PATAGONIA: Part Two of a Series – To the End of the Earth in Ushuaia and Cruising Aboard the Stella Australis

The beauty of Patagonia outside our hotel window in Torres del Paine National Park

The beauty of Patagonia outside our hotel window in Torres del Paine National Park. photo by Russ Wagner

Thousands of shipwrecked sailors’ bones are forever entombed in the turbulent sea crashing against Cape Horn, the 1,400-foot high promontory soundlessly monitoring the endless savage confrontation of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Gusty winds and roiling seas batter the tiny isle of Cape Horn, of which the fabled promontory is like a jutting chin facing down the world’s most treacherous waters. Naturalist Charles Darwin tried unsuccessfully in the 1820’s to do what our intrepid group of adventurous tourists accomplished; we landed and hiked on Cape Horn (National Park), the northern boundary of the Drake passage and the last spit of land before one reaches Antarctica.
We reached Cape Horn aboard the Stella Australis, a sleek white Expedition ship. But before our afternoon boarding of the elegant lady, our Smithsonian Journey’s Patagonian Expedition group of 20 spent two days in Ushuaia, the world’s southernmost city.
Usushaia, Argentina
There are many reasons why Patagonian adventures begin in Usushaia. It’s where our ship would launch.
It’s an easy ride to Tierra del Fuego National Park, a 155,676-acre nature preserve created
City of Ushuaia is nestled into the base of the mountains. photo by Russ Wagner

City of Ushuaia is nestled into the base of the mountains. photo by Russ Wagner

in 1960 and abutting the border with Chile.
It contains the Maritime Museum, which once housed The Ushuaia Jail and Military Prison. The original idea was to build a penal colony in this remote destination for serious criminals, with the convicts providing the labor for both the jail and for creating a city. One of their outstanding achievements was to build the southernmost railway in the world in 1910. The prison is now a museum, cataloging the area’s history with maps, photos, ship replicas, video clips and diaries. The walk through musty concrete halls and peeking into cells, some decorated with memorabilia of past famous prisoners, reminded me of a visit to Alcatraz, on the coastline of San Francisco. What defined this former prison to me was one wing now houses local artwork. There were bright splashes of color contrasting to grayed concrete walls. One picture stopped me in my tracks. It was a poignant ode to the Disappears: people who vanished after being abducted by security forces in Chile during the Pinochet era.
Ushuaia was also home to Yamana Indians. In Argentina, the indigenous tribes are called Shamanas. In Chile, they say Yamanas. Either pronunciation, the tribes occupied Tierra del Fuego at least 10,000 years ago. They were healthy, strong and resourceful, managing to survive in the frigid climate buck naked. Oh, and it was the women who dove into the brutally cold sea to pluck out fish to feed them. (Just saying….) Anyway, they were doing just fine living the simple life until European explorers and religious missionaries arrived in 1890. It took just 20 years of clothing, converting and sharing diseases with them that the populace of 3000 dwindled to 100.
End of the earth post office. photo by Russ Wagner

End of the earth post office. photo by Russ Wagner

Something you wouldn’t expect to find in the remote parkland of Tierra del Fuego is the world’s southernmost post office on Isla Redonda, manned by a handlebar-mustachioed and bearded character. He’s become so legendary after his 20+ year stint at the Fin Del Mundo (end of the world) post office, which is actually not much bigger than a fishing shack sitting on the edge of a dock., that he has created his own passport stamp with a charming picture of himself. For $2 each, nearly all of us waited for his attention. This is definitely not something you’d find anywhere else in the world!
You won’t come to Ushuaia for the shopping! The city is a small collection of souvenir shops, restaurants and last-minute outdoor wear and supplies for people who didn’t pack for a climate of bitter winds and gray skies. Of course, all the clothes are imported, so they’re expensive and selections are limited. Odyssey Tours, the travel arm of Smithsonian Journeys, had given us a complete list of clothes, shoes and gear to bring. Russ and I were fully prepared (Thank you, thank you, my meticulously-detailed husband) for this 18-day trip with insulated coat, thermal underwear, rain pants, tops and hat, waterproof hiking boots and gloves, sunglasses, as well as all the other clothes, toiletries and accessories to see us through the diverse events and locations we faced.
The climate and environmental differences between Buenos Aires, where we’d spent little time sleeping in order to leave at 2:30 for a 4:30 am flight, and Ushuaia was as shocking as leaving New York during a snow storm and stepping from the plane to the blasting sauna bath known as Orlando. Instead of mild breezes wafting across city high rises, the tallest structures in the area were overlapping mountains and the blue of the Beagle Channel rolling into shore.
The city sits huddled together along the water’s edge, though tourism has shaken up its roots. Locals aren’t sure if traffic on narrow streets and squatters moving into the surrounding hills are worth the progress, especially because fresh water is already an issue. The pressing need for housing and lodging for tourists has stretched to a side of the city previously uninhabited.
Hotel Los Yamanas where we stayed, is a 41-room hotel at the foot of the Andes and overlooking the Beagle Channel. The décor is rustic. The second-floor breakfast buffet and dining room has large windows. The evening sky was ablaze with color. If you’re hungry, order early. Every item is prepared to order. That means if you order French fries, they are first going to peel and slice the potatoes. Like the next four hotels arranged for our stays, the sunrises each were spectacular homages to nature’s grandeur. As pretty as the location is, it’s too far from the city to walk. You’d need a taxi, about 80- 100 pesos each way. At the rate then, about $5 to $6.
We had two lunches on our own in Ushuaia. We tried to eat at a different one the second time, but were ignored after many long minutes, so returned to Andino’s Gourmet Restaurante where we’d enjoyed the food so much the day before. The waiter recognized us as if we’d been longtime customers and immediately set about taking care of us. Food was great, house wine was tasty, and the prices were quite reasonable.
Weather here is decisively unpredictable. Our first day we had warm weather under clear skies, a real rarity. The wind and weather are so severe most of the year that people are paid extra to live there. The next morning, we strolled along the shore about 9 am and enjoyed the same moderate temperature, the same blue water and bluer sky. Within just a couple minutes, the rain and biting winds roared across the channel and straight for us.
Left the Stella Australis by zodiac and ascended Cape Horn. photo by Russ Wagner

Left the Stella Australis by zodiac and ascended Cape Horn. photo by Russ Wagner

Stella Australis and The Journey Where Few Get to Explore
There were two main reasons Russ signed us up for this particular Smithsonian trip: Cape Horn and Torres del Paine National Park’s natural beauty. He’d pondered many photos of The Masif and its iconic abutting mountains in the pages of magazines and on destination posters. He had checked out cruises and other tour groups. None matched the length of time to explore the areas in which he was most interested. We had discovered when travelling to Mount Denali in Alaska that it’s only visible about seven days a year (not a fact the tourism agencies hype). We weren’t there on one of them and didn’t want a repeat of that, especially as Torres del Paine is frequently fogged in or under rainy skies. If we’d taken an excursion from a cruise ship, we’d have had to travel by bus for about five hours and hope that in the few hours given us to ooh and aah, that we’d actually get to see The Masif in all its glory (before facing another long bus ride back to the ship).
Making the clumb up to Albatross Monument on Cape Horn. photo by Russ Wagner

Making the clumb up to Albatross Monument on Cape Horn. photo by Russ Wagner

The Stella Australis’ hardy seaworthy crew were capable, friendly, professional, accessible, knowledgeable and above all, safety conscious. Our bed was comfortable, but the cabin’s lack of air circulation made it stuffy and warm. Each morning we walked to the first floor dining room for an enormous buffet of Latin American and North American favorites. At night, we were offered menus for plated meals. Day or night, all alcohol is complimentary. Sometimes breakfast was before we loaded onto zodiacs to bump our way across the rough waters to an island; sometimes it followed our early morning trips that began at 7 am.
The first night we drank some bubbly and pisco sours at the Captain’s welcome reception before the ship sailed through the night from Ushuaia into Chilean waters. The next morning’s instructions for disembarking occurred in two rooms: Darwin Lounge on the 5th floor for English speakers and in the Yamanas Lounge on the 4th floor for Spanish speakers. We donned three layers of thermal gear, life jackets, posted our room key on board (so they could track who left and returned), held onto the arm of a crewperson, and then stepped carefully onto the rubber, sat on the padded edge of the zodiac and slid down so that we were seven or eight people on each side of the sturdy inflatable vessel. In my deep jacket pocket I carried the flask given as a gift to each passenger so we’d have water in containers that wouldn’t get left behind as refuse. My Iphone is my only camera and my only link to home, family and gigs. I was so terrified of losing it while on a zodiac or hiking that I left it in our room safe for the entire trip. Not that there was any cell service anyway or would be for many more days to come.
CAPE HORN – Up to the moment we set foot on the island of Cabo de Hornos, we weren’t sure if we’d have to turn back due to the choppy water and wind. If you read Part 1 of this blog, you know Russ was retching up to the moment we boarded the zodiac. Truthfully, there were many green or ashen faces on the ship. I had taken two anti-nausea pills by then and we both wore our sea bands from the get-go, so I was doing OK. As rough as the seas were, the Captain declared it one of the calmest seas he’d ever seen in the area. All I can say is that I hope never to be aboard a craft on seas any rougher!
Russ, me & 3 layers of thermal with Albatross Monument on Cape Horn. photo by Susan Cramer

Russ, me & 3 layers of thermal with Albatross Monument on Cape Horn. photo by Susan Cramer

There isn’t much to the island of Cape Horn. There are steps leading to the Albatross Monument, dedicated to the mariners lost in the waters off Cape Horn, and once you descend those, you can climb to the lighthouse. You can’t actually climb onto the promontory because it’s separated from the mass. A Naval officer, his wife and two children actually live in the lighthouse for a one-year duty tour. He welcomed us to the island. When we first landed, the wind was about 30-35 mph. It was a steep climb up narrow steps in wind that pushed us sideways. Nick warned some of the men to hang onto their smaller-framed wives because they literally could be blown off the stairs. By the time we reached the lighthouse, maybe half an hour later, the winds were gusting at about 75-80 mph, according to Mauricio Alvarez, the Stella Australis Expedition Team Leader. He received orders for us to evacuate the island immediately. If we had waited any longer, we may have been bunking on the lighthouse floor for the night!
When you weren’t going on an adventure off-ship, there were films to watch about the area, such as Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure of Patagonia, Ice and Flowers. You could nap, read, or shop from the small gift store. I was surprised to hear anyone had time to just relax. It seemed there was always something going on and if you’ve travelled this far to participate in a journey few take, why waste it on mundane matters?
WULAIA – That first day we had two off-ship excursions. Our afternoon trip on the zodiac was to Wulaia Bay, site of one of the largest Yamanas settlements. Charles Darwin ventured to Wulaia with Captain FitzRoy in the 1830’s. Russ was still feeling woozy, so I struck out with the rest of my group. We had three hiking options on this adventure, each with its own guide. You could walk along the shore and hear the history, bird watch and learn about the environment. Or, you could hike at a pace as steep as the elevation. I chose that group at the urging of some of my travel companions, many of whom live in mountainous areas and are used to the altitude and rocky sub-Arctic forested terrain. Honestly, it was too fast for me. Just over halfway up, my heart was racing; my breathing shallow. I stopped and just sat, content for the group to pick me up on the way down. Fortunately, a more steadily-paced group came by minutes later and I joined them for the rest of the hike. We finally sat to hear about the area’s history and to enjoy the panoramic beauty of the bay.
We had little time on our return to do more than quickly shower before dinner. It’s amazing how hungry you can get from all that exercise!
Facing down the gaping hole of the Aguila Glacier. photo by Russ Wagner

Facing down the gaping hole of the Aguila Glacier. photo by Russ Wagner

Once again the seas tossed us like a salad. I’m positive my sea band and initial two anti-nausea pills are all that’s between me and a certain bathroom fixture. We’ve sailed through the Beagle Chanel into Alberto de Agostini National Park. The passage opened us up to the rough Pacific, which accounts for the roll and sway we endured. I studiously avoided looking through the dining room windows at the churning sea.
We arrived in De Agostini Sound, a landscape of glaciers, snow-capped mountains, and sub-arctic woods, fauna and flora surrounding the fjord. Our afternoon excursion by zodiac is to the Aguila Glacier. Like all the glaciers we’ve seen, even from afar, this one is receding. Mauricio Alvarez has been heading up a Stella Australis project for the past 10 years to study the topography, environment, and wildlife to see how to best protect it going forward. We are fortunate that he personally led our Smithsonian group for a private tour and discussion. Right as we approach the clearest and closest view of the Glacier’s open cave-like mouth and neon-blue color, we hear and see the glacier calve; ie, a chunk of ice breaks off and plummets into the water. Nick and Mauricio are stunned. In the past 10 years they’ve visited the island, they’ve not witnessed a calving. It’s yet another “unusual occurrence” with our group. Minutes later, we spot condors flying above us. The ancient birds with their expansive wings are rarely seen so close by.
Penguins rule Magdalena Island. photo by Russ Wagner, shot a long distance away aboard the Stella Auralis

Penguins rule Magdalena Island. photo by Russ Wagner, shot a long distance away aboard the Stella Auralis

Morning comes too quickly and with it, our last zodiac excursion. For many people we’ve talked to, this is the reason they come. Magdalena Island’s main inhabitants are Magellanic penguins. Thousands of them. They dig holes and burrow into them. They could swim away for six-months but will return to that exact hole upon return. Russ decides not to come. He wants to take his time packing for our morning departure off the ship and gives a cheeky answer when queried by our group about why he’s not coming. “I can see more than 20 kinds of penguins at SeaWorld,” he retorts. Whatever.
My regret is that I didn’t have my camera. These penguins preened, beat their chests with their wings, necked with their mates, and made loud honking noises. We walk along a long, cordoned off path. Ship’s crew have warned us that if penguins cross our path, to stop. Don’t flash a picture. Don’t try to touch them. Just stop and let them be. They do approach, not more than a foot away. I stop and it’s as if I am invisible. They waddle past. The penguins aren’t the only inhabitants on the island. There are also cormorants, kelp and dolphin gulls, skuas, kelp goose and black-faced ibis. When I return, Russ shows me a photo he took of the penguins from the ship. At least I have that.
By noon, we are de-boarding, passing through Chilean customs, and entering Punta Arenas, Chile.
Karen Kuzsel is a writer-editor based in the Orlando area who specializes in the hospitality, entertainment, meetings & events industries. She is a Contributing Editor-Writer for Prevue Magazine and is an active member of ISES and MPI and is now serving on the 2015 – 2016 MPI Global advisory Board for The Meeting Professional Magazine. Karen writes about food & wine, spas, destinations, venues, meetings & events. A career journalist, she has owned magazines, written for newspapers, trade publications, radio and TV. As her alter-ego, Natasha, The Psychic Lady, she is a featured entertainer for corporate and social events.;; @karenkuzsel; @thepsychiclady.

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