Thursday, November 14, 2013

Navarino Part I: Arrival

The Navarino Series

This is the first post of a series documenting my trip to Isla Navarino: the cold, sweaty toe of South America, and site of the southernmost settlement in the world (unless you count the Antarctic research bases). I arrived, took off for a week on a solo hike to the southern end of the island, and returned a different person. This is the pre-hike prologue.

The full list of Navarino episodes
Part I: Arrival
Part II: The hike begins
Part III: Paso de los Dientes and descent into the swamp
Part IV: Refugio Charles and Lago Windhond
Part V: Bahia Windhond, or the day I stood naked at the end of the world
Part VI: Bushwhacking North
Part VII: Blizzards and Beavers
Part VIII: The Feral Swampbeast returns to civilization

And here's the spoiler video!


I arrived in Ushuaia and, with all of the hostels I wandered to booked up, finally found a room in a place that was more men’s boarding house than hostel. It was fine; the men were all respectful and I spent very little time there anyhow (in contrast to my time in Bariloche where the Green House hostel was my home and office for a month). The first night I went out to dinner with a Swiss girl that I met on the bus and her friend to a crab restaurant—Ushuaia being famous for king crab. So of course I had crab, as well as a local chardonnay. It was absolutely delicious.

The following day I met up for brunch with friends I had met weeks before in the Green House hostel. I had serendipitously run into them at the border crossing at San Sebastian—we were on two different buses from two different places both heading to Ushuaia. The Mainguys are a fun-loving and sweet French couple who have also been keeping a travel blog of their adventures.

Brunch with the Mainguys

I spent the rest of the day shopping for my upcoming adventure. I literally went to every store in town to price out the items on my list, namely a one-man tent, liner gloves, and a lightweight cooking pot. Despite rumors in Bariloche that Ushuaua, as a tax-free zone, would be a cheaper place to buy imported outdoor equipment, prices were significantly higher than in Bariloche and generally twice the price that they should have cost in Chile or in the U.S. I tried to trade things for my bivvy sack but couldn’t sell it—nobody wants a bivvy in a cold, damp climate like Ushuaia. But I was desperate, so I coughed up the money for expensive gloves, an expensive tent, a cheap dollar-store cooking pot, groceries, etc. And then swallowed my pride when I failed to seduce and/or hitch a ride with a yachtsman in my 30 hours in Ushuaia and bought an overpriced ticket on a zodiac to get to Navarino.

This was going to be an expensive trip, but it would be absolutely worth it.

View of Ushuaia from the port

Crossing the Beagle Channel

The boat ride across the Beagle Channel alone was worth the price of the ticket. I finally understood and witnessed “slate grey waters” while riding a grey carpet with hints of green in swells that dropped the little zodiac like a roller coaster.

In the Beagle Channel

Sea birds (cormorants? help me out here bird nerds) in the Beagle Channel. I freaked out when I saw them from a distance because I thought they were penguins, but they weren't.

The boat arrived in Puerto Navarino where police inspected our stuff and surprisingly didn’t seem to care about my leftover pasta and half-cooked garbonzo beans that I had brought over with me. Usually the Chileans are ultra-anal about bringing food into their country and I was fully prepared to scarf down the heap of pasta and beans when they found them. We were loaded into a van and driven the hour and a half to Puerto Williams, a little town of 2000, where we went through customs. The five of us who had been on the boat crowded into a little information office where an Estonian transplant gave us the low down on her adopted town: the one bar which is only open on Fridays, the restaurant with the cheap pizza, the only place in town to get internet access, etc. We then scattered into the streets to hunt down our respective intended hostels. Amusingly, three of us separately landed at the same place with Patty Pusaki at the Residential Pusaki.

Welcome to Chile! At Puerto Navarino on Navarino Island where we waited for police to check us into the country.

Puerto Williams

I spent the next 48 hours when not sleeping or stuffing my face with Patty’s legendary food finishing up job applications on the world’s slowest internet connection in a little room at the little town library. I also tried to find some of the things I wasn’t able to get in Ushuaia, and scored big at a shop across the street from the Municipalidad which for anyone else considering trekking on Navarino is a real treasure chest of everything from camp stove fuel and duct tape to ramen noodles and GORP, as well as topographic maps. The only things I wasn’t able to find were guy lines for my tent and, bizarrely, salami. No salami on the island. I substituted a few extra packages of cookies.

Whale bones spread out in front of the Magical Place of Really Slow Internet

Puerto Williams is the sort of place where everyone you meet is interesting.

There was Alejo Contreras Staeding who was staying with Patty en route home from Antarctica who was something like the 26th person (and first Chilean) to reach the South Pole on skis, essentially Mr. Antarctica as well as being an expert on the Darwin Range (if anyone can be called an expert on the Darwin Range) and who—I also found out after wondering why he looked so familiar—was the crazy bearded guide featured in the Art of Flight. And there I was sitting with him and swapping mountain adventure stories over dinner.
There were Ben and Anna who I met at the yacht club, a young couple from San Francisco who had sailed all the way there over the course of several years in a little boat that they bought for $2k as a dilapidated POS and rebuilt themselves, often going for months without going ashore. They are now off on a free month-long sailing trip to Antarctica that they managed to charm their way onto.

The Club de Yates Miclavi, where the pirates hang out and drink with Gringas like me.

There was Charlie Porter, a glaciology professor at the University of Maine who would go to Maine to teach for two months in the summer and lives the rest of the year on his two sailboats (Gondwana and Ocean Tramp) in Puerto Williams, sailing around to the glaciers of the region to take cosmogenic isotope measurements in order to piece together the aging and movements of the glaciers. He’s been living in Puerto Williams since the early 1970’s, longer than most of the “locals”. Oh yeah, and he’s a legendary big-wall climber who used to work rescue at Yosemite and actually first landed Southern Chile in order to free climb the largest overhanging granite slab on the planet in Torres del Paine back in the day…and the first person to kayak around Cape Horn.

Inside the Club de Yates Miclavi, decorated with flags from the ships that have docked there over the years. The mermaid is a lamp. Her tail lights up bright green. Like a sea version of the Christmas Story leg lamp. Loved it somuch.

There was Marcel, an older Belgian gentleman who has been coming to the area in his sailboat and running charter trips through the fjordlands for decades and whose most recent post-retirement job has been as a gaucho in a remote only-accessible-by-sailboat estancia (Yendegaia) in a fjord (population = 3) surrounded by a national park on one side and a very large glacier on the other. I ended up hitching a ride and staying for a few days on his yacht back to Usuaia when I finally left Isla Navarino.

There was the older Canadian couple who had biked all the way to Punto Arenas from Bolivia. The Austrian adrenaline travel addict who drops huge chunks of cash for tours to active warzones...and Puerto Williams. The Brazilian public servant who arrived in a quest to see Tia Cristina, the last living Yaghan speaker and a resident of Isla Navarino. There were wealthy yachties, ex-naval commandants, mountain guides, “Funemployed” sailors and hikers and nomads and random adventure bums of all varieties. All people who, unconvinced by Ushuaia's "fin del Mundo" signs that look out on mountains across the Beagle Channel to the south, want to go further to the edge of the map.

The place is a funnel for the wild of soul.

The Dientes del Navarino, the toothy mountains I wandered into and crossed during my solo adventure.

I would discover just how wild my soul was in the following days as I set out for a solo seven-day hike around the island

Continued in Part II: The hike begins