Ainsworth Bay
Mountains at Ainsworth Bay
Transport by Zodiac
Parry Fjord Elephant seal
Parry Glacier
Sunrise
previous arrow
next arrow
 

An Unforgettable Journey to the Ends of the Earth

Amongst my list of must-go-to places, South America was one of those that had long eluded me. Having lived in Asia for the last few decades, I knew it was a long way to go, and travel destinations closer to home still beckoned.

However, an invitation from Wines of Chile to see and savour the sights and delights of their country brought the opportunity of a lifetime that I could not pass up.

The trip included a remarkable journey of discovery to Chile’s incredibly pristine and majestic region of Patagonia, the southernmost region of the world that one can readily visit.

A plane ride south from Santiago, Chile’s capital city, took us to Punta Arenas, a small port city where we checked in and boarded the M/V Via Australis cruise ship.

The Via Australis is a comfortable compact ship that has sixty-four cabins with a capacity for 136 passengers. The ship was ideally suited for an intimate gathering, and on our trip, it was filled with wine industry professionals, winemakers, enthusiasts, and international journalists.

Mario Pablo Silva, our host and President of Wines of Chile, said that the idea for the trip was to emphasise how Chilean wine stems from the country’s extraordinary geography and unique climate. Creating a shared experience while visiting one of the world’s most beautiful and unspoilt regions was their way to make a dramatic and lasting impact on their guests.

A lasting memory is precisely what I took away from the trip. The hauntingly beautiful scenery, the clear air and the silence of the place are things I will not forget.

Our itinerary took us through the fjords and past the glaciers through the Strait of Magellan and the Fuegian-Patagonian channels, close to the tip of Cape Horn.

After we departed Punta Arenas, the ship sailed throughout the night, and at dawn, we navigated through the Almirantazgo Sound. Our onshore excursion that day was to Ainsworth Bay, situated in the Alberto De Agostini National Park, named for an Italian missionary and explorer who contributed through his photographs and maps of the region.

Ainsworth Bay is accessible only by boat. It is so remote that its solitude is only interrupted by infrequent human visitors and the wildlife, which includes Southern Elephant Seals and, bizarrely, by the non-native North American beaver. Our guide told us the beavers, originally from Canada, were introduced to the area as a well-meaning idea to start a fur trade industry. However, the industry did not flourish, and once the beavers were let loose, they faced no natural predators to keep them in balance. From a few breeding pairs, the beavers now number in the hundreds of thousands and have become invasive and destructive species in the delicate ecosystems. Beaver dams have flooded the area and turned some forests into muddy bogs. In Ainsworth Bay, the beaver’s activities are plainly evident. As we hiked from the beach into the forest, at many turns, the land changed from dry spots to low, shallow floodplains. As beautiful as these spongy wet ponds may be, the water can drown out other vegetation.

Our walk at Ainsworth Bay was a leisurely stroll, and besides a boisterous shortstop to play in the snow, our tour group walked in respectful silence. Our voices didn’t extend beyond whispers, as it seemed everyone wanted to enjoy the still quiet of this place. With our guide explaining while leading the way, we went into the forest naive but came back a bit more knowledgeable about the flora and fauna of this beautiful and tranquil place. Our prize for this short afternoon excursion was piping hot chocolate waiting for us at the end of our walk.

After an amazingly comfortable and good night’s sleep, I awoke to an explosion of colours at dawn. I have never seen sunrises like the ones in Patagonia. No words can describe the wonder I felt upon seeing the sun’s arrival at the bottom of the world.

Our morning excursion on the third day was to Almirantazgo Bay. We walked from the beach towards a glacier and enjoyed the scenery. We then took Zodiacs, inflatable boats the ship’s crew used to ferry visitors onto land, to search for elephant seals and found a small group on a beach. Our guide noted that it was best for visitors to refrain from disturbing the seals, so we could only observe them and take photos from offshore.

In the afternoon, we navigated Parry Fjord and then disembarked in the Zodiacs to make our way on land. The frigid waters were encrusted with floating chunks of ice. The ice was so thick in some areas I wondered how we would make it in, but the operator and our guide seemed to be experts. They worked in tandem and carefully twisted and turned the zodiac to manoeuvre ever so slowly around and through the ice.

We landed on the beach across from the impressive Parry Glacier. The glacier is “dynamic” – constantly moving and changing. As we walked around the beach and observed, we were routinely jolted by thunderous cracking sounds – like a bomb going off. The glacier’s movement creates groaning noises, and when vast chunks of it shear off the front face and fall into the water, the deafening cracking noise is somewhat terrifying.

Parry Glacier was yet another awesome spectacle on a trip full of surprises and wonders. Besides the area’s glaciers and snow-capped mountains, I saw unique flora and fauna. And to top it all off, on our last day, before we ended our trip, I got close to hundreds of Magellanic penguins on Magdalena Island.

I was also surprised at how well-rested I felt at the end of the cruise – three nights and four days. I had the best nights of sleep, and I felt great. I think it was because we engaged in easy outdoor activities daily in the crisp, clean, fresh air, which gently tired us out. Every night, we had marvellous dinners with wonderful Chilean wines, and then we were lulled to sleep by the gentle rocking of the ship as it sailed through the calm and secluded fjords of still waters. Except for the ship’s engine, there was no other form of noise pollution. Such a tranquil journey!

Another reason for my feeling of restfulness may be that we had NO Internet or phone connection for those four days, and I was forced to fully disconnect from the rest of the world – an unexpected treat on an endearingly memorable trip.

Text & Photos Cammy Yiu