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Cruising at the bottom of the world

David C. Weber

As mythical and enthralling as Shangri-la or Timbuktu, Patagonia

lives with an engaging mystique. If you eat the calafate blueberry

jam from the wild berries, it is said you shall return to Patagonia.


I most assuredly hope I may -- for otherwise its famous western winds

might have blown me away. For seven days I sailed with 120 other

American tourists on the modern Chilean ship Mare Australis around

historic parts of Tierra del Fuego, this vast barren island at the


Patagonian, southernmost part of this hemisphere. This meeting of sea

and land must be seen to be believed for its beauty, harshness and


The Patagonian winds are famous, tumultuous and drive impressive

clouds that swirl in across the continental ice cap, forming high

clouds, low dark clouds, lenticular lens-shaped clouds. The glaciers

are almost overwhelming. Some are advancing, others receding with a

terminal moraine as evidence, or hanging, or issuing huge rivers


beneath the brow. Some display myriad massive vertical crevasses,

deep blue scores extending from the clouds to calving into the

saltwater in thunderous displays of energy stored for centuries.

Around this big island with the innumerable picturesque fjords, we

walked among thousands of Magellanic Penguins, saw elephant and fur

seals, FitzRoy dolphins, many Andean condors, families of wild

guanaco (related to the llama, vicuna and alpaca), humpbacked whales,

scads of swooping black-browed albatross, such other pelagic birds as


the giant petrel, and more black-necked swans and coscoroba swans

than I could imagine. Though exciting sightings, my 70 bird species

were quantitatively low since early March was after their migration

north had begun.

For you carnivores, we were told by our guide that only two

restaurants in Punta Arenas legally serve guanaco steaks, so inquire

if you’re there and wish to try that wild taste.

And, as a result of beavers being introduced in 1946 for fur

pelts, some of us walked a bit inland to the largest beaver dam and

lodge I’ve ever seen. The 50 imported beavers have grown to an

estimated 100,000 -- a real environmental problem -- and the original

prospect of pelt value has been a commercial failure.

We are near five centuries after Ferdinand Magellan discovered the

strait that runs above this huge island, now shared by Chile and

Argentina. And how rich in history (and the agonies of sailing ships)

has been this escape from the fearsome winds and storms of Cape Horn.

Just read chapter five of Dana’s “Two Years before the Mast” to learn

what terrors sailors faced. Then in 1833, another route was

discovered between the strait and Cape Horn when the ship Beagle,

with Charles Darwin on board, found and named the Beagle Channel

through which we also sailed. This most fearsome stretch of ocean in

the world was used by California Gold Rush ‘49ers. Until the Panama

Canal opened in 1914, one of these three routes between the Atlantic

and the Pacific simply had to be endured.

Today, occasional cruises enable one to transit the Patagonian

passages of the Beagle Channel and the Magellan Strait, one south and

the other north and west of Tierra del Fuego. I found it a rich

experience -- even with its formidable weather. These are waters that

frequently are awesome. Rain as much as 20 feet annually. Winds that

can prevent people standing and prompting the city of Punta Arenas on

the strait to lash cables at times between lampposts to aid human

movement along its main street. These are the winds that Charles

Darwin termed nothing short of “impetuous.”

The ship carries four zodiacs (heavy-duty inflatable rubber boats)

daily taking us to shore for dry landings (My wife and I recently

cruised the Sea of Cortez with zodiac landings wet -- not so

simple!). Every shore expedition to visit a glacier, the elephant

seals or a remote ranchera in chilling breeze ended with the group of

us being offered hot chocolate and scotch to warm the soul before the

zodiacs return to the ship. Really roughing it?

On this island as large as New Hampshire and Vermont combined,

nearly all its inhabitants live in two communities, which we visited.

I walked Ushuaia’s main streets in a downpour, trying to experience

Argentine atmosphere. Just below, at 55 degrees south latitude, we

stopped at Navarino Island to visit the southernmost town in the

world: Puerto Williams. Meat, veggies, fruit and fish are superb

everywhere. And meals on the cruise ship were excellent, with amazing

desserts. But, ah, the ever-present Pisco sours!

I found other surprises: A picturesque modern narrow-gauge

railroad outside Ushuaia was originally built early last century by

hundreds of prisoners, to harvest the deciduous southern false-beech

trees in this sub-Antarctic valley. The historic Estancia at the head

of Yendegaia Bay showed its summer population of merely 15 friendly

ranch cats, asking us to pet them. And on the Beagle Channel dwell

the descendants of the Yaghan (or Yamana) natives who live where

their documented history goes back 7,500 years. And would one believe

that Austral Parakeets thrive in this tempestuous land?

My lasting memory of Tierra del Fuego is of the scenic grandeur

and spaciousness, a pristine land of huge glacier-capped mountains,

stunted brush clinging to precipitous cliffs rising out of the

thrashing seas. And it is a paradise for the mammals of the sea, for

fish, and for the bird life, which finds this a rich habitat --

amazingly -- at all times of the year.

* DAVID C. WEBER is a resident of Corona del Mar.