the world's smartest travel social network
We boarded our ship in Buenos Aires, and the cruise would take us right around South America around the famous … or infamous … Cape Horn to Valpariaso.
I thought of the old sea shanty ‘Paddy Lay Back’:
‘… for we’re bound for Valparaiso round the Horn’
Then I remembered more words of the same ditty:
‘ … half the crew were spewing o’er the ship’s side
And the other half were spewing over me’.
Happily, such conditions didn’t happen on this cruise. We called at Punta del Este, Puerto Madryn and Port Stanley on the way down and so we came to Cape Horn.
Now, it would be nice to think that America ends with a dramatic cliff, with a monumental lighthouse atop, but it doesn’t. It fizzles out in a ragged archipelago of countless islands, the largest of which is Tierra del Fuego; Cape Horn itself is on an insignificant little island called Isla del Hornos, or Horn Island. It’s uninhabited apart from the lighthouse and a Chilean navy base.
Now, these islands provide a few calmer alternatives to the Drake Passage, which is that stretch of water between the Horn and Antarctica, which is noted for the adverse weather conditions. These passages were widely used by shipping before the Panama Canal was built, as they were really the only practicable means of getting from one side of the continent to the other.
The best known is the Straits of Magellan, which passes between Tierra del Fuego and the mainland, before weaving its way through the islands to the Pacific Ocean. To the south of Tierra del Fuego runs the Beagle Channel, named after the HMS Beagle, which passed this way carrying Charles Darwin on his famous voyage to the Galapagos Islands.
The weather conditions were almost perfect, as we sailed right around Horn Island. As we rounded the island in an anti-clockwise direction, the lighthouse on the cape came into sight. You'd think there would be a grand monument here, but there isn't. Just a slight white ball maybe a metre or two across. We couldn’t see it very well from the ship, but there was a replica at Ushuaia, our next port of call.
More imposing is the radio tower at the nearby Navy station, which many think is the Cape Horn lighthouse, but isn't. Julio, the Port Lecturer, told us that personnel for the base were specially selected, and had to fulfil certain conditions. Which surprised me. Given the remote, desolate nature of the place, I thought that defaulters may have been given the option of a six-month tour on the Cape, or a year in the brig.
Ushuaia, on the northern side of the Beagle Channel, lays claim the being the southernmost city in the world. Some say that Puerto Williams, across the channel in neighbouring Chile, could give them an argument about that, but the Argentines point out that Puerto Williams isn’t a city! What Ushuaia can indisputably claim is having the southernmost railway in the world. This was built by convict labour, initially to carry materials to build the city, once a penal colony … the Argentine equivalent of Siberia
Although it’s no longer where Argentina sends its bad lads, the prison still stands, and is now a military barracks. Outside it is the previously-mentioned replica of the Cape Horn lighthouse. After we left Ushuaia, we sailed down the Beagle Channel, through a spectacular feature called Glacier Alley. There were snow-capped peaks on either side, and glaciers, some of them reaching down to sea level.
Our next port of call was the Chilean port of Punta Arenas, on the Magellan Straits. It’s actually on the mainland, and could probably claim to be the southernmost settlement on the South American mainland, but for some reason, it doesn’t … as far as I can tell.
There isn’t a great deal I can say about Punta Arenas. It’s a pleasant enough place, but not really somewhere you'd go especially. Rather, it's a place you'd pass through on the way to somewhere else. Judging by the red-painted survey ships we saw in the harbour, that might be the South Pole!
But we weren’t bound for the South Pole; eventually, we sailed into the warmer waters of the Pacific Ocean. Something, I felt, was missing. We have certificates from various cruise lines that we’ve crossed the Equator, the Arctic Circle and the Tropic of Cancer. Why wasn’t there one to say we’d rounded the Horn?
However, we don’t really need a certificate; we have the memories … and, of course, photos!