Ice with that? Cruising from Chile to Argentina on a trip to the world’s end.
I like ice with my whisky – especially when the ice in question is a whole South American glacier.
I was nearly at the ‘end of the world’ in Patagonia, but I was toasty-warm, sipping my drink with fellow passengers from the expedition ship Stella Australis. As we floated in the deep fjord, the ice looked like frozen waves on the mountainside. In the sea, jagged shards of ice drifted like confetti. It was the highlight of our three-day Patagonia cruise from Punta Arenas in Chile to Ushuaia in Argentina, travelling along the Magellan Strait.
Flat pampas grasslands surround Punta Arenas, interrupted only by the snow-dusted peaks of Tierra del Fuego across the Strait. We visited the town’s hillside cemetery, overlooking the multi-coloured rooftops, where the gravestones told the story of Croatians, Latvians and Spaniards who came to settle here.
At the quayside I joined the Stella Australis, a comfortable new addition to the Chilean cruise line Cruceros Australis. The passengers were a cosmopolitan mix and we were divided into language groups before enjoying a superb dinner of Chilean wine, steak and Austral hake – fresh from the cool waters we would soon be navigating. When we awoke, we were enclosed in mist and hugging the dramatic outline of the main island in Tierra del Fuego’s archipelago as we cruised towards Ainsworth Bay. Tierra del Fuego, meaning ‘land of fire’, was originally named by Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan in 1520 when he saw wisps from natives’ camp fires.
We took rubber boats to a mussel-strewn beach, elephant seals barking as we sped past them. There we wandered through a Magellanic forest, where cabbage-green mosses grew and golden parasitic plants clung to twisted trees like Christmas decorations.
At Tuckers Islet, penguins popped up from their burrows, waddled along cliffs and huddled together on grey sand watching for predatory skua birds. A quarking colony of cormorants covered a guano-stained rock – we could smell them before we even reached it.
A day into the cruise, sunshine revealed the mountains as we cruised the north-west arm of the Beagle Channel past some of the area’s 1,600 glaciers. We sat in awed silence by the Pia Glacier listening to the thunderclap and firecracker sounds emanating from it as chunks of ice careered into the sea. As we sailed through ‘Glacier Alley’, where each glacier is named after an European nation, we were given country-themed food and drinks.
On our final day, we visited one of the weather-beaten islands near Cape Horn. A hardy navy officer, his family and faithful dog keep watch over the lighthouse, wooden chapel and monument that commemorates sailors who have made it around the notorious Cape. Some 800 ships have been wrecked there – we were about to round the Horn ourselves and our guide joked: ‘Let’s not make it 801.’
It was a calm day, but the swell was growing as we approached the rocky promontory and we clung on, leaving one hand free for the hot grog our thoughtful hosts had brought out on deck. Back in the calm fjords, we anchored near Wulaia Bay, where, on his 1828 voyage, HMS Beagle’s Captain Robert FitzRoy had ‘collected’ four Yaghan natives, exchanging one for a pearl button. Three survived to became famous in Britain before being returned home on FitzRoy’s second voyage in the 1830s. Darwin, a fellow traveller on that trip, believed the Yaghan were his ‘missing link’.
Cruceros Australis have a 25-year lease on Wulaia Bay and have converted the Thirties naval radio station there into a cultural centre. A farmhouse, abandoned by a Croatian family in the Fifties, sits near the shoreline where wild pigs have unearthed evidence of an early Yaghan settlement.
We disembarked at Ushuaia, the world’s most southerly city and gateway to Antarctica. With the Martial Mountains as a backdrop, the end of the world was breathtakingly beautiful – especially when accompanied by one last slug of whisky.
Travel Facts Cruceros Australis offers three and four-day cruises between Punta Arenas and Ushuaia. They run between September and April aboard two vessels, Via Australis, with a capacity of 136, and Stella Australis, with 210. Cruises are all-inclusive and feature daily inland tours to see glaciers, trek through forests and observe wildlife.
By AMY WATKINS, published in the DailyMail.
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