Tierra del Fuego: A cruise to remember

Before we ever stepped foot on a plane, Spencer and I planned every hour of this trip to ensure we had enough time to catch all of our buses, boats, and airplanes. We arrived in Punta Arenas with three hours to spare before our check-in for our cruise closed at 5:00 p.m. With plenty of time, we took a suggestion given to us to visit a cute little restaurant before making the trek to our check-in point, a 40-minute walk out of the city. Long story short, that GPS led us forty minutes away from the port. Without the help of a man and his family, we never would have made it. In broken Spanish, Spencer communicated our confusion as we wandered around a random street in Punta Arenas. After trying to help with GPS, this local felt bad enough for us to offer us a ride, where he navigated us (via two separate phone calls in rapid Spanish) to the actual check-in point.

While we would have loved to avoid the stress of almost missing our cruise, it was a special moment to experience what true kindness of strangers feels like.

Onwards to the cruise, I’ve talked so much about! My parents took this same cruise three years ago and wouldn’t stop recommending it to me. So, we splurged I got to have one of the most unique experiences of my life.

Day 1: Ainsworth Bay to Tucker Islets

Our first time on a cruise, Spencer and I didn’t know what to expect. A boat with three formal meals a day and unlimited snacks and pastries in between, we were ready for a little luxury (and a lot of food) after our four-day W trek. Our cruise first took us to Ainsworth Bay, an isolated area where you can see the rapidly retreating Marinelli glacier. In just over 100 years, this glacier has receded about 8.7 miles or 14 kilometers.

Marinelli glacier off in the distance from the shore

Opting for the educational tour, we took a little zodiac to a little beach and met Sophia, our tour guide for the day. She taught us how lichen, a symbiotic mix of a fungus and algae, takes advantage of the glacier-smoothed rock and the area’s pristine air to establish itself. Lichen create an environment for moss to thrive, which creates enough nutrients for a small bush, and eventually trees to grow. We slowly walked from the shore into the forest, watching the landscape mature into a healthy forest. After meandering through this forest, Sophia also took us past a large beaver dam. Beavers are not native to this area, yet they have become of the most destructive forces in the area. Back in 1946, Argentina imported 50 beavers from Canada to establish a fur trading industry. Because these beavers have no predators in the area, they thrived and have since destroyed entire areas by chopping down trees for their dams and creating environments prone to flooding, drowning the remaining living vegetation. At one point, there were estimated to be over 200,000 beavers — but the largest eradication plan in the world has been set into place to manage the beaver population.

After our morning history lesson, we were lucky enough to stop by Tucker Islets, an area known for its large population of Magellanic penguins. From the boats, we were mere feet away from these penguins as they waddled, squawked, and mostly sunned themselves on the beach. We were near the end of the breeding season, so we were lucky to see the teenagers finish their molting.

Day 2: Pia Glacier and Glacier Valley

Our second day on the cruise was filled with glaciers. Our first excursion was to the ever-impressive Pia Glacier, a massive glacier that is known for its consistent calvings. We were pretty lucky to have landed on shore a few minutes before a large piece of ice crashed down, and we managed to steal the video from another passenger who captured it on his phone. While staring at this beautiful landscape, we learned from Sophia about how glaciers form, specifically how its deep blue hues come from time and pressure.

The rest of the afternoon was a slow crawl on the boat through the famous Beagle Channel in what’s known as Glacier Alley, where our cruise celebrated each glacier with music, appetizers, and drinks reminiscent of the European countries of the names of the glacier we were passing (Francia, Italia, Holanda, Germany).

These glaciers are each stunning in their own right and it was definitely one of the best afternoons on the trip. And it wasn’t just because I got myself one of those seasick patches from another passenger.

Day 3: Cape Horn to Wulaia Bay

For our final day, we traveled south to the proper ‘End of the Earth’, taking on the rough waters of the infamous Drake Passage. Lucky for us, the weather and tides cooperated and we were able to step foot on the sacred place of Cape Horn. We saw the famous albatross memorial, created to remember the sailors who died while attempting to round the Horn. Today, the island is managed by the Chilean Navy and a new family lives in the lighthouse every year.

Our final destination before heading to Ushuaia was Wulaia Bay, a special place as it was the site of one of the largest Yamaha aboriginal settlements and where Charles Darwin landed in 1833. It’s also home to a beautiful Magellan Forest of southern beech trees, winters bark, and hundreds of other flora. Spence and I hiked up through this forest to see a panoramic view of the bay.

Another special piece of history for this little island is a building that serves as a post office. Long ago, sailors dropped off notes to loved ones in hopes another sailor would be able to deliver them on their way home. The tradition remains in place, and we picked up a card destined for Erie, Colorado to hand deliver.

Saying goodbye to our ship in Ushuaia

And with that, our cruise ended in Ushuaia the following day, and with that our trip was essentially over. A quick plane ride and evening spent in Buenos, we were able to quickly soak in the Recoleta neighborhood and visit the famous cemetery before making our way back to the airport for our flights home. I walked away with a renewed appreciation for nature and humanity. It reminded me of the need to keep pushing myself out of my little Boulder bubble and away from the realities of my day-to-day life. I’m just glad I’ll have these memories to fall back on when I need them.

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