Traveling between Chile and Argentina? This cruise through Tierra del Fuego takes you where the roads and trails don’t—to some of the most remote places on Earth, accessible only by boat. Included? Cape Horn, the last stretch of land before Antarctica and one of the most famous non-Galapagos Darwin excursion.
The 200-person Australis expedition cruise I took, combined history and science with luxury, adventure, and gourmet buffets. Plus, plenty of glacial views.
The Ship: Ventus Australis
This cruise isn’t about open bars (even though there is one) or lounging on the deck (same). It’s more of a place to curl up with a good book, watch a movie, play a game, or take a nap. The ship has no TVs, Wi-Fi, or cellphone signal on board, which some people may find relaxing and others may find inconvenient. The cabins are comfortable and spacious, with private bathrooms and balconies. The ship has a contemporary decor, with large windows that offer panoramic views and cozy seating. Dress is casual.
The food and dining options are excellent. You can order your main course at breakfast or at dinner. Dinner is waiter-served and usually consists of a starter such as octopus carpaccio or smoked salmon; a soup; a choice of three mains; and dessert. The food is mainly Chilean with some international influences.
The service is attentive and friendly, especially from the guides who accompany every trip ashore. The guides are knowledgeable and passionate about the history, culture, and ecology of the region, and share stories and anecdotes.
The port of call for our cruise is Punta Arenas, which made this a nice next step from our Torres del Paine trek.
If you have some time to kill, which you may with so few departure dates, there are a few sights worth checking out. Beer lovers, take note. This is a brewery town, and places like Cerveceria Austral and Bar Bulnes make their own, special, bottom-of-the-Earth beer. And the city tour is worth it, with stops to the cemetery, which feels more like something you’d see in Paris than this remote village at the bottom of Chile.
Some other sights include the freely accessible Lord Lonsdale Shipwreck, the scenic waterfront promenade, and panoramic sunset views from Mirador de la Cruz. For souvenir hunters, Punta Arenas is a treasure trove of affordable, unique finds.
A Cruise from Punta Arenas to Ushuaia
The cruise kicked off from Punta Arenas, right there on the edge of the Strait of Magellan. It was cool to look out where 500 years ago, explorers crossed from easy to west. The kick-off was fun – a bit of an icebreaker (literally) vibe as we said cheers and got the lowdown on the ship, the captain, and the crew. As we sailed off, Punta Arenas turned into just a sprinkle of lights behind us, and ahead, pure Patagonian wilderness.
Wildlife and hiking: Ainsworth Bay and Tuckers Islets
We woke up to Admiralty Sound in the Strait of Magellan with the Karukinka Natural Park on one side and the Alberto de Agostini National Park on the other. Ainsworth Bay was our first stop, and it was like stepping into a wildlife documentary. We’re talking birds like the enormous albatross, and a close up of southern elephant seals.
There were two hiking options: a chill walk through a forest to a waterfall, and the other was a bit more of a hike-hike, up a glacial moraine, which I chose.
Then, it was over to the Tucker Islets. This place was all about penguins – thousands of them. And not just any penguins, but Magellan penguins doing their thing. Plus, loads of other birds, like cormorants and even eagles.
Glacier Views: Pia Glacier and Glacier Alley
Next up, Pia Glacier and Glacier Alley. Pia Glacier is huge, and getting a good look at it meant a short hike, but it was totally worth it. Sailing through Glacier Alley was like cruising through a frozen wonderland. Glaciers left and right, each named after different European countries, all tumbling down from the Darwin Mountains. It made the perfect backdrop for cocktail hour just before dinner.
Cape Horn and Wulaia Bay: A Day of Adventure and History
Cape Horn is never promised on this cruise. Choppy waters in the Drake passage can make the zodiac ride necessary to land, impossible. For a while, it seemed as if we weren’t going to make it, which is not uncommon. They got us all prepped and told to stand by. Eventually, we were given the clear and off we went.
Cape Horn is a windswept rock that is uncomfortable to stay on for any length. Three strucures stand: A lighthouse and a church, which seem impossible and beg you to imagine what life is like on this forbidding terrain. And a memorial to the sailors who have lost their lives in these waters.
The afternoon at Wulaia Bay, landing place of Charles Darwin, was much more comfortable. Full of natural beauty, not changed much since the 18th century, it was once home to the Yahgan people. Darwin took three of them, Jemmy Button, Fuegia Basket, and York Minster, back to England with the intention of “civilizing” them, but they ultimately chose their native way of life and returned years later.
There’s a cool museum there in an old radio station, and a few hiking trails that take you through some amazing forests to spots with killer views of the bay.
Ushuaia: The Southernmost City
Finally, we hit Ushuaia, Argentina – the world’s southernmost city. Rolling into this place felt like a real achievement (even though the boat made customs seem like a cinch). This whole trip, stories of explorers through the Strait of Magellan to the epic landscapes at Cape Horn, was a full-on Patagonian adventure.
Leaving the ship in Ushuaia, it was like I’d been part of something special. Penguins, glaciers, and some of the most untouched spots on earth, all wrapped up in one cool journey.
We made our way to the top of Luise Fernando Martial, just before the look-out, to the Las Hayas Ushuaia Resort. With gorgeous views, a friendly pub, and rooms with hot tubs, it made the perfect place to rest. And, a few miles from the train, it’s the perfect place to start the next leg of your journey.
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