Patagonia with a capital P

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January 22nd 2013
Published: January 22nd 2013
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Of all the places we've visited so far in South America, none has captivated our imaginations - brought out the inner adventurers in us - more than Patagonia. Often harsh and brutal, always spellbindingly beautiful, Patagonia had us at Bariloche, and it didn't let go of us for over two whole months. And with only three weeks left to go before I have to return home, it's one place I've got to go back to.

Warm, sunny and hedonistic Rio de Janeiro could not be more different from my entry point back into Patagonia: the Argentine city of Ushuaia, a place many people have heard of even if they've no idea where it is (apart from the French, who are all totally and bizarrely besotted with the place), is the most southerly city in the world. Perched at 55 degrees of latitude south of the Equator - that's almost 2000km further south than the Cape of Good Hope - on the edge of the Beagle Channel, Ushuaia is the last port of call before Antarctica. It really does feel like the end of the world - something this otherwise ordinary and windswept place has cashed in on big time. People come to Ushuaia in their tens of thousands every year, seemingly for no other reason than to say they've been there: yes, the city has the beautiful, snowy peaks of the Cordillera Darwin as a backdrop; yes, it's a far south as you can go before you get to Antarctica. But other than that, I don't think it really has that much to offer - for me it's a convenient access point to Patagonia, being a relatively easy hop (if you can call 4,000km a "hop") from Rio via Buenos Aires. Making the most of my 5-hour stop over in the capital, I'm out of the terminal like a flash and straight into a taxi to Palermo to indulge in a huge slab of prime Argentine steak. It's a grey and rainy spring day in Buenos Aires, but the jacarandas are in flower and it's nice to be back in Argentina, if only for a few days. The boarding queue for the Buenos Aires-Ushuaia flight is a rather comical parade of shiny, new and expensive Goretex boots and clothing. After fourteen months on the road I feel rather bedraggled by comparison, what with my scuffed hiking boots and hole-riddled clothes (my modesty has been hanging by a thread, quite literally, for some weeks). After a dull three-hour flight, the steep and bumpy descent over the snowbound Cordillera Darwin to Ushuaia's airport, built right on the Beagle Channel, is quite spectacular. Incidentially, the airport's official name is Aeropuerto Internacional de Ushuaia Malvinas Argentinas - good old Argentina, you just don't give up, do you?

I have a couple of days in Ushuaia, which give me enough time to make a visit to the Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego, located a half-hour drive west of Ushuaia right up against the border with Chile - with whom Argentina shares - yes, shares - the island of Tierra del Fuego. While the network of walking trails in the park is limited and rather unexciting, it feels wonderful to be back in the Deep South: those familiar sights, smells and sounds - the ñirre bushes, the lenga trees, the beech oranges, the purple chaura berries, the honk of Patagonian cauquén geese, the rich earthy smell - I've missed them so much. It almost feels like coming home. With an almost half-hourly alternation between bright sunshine and driving snow, I'm definitely in Patagonia again.
Bit smaller than I expected...Bit smaller than I expected...Bit smaller than I expected...

My Aerovías DAP flight from Punta Arenas to Puerto Williams

Leaving Ushuaia is hardly a wrench, despite the fact that my hostel there is one of the best I've ever stayed in - the kind of warm, cosy, sofa-filled place where you could lose yourself for days reading back issues of National Geographic and swapping stories with fellow globe-trotters. From Ushuaia it's a very long and exceedingly boring 10-hour bus ride across endless flat, windswept expanses of Fuegian steppe - broken only by the "excitements" of a border crossing (cue pointless x-raying of bags by a bloke who wasn't even looking at the screen - what could one possibly smuggle around here?) and a ferry ride across the Strait of Magellan - to the Chilean city of Punta Arenas, where Alex and I spent New Year's Eve last year. How strange it feels to write that!

It's nice, in a peculiar kind of way, to be back in Punta Arenas - dull, cold, wet, forlorn, windy and grey, but so unmistakeably Patagonian that I can't help but find it charming. There are many reasons to be happy to be back in Chile, even if it has to be in Punta Arenas: pisco sours and delectable seafood being the two

En route from Punta Arenas to Puerto Williams
major ones. A couple of days in Punta Arenas is just about enough time for me to stock up on a week's worth of food supplies before I head off to my next destination - the End of the Road.

Across the Beagle Channel from Ushuaia - yes, south of Ushuaia - is Isla Navarino, which is as far south as it's possible to go in South America by conventional means. It's definitely the southernmost point of this trip, and quite possibly the furthert south I'll ever go in my life. A weekly vehicle ferry, the Yaghan, calls in at Puerto Williams - the island's only settlement of any size - from Punta Arenas after a 30-hour journey through the narrow channels of Tierra del Fuego. The timing of my arrival in Punta Arenas means it's far more convenient to hop on a plane. A combination of low demand and a short runway means that only small aircraft make the Punta Arenas-Puerto Williams run at this time of year. To me, "small" means anything that carries fewer than 50 passengers, and I started getting suspicious when, in the large boarding lounge in Punta Arenas's windblown airport, I found myself in the company of only five other equally bemused-looking Chileans. Either there are going to be a lot of empty seats, or...

We make the hop across to Isla Navarino aboard a 6-seater Beechcraft, the smaller passenger plane I've even flown on. I sit right at the front, back-to-back with the pilot and within frighteningly easy fiddling-distance of the controls. Talk about being allowed to visit the cockpit - I'm in the cockpit! While I wouldn't call myself a nervous flier, sudden bleeping noises which sound disconcertingly like alarms don't make things any easier. The flight takes us back over the Cordillera Darwin, although there's not much to see through the cloud. The airport at Puerto Williams is little more than a runway, a control tower and a tiny terminal building consisting of two loos and a "boarding lounge" the size of a typical living room. The weather on arrival is a typical Patagonian summer's day: low, brooding cloud, wind and freezing cold rain. Lovely. I've actually come to Puerto Williams with the intention of hiking a five-day circuit around the jagged peaks of the Dientes de Navarino, the dark brooding rocky teeth which dominate the island - from the quantity of snow still on the lower slopes overlooking the airport, it's not looking promising.

Neither, for that matter, are my prospects for getting into town from the airport. Fortunately this is Patagonia, and I've barely slung my backpack and started trudging down the road in the cold drizzle before a lovely chap stops his pickup truck and offers me a lift, saving me a good hour and half of walking with twenty kilograms on my back. I quickly realise there's more to Puerto Williams than I expected: it turns out the town - capital of the province of Antártica Chilena - is a significant naval base. Presumably because of Argentina's irritating habit of occupying places which don't belong to it.

On the advice of the nice person at the tourist information counter (yes, this tiny town of three thousand souls has one) in the town hall, I make my way to El Refugio del Padrino - the prime budget accommodation in Puerto Williams, I am told. The house - a typically Patagonian one-storey construction with a corrugated iron roof - is empty when I arrive. There is a note on the door reading - "let yourself in and pick a free bed, I'll come by later to say hello". A huge log fire is burning in the living room and - even better - there are two very interesting-looking creatures sitting in a large cooking pot in the kitchen, still wriggling. Puerto Williams's other "thing", you see, is crab. Not just any old crab, but centolla, southern king crab. These yummy critters, which fetch dizzying prices back home, are scooped off the seabed in vast numbers around the Beagle Channel. And it looks like it might be centolla for dinner!

I'm nicely installed in this toasty, welcoming interior, and gazing out over the Beagle Channel to the snowy peaks on the other side of the water, when Cecilia walks in. Cecilia runs the refugio and she is something else. A hardy, larger-than-life Patagonian character with a beaming smile and a booming laugh, Cecilia instantly makes me feel like I've been here for ever. For the next week she is my surrogate mother. That evening, joined by Cecilia and two friendly French couples who've just arrived from Ushuaia (and who are just as surprised as I am to find they're not alone here), I gorge on steamed king crab until I actually have to refuse - to refuse! - the offer of "just one more leg". This stuff sells for ninety quid a kilo in Selfridge's...

I quickly forget about the Dientes de Navarino circuit - the higher parts of the trail are under feet of snow and I'm not really in the mood to set out alone on a crazy adventure. It really, really doesn't matter though - I can't think of a nicer, more welcoming place to spend a week. Climbing the snowy hills behind Puerto Williams for splendid views across to Tierra del Fuego. Reading by the fire as I watch burly fishermen unload their crab-pots and fancy cruise ships pass along the channel on their way to Antartica from Ushuaia. Thinking about how harsh life must have been for Isla Navarino's first white settlers, perched here at the very edge of the world.

The vast majority of Isla Navarino is untouched wilderness. Apart from Puerto Williams and the odd ramshackle cattle farm there is almost nothing here but Patagonian forest, mountains and lakes. Forty kilometres or so along the narrow coastal track from Puerto Williams is Bahia Honda, a beautiful bay scattered with densely wooded islands with the peaks of the Cordillera Darwin as a backdrop. It is a quiet, idyllic spot far removed from all signs of human inhabitation - and perfect for a few days' wild camping with only my thoughts for company. A friend of Cecilia's who has a farm nearby offers me a lift there from Puerto Williams, which is just as well as only a couple of cars drive along the coastal road every day - and it's a long walk.

Bahia Honda is good for the soul. I don't see another human for four days. Seals play in the calm waters while faithful pairs of upland caiquén geese graze on the grassy shore. Nothing to do but read, cook, fetch water from a nearby stream, clamber over rock outcrops and gaze into the crystal clear water of the bay. Hard to think that in two weeks' time I'll be back in the hustle and bustle of home...

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24th January 2013

Perfect almost-ending to your great adventure!
Patagonia is also my favorite place so far in South America, but you really went the untrodden route in Isla Navarrino. What a fantastic balance between the cozy camaraderie of the refuge and the days of solitary camping! I'll miss your adventures and send best wishes for an unforgettable last two weeks.
8th February 2013

We are kicking ourselves that we didnt take the trip across to Puerto Williams when we were down there, it sounds amazing. Oh well there is always the next trip.

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