Puerto Williams – Chile

 Fernandez Campbell from Ushuaia (US$125 pp)
The trek and camp – it’s free, remote and beautiful. You can camp close to town and avoid paying for a hostel too. Ask about the weather and snow conditions though.

Go to the pub, speak to everyone – see if you can scam a ride on a sail boat. Plenty of sailors head towards Antarctica, Cape Horn or back to Punta Arenas or Ushuaia from Puerto Williams. The pub is cool too, try the home-made pisco, it’s pretty toxic.

After much planning using the back of a cafe napkin… we made the trip over to Puerto Williams from Ushuaia on a boat for US$125 each (price is fixed amongst companies). It is an hour on the ferry and we decided to use Fernandez Campbell for the trip. We had spoken to the guy from their ticket booth, and he had helped us with a few things earlier. (Top bloke and speaks really good English). We made the right choice however, they had a super fast ferry. We departed on Wednesday, the day after our failed scuba dive and were blessed with awesome weather. The ferry captain (speaks English with good humour) took us on a tour to see the sights you’d normally pay another AR$200 for. This included the famous lighthouse, an island full of sea lions, and some whales who seem to be lost in the Beagle channel. We were able to get a good look at the whales before another boat full of tourists were able to catch up.

After crossing the Beagle channel, we arrived at Chilean immigration, which was basically a brief look at our bags near the dock and a quick queue for a stamp.

Puerto Williams is south of Ushuaia (Argentina) on the island called Navarino. It is a small village of about 2000 people to support the local navy base and a small amount of fishing. The town is disconnected from the rest of Chile by distance and ocean.

There is a ferry once a week to Punta Arenas that takes 30-35 hours and there are flights a few times a week on a small plane. The town is really at the end of the world. We decided to stay at a hostel called Forjadores Cabo del Horno for CLP$24,000 per night. Not cheap, but it seems all the places are similar priced. I think there are better places to stay. We were alone there on the first night (no staff around either)… almost until some other Chileans rocked up late in the evening.

We organised food and registered at the local police station to make the trek up the mountain the following day. We decided to trek for three days and camp two nights. (The full circuit requires five nights). We ate in at the hostel and had an early night. The next morning we took our time before departing thinking we had about 4 hours of hiking ahead of us. We departed around midday and walked up to the water catchment to start the hike.

We were following the instructions of this PDF we had been given and we managed to find an old, well-used hard copy in the hostel.

Dientes de Navarino Trekking guide  This is a really useful guide, worth a read.
We managed the get some great weather for the hike. Previously the weather had been bad, and the snow had built up on the mountains. We didn’t realise how much snow we’d be in. The trek started of relatively easy and we were enjoying trekking in the cold wet snow initially. We climbed to the top of the first mountain using the guide, and followed the ridge around to the lakes. Awesome view of the Beagle channel and of the Dientes mountain feature. We had to follow the ridge line for the second half of the hike and this is when things got a bit tricky. The snow was covering the path, and we were following some footprints and trying to find the rock piles that mark the track. The snow layer was slowing us down, and it started feel pretty dangerous on the side of the mountain. At many points I thought I would slide in the snow and fall to my death. Then it started getting dark, and the fear of not making camp before dark was setting in. We would have been screwed on the side of the mountain in the dark on the dodgy track. This place is pretty remote, and there are not many people around… things were starting to get serious. The ridge seemed to take forever.

Steep enough?

Luckily we rounded the last valley in the ridge and spotted the campsite. With renewed enthusiasm we made the camp ground just before sun set and got set up. We had to descend the steep ridge in the snow which sucked. Under the snow was loose rocks, and you didn’t know how deep the snow would be which made it dangerous.

We camped at an amazing place in the snow near a lake amongst the mountains. There was one Italian couple camping near the lake, they had a stray dog with them that followed from town. We camped on a slight rise near the lake with good drainage from the snow melt… meaning we were on an ass angle and we spent the night sliding down the hill in the tent. Shit night sleep. We moved the next morning.
The next day we hiked up to Paseo Australia with just our day packs. It took some effort trudging through the even thicker snow which at some points was waist deep.

We managed to get a quick glimpse of Cape Horn before returning to camp. The Italians, who were in front of us were followed by their stray dog, who had no problems in the snow.

Near death

I decided to light a fire at camp so I built a fireplace using my manly skills, and receipts from my wallet for paper, kindling from the ground and ex-beaver dam wood. In Australia, I’d have a raging fire in a few minutes, but Chilean fires are much more complex. I should have asked the Israeli who set alight Torres del Paine for a few tips. The wood here is much wetter and doesn’t burn easily even if it appears dry. Even the tissues and receipts I used burned slowly. You need to fan the wood for hours to ignite the fire as it smokes in your face and burns your eyes. You have to place much more kindling in the fire than you would in Australia which will burn slowly. The larger pieces take ages to ignite.
After about 2 hours of fanning the wood, I had a pretty sweet fire going. Everything now stinks like bush fire.

We returned to Puerto Williams the next day (Friday) along the much safer low pass along the lakes. It was no where near as scenic, with no snow but very muddy. The annoying stray dog decided to come with us. After walking back to town covered in mud, we attempted to check back into the hostel we stayed at before. That was difficult as the lady that runs the hostel had to be located. We advised the police that we had returned and went back to the hostel to try and wash our clothes which were all dirty. This process took ages and delayed our entrance to the pub which was disappointing.
I was desperate to get to the yacht club bar. It’s built in and old German freighter used by the Chilean navy and had run aground and sank. The bar is built into the ship, with the floor raised above the water line. The salty sea dogs that attend the bar come from sail boats that round the cape. I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to drink in such an establishment – the bar at the end of the world.

The Makivi – awesome bar

We rocked in at close to midnight and ordered a couple of beers (CLP$3000 for 2 cans – AU$6) at the bar. We immediately started talking to a Chilean guy who had excellent English and spoke intelligently. We talked about the history of the place and the navy settlement etc… after some chatting we established he was the new captain of the Chilean navy base in Puerto Williams (a pretty important rank). He’d been to Antarctica countless times throughout his ranks in the navy including captioning a few ice breakers during winter through the shelf. He mentioned how the navy can take a few passengers for a ride (awesome) and had many interesting stories and even payed for a couple of rounds of drinks! Top bloke.

After boozing to 5am we decided to leave the pub and the Captain gave us a lift and showed us his empty navy house along the way – an incredible mansion for him and his wife to soon move into.

After we arrived at the hostel we set our alarm for 6:30am to get on the ferry at 7:30am which, of course, didn’t wake us. The lady from the hostel woke us at 7:34am so we madly packed our stuff and legged it down to the ferry terminal very late. We managed to get on thanks to South American time.

hey beaver, you want some wood?

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