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).
Get the right pack for a trek like the Dientes. See my “Review: The 10 Best Backpacking Packs.”
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.
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.
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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.
Be ready for Patagonia. See my review of “The 5 Best Rain Jackets For the Backcountry.”
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.
‘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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In fact, at the 2,641-foot (805m) pass, it’s hard to stand and walk. We alternately brace ourselves against the most furious gusts and stumble a few steps forward during lulls of merely howling gales. Billowing clouds skid across the sky. On the other side of Paso Australia, we traverse a steep mountainside of loose rocks and tilting slabs high above whitecapped, aquamarine Laguna del Paso, surrounded by more stone pinnacles. Not a quarter-mile beyond Paso Australia, we scramble up a rocky slope to 2,838-foot (865m) Paso de los Dientes.
Here, astride the main ridge of the Dientes, we get a long view south across Navarino Island, which measures roughly 62 miles (100k) by 31 miles (50k), and a wilderness of smaller isles and ocean. On a clear day, Maurice tells us, you can see Cape Horn from here. Today, clouds obscure our view.
As we descend into an almost barren basin of rocks and tundra, the weather shifts frequently from partial sunshine to pellets of snow sprayed like buckshot and back to fleeting sunshine. When we stop for a rest, sitting on rocks to eat and drink, three snow squalls blow through within the space of 20 minutes. Graupel pelts our faces, making me think this might be the only trek I’ve taken on which ski goggles might be useful.
But the wild weather seems suited to the rawness of the mountains at the bottom of the Americas.
See which day of hiking in Patagonia made my “25 Most Scenic Days of Hiking Ever.”
Laguna de los Dientes and Laguna Escondida
The east-west Dientes de Navarino stretch only about 15 miles long—about half the length of Wyoming’s Teton Range. While the horseshoe-shaped circuit is just 22.7 miles, according to the GPS data I collected on it (about 30 miles if you walk the rural road stretches at the beginning and end to close the loop), trekkers generally take four to five days because of the rugged, mostly off-trail nature of it and the tricky route-finding. There are other, even more obscure trails branching off the circuit that can add days to the trip.
We pass one alpine tarn after another, some of the hundreds of lakes speckling the Dientes. On the rock-strewn ground surrounding Laguna de los Dientes and Laguna Escondida, bushes and trees no taller than a man have turned brilliant shades of red, orange, and yellow with autumn. Incisor pinnacles and ridges of cracked rock rise up around the lakes. In some lake basins, dead trees litter the ground.
Introduced as a game animal to be hunted for their pelts, beavers are devastating the island’s forests, Maurice says. We see beaver dams and lodges everywhere, and more shockingly, entire areas of lenga forest stripped and killed, trunks and branches bleached white like bones. It resembles a landscape ravaged by fire, except that nothing is burnt or blackened. And unlike in the wake of fire, which often spurs the rebirth of new life, there are no new saplings springing up among these dead trees.
When Jeff and I ask why no one has tried to do something about the problem, like trapping the beavers, Maurice explains it is difficult, and the federal government in Santiago “doesn’t care” or pay much attention to Patagonia. His sentiments echo the region’s history of geographic isolation from the rest of Chile. Contemplating Maurice’s comments, it occurs to me that, while in many ways Chile seems very different from America, in many ways, it feels the same.
At 2,283-foot (696m) Paso Ventarron in early evening, we lean into a wind that feels like it’s scraping the skin off my face. On the other side of the pass, we descend another guanaco path across scree, overlooking the spectacular Lagunas Chevallay, a valley crazily dappled with 30 or more larger lakes, at least twice as many smaller ones, and dozens more puddle-like tarns. The long ridge of 2,756-foot (840m) Montes Codrington walls in the opposite side of the valley. We pitch our tents on a rare, relatively dry area of tundra beside an unnamed lake.
I check my GPS: We’ve hiked just 7.9 miles today, but a cumulative 5,300 feet uphill and probably a comparable amount of downhill—including four passes. But even more exhausting than the walking is the wind: It’s like walking while someone gives you a shove every few seconds to knock you off-balance. Minutes after sliding inside our bags, we’re asleep and don’t wake up for more than 10 hours.
High Point: Paso Virginia
Wind snaps the rainfly and bends our tents poles violently when we get up on our third day. We team up to dismantle the tents, with one of us assigned only the vital task of holding onto each tent as we’re pulling up stakes. The sky is the color of old snow piled up in a busy parking lot. By mid-morning, we’ve put Paso Guerrico at 1,877 feet (572m) behind us and are crossing another lake-filled valley toward the trek’s hardest, longest climb: to 2,720-foot (829m) Paso Virginia, the circuit’s high point.
Before starting the ascent, we sprawl out for a break in a grassy meadow protected from the wind by lenga trees. Less than a mile off, several broken stone teeth tower over the windblown waters of Laguna Martillo.
Maurice, who initially comes across as reserved but proves to be very affable and quick to laugh, tells us about growing up in Puerto Williams. Even still, he says, he can bump into the provincial governor in town and they will greet one another by name. He teaches us Spanish words and works on his own passable English. Less than half Jeff’s or my age, he amuses us—and apparently himself—addressing us in a half-respectful, half-joking way as “Meester Jeff” and “Meester Mike.” He talks about wandering these mountains as a kid, chasing runaway horses at first, then simply because the Dientes kept pulling him back.
It’s a long, strenuous grunt to Paso Virginia; at times we’re grabbing lenga branches and roots while scrabbling up a steep, muddy slope. Higher still, the lenga forest yields to scree that slides downhill beneath our boots. After cresting two or three rises on the upper plateau, each time thinking we’ve reached the pass only to see more uphill awaiting us, we finally walk up to Paso Virginia—in, of course, a frigid, buffeting wind.
A thousand feet below us, Laguna los Guanacos nestles in a basin of scree and cliffs. Patches of yellow, orange, and rust-colored tundra grow densely near the lakeshore. But otherwise, the cirque is barren. The only sound is the persistent mournful moan of the wind.
The sense of loneliness is overpowering.
Taking big strides and landing on our boot heels, we plunge down a mountainside of golf ball-size stones that slide harmlessly down with us, dropping within minutes from the pass to the lake. We pick up an old guanaco path around the lake’s far shore, crossing tundra reminiscent of Alaska, where we frequently sink in more than ankle-deep. Twenty minutes below the lake, Maurice finds us a campsite in a boggy meadow cut by a thin, icy stream. Before long, rain comes. It will last through the night, though we’ll awaken to a sunny morning for the last few miles of downhill hiking to the road.
Every international trekker wants to find Shangri-la, the exotic destination that remains undiscovered. But most places that hikers flock to from around the world are not like that. It’s extremely rare to see a trek in its infancy—before there’s even a well-established trail—and to know you’re among a relatively small population of people who have walked there.
The Dientes Circuit still offers the opportunity to do just that.
See all of my stories about trekking in Patagonia. Also, you can combine the Dientes Circuit with a trek in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park; it’s a one-hour, 15-minute flight from Punta Arenas to Puerto Williams.
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR very fit, experienced hikers with expert off-trail navigational skills who are prepared for extreme wind and fast-changing weather. The wind’s cooling effect can make summer days feel like winter, and rain and snow are common. When I did this trek in March 2009, there was no well-defined, marked trail except for the good trail on the first 1.7 miles (hiking clockwise, the usual direction) up Cerro Bandera (Flag Mountain), although there were occasional stone cairns, red-and-white paint blazes, and an intermittent footpath. I’ve since read that a trail marked by cairns has been constructed over the route (so the distances may vary from my description below).
Much of the trek traverses open, rocky terrain and tundra, and there can be sections of steep, loose scree, deep mud, wet bogs, and a bit of bushwhacking. Even if well marked now, it’s a very strenuous route, and navigation can be challenging in bad weather with limited visibility. Anyone looking for a more typical, on-trail trek with classic Patagonian scenery would probably prefer Torres del Paine National Park.
Make It Happen
Season The prime trekking season is in the austral summer, from December through March. January and February are typically even more windy than normal. March and April are cooler but less windy—relatively speaking—and there’s rarely significant snowfall in early autumn. Typical summer temperatures range from the 50s Fahrenheit to below freezing, though the wind makes it feel colder. Highs above 60° F are unusual. The low bushes and ground-hugging plants turn brilliant colors in late March and early April.
The backcountry portion of the Dientes Circuit is 22.7 miles (36.5k), according to the GPS data I collected on the trek, or about 30 miles including the approximately two-mile road walk from downtown Puerto Williams to the starting trailhead and the 4.7-mile road walk back to Puerto Williams at the end. The trek is normally done clockwise, beginning with the 1.7 miles (2.7k) to the summit of Cerro Bandera (Flag Mountain).
We divided up the circuit into four days, and none were easy, so don’t be deceived by the short distances—the hiking and route-finding can be slow.
Day one: 4.9 miles total to Laguna del Salto.
Day two: 7.9 miles to a campsite on an unnamed lake at the head of the lake-studded valley named Lagunas Chevallay.
Day three: 7.2 miles to a campsite in a boggy valley about 20 to 30 minutes downhill from Laguna Los Guanacos.
Day four: descend 2.7 mi. to Navarino Island’s north coast road. From there, turn right (east) and walk the quiet dirt road about 4.7 miles back to Puerto Williams. It’s also fairly easy to catch a ride from the occasional passing motorist.
You can combine a trek in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park with the Dientes Circuit—it’s a one-hour, 15-minute flight from Punta Arenas to Puerto Williams.
Getting There Numerous commercial airlines offer flights to Santiago, Chile. LATAM (latam.com) flies to Punta Arenas. From there, the regional airline Aerovias Dap (dapairline.com) offers one flights to Puerto Williams.
In Puerto Williams, you must register your trekking plans at the local police station. You can get a taxi, possibly hitch a ride, or walk about 45 minutes from downtown Puerto Williams to the trailhead. From town, follow the street named Calle Teniente Andres Munoz Henriquez south to a small park called Plaza de la Virgen. Turn left at a sign reading “Acceso al Sendero de Chile” and follow it along the Robalo River to a small parking lot. The Dientes Circuit begins on the good trail up Cerro Bandera, or Flat Mountain, marked by a sign that reads “La Bandera.” The trail is marked by red-and-white blazes.
Permit There is no fee or permit required for trekking or backcountry camping on the Dientes Circuit.
Map Chilean IGM (Instituto Geografico Militar, igm.cl) 1:50,000-scale maps Puerto Williams (Section L, no. 190) and Lago Windhond (Section L, no. 203). They can be purchased from the Chilean IGM office near the Toesca metro station in Santiago.
Guidebooks The brochure “Circuito Dientes de Navarino” describes the route in detail and includes a 1:120,000 map. You should be able to purchase it in Puerto Williams and possibly in Punta Arenas.
Lonely Planet’s Trekking in the Patagonian Andes, $24.99 (lonelyplanet.com) describes the Dientes Circuit; you can buy just the Tierra del Fuego chapter on-line for $4.99. NOTE: The Lonely Planet guidebook describes the total distance as 33.2 miles (53.5k), including the 4.7-mile road walk back to Puerto Williams at the end of the trek. I measured each day’s mileage using a GPS receiver and came up with 27.4 miles (44.1k) total for the route, including the road walk.
See a detailed route description at wikiexplora.com/index.php/Dientes_de_Navarino_%28english%29.
• Weather ranges to extremes and shifts very quickly. A waterproof-breathable jacket and pants, gaiters, and boots, and warm, breathable insulation, hat, and gloves are recommended. Bring a tent built for strong winds—lightweight models may not be the best choice for the Dientes Circuit.
• UV exposure is very high at far southern latitudes. Bring a high-UPF sunscreen and reapply it frequently, even on cloudy days, because UV rays penetrate clouds.
• Bring a multi-fuel stove. Contact Maurice van de Maele (below) about purchasing white gas in Puerto Williams (sometimes available). Auto gas is likely the only alternative. Kerosene is not usually available.
• There are no animals that will get into your food on the Dientes Circuit. We kept our food inside our tent.
• The time zone is four hours behind GMT beginning the first Sunday after March 9, and three hours behind GMT beginning the first Sunday after October 9. Coming from the U.S., adjusting to the time change is much less difficult than traveling to Europe.
• A functional command of Spanish is very useful in southern Chile, especially in Puerto Williams, where you will find few English speakers.
Contact Chile Tourism, chile.travel.