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Away from it all: Pure adventure cruising around Chilean Patagonia

Away from it all: Pure adventure cruising around Chilean Patagonia
As South America’s adventure travel favourites begin to reopen to tourists, Nori Jemil recalls navigating the wilderness at the continent’s southern tip

Sitting on the striated rocks of a glacial moraine, looking across the water to Pia Glacier, we wait for the next shard of ice to fall. It occurs to me that these same views would have wowed the first Europeans to come here, 500 years ago. It was 1520 when Ferdinand Magellan and his crew sailed the passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific, completing a three-year circumnavigation of the globe.

I’ve been coming to Patagonia for over a decade. While most tourists, quite understandably, head first to Torres del Paine or Argentina’s El Chaltén for trekking, there is a world of remote, silent beauty beyond its best known national parks. Towards the very end of the region’s Southern Cone lies Tierra del Fuego; Isla Grande, its main landmass, is cleft by the Chilean-Argentine border; while a myriad of smaller islands edge the south west coast, separated by fjords and the Strait of Magellan.

There’s so much wilderness here, so far from human habitation, that it might just be one of the last bastions of undertourism. Chile’s Route of Parks, launched in 2018 and linking all national parks from Puerto Montt to Cape Horn, includes Alberto de Agostini – the third largest in the country, and a location one can only reach by sea. A UNESCO biosphere reserve, its subpolar forest of native lenga and coigüe trees makes it one of the most pristine locations on the planet. Like the Italian missionary and photographer it was named after, I was rapt as soon as I saw its peaks and glaciers.

Ventus Australis in Alberto de Agostini National Park

Setting sail from Punta Arenas, the ‘Darwin Route’ from Chile to Argentina takes us through part of the Strait of Magellan. We don’t travel the entirety of the passage on this trip. The stretch that took Magellan’s tall ships around a month, we tackle in four days, detouring south towards Cape Horn and the Beagle Canal. For the most part, it’s plain sailing in sheltered fjords and channels between the mountains of the Darwin Range, the final land-based part of the Andean spine before its coccyx sinks into the ocean.

There’s so much wilderness here, so far from human habitation, that it might just be one of the last bastions of undertourism

The sun sets over Punta Arenas as we leave city life behind, pisco sours in hand as our captain introduces the route ahead. Then it’s a three-course meal of typical Chilean fashion, with fine wine from the Colchagua Valley. And while it’s not purely about the food and drink, the onboard hospitality makes this expedition a very comfortable experience.  And since it’s a small ship, Chilean owned and run, we’ll get access to some of the more remote places in the archipelago. In return, guides collect marine samples and keep a check on flora and fauna numbers for the authorities.

Having sailed overnight to reach Admiralty Sound, an offshoot of the main strait, our first Zodiac (small boat) excursion is out to Ainsworth Bay. The mountain peaks of Karukinka Natural Park punctuate the sky on one side, while wind-blown silvery fjords fan out on the other. Our guide takes his time to point out mosses and lichens in the forest, as other groups head off in search of condors.

At the face of Pia Glacier

Tucker Islets, one of my favourite locations on this expedition, has more than 4,000 nesting Magellan penguins. As we bump the Zodiacs briefly up onto the stony shore, they come waddling over to check us out. Great skuas, the merciless scavenger birds made famous by Antarctic documentaries, can also be found on the periphery, ready to take out lone chicks or an egg.

Nearby, a colony of cormorants is a sight to behold, even in the driving rain. Nesting on top of a water’s edge promontory, they’re visible at close range from the Zodiac, and sitting ducks for keen wildlife photographers, looking for a sharp image of those lapis lazuli eyes.

A stillness ensues before the anticipated creak and crack, then sooner than we can react, the dramatic explosion of water and ice is already in full flight

To say Magellan discovered this remote area is, frankly, wrong. Like all western explorers, he was among the first continental Europeans to clap eyes on a new part of the world, but in reality he was arriving many thousands of years later than the first nations. The Yámana people already lived here in dugout canoes and simple land structures, diving for fruits of the sea and keeping the harsh climate at bay with constant fires, so giving the land its name – Tierra del Fuego.

We round the Brecknock Peninsula and tack eastward, entering the Beagle Channel. At Pia Fjord we come face to face with one of the most beautiful glaciers I’ve ever photographed. A stillness ensues before the anticipated creak and crack, then sooner than we can react, the dramatic explosion of water and ice is already in full flight. Whoops of joy from my fellow onlookers compensate for the disappointment they’ll feel when they click through their blurred images later on.

A Magellanic penguin

One of the most sociable parts of this trip is ‘Glacier Alley’, a series of hanging and tidewater ice sheets flowing from the Darwin Mountains. They’re mostly named after European countries, and as we pass each one, appropriate snacks and drinks are brought to the upper viewing deck to toast the Italian, French and Dutch. This might be my favourite onboard experience, other than the expert talks which give fascinating insight into the culture and geography of the region.

I was ignominiously reminded that this was an expedition cruise, not a cushy holiday, when rough waters tipped me out of bed in comedy slow motion

Before we arrive in Wulaia Bay, we hear about the significance of this once-inhabited, large aboriginal settlement. Described by Charles Darwin and sketched by Captain Robert FitzRoy during their voyages on the Beagle, the history of the now dispersed Yámana is also told in photographs at the old radio station at Wulaia Bay, and in more detail in Ushuaia’s Fin del Mundo museum.

Pia Fjord and the Ventus Australis

Our penultimate port of call is without doubt the most exciting. I’ve been to Cape Horn National Park a few times now, and it hasn’t always gone as I’d hoped. Where the Pacific meets the Atlantic and the Southern Oceans, Cape Horn is notoriously one of the most dangerous confluences of water. On previous expeditions it’s been far too stormy for us to set down – one year I was ignominiously reminded that I was on an expedition cruise, not a cushy holiday, when rough waters tipped me out of bed in comedy slow motion, followed by my mattress, pillows and duvet.

This time we make firm ground, via the walkway to the metal albatross sculpture and accompanying poetry that memorialise the many lost souls who tried to round this cape. I’m thankful that I managed to make it here in 2020, just before the pandemic wrote of leisure travel for an unimaginable length of time. While large ship cruising may not be everyone’s cup of tea, this kind of small vessel adventure will hopefully resume with gusto at the end of 2021. After all, what better way to get acquainted with the earth than a grand adventure to the ends of it?

Travel essentials

Australis offers four nights, all-inclusive, on board the Ventus or Stella Australis from £1,180, sailing between October and April.

British Airways flies direct to Santiago and Buenos Aires, with connections to Punta Arenas and Ushuaia via LATAM or Aerolineas Argentinas.

Last Frontiers offers a 17-day Southern Grand Tour package from the UK from around £8111.