Buenos Aires Argentina
Puerto Iguazu Argentina
Ciudad Bolivar Venezuela
Puerto Ordaz Venezuela
Cayenne French Guiana
Pointa A Pitre Guadaloupe
Back Home in California
Greetings from ultra-southern South America,
I've flown in very small airplanes many times. The tight cabin in the TwinOtter had room for twenty cozy passengers, one seat on the left and two on the right, so narrow two normal size men on the right side bulge out into the isle. As usual, I insisted on bringing my carry-on bag into the cabin, thinking I'd hold in on my lap if necessary. Fortunately, only 14 people crammed themselves into the tight quarters and my bag had its own seat next to me. Anytime an airline advertises weight limits on luggage it makes me wonder if the craft is under powered. My bag weighed in at 10.1 kilograms. The agent overlooked the 100 gram excess weight.
As we climbed out of Punta Arenas snow capped Andes Mountains carpeted the arching earth below. From our elevated vantage points the impressive mountain range could be seen from horizon to horizon. During the flight passengers could easily watch all the fascinating activities in the open cockpit. At one point the engines sputtered, the RPM's slowed and the plane lost altitude. As a young man I flew small planes and recognized the possibility of stalling. Out the windows we could clearly see ice forming on the wing struts, engine cowling and the underside of the wings themselves. This became the main topic of animated conversations among the mostly Chilean Armada personnel on the flight as we all watched the buildup and the cockpit crew's frantic reaction to it.
First, they took us down to a lower altitude and then activated the de-icing system. Five minutes later everyone breathed a sigh of relief as the ice on the plane melted and the aircraft settled into a normal flight attitude. Now low enough again to see details of the land below, I marveled at the complex of islands and waterways connecting everything in this part of Chile and Argentina. Called South Patagonia, both countries maintain naval forces in the area to underscore their tenuous claims to obscure chunks of land long a point of contention between the two nations.
The airport sits on a spit of land separated by a narrow bay from the main cluster of commercial buildings in the community of Puerto Williams. While the area of habitation on Isla Navarino is a mere stone's throw across the narrow bay from the airport, the 6 kilometer road to town winds its way around the bay making it a long "short walk." The hotel staff back in Punta Arenas assured me I would enjoy the Lakutaia Hotel on the island and halfway to town I spotted the bright yellow exterior of the buildings pictured in the brochure. The modern wood frame buildings seemed strangely out of place. Inside, a young couple surrounded by several anxious staff who had caught me unexpectedly entering the building through the kitchen, greeted me with incredulity. "Good morning sir; may I help you?" asked the young American manager with one eyebrow raised.
Expecting to find a backwoods rustic resort I found myself gawking around the simply, but tastefully decorated modern lobby interior. The brochure warned the lodge had a total of only 24 rooms, so I chewed on the possibility the place might be fully booked for the night. "I notice your English is perfect North American. Are you Americans?" I asked to ease myself into the more contentious rate negotiations, if required.
"Yes, we are. We're from Seattle; my wife and I have been here for three years."
"Tell me about the hotel; availability starting tonight for one person, types of rooms... rates, et cetera." I continued.
Directing a questioning frown at his wife behind the simple reception table he immediately replied, "Yes. We do have a room. It is a double room, but you can have it at the single rate."
"And what would the rate be?" I asked.
"Two hundred dollars per night." he replied evenly.
Rare is the hotel that doesn't have some flexibility in its advertised rate structure, so I continued: "... and what would your promotional rate be?"
"Promotional rate?" He looked puzzled.
"Yes, don't you have some sort of discounted offering? $200 is pretty high for me."
"No. This is our main tourist season and $200 is the only rate we offer right now. That includes breakfast and use of all our facilities. May I show you around? We are like a Holiday Inn resort in a very remote place!" he added with a smile.
Shifting my pack to relieve a pressure point I questioned him about other possibilities in town and he advised there were no other hotels on the island at all, only rooms in private homes catering to backpackers. Reluctant to shell out $200 per night for a room in the woods I decided to look for something cheaper in town or possibly some way to get off the island quickly. There is no real town here, just a naval base with housing for military personnel and their families, plus a small contingent of hearty souls providing civilian services for the residents and the occasional adventurous backpacker. Overcast, chilly and with a light drizzle dampening my spirits I began to wonder if this destination might have been a mistake.
Believing that visiting "ships" occasionally take on passengers for their voyages over to the Antarctic mainland, I learned the place to inquire would be the Yacht Club. Nearing town I spotted the cluster of tall masted ships seen earlier from the airport road and correctly assumed that to be the Yacht Club... and what a yacht club it is, like none I have ever before seen. Old salts right out of a Herman Melville novel scraped away on rusty rails while three rugged women in their forties, hair in disarray discussed things nautical. Not a soul paid any attention to this obvious landlubber. After a few minutes of crawling around the old beached ship that served as the quarters for the Yacht Club and finding nothing resembling an office, I decided no large stable ship would make a port call here and the little sailboats tied up to the floating dock did not look seaworthy enough for a rough voyage in open sea toward the South Pole! As I continued my hike toward town a couple gray government pickup trucks slowed for the occupants to get a good look at this stranger hiking down their nearly deserted dirt road.
The road ended in the base housing complex. Streets diverged in every direction and a passing naval officer who identified himself as a base doctor pointed me toward the "city center." For being in a part of the world that gets very cold at certain times of the year and wildly windy on a whim, the quality of construction suggested quick cheap shelter erected by anxious frontier people, mostly simple prefabricated structures, many painted the same colors. Finding an Internet terminal and a travel agent loomed high on my list of objectives, with someplace to stay for the night topping the list. Checking with one of the staff on duty in the substantial city hall a block from the Centro Comercial or town center I learned visitors could use the Internet terminal for a brief half hour session. There I quickly composed my first "postquicky" and shot it off to a few people to make sure someone would know I had made it to this obscure windy part of the world... in case it turned out to be the last thing I ever sent.
The only travel agency in town also had an Internet terminal currently being monopolized by a mother teaching her rebellious teenage son the wonders of cyberspace. The agent spoke no English, but the mother, a friend of hers translated for us. "Yes. There is no other hotel in town. Yes. There are several small hostels, one about a block from here down that road. The owner there also offers his guests an early morning channel crossing service in his small outboard motor boat, but it is a rough ride and takes a couple hours. There is another boat service out of Puerto Navarino at the northern end of the island. The fee for the hour and a half bus transfer to the port and the half hour channel crossing is $100 cash. That service leaves whenever we have a full load and we are taking some people over tonight at 20:00."
Thanking them for the information I headed out into the overcast drizzle looking for something to eat. One of the other travelers I had met taking advantage of the shelter and heat in the office said they had found only one restaurant on the island and that the food wasn't too bad. The "central business district" consists of perhaps fifteen establishments built side-by-side around a cul-de-sac with what had to be the Plaza de Armas in the center. Finding the unmarked cafe among so few buildings took no time at all. Inside the dimly lit room I found three bare rough wooden tables and what seemed to be a family gathering plus one stylishly dressed matronly tourist nursing a bottle of beer and smoking a cigar. The smoke, illuminated by shafts of light coming from the high windows hung in the room just above my head. The menu turned out to be a chalk board and offered a single daily choice: today it is boiled cabbage, mashed potatoes, an unidentifiable inedible bitter slimy slurry and a slab of pretty good beef. Including a bottle of Coca Cola I paid the daughter 13 pesos or about $4.30. Mom cooked the meal while a bunch of noisy kids played games at the family table and two adult male members busied themselves with fixing some damaged floor tiles.
After spending the rest of the afternoon searching the tiny military town for places to spend the night and alternate transportation possibilities, I decided my best option would be the $100 bus-boat transport service over to Ushuaia Argentina available that evening. With five other dusty backpackers, the seventy-five minute van ride followed the graded dirt road along the northern shores of Isla Navarino to the northwestern end. At Puerto Navarino we waited an hour in the lone structure that served as a residence for the port master and his family before starting the very informal Chilean immigration exit formalities.
Arrival of the Chilean Immigration officer occasioned a good deal of cookies and tea socializing before settling down to the boring task of stamping our passports. With the sun setting fast we finally started the twenty-five minute roller-coaster ride across the Beagle Channel to the port in Ushuaia. With calm water on the island side, the choppy water in the middle of the channel caused our little rubber bark to fly out of the water, landing with bone jarring thuds each time. Customs in the converted house on the Argentine side matched the informality on the Chilean side.
Fred L Bellomy