Kayaking at the End of the World
Strait of Magellan
Kayak, hike, camp, eat, repeat. Javier Gonzalez explores the Strait of Magellan at the end of the South American continent on one of his adventures. There, where the maps were once marked ‘Terra Australis Incognita’, the unknown territory, now belonging to Patagonia, Chile. Of Awascars and Selkmans, of navigators, explorers, and settlers.
Looking out the plane window I see an ocean of snow-capped mountains, titanic glaciers shedding their ice floes into fjords and great lakes, and mighty rivers meandering through an endless expanse of wild, raw, and stark terrain—a spectacular territory for those with explorer souls.
That maps can be deceiving is no secret, and when looking for the southern tip of Chilean Patagonia, one can easily be fooled by distances. From Spain to Punta Arenas it is almost 30 hours flying if we count stopover times. Just to Santiago de Chile, there are nearly 14 hours of flight time. This is the price to pay, to land in one of the planet’s most remote and unspoiled places. You get a hefty dose of what you are looking for: Natural scenery of lavish beauty and colossal dimensions. No map can represent the magnitude of nature in southern Chile.
Strait of Magellan
The Strait of Magellan is one of the geographical points with more naval stories on the planet. Through these waters have sailed Hernando de Magallanes, Juan Ladrillero, Francisco de Ulloa, Francis Drake, Fitz Roy, and Darwin. Illustrious explorers whose stories are mixed with hundreds of others, whose lives were shipwrecked at the bottom of these unforgiving waters. Or worse, starved to death on their shores.
One of my favorite stories is that of Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa. In 1584, he founded the first towns of his incipient government – the cities of Nombre de Jesús and Rey Felipe – as part of the attempt to colonize the Strait of Magellan. But its inhabitants perished of hunger due to food shortages and extreme weather conditions. The last survivor of this final settlement was rescued in early 1590 by an English ship. Since then, it has been known as Puerto del Hambre (Port of Hunger).
“We have to let the carabineros know about our group and the activity we will do. From Rio San Pedro, there is nothing, and in case of problems, it is convenient that they know who is in the area,” says our tour leader Roy, a Tenerife native with a Chilean soul after many years working in the country.
The van takes us along the road that runs along the eastern coast of the Brunswick Peninsula, on the continental shore of the Strait of Magellan, and a few kilometers from Cape Froward, the southernmost point of the entire continental mass of America. The atmosphere outside is cold and damp, although the sun’s rays illuminate the snow-capped peaks around us.
Today we are going to climb Mount Tarn, 825 meters. “Many people are confused by the mountains’ wingspan: its height is no more than a thousand meters, but its character is a high mountain,” Roy tells us. We put on our gaiters on the snowy sand of the beach at the foot of the trail. Snowshoes in the backpack. In the background were the snow-capped mountains of the infamous Dawson Island, which served as a concentration camp for the Selkman Indians, and later for prisoners of the dictatorship.
We progress through a labyrinth of roots in a lush forest of lenga trees, one of the most predominant tree species in the area. Along with ñirres and cohiues, all belonging to the Nothofagus family, they are also known as the beeches of the south. On our route, we will also find guaitecas cypresses and cinnamon trees, the sacred tree of the Mapuches. Walking through the peat bog is entertaining. It is like stepping on a sponge full of water. You have to think about each step to avoid stepping into deep holes of water and mud.
“The peninsula is a giant peat bog,” our local guide Stefi, a Punta Arenas native and hiking guide in the area, tells me. “Not too many local people do these routes; most do easier stuff. Many come without proper gear; others get lost. Some have died.”
We put on our snowshoes at a viewpoint overlooking the south face of Mount Tarn, an Andean delight with attractive corridors for high-level skiers and the waters of the Strait and the islands of Tierra del Fuego just ahead. From here, the terrain turns to an inhospitable, snowy, windswept Patagonian plain. “In winter, it’s almost easier to make progress here on snowshoes than in summer walking,” Roy tells me. A couple of false summits precede the final objective. The temperature drops drastically at the top because of the frigid wind. But the views are glorious: a marvelous land of sea and mountains bathed in extreme latitudes’ cold, magnetic light. What’s that beautiful mountain jutting out on the horizon? I ask. “It’s Mount Sarmiento,” Stefi tells me. “In honor of Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa.”
The views are glorious: a marvelous land of sea and mountains bathed in the extreme latitudes’ cold, magnetic light
Kayaking & Camping
“Here in Patagonia, you have to learn to adapt every day,” Cristian, the owner of Kayak Agua Fresca agency, tells me. “We tour operators must be flexible with the programs and know how to move the chips depending on the weather.” Precisely, the weather has meant that we must arrive by zodiac at the starting point of the kayaking trip. A fisherman beckons us from his small boat and gives us a bag of freshly caught sea urchins, a local delicatesse.
The kayaks await us on the shore of the San Isidro Lighthouse, near the ruins of an old whaling station. “A Norwegian company killed thousands of whales here between 1905 and 1915,” Cristian tells us. “In the year 2000, only 35 whales were counted in the Strait, but today, that number is climbing again. About 300 humpback whales were counted last year”
We get into the double kayaks, eager to paddle in the waters of the Strait, where so many sailors have succumbed to the power of the seas and the inclement weather. We paddle calmly, overwhelmed by the rugged landscapes, as pristine as they are lonely. The weather and the state of the sea are unpredictable: One moment the water is mirror-like, the next waves are whipped up by the wind. You can be warmed by a sunray, only to be drenched in ice cold sea spray. Within seconds a gentle breeze can turn into hurricane strength. Unless you’ve been there, there is no way you have an understanding of the strength of the Patagonian winds, where even the trees yield to its impetus and grow with their ‘hair’ combed at will.
On top of a rocky islet near the coast, three male sea lions roar as they feel us close in on them. The largest, surrounded by females and juveniles on top of the rock, does not seem happy about our arrival. We cautiously move away, pursued by the juveniles who jump into the water to accompany us on our journey. Occasionally, they poke their heads out to greet us, keep an eye on us, or be curious about our presence.
We reach the bay of San Nicolas, wet and tired, but happy. A hot meal awaits us on the beach in an improvised camp. On the snowy shore we spot some puma tracks, hunting prey, with drag marks to the nearby river.
A kind of romanticism
“Here in this part of Patagonia, everything is more difficult,” Cristian tells me as we unload the kayaks on the camp’s beach. “The logistics, the transportation… Imagine if we had to do a rescue today: it wouldn’t have been so easy, although we have everything well prepared and tied up for any inconvenience”.
Getting wet is part of a kayak trip. Especially in winter, and even more so in the Strait of Magellan. The weather in these latitudes can be very hostile. Today, for example, it is raining cats and dogs, and the best thing to do is to forget about it. Learn to live with the wet weather. “Sometimes it’s the clients who find it hard to adapt to the changes,” Cristian continues. “This is a tour for travelers, not tourists. It’s special people who do these tours. For us to operate, it is also a kind of romanticism.”
Getting wet is part of a kayak trip. Especially in winter, and even more so in the Strait of Magellan. The weather in these latitudes can be very hostile
Bad weather forces us to stay in camp for a day. But every cloud has a silver lining. We light a fire big enough to keep out the rain. It is easy to imagine the vast bonfires that gave their name to Tierra del Fuego, whose coastline we can see on the horizon. It is time to listen to stories while tasting a plate of spider crab salad from the Strait and a Cerveza Austral beer.
“The Kaweskar were marine nomads who roamed the islands and channels between the Golfo de Penas to the north and the Strait of Magellan to the south,” Roy tells us. “They lived by hunting sea lions and seals and gathering shellfish and fish. They traveled in canoes made of three pieces of tree bark, joined together with vegetable fibers or whale baleen. On many occasions, they slept in them, dressed only with a layer of sealskin that covered their backs or chests, and, to face the cold, they covered their bodies with colored earth mixed with animal fat. Today, a few survive in Puerto Eden”.
“The Kaweskar lived by hunting sea lions and seals and gathering shellfish and fish. They traveled in canoes made of three pieces of tree bark”
“Your south is our north,” Cristián answers me when I ask him why the reverse compass points in the Kayak Agua Fresca logo. “In maps, as in life, it’s all a matter of perspective.” We are passing the Nodales River on our way to the starting point of the route that leads to the Cross of the Seas, on the peak that crowns Cape Froward.
Cape Froward, formerly called Morro de Santa Agueda, is the southernmost point of the American landmass. It was the English pirate Thomas Cavendish, in January 1587, who named the place, due to the extremely hostile climate, with strong winds and rains. The name means brave, hostile, or uncontrollable.
The road to the summit is steep. The rains of the previous day have also made it slippery. As if we were progressing along the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, some wooden milestones mark the stations before reaching the cross. In some sections, we are in an enchanted forest. In others, it is necessary to progress by steep metal stairs. The views from the summit are magnificent. A privileged observation points to the immeasurable nature that surrounds us. Sea and mountains. Beaches and glaciers. A giant condor flies overhead. “In five years, all this will be a National Park,” Cristian tells me.
Kayak to the End of the World and back
Kayak Agua Fresca is a local agency specializing in kayak tours and wildlife watching in the Strait of Magellan. Their packages include both day trips and week-long tours combined with camping. Kayak Agua Fresca received the Oxygeno magazine Best International Adventure Trip award in 2017.