PUNTA ARENAS - The first image that you see when you arrive at the edge of the American continent is intense, almost vehement. It is rays of light that pierce the clouds and give the whole landscape a glow.
That was just the beginning of our Patagonian journey on the Stella Australis cruise ship. Our trip would include stops in Punta Arenas, Chile and a journey to the “End of the Earth” through the Strait of Magellan and the Beagle Channel. Tierra del Fuego is full of legends and stories, and our Patagonian adventure took us through canals among eternal ice, for a discovery that included unique gastronomy, sport fishing, whale watching and penguins.
Punta Arenas is one of the four communities that make up the southernmost community in Chile - its name means “Sandy Point.” It is home to dramatic temperature changes, and in summer there are 18 hours of daylight, but only five hours during the winter.
To the territory’s extreme northeast is the famous Strait of Magellan, discovered in 1520 and extremely important to trade until the opening of the Panama Canal at the beginning of the 20th century. It’s not as commercially important anymore, but instead became a point of departure for tours of the southern part of Chile and for boats that travel to the Antarctic.
Almost 60 kilometers to the north, there is a detour that leads to a colony of Magellan Penguins, and you can watch the beautiful birds from a safe distance – without bothering them.
Under the snowcaps that look down on Punta Arenas, the Stella Australis is ready to jump its mooring lines and start the journey to Cape Horn, navigating through the southern reaches of South America before arriving at the Argentine city of Ushuaia. It’s a four-day journey that includes fjords, eternally snow-covered peaks and frozen rivers that look like sketches on a canvas, before transforming into the vivid representation of a painting.
We continue through the southern canals of the Beagle Channel – where we went ashore we got some physical exercise under the watchful eyes of the marine animals, observing us curiously on our unique pilgrimage.
Through “Glacier Alley”
Time disappears on the boat. There are so many temptations and possibilities. While hiking on land, we were able to discover the traces of the ancient inhabitants of this region, the Yamana aboriginals, who were known for the dedication and care in the creation of canoes, their most prized possession. They depended on the canoes for survival, and the small vessels were designed to stay afloat even in the most turbulent seas.
Historians maintain that it was the men who went out in the canoes, but the many surviving legends make a compelling case that it was actually the strong, brave women who went out in the canoes, even diving into the freezing deep water to find food for their families.
Later, we came across an abandoned beaver den. Beavers were imported from Canada in 1946, because someone thought it would be a great way to make money from their skins. The Canadian beavers weren’t in agreement – the thickness of their fur changed because of the differences in temperature in comparison with Canada, making it unmarketable. But they certainly reproduced – so much so that they are now a plague, leaving their teeth marks on all the forests in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego and harming the sub Antarctic forest.
The following day, we were navigating through the Beagle Channel when a sudden bang forced us to look behind us. At the very instant we turned, an enormous piece of the glacier behind us broke off and fell into the water. In the early evening, we entered “Glacier Alley,” a series of huge frozen masses reaching from the mountains into the sea.
When Ferdinand Magellan first discovered this passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans, becoming the first European to navigate through the strait, he did not make contact with any of the natives, but saw their numerous bonfires from his ships. He is the one who named it Tierra del Fuego – “land of fire.”
Tierra del Fuego is the southernmost part of the American continent and still feels like virgin territory. It’s an exotic destination where one can see whales, seals and penguins. It’s a trip that not only allows one to see animals that don’t exist anywhere else in the world, but also allows for spectacular outdoor activities, especially fishing. There’s also hiking trips, flights over the mountains and glaciers and cultural activities. And the freshly caught fish is delicious.