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A Journey to the End of the World, Puerto Williams Chile

February 8, 2018

In a park in downtown Punta Arenas, Chile, there is a bronze statue of an indigenous person centrally located and the focus of everyone wandering by. I noticed that many people would rub the foot of the statue as they passed. As a result, the foot on the statue was a shiny golden bronze from the constant touch. 

I approached an elderly man who looked like a local sitting on a park bench watching tourists and town folk going about their business. “Why does everyone rub the foot of the statue?” I asked.

The old man looked at me and smiled. “Legend has it that anyone who rubs the foot of the statue will always return to Punta Arenas. It is a form of good luck” he told me in broken English.

I walked over to the statue and began to rub the foot. “What harm could it do?” I thought. At worst it was a silly myth, at best, it meant that I would live long enough and be healthy enough to return to Punta Arenas sometime in the future. 

Well, apparently I rubbed that foot just a bit too long. After our long hike through Torres del Paine we had planned to visit the Puerto Williams, located at the very tip of South America, and known as the southernmost town in the world. But, in doing our research we discovered that the only way to get to Puerto Williams required an overnight stay in Punta Arenas.

With no other option, we caught a bus for the two hour drive from Puerto Natales to Punta Arenas. Once there, we took a taxi from the bus station to Hostel Dundo Ivo and knocked on the door of our old friend Juan Pedro.

“Oliver! Jennifer! Hola! Welcome! Come in!” Juan Pedro greeted us with his usual big smile and endless hospitality. “You are back home! Mi casa eat su casa!” He laughed.

We explained that we had tickets on the ferry to Puerto Williams the next day but needed a place to stay for the night. Plus, it would have felt as if we were cheating if we had stayed somewhere other than with Juan Pedro when we were in Punta Arenas.

“Of course you can stay here” he said. “Even if we are full we will have a room for you. And, I will take you to the ferry tomorrow afternoon!” Juan Pedro insisted. 

Ruby, Juan Pedro’s wife showed us to our room and we immediately cleaned up and began to relax. Staying with Juan Pedro felt a little like coming home. So much so that we didn’t even go out that evening.

The next morning we awoke to one of Ruby’s wonderful breakfasts. Juan Pedro wanted to hear all of the details of our Torres del Paine hike. “How were the trails? How was the weather? Did you have any problems?” He asked voraciously. I showed him my photos and he looked at them in amazement. “Ruby, look at this!” He would exclaim to his wife.

After breakfast, Juan Pedro went to work at his day job as a diesel mechanic in his fathers shop next door. We walked to a nearby restaurant with good wifi and settled in to do some work. Our ferry didn’t leave until 6:00 pm and we could use the time to catch up on our business chores and the news that we had missed for the past two weeks.

At 5:00 pm we walked back to Juan Pedro’s. As promised, he was waiting for us so that he could see us off at the ferry dock. We hopped in his truck and he drove us the fifteen minutes to the port. Along the way, he offered details on the many things that we should do when we arrive in Puerto Williams.

Our plan was to enjoy some hiking on Navarino Island and then make our way to Ushuia, Argentina, often described by Argentine tourism as the southernmost city in the world. However, it is located about thirty miles up and across the Beagle Chanel and north of Puerto Williams. From Ushuia, we would begin our tour of Argentina.

“And, if you have any problems you should call me and I will be able to help you” Juan Pedro said, as if we were his children and he was sending us off to college for the first time.

When we arrived at the dock, Juan Pedro pointed out our ferry and got out of his vehicle. “Let’s take a selfie in front of your boat” he said. Juan Pedro stood on the dock waving as we walked onto the boat. 

“He really is the nicest hostel owner in the world!” I said to Jennifer as we waved goodbye to our old friend one last time.

The ferry is basically a supply boat to Puerto Williams and the surrounding area. The boat was loaded with construction equipment, heavy machinery, and supplies. This was a working boat, not a leisure cruise.

It is not easy to get a ticket on the ferry from Punta Arenas to Puerto Williams. The company does not confirm reservations for the trip until the day before it leaves. The reason is that residents of Puerto Williams have priority seating and can make the trip at no cost as many times as they want. This makes for uncertainty for tourists and is the reason for our overnight stay in Punta Arenas. Anyone wanting a ride on the supply ship must appear in person the day before the trip in order to reserve a seat.

The trip takes at least thirty hours, and maybe more, depending upon the weather. And, in the Antarctic region of Chile, the weather changes fast and dramatically. The boat winds its way through the fiords, islands, mountains, and glaciers that make up Tierra de Fuego. The views of the pristine Patagonian landscape and wildlife can be stunning and breathtaking. Even though the trip takes more than a full day, no one wants to sleep.

There are fewer than seventy five seats on the boat. The purpose of the vessel is to carry supplies, vehicles, and building materials to this remote area once a week. Everything is shipped to the island making construction and everyday living an expensive proposition.

We settled into our fully reclining seats for the long ride to “the end of the world.” With no wifi or cell service, our entertainment was the incredible views passing in our windows. We also had time to meet and talk to our fellow passengers. We discovered that many of them were either locals of Puerto Williams or construction workers building a new road. Of the passengers who weren’t locals, most of them like us, were on an extended tour of South America. 

All meals are included in the price of the voyage and we found that mealtime was something to look forward to, simply because it was something to do. The food was basic, but good. Jennifer noticed that the menu was obviously prepared by working men as there was no rhyme or reason for the food selections. For example, lunch consisted of a soup course followed by a main course of stew. Breakfast was bread with chocolate cookies for dessert, no fruit in sight. Dinner was empanadas with an orange for dessert. 

“Why didn’t they serve the fruit for breakfast and the cookies for dinner?” She asked. “It doesn’t take a genius to put together a menu. And, two soups at one meal…” she continued.

The meal planning was obviously offensive to someone like her with a “type A” personality who has planned exquisite catered meals for thousands. I had barely noticed and just shrugged as I peeled the orange.

The cost of the ferry was just over $100 per person. An incredible deal when considering that we were basically getting a cruise to one of the most remote places on Earth, through some of the world’s most challenging waterways, and passing pristine untouched wilderness areas the entire way. A cruise ship making this same voyages costs thousands of dollars. 

Knowing that this was not a luxury cruise, we purchased sea sickness medication just in case the ride turned rough. However, we didn’t need it as the boat was incredibly stable and barely rocked the entire time. If not for the breathtaking views passing just outside our window, it was as if we were sitting in a living room and not even moving.

For fresh air and a change of scenery we would venture onto the outer decks. Here, we could get an unobstructed view of the stunning land masses, glaciers, and waterways that make up Tierra del Fuego. Except for the few modern boats braving the passages, the scenery is unchanged from when it was first sailed by Magellan and his men. The flora and fauna are the same that Darwin saw when he sailed the Beagle Channel, which is named after the ship that carried him on his explorations. 

We passed massive glaciers, melting into waterfalls and spilling into the waterway. The ice blue fresh water from the glacier would mix with the darker blue ocean water. A line of demarcation where the two met could easily be seen. The captain, wanting to put on a show for the amazed passengers, slowed the vessel and inched it nearer to the melting mountain of ice. The enormity of it all was awe inspiring. 

After twenty four hours we reached our first stop. A short thirty minutes drop-off of supplies and workers at a small construction site in the middle of nowhere. Someone explained that the government of Chile was finally building a road to this area. Otherwise it is only accessible by air or by water. The road will still not reach Puerto Williams which is still another six hours away by boat.

We were surprised at the number of empty seats for the remainder of the trip. A large percentage of the seats had been taken up by construction workers who could only reach the job site by a more than twenty four hour ferry ride. 

When we finally arrived at Puerto Williams it was after midnight. We had no idea what we would do once we arrived. We thought that we might stay on board until morning when we could find our way to our hostel in daylight. However, the captain assured us that it would not be a problem finding a place to stay at the late hour.

Puerto Williams is a town of just two thousand people, and as the southernmost town in the world is also one of the most remote outposts in the world. We were warned not to expect too many amenities. To our surprise, there were several cars waiting at the dock when we walked off of the ferry. 

“Oliver Diaz! Oliver Diaz!” I was startled when I heard a man calling my name. I didn’t know anyone here and few people even knew that we were going to be here. I approached the man and introduced myself.

“Hotel Fio Fio sent me to pick you up and give you a ride to the hotel.” He said.

I was amazed. Our reservation for a room wasn’t until the next night. We did not know exactly when we would arrive in Puerto Williams because the time on the ferry can vary depending upon the weather. I did not expect to be able to check in to the hotel until that afternoon. We had basically arrived a day early!

“The ferry only arrives once a week. The hotel owner knew that you would be here and they have a room for you tonight.” He said. We were immediately relieved. We wouldn’t have to scramble to find a room in this small town in the middle of the night after all.

We arrived at the hotel and Maurice, the owner, checked us in. We learned that Maurice is an anthropologist and historian and arrived in Puerto Williams over thirty years ago to be the curator of the local museum. He fell in love with the slow pace of life on this sparsely populated island and ended up staying and raising a family. He now works as a lecturer on cruise ships to Antarctica during the season and opened the hostel this year as another source of income. 

Hotel Fio Fio is brand new and definitely one of the best places to stay in Puerto Williams. The clean and comfortable rooms were exactly what we needed after our long boat ride and the multiple days hiking Torres del Paine. We showered and immediately crawled into bed. We were exhausted.

We must have been extremely tired, because to our surprise, it was almost noon when we awoke. Even though the sun doesn’t set until after eleven at night, we had slept most of our first day in Puerto Williams.

We decided to venture out and explore the town. We discovered that our hostel was just next door to the town’s museum and we ventured in. The museum was small but had some nice exhibits about the indigenous people who had originally occupied the area. 

We walked down the main street along the water to the dock that we had arrived at the night before. This was a naval outpost and we walked by the navy ships and and sailors whose main duty was to rescue vessels that may run into trouble on trips to and from Antarctica. There were also a few boat yards and fishing shacks lining the street.

In a town of two thousand people there is not a lot of activity and not many businesses. One of the only open establishments was a small coffee shop located at the harbor. We went in for coffee and a slice of cake. It would be a slow day simply enjoying the views and relaxing. Just what we needed. 

We were reminded about just how small the town was when we looked out the window and saw a herd of wild horses running down the city street. They made their way to a beach and seemed to enjoy grazing upon the sea grasses that grew there.

Before heading back to the hotel, we tried to find a place for dinner. There was only one grocery store on the island and between two and four restaurants, depending upon who wanted to open for business that day. 

We entered a small, rough looking building that Trip Advisor had recommended as the best place to eat in town. We sat down to order and were disappointed to learn that King Crab was not in season. We ordered fish instead. Soon, we were joined by a group of French tourists who had ridden into town on the ferry with us. The restaurant atmosphere livened up and soon we were laughing and discussing the French wines and cheeses that we would not find in this town.

When we got back to the hotel, Jennifer wasn’t feeling well. She had a little fever and appeared to be coming down with a cold, our first illness in the five months that we had been in South America. She must have picked it up on the boat or on the long trek through Torres del Paine. Either way, it looked as though we would not be doing the famous three day trek around Navarino Island.

The next day, I ventured out of the hotel in order to find a pharmacy. It was Sunday morning and the town was deserted. I met a few sailors wandering the streets and asked them where I could buy some cold medicine.

“The only Pharmacy on the island is in the hospital. It is a few blocks away” they pointed.

I made my way to the hospital. It too looked deserted. I walked to the door and rang the bell. A male nurse opened the door and explained that the hospital closes on weekends but he is available in case of emergencies. I explained that I was looking for the pharmacy in order to purchase some cold medicines. 

“The pharmacy is closed” he said. “But, bring your wife back to the hospital and I can check her in and give her some medicine.”

“She isn’t that sick” I said. “Its just a little cold. I’m just looking for Tylenol and cough drops.”

“Its ok” he said. “She can stay here at the hospital.”

I returned to the hotel to tell Jen that if she wanted Tylenol she would have to check in to the hospital. She immediately began searching on the computer for a way to leave Puerto Williams. We had been told that it was relatively easy to get to Puerto Williams but difficult to leave.

“The ferry runs once a week and they give preferential seating to locals. The next boat is Thursday and we aren’t guaranteed a seat” she said. “There are boats to Usuia, Argentina thirty miles away, but then you have the same problem trying to leave from there.”

“There are daily flights from Puerto Williams to Punta Arenas. That looks like the fastest way” she said. “I just checked and there are two seats available in the morning.”

“Punta Arenas?” I asked incredulously. “I thought that we were going to Argentina from here. This will be our fourth time going back to Punta Arenas!”

“Thats the fastest and easiest way out of here” she said.

“Its that statue!” I said. “The old man warned me. He said that if you rub the foot you return to Punta Arenas!” 

I don’t normally believe in superstitions and myths, but if you ever find yourself in Punta Arenas, think twice before rubbing the foot of any statues you might come across. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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