Pia Glacier is one of many glaciers that guests can visit with Australis. // © 2014 Australis
As I survey the landscape past an oblong rainbow that stretches across half of the skyline, Charles Darwin expert John Woram removes a sketch from his bag and holds it up.
“This is a picture from Charles Darwin’s records of this exact spot,” he said. “They came here on January 23, 1833, on their way to the Galapagos.”
The topography is pretty much the same, except that where there were once canvas tents, there is now a brick hut that Australis Cruises has erected as part of a Darwin museum.
Chilean cruise line Australis specializes in Tierra del Fuego, the archipelago that makes up the most remote part of Patagonia, a region shared by Argentina and Chile. The route itself is magical — retracing parts of the two-year journey that Charles Darwin and the HMS Beagle took on their way to the Galapagos. Here, in these southernmost lands, through misty fjords, towering glaciers and the snow-capped peaks of the Darwin Mountain Range, Darwin began to formulate his groundbreaking theory of evolution. The cruise explores Darwin’s journey through excursions that include hikes through muddy forests and glaciers and wildlife tours on inflatable Zodiac boats, all accompanied by John Woram, author of “Charles Darwin Slept Here.”
We sailed onboard the three-year-old, 100-cabin Stella Australis, the company’s newest ship, which features three lounges, a dining room and a gym with floor-to-ceiling windows. The daily Zodiac excursions are included in the fare, and there is an open bar available throughout the cruise.
Our trip began in the afternoon on Chile’s mythic Strait of Magellan. Our first stop was Ainsworth Bay, where we explored the sub-polar, Fuegian forest — which resembled a hybrid of the Amazon and Redwood Forest — and saw elephant seals in their natural environment.
On a trip though Glacier Alley the next afternoon (accompanied by cocktails and food), the Darwin tales really started flowing. At a glacier called Italia, Woram told us, Darwin and Robert Fitzroy went ashore to do some sampling. The glacier calved, sending a massive wave toward them. The event could have destroyed their boats, but some quick thinking by Darwin (who wrote about the near-disaster in his diary) kept them safe.
In Wulaia Bay, we hiked up a moderate hill to an impressive view of the bay filled with rainbows, although there is also an easy hike along the shore. We learned that the site is the ancestral home of the now extinct Yamana People, three of whom Darwin returned to their homeland after they had been kidnapped and taken to England a few years earlier.
We reached our most brag-worthy stop that afternoon: Cape Horn, famous for being the last land before Antarctica, with waters so rough it used to take months to circumnavigate. We were lucky enough to get ashore; wind and rough seas can make landing on this forbidding, windswept rock nearly impossible. Australis expedition leaders tested the waters to make sure it was safe. Fortunately, we were able to visit this remote place, home to one Chilean family, who greeted us, and a Catholic church (the farthest south on Earth).
The four-night cruise ended in Ushuaia, Argentina, where some travelers opted for a train ride though Tierra del Fuego National Park. Others flew to Antarctica or went on to El Calafate or Bariloche. I went north, up to Buenos Aires to eat steak and tango before heading home.
Australis offers three- and four-night cruises between Punta Arenas and Ushuaia from September 2014 through April 2015, priced from $1,895 per person.