They say the wife of the lighthouse keeper on Cape Horn bursts into tears when the tourists get back in their black inflatable skiffs to...

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TIERRA DEL FUEGO, Chile — They say the wife of the lighthouse keeper on Cape Horn bursts into tears when the tourists get back in their black inflatable skiffs to leave.

It’s not a far-fetched tale.

For she and her husband live on a rocky brown island that is among the loneliest, bleakest places on Earth.

The winds that sweep across the tundra that forms her front yard often reach the “screaming sixties.” And the water that laps her beaches sometimes gathers into waves as high as a six-story building before rolling south to slam into Antarctica, 400 miles across the Drake Passage.

In the days of European exploration, Cape Horn was a mariner’s idea of hell. Some 800 shipwrecks lie like so many scattered dog bones offshore. Atop the highest hill, there’s a monument to tens of thousands of sailors who perished trying to survive the trip ’round the Horn that separates the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans.

“Pinch me. I can’t believe I’m here,” Susan Tepperberg said as she stared at the island from the deck of the Mare Australis, one of a few small cruise ships that brave the storied seas each summer to take tourists through the Strait of Magellan to Cape Horn, at the southernmost tip of the South American landmass.

We all needed pinching.

The beautiful, wild journey that lay before us was in no way what we’d expected. And dreaded.

Our lifeboat plowed through gentle waves, not rogue killers. A cool breeze reached under the hoods of our parkas but didn’t freeze our ears. And the clouds that skittered across the scruffy hillsides threatened bursts of sunlight, not icy polar storms.

The Cape Horn constellation of desolate islands is part of Tierra del Fuego, the enormous archipelago that stutters off from Chile’s Patagonia region toward the South Pole.

Landmarks along the strait, its inside passage, pay homage to a danger-laden history that links Patagonia to the rest of the New World in many ways:

• The strait is named for Ferdinand Magellan, the Portuguese explorer, who discovered this mixing place for Atlantic and Pacific waters in 1520. Charles Darwin passed through on his ship, the Beagle, which gave its name to a main channel, marking fauna not found in his native England.

• European settlers in the 1800s, as they did in so many parts of the world at that time, all but wiped out the indigenous population through disease and genocide.

• Adventurers looking to strike it rich in Patagonia’s gold veins swarmed the region in the 1880s, a few staying on after the boom turned bust, just as speculators did after Alaska’s gold rush. Magellan is credited with coming up with some of the more colorful place names as he sailed through.

When he first saw the fierce and big-boned Tehuelche people who inhabited the land, he is supposed to have said something like “Hola, patagon!” which would translate to “Hey, big foot.” It’s a name with a certain panache.

He’s also credited with naming the region Tierra del Fuego (“land of fire”) because of the chain of signaling campfires the Tehuelches lit on the beaches as he passed.

We flew from Santiago to Punta Arenas, Patagonia’s hub and largest city, to board the Mare Australis, which cruises past the Tehuelche beaches in the wake of Magellan from October to April, Chile’s down-under summer.

Punta Arenas, a frontier town reminiscent of those in Southeast Alaska, hunches low against some of the nastiest weather and most gorgeous scenery on the planet. Its squat architecture features mostly battered brick and rusting corrugated metal.

Across the strait is Argentina, which shares with Chile the brown, hummocky Patagonian steppes, the uncounted islands that clog the watery channels, and wondrous views of Patagonia’s own mountain range, the Darwin Cordillera. More than 200 glaciers ooze down its slopes toward the sea.

Most of Patagonia’s 150,000 residents live in Punta Arenas and a few shoreside settlements, so there’s precious little human activity along the strait.

Every now and then we passed a fishing boat, the object of much waving and pointing from the deck of our ship. A few houses hugging the shore became Geographic Points of Interest.

Every morning and afternoon aboard ship the 100-plus passengers pulled on hiking boots, waterproof pants, parkas, life jackets, hats and gloves and climbed into black inflatable skiffs for close encounters ashore with Magellanic flora and fauna.

We were met by a steady rain and chilly wind as we left the mother ship for our first ship-to-shore jaunt to a beach on Tierra del Fuego.

We shivered all the more at the thought of old photographs we’d seen of the indigenous people who lived here. They wore no clothing but slathered themselves with fat from sea lions. The women dived into this icy water for mussels and other seafood and lived to laugh about it.

Academics still argue whether they had some sort of genetic, metabolic protection that tourists and latter-day Chileans lack.

“Hang on,” our naturalist guide, Francisco Cardenas Marusic, shouted over the din of motor, waves and rain as we struggled to keep our bottoms on the slick rubber pontoons and our faces out of the gale. “We won’t take you where it’s too dangerous.”

We were met on the beach by a male elephant seal that bellowed at us as we strolled past its harem. The mama seals come to this same beach every year to give birth to their pups, accompanied by Dad.

The boulders that litter the beach carry deep scratches made by the glaciers that spit them out there. Upland, the sand gives way to spongy ground cover, then to a scrubby sub-Antarctic forest of shrubs and head-high trees. The calafate, a barberry species that grows best in these cool temperatures, gives Chileans a sweet blueberry that’s made into jam for Santiago’s breakfast tables.

That afternoon, we visited Tucker Island, a bird haven. King cormorants, with black frock coats, tufted topknots and bright-red feet, stood guard in niches in the rock walls. Their cousins, rock cormorants, have a lipstick-red circle around their eyes. Upland geese with ashy gray heads and kelp geese, which mate for life, inhabit the low banks.

Magellanic penguins, however, are the darlings of the island. They’re not as spectacularly tuxedoed or as large as their cousins, the Emperors, which live farther south, but they’re still penguin cute.

Because we were early in the season, only a few early birds — probably males, we were told — waddled onto the beach to stare at us. As the weather warms, females will come in droves to lay exactly three eggs each in burrows upland from the beach.

Magellan, it is said, called these little penguins “stupid geese” because their wings are so short they can’t fly.

“But they do fly,” Cardenas Marusic said. “They use those little wings to fly through the water. Magellan just couldn’t see them. So who’s stupid?”

If anyone doubts global warming, they should come to Patagonia, Cardenas Marusic said.

The glaciers that flow like rivers of ice into the strait have receded noticeably in his lifetime. The beach resort favored by the elephant seals was the foot of Marinelli Glacier only 20 years ago. Today its icy 120-foot front wall is more than three miles away, and guides use heavy sunblock against a stubborn ozone hole that makes the sun’s rays more intense.

“It wasn’t easy to live here when my grandfather came from Croatia,” Cardenas Marusic said. “Even when I was growing up in Punta Arenas, the ponds iced up in winter and we skated on them. Now our winters are cold, but not that cold.”

The morning we arrived at Cape Horn, the Chilean seaman who serves as the lighthouse keeper and his wife were welcoming a navy vessel loaded with food and supplies. Sailors formed a line to pass heavy boxes to a supply gondola that climbs the steep hill to the lighthouse, a chapel and several monuments.

Before our inflatables left for the day, the lighthouse keeper’s wife busily stamped a paper for each of us cruisers, certifying we were there at the alien end of the continent.

She didn’t have time to chat — too many certificates to stamp.

Maybe next week, when another shipload of “pinch-me-I-can’t-believe-I’m-here-at-the-bottom-of-the-world” tourists sets foot on her lonely beach.

Sally Macdonald is a retired Seattle Times reporter; John Macdonald retired as Seattle Times travel editor.