In Ushuaia, Argentina, the capital of the province of Tierra del Fuego, where I began a three-night cruise through southern Patagonia, the daily newspaper is called El Diario del Fin del Mundo – The Journal of the End of the World. It’s a startling name for a newspaper but an apt description of the cruise, during which it is easy to believe that you have, indeed, sailed to the very end of the earth.
Ushuaia, which claims to be the world’s southernmost city, makes a good jumping-off point for exploring southern Patagonia. Last March, my wife, Carole, and I flew there from Buenos Aires, a three-hour flight. In Buenos Aires we wore T-shirts and shorts and drank a lot of cold water; in Ushuaia, even at the end of the region’s summer season, we shivered in polar fleece and gloves and couldn’t get enough café con leche.
Ushuaia has the feel of both a ski resort and an active seaport. Its main street, San Martín, is lined with chalet-style buildings, many of them housing upscale outdoor clothing shops. We stayed at the modern Lennox Hotel, right in the center of town and a short walk to the dock. Our room overlooked the town and the snow-peaked Andes Mountains in the distance; other rooms, and the beautiful breakfast room on the top floor, offer spectacular views of the harbor.
Australis operates two ships that traverse the narrow waterways between Ushuaia and Punta Arenas, Chile. Our vessel, the Stella Australis, has a capacity of 210 – tiny by today’s cruise ship standards. On our trip there were just 130 passengers, a pleasantly diverse mix of Chileans, Argentines, Europeans and Americans.
Our room was compact but comfortable, with a double bed, small closet and a full bath with shower. The star feature was the view through a window that covered most of the outer wall: mountains, islands, glaciers. It was never less than breathtaking.
72 hours of isolation
A welcoming cocktail party in the Darwin Lounge on the top deck included a short speech by the captain, in English. Non-English speakers (about half the passengers) gathered in the deck below for a welcome in Spanish. Waiters passed trays of pisco sours – a too-easy-to-drink concoction of the regional brandy, lime juice, egg whites and bitters. Among the captain’s announcements: There would be no Internet access or cellphone service for the duration of the cruise. This was met with expressions of relief and some murmurs of anxiety. Seventy-two hours with absolutely no news or contact from the outside world added to the voyage’s end-of-the-world feeling.
Our ship threaded the narrow waterways of southern Patagonia, along the Beagle Channel, named for Charles Darwin’s ship, and the Straits of Magellan. Darwin’s reputation looms large in this region; although the naturalist is most closely associated with the Galápagos Islands, he spent more time in southern Patagonia, where he studied not turtles but the native Fuegian people. While large cruise ships do operate in the area, many of the waterways we explored are too narrow or shallow for today’s floating behemoths. During our time at sea we did not see another vessel of significant size.
The starkly pristine landscape called out for closer inspection, a need that was satisfied by a full roster of excursions.
The first one, a hike on Cape Horn, was scheduled for 7 a.m. on our first full day aboard. Carole and I set the alarms on our cellphones (at least they were useful for something), but we needn’t have bothered. At 6:30 precisely we were awakened by a blaring announcement from the ship’s public-address system. “Attention, dear passengers!” came the way-too-chipper voice, first in English, then Spanish, through a speaker a foot or so from my pillow. “Our excursion to Cape Horn leaves at 7! Coffee is served in the Sky Deck!”
Thirty minutes later the English speakers were gathered in the Darwin Lounge, wearing bright orange life jackets over an impressive array of foul-weather gear. Spanish speakers assembled one deck below. We were given a brief introduction to the excursion, with a focus on how to board the sturdy, 15-passenger, inflatable Zodiacs that would ferry us ashore: Grab the arm of a crew member, step on the side of the boat, sit and shimmy. This was a mantra repeated before each embarkation – grab, step, sit, shimmy – and it always went smoothly.
Battling the wind
The ride to Cape Horn took about 10 bumpy, windy minutes. By executing the mantra more or less in reverse, we managed to step onto the beach with dry feet. We climbed a set of stairs to a long boardwalk over a grassy field that connects a monument at the very tip of Cape Horn and a working lighthouse. We’d been warned about the wind, but nothing prepared us for the gale-force onslaught we faced. At times the only way to move forward was to crawl. Communicating meant shouting. During occasional lulls I stood up, only to be thrown off the boardwalk by a sudden gust.
Reaching the monument at last, and clutching it for support, it was easy to understand why the waters off Cape Horn were a notorious graveyard for ships before the Panama Canal made the southern route avoidable. At least our Zodiacs were able to land on shore; the cruise company warns that weather conditions sometimes make this and other shore excursions impossible.
Glaciers and penguins
On another excursion we hiked along a beach to Aguila Glacier, chunks of which were floating in the sea below. The almost surreal blue tint of the glacier, our guide informed us, results when the ice becomes extremely dense and absorbs colors at the red end of the spectrum, thus reflecting primarily blue. Darwin, on seeing his first glacier in the area, in 1833, perfectly described it in his journal: “It is scarcely possible to imagine anything more beautiful than the beryl-like blue of these glaciers, and especially as contrasted with the dead white of the upper expanse of snow.”
Our last excursion was to Magdalena Island, inhabited by more than 100,000 Magellanic penguins – surprisingly charismatic creatures, many of them peeking out at us, in monogamous pairs, from nesting holes dug in the tundra.
The excursions weren’t overly rigorous – the longest hike was less than 3 miles – and the wind and cold were never as bad as at Cape Horn. Also helping to mitigate the elements was the whiskey-fortified hot chocolate we were served after two of the hikes, just before boarding the Zodiacs to return to the ship.
On board, we happily passed the time in quiet contemplation of the slowly unfolding panorama of snow-capped mountains towering over the white-capped sea. Who knew that it was still possible, in 2014, to travel for days without a single glimpse of human habitation? That simply observing nature from a comfortable chair, cellphone tucked away in a suitcase, pisco sour in hand, could be the ultimate form of relaxation?
No wonder disembarking at the small city of Punta Arenas was so disorienting. Vans lined the dock, taxis jostled for fares, cellphones chirped to life. We were all too clearly back, and much too soon, from the end of the world.
If you go
The cruise: Australis offers three- and four-night cruises from late September through early April, the warmest period in southern Patagonia. A three-night cruise on the Stella Australis averages $2,000 a person, double occupancy, for a room with window, double bed and private bath, including all meals, drinks and excursions.
Before boarding, passengers are asked to choose a table in the large dining room for the entire cruise, so you will get to know your dining companions well; our table included a Brazilian couple and a small group of French-speaking Swiss, and the conversations, mostly in English, were stimulating. The food was less so. Breakfast and lunch were served buffet style and were fine. Dinner was hit-or-miss. Hits included nicely prepared hake with perfectly cooked vegetables; misses included overcooked steak and swordfish with the consistency of plastic foam.
Where to stay: At the very comfortable, well-situated Hotel Lennox, doubles begin at $234, including breakfast.
Warm-up: A good way to get acclimated to southern Patagonia, and prepare for the cruise and its hiking excursions, is to visit Tierra del Fuego National Park, about 7 miles from Ushuaia. The park is 243 square miles of meadows, forests and mountains, with well-marked trails. You can get to the park on the “End of the World Train,” which departs the Fin del Mundo station five miles outside Ushuaia.