A journey from Cape Horn to the Atacama: Boat journey to Isla Navarino … Down the Beagle Channel … Cape Horn … War relics … Flight back to the mainland … The hardy migrants … Cordillera de la Sal … Lagunas … El Tatio again … Puncture in the desert … Clouds over Paranal
My mum and dad and aunt came to visit me in Chile, and we planned an epic journey around the whole country. We'd been planning the trip for a long time, and one of the things we really wanted to do was the four day boat journey from Puerto Natales to Puerto Montt, so when they booked their flights the first thing I went to do was book tho boat journey. Unbelievably, Navimag had cancelled the route just a few days before, running it for freight only. A vague notice on their website said that they hoped to be open to passengers again "at some point".
But there was an alternative. For a long time I'd been reading about Isla Navarino and Puerto Williams, the southernmost town in the world. There was a boat that went there, too, from Punta Arenas. So we decided to head south, really south, and see what there was at this frontier of human existence, where the only human beings further south than us would be the 1,000 or so living through the winter on Antarctica.
We set off from Punta Arenas on a beautiful calm evening, and stood on deck as it got dark and the lights of the town disappeared behind us. During the night, the weather got rougher and for a while the boat was rolling and riding some huge waves, but by the morning it was pretty calm again. When I woke up around sunrise, we were in utter wilderness. Sombre snow-capped mountains all around, wild forested islands which probably no-one ever sets foot on, and our little boat chugging through it all.
We passed glacier after glacier as we sailed down the Beagle Channel. This was wild uninhabitable land and it was amazing to see it. We stopped briefly at Yendegaia, an incredibly remote place supposedly being developed as a national park but currently just a ranger station in the middle of nowhere on Tierra del Fuego. I immediately put it on my list of places I want to go.
A few hours after Yendegaia, we passed Ushaia. This was my previous furthest south, on my first trip to South America back in 2005. It looked pretty awesome from out in the straits, surrounded by mountains. After Ushuaia it was only a couple more hours to Puerto Williams.
The boat journey had been incredible but also long and tiring. We'd been quite lucky with the weather with only one epically rough patch in the night, and a bit of rain during the second day. But we hadn't appreciated what the food and drink situation on board would be like. The drink situation was that they would give you one cup of orange squash at each mealtime. The food situation was a tray of pretty nice food for everyone except me and my dad; neither of us eat meat, which is something that often bewilders people in this part of the world. Our meals consisted of cold vegetables, mostly peas. Dad doesn't much like peas. So we were a bit thirsty and bit hungry by the time we got to Puerto Williams at about 11pm, 31 hours after we'd set off from Punta Arenas.
After our epic boat journey we slept in late the next morning. But not too late, because at 11am we had a flight to catch. And this was a flight I did not want to miss - it would take us over Cape Horn.
Even though Cape Horn is just south of Isla Navarino, it never occurred to me that we might be able to go there until a few days before we got to Puerto Williams. It just sounded too impossibly remote. I didn't know that there was a way to get there, and if there was a way I imagined it would be ruinously expensive.
But then I discovered that Aerovias DAP fly over there from Puerto Williams, for 80,000 pesos. This was not ruinously expensive. This was pretty reasonable for a flight to the world's most savage and terrifying cape. We didn't hesitate.
I was incredibly excited as we boarded the plane, and nothing about the trip disappointed. The pilots warned us that even if it was calm and clear at Puerto Williams, it might be too stormy to make it to the cape and we might have to turn back half way. They told us later that they only make it there about half the time they try to get there. But today we were fortunate. We flew over the wild Dientes de Navarino, over rugged and empty Wollaston Island, and then over a strait to the legendary Cape.
We circled around a few times, lower and lower until we were pretty much at the height of the high cliffs. We could see the two little huts in which Chilean navy people spend months at a time, defending the island against Argentinian invasions. And we could see the waves crashing on the rocks. It was an incredible place to be flying over, although I couldn't help hoping I'd get the chance to set foot on the island, or sail past it, at some point.
We went for a walk along the shores of the Beagle Channel. We found some old gun emplacements, relics of tensions between Chile and Argentina. In 1978 the two countries almost came to war, with Argentina seriously on the verge of mounting an invasion over the sovereignty of islands in the channel. I can't get over the madness of going to war over uninhabited and uninhabitable territories, and when you have two countries that share such similar histories and cultural heritages, fighting over desolate scraps of land, it becomes even crazier.
I looked over the straits to Argentina, just a few miles away, and wondered whether these guns ever actually fired at anything.
The boat journey to Navarino had been amazing, and a short flight back would surely be an anti-climax. But once more in a tiny Twin Otter, our Aerovias DAP flight took us over some stunning scenery. We flew along the Beagle Channel until the border with Argentina turned north, and then we turned north too. We crossed the Darwin Range and experienced some epic turbulence on the way over. I was lucky to have a window seat on the packed little plane.
As we got further north, the scenery got less incredible, the snow line got higher and eventually we were nearing rainy Punta Arenas. As we descended over the Straits of Magellan, I saw a duck fly by not very far from the plane. Probably a duck could do quite a bit of damage to a little Twin Otter, though the Twin Otter would certainly win the fight.
Being back in Punta Arenas gave me some kind of culture shock. This was a normal place, with people and cafes and cars and noise and life. Puerto Williams was a different world and felt incredibly remote in comparison.
We wanted to see some penguins while we were in Patagonia, but we were there at a bad time of year. All of the magellanic penguins come here for the summer, and it was just barely out of winter now. No trips were going to Isla Magdalena, the largest penguin colony in the area, but we found a trip going to Seno Otway and went there to see if we could see some.
It was a wild and windy day at Seno Otway. We walked out to the beach where the penguins come in and go out to sea, and we found just a handful of penguins there. 5 or 6 of them were testing the waters, bracing themselves for a day out in the ocean. We watched them for a while and then wandered inland to their colony. Again, just a handful of penguins were here, scattered across the grass. They reminded me of people who arrive at Glastonbury three days before the festival starts, nicking all the best camping spots. But I also thought that these were the coolest penguins. While thousands of their comrades were still lazing about on Uruguayan beaches, these ones were the hard core, the pioneers. No easy life in the sun for them. Patagonia had called them, and they had come.
We walked back to the beach. The penguins had gone out for the day and it was empty. We headed back to Punta Arenas.
We'd been to the southernmost parts of Chile, and now it was time to head north to San Pedro de Atacama. It was the fifth time I'd been here, only a few weeks after my fourth visit.
San Pedro is full of tour agencies, some good, some bad. We went on a trip to the Valle de la Luna with a bad one. And the trouble is, there are so many agencies, I can't remember which one it was I actually booked through. Whoever it was, they had a van that was tiny and they were trying to fit too many people into it, and after our first stop it wouldn't restart for a while.
But, at least it managed to deliver us to a good viewpoint over the desert in time to see the sun go down. San Pedro might be excessively touristy but it's got a prime location and I don't think I could ever get bored of seeing the desert scenery around here.
We headed to some high altitudes, and took a trip to Lagunas Miñiques and Miscanti. I'd been here a few weeks earlier, and at 4000m there had been plenty of snow. We couldn't drive right to the lagoons, so we had a short hike over the snow to get to a place where we could see them. Today, all that snow had gone. We drove down to Laguna Miñiques, which we hadn't even been able to hike to before, and then to Miscanti. A lone vicuña was drinking from the lake in the distance.
We went to see the geysers at El Tatio. I'd been there three times already and although it's a pretty awesome place, I was thinking that maybe four visits is a bit excessive. And seeing as you have to get up at 4am to go there, and it's brutally cold when you get there, and it's 4300m above sea level, I was wondering if my mum and dad and aunt would actually get any enjoyment from this at all.
But we got lucky with the tour we went with. Everyone, everyone who visits San Pedro will go to El Tatio, so agencies really don't have to work very hard to earn their custom. But the trip we went on was one of the few that actually makes an effort. The driver advised us not to sleep on the way up, telling us that you adjust more easily to high altitude if you're awake. We thought this sounded like it would be worth a try so we stayed awake all the way up. The Italians, Brazilians and Chileans who were also on the trip ignored it and were soon fast asleep.
But it was good advice. I felt better when we got to El Tatio than I'd done on any of my previous visits, and as well as that, the place looked more incredible than ever before. It was brutally, savagely cold, 15 degrees below freezing, and in those conditions huge steam pillars rise from even the tiniest geothermal hole in the ground. It was stunning.
We had plenty of time at the geysers. On previous trips I'd always felt a bit rushed, but we hung around until pretty much all of the other minibuses had left. Once the sun came up, the savage temperatures got a tiny bit more agreeable.
All the tours start in the main geyser field and then drive over to a geothermal pool that you can swim in. I'd swum in it on my last trip. It was horrific. It's like getting into a bath that you ran nice and hot and then forgot about for a bit, and then you have to get out into sub-zero air. So we passed on a swim this time.
I was in a great mood as we headed away from El Tatio. This had been the best of my four trips here without a doubt. So, my advice for having a great trip to El Tatio is 1. go with the Maxim tour agency, they are really good; 2. stay awake on the way up; and 3. don't swim in the pool unless you like disappointment and misery.
We drove back down to San Pedro. We were in no rush, the driver took his time, and we stopped at some amazing places. At Vado Putana, where the Río Putana spreads out into a huge wetland, previous trips I'd been on had stopped for a few minutes, but we spent a while here with the driver pointing out all the birds and wildlife that could be seen. Not long after that some groups of vicuñas and llamas crossed the road, and we stopped to let them cross.
Everything about the trip was good, and even when we got a puncture, that was good. It was the second time I'd had a puncture on my four trips so I felt somehow like it might have been my fault. The first puncture, on my first trip, was a bit of a nightmare as it took a long time to fix, we were in the middle of nowhere, and I had a pounding headache from the altitude. This one happened just outside the village of Machuca, and it meant we got to stop and appreciate the amazing views over the village that you normally just see flashing past out the window of the minibus. We waited near the van for a while as the driver jacked it up, and eventually he said we might as well walk down to Machuca while he fixed it. The staying awake on the way up thing had really worked well - the four of us strolled down into Machuca while everyone who'd slept on the way up seemed to be suffering now and shuffled slowly down behind us. One girl just stayed in the bus and drove down with it once the tyre had been fixed.
Machuca was busy. Every bus stops here on the way down from the geysers. It had changed a lot since my first visit, 8 years ago - when I looked at my photos from 2005 there was just one van there and hardly any people. Today there were about 30 cars and vans parked in the village, and there was even a mobile phone mast.
But by the time we got into the village, most of them had gone. It was good to be on the most relaxed trip of the day. We had plenty of time to look around, enjoy the Machuca vibe, and get coffees and empanadas. It would have been a shame not to have got the puncture.
We finished our epic Chile journey with a visit to Paranal where I spend 80 nights a year working at the telescopes. We had some bad luck though. The skies are normally clear here at least 90 per cent of the time, but the last couple of years have seen quite a lot of bad weather, and today we managed to pick a cloudy day. We'd seen the cirrus over the desert as we headed out from Antofagasta, but there is quite often cloud nearer to Antofagasta while Paranal is clear. Today it was not so, and the clouds thickened during the afternoon.
By nightfall they'd decided not to open the telescopes. The opening is always impressive to see, so this was a pity, but the engineer who would have opened the dome treated us to a good display anyway, tilting and rotating the telescope so that we got great views of it inside the closed dome.
We went out onto the platform in the night, and through breaks in the clouds we could see stars, but nothing like the normal blazing skies. It was a pity, as I'd planned the trip for a time when there would be no moon and the centre of the Milky Way would be high in the sky at the start of the night. The night before, and the night after, there wasn't a cloud in the sky.
But Paranal is not only about the night skies. We went for a walk in the desert the next day, and that's always great. The terrain here is so harsh that just before we arrived, they'd been testing a Mars rover nearby.