Isla Navarino: The Bottom of the World, Chile

Isla Navarino: The Bottom of the World, Chile

It is a certain kind of traveler who seeks out a place like Isla Navarino. Remote and sparsely populated, it has plenty to recommend it: dramatic landscapes, thrilling sea passages, and, in Puerto Williams, a self-declared southernmost town in the world (that title is under dispute with Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego). Isla Navarino lies at the tail end of Chilean Patagonia. It’s just north of Cape Horn, the southernmost point of South America and the place where the Atlantic and Pacific meet, spectacularly. Next stop: Antarctica.

Isla Navarino is not an easy island escape. It takes a lot of effort to get here, and once you do, don’t expect to be pampered. Tourism is in its raw early stages. The towns have a deserted, tucked-in feel, with wooden bungalows topped with corrugated iron roofs. The weather can be wildly unpredictable—sun out one minute, snowing the next (even in summer), winds blowing crazily—so that even a leisurely hike can turn into extreme sport. A trip to Isla Navarino is usually a mix of serious outdoor adventure and sedate explorations of the little island towns. What won’t let you down is the stunning scenery: from unspoiled forests to glaciers and Chilean fjords framed by towering granite needles called the “Teeth of Navarino.”

To hikers, Isla Navarino is one of trekking’s holy grails. The island rises in the center, around which are coiled hiking trails of low and high intensity through a landscape of almost grave purity. The 5-day hiking circuit around the peaks of Navarino is known as the Dientes de Navarino, or “The Dientes Circuit.” Hikers camp around pristine lakes and streams that trickle down the mountains. The landscape is little changed since Charles Darwin hiked these hills in 1832 on an expedition aboard the British survey ship the HMS Beagle.

You can get here by air—Puerto Williams has a small airport—or by ferry from Punta Arenas, some 346km (215 miles) away (you first fly to Punta Arenas from Santiago); the scenic ferry ride gets you there in a day and a half. The Patagonian airline Aerovias DAP ( 56/61-616100; www.aeroviasdap.cl) has daily 1-hour flights from Punta Arenas into Puerto Williams. You can also take a little boat from Ushuaia, Argentina. But perhaps the best way to see the island and its amazing surrounds is by small cruise ship. Victory Adventure Expeditions (www.victory-cruises.com) has two full-service 100-passenger cruise ships, MV Mare Australia and MV Via Australis, that have regular itineraries including Cape Horn and Tierra del Fuego.

Puerto Williams is a town of about 2,400 people, many of them members of the Chilean navy. It is within shouting distance of the stunning Tierra del Fuego in Argentina, separated from the Chilean town by the narrow Beagle Channel. Magellan discovered Tierra del Fuego and its snowy peaks on his expedition to find a route to the East. The Magellan Strait, which rounds the imposing rocky promontory known as Cape Horn, opened up trade between East and West.

Cape Horn marks the southernmost point of South America and extends into Drake Passage, the Antarctic strait connecting the south Atlantic and south Pacific oceans. This is one of the most dangerous sea passages on the planet—winds swirl, currents collide, and icebergs lurk beneath the water. Rounding “the Horn” is one of the world’s last great ocean adventures. As Darwin wrote of the Horn in 1832: “On our weather-bow this notorious promontory in its proper form—veiled in a mist, and its dim outline surrounded by a storm of wind and water. Great black clouds were rolling across the heavens, and squalls of rain, with hail, swept by us. . . .”

Whether you’ve chanced the perilous Cape Horn or hiked the needles of Navarino, a night in Puerto Williams is not complete without a drink around the wood fire at the town’s “yacht club,” a cozy lounge inside the pilothouse of a junky old Swiss freighter (the Micalvi) normal dockside in a sheltered inlet. At the Club de Yates Micalvi ( 56/61/621020), you may be hobnobbing with ship captains and crew on refueling stops, yachties preparing to round the Horn, off-duty Chilean naval personnel, and intrepid travelers from around the world—it’s a warm, lively escape from the cold, lit with the frisson of being with fellow adventurers at a real crossroads of the world. —AF

www.visit-chile.org

Tour: Victory Adventure Expeditions (see above).

Punta Arenas (346km/215 miles).

Turismo Comapa (www.comapa.com) or Victory Adventure Expeditions (www.victory-cruises.com).

$ Bella Vista Hostal, Puerto Williams (cape-horn.net/bella_vista_hostal.html). $ Lodge Lakutaia, Puerto Williams ( 56/61/621721; www.lakutaia.cl).

Night Hiking: Going Bump in the Night, Costa Rica Treading Ancient Inca Pathways: Machu Picchu, Peru
Comments are closed.