A Weekend in Chile – Southernmost Settlements in the World

In Argentina, we are studying under tourist visas instead of student visas, so we are required to leave the country at least once during our ~4 month stay here. To solve that problem we hopped across the Beagle Channel from Argentina to Chile! On Friday morning, my program group took a 20 minute boat ride across the Canal to arrive at a small entry point called Puerto Navarino, and got our passports stamped for Chile. Then we traversed the beautiful coastline along the southern Andes Mountains, through austral bosques (southern forests) and ancient archeological sites. Along the way, we talked to some archeologists who were excavating sites housing ancient remnants from the Natives of the Tierra del Fuego region, the Selk’Nam and Yamana people.

Una vista hermosa de la tierra cerca de Puerto Williams

After arriving in Puerto Williams, Chile, the southernmost town in the world, we had a nice almuerzo of papas, featuring tiramisu de dulce de leche for dessert! Then we visited the Museo Antropólogo Martín Gusinde (the southernmost museum in the world), which is dedicated to conserving and defending the natural and cultural heritage of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago. We toured the museo via walking tour, given by a kind Chilean museum guide whose español was mucho más rapido and with a different accent than I am used to hearing in Argentina! It was interesting to learn about the ethnography, history, and archeology of the Selk’Nam and Yamana. We also toured the Casa Stirling, an anglican missionary house constructed in England, that was brought to Tierra del Fuego and used by the London South American Missionary Society from 1871 to 1916 in the Ushuaia and Puerto Williams regions. This blatant clash between the culture and traditions of native peoples and the colonialist missionary exploits of Europeans in the region was a stark reminder of the complex history of Tierra del Fuego, a common trope shared by so many places in the Americas.

Native fauna – Museo Antropológico Martín Gusinde

 

 

On sábado, we went to La Reserva Etnobotánica Omora de Cabo de Hornos (The Omora Ethnobotanical Reserve of Cape Horn), a protected area of Chile located 2 miles west of Puerto Williams on Isla Navarino in the extreme southern Magellan and Chilean Antarctica region. The Reserva holds the southernmost forests in the world and is a moss/lichen/liverwort biodiversity hotspot, as about 5-7% of the entire world’s bryophyte diversity is found within this reserve. We toured the Reserva and got to look through lupas (magnifying glasses) to identify different types of moss and lichen. Our guide, Miguel, sang a song about moss that quickly became a program hit, as everyone started singing “los musgos son mis amigos” nonstop for the entire rest of our program. We also identified a few local species of flora and fauna, such as the leña dura tree, Austral Great-horned Owl, and more found in the bogs of the high-Andean ecosystem.

My compañeros looked funny while looking for musgos and lichenes!
Cool orange lichen as seen through a lupa.
More sick lichen!
Posing at top of Cerro de la Bandera, Isla Navarino, Chile

After an amazing time at the Reserva, we had some down time, so the majority of our group decided to hike up one of the southernmost Andes mountains, Cerro de la Bandera, the first peak in a circuit of mountains known as Los Dientes de Navarino, located about a 45 minute walk from Puerto Williams. This experience hiking up one of the Chilean Andes was truly extraordinary! About 9 of my friends and I hiked together, chatting and taking it slow and stopping frequently to enjoy views of the Argentine Andes across the Beagle Channel, the beautiful expanse of turberas (peat-bogs) laid out below, and the gorgeous Subantarctic deciduous and broadleaf forests we hiked through. When we finally reached the tree-line, the vast expanse of snow up ahead faded completely into the blinding white sky. As we slogged through the knee-deep powder, a shining Chilean bandera (flag) appeared over the ridgeline, and we realized we made it to the Bandera of the mountain’s namesake! At the cima de la montaña, we swore we could see our city, Ushuaia, way off in the distance across the Canal Beagle back in Argentina. It was a really special moment for us girls of the program, as it was one of the first moments we all bonded together as a larger group.

El Cima de Cerro de la Bandera
Beautiful turbera at the base of the Andes
Riding the supply ship to Puerto Toro – views of Chilean Andes en el fondo

 

Transport ship to Puerto Toro

Sunday morning was really special, because we got to take a rare trip to Puerto Toro, the southernmost permanently-inhabited community of the globe, some 2,425 miles off the south pole. A supply cruise ship heads to Puerto Toro from Puerto Williams once every month to deliver basic necessities to the community of fisherman and their families, numbering 36 people in total. The fisherman of this community fish exclusively for centolla, the prized Southern king crab of the Subantarctic waters off the coast of Tierra del Fuego. After a 2 hour boat ride to the eastern coast of Isla Navarino, sipping mate and enjoying the mist dancing across the mountain tops, we arrived in Puerto Toro, where a group of the local school children were excitedly gathered to give us a tour of their home. After we talked to a pescador de centolla artesanal, the school kids took us all over their little town, from the tiny schoolhouse, the Catholic church building, and trincheras (trenches) from the Chile-Argentina guerra in the 80’s, to the greenhouse, the 10 local houses, and the police building. That was about all there was to Puerto Toro!  It was quite the lightning tour, because the supply ship only stayed at the settlement for 1 hour before returning to Puerto Williams. I played an intense game of Egyptian Rat Race the entire way back to Puerto Williams, then went for a long run with Julia along the coast of Isla Navarino (under a rainbow!) when we returned.

Cheesing with Naty – a program director – en el poblado más austral del mundo
Caillie and Eni walking with a local child from Puerto Toro

To round-off our time in Chile, we had a 3 hour charla (chat) with a man named Dennis, originally from Denmark, who has spent the last 16 years living in Puerto Williams, conducting archeological research at sites of the ancient Selk’Nam and Yamana people. We talked about various issues with him en castellano (Spanish), from budding Antarctic tourism ports in Puerto Williams to compete with Ushuaia, to the military families living in Puerto Williams, and the negative prospect of implementing salmoneras (salmon farms) in the Canal Beagle. It was a very interesting and enriching conversation with a man with a very unique perspective on the region.

Atardecer de Puerto WIlliams con una baca

After celebrating Julia’s birthday that evening with a cake homemade by our director, we closed off our wonderful time in the southernmost region of Chile. Monday morning, we drove for 3 more hours to Puerto Navarino and crossed the Beagle Channel (with a MUCH choppier ride than the way out), returning to our home city of Ushuaia, Argentina with the taste of a whole new country.

Ciao Chile!