Cruise ships offer access in rugged end of South America
Patagonia is one of the most unexplored — and breathtaking — parts of the world. It’s located in the southern end of South America, and geologists believe the region once belonged to Antarctica; it certainly looks the part.
Its blue-green glaciers and fjords spread out before the horizon, and give way to bleak stretches of lichen-covered green shrubs, which open to the majestic mountains of the Andes. Every corner of the region offers another natural surprise.
Patagonia’s landscapes are sprawling, varied, and often difficult to traverse. The best way to experience the land is by boat. As the channels are often very narrow and difficult to navigate, few boat operators have the expertise necessary to pass through the glacial waters. Australis Cruises is one of them.
Australis takes away the stress of planning the perfect Patagonian itinerary and sails guests to the region’s gems.
Australis has two boats based out of its headquarters in Chile: the Stella Australis and the Via Australis. For all their external beauty, each lacks the typical trappings of a vacation cruise. There are no waterslides for the kids, prom-like photo sessions for their older siblings or ballroom dances for their parents. The guest count is typically small and diverse, with 100 to 130 passengers hailing from around the globe. Entertainment is provided by the natural surroundings and the captain will change course to accommodate the unpredictable weather.
The Australis staff offers talks on the region’s indigenous populations, early explorers, and British missionaries who kidnapped local children, leaving behind a pearl button as “payment.” Screenings of historical documentaries are served alongside Calafate ale from Austral Brewery as the boat passes incandescent blue glaciers that sparkle outside the floor-to-ceiling windows in the Sky Lounge. The goal: engaging all the senses to become one with the culture, the history and land.
The true magic of the cruises, which offer different itineraries for four to seven days, lies in the onshore excursions to experience unspoiled Patagonia. Guests board from either Punta Arenas, Chile or Ushuaia, Argentina. My four-night Australis Cruise from Punta Arenas was magical.
Onboard, speak to the captain and his officers, who will kindly bring out their navigational maps, expertly printed, detailed and peppered with handwritten notes. The sailor may very well put a compass in your hand, and include you in a conversation with the other shipmates as they discuss their choice of navigational path.
There is no “autopilot” button on the Australis. The captain personally navigates much of the journey and will kindly teach and include guests as much or as little as desired.
There isn’t much downtime on this cruise. Each trip aboard the Australis focuses on the expeditions, which leaves guests satiated but ready for a peaceful sleep by nightfall. Nevertheless, the ship has a small library, expert-led lectures on local history, movie showings and table games, as well as karaoke and bingo by night.
Breakfast and lunch are buffets, while dinner consists of local fare served a la carte. The all-inclusive package includes alcohol; make sure to try a local Patagonian beer made with Calafate berries, also known as Magellan Barberry, a fruit native to Patagonia that gives the local brew a unique violet tint and flavor.
Experience the serenity of Patagonia with a morning expedition. During a three-hour walking tour, expect to see elephant seals, condors and exotic fruits and berries. At the end of each expedition, guests receive a post-excursion treat of hot chocolate and a variety of other beverages. The bartender creates a “pop-up bar” where guests have the option of enjoying scotch served over handpicked glacier ice.
After a break for lunch, the afternoon brings a tour by Zodiac, an inflatable motor-powered small boat, to one of the rare Magellanic penguin habitats.
Prepare to be swept away. Throughout the morning the cruise makes its way through narrow passages with glaciers on both sides. Don’t miss a moment; each glacier is magnificent and unique. The boat’s comfortable lounges with soft leather sofas make guests feel at home as they sightsee.
The afternoon expedition features the highlight: Pia Glacier, a truly breathtaking, unforgettable sight. The Zodiac ride from the boat — over, around and through fallen glacier ice — is surreal in itself. In the near distance, active glaciers boom with sounds reminiscent of fireworks. These are actually the sounds of caving glaciers. Guests have the option to hike up a mountain to get a better view of the huge glacier, or stay at a lower level and take in the majestic scenery.
After waving adieu to Pia Glacier, the ship carves through the waters of “Glacier Alley,” past icebergs named for different European countries like Germany, France, Italy and Holland. Friendly staff brings around local fare and drinks from each country as you pass them. Fresh pizza and aged chianti is a lovely way to finish off this tasty sightseeing adventure.
The morning landscape outside guests’ cabin windows is the most serene wake-up call. Wulaia Bay — “Beautiful Bay” in the indigenous Yamana language — offers a relaxed day of hiking through picturesque snowcapped mountains, framed by patches of blue skies and clouds. Australis renovated an abandoned radio station, formerly occupied by the Chilean navy. This building was turned into a museum, homage to local history. Inside there are showcased replicas of the canoes, tools and relics used by the local Yamana people, and history of the explorers Charles Darwin and Captain Robert FitzRoy.
In the final afternoon, the journey ends with a heart-wrenching and dramatic cliffhanger. The final stop is Cape Horn — the southernmost tip of Chile. The weather is quite unpredictable here and landing is not a guarantee. On a clear day the protected Alberto de Agostini National Park, named a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO, is truly a privilege to behold. If guests have the wind and seas in their favor, prepare for a sensory vortex. With winds north of 60 knots, the area can literally blow people away.