Call of the Wild in Cape Horn
Sailing the routes of ancient explorers, travelers unplug from technology and recharge their spirits
By Janis Turk
No phone? No computer? No problem.
For four days and nights, I would cut all contact with the outside world and turn off technology as I sailed to Cape Horn, a mere 500 miles from Antarctica at end of the earth.
While traveling to the southernmost reaches of South America on a Cruceros Australis ship, I would see ice-blue glaciers, icebergs, waterfalls, ancient ship channels and the snowy Andean mountain ranges of Patagonia.
A four-night expedition cruise through the Strait of Magellan to the wave- and wind-torn shores of Cape Horn Island, book-ended by visits to exciting cities in Chile and Argentina, is the ultimate “bucket list” trip.
Traveling the routes of ancient explorers—like Drake, Darwin, Magellan, Fitz-Roy and Shackleton—I’d witness splendid scenery, hike, read and rest. Mountains, stars, penguins and sea lions would be my companions. Leaving behind the technology was easy: I wasn’t traveling to connect with others, but rather to disconnect. By unplugging from computers and cell phones and plugging into nature, I would recharge my inner battery.
So it was only fitting that when I began my unplugged adventure, I left on a “Dreamliner.”
On the overnight flight on a LAN Airlines’ Boeing 787 Dreamliner from New York’s JFK to Santiago, Chile, the Dreamliner lived up to its name. The craft was large and comfortable, and since the plane is built to adjust for turbulence and reduce all engine noise, I got a good night’s sleep—preparing me for the adventures ahead in Patagonia.
Patagonia is a region covering about 260,000-square miles in South America and includes land in both Argentina and Chile. With broad plateaus rising from about 300 feet near the ocean to 5,000 feet in the Andean foothills, Patagonia is known for its strong, blustery winds and cool weather. Much of the region is mountainous and frozen because of its proximity to Antarctica, but it is also home to deep forests and verdant valleys.
I didn’t know much about Patagonia before this trip, so I booked everything through Borello Travel in New York. They suggested a seamless itinerary that aligned perfectly with my travel-unplugged plan.
Not that kind of cruise
Although I’ve traveled extensively, I had never been on a cruise. I just don’t see myself as the “party on the Lido deck” type. I’d hate being stuck on a ship with a thousand tourists bellying up to a buffet. So when Sandra Borello of Borello Travel assured me that this was “not that kind of cruise,” I was relieved.
The M/V Stella Australis, one of two small Cruises Australis ships, sleeps only 210 passengers and doesn’t resemble the “Love Boat” in any way. We were sailing at the end of the low South American winter season, so there were only 75 passengers and almost as many crew on board—a small group of interesting, well-educated international travelers of all ages.
The ship had five levels, 100 cabins, and a large restaurant with white-tablecloths, attentive waiters and lots of windows. It also featured several quiet viewing lounges, a top-deck observation bar and lounge and spacious cabins with private baths and large windows.
In my fifth deck cabin, the windows span from floor to ceiling. We had no Internet while at sea, but I never missed it. During our journey, passengers enjoyed informative educational discussions and films about the region and its wildlife, along with excursions to see nature up close.
Navigating the Zodiac
Cruises Australis are expedition cruises, which means that twice-daily Zodiac inflatable boats, powered by big outboard motors, take passengers to trek uninhabited islands and gleaming glaciers. There we saw penguins, sea lions and myriad birds.
We enjoyed soft and medium-level adventure hikes through flower-filled hillsides and permafrost paths. Even older travelers found the Zodiac boat trips and hikes manageable, though some chose to stay on board and enjoy the scenery from the windows of the lounges or their rooms.
When I first saw photos of Zodiac boats in the brochures, I’d worried that I’d be afraid to ride the boats on the icy waters. But after our first Zodiac outing, I felt safe and comfortable in the raft-like crafts.
Our ship made its way at a calm, leisurely pace through the Straits of Magellan, which cuts a twisting natural path between the Atlantic and the Pacific, north of Tierra del Fuego with islands, icebergs and snow-capped mountains on every side.
The Straits are about 310 miles long and 1.2-miles wide at its narrowest point. Most of the time, our ship sailed in view of land on both sides, which meant the waters were calm.
During our cruise from Puntos Arenas, Chile, to the Argentinean town of Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego, we passed Ainsworth Bay and Tuckers Islets, Pia Glacier, Murray Channel, and Nassau Bay, and finally, on our last day, Wuliai Bay and Cape Horn. Along the way we encountered every kind of weather from warm sunshine to white blizzards—sometimes all on the same day.
As we entered the open sea near Cape Horn on the third night of our voyage, the seas tossed our ship about a bit, and I rocked in my bed to the rolling the waves. Still, I never felt seasick.
The waters surrounding the Cape can be treacherous, due to severe storms that can arise with little notice, giant waves and strong currents, formidable icebergs and ferocious winds. Ancient seamen have called it a “sailors' graveyard,” but our Captain assured us he would never attempt to go to Cape Horn Island if conditions were not perfect. We rounded Cape Horn island and reached its southernmost point.
Journey to the end of the earth
Conditions were excellent the morning we anchored near Cape Horn Island, and it was sunny and windy as we boarded the Zodiac boats on cold choppy seas. In minutes, we were climbing the wooden stairway along a rocky cliff and stepping foot on the island, the southernmost headland of Tierra del Fuego.
The tiny wind-whipped island has a wooden steps and a boardwalk leading up a steep hill to a lighthouse, chapel and an enormous monument honoring ancient sailors. This was our most strenuous climb—thanks in part to the winds that nearly blew me off my feet.
But it was also the most thrilling moment of the trip—to stand at land’s end, staring at the inimitable majesty of the sea.
Ferdinand Magellan, who had first navigated these waters in the 1500s, writes: "The sea is dangerous and its storms terrible, but these obstacles have never been sufficient reason to remain ashore.” I agree.
I was glad that I’d left my comfort zone and my computer behind—not content to remain ashore, but eager to brave the seas and stand in the footsteps of truly intrepid travelers—explorers who centuries ago stood on this spot.
I thought of the words of explorer Ernest Shackleton, alluding to the poem, “Call of The Wild”: “We had pierced the veneer of outside things…We had seen God in His splendors, heard the text that Nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of man.”
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Janis Turk is a travel writer, photographer, and author who has appeared in travel segments for CNN’s airport network. Her work appears in magazines and newspapers and popular travel websites. Her most recent book Frommer’s TEXAS (2017) is available on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.