You don’t have to be a hard-core backpacker to see gorgeous, wild Patagonia
A 5-day cruise aboard expedition ship Ventus offers a fascinating look at the region’s spellbinding mix of deserts, glaciers, forests, and mountains.
A breakfast chat with another couple at our Buenos Aires hotel naturally turns to travel plans. They’re heading for El Calafate and one of Patagonia’s biggest draws, Perito Moreno Glacier. “Then we go to Ushuaia,” says the 40-ish Australian woman. So are we. “What are you doing in Ushuaia?” I ask. “Oh, we’re taking a cruise from there,” she answers, somewhat hesitantly. “Well, it’s not really a cruise. It’s more like an expedition.”
Not only do our itineraries overlap, but apparently so does our wariness regarding cruises. Our past travel has been largely individual and flexible, avoiding big groups, let alone one encased in a floating metal shell. Yet our five-day cruise through glacier-lined fjords off the southern tip of South America becomes a highlight of the nearly three weeks across Patagonia we spent last March — late summer in the Southern Hemisphere.
Covering a swath of Argentina and Chile about twice the size of France but with just 2 million people, Patagonia presents travel options as vast and varied as its ecosystems, which run from desert to coast to rugged alpine. But however well planned your itinerary, be prepared to cope with Patagonia’s vast distances and, especially, its notorious weather, which can present all four seasons in a single day.
“We often get 70-mile-an-hour winds here,” says guide Juan Manuel Ronco as he leads us through stunning Tierra del Fuego National Park later in the week. “In your country, that’s a hurricane. Here in Patagonia, it’s just another windy day.”
Some of our plans, like landing on legendary Cape Horn, do indeed get blown away by the wind. That’s Patagonia — wild but serene; unpredictable but unrelentingly beautiful.
Like our breakfast companions, we make other stops before and after the cruise. We start with a three-hour flight from Buenos Aires to El Calafate, the gateway to Los Glaciares National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site featuring 47 massive glaciers, including easily accessible Perito Moreno Glacier. Covering nearly 100 square miles and rising about 200 frozen white-and-blue feet above Lake Argentina, Moreno is the park’s headline act, marked by massive chunks of ice occasionally “calving,” thunderously collapsing with a roar into the water. We promise ourselves that next time, we’ll take a guided walk atop the glacier to explore its caves and crevices.
The next day, a short flight takes us to Ushuaia, a hilly city packed with souvenir and other shops. Ushuaia, which claims to be the world’s southernmost city, is a good hub for exploring far southern Patagonia, including Tierra del Fuego National Park, nearby glaciers, and other attractions. The port for cruises to Antarctica just under 600 miles away, Ushuaia is where we board the M/V Ventus Australis, the 210-passenger “expedition ship” that will be home for the next five days.
Patagonia has long drawn backpackers and other trekkers, but a growing number of higher-end travel options have made it increasingly attractive to a broader American clientele, says Allie Almario of Philadelphia-based Premier Tours, who helped arrange our trip. Interest in Patagonia voyages has tripled in the last five years, she says. “Europeans have always been more hardy, but Americans want their creature comforts.”
By industry standards, Ventus, the newer of two ships operated by Chile-based Australis Cruises on this route, is small and devoid of big cruise ship amenities such as pools and multiple restaurants. From afar, it looks more like a Cape Cod ferry than one of those gargantuan floating cities. But for us newbie cruisers, the first inside look at our comfortable cabin, with its floor-to-ceiling window, and the ship’s light-filled public spaces offering even wider vistas quickly dispels lingering cruise wariness. “This is more like a big yacht,” says a 60-ish Swiss shipmate also gawking about on his first cruise. “A Bill Gates yacht.”
We join other passengers having drinks and munchies on the fifth deck’s Darwin Lounge for the captain’s welcome and safety briefing. The gathering has the buzz of a school field trip, except most of us are many decades older, and we’re spending far more than lunch money. This particular voyage has 142 passengers from 19 nations (US travelers are the company’s single biggest market) plus a crew of 63. The cruise line usually draws an older crowd, though this trip also has a good sprinkling of younger travelers.
Expedition team leader Marcelo Gallo, who oversees the team of eight guiding our landings in six inflatable Zodiacs, explains how Ventus’s special design, including a draft of less than 12 feet, enables it to navigate Patagonia’s shallow and narrow fjords. To a mix of cheers and groans, he reminds everyone that this will be a Wi-Fi/Internet-free cruise. “Some people are desperate for a few hours, but then they totally forget about it,” Gallo tells me later.
After a night of smooth sailing under a full moon through the Beagle Channel and crossing into Chile from Argentina, dawn arrives with wind and rain. Per plan, we don our life jackets and prepare for what is supposed to be our first expedition, a landing on legendary Cape Horn, which rises as a stark silhouette nearly 1,400 feet up against the early-day gray. We’re eager to board the Zodiacs, but Patagonia has other plans. Though Ventus usually makes safe landings on Cape Horn, the captain informs us that the weather and moon-driven high tide won’t permit it today. We’re disappointed but not shocked. “In a way, I’m OK with not landing,” says my new Swiss friend as we gaze out from the damp deck. “It would demean the mystique of Cape Horn to have people taking selfies, no?”
Life jackets stowed, we head for the full buffet of hot and cold breakfast options (a lighter continental meal is served after the early-morning public address announcement to prepare for the day’s first expedition). We sail across Nassau Bay for Wulaia Bay, once a major settlement for the pre-Hispanic Yamana people and a landing spot in 1833 for Charles Darwin, who spent years studying the native population before he moved on to giant tortoises. As porpoises pop up around us, we make the short trip to shore and tour an old radio station that is now a small Australis-sponsored museum featuring displays about the Yamana and early European voyages.
After a short uphill hike, the sun breaks over the broad, island-studded bay, where our ship appears as a white dot. After a period of dutiful “oohs” and photo taking, our guide asks us to be silent, and for a few peaceful minutes, surrounded by Patagonia’s timeless, rugged landscape, we can almost feel the world of the Yamana.
Between excursions, passengers pass the time in their cabins or one of the ship’s three lounges, the main one of which features an open bar and snacks. Even with our canceled trips, time passes easily and comfortably. The window-side tables and leather couches are luxurious platforms for reading, napping, or just gazing as the Patagonian world passes through the ship’s expansive windows. Meals in the first-deck dining room are quite good, an appetizing mix of continental and Chilean cuisine — think ceviche, quinoa, fish, and lamb — all delivered with attentive and friendly service. For good or for bad, you don’t get to pick your dining companions, however. Australis assigns you to a table, generally based on language or tour group affiliation. These will be your table mates for the entire voyage.
Multilingual talks and films about Patagonian wildlife, history, and geography are presented nightly by our well-informed guides, who are also available between expeditions. Subjects range from geography and navigational routes to glaciology, flora and fauna, and the native people of the areas.
Our second day dawns gray as we pass glaciers descending from the Darwin Mountain Range. We anchor in the narrow Pia Fjord. The Zodiacs navigate past chunks of glacial ice to land just yards away from Pia Glacier, which covers an area about the size of Santiago, the capital of Chile. The glacier’s face runs from summit to sea, releasing huge chunks of ice into the milky water below. Perito Moreno Glacier is certainly impressive, but its relatively easy access means it’s a tourist magnet; here at Pia, we are rewarded with isolation. I could watch the glacier calve or take in its endless shades of icy blue for hours, but the air is cold and raw, and most folks are ready for the hot chocolate (whiskey optional) being offered before boarding the small boats back to the ship. Now I’m feeling the upside of cruising — this is the only way to get to such magnificent sites — and some of the downside — the schedule is out of my control. I wonder if they could leave behind one Zodiac for those of us who’d like to linger.
We will have plenty more glacier gazing the rest of the day as we anchor in a long fjord off Garibaldi Glacier, one of the few Patagonian glaciers that is gaining mass, not shrinking. As chunks of calved ice gong off the hull, most of us contentedly stay on deck, taking in this 360-degree view of snow-capped peaks, waterfalls, floating ice, and occasional sightings of elephant seals. Partaking in one of Australis’s attempts to lure younger travelers, some fitter and mostly younger voyagers embark on a strenuous, very uphill, and very wet waterfall hike. “We didn’t really want to take a cruise, but the reviews were good and this is the only way to get to some of these amazing places,” says Drew Villano, a 30-year-old New Yorker who liked the hard hike. Yes, in spite of the cost, she would recommend this voyage to her peers.
It is not cheap. High-season rates currently start at $2,298 per person, double occupancy, for the same four-night cruise we took. That includes just about everything except well-earned tips for the staff and guides.
Our third full day finds us again sailing by glaciers and mountain peaks through Agostini Sound. The schedule calls for a morning hike through sub-Antarctic rainforest to the base of Aguila Glacier. But winds with hurricane-force gusts dictate otherwise. From the Latin for “Southern wind,” the Ventus Australis is aptly named. We lament our bad weather luck, but Plan B — more cruising through “Glacier Alley” mixed with reading, naps, eating, and lounging — isn’t exactly terrible. To our pleasant surprise, Captain Jaime Barrientos and expedition leader Gallo announce in the afternoon that the weather has improved enough and we are going to salvage our Aguila landing.
We enjoy our late-day walk along a glacial lagoon, past greenery to the glacier’s base. Birds are abundant, though we see none of the condors known to soar overhead. After a leisurely hour or so, we return to the ship for our fourth and final night.
Morning brings clear skies but more heavy wind. Given our unusually bad weather luck on this trip, we feel fortunate that our final expedition, a landing on Magdalena Island to walk among its thousands of Magellanic penguins, is still on. Huddled in their shallow burrows, the penguins ignore us as we fight the wind and head for the 1902 lighthouse atop the island. Then it’s a brief bumpy ride back to the ship and a final sail across the Strait of Magellan to Punta Arenas, where we are scheduled to disembark at about noon.
Our landing is delayed by — you guessed it — wind. I’m fine with an extra four hours on board, but folks with tight plane or other connections are scrambling. Travel tip: “When you come to Patagonia, you have to be open,” says Marcela Colombini, a guide for Boston-based Overseas Adventure Travel. “If you don’t want to experience wind and be sometimes wet and cold and have plans change, this is not the trip for you.”
Our driver knows we’re late and is still waiting at the terminal to take us to our next stop, Puerto Natales, and our visit to Estancia Mercedes. We will end our trip at another of Chilean Patagonia’s crown jewels, Torres del Paine National Park. Covering nearly 600,000 acres of rugged mountains, waterfalls, glacial blue lakes, and other unrelenting vistas, Torres del Paine is also home to photogenic fauna, from flamingos and Andean condors with their 10-foot wingspans to herds of guanaco, the undomesticated version of llamas.
The park was a fine way to cap off our time in Patagonia, but my mind kept coming back to that big cabin window on the Ventus and its ever-changing, ever-amazing views. Shortly before leaving the ship, I run into Connecticut native Bob LeRoy, who, like me, was much more used to small hiking trips and independent travel than an all-inclusive cruise like this. “This is very different than what we normally experience,” says LeRoy, 76. “It feels a little weird, but I could get used to it.”