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Sailing the Beagle Channel




Way down at the bottom of the South American continent, the Beagle Channel is a treacherous body of icy water that flows out into the Antarctic Ocean. A trip across it to the southernmost habitation in Chile’s Puerto Williams is an unforgettable journey.



Ushuaia’s yacht harbour is an exciting place to visit as the boats are moored inside and the sailors around them are certain to have some stories to tell, many having made the ambitious journey across the Atlantic and a good number either planning to go to Antarctica or buzzing from their recent visit to the icy continent at the bottom of the world. If you are lucky, you can catch a lift.



With a lack of organised trips across the Beagle Channel, that is exactly what you have to do to secure passage to Puerto Williams, and it will usually take a day or two of asking the harbourmaster before you find someone who is heading off in that direction and can give you the lift of a lifetime over the choppy waters between the mountainous and glacier-fed deep south.



With passports stamped, the boat can break away from its moorings and motor out of the protected harbour. The departure offers beautiful views of Ushuaia and the surrounding snow-capped mountains, but you are soon hard at work hauling up the headsail and mainsail ready to cut the noise of the engine and experience the tranquillity of the wild surroundings.



Tough weather conditions are sometimes not worth risking but even on the calmest of days this area is windy and the boat will soon get up a good speed as it sails out of the protected harbour area and into the deep. The waves  rise up to four feet even when it is “flat” but they are still not a patch on the conditions found at the infamous Cape Horn just a few kilometres south of the passage.



The scenery becomes bleaker as the boat heads along its journey, which takes between five and ten hours depending on the wind conditions. You can feel  as if you are heading to the end of the earth as the fog rolls over the icy mountains before the welcome sight of the Puerto Williams community appears on the horizon. The journey is completed by a bizarre and informal border crossing, where an immigrations officer will board the vessel before you disembark.



Puerto Williams, made up mostly of a Chilean naval base, claims to be the southernmost town in the world and has a pleasant little community with the hub of the town in a small central square, where convenience stores and sweet shops double as airline booking offices and hairdressers. Down by the sea, the beach provides the perfect venue to watch the sun set over the mountains.



Despite its small size, a population totaling around 1,800, Puerto Williams offers several interesting activities to follow on from the exciting arrival. One popular option is to hire one of the little local nine-seater propeller planes for a sightseeing flight over Cape Horn, which sits in the archipelago of islands beneath the tiny Isla Navarino on which Puerto Williams is located.



This flight, a bumpy ride over a mountainous region where uplifts and downdrafts throw the little plane around like a toy, is not for the fainthearted or those with limited funds but it offers a great way to see the Horn without experiencing its fearsome waves and provides an opportunity to get to the absolute base of the continent for those with little time to do so.



There is also a magnificent walk up to a viewpoint over the Beagle Channel. This begins with a trail heading west to a small waterfall before a steep climb through a forest, where the route is marked by red dots, to a huge mossy hilltop that offers a spectacular panorama of views, from the mountains behind Ushuaia and the city itself out toward the route you have sailed to the ocean in the distance, with rugged mountains at your back.



But you cannot stay in Puerto Williams forever, and the best way to leave is to take a flight over the craggy mountain scenery back to Punta Arenas. This route flies west along the Beagle Channel, to keep in Chilean airspace and offers views of Cape Horn if you are lucky, then banks hard right over the glaciated lake-filled part of Tierra del Fuego and over the Magellan Straits to complete a fantastic scenic trip.

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