One can hardly consider the southern Patagonian coast without taking a cruise of some kind.The reasons for this are mainly related to the wildlife one is likely to see—sea lions and seals, penguins, whales, dolphins, and a vast array of birds abound in such quantities that every trip is sure to be memorable. The Ushuaia Beagle Channel Cruise is no exception, and yet it offers much more besides in the way of gorgeous scenery, archaeology, and of course the chance to embark on the same stretch of water that was charted by Darwin and Captain Fitzroy’s ship, HMS Beagle.
Approaching the city of Ushuaia’s port early in the morning is a great experience in and of itself—one passes the odd fisherman, the docks are just becoming active with the many containers, and the morning light affords grand photo opportunities of the waking ramshackle town and surrounding mountains. Passing by the Antarctica departure terminal is likely to stir longing in the breast, but since this costly adventure is beyond the pocket of many travelers, one can sigh with the relief that at least a boat cruise awaits.
And a grand cruise it is. Pulling out of the dock one begins the initial rise and fall of the comfortably sized craft and enjoys an increasingly panoramic view of Ushuaia and the Martial Glacier above it. Once past the Airport, out in the channel, it is a short journey to the first island to view an astounding number of cormorants. These black and white birds appear at first to be penguins, and in fact they are close relatives that can fly. Dotted among these are a number of sea lions who proudly point their noses up in the air or engage in island frolicking.
Out here the weather often picks up to a brisk pace. With the icy wind whipping across the boat, the realization of what the first travelers and indigenous were up against combines with the pleasant feeling that one has joined them in journeying to the ‘end of the world’. On both sides of the boat lie two separate countries: Argentina on the left,Chile on the right. The verdant mountains quickly becoming ice bound and weather-beaten as they rise steeply from the shoreline. Soon the boat approaches a second island. This island is much more heavily populated by fur seals and sea lions. The skillful skipper of the boat pilots it so close to this island that you can almost smell the breath of these cheerful creatures as the males bout and grunt with one another, the braver ones with the chief for his place. The females and sea birds join in observing them. As the boat backs up from the rocky spit, watch for the acrobatics of the swimming seals and sea lions as they enjoy the company of the boat and look for food.
In the distance one has already caught sight of a very picturesque lighthouse. As the boat nears, this impression only grows, one photo is certainly not enough. Its red, white, red pattern is not only beautiful, but an international signal of just the type of danger that awaits passing craft. At this moment, it is sobering to consider how many craft and lives have been lost in these waters. Travel and Argentina is not for the faint of heart.
On the return journey, it is more than likely that the wind has finally gotten the better of the passengers, and at this point the crew and excellent guides have already prepared a generous tray of hot cocoa, coffee, tea, and maté. This, combined with an endless tray of cookies, serves to fortify one for the rest of the journey as, on the open water, the odd albatross engages in maneuvers reminiscent of a jet fighter.
It isn’t long before the boat reaches its final stop—one of the Bridges islands. Alighting here, the guides show the compelling C shaped mounds that are ancient rubbish-heaps-turned-wind-breaks of the indigenous Yamana. Standing mid-channel in the stiff wind, it is no wonder these adaptable people found it necessary. Climbing the hill, one turns in a circle, taking in the view: the town of Ushuaia to the north, channel and the Atlantic to the East, Chile and eventually Cape Horn to the South, channel and eventually the Pacific to the West. The Ushuaia Beagle Channel Boat Cruise ends with a short journey back. Surely one at this point feels joy at choosing to travel, and Argentina in particular.