A blazing sunset stretched over the sea of mountain peaks as the ferry began its voyage towards the Land of Fire.
This was my route to Isla Navarino in southern Chile, riding the weekly 38-hour barge through epic Mallegan Straits.
(So named after the Portuguese explorer who sailed here in 1520, finding a sea passage between the Americas and Asia and later circumnavigating the world. Although he later died in The Philippines on route, his expedition successfully returned to Europe).
Punta Arenas is the departure point for Puerto Williams
On the shores of the Straits of Mallegan is the port of Punta Arenas, and there I began my journey south.
In Punta Arenas – to prove to myself that I still had a lust for adventure – I explored the brothels serving the naval and fishing sectors.
(Yet the blur of rooms by-the-hour and a painful morning realization of deep scratches across my shoulders left me wondering, was it worth it? Maybe, for her?)
Yes, exploring has its hazards.
And many sailors have succumbed to this hostile world where the Straits of Mallegan flow into the Beagle Channel—where it hits Cape Horn and the treacherous seas known as the world’s largest ship cemetery.
In 1832, Darwin cruised here towards his later evolutionary discoveries and they named this passage after the ship he travelled on (H.M.S. Beagle).
Albatrosses circled our ship. Or were they petrels?
Snow mountains surrounded this narrow stretch of sea and there rose the rugged coast of Tierra del Fuego.
“Into the Land of Fire”
Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan had named this massive wilderness of an island for the constant sighting of fires, which the native people keep lit, day and night.
It was bleak outside.
Voyaging at a slow 8 knots while the sun struggled thru dark clouds, I rotated between a reclining seat inside and slugging red wine by the cask-load with 2 English travelers on the cold-steel deck as it snowed at sea.
Swirling snow, dark seas, barren slopes, ya gotta wonder how anyone endured in their wooden ships and all without knowing where it ends.
For me, it was easy.
There was an end-game: “The Southern-most City in the World.”
But Puerto Williams is not a city.
No, it’s a Chilean naval settlement with a population of 2874, of which 80% are male. So I’m not sure if they can label it a ‘city’.
That’s just the hype to rival Argentina, which actually has the southern-most city when based on population.
During the 19th century settlers came to Isla Navarino to rise sheep and hunger for gold, yet they only established Puerto Williams in 1953.
(They named it after John Williams Wilson, the Brit who founded Fuerte Bulnes, which was the first European settlement in the Strait of Magellan; you can still visit this wooden-stockade).
The only thing I had to face was the freeze coming in fast.
(Months earlier, I’d stashed my cold-weather clothing in Peru, suddenly leaving the Andes for a summer break in Buenos Aires. But then, plans went south, and I was in Punta Arenas buying another jacket.)
How to get to Puerto Williams – from Punta Arenas – by the ferry
NOTE: there’s a recently built vessel since my trip called Ferry Yaghan and it’s somewhat betterwith more comforts:
The Transbordadora Austral Broom company does the 350 km in 32 hours. Leaving from Punta Arenas, you’ll find the office on Avenue Bulnes.
Phone: +(56) (61) 2728100.
Things change, so best to check the latest prices + schedule at there website: www.tabsa.cl.
During the summer, the ferry leaves Punta Arenas four times a month on Wednesday and returns on Saturday.
Sleeping facilities are reclining seats or sofa bed seats.
Tickets include meals and beverages (breakfast, lunch, dinner). There’s also a 24 hour tea and coffee service.
Leaving Puerto Williams
Departing Puerto Williams, I’d wanted to hitch with a fishing boat to Argentina.
The Beagle Channel waters separated Puerto Williams from the coast of Argentina by less than 10 km; however, it was 60 km to Ushuaia, the closest city in Argentina.
But it wasn’t possible.
Rules forbid boats taking passengers and there were no ferries between Argentina and Chile because of continuing political animosities (that nearly brought war to the Beagle Channel in the 1970s).
Only option – fly.
I joined with an English couple – my wine-drinking friends from the ferry – to take a chartered flight, and so a plane from the Ushuaia Aero Club collected us.
Squeezed into a 4-seater (last seat was the pilot), we cruised above the calm waters of the Beagle Channel towards the snowy peaks of Argentina.
They declared the area of Isla Navarino and the surrounding islands a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2005, called Cabo de Hornos Biosphere Reserve.