Part VII of the “Our Big Bucket Cruise” blog series

March 26: Punta Arenas is a dismal, desolate port, forgotten by the world. I cannot imagine why anyone would want to live here! But many do. With over 100,000 residents, it is the Magallanes Province’s largest city and lays claim to the title of the world’s southernmost city. It is more than 1,300 miles south of Santiago, Chile’s capital.

Overlooking the Strait of Magellan, this port city commands the historic route as the first city before (or after) rounding Cape Horn. The city flourished during the California Gold Rush when it was a haven for steamers rounding the cape. Although the Panama Canal dampened the traffic, the port achieved renewed prosperity as an early 20th century Chilean wool and mutton center. Modern Punta Arenas reflects a broad cultural mix—from Portuguese sailors to English sheep ranchers. Adventurers head for the Parque Nacional Torres Del Paine, “place of the blue water,” a breathtaking preserve with a primordial ecosystem. Tall granite pillars rise more than 8,500 feet, towering above the Patagonian steppes. Deep valleys are filled with sapphire lakes, gurgling rivers, cascading waterfalls, and massive glaciers. But the park is 275 miles north of the town, and we are here only for the day.  I buy this photo from the Veendam instead.

Torres Del Paine, Chile, taken by Veendam

Günter and I bundle ourselves in lots of layers and take a taxi into the city, swerving around rivers of water flooding the sides of the road. After we are let off downtown, we plod along a dreary main street torn apart by construction and floods, under a drizzly sky.

A muddy main street, Puntas Arenas, Chile

The hardy residents here consider themselves first as Magallanicos, and second as Chileans, which is hardly surprising, since in order to come to this stormy corner of the world, one either has to travel for days by bus across Argentine Patagonia, fly direct, or take a lengthy cruise through the southern seas. Our mission here is to rub the foot of the Magellan statue located in the main square. This is supposed to bring us good luck, which we need after having our backpack stolen in Buenos Aires!

Rubbing the foot of the Magellan statue brings good luck

March 27: Today, we are cruising through the Strait of Magellan, a navigable sea route south of the mainland of South America and north of Tierra del Fuego. Although it is the most important natural passage between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, the strait is difficult to navigate because it is subject to high, unpredictable winds and currents. The strait is 570 km long and only 2 km wide at its narrowest point. Ferdinand Magellan was the first European to navigate the strait in 1520, during his global circumnavigation voyage.

Most of the strait is compelling, but the special attraction is the Amanda Glacier. After the disappointment of having to pass through Glacier Alley after sunset, (the ship was held up by the Argentinian port authorities), our captain wants to make sure that all passengers will have an excellent view of this glacier. He makes a 360 degree swing so that it can be viewed from all verandas. Wow! What a glorious sight!

Amanda Glacier


Part VI of the “Our Big Bucket Cruise” blog series

March 25: The Veendam arrives in a moderate gale.

Ushuaia from the Sea

Tierra del Fuego is an archipelago surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, the Strait of Magellan, and the easternmost part of the Pacific Ocean. Although the city of Ushuaia is in Argentina, most of the main island actually belongs to Chile. At 55° latitude, it holds the distinction of being “the southernmost city in the world.”

Ushuaia, the Southernmost Town in the World

The indigenous people were the Yahgan and Alacalufes (canoe Indians). Surprisingly, despite the inclement weather, they wore little or no clothing. Constant fires kept them warm, hence the region’s name: Tierra del Fuego, land of fire.

I’d always wanted to go to Ushuaia. Stories about the ceaseless wind, the snow-capped Andes, and the magical light had fascinated me.

Even though Günter and I are still not feeling well, and have cancelled our tour here, a catamaran cruise through the Beagle Channel and a ride through the National Park, we bundle up to walk into the town. The wind blasts us so hard it almost knocks us over as we head down the gangplank and onto the pier. We make it to the town’s main drag and then Günter, who now has bronchitis, turns back.

Gunter on the pier near the ship, bundled for the walk

Lois, Bundled for the walk into town.

All the streets climb up the hill from the port, as in San Francisco.  The cross-streets filled with restaurants, bars, tourist and winter apparel shops protect me from the wind.

As I walk along the streets, I begin to fall in love with this southernmost town in the world. Yes, Ushuaia is remote, desolate, and moody as the sun appears and disappears behind the numerous clouds.  Yet the town turns out to be quite charming and picturesque. The colorful buildings are a mixture of architectural designs, from colonial European to ski resort styles with steep roofs. (Ski season here will begin in six weeks.) On the corner is the yellow, multi-storied Horn Hotel. On the facing block is a cozy, blue-shuttered bed-and-breakfast with white fretwork and a garden of struggling blue lupines. Towering over the town is the massive A-framed Albatross Hotel. And behind it all lie the snow-capped Andes. Ushuaia is frontier town with lots of character and a cosmopolitan center of 70,000, all rolled into one.

After exploring the town, I meander over to the sailboat anchorage to take some photos. I cannot imagine the courageous and hardy spirit it takes to sail here! Only 100 years ago, the only people crazy enough to come here were convicts in chains. Prison inmates built the town’s railway, hospital, and port. That prison is now a museum that I pass on the way back to the ship.

Delayed by the port authorities, The Veendam leaves too late to view Glacier Alley, but we do experience a few hours of daylight while winding through Darwin’s famous Beagle Channel.

The Beagle Channel at Sunset Viewed from our Veranda.

The Straits