Tuesday, March 13, 2012



After three days at sea, we were happy to pull into port. We had reached Tierra del Fuego, at the Southern tip of South America. This is an island, shared by Chile and Argentina. Although the two countries are neighbors, sharing thousands of miles of common border, they have not always had good relations. As recently as 1978, the two squared off and laid mines. Only the intervention of Pope John Paul II averted a war. The dispute was about three islands in the Beagle Channel which were awarded to Chile by an international tribunal. Argentina didn't take that well. Peace didn't reign until the fall of the Argentine junta after the Falklands War.

We landed in Punta Arenas (Sands Point) Chile, the Southernmost large city in the world. Punta Arenas has a population of about 131,000. They get a lot of rain, but usually it is just light showers. This was a major seaport until 1914 when the Panama Canal was built. Then ships just stopped coming here. They got a boost in 1940 when oil was discovered, and infrastructure was built, but today the main industry is tourism. The locals are somehow proud that there is no McDonalds' or other fast food restaurants. Everything here is named after Magellan, even the Magallanes Unimarc supermarket which we visited.

The city is built around a main park, Plaza de Armas which has a market where natives sell their handicrafts to the tourists. Dianne was able to negotiate a good price and purchased a fine fur hat and scarves. A few feet away, in the same park is a large statue of Magellan. The legend goes that if you rub the foot of the statue, you will return to Punta Arenas. I must have done so back in 1998, because here I was again--in the same park. I was careful not to touch it this time.

We booked a 2 hour ferry ride each way to Isla Magdelena to see the penguin and seabird rookery. Only 2 people live on this windswept island--basically to take care of the penguins and keep poachers out, and also to operate the lighthouse. The Magellanic penguins are small--about 2 feet tall, black and white (!) and very cute. Humans are allowed to roam the island but must stay on the path behind the roped off area. The penguins don't have any such restrictions, and they crossed in front of us many times. We were warned that if we crossed over the ropes, we might be fined or shot. Actually, the bigger problem would be breaking a leg in the many penguin burrows scattered around the island.

Wouldn't you know it, but Dianne's glove blew away in the gale force wind, right into the penguin area. We couldn't coax a penguin to retrieve the glove. Finally, our Danish friend, Regitze jumped the rope and quickly retrieved the glove. Nothing happened to her. No cami dudes, no black ops, nothing!

We observed the penguins for quite some time. Although they don't have Facebook yet, they appear to have a complicated social structure and they go through elaborate rituals. For example, the mother penguin waddles (runs) down to the water to search for food. The young penguin runs behind her in lockstep as if he were chasing her. Meanwhile, the male adult penguins sit on the eggs.

The weather, on this midsummer day was awful. It was cold and windy, perfect penguin weather. There are no trees to slow down the wind. It is 1/2 mile uphill to the lighthouse, against the wind, both ways. The winds essentially blow around the world without touching land, so they're pretty strong by the time they get here. The only comparable weather I've seen was Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, which is considered the windiest place in the world. I'm from Chicago, the Windy City, and I know wind, but this is crazy. It was even worse when we got to Cape Horn.

The next day, in the early morning hours, we sailed through the Straits of Magellan, and the Beagle Channel, taking in the beautiful and majestic glaciers. We set the alarm for 6 A.M. so as not to miss this magnificent scenery. We had a room with a balcony. The only problem was that our room was on the starboard (right) side of the ship, and the glaciers were on the port side. To view them, we had to go up to the top deck of the ship. Although it was cold, I couldn't wear a hat because it would blow away in the gale winds.

We took some spectacular shots of the glaciers which by and large are named after European countries. We saw the Espana Glacier, the Romanche Glacier, the Alemania Glacier, the Francia Glacier, the Italia Glacier and the Holanda Glacier. These glaciers are part of the Cordillera Darwin, a 1000 square mile mountain range mantled with a large ice field which stretches for about 50 miles along the Chilean side of Tierra del Fuego Island. The highest point is Mount Darwin, named after Charles Darwin, the evolution guy born on Lincoln's Birthday, whose ship, the HMS Beagle gave its name to the channel. The HMS Beagle, with Darwin aboard, spent several years around 1831, charting the coastlines while Darwin studied the flora and fauna.


Our cruise continued on, a couple of hundred miles to Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world. It is a city of 80,000 perched on the shore and a hillside backed by snow capped mountains. On this day, February 9th, three cruise ships were docked in the port. The souvenir stores were doing a brisk business, particularly in onyx which is a plentiful stone around Ushuaia.

It was midsummer, and we were blessed with sunny mild weather. The temperature was about 15C (60F) although they had had a snowstorm 3 days before, according to our guide. Our tour guide was a lady who lived in New Jersey for many years and moved back to be with her family in Argentina. She spoke American English and was very informative.

The main industry in Ushuaia is outfitting Antarctic expeditions and eco-tourism. Originally the city was built to house a penal colony in the nearby mountains, but that closed many years ago. Now the penal colony is a popular tourist attraction, and you get up there on a small narrow gauge train, similar to what you'd see in an amusement park. We rode that train several years ago when we visited. Although I like old trains, there was no need to repeat that experience.

Instead, we took a bus tour through Tierra del Fuego National Park and walked around the beautiful Lago Roca (Lake Roca) on the Chile-Argentina border. We visited the end of Route 3, the Pan American Highway. You can pretty much drive the length of it and many people do, even on bicycles, but it takes awhile. The trip to Fairbanks, Alaska is about 11,000 miles. A large sign marks the end of the line. In fact, the city's motto is "fin del mundo" which means "end of the world".


We set out for Cape Horn which in Spanish is known as "Cabo de Hornos", which literally means "Cape of Ovens". Cape Horn was named in 1616 by the Dutch discoverer, Willem Schouten after his home town of Hoorn in the Netherlands--actually his voyage was financed by the merchants of Hoorn. His ship, also called the Hoorn, was wrecked in the voyage, and he had to complete the trip on the sister ship, the Eendracht.

We arrived the following morning at Cape Horn, 91 miles south of Ushuaia. We woke up at 7:15 to a partly cloudy day, unusual in this area. We went up to the top deck for some photo opportunities. I wore sandals and almost froze my toes off. The winds appeared to be close to 100 mph, and Dianne had to hang on to the mast to not blow away. We had been to Cape Horn several years ago, but it was enshrouded in fog, and we didn't get a good look at it. This time we did.

It consists of some rocky outcroppings and a 1500 foot mountain on which Chile maintains a small military base. There are no trees. The stark scenery is quite beautiful. For many tourists, it's something to check off on their bucket list, but it's about as isolated as one can get.

For yachtsmen, however, Cape Horn is the ultimate challenge, the yachting equivalent of climbing Mt. Everest, because of strong winds and currents, large waves as high as 100 feet, and even icebergs. This is the graveyard of sailing ships, and traditionally, sailors who rounded the Horn were entitled to wear one gold hooped earring in the left ear (the one facing the Horn on an Eastbound passage), and also get a tattoo of a full sailing ship.

We felt relatively safe on the gigantic Star Princess, although the ride is bumpy. Many passengers got seasick, but I was invigorated in the fresh air, eager for our next adventure.




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