Joan Larsen’s Travel: A Very Windy Adventure – Tierra Del Fuego

Posted on March 12, 2014


By Joan Larsen

End-Tierra (2)

The pilot of our large aircraft warned us to be prepared for a rough landing as we were descending into the southernmost city in the whole world . . . a place called Punta Arenas, Chile.  As if the passengers were used to this drill, all around I saw everyone clutching their arm rests like they were going to be saved by just gripping them like their lives depended on them.

The landing was – well – “hard”.  But the wind coming off the Andes was a steady 60 to 80 miles an hour, and we still had to descend all those stairs from the plane and – bent in half – try to get across the runway to the building itself.  Picture hundreds of people looking like a long line of ants, bucking that wind.  In all of my travels, I had never before seen anything like it.

Map-TierraHOWEVER, we hadn’t seen anything yet.  This was baby stuff in comparison to the following day.  OK, we were adventurers and wanted to be one of the few who had actually explored the large island of Tierra del Fuego that comprised the entire tip of South America.  The maps had tantalized us for years.  We were going to do it.

We were determined.  And we actually cheered when an announcement was made that the one-and-only ferry across the Straits of Magellan had stayed in dock for 4 days already because of the high winds.  But the loudspeaker announced that the winds had not lessened . . . BUT they were going to “give a try”.

Bent double, we went up the gangplank, pretending to ignore the fact that we could die on this ferry.  That the entire rear of the small ship was filled with a much-larger-than-life, fully lighted from within statue of The Virgin Mary might have been there to promote calm in the passengers.

Ferry-TierraInstead – well, you might guess – it provoked panic.  There had to be a reason for this statue to be there in the first place – and be as large as a museum piece.  The locals crossed themselves.

There were no photos taken.  We had to clutch the rail with two hands as the gigantic waves were everywhere and looked like an oil painting of a soon-to-be-doomed ship.

Rounded large silver bowls were passed out, looking like WWI helmets.  It was suggested we go inside.  And there – sitting on a long bench on either side facing in – were the passengers, already very green.  The tin bowls were not given out as thoughtful gifts of the journey.  Every passenger was throwing up in theirs.

It had to be the power of suggestion, don’t you think?  I had a strong will. . . but I found myself joining them.  .  . and, sad to admit, with gusto.

The trip across the Straits was long.  A single bathroom was in sight.  Getting there on a heaving ferry was an Olympic feat.  No one spoke.  No one could.  But there was a politeness among the passengers on taking turns, bracing each other as they attempted to make the journey to this single door.

Surprises never cease, do they?  Once inside, I faced a good sized room with a sloping tile floor.  In the center was a hole – like a floor drain.  I will let you picture that for a bit. . . especially for women with jeans on, with the so-called bathroom tilting at steep angles with each wave, throwing you from wall to wall.

I will only say that no Olympic feat can be successful under the circumstances.  Nor will those moments ever be forgotten.

There were to be more before day’s end.

Porvenir, Chile:  a house dating to 1900 (photo credit: Thomas Hoepker)

Porvenir, Chile: a house dating to 1900 (photo credit: Thomas Hoepker)

The 1800s gold rush town of Porvenir was the connecting town on the island side.  Wind-swept, rolling grasslands for the darling sheep – that were the major industry – it seemed were everywhere.  Of all things, flamingos  –  more fitting for Florida – were standing off shore on their stilt-like legs.  Owls somehow gripped branches hard enough not to blow off.  Gorgeous shy guanacos, similar to llamas, would suddenly appear to look us over.  Otherwise, there was no traffic on the road.



However, in a misnomer of a place called Useless Bay, a miracle has happened.  We had come to see the first ever colony of the large King Penguins that had gone way off course from Antarctica or the Falkland Islands, deciding that this might be a new home for them.  In 2012, the first eggs had been laid, chicks had hatched, and  we were among the very first ever to see such a migration.  King Penguins at 3 feet tall have always loved me, followed me actually in the polar regions, like I was one of them.  I greeted them like long-lost friends.


It was a dream come true.


Time to go back to the mainland, far too soon.  But the winds were too high and the ferry people said “no way”.  Arrangements were quickly made to send us across the Straits of Magellan by small plane.

The pilot had to be a daredevil.  As we drove to what could only be called an airstrip, we saw a single plane sitting there.  But have you ever seen a plane being held down on land by four men, two on a side of the plane, with heavy ropes over the plane, holding it down so it would not rise into the air all by itself?  Heavy boxes were loaded on for ballast and it was suggested that we buck the high winds and “get aboard”.  No other choice was given.  It was to be a game of “follow the leader” as we were blown in the single door.  (No, the photo is not of our plane but just to give you an idea of size and place.  Any camera would be blown out of our hands in a minute with those Andean winds gusting).


Once the six of us were seated, the men released the heavy ropes and stepped backward quickly.  We did not “take off”.  Oh no.  Our plane rose straight up in the air.  If I were to guess, we were blown across the Straits to Punta Arenas  in what had to be record time.

I would not have missed this one.  And our month-long journey through Chile was just beginning.  I still had yet to learn the term “katabatic winds” that sweep down the Andes like a roller coaster, faster and faster – and over 100 miles an hour.  I was still to be blown off a mountain in Patagonia while hiking in such winds.

But on these first days in Tierra del Fuego – near the infamous Cape Horn with its own ship disasters – we had passed with “flying” colors, rating The Ends of the Earth really high in our all-time memories.

I still call them hard to match.


JoanAvatarWriter Joan Larsen has spent a lifetime searching for the most remote places on Earth.  But it is the polar regions of our world that she has been drawn back to again and again.  She has done research in these lands of ice, and considers Antarctica to be her “other home.”