Cruising Ushuaia to Punta Arenas aboard Via Australis
What better way to finish our Patagonian adventure than with a cruise around the tip of South America. Leaving from Ushuaia cruising through the Beagle Channel, around Cape Horn, exploring some remote glaciers and stopping to see the penguins along the way. The cruise is 5 days, 4 nights, terminating in Punta Arenas. We are traveling with Cruceros Australis on the Via Australis.
This is the grand finale to our South America trip and we can’t wait to share it with you all. The whole experience was just fantastic and honestly I can’t recommend it highly enough.
This was our first real cruise, and I have to say I wasn’t really sure what to expect. We tend to travel independently or in small groups, so while the Via Australis only has a capacity of 135 passengers, it is a much larger group than we are used to for travel.
Day 1: Departure from Ushuaia
Departure is from the cruise dock in Ushuaia in the afternoon. We dropped our luggage off and checked in at the Cruceros Australis office in town in the morning after checking out of our accommodation. When we board we receive a warm greeting, with the crew introducing themselves and we are shown to our cabin. There is a full schedule for the duration of the cruise in the cabin. That’s what we like to see – some organization! And our luggage is there so we are off to a good start.
The first evening we have welcome drinks, meet the captain and crew and our fellow passengers. The atmosphere is very friendly and the captain and crew make an effort to get to know everyone’s names. There is a large group of Italians traveling together on a tour, another smaller tour group with an international mix and independent travelers from all over the world. It is a great mix of interesting people. The ship is not full having only 85 passengers (and 45 crew) so a good ratio.
While eating dinner this evening, we cruise through the Beagle Channel to Puerto Navarino and anchor for the night. There is a presentation before dinner about Cape Horn (tomorrow’s stop).
Day 2: Cape Horn and Wulaia Bay
It is December, and this time of year the days are very long in Patagonia. Sunrise is at 4:40am and sunset is at 9:58pm! If you are keen, you can arise early to watch the sunrise over Cape Horn. The weather forecast is not good and having been disappointed many times rising early to catch sunrise (and seeing nothing), I took the option of sleeping.
This morning is an early start anyway. Our first shore excursion, to Cape Horn, is at 7 am. Coffee and pastries are available before we disembark and a full breakfast is served after we return to the ship.
So at 7am we all meet to board the zodiacs (rubber inflatable rafts) to land on Cape Horn. The weather is not too good. It is windy, raining and cold. On the previous cruise they were unable to land here due to poor weather. Today we are successful!
Cape Horn is a very remote place. There is a memorial here, a small chapel, and a lighthouse (manned by the Chilean Navy). It is remote, wild and beautiful. Unfortunately the weather is awful and we are glad to return to the warm, dry boat for some breakfast.
After breakfast there is a presentation, “Patagonia: Ice and fauna” and “Wulaia Bay and Pia Glacier” These are typically well done power point presentations. They provide a lot of information about the area as well as an overview of the land excursions. Our afternoon stop is Wulaia Bay with the opportunity for a hike to explore the area and learn a bit about the fauna and wildlife.
Each day has some free time as well. There are several lounges on the boat to relax, read, talk to your fellow passengers or go out on the decks and enjoy the magnificent views.
Wulaia Bay turns out to be an interesting stop. There are remnants of the early European settlers including a museum. The weather has cooperated and is clear and we hike up the hill for a panoramic view of the bay. At the top of the hill there is a massive beaver dam. Some of the early settlers introduced beavers from Canada in an attempt to develop a trade in beaver pelts.
Well it was an absolute failure. It turns out, beavers excrete an oil, that is what makes their pelts soft and usable for fur. They secrete this oil in response to stress. Stress is caused by having natural predators around that can kill them. In Patagonia they have no predators, so no oil was produced, meaning no lovely fur and therefore nothing to trade. However, since they have no predators, the environmental damage they have caused is stunning. Left unchecked, they have destroyed entire forests, blocked creeks, etc. They now have a problem trying to reduce the numbers. Another excellent example of introducing non-native animals and reeking environmental havoc.
There is a post barrel at the museum. What you wonder is a post barrel? This is the way mail was historically delivered by the sailors. Sailors would pick up mail destined for the direction they were traveling in, and leave mail to be delivered in the direction from which they had come. Today you can leave a letter you would like mailed and in return you pick up a letter you will deliver. A great reminder of life before the internet!
As we return to the beach to board the zodiacs, we are greeted with hot chocolate and whiskey. A lovely warm greeting that is repeated at all of our shore excursions. Very warming in the cold climate.
The evening’s activities include drinks, dinner and a screening of “Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure.” If you do not know of Shackleton’s adventure I encourage you to find this movie (or the book). It is truly one of the most inspiring survival stories of all time. Just amazing! It is also a great leadership story and example. There is even an IMAX version of the story. I am not going to spoil the story, but to entice you, this is the wording of the original job advertisement:
Day 3: Beagle Channel, Pia Fjord and Glacier and Garibaldi Fjord and Glacier
As the day begins we are in the Beagle Channel, named after Captain Robert Fitz Roy’s (which Mount Fitz Roy near El Chalten is named after) boat, the Beagle.Today is a day of glaciers and sailing through the southern fjords. Today’s disembarkations allow time to walk on the Pia Glacier and in the afternoon Garibaldi Glacier. Both offer an opportunity to learn more about the glaciers and see them up close.
Activities on the boat include the opportunity to learn to tie sailing knots and briefings about the Magellan Strait, Aguila Glacier and Chico Sound.
After dinner there is Bingo in the lounge, complete with prizes. It was a lot of fun.
Late evening and overnight we sail around the southern part of Tierra del Fuego which is where it meets the Pacific Ocean. Here is where we encounter the roughest waters (we were warned well in advance). Luckily it is overnight and not all that noticeable. If you are worried about seasickness see the suggestions later in this post.
Day 4: Agostini Sound, Aguila Glacier & Piloto Glacier
The morning is a visit to Aguila Glacier, which is an opportunity to walk along the shoreline and approach a glacier. The weather is really clear today. The pictures are just stunning with the glaciers reflecting in the water. The picture at the top of the post is the Aguila Glacier. We walk quite close to the glacier. You can hear it creaking and calving, which, while we have heard it at all of the glaciers in Patagonia, is nonetheless fascinating each time.
The afternoon’s outing does not include a shore landing; it is a zodiac trip through Alacalufe Fjord to the edge of Piloto Glacier. This was spectacular. The zodiac is traveling through waters full of small (and at times larger) ice chunks. It was beautiful (and noisy). The zodiac drivers do a fantastic job of getting us safely ashore and back on the boat each day.
Sitting in the boat we pass VERY close to a waterfall, a colony of cormorants and right up to the glacier itself. This excursion is the closest we come to a glacier by water and the scenery in this fjord is just breathtaking. It is also a beautiful, sunny day and I think for the first time ever we have blue sky behind a glacier in our pictures!
Activities on the boat include a presentation about Punta Arenas and Patagonian Chile, a tour of the bridge and engine room (fascinating) and briefings about the Magellanic Penguin and Magdalena Island.
It is our last dinner aboard the boat and there are farewell drinks in the bar. The navigational chart from this actual cruise was also auctioned off to the highest bidder. Using our well honed auctioned skills, we made one bid, the last bid and took home the chart. Mark loves maps so this was my Christmas present to him. He had no idea I was going to bid so was quite surprised when next thing you know we are having our picture taken as the proud new owners of the nautical chart. It will look fantastic behind our bar (when we have one someday)!
Tonight sunset, at 10:06 pm is spectacular. The picture doesn’t do it justice (I have not edited this picture!)
Day 5: Magdalena Island and the Magellanic Penguins
Today is the end of our cruise and we are sorry to see it end. However before we dock in Punta Arenas at 11:30 am, we have one shore excursion to go, seeing the penguins on Magdelena Island. This is a popular day trip from Punta Arenas, the big advantage of doing this outing from the boat is we arrive before all of the tour boats. Basically we have the place to ourselves: just us and the penguins.
It is breeding season and there are penguins nestled in their burrows sitting on their eggs. There are penguins everywhere. They are used to people. People stay on the paths and the penguins can go anywhere. There are over 70,000 pairs of Magellanic penguins on this island.
Other bird species, including cormorants, dolphin gulls, upland and kelp goose, and black faced ibis also use this island as a breeding ground.
After the penguins we have breakfast and prepare to disembark in Punta Arenas. Our grand adventure is over.
A few words about the Cruise and Cruceros Australis
The reasons we selected this cruise:
- Honestly it is the only small ship servicing this route.
- It is all inclusive.
- It has two shore excursions each day.
- It has other activities on the boat so we can learn more about the area.
- It is shorter duration and a less expensive option than going to Antarctica so it works with our schedule.
I am prone to seasickness and was a bit hesitant as to how I would fare for 5 days on a cruise, especially as Patagonia is prone to some rough weather. I purchased seasick bands, which are elastic bands with pressure points you wear on your wrists. These worked beautifully. We had one night of rough weather when we were in open water and even then I was fine. I noticed a few other passengers wearing them as well. If you are prone to motion sickness I really do recommend these. It is so much more effective than taking a pill.
Toward the end of the cruise, as we were having after dinner drinks, a few of us got talking about our opinions of the cruise. When booking most of us thought the cruise was a bit expensive. By the end of the cruise we all thought it was excellent value. The food was good, the bar was good (no limits on your drinks, it includes spirits) and it is fully stocked, the crew was fantastic and the shore excursions were simply spectacular. The crew took the time to learn everyone’s name, where you were from, and you felt welcome. Briefings were conducted in multiple languages to accommodate everyone- Spanish, English and Italian (for the large group) were all available. And we met some fantastic people from all over the world.
The food was so excellent I’d have to say I gained a bit of weight on this cruise! Breakfast and lunch were buffets. The food was high quality and there was lots of variety. Dinner was table service. You were offered a couple of choices for each dinner. The dinner menu was presented at breakfast and you could order your choice. Local produce was featured and matched with local wines. Seating for the independent travelers was open and you could eat with different people at each meal giving you the chance to meet everyone.
Children were allowed on this cruise. Under a certain age they could stay free in the same cabin. (Sorry we don’t have little ones and I don’t remember the age.) There were a few kids on the cruise all of which were so well behaved. As a kid this cruise would be a blast, so if you have kids I would consider it. It is fantastic value to take them along for free.
We booked directly with Cruceros Australis. Current pricing, dates and availability are on their website.
Before and After the Cruise
Ushuaia is a town of about 65,000. Argentina claims it as the most southern city in the world (and Chile claims Punta Arenas is). It was founded in 1884 by Anglican missionaries as part of Europe’s attempts to colonize the southern reaches of South America.
You can access Tierra del Fuego from Ushuaia and the town itself is worth a bit of a look. Unfortunately while we were here, it snowed and the wind was incredibly strong limiting the outdoor activities. If you really want to explore the outdoor activities you might want o allow an extra day or two in case of inclement weather.
Punta Arenas is larger than Ushuaia with closer to 125,000 inhabitants. It was settled in 1843 as a Chilean penal colony. It boomed as a shipping port for supplies during the California Gold Rush and later became the center of Chile’s wool production. All of these influences are present in the town today and it is worth spending a day here at the end of the cruise to explore. So overall we would recommend cruising Ushuaia to Punta Arenas aboard the Via Australis. It was fantastic.