory and the exceptional Martin Gusinde Anthropological Museum, while fishing boats hauled in massive catches from the cold southern waters. On the outskirts of town the road weaved through gentle forest until we arrived at our accommodations, Lakutaia Lodge.
“This is the southernmost lodge in the world,” Denis Chevallay told us, as we stood on the doorstep and watched large birds of prey strut across the lawn. Originally from Switzerland, Denis had been as captivated by Puerto Williams as Carina, and was now a highly acclaimed guide, historian and general fixer. His enthusiasm for the region was contagious, and after a lunch of the freshest—and largest!—king crab you could ever imagine we headed away from the lodge and towards Omora Ethnobotanical Park.
“Puerto Williams was named after a British sailor who joined the Chilean navy and later served as governor,” Denis explained as we trekked toward the forest. “We have a population of almost 3,000 people, including those at the naval base, but attract less than that in visitors each year, despite the wonderful scenery, great hiking and fishing, and hundreds of archaeological sites that date back thousands of years.”
The forest was dense but gentle. It was similar to Pacific Northwest woods yet indescribably different, with curtains of moss hanging from lenga beech and lichens working their way up the trunks.
“The park is a bio-cultural conservation initiative,” Carina said as we followed a boardwalk. “See the beaver dam down there? Beavers were introduced a long time ago and have wreaked havoc in the forests.”
“Look there,” she suddenly exclaimed, excitedly pointing at a treetop. “That is the Magellanic woodpecker. People come from all over the world to see it. You are very lucky today!”
After taking magnifying glasses to explore wild jungles of moss and drinking in the pristinely-fresh southern air with its mix of salt and wood, we headed back to town.
“Those are the Dientes de Navarino mountains,” Denis said, pointing to the jagged pinnacles of rock that soared out of the forests behind us. “There’s a five-day 53-kilometre hiking trail up there that’s regarded as among the best in the world. Only a handful of people tackle it each year. The scenery is spectacular with alpine lakes and breathtaking views of the Beagle Channel. On a clear day you can even see Cape Horn from the highest point.”
“It can be very challenging though,” Carina cautioned. “If you don’t treat the mountains with respect you can get into trouble. I have seen experienced trekkers return in tears, exhausted by bad weather and hardship. Experts who thought they were going to die. But others with little experience have returned with big smiles saying that it wasn’t difficult at all. The local Yahgan people consider the area to be sacred, and I think those that don’t respect the mountains pay the price.”
After dinner, we made our way to the Puerto Williams Yacht Club. With mud-caked hiking boots and a dusty fleece, I fretted that I wasn’t dressed appropriately for a yacht club—until I saw this yacht club.
At the end of a gangway hung a sign reading “The Southest Yacht Club in the World.” The club was located onboard the Micalvi, an old Chilean cutter long since retired from maritime duty. The old ship listed dangerously to one side, with bare bulbs weakly illuminating the deck. Music vibrated and light oozed through the portholes. As the door opened, a wave of musty heat flooded out accompanied by the pounding music.
The ceiling was low and festooned with flags from all over the world. Each one was from a different yacht, boat or ship that had rounded the Horn and all were signed by crews long since forgotten. The bar seemed to offer nothing more than beer, but the coziness of the club outweighed any lack of selection. A few locals gathered in one corner, while a table was surrounded by the crew of a French yacht. If ever they built a clubhouse on top of Mount Everest and gave it a nautical theme, I suspected it would feel like this.
Sudden cheering made me spin around. There, on the tiny dance floor beneath the claustrophobically-low ceiling, Carina the Estonian was engaged in an epic dance-off with a Colombian. That a northern European was capable of such fiery Latin dance was awe-inspiring; but then, again since arriving in Puerto Williams I had realized that anything was possible at The End of the World.
• • •
“The pilot called,” Denis said the following morning, as the soft pink of dawn illuminated the Argentine mountains across the Channel. “He’s left Punta Arenas, and although it’s windy he thinks he might be able to take you for that swing around Cape Horn on your way back. Keep your fingers crossed.”
Puerto Williams is only a dozen or so kilometres in length. I felt I had seen it all until I worriedly realized that I hadn’t spotted the Yelcho, the ship that had rescued Shackleton’s men.
“Denis, is it true that the prow of the Yelcho is here?” I asked, hopefully.
Denis’s eyes widened. “You are interested in Shackleton?” I nodded in the affirmative. “Yes, yes, it is true. At the naval base. Would you like to see it?”
I nodded eagerly, again, while Denis looked at his watch and then out of the large windows toward the airport. “Come on,” he said. “We’ll go but must be quick. You wait by the door.”
With that he dashed off. A few moments later I heard the crunch of tire on gravel and he returned in a van. We drove through town and down a road I hadn’t seen before, then Denis stopped and jumped out. Across the road was what looked like a small sports arena and a cluster of shops. At the entrance stood what many people would likely take to be a piece of rustic modern sculpture.
“That’s it,” Denis said. “The prow of the Yelcho.”
A narrow piece of metal—grey at the top and black at the bottom, with an anchor chain tumbling forth—stood on the grass, mounted to a large concrete block. At the base was a metal sign retelling the story of the Yelcho and Ernest “Schackleton,” the spelling on the plaque.
As I walked around, Denis told me a story.
“Have you ever heard of Charles Milward, the British consul in Punta Arenas when Shackleton was there? One evening when he was hosting Shackleton the explorer was playing with a gun when it accidentally fired, grazing Charley’s ear! I managed to track down Milward’s daughter and called her. She was very old. She said she had once had the picture from her father’s wall that the bullet had passed through.”
At that moment we heard the engines of our plane approaching in the distance. We loaded up the Twin Otter with our gear and before climbing the stairs I turned and waved farewell to Carina, Denis and Puerto Williams. I had fulfilled a lifelong dream to come to The End of the World; but my visit had left me more determined than ever to return and see more—perhaps to trek the Dientes de Navarino, or even do a salsa in the yacht club. ♦
Simon Vaughan is Senior Editor at Outpost Travel Media. This story first appeared in Outpost magazine and has been adapted.