Through the Beagle–Like the West Coast of British Columbia…but not really

By Bryan • chile, patagonia, photography, travel • 4 May 2013

One of three navigable channels linking the South Pacific to the South Atlantic, the Beagle Channel earned it’s name from the passing of the HMS Beagle in 1833, carrying a relatively unknown naturalist named Charles Darwin.  Given it’s relatively narrow attributes, most of the large ship traffic chooses the more southerly Drake Passage or northerly Strait of Magellan, which is probably a bonus for the emerging tourist industry…although I see nothing wrong with massive ship watching.  

At just over 70m in length, the Yaghan is hardly a massive ship, but as essentially the only affordable option for nautical adventures at the end of the world, it’s certainly worth a couple of photos.  Transbordadora has really stepped up their marketing of this route over the past three months since I was down in their stomping ground.  When researching in late December, they were running a rather poorly designed, dated and all around useless website.  There was basic contact information and a few photos of some of their older vessels; ships which I was later told were absolute garbage and responsible for a hellish journey between Puerto Williams and Puerto Arenas.  As of this writing, they’ve got a new website with links to a YouTube page, Facebook page and Twitter feed.  If they manage to hammer out a more efficient method to get people from Ushuaia to Puerto Williams, they will have a home run traveler route.   

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Clocking in at just slightly over 30 hours and 300 nautical miles, it’s hardly an express, but it fairs rather well against the land routes.  Many travelers begin their Patagonian travels in Tierra del Fuego and will bus 12-15 hours from Ushuaia up to Puerto Natales in order to access the trekking opportunities at the Torres del Paine massif.  Like many others, I was concerned about time and was very close to taking the bus route.  However,  for about 30 hours extra (accounting for the fussiness of getting from Ushuaia to Puerto Williams) you can experience the fjords and winds of the Beagle and Magellan passages.  When travel planning, 30 hours can seem intimidating, but it’s only really pulling out an extra 1.5 days.  Leave the bus behind (there will be plenty more to take in Patagonia) and take the Yaghan.  One of the best travel (although admittedly, very, very late) decisions I’ve made.

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The cabin.  The regular seats are quite comfortable and fold out with considerable leg room.  There is an option to run with the more expensive ‘pullman’ seat.  Don’t bother.  They are almost exactly the same.  Be sure to grab seats well away from the heads.  The smell can become quite overpowering later in the journey.  Meals are basic but surprisingly good and we found out half way through a dozen beers and an upset Captain that the ship is dry, so it’s probably best to leave the sauce for Puerto Natales. 

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Puerto Williams looking south from the Yaghan as we steam west down the Beagle toward the Magellan.  Apparently traveling from Puerto Williams to Punta Arenas is the preferred direction since the best scenery is on the Puerto Williams leg of the transit.  Day one was gorgeous, although we travelled into a storm later in the day and while most views of the glaciers were obscured, the winds were fantastic.  

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Ushuaia

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Battling the winds on the deck of the Yaghan–Beagle Channel

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The famous Sly Gonzales with Dan Adelman and Juraj Slota.

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The Yaghan made a small detour through one of the many fjords to pick up a Belgian traveler (and one dog) who was spending time at a small outpost at the end of the fjord.  Apparently the area is one of many in the region owned by eco-philanthropist Douglas Tompkins.  No docks here.  The next stop was a small police outpost to unload the dog and in exchange for an ancient Mack truck.

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Ice…meet ocean.

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Sadly, this particular copy of the Lonely Planet doesn’t provide useful chess strategies.

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Day two on the mighty Straits of Magellan looking south toward the Beagle Channel. 

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Punta Arenas and the end of the line.  There is actually a ski hill above the city to the far right of the photograph.  From here it is a 2-3 hour bus journey to Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine.  Chile and Argentina operate some of the best inter-city buses in the world.  The state of Greyhound in Canada  during any bus trip in this part of the world was a common discussion.

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One of the main drags in Punta Arenas.  Although it is your typical small industrial port city, the urban planner in me was rather impressed with the emphasis on pedestrians and streetscaping (which is completely absent in comparable Canadian cities).  There is a strong European demographic and architectural feel to this town and I’m told it was a location of choice for Croatian immigrants in late 19th and early 20th centuries.  

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