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Azamara Pursuit, Beagle Channel

We sailed from Ushuaia at 7 this morning, a calm clear day, heading west through the Beagle Channel on our way to Punta Arenas in Chile, we are sitting up in the living room as the vista opens up ahead of us, with the snow covered peaks of Chile visible off to starboard.

I shall, however return to where I left off, with a some photos of our Amazing evening in Montevideo, the our time in Ushuaia yesterday.

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Monday March 9th.

We sailed into the Beagle Channel towards Ushuaia in calm waters greeted over breakfast by a humpback whale alongside the ship breaching and diving, quite spectacular, unfortunately we didn’t have our iPhones with us at the time to capture it.

Ushuaia nestles on the slopes of the mountains of Tierra del Fuego on the northern side of the channel, close to the border with Chile. We berthed at 9 and joined our coach to head out to the Tierra del Fuego National Park for a walk in the wilds, our excellent guides telling us about Ushuaia on the 45 minute drive through the city and out to the forest. Although this region was occupied by various Indian tribes for 6000 years the first Europeans were Anglican missionaries who came to civilise the natives who Darwin had come in contact with when on the Beagle in the 1830s. The first mission station was established at Ushuaia, and was not particularly successful, suffice to say however, that the Indian population did not survive the arrival of the European with all the health and other cultural impacts that over time ensured their extinction as a race.

Ushuaia is a fast growing city of 80,000 people, and is the southernmost in the world, the stepping off point for those heading to the Antarctic either on the historic expeditions of the past or these days on  cruise ships. The summertime temperatures seldom rise above 15 degrees,  for us it was 12, cool but pleasant. To encourage growth in the region the Argentinian Government placed tax incentives in place such that residents do not have to pay national tax, only local government taxes, hence the burgeoning population, and major construction by  the state of apartment buildings to house them. Even so, higher on the slopes behind the city illegal housing has spread, to which the local government has turned a blind eye, such is the pressure of the population growth. Apart from tourism and a military presence the major employment is in the IT industry, assembling components for Argentinean consumption.

Prior to 1947 there had been a prison for Argentinas worst recidivists and political prisoners who were engaged in felling forests, quarrying and construction, however the prison was closed  by Juan Peron over concerns raised about inhumane treatment of the prisoners, it is now a museum recording its history and some of its more infamous residents, it also has a maritime museum recording the exploits of the early explorers, an Antarctic museum covering the major expeditions and an art gallery. I spent a couple of hours there in the afternoon when we returned from our trek, totally absorbed and wishing for more time.

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In the maritime section was a chart of Cape Horn showing the shipwrecks recorded around Cape Horn and Cape Pena to the east, they are all marked in red, sobering stuff.

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Anyway, back on the bus we were very soon out of the city and onto a dirt road heading west on what is the very last 20 km of the Pan American Highway, 18,000 kilometres from Alaska to where we were heading, known as the End of the World. We passed through areas where the forest had been cleared by the prisoners leaving barren infertile land, running parallel to the narrow gauge railway that they constructed to move the timber to Ushuaia that is now operated as a tourist facility.

We were soon in the Tierra del Fuego National Park, 68,000 hectares,created in 1960 in an effort to delineate the disputed border between Argentina and Chile and to preserve the unique flora and fauna of the region. Glacial valleys form the majority of the park, somewhat reminiscent of Fiordland.

After crossing the Lapataia River below Mount Condor that marks the border we disembarked to take our first trek, a climb through the forest, before dropping back down over a ridge to the very end of the road. Although it was a comparatively  short walk it was pleasant and quite scenic, our guide was very knowledgable about the flora, the forest, although sparse, compared to New Zealand was predominately a species of beech, not unlike our own, although stunted in comparison. We had a great view from a lookout down to the end of the world and looking south to the Beagle channel. The end of the highway was signposted as you would expect, although one sign was a reminder of comparatively recent history with the map of what we know as the Falklands.

Our second trek was from the end of the road through wetlands and forest out to a bay on the inlet, what was particularly noticeable here was the lack of vegetation on the forest floor, the trees at sea level obviously struggled to survive, and in one area decimated by beavers, imported for their fur, and now a pest out of control, our guide told us that the infertility was such that there would be no regeneration.

We stopped off for refreshments at the visitor centre in the park before our last scenic stop at Lake Roca below Mount Condor before heading back to Ushuaia.

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On arrival back in Ushuaia we visited the main street, there the older original buildings and many of the modest homes of the residents in the city were historically built with corrugated iron, certainly looking temporary by nature, it reminded me to a degree of our visit to Nordcap in Norway last year, especially with the many restaurants offering king crabs on the menu. Bev, Angela and Art headed back to the ship while I carried on to the prison, that evening a local dance group gave a performance on board to close out was a really interesting day, only 180 km from Cape Horn.​​​​​​
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Tuesday March 10th, Beagle Channel.

This strait is 240 kilometres in length, through Argentinean and Chilean waters, with all the islands to the south of the passage being Chilean, it is the southern most connection between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans apart from Drake passage which rounds Cape Horn. It is named after the HMS Beagle that carried out the first hydrographic survey of the region between 1826 and 1830, and on its second voyage in 1833 was under the command of Robert Fitzroy who had on board as a supernumerary and companion the naturalist Charles Darwin, whose exploration and study in this region and Patagonia led to his treatise on the evolution of the species. What I didn’t know until hearing it from one of our lecturers  the other day is that Patagonia is a world recognised treasure trove for dinosaur fossils, what is now an arid desert in Southern Argentina and Chile was the home for many of the species whose fossilised remains lie perfectly preserved  in the sedimentary sub strata.

Our voyage for the entire day was a cruise through  the Beagle Channel in calm seas on a still day, both almost unknown down here by all accounts, branching off mid morning into Brazo del Noroeste, called by the ships crew Glacier Alley, a northern arm of the Beagle that features 5 glaciers descending in spectacular fashion from the Darwin ice shelf in the mountains above, the channel eventually reaching the Pacific Ocean where we sailed  north to enter the Magellan Straits to take us to Punta Arenas. I will let the photos speak for themselves.

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Wednesday March 11th, Punta Arenas.

We berthed at 7 in the morning, greeted by rain and a temperature of 7 degrees. For me, today was to be a long day, leaving at 7.30 to visit Patagonia and returning by 7 in the evening in time to sail. As a consequence all I saw of Punta Arenas was the 30 minute drive to the airport and back, but I did reflect on Michelle Crooks recent visit there as her stepping off point for the Antarctic marathon she ran in January, and how she had enjoyed this city of 130,000 people, evidently quite arty, and the small brightly coloured houses check by jowl, those I did see, as I did the  through fogged up windows on the coach the unkempt industrial sprawl on both sides of the road towards the airport.

Bev, who had decided to stay in Punta Arenas saw not a lot more as it rained all day and her excursion with Angela and Art to the Magellan Strait Park in the afternoon was marred by bus problems and lack of visibility, a disappointment for them all. Their journey along the coast of the Magellan Straits did pass several shipwrecks, the maritime museum was interesting though more in my line than theirs, by all accounts. Bev did get a photo of  some of the typical housing, certainly reminiscent of what we had seen in Ushuaia.​​

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The excursion that I was on was a chance to explore Torres del Paine National Park , about 200 Km NNE of Punta Arenas. As our resident lecturer said, if there were three places you should visit in South America they are Machu Picchu, Iguazu Falls, and Torres del Paine.

Our journey started with a 50 minute flight in a De Havilland Twin Otter from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales, where we landed in the rain, not a good sign, from there a coach ride for an hour and a half across the pampas, past the lakes and forest covered foothills of Patagonia before reaching the National Park, crossing the bridge over the Rio Serrano and onto the pampas with its striking golden grass that welcomes visitors to this amazing place. Fortunately for us as we approached the park the rain stopped and the cloud started to lift, teasing us with glimpses of the mountains that we had come to see.

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Torres del Paine mountains  are named after the Rio Paine, the river that circles them, joining the lakes that lie at their foot. This mountain range lies east of and separate from the Andes, and is known for the 3 granite towers at over 9,000 feet and the adjacent horn shaped peaks of Cuernos del Paine rising to 9760 feet.

You may well be familiar with these peaks as they are one of the draw cards for tourists to Chile and often feature in publicity material.

Our tour through the park took us on a circuitous route past glacial lakes up to the base of the towers, with a 30 minute hike into a glacier fed waterfall and lookout on one of the many mountain trails that attracts serious hikers from all around the world who come to marvel at these unique peaks. On reaching the lookout  the clouds lifted,  before our eyes these incredible weathered monoliths of granite piercing the clouds that were forever swirling around their peaks, an awe inspiring scene difficult to describe, but as was said  by Wordsworth in his  sonnet Upon Westminster Bridge “ Earth has not anything to show more fair, dull would he be of soul who could pass by a sight so touching in its majesty” seems a fitting emotive description, the photos however hopefully convey what we all felt.

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Once back on the coach we stopped often, with the vista constantly changing as the road took us around the base of the peaks, past a lake with pink flamingos before eventually dropping back down onto the pampas, where herds of llama -like guanacos grazed by the roadside.

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On exiting the park after about two hours the road then took us for over an hour through a massive sheep station, across fairly bleak windswept land with little vegetation, the station headquarters like small villages

along the way, in fact our lunch stop at 3 in the afternoon, Ilustre Municipalidad Torres del Payne was the main station headquarters  and accommodation in its day for the British owners  and their staff with a 90 stand  shearing shed to service its 30,000 acre spread, It is now the provincial administration centre for the province, dare I say it a desolate one horse town with all the buildings protected from the prevailing wind  by substantive constructed wind shelters.  The annual highlight is a Rodeo attended by gauchos from near and afar who come to show off their manly skills to thier admiring fans.

Predictably our lunch was Patagonian lamb and potatoes washed down with a fine Chilean Carmenere red wine, and contrary to all predictions  about the all meat diet in S America there was some green matter, a salad entree. On arrival our bus driver had misjudged his approach and sideswiped the corner of the building which took out two windows of the coach and showered one of the shore excursions crew with shattered glass.

I would describe this guy a a bit of a drama queen, he claimed he was within centimetres of losing his life from a sliver of glass slicing the artery in his neck, in fact there were no slivers, and he had no cuts, only shattered glass on the seat. Obviously he got a fright, and put on quite an act, but it was the driver I felt sorry for, who knows what fate awaited him when he got back to base. Anyway they had to bring in another bus, fortunately we were only 30 minutes from the airport so were not too delayed, but our shore excursions guy must have given a dramatic report back to the ship as Bev was pulled aside on reboarding to be assured by the Hotel Director that we were fine but the version of the incident she got didn’t match the facts.

Thanks to our drama queen we all got a fine bottle of Chianti delivered to our cabin and I got a complimentary spa treatment to ease the stress that I evidently had suffered!  Weird,  but happily received.

Back to the airport across the pampas, and a 50 minute flight back to Punta Arenas in clear weather this time, we were back on board at 6. 55 pm and sailed at 7, a really special day.

Kia kaha,

Jon and Bev.

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