My colleague Jacqueline has been talking to me about Isla Navarino for years, she was a guide there and had an amazing time. So two weeks ago I told my videographer boyfriend; lets go check out Isla Navarino! Amazingly he said yes and we took off to explore this far-off piece of land across the Beagle Channel. The flight was fantastic. The small Twin Otter seated only 16 people and flew so low we could see everything below us in great detail. From Punta Arenas we crossed the Strait of Magellan and headed steadily south towards the Cordillera Darwin. The mountain tops got whiter and whiter as the sun dropped behind the horizon; it was a real spectacle.
After 1,5 hours we landed on the tiny little Puerto Williams airport on Isla Navarino. Now, you have to understand; we live in Puerto Natales and we like to nag about how we have no movie theatre, no options for buying clothes other than outdoor gear and don’t even start about getting a proper haircut. However, we still feel very lucky to live in a place that is so easy going, surrounded by awesome nature, and alive with the possibilities of exploring rugged and untouched places. Take this situation and multiply it by ten, and you have Puerto Williams. Its is a small town with about 3000 inhabitants located on Isla Navarino. Its the most southern town in the world. Ushuaia is the most southern city, and they’ve turned this into a huge marketing effort to get people to visit “the end of the world”. In the much smaller, and more southern Puerto Williams people like to say that they are beyond the end of the world.
Puerto Williams is a charming little town; horses freely wander the streets grazing on little patches of grass, the “supermarket” is a small mom and pop store, and people are kind. If you like haute cuisine dining (or even just eating at all) you are in the wrong place! We arrived on Friday night and ended up eating deep-freeze pizzas after trying for about 1,5 hrs to find a restaurant. Luckily on Monday we got a break and managed to find Restaurante “El Arbol” open.Walking in, we weren’t sure if it was an art gallery, a nightclub or a restaurant and apparently its all of the above. Roberto owns this place, and he cooks very nice “home-style” food. I was stunned to get some freshly steamed broccoli, that’s a first in South America!
There are not many hotels in Puerto Williams, most lodgings are family-owned hostels and home-stay arrangements. It might not be the most luxurious, but there are quite some clean and friendly places that will give you a chance to get to know local way of life. If you prefer the comfort of a real hotel, the place to go is Lakutaia Lodge. We were lucky enough to stay here and were very happy! The Lodge is situated next to an inlet, surrounded by forest and overlooking the Beagle Channel. Its a small, straightforward and comfortable hotel and most importantly; the dining room has a beautiful view. What we liked most was that the staff was very friendly; they really made us feel at home.
Tourism is one of the main activities in Puerto Williams, but it’s still in its initial stages. Not many travelers come here and the ones who do are almost always sailors or hikers. This makes it a great place to visit: there is a lot to do, but the masses haven’t even begun to discover it. The sailors are mostly on their way to Antarctica or Cape Horn, or just returning. The hikers are there to hike the most southern hike in the world; the Dientes de Navarino circuit. This circuit is a 4 to 5 day trek through mountainous terrain around the “Dientes de Navarino” peaks. The landscape is full of luscious Southern Beech forests, snowfields, lakes and mountains. Its is recommendable to with a guide, not only because of the remoteness of the area, but also because the weather can be so unpredictable.
The area of the circuit is protected by Unesco under the name of Cabo de Hornos Biosphere reserve. The reserve was created by Ricardo Rozzi to protect both cultural heritage and natural resources. He is a somewhat controversial person in Puerto Williams, as he is said to not have taken into account the wishes of the local population. However, it is without a doubt that he is making a big contribution to conservation. The reserve is protecting one of the 37 last wilderness areas currently existing in the world.
An important part of this effort is the Omora Ethnobotanical park, a small park close to town where you can get a guided tour to learn about the unique flora and fauna of the region. Lakutaia Lodge lent us some bicycles, and we went up the road to find Omora. There we were warmly received by Jaime and Yanet, both biologists, and their friends. A magnifying glass was put in our hands and we were off exploring. Omora is divided in several circuits representative of the varied ecosystems that can be found in the Cape Horn Biosphere reserve. One of most memorable for me was the circuit of “The miniature forests of Cape Horn”, where we looked at mosses and lichens through our magnifying glasses.
Yanet and Jaime are both so passionate and knowledgeable about their work and their mission to preserve and educate, that by the end of the tour I was almost ready to give up my job and move to Isla Navarino to join them. It made me realize once again how special this place is. Here is an article by Ricardo Rozzi et al. in case you want to know more about the scientific background of Omora Ethnobotanical Park.
There are some 50 descendants of the Yaghan people living in Puerto Williams. They are the original inhabitants of this region and their legacy is honored in the beautiful little museum “Martin Gusinde Anthropological Museum“. I loved this museum; its small, but surprisingly hip, and it gives you the chance to get a basic understanding of Yaghan way of life and their philosophy in one or two hours. The nature on Isla Navarino is extremely well preserved from pre-Columbian times and the surroundings have changed little from when the Yaghan people lived there. Being confronted with the same landscape and fierce climate the Yaghans had to deal with makes it all the more powerful to learn of their way of life. We were walking around in several layers of outdoor technical gear, but these guys didn’t use much clothing until the Spanish came along. To keep warm they smeared animal fat on their bodies and built fires which they also transported with them in their canoes. Today most of them live in Villa Ukika, a small town right next to Puerto Williams. If you would like to know more about the history of the Yaghans in relation to Darwin and the first European settlers here is a fantastic episode of a television series with Redmond O’Hanlon that recreates the voyage of the Beagle. After 6 minutes of Dutch, its in English!
After spending only four days in this amazing place, I know for sure that I will be back. There is an enormous amount of adventures to be had here, and I can’t wait to start!