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.