The Ventus Australis is cruising east through the Ballenero Channel at the southern end of South America where the continent becomes, as geographers have called it, “a mess” of islands.
This archipelago is part of Tierra del Fuego, which translates as Land of Fire, a reference to the native people’s fires that were spotted by the first European explorers. The western portion of Tierra del Fuego, including the islands and Cape Horn, lies within Chile’s border; the remainder belongs to Argentina.
Much of Tierra del Fuego’s acreage comes under the national park systems of the two countries. Today, our destination is a portion of Alberto de Agostini National Park, a 3.6-million-acre preserve named after an Italian missionary who explored, photographed and documented the area’s ecosystem. Its islands, mountains, glaciers and fjords are nothing short of stunning. We decide that it’s difficult to capture the grandeur with camera or cell phone, but we’ll try.
It’s Day Three of a five-day cruise, part of the 17-day Patagonian Frontiers Tour offered by Odysseys Unlimited. Our trip began in Santiago and will end in Buenos Aires; in between, we explore some of the 260,000 awe-inspiring square miles that is Patagonia.
From the deck of the 200-passenger Ventus Australis, we seem surrounded by water and mountains. I give up trying to discern which way is north and focus on absorbing what we see — jagged, snow-laden mountains that jut everywhere from this wild land, and the glistening glaciers and fjords that are too numerous to count.
After a while, I start to doubt that all of this is real, but after lunch, we get our chance to confirm that it is.
We pile into Zodiac rafts and cross the waters of Pia Fjord to an isolated moraine beach. We are in luck; the weather is fair and the landing easy. More often, in this land of unpredictable weather, conditions are much crazier.
Once on shore, we drop our neon-orange life jackets and hike a short way up the trail that hugs the fjord. Our guide, Cris, encourages us to pause a moment to note the grandeur and silence of Pia Glacier. This works until we hear — and feel — the rumbling crash of calving as huge chunks of ice pull away from the body of the tidewater glacier, so called because it flows into the sea.
Unfortunately, we can’t see this force of nature because all of the action is happening across the water and around the corner, but there is no doubt that the terrain is on the move.
So the calving continues and so must we.
The group heads further up the forested trail where even better views of Pia Glacier and the fjord are ours. Slippery rocks and roots make the going slow, but we eventually reach a plateau where an extraordinarily beautiful panorama of mountains, glaciers, sea, islands and forest come together before and around us.
It’s another moment to take in — and to realize that we are only 600 miles from the South Pole. We are looking at landscape that has probably changed little in the last few centuries. What has changed are the inhabitants — that is, the lack of them. It’s a stunning fact that this landscape once was inhabited by Yaghan or Yamana, nomadic hunters and gatherers who lived naked in this harsh land. Predictably and sadly, most died due to diseases carried by Europeans or their bullets.
A blustery wind begins to whip at our faces (the only thing that is exposed) and in the distance, we can see dark clouds rolling over the top of the Cordillera Darwin mountain range. It’s time to head down the trail. Hot chocolate and/or whiskey greet us on our return to the beach.
Back on the Ventus Australis, we cruise east through the Beagle Channel, named after the boat that brought Charles Darwin to this area. He sailed this way in the 1830s to study the area’s flora, fauna and native peoples.
The channel is one of three routes around the bottom of the continent used regularly by sailors before the Panama Canal opened in 1914. More than 800 ships perished in the turbulent waters.
Our day culminates with a real-life slide show of Glacier Alley, so named because of the many glaciers that creep down the mountains on the channel’s north side. As we slide through the icy water, the ship’s announcer relates the name of each glacier, which celebrate the European countries of France, Germany, Holland, Italy and Spain.
E’Louise Ondash is a veteran, award-winning journalist who was an investigative reporter, feature writer and columnist for the Times Advocate and the North County Times. She has written travel features for The Coast News since 2003.