The excitement in our bellies roared as we watched an epic sunrise over the Andes from our plane to Punta Arenas in southern Patagonia. Our excitement was dampened only slightly as the wheels of the plane screeched on the runaway when we realised we had no place to stay, not a single Chilean peso and Spanish literacy comparable to a goat.
Hola from Pat,
When we hit up couch-surfing.com and met a legend by the name of Arturo, a soon to be English teacher. We were warmly welcomed into his family, living just out of town where very few tourists go.
However, after a few days, we were itchin' to climb some peaks and see what Patagonia had in store. Without much thought, we decided to get a ferry to Porvenir and then find our way down to Ushuaia, an Argentinian town a few hundred kilometres south which labelled itself as ‘The End of the World'.
That afternoon, while uncharacteristically doing some research, we found a circuit trek called the Dientes de Navarino. It was south of Ushuaia on an island in Chilean Patagonia and held the title as the southern-most walk in the world. There was no way we weren't going to do it. However, we were cooking dinner for Arturo's family that night, so our last minute decision to do this walk on Isla Navarino left us with little time to prepare.
At 2 am we finished ‘preparing' for the walk, set our alarms for four hours' time and went to bed. I use the term ‘preparing' loosely because we still had no plan of how we would get from Porvenir to Ushuaia or from Ushuaia to Isla Navarino, we had no map of the walk, didn't know what the conditions were like down there, didn't have any metho for our stove, or even knew what metho was called in Chile/Argentina let alone where we could get it.
Sleep deprived, we caught the two-hour ferry to Porvenir. but the route to Ushuaia took a little longer. At least we rode the remaining 500km to Ushuaia in style. First, squished in the back of a 4WD that broke down and left us stranded in the middle of nowhere with two Chilean girls who were also hitchhiking. Next, squished with the girls in a ute with a driver who had a death wish. Practising our Spanish with the girls in the back, we felt a skid and looked up to see the car going sideways on the road with the back wheels in the ditch somewhere around the 100km/h mark. Somehow, the bloke driving managed to swing the car back onto the road and then laughed like a maniac.
Thinking things couldn't get more sketchy, our next ride was in the back of an earth moving truck where we were told to stay low so the cops didn't catch us. Our final ride for the day dropped us at a national park just outside of Ushuaia with their leftover pastries and an offer to stay at his place in Rio Grande if we were ever passing through.
After a whirlwind ride to Ushuaia, things slowed down a little. A few frustrating days were spent seeing if we could pull the Dientes de Navarino off. We went on Saturday to book a zodiac for the next day, but they didn't run on Sundays, and Monday and Tuesday were public holidays. There was also the challenge of finding out if we would be able to get a ride back to Punta Arenas from Isla Navarino. The ship we needed only came once a week to deliver supplies to the island.
However, our time in Ushuaia was made better by the fact that we found a secluded spot up on the hill above the city to camp. Our evening walk ‘home' involved walking to the outskirts of the city, hoping a fence and scrambling up a hill back to our tents.
When the day came to take the zodiac to Isla Navarino things didn't look promising. The weather in the Beagle Channel was too rough to cross in the morning and we hung around most of the day hoping it would calm down. By 4 pm the ports were opened again and the weather had ‘calmed'. This meant only two-metre seas with waves breaking over the bow of our small boat. The zodiac went from fully booked the day before to only having four others on board who still wanted to cross given the weather.
It was only when we finally set foot on the zodiac that was to take us to Isla Navarino that things began to feel like they were falling into place. It had taken a ferry, four hitches and a zodiac, and we still didn't know how we were getting back to Punta Arenas, but we were finally on Isla Navarino. Spirits were high.
Despite arriving on the island 10 hours later than planned, we decided to start the walk that evening. We quickly sourced a map from the island's single outdoor store, asked the owner if he could reserve us a ticket for the boat to Punta Arenas and started making our way to the trailhead.
It had only taken us a few weeks to unlearn all of the lessons that our parents told us about not getting into strangers cars, so when a ute pulled up and motioned for us to get in we didn't hesitate. While we were slightly phased by the machete resting in the front seat, we didn't end up on the evening news and were safely dropped at the start of the walk. It was 8.30pm when we eventually hit the trail. We made use of the last few hours of daylight to climb up above the treeline and set camp with a view over the Beagle Channel.
The next day took us further into the mountains with more peaks, passes and lakes than you can shake a stick at. When it was raining and blowing a gale over a pass, it felt like the true Patagonian experience. And when the sun came out and there was no more than a gentle breeze, we laughed at how lucky we were with the weather and took the opportunity to wash and dry out gear. Everything felt bloody whizbang.
That evening we made the most of the good weather with a scrub in the lake, a small campfire by Laguna Martillo and a stargazing session of our first Patagonian milky way.
The good weather held out until morning, so our plans for an early start slowly became a morning spent lounging by the lake and a midday departure. Making up for lost time, we powered through kilometres of bog caused by the dams of introduced beavers and up Paso Virginia, our biggest climb.
Day one of the trek took us away from the coast and up into the mountain. It took twice as long as it should have as we spent most of the time in awe at the peaks above as and exchanging looks of ‘how good is this?' with each other every few minutes. We passed lake after lake, each one more impressive than the last. There was a special kind of feeling of coming over a pass and having a 360-degree view of mountains transitioning from jagged peaks to scree slides, forests then lakes, and knowing we would be walking through it all.
Arriving at camp just as we began to run out of words to describe the awe we were feeling, we immediately got to work on our to-do list for the evening. It consisted of washing socks, cooking dinner, eating dinner, and most importantly, eating dessert. Life in Patagonia is hard.
Before the descent down to our camp for the night, we ditched the packs and spent a few hours scrambling along the ridges of the Dientes de Navarino. With drops of a few hundred meters on each side and rocks looser than [REDACTED], the phrase ‘Sorry Mum' came to mind more than once. Making it back in one piece, we had just one last obstacle to tackle for the day.
The final two kilometres to camp consisted of a scree slide with a slope approaching 45 degrees. We hit it on the only way that we knew how: fast and loose. With packs on, we took it at a run and descended in a few minutes what took hours to ascend. Luckily, with ankles in one piece, we trotted into our last camp for the trek just in time for sunset.
Each day the gaps between trail markers grew and they grew less and less obvious. Day four was no different. We went from day one with a brightly painted marker every 20m to day three where it could be a few hundred meters between markers, which consisted of little more than a few rocks making a minuscule cairn. By the end of day four, the track disappeared completely and the last five kilometres were spent following animal tracks down to the coastline.
There were countless times when we considered not doing the Dientes de Navarino. We spent a few days trying to get to the island itself, we didn’t have a map, the weather looked patchy, we wanted to get back to Punta Arenas soon to meet Scott and we weren’t even sure if we could get a spot on the ferry back.
As a good demonstration that sometimes things just work out, when we returned to the town, we found out that the bloke who we’d asked to reserve a ferry ticket for us had actually bought and paid for them for us to ensure we got them. Not only that, but he’s gotten us local prices for the ferry, almost half price.
While many things this year won’t work out this easily, it reinforced that some of the best experiences are going to be harder to pull off. This year we want to see the remote parts of South America. These are going to be the places with less access and sometimes there’ll be days of waiting around, false starts and dead ends on the way. However, if the Dientes de Navarino is anything to go off, it’ll be bloody worth it.
The final stint of our quick jaunt down south was a 30-hour local ferry back to Punta Arenas. We were still on a high from the walk and stoked to see Scott, who’d arrived in Punta Arenas a few days earlier. Luckily, we already had our trip planned, walking to Cabo Froward, the southern-most point of continental South America.