It’s a long way... to NAVARINO

Two weeks ago we made the reservation by telephone from Puerto Natales. The freightboat with room for twenty-two passengers leaves about once every fortnight from Punta Arenas to Puerto Williams on the island of Navarino, southernmost place in Chilean Patagonia. It remained uncertain for a while, whether or not, and when, a boat would leave. But as soon as we heard a date was fixed, we booked our passage!

Having arrived on time in Punta Arenas, we are told that departure has been delayed with one day. So we hang around town a bit, make a tour to the Magellan pinguins of Seno Otway, dolphin and talk to the crew of a big sailingyacht that has just returned from a trip to Antarctica. When the day of departure finally comes, we do some shopping and in the late afternoon we take a colectivo taxi to the harbour, where we meet our fellow passengers.

On the boat

The boat leaves at 19.00 hrs. Dinner is served immediately; all meals are included in the ticketprice. During these last three hours of sunshine we already see a lot of the natural beauty of the area. Birds, black and white dolphins, albatrosses. The waters around here are supposed to be quite wild, so one hour before departure we took a pill against seasickness. We sail through the Magellan Straits. In the night we pass Monte Sarmiento, a summit of about 2.300 meter height.
There are only four beds, we are quite ashamed to have been able to obtain two of them… But on the other hand we are glad about that, as the other twenty-eight passengers (all backpackers) are pinguinssleeping uncomfortably sitting up in chairs, like in a plane.
The next morning we wake up at seven and can join at the breakfast table first thing. During the night the weather has deteriorated, and it has become very windy and rainy. Outside it is drizzling and the sea has gone quite wild; we take another pill against seasickness.

Despite the rain, we stand on deck the whole time, as we do not want to miss anything of the views. On one side of the boat we are standing quite sheltered from the rain. By now we are sailing through the Canal Ballenero. First the land is far away from us and through the mist we cannot see much. But later on we get closer to the land and using our binoculars we can get a good impression of what the coast looks like. We see sea-lions, albatrosses, Rockhopper pinguins, Magellan pinguins, skuas, and many other seabirds.
In the afternoon the sun comes out again while we sail through the narrow Beagle Channel. We pass many glaciers that have thCanal Balleneroeir origin in the high snowy peaks of the Cordillera Darwin. We pass one after the other. Many of those glaciers end dramatically in the channel, while others touch water in the form of a spectacular waterfall.
Meals on board are: breakfast at 7.00 hrs, lunch at 12.00, tea at 16.00 and dinner at 19.00 hrs. The food is basic, mostly beans and bread. In the evening we stay on deck till it gets dark and we can still see the lights that mark the border between Chili and Argentina. The second night on board we pass by Ushuaia, on Tierra del Fuego, and arrive at Puerto Williams where the boat shall remain a couple of hours longer so that we can continue sleeping till morning.

Puerto Williams, Isla Navarino, Chili

When we awaken the next morning, we can see Puerto Williams lying in front of us. In the early morning sunlight the village lies there beautifully with behind it the smooth mountains of the Cerro Bandera, and even further behind the much higher Dientes (they really look like teeth!) peaMagellan Straitks. After breakfast the boat enters the harbour and we can get off.

Puerto Williams is a Chilean marine base and is considered to be the southernmost permanently inhabited place on earth. About 1500 to 1800 people live here; the number varies because of the coming and going of marine personnel. It is the only village of importance on this hundred to forty kilometer big island.
We walk to the central Plaza of the village, to think about what to do next. The place looks totally deserted, shops only open at 10.00. Shall we camp or shall we take a room in the residencial on the square? How will we be able to leave the island again? Soon we have to try to get to Ushuaia in Argentina, to be able to catch a flight to Buenos Aires that leaves in a few days. But we soon realize that – due to the ever sensitive relations between Chili and Argentina, and the fact that the island is a marine base – it is not so simple to just cross the Beagle Channel. There are no yachts at the Club de Yates and it is forbidden for local fishermen to make the ten minute crossing to the Argentinian side of the chanPuero Williamsnel.

We take a room in the hostal with the beautiful name Residencial Onashaga, and decide not to think about our little problem until the evening, so we can enjoy the day on this gorgeous island. We did find some fellow travellers who also need to make the crossing to Ushuaia: a Brasilian couple, Englishman Steve, Frenchman Jean, and a young chaotic birdlover from Turkey.

Through thick woods we walk up to the barren top of the Cerro Bandera, a steep 500 meter up. We encounter the Israelis from our boattrip and they tell us that further up, higher up, they have seen the most spectacular view they ever saw in their lives. It is even supposed to be more beautiful than Ein Gedi, and we wonder if that used to be the highlight of their life?
Above the treeline it is easy to continue to a height of about 900 meter and finally wlagunase arrive at a point from where we can oversee all sides of the island. The view is indeed incredible! In front of us we see the heart of Isla Navarino; barren, wet, deserted and uninhabited. Hundreds of small lakes, the lagunas. Los Dientes de Navarino, that seem to cut the island in two, stand there as a crown on the landscape. Between two parts of the Dientes we can even see the sea on the other side of the island. Cape Horn is not far from here! Behind us we see the mirror-smooth Beagle Channel and Ushuaia in the distance.

On this gorgeous spot, where we think we are completely alone, we suddenly notice the Turkish birder. He has been sitting here already for two fruitless hours, waiting for the appearance of a condor, which he had seen flying there once before. After making numerous photos, we sit down in the ice-cold wind to eat our bread and cheese before we walk down the mountain again.
On the way backLos Dientes down we have trouble finding the right track back through the woods, but we manage to retrace it. But the stubborn Turk takes the wrong route, through a much thicker and steeper part of the wood. We hear him shout and call, and we think he might be calling for help. So we walk back up a little again to see if we can find him. Later, when he has taken much longer to come down than us, he says that with his calling he just meant to say “hello”…

Nature on Navarino is wonderful, only the beavers that were imported from North America form a great threat. With all this gnawing they have already done much damage to the trees and rivers on the island. Because of lack of natural enemies like foxes or pumas, that do occur elsewhere in Patagonia, their number keeps rising and a solution to the problem seems beyond reach. Near Puerto Williams we see dams built by beavers, and large pieces of land where all trees have been gnawed down.
Back at the Club de Yates we hear the good news: Steve and Jean have found usLagunas a sailingyacht to bring us to Ushuaia! The French owner, also a Jean, requires fifty dollar per person for the crossing. It is quite a lot, but we do have to try to get moving in time. We give the Frenchman our passports, so that he can arrange the necessary papers, and we do some shopping for tomorrow.

To Ushuaia, Argentinië

Next morning we stand as agreed at 9 AM at the sailingyacht, and hear that departure has been delayed by one hour. Just before 10 AM the Turk suddenly appears, he gestures nervously… he also wants to come! Too late, the papers have already been arranged. But the skipper, friendly as he remains, as well as slightly angry, walks with him to Migrations. Finally we can leave at eleven. First we make a stop at Almanza, right on the other side of the Beagle Channel. Here our passports are being stamped; we have arrived in Argentina.
Again we have taken a pill for seasickness, but decide to take one more, as the water is so wild and turbulent. On the way to Puerto WilliamsUshuaia the sea gets wilder and wilder, and after a while we do not even look out for birds or beautiful coasts anymore… we are more occupied with the cold and how to keep warm, and how to keep straight, with all this rocking of the boat.

The wind blows so hard and the water jumps up so high that we all get soaking wet. The water even enters my rainsuit, and all my clothes get wet. I decide to stay in the cabin, which actually we are not supposed to be doing being only hitchhikers, because inside it is crowded with crew and equipment. But I feel a lot better. I get a heavy sailingjacket from the skipper, size XXL, that keeps me warm a bit.
On the radio we hear that in the meantime due to bad weather the harbour of Ushuaia is being closed. A disaster, because it would mean that we have to sail back all the way to Almanza! Jean the skipper asks if we can still get into the harbour quickly, and luckily we are allowed in. At about 18.00 hrs we arrive at the pier of Ushuaia. Before we leave the boat we are treated to a nice cup of hot chocolate. Shivering and frozen we walk into town in search of a room to sleep.