Fin del Mundo

For I’ve been down to the edge of the world,
Sat on the edge where the wild wind whirled,
Peeked over the ledge where the blue smoke curls

-Shel Silverstein

It took four days from our departure from Valparaiso to when we got our first relief from the scenery of endless, watery horizon as far as the eye could see. We spent those four days getting acquainted with the Sapphire Princess, attending lectures by the ship’s onboard naturalists, hanging out with our tripmates, and of course, eating. One morning I finally awoke to a view of snow-peaked mountains floating passed our cabin window, and quickly rushed to get dressed.

Fifteen minutes later, two cameras in tow, I clambered up six decks worth of stairs, barely slowing down to let a set of automatic doors release me into the open air of Lido Deck. Disregarding the breakfast buffet for the time being, I jogged up a final staircase onto the Sports deck, where I found myself surrounded by jagged mountain peaks which were interrupted by the occasional glacier flowing down to meet with the water’s edge.

We were sailing through the Strait of Magellan, a waterway that separates the South American mainland from Tierra del Fuego. This was the day that our original itinerary would have had us in port in Punta Arenas if it weren’t for all of the drama at the beginning of our cruise. Vince and I had planned on hiking along a beach in the Strait of Magellan, so I was happy to get to see the beautiful landscape after all, even though we couldn’t stop.

Throughout the day, I took short breaks from hanging around on the outer decks. I went inside every so often to get a snack, or join in on a ping pong tournament that our group had named the “Percussive Tours Olympics.” Nothing could keep me inside for long though, and I spent most of may day shivering on the bow of deck eight as misty rain droplets blurred my vision.

Mountains and glaciers were ever-present companions, rainbows arched over the water, and whale spouts broke the surface in the distance. We even sailed along Cape Froward, which is the southernmost point on the South American mainland.

By dinner time, we’d learned that the captain was expecting to arrive in Ushuaia, Argentina several hours ahead of schedule the next morning. I was eagerly anticipating our day in Ushuaia, so I was very excited to find out that we would get to spend more time there. I went to sleep early that night so I could be ready to disembark whenever the captain allowed the next morning.

It seemed that most other passengers didn’t have the same idea. Deck eight was empty when I went outside to meet up with Vince, who had gotten up even earlier than I did. We shared a first view of the town of Ushuaia which was nestled into a backdrop of picturesque mountain scenery.

Within an hour or so, the captain announced that we were free to leave the ship, and Vince and I were among the first group of passengers to step onto the pier and make our way into the town, which hadn’t quite woken up for the day yet. We had several unplanned hours before we would join the rest of our group for a tour of Tierra del Fuego National Park, and I wanted to try to find something to fill the time. Right at the end of the pier, we encountered a park full of little kiosks run by tour companies, but only a couple of them were actually open. One had a long line that had formed, spilling out of the little building and across the park, but another one was relatively empty so we ducked inside to see what they had on offer.

As luck would have it, they had a three hour boat tour of the Beagle Channel that would be back before our meeting time for the Tierra del Fuego tour. We went ahead and booked two spaces on the boat and then wandered around aimlessly until it was time to board.

Stepping aboard the small vessel, I couldn’t help but find it ironic that I’d been so excited to set foot on land less than an hour before, yet here I was hopping straight onto another boat. I shrugged this thought away as we rode into the channel, surrounded by rugged Patagonian mountains on all sides. The boat ride would have three stops, showcasing the landscape and wildlife of the channel, and it didn’t take long for us to reach the first destination, Isla las Bridges.

Here we got about twenty minutes to walk along an easy trail that cut through a meadow that was blanketed in a variety of lichens, mosses, and brushy grasses. At the end of the trail was a, outstanding viewpoint overlooking mountains fading into the distance as far as the eye could see.

Back on the boat, we sped off towards our next destination, Isla de los Pajaros. There was little mystery as to how this small island got its name. Hundreds upon hundreds of imperial cormorants were perched on top of it, blanketing its surface in a chaotic black and white pattern.

At first glance, it seemed like the cormorants were the only occupants of Isla de los Pajaros. This was an awesome spectacle in its own right, and I especially loved when the boat drifted into a position where I got a perspective of birds silhouetted against a blue, mountainous backdrop. This position happened to be downwind from the colony of birds and the smell was nothing short of heinous, but I could hardly complain when I had a front row seat to such a fantastic gathering of wildlife.

Upon a closer inspection of the island’s many inhabitants, I began to find other animals.  Sea lions, and other types of shorebird mingled among the cormorants.

But perhaps the most surprising visitor was an Andean condor. These raptors are known to stick to inland mountain regions, so to see one soaring over the Beagle Channel was a rare and special encounter. It also made up for not seeing any condors on our hike back in Santiago at the beginning of the trip.

After a good amount of time at Isla de los Pajaros, it was time to go to our next and last stop of the tour, which consisted of two sites located right next to each other, the first being Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse. This brick lighthouse has been in operation, guiding ships through the channel, since 1920.

While Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse certainly had a desolate and lonely sort of beauty about it, I was far more interested in its neighboring island, Isla de los Lobos. This translates to Island of Wolves, and the name comes from the island’s resident sea lion and fur seal colonies, which were presently filling the air with loud barking sounds. Thankfully we didn’t stay at the lighthouse for long, and soon we were floating right next to a pile of sea lions.

Some of them were lounging around, while others fought with each other, barking and biting indiscriminately. Seals and sea lions have always seemed a bit canine to me, and hearing their barks over the sound of the wind did nothing to dispel that impression.

All-too-soon it was time to leave Isla de los Lobos and return to Ushuaia. Thankfully though, we still had another half day of exploring before we would have to return to the Sapphire Princess. Our boat took us back to port expeditiously, and we arrived with plenty of time to spare before our next tour.

Vince and I met up with the rest of our companions next to the ship and soon our guide for the afternoon, Mauro, arrived and introduced himself. He led us to our private bus, and then started sharing interesting information about Ushuaia and its surroundings as we drove in the direction of Tierra del Fuego National Park. It seemed strange that a place that is wet and cold even in the summer months would be named Land of Fire. Mauro explained that when Ferdinand Magellan came to the islands of Tierra del Fuego, he could see bonfires and smoke from the Yahgan people who were native to the area, and thus the name was formed.

Mauro also had a lot of great information to share about the local wildlife, and he spoke about the problems Tierra del Fuego has with an invasive species that is very familiar to a Michigander like me, the North American beaver. Beavers were introduced to Patagonia in 1946 in an attempt to establish a fur trade in the region. Since then the beaver population has grown exponentially, and they have become a major threat to the forests. If you’ve ever been near a beaver dam, then you are undoubtedly familiar with the extensive damage they do to trees. Any tree left standing seems to be unacceptable to beavers, and in a place where they have no natural predators, they are able to quickly chew down large swaths of forest. Ironically this problem mirrors a similar one that the state of Louisiana has with nutrias, a rodent that is very similar looking (although is not closely related) to beavers. Nutrias are native to South America, and escaped from fur farms in the 1930’s. Since then, they have been multiplying and wreaking untold damage on Louisiana’s wetlands.

The drive to the park didn’t seem long at all with all of Mauro’s interesting information to fill the time and soon we got to get off the bus and walk a short distance on the Coastal Path. We walked through a forest of mossy, windswept trees along a beach of emerald green stone. The weather had taken a turn for the worse, but I was still happy to be outside in such a beautiful park.

After the coastal path, we stopped at Lago Acigami, a picturesque lake whose glassy surface mirrored the sky.

Our next stop was at a visitor center for a bathroom break, but I opted to skip the bathroom in favor of photographing a pair of South American crested ducks. Another photographer pointed out a pair of spectacled ducks on the other side of the lake. They were too far away to get usable pictures, but I was happy to get to see them through my camera anyway. I also saw a distant grebe of some sort, but it was too far away for me to be able to identify a subspecies.

To finish our day, Mauro brought us to the end of the world-or at least the end of the Pan-American Highway. BahĂ­a Lapataia is the most southern point one can drive to in the Western Hemisphere. From the parking lot, a boardwalk path led to a viewpoint overlooking a bay that sits at the end of Argentine Patagonia. I couldn’t help but entertain thoughts of driving the Pan-American Highway from Alaska back down to Tierra del Fuego someday. That would be quite the adventure!

Of course, even at the end of the world, I can’t help but get distracted by birds. In typical fashion, I spent more time photographing upland geese than I did looking at the actual viewpoint.

I was sad when it was finally time to leave Tierra del Fuego behind and return to the ship. I wanted a few more weeks to travel around Patagonia, but I had to remind myself that the most amazing parts of this trip were still ahead of us. For now, Ushuaia was just a jumping off point en route to our next destination, although I would very much like to return to Patagonia someday soon and give it the time and attention that a region with so much natural beauty deserves. That evening the ship set sail once again. Soon we would get to see for ourselves what lies beyond the end of the world.

2 comments

  1. Thank you for the excellent essay/documentary, as always!
    Seeing your picture I understood where your stamina comes from – your age!
    The pictures are wonderful and unmissable for those who will never travel that far. As for your dream of traveling from Alaska to the “End of the World”, a young couple is attempting just that but starting, I think, from Norway.
    Thank you again, you have brightened my rainy day!

    Joanna

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