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Puerto Williams

If you are looking for the end of the world, Puerto Williams is the place. The largest settlement on Isla Navarino and the only one with services, Puerto Williams is the most austral town in the world, less than 1000 km from Antarctica (Ushuaia, 60 km to the west, on the Northern shore of the Beagle Channel, can, semantically speaking, claim to be the southernmost "city").

The nomadic Yaghan people populated the region as far back as 7,500 years ago, but today's Puerto Williams is a by-product of Chile's anxious desire to protect its Antarctic claim from Argentine intrusion. Despite the visible military presence--the town's real estate is dominated by white military housing and administrative buildings--this capital of Chile's Antarctic province has grown since its founding in 1953 to include a core of permanent residents supported by fishing, services, public service, and tourism.

Even in high season the number of tourists is limited--if arriving between May and October you will likely be the only tourist in town--and the place retains a charm and innocence you would expect from such isolation. If arriving by boat, immigration and customs officials have to be sent for when you arrive, and be sure to greet arrivals with handshakes and smiles.

Cows and horses wander the streets, lovely locals sell empanadas out of their (try Jacqueline's place, 216 Piloto Pardo, 4:30-12 M-F), and the one plumber, Patricio, does triple duty as fisherman and trekking guide (gabydayca@hotmail.com, trekking from 50,000 pesos per day). Expat adventurers, Antarctic explorers, circumnavigating sailors, and hardened fisherman mingle at the Micalvi Yacht club, fashioned out of a half-sunken old ship that doubles as a colorful dive bar (Seno Lauta Costanera s/n, Tel. 5661 620042, open after 9 p.m.; in winter, check notices on the door as it may be closed).

The stunning cloudscapes of the epic Southern sky, the snowcapped mountains lining the Beagle Channel, and the ominous peaks known as Dientes de Navarino surround Puerto Williams and give it what is arguably the most impressive natural scenery in the Southern Americas. The island's wilderness attracts intrepid trekkers who come to do the 4-5 day, 53 km Dientes de Navarino Circuit and the 7-day, 41 km Lago Windhond Circuit. The trailheads are easily accessible by continuing along the road past the Altar of the Virgin, at the Western edge of town. Both require a high level of fitness, trekking experience, and complete supply of food for the duration of the trip. Because they are infrequently traveled, those fortunate and fit enough to complete them cite the Navarino circuits as a more rewarding alternative to the famed Torres del Paine circuit. Denny at Fuegia (Patrullero Ortiz 049, Tel: 56-61-621251), who has worked with the Chilean government to map the island, has the most intimate knowledge of the trails and conditions.

Less experienced hikers have plenty of options as well, including the Cerro Bandera (alt. 610 m, accessible via the beginning of the Dientes Circuit), which offers breathtaking views of the Beagle Channel and the Dientes, the Cascada Las Bronces waterfall (trailhead 2km west of town), and the guided trails of the eco-reserve Parque Omora (3km west of town).

The trekking season lasts from December to April and varies with snowfall (ask at Fuegia for conditions), but hikes to Cerro Bandera, Cascada Los Bronces, and Parque Omora are possible year-round.

The Museo Martin Gusinde, recently remodeled, has a wonderful collection of artifacts related to the island's natural and cultural history. It was named after a priest and anthropologist who worked with the Onas and Yagan Indians.  (corner of Aragay and Gusinde, Tel: 62-1043, open summer 9am-1pm, 2:30pm-7pm and winter 8am-1pm, 2:30pm-6pm, Sat and Sun 2:30pm-6:30pm, admission free)

Just east of town you find Villa Ukika, home to 50 of the last 70 remaining descendents of the Yaghan people. Amongst the town's residents is an 81 year-old woman who is the single direct descendant of pure Yaghan ancestry. Kipa-Akar is a museum/shop in the village displaying Yaghan crafts.

The centolla (king crab) season runs from July to November and is big business for the local fishermen. If you happen to be in town during that time, you owe it to yourself to visit the docks and watch as boats unload hundreds of kilos worth of the gigantic, spiny, bright red crustaceans. Every restaurant in town serves centolla, but try the informal restaurant run by Pati at Residencial Pusaki for special homemade delights.

The town has new services popping up every year, but is still far from being able to handle a wave of tourism, if it happened. Internet cafés, restaurants, hostels and hotels can all be found, but at an above average cost compared to the rest of Chile.Backpacker hostels are also more expensive here, often costing the same as mid-range hotels in other parts. Hotel Lakutaia boasts the luxury top-spot on Navarino Island, catering to the five-star crowd, although this is not what you would expect from this little village.

 

Services

Banco de Chile has a location in front of the naval grocery store on Yelcho Street with counter service and an ATM (closed from 1 a.m. to 6 a.m.) that accepts Visa, Mastercard and Cirrus. A community Health Center is located at corner of Evout and Canal Murray. The post office is in Centro Commercial off of Usphashun, open 9:30 a.m. – 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. – 7 p.m., Saturaday until noon. Internet is available in the Centro Comercial, $2.75 per 30 minutes; Supermarkets Simon y Simon and Temuco are across from each other on Piloto Pardo, next to Residencial Pusaki.

 

Tours

Fuegia & Co. (Patrullero Ortiz #049. Tel: 56-61-621251, E-mail: fuegia@usa.net); Turismo Shila (Centro Comercial. Tel: 56-61-621745, URL: www.turismoshila.cl) Updated: Jul 07, 2009.

 

Lodging

Residencial Pusaki ($18.45 per night low season, shared room and bathroom; Piloto Pardo 222. Tel: 56-61-621116).

Hostal Akainij ($24 low season, $30 high, single with private bath; Austral 22. Tel: 56-61-1621173).

Lodge Lakutaia ($250, Seno Lauts. Tel: 56-61-621733, E-mail: www.lakutaia.cl).

 

Restaurants

Cabo de Hornos (Ricardo Maragaño 146)—serves beaver and king crab.

Dientes de Navarino (Centro Comercial Sur 14. Tel: 56-61-9621074)—specializes in fish dishes.

Patagonia (Yelcho 230. Tel: 56-61-621075)—dishes out king crab, beaver, rabbit and other interesting meats.

To liven up your evenings, head off to Camblor (Patricio Capedeville 41. Tel: 56-61-621033) for the occasional karaoke or dance night. Updated: Jul 07, 2009.

 









By Jon Santiago
One time teacher and investment banker who loves to travel. Set free by the economic crisis of 2007, I am now touring on an open-ended exploration...
21 Aug 2009

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