Bragging rights to the “World’s most…” is often a semantic debate, especially when discussing geographic locations or points of interest. Reaching for the most southern settlement is no different. Ushuaia claims itself as the most southern city in the world (pop. 57,000). The permanent Amundsen-Scott Station is the most southern inhabited location on earth, at a whopping 90 degrees latitude.
Puerto Williams (a breezy forty minute speedboat ride across the Beagle Strait, on the Isla Navarino) claims itself as the most southern town in the world (pop. 2,700) and probably the most southern permanently inhabited community that is within reach via normal transportation routes.
Prior to my trek through the Sierra Valdiviseo, I had been in contact with a Sly Gonazales from the Transboradora Austral Boom Shipping Company , who operate a variety of ferries and transport vessels between Puerto Williams and Puerto Natales (gateway to Torres del Paine, my next stop of interest). While it barely received a paragraph in the Lonely Planet, the route was highly recommended. Unfortunately, keeping with my standard travel operating procedures, I did not decide to take this route until the last minute. Given the ferry only operated once a week from Puerto Williams, it was a rush to acquire reservations (if there were even any seats left). Furthermore, it was going to be a 100USD journey from Ushuaia to Puerto Williams on boats that only left certain times of the day. Coordination to Puerto Williams was difficult. The day before the Wednesday sailing I shot a email to Sly, stating myself and Dan`s intentions to take the ferry and then we grabbed our gear and booked it down to the docks to hop on the once-a-day speedboat from Ushuaia to Puerto Williams (of which there were only two seats left). I didn’t`t have the time to even check for a response in my inbox. I was somewhat sure (based on previous emails) that seats would be available. Thus, off across the Beagle Strait to two unconfirmed seats. If not seats, it would be another 100USD back to Ushuaia.
Established as a naval base in the 1950’s, Puerto Williams has caught the tourism bug over the past decade and has begun to develop a trekking/penguin viewing sector in an effort to capture some of the crowds that normally flock to the larger Ushuaia. Unfortunately, what could be a very strong tourism relationship is bogged down in the bureaucratic nightmare of developing country border politics. There is a certain level of Chilean annoyance at Ushuaia monopolizing the Tierra del Fuego tourism market and thus Chile has devised a silly, yet rather effective method at acquiring additional USD from travellers. Obtaining tickets from Ushuaia to Puerto Williams is a surprisingly straight forward proposition, until one discovers the prices and bizarre route that is required. Instead of a direct route between the well established port facilities of both cities, passengers are required to hop in a boat (there are several varieties, we opted for a slightly more expensive covered variety) which then will ferry you directly south across the Beagle Strait to a newly constructed border post at Puerto Navarino. I believe this was about 60-70USD. Once there you will be asked a question about fruits and vegetables and then loaded into a bizarre assortment of vehicles (including government border Toyotas) and driven one hour to Puerto Williams. You must pay an additional 20USD for this luxury. Another hour at customs in Puerto Williams, and you are good to go. Thus, despite being down 100USD due to tourism jealously and unsure if I even had seats on the ferry out, I was in the most southern town in the world.
Ushuaia in the distance looking north from Puerto Navarino, the entrance point to Isla Navario and Puerto Williams (for sucker travellers, at least).
Puerto Navarino consists of a small dock, border post, eager shuttle buses and trucks and a variety of travelers waiting to make the transit across the Beagle Strait. It`s about an hour to Puerto Williams, and like most traveller transit services, the trucks will not leave until every available seat has at least two people in it.
Transbordadora`s Yaghan ferry. Their office is in the row of buildings to the right. After herding through passport control we quickly made our way down to the offices to confirm if my morning email had been acknowledged and our seats confirmed. Attending the office was and older fellow sporting a rather beat up paper list of names. We were not on the list, and despite being accompanied by several other passengers (who were already confirmed and spoke Spanish) this fellow continued to be obsessed with the names on the list. Despite dropping the name Sly Gonzales several times, he wouldn’t`t budge from his list. “Impossible“! was his favourite response. After a few of those he managed a `come back in a few hours`. Returning a few hours later, we found the office closed. It was not looking good. At 7pm we attempted one final push. Back to the office only to find the old dude and his notorious list. Again, we kept repeating that we had been in contact with Sly Gonazales in Puerto Natales (the home port) regarding these reservations. Clearly annoyed at our persistence, he wanders into the back and brings up a young girl who he says can speak English. I explain our situation again and that I had been in email correspondence with Sly Gonzales and that he had told me that reservations probably wouldn’t be a problem.
“Oh“, she said…“I am Sly Gonzales“!
And that`s how we landed seats on the Yaghan. Much kudos to the old fellow who apparently had no idea who works for his company.
*at this time, a ticket ran about $250-300…totally worth it.
Yes, it`s that far away. It`s also home to the Dientes de Navarino mountain ranges and infamous (in trekking circles) Dientes Circuit. One traveler I met later on during my time in Patagonia mentioned she almost died on the Dientes Circuit a number of years ago. Apparently it is very difficult to navigate, takes erratic weather changes to a whole new level and trekkers are completely on their own (ie…don`t expect rescue). Conversations at the local trekking shop seem to indicate that it is better managed now and the availability of good maps is much better than what is available for the Sierra Valdiviseo.
Villa Ukika is a small village-suburb immediately west of Puerto Williams. Apparently this is where the last known speaker of Yaghan (the indigenous language of Tierra del Fuego) lives. It also, coincidently, is the location of the hostel I stayed at. When I choose hostels, it is usually online or via a recommendation from the Lonely Planet. Many hostel owners will hang around bus stations and other points of entry soliciting travellers, I don`t usually pick up rooms this way (except once in Dubrovnik and again in Kotor…something about the Dalmatian Coast), but given the rush to Puerto Williams, and lack of research into accommodations, we ended up staying at a hostel that was hawked at passport control earlier that afternoon.
A great find. Hostal Lajuwa, like many hostels in Argentina and Chile is also the home of the owner and his family. In some cases this sort of arrangement sounds better in theory than in practice, but in this situation it was quite the experience, with good tasty bread stuff in the morning for breakfast. A Brazilian fellow staying there said that the owner actually rescued him off the side of the road when he arrived ultra late off one of the local treks.
This is the Yacht Club, Puerto Williams premier watering hole, and again…the most southern place in the world you can buy a beer (Antarctica excluded). If that wasn’t`t unique enough, the club is situated in the Micalvi, a 1930`s era German cargo vessel.
View from the Yacht Club, across the Beagle Strait. Probably one of the most successful travel days I have had to date.