6 nights

Gauchos, Glaciers and Penguins

Arrive in Punta Arenas and transfer from the international airport to the Hotel Cabo de Hornos on the main square in downtown Punta Arenas.

The journey begins early in the morning with a ferry crossing of the Strait of Magellan from the Punta Arenas waterfront to the town of Porviner on the north shore of Tierra del Fuego. The ferry journey normally takes around two to four hours depending on the weather and sea conditions. Founded in the 1880s, Porviner was settled by many Croatian immigrants and for a brief time was the hub of a local gold rush. Despite it’s small size, the Museo de Tierra del Fuego makes a worthwhile stop, with exhibits that range from 600-year-old Selk’nam mummies to the historian of Patagonian cinema.

From Porvenir we follow the coast road along the north shore of Useless Bay (Bahía Inútil), which received its unfortunate name from British sea captain Phillip Parker King who found “neither anchorage nor shelter, nor any other advantage for the navigator” while surveying the bay in the 1820s. King penguins have taken up residents along a tidal stream at the bay’s eastern extreme, around a hundred birds protected within the confines of a small private reserve called the Parque Pingüino Rey. A well-marked trail leads down to the shore and blinds with views across the stream to the penguin nesting area. Nearby is the pioneer cemetery for the historic Estancia Caleta Josefina, a windswept graveyard that shelters the remains of Scottish settlers including several “killed by indians.” Twenty miles (29 km) farther east is the San Sebastian border crossing, where travelers pass through Chilean and Argentine frontier posts. The cross-island highway soon reaches the South Atlantic and a smooth run down the coast to Rio Grande.

The industrial hub of Tierra del Fuego, Río Grande has flourished on sheep farming, energy extraction and more recently factory production. A large military base and monuments along the coast road attest to the fact that Río Grande was also an Argentine military staging area for the Malvinas (Falklands) War. Overnight at a Río Grande hotel or estancia. If dinner is not included in your hotel stay, try to feast on a genuine Argentine steak and Quilmes stout at the Posada de los Sauces restaurant and bar near the Rio Grande waterfront.

We start the day with a gaucho experience and Patagonian-style “asado” barbecue at the 80-year-old Estancia Las Hijas, located about 50 miles (80 km) south of Rio Grande. Back on the road, the highway leaves the pampas behind for a landscape of Magellanic forest with snowcapped mountains in the distance. Herds of guanaco graze meadows on either side of the road. A brief stop in the hilltop town of Tolhuin affords views of Lake Fagnano, the island’s largest freshwater body. There’s time to munch pastries at the legendary Panadería La Unión before hitting the road again. Cutting through the southernmost part the Andes, we arrival at Ushuaia for check-in, boarding the expedition cruise Australis and departure.

By early morning, the Australis cruise is cruising across Nassau Bay into the remote archipelago that includes Cape Horn National Park. Weather and sea conditions permitting, we shall go ashore on the windswept island that harbors legendary Cape Horn (Cabo de Hornos). Discovered in 1616 by a Dutch maritime expedition — and named after the town of Hoorn in West Friesland — Cape Horn is a sheer 425-meter (1,394-foot) high rocky promontory overlooking the turbulent waters of the Drake Passage. For many years it was the only navigation route between the Pacific and Atlantic, and was often referred to as the “End of the Earth.” The park was declared a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 2005. The Chilean navy maintains a permanent lighthouse on the island, staffed by a lightkeeper and his family, as well as the tiny Stella Maris Chapel and modern Cape Horn Monument.

Sailing back across Nassau Bay, we anchor at fabled Wulaia Bay, one of the few places in the archipelago where the human history is just as compelling as the natural environment. Originally the site of one of the region’s largest Yámana aboriginal settlements, the bay was described by Charles Darwin and sketched by Captain FitzRoy in the 1830s during their voyages on the HMS Beagle. This area is also renowned for its mesmerizing beauty and dramatic geography. After a visit to the Australis-sponsored museum in the old radio station — which is especially strong on the Yámana people and European missionaries in the area — passengers have a choice of three hikes (of increasing degrees of difficulty) that ascend the heavily wooden mountain behind the bay. On all of these you will be strolling through an enchanted Magellan forest of lengas, coigües, canelos, ferns, and other endemic fauna to reach a panoramic viewpoint overlooking the bay.

Overnight we sail around the western end of Tierra del Fuego via the very narrow Gabrial Channel, Magdalena Channel and Cockburn Channel. After rounding the remote Brecknock Peninsula, the Australis cruise tacks eastward and enters the Beagle Channel again. By morning we are entering Pia Fjord and boarding the Zodiacs for a shore excursion to Pia Glacier.After disembarking we take a short hike to gain a panoramic view of the spectacular glacier, which extends from the mountaintops down to the sea or a longer much more difficult walk up a lateral moraine of the old Pia Glacier.

No one knows for certain how the hulking mass of snow and ice got its feminine moniker, but one theory says it was named for Princess Maria Pia of Savoy (1847-1911), daughter of the Italian king.

Making our way further west along the Beagle Channel, we enter another long fjord and drop anchor near Garibaldi Glacier for another shore excursion. Garibaldi is one of only three glaciers in Patagonia gaining mass rather than staying the same or slowly shrinking. This time we hike through virgin Magellanic forest to a glacial waterfall, a towering wall of ferns and moss, and spectacular viewpoints looking down on the glacier and fjord. The walk is demanding — very steep, negligible trail, rough footing — and not for everyone. For those who choose to stay onboard, our captain will point the bow towards the beautiful sky blue Garibaldi Glacier so everyone can enjoy the panoramic view from the upper decks.

Early in the morning, we will sail through the Cockburn Channel and enter Agostini Sound.  From there it is possible to see the glaciers that descend from the middle of the Darwin Mountain Range — some of them reaching the water. This morning, we will disembark and go for an easy walk around a lagoon, which was formed by the melting of the Águila Glacier.  We will reach a spot right in front of that glacier with stunning views.  In the afternoon, we will approach the Condor Glacier via Zodiac — and hopefully see some of the abundant Andean Condors in the area.

After an overnight cruise through Magdalena Channel and back into the Strait of Magellan, we anchor off Magdalena Island, which lies about halfway between Tierra del Fuego and the Chilean mainland. Crowned by a distinctive lighthouse, the island used to be an essential source of supplies for navigators and explorers and is inhabited by an immense colony of Magellanic penguins. At the break of dawn, weather permitting, we go ashore and hike a path that leads through thousands of penguins to a small museum lodged inside the vintage 1902 lighthouse. Many other bird species are also found on the island. In September and April — when the penguins dwell elsewhere — this excursion is replaced by a ride aboard Zodiacs to Marta Island to observe South American sea lions. After a short cruise south along the strait, disembarkation at Punta Arenas is scheduled for around 11:30 AM.

*Camera extension poles are prohibited on Magdalena Island

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Gran Patagonia is a local chilean tour operator that offers tailor made travel programs, customs tours and travel packages in the chilean an the argentinian  Patagonia.

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