By Michael Lanza
As our 20-seat, twin-engine Otter DHC-6 prop plane drops through the ever-present Patagonian cloud cover, the Beagle Channel comes into view. On both sides, green hills rise to craggy, treeless mountains. To the north, the jagged Fuegian Andes of Argentina push into the sky. To the south looms our destination: the sharply pointed spires of the Dientes de Navarino. With a steep banking turn, the plane glides down onto the airstrip in the southernmost town in the world, Puerto Williams on Chile’s Navarino Island.
The leather jacket-clad pilot—whom I could practically tap on the shoulder from my second-row seat—turns around and says, “Que pase un buen dia!” or, “What’s up? Have a nice day!” The other 18 passengers offer friendly responses, leaving the impression—possibly accurate—that Jeff and I are the only people on board who don’t know him.
Being the only gringos on the plane is the first hint at how different our trek of southern Patagonia’s Dientes Circuit will be from any international adventure I’ve ever taken.
The southernmost trek in the world, the 22.7-mile (36.5k) circuit around the Dientes de Navarino, or “Teeth of Navarino,” certainly qualifies as one of the most remote: At 55 degrees south latitude, the Dientes, which rise up from the edge of town and reach almost 4,000 feet in elevation, lie just 60 miles from the tip of South America and a short flight from the Antarctic Peninsula. Puerto Williams, home to more than 2,000 residents and a Chilean navy base, receives a grand total of six flights a week from this 20-seater (one per day, except Sunday).
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My Boise friend Jeff Wilhelm and I flew here from Punta Arenas right after trekking in the flagship national park of Chilean Patagonia, Torres del Paine, where knife-like granite towers soar thousands of feet into the sky. But that park’s proliferation of Europeans, Aussies, Kiwis, Americans, Canadians, and other foreigners can feel not only a bit crowded, but a little bit homogenized. In the packed huts, you could easily imagine being in Switzerland or New Zealand. That’s not an argument against going there—the mountains really are mind-blowing, and meeting people from around the world enriches the experience. But you don’t visit one of the world’s most sought-after national parks to discover a place that feels truly untainted.
Established in the 1990s, the Dientes Circuit receives fewer than a hundred trekkers a year. Indeed, for four days out here, we will see no one and very likely be the only people on the circuit. There are not many outstanding hiking destinations on the planet you could say that about (or at least none where there’s no dangerous political unrest). Though it may someday become as much of a classic as others in Patagonia, this trek remains in virtually unknown.
So we have come to the Dientes de Navarino in part to get a sense of what Patagonia was like before it became a darling of the international trekkers’ set.
Cerro Bandera, “Flag Mountain”
A few hours after landing, Jeff and I are walking across the spongy tundra at 1,900 feet on Cerro Bandera, or Flag Mountain. We’re dressed as if it’s the dead of winter instead of the first week of autumn, each wearing fleece, a rain shell, and a warm hat and gloves. The wind feels like it’s coming right off the Antarctic ice cap; it bludgeons us with such force one might imagine it crossed thousands of miles of Southern Ocean rolling downhill.
We’re following Maurice van de Maele, a dark-haired, 22-year-old from Puerto Williams. Maurice grew up exploring the Dientes de Navarino and now guides trekkers through these mountains. He leads us across a trailless and treeless plateau of rocks and thick pillows of mosses, lichens, and tiny, colorful alpine wildflowers. The terrain reminds me of New Hampshire’s Presidential Range—except that there are few signs that anyone has ever walked here before us.
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Ahead of us, a row of barren, rocky spires hundreds of feet tall juts skyward—some of the “teeth” that give the range its name. We descend a faint guanaco path traversing a mountainside of scree and a few scrawny, waist-high bushes, toward a small blue lake partly hemmed in by cliffs. The water’s surface glows softly in the light of early evening. Reaching Laguna del Salto, we pitch our tents in a meadow cut by vein-like little streams—a wet area that might be trampled to death or off limits to camping in many popular mountain ranges. But although we are certainly not the first people to discover this meadow, it looks like no one has come here before us.
In the 1830s, a young Charles Darwin sailed here on the British Royal Navy survey ship HMS Beagle to study the region’s geology and biology. At the time, several thousand people belonging to four separate cultures collectively known as the Fuegians inhabited the hundreds of islands that give Chile the appearance on a map that it has shattered like glass. Living in small family groups, the people of the world’s southernmost culture lived well on sea lions, fur seals, shellfish, guanacos, birds, fish, and native fruits. The Yamana people, whose name was anglicized to Yaghan, occupied Navarino Island and the chain of smaller isles extending south to Cape Horn.
The arrival of European missionaries and others changed everything here as it did the world over. Diseases like smallpox, viruses, and the common cold ravaged the Indians. Between 1850 and 1920, when the last mission closed, the population plummeted from 5,000 to 150 people. Some survivors were moved to one missionary’s ranch on Navarino Island, where they were at least protected from European sailors abducting their young women. As the Yamana struggled to recover, in the mid-20th century the government decreed that all of the children of the islands must attend school, which meant relocating children and their mothers to Puerto Williams while fathers stayed on their home islands. The policy tore families apart.
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Today, islands once populated by thousands of people are virtually uninhabited outside Puerto Williams. The extensive temperate forests constitute the southernmost forest ecosystem on Earth. The region harbors five percent of the world’s bryophytes—mosses and liverworts known to scientists as the “miniature forests of Cape Horn.” It has been identified as one of the 37 most pristine eco-regions on the planet.
In 2005, a vast area of more than 12 million acres (almost 4.9 million hectares)—nearly the size of the largest U.S. national park, Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias—was named the Cabo de Hornos World Biosphere Reserve. Its core consists of Cabo de Hornos and Agostini national parks.
On our first night, camped at Laguna del Salto, the sky clears to reveal a billion stars populating constellations foreign to anyone from the Northern Hemisphere. Orion, crouching on the horizon, is the only one I recognize. The temperature plunges below freezing, prodding me to burrow deep inside my bag.
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‘There are just cliffs there’
In the morning, ice crystals cover our tents from the heavy dew freezing overnight. But just a few puffy white clouds drift across an otherwise blue sky. For the first time since Jeff and I arrived in Patagonia a week ago, there’s hardly a breath of wind. Maurice, who appreciates the rarity of a calm, clear morning here far more than we could, pokes his head out of his tent, looks up and says with a wide grin, “It’s a-may-zing!”
By the time we’re hiking at a little after 9 a.m., though, the wind has made a triumphant return, wasting no time giving us a taste of what awaits on the plateau above us.
We follow Maurice toward the first of four passes we’ll cross today. Jeff will admit to me later that, as we walked out of camp, he was thinking, “Where are we going? There are just cliffs there.”
But Maurice leads us to a steep gully of rocks and calf-deep, slick mud threading up through the cliffs. Scrambling and slipping in the muck, we crawl and stem our way up the gully to an undulating plateau of more rocks and moss pillows, everything sparkling with frost in the morning light. As we climb toward Paso Australia, the wind gathers strength, shoving us forward and sideways, spinning us around. As if to suggest that we ain’t seen nothin’ yet, Maurice turns to us and warns, “It’s going to be windy up there at Australia Pass.”
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Resource Chile Tourism, chile.travel.