Even with terrible weather and no famous sights, this cruise was full of wonder

·10-min read
'I paddled frantically, wondering whether to ride the waves face-on, escape them, or just give up and die'
'I paddled frantically, wondering whether to ride the waves face-on, escape them, or just give up and die'

It was at Puerto Natales that I began to wonder if Patagonia's most notorious element – the wind – had got the better of our holiday. Under clear blue skies, the RCGS Resolute eased its way into the harbour and turned as if to begin mooring. The golden steppe beckoned. The peaks framing the little town summoned. But the gale that had been blowing incessantly almost since we'd embarked five days earlier picked up with mean-spirited haste, turning the sea to froth and whipping up spray from the wave-tops.

A hundred or so passengers waited as the ship weighed anchor, the harbour pilot arrived, the engine was quietened, cameras and cash were pocketed, and... nada. An hour later, the feared Tannoy announced: the port had been closed "due to dangerous conditions".

Thanks to the weather, a pattern was emerging: activities were being cancelled, itineraries scotched, landings shelved. The end of the world – or at least the bottom half of Chile – was keeping itself out of reach.

I was returning to this faraway region many years after first visiting. Back in 1993, I had hopped on a (then) budget-priced 'ro-ro' vessel run by Chilean firm Navimag. An already popular backpacker "cruise", it only stopped once on its four-day voyage, at a tiny speck on the map called Puerto Eden. It provided basic cabins, hearty grub, and a deck to stand on and gawp at the mountains – and not much else.

The bottom half of the Americas has been rather underserved in recent years by big ships, and a journey that followed in the wake of Magellan, who became the first European to cross from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the Strait of Magellan 500 years ago last weekend, was just too exciting to miss.

RCGS Resolute is a five-star ice-strengthened expedition cruise ship
RCGS Resolute is a five-star ice-strengthened expedition cruise ship

The Resolute had just wrapped up its Antarctic season and needed to be repositioned, so the charter firm had been wily and packaged the cruise as an "expedition", with lots of stops along the ragged, jagged Pacific coast of Chile on the way.

How convenient, how wonderful, for all the passengers – and how intriguing for me to see how things had developed along this once lonely, and still remote, shore over a quarter century. But that wind had wilful plans of its own and I was worried – what if we couldn't stop at the stops?

We left Ushuaia on a mellow Sunday evening in mid-March. The farewell committee comprised a scattering of black-browed albatrosses, a few seals or sea lions, plenty of cormorants, and a solitary Magellanic penguin, popping its head up out of the becalmed Beagle Channel. By nightfall there was light sleet; a tiny fluttering while we waited off Puerto Williams – a Chilean town that is growing fast, perhaps trying to catch up with Ushuaia – but a signal that autumn was coming on early in these austral latitudes.

Snow was swapped for ice the ­following morning. The scale of the Garibaldi glacier tricks the eye. When I saw some of the ship's Zodiacs cruising beneath its tideline wall, I ­wondered if they were pushing their luck. But no, they were keeping a safe quarter-of-a-mile-plus distance from the glacier. Around the fjord were dozens of sky-high waterfalls, streaking the rocks with silver, while a pair of adorable kelp geese perched on a mossy shelf; always in couples.

The western islands of Chilean Tierra del Fuego are some of the harshest environments of South America. Cold, rain-lashed, wind-blasted, their labyrinthine channels and deep fjords are walled in by steep mountains. Challenging even for the most experienced of captains.

The farewell from Ushuaia consisted of a Magellanic penguin and other animals
The farewell from Ushuaia consisted of a Magellanic penguin and other animals

Hardy southern beech trees – principally the deciduous lenga and ­evergreen coihue – clung to the lower slopes, fighting gravity as well as the plummeting waterfalls, landslides and long months of short days and murky, chilly weather. Many peaks are clad in ice, and while the native Yaghan venture here seasonally, it has never been settled by Europeans. When the ship ran its engine quietly, we heard ice calving and saw occasional avalanches.

I joined the kayaking group to get closer to all this. Cruises overfeed and mollycoddle passengers, and it's good to stretch the limbs and burn off some energy. Paddling stealthily in the Serrano fjord, we passed wading birds and caracara hawks, wind-sculptured bergs and lichen-dappled rocks, to get to the base of the Serrano glacier. We beached the kayaks and walked on to a pebbly beach, spreading out to admire the meringue-like seracs of the main body of ice, the blue crevasses of a hanging glacier and a new-formed moraine of rocky debris.

Cruising along the Strait of Magellan was a personal high point early on in the voyage. Previously, I had landed beside it in aeroplanes, hiked and ­ridden a horse beside it and crossed its narrows by ferry.

Following a short morning landing at a place called Cape San Isidro – where, due to gusts and williwaws, we were restricted to one of those unremarkable cruise excursions that involve several dozen people walking aimlessly around a beach – we sailed west.

Cape Froward, the southernmost tip of the Americas, was also not a disappointment: a black hill looming over a lighthouse and topped by a large cross sits at the base of a snow-sprinkled hulk of a mountain. Mists swirled, waves roiled and the infamous westerly slapped all the rugged-up passengers trying to take photographs of the landmark into the wind.

Puerto Natales has grown from a ramshackle town to tourism hub - EMI CRISTEA
Puerto Natales has grown from a ramshackle town to tourism hub - EMI CRISTEA

For the next few hours my view of the strait, from our starboard cabin, was a chain of dramatic, frigid peaks, one after another. I could imagine all of those famed mariners, from Magellan through Cavendish – who named Froward – and FitzRoy, glancing up from their testing manoeuvres to outwit the wind, seeing those solid, mockingly unmoving mountains while the sea tossed and spun and stressed seamen and bark alike.

Puerto Natales was where my first voyage to Patagonia had ended back in 1994. I remember the Puerto Eden ship well. I shared a small cabin with María Cecilia, my Argentine girlfriend; we even had a porthole.

This was luxury, as many of our fellow backpackers were in hammocks or bunks. The food was school-style slop. Maté tea was the main drink, and perhaps a beer in the evening. There were no lectures, no gym, no sauna, no library – none of the luxuries of the Resolute. But who needed them? We had youth and wonder, and it was my first contact with Patagonia's unreachable coast, and I'm sure that was the case for most of the other passengers. With age comes a need for comfort, but perhaps a dullness of spirit. Patagonia had long served me as a way of puncturing the quotidian and routine.

In the 1990s, Natales was a small, ramshackle place, full of houses, including our B&B, that were covered in corrugated tin. Now it is an important Chilean tourism hub, a smarter and wealthier town in a fast-developing country, with craft ale microbreweries, fancy restaurants, shops flogging posh local woollens or branded kit for hiking in Torres del Paine.

But we didn't dock. We didn't go to the national park. The Chilean authorities closed the jetty – which is all there is by way of a cruise ship terminal – due to those "dangerous conditions".

The writeron his voyage
The writeron his voyage

Instead, the Resolute – the name beginning to fray like the clouds – rolled northwards, only to be met with more 35-knot winds, 50-knot gusts, mist and drizzle.

But then: magic and mayhem, at a glacier called El Brujo (The Wizard), the wind dropped and we were able to kayak beside the ice in the stilled waters of the Asia fjord. El Brujo was calving crazily, making lots of rumbling, grumbling noises. Suddenly, a biblical noise rent the air. From my kayak, I saw red anoraks running, and then ice blocks bobbing around, far away. Then, not so far away. Two major calving events, one after the other, sent up a mini-tsunami. I paddled frantically, wondering whether to ride the waves face-on, escape them, or just give up and die.

In fact it was all fine. Glaciers growl more than they bite. But it woke us all up after our incarceration on board.

The following day we paddled in brash and grease ice, dodging bergy bits, in a glass-smooth, sun-drenched Falcón Sound. The glacier was five miles up an ice-packed fjord, beyond our reach. We had one final up-close experience of icy majesty at the Bruggen glacier, one of the widest, highest tide-line glaciers of the mighty southern ice field. Wind-less, this was a mellow, three-mile transit across the face of the glacier, before an al fresco barbecue on the ship. All was right with the world once more.

The 1968 wreck of the Capitan Leonidas, a sugar freighter, was the last thing I saw before we left the southern fjords and steamed on to Chiloé, a homely island of green hills and bays filled with salmon farms. "You cannot compare it to the more scenic mountains of the south," declared a fellow passenger – a Swiss chap, who liked to compare things. But for me, the sight of ploughed fields, lambs, wooden churches and the small city of Castro with its stilted houses, was a welcome return to human geography.

I'd had my fill of ice and rock. Valdivia was an opportunity for a final paddle; I'd just finished reading a biography of Cochrane, and could imagine the heroic captain hammering the Spaniards with broadsides, as he helped liberate Chile.

The stilted homes of Castro - PHILIP LEE HARVEY
The stilted homes of Castro - PHILIP LEE HARVEY

En route to our final destination, Valparaiso – Pablo Neruda's poetic port – we swapped bays and coves for open ocean, mist for clearer skies, and the chill for the warmth of late summer. We began to check our lists of sightings: southern sea lion, southern fur seal, black-browed albatross, southern giant petrel. An owl, kelp gulls galore, cormorants. Plus the world's most southerly hummingbird, most southerly forest (containing the most southerly tree species, the nirre or nothofagus antarctica), and most southerly otter. Patagonia is generous with its southern superlatives.

So was the posh cruise better than the cheaper 1990s ro-ro trip? No, but it was slower, deeper and more thoughtful. It was also a more luxurious, and more private, experience - just the kind of mindful escape that would be perfect after the long year of Covid-19. Of course, the weather was beyond anyone's control, but we've learned a lot lately about nature not always doing what we want.

It's a cruise for those who don't need cities or famous sights, and who have done their share of bragging and ticked off the polar bears, penguins and Antarctic highlights.

As for travelling back through the years and recapturing the wonder of those years – well that's impossible, isn't it? In fact, I don't think I even noted the names back then. Now an obsessive student of maps and charts, and alert to the secret messages of landscape, my middle-aged self couldn't help but think of the history of this route, once so busy and so treacherous in the days before the Panama Canal.

I thought especially of midshipman John Byron, the poet's grandfather, who had been stranded on these shores in 1741 when his ship, HMS Wager, was wrecked. The tortuous channels of Chile's Pacific coast are littered with shipwrecks.

You don't need much Spanish to read a poetry of desolation in the place names: Last Hope Sound and Useless Bay, Solitude Point and Mount Grief. A bit of wind and rain, and some falling ice: we got away lightly.

Chris Moss travelled pre-Covid with Swoop Patagonia (0117 369 0196, swoop-patagonia.com). A 12-day cruise travelling north-south along the same coast with Silversea (020 7340 0700; silversea.com) costs from £7,500pp. Includes one pre-voyage night in Santiago, a night in Buenos Aires and international flights. Departs Oct 29, 2021.

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