Tierra del Fuego was discovered in the 1500’s by the Hernando de Magallanes (Magellan) Expedition.
Magellan was a Portuguese navigator that was engaged by the Spanish crown the mission to find a route to the “East Indies” going through the west. In doing this, the Magellan expedition discovered the strait that was named after him (Magellan Strait), and at the west end of it they discovered the Pacific Ocean (named like that as it was calmed when
Tierra del Fuego is the island created by the strait as this splits South America’s mainland in two. The island was so named (the fire land) as the Magellan expedition saw smoke and fire from their boats while crossing the strait. The fire and smoke was presumably made by the Selknam (or Ona) Indians.
This mountainous island at the very southern tip of South America is divided in half between Chile and Argentina. Tourists flock to the Argentine side because of easy access. The southern Chilean part of the island is visited by the discerning few, mainly hikers, naturalists and the curious.
Even more isolated is Puerto Williams, the world’s most southern town, located on tiny Isla Navarino. Only the choppy waters of the narrow Beagle Channel separate it from Argentine Tierra del Fuego where high glaciated peaks provide a magnificent snowy backdrop.
DAPAirline’s 10 seater Cessna flies in regularly from Punta Arenas. Our little plane bounced around, dodging the massive cloud banks that gather over the rocky peaks and snow fields of the Darwin Cordillera (2500 metres). Winding into the mountains are narrow fiords with icebergs shed by glaciers into the sea. The famous Garibaldi and D’Agostini Glaciers are there; both are visited by luxury cruise ships that explore the fiords.
We spent a December week in Puerto Williams staying at Hosteria Wala, a 16 room tourist hotel occuping a secluded spot in the countryside
overlooking an inlet halfway between town and airport.
Its huge lounge-cum-dining area is surrounded by picture windows giving an unrestricted view of the Fuegian mountains with glaciated tops and ever-changing weather patterns. In an afternoon you can watch a snow storm, rain, swirling mist followed by sunshine with a repeat performance!
Nearby a family of cauquénes (upland geese) strut around the grassy
slope leading down to the inlet and jetty. The foothills are beech-clad but the forest soon gives way to rounded tussocky tops with rocky outcrops, near enough to suggest an easy hike on a fine day.
Cerro Bandera (590 metres) is closest, accessible from the valley of the Rio Ukika. Patches of snow lie on the summit ridge which gives access to the daunting Cordon de los Dientes (string of teeth) an 8km long serrated ridge of icy peaks that attract mountaineers from afar. Fit backpackers come here to do “The Dientes Circuit” a tough 5-day hike around the mountainous centre of Isla Navarino with campsites beside unspoilt lakes and streams.
We explore stony beaches on the way to the Centolla Factory which
processes large crabs. Old gun emplacements point menacingly across the Beagle Channel, where last century (1830) Charles Darwin and Captain Fitz Roy, in the sailing ship “The Beagle” were the first white men to navigate these waters. Little streams tumble down from the mountains and disappear into beech forest swamps inhabited by beavers and muskrats that came originally from Canada.
The town was founded as a radio station in 1953 and later developed as a naval base. Old style bungalows for the navy families are of wood with corrugated iron roofs painted bright red or blue. A smoking chimney pipe signifies a wood burning stove and cosy kitchen inside whereas outside each has a pile of firewood, a flagpole and dog kennel. Huge steel ship containers are set nearby, a reminder of the itinerant naval lifestyle. Many modern, two-storey apartment blocks heated by natural gas have been built, but not yet occupied, so an expansion of the base is in progress.
Travellers naturally gravitate to the yacht club which is the social centre for yachties, tourists and Chilean naval personnel living closeby. This unique club is the last stop for yachties hell-bent in sailing to Cape Horn and Antarctica. Club de Yates Micalvi occupies the top decks of a sunken 850 ton freighter which lies in a sheltered inlet connected to land by a bridge. Multimillion dollar cruising yachts tie-up alongside, refuel, reprovision with sheep carcasses hanging from the rigging.
Visitors are welcome. The cosy lounge bar has a crackling wood fire and light meals are served. We met yachties from USA, Norway, Brazil, etc who had sailed south through the Chilean fiords, or from the Atlantic, heading for Antarctica.
You can explore the Beagle Channel in style aboard the 100 passenger cruise ship Terra Australis which does the round trip from Punta Arenas to Puerto Williams via Ushuaia within a week, visiting the glacier-fed fiords of the Mt Darwin Cordillera on the way. The schooner “Victory”, based in Puerto Williams, takes 6 passengers on Beagle Channel cruises.
Puerto Williams, Chilean naval base, population 1800, is unique and untouched by the razzmatazz of unbridled tourism but this may soon change. A landing for big car-ferries is being built on the foreshore. Easier access for supplies and tourists will be welcome by all. This will mark the beginning of a new era for Puerto Williams.
Fly to Santiago, Chile, by Lan Chile. Use a Chile Air Pass to economically fly within the country; e.g. for US$250 you get 3
flights in a month.
Fly to Punta Arenas on the Strait of Magellan, the starting point for all southern excursions. Aerovias DAP flies daily from Punta Arenas to Puerto Williams for US$130 return and they will arrange accommodation at Hosteria Wala. Advance bookings essential.
Turismo Comapa has regular 7 day luxury cruise on the 100 passenger
Terra Australis from Punta Arenas to Puerto Williams and Ushuaia return, prices range from US$1055 per person, double occupancy, low season (April) to US$3000 for a high season single, all meals included.
Hosteria Wala has singles/doubles at US$30/60. All meals are available. Central Hospedaje Camblor offers basic accommodation for
Useful Internet Contacts
Cruises from Puerto Williams aboard Capt. Ben Garrett’s schooner Victory
You can visit Allano’s web site by clicking here.