To The End Of The Earth

Rebecca Sonniksen

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A trip to the “end of the earth,” where the Pacific and Atlantic oceans meet, was a fitting celebration for my 70th birthday. In December, Scott and I set off to explore Patagonia, Chile and Argentina. In this diverse South American landscape we viewed magnificent glaciers, observed nesting penguins, hiked to Cape Horn, marveled at tango dancers in Buenos Aires, and tasted the wines of Mendoza. 

Flying over the Andes, we began our trip in Santiago, Chile, where we met our guide, Jorge. We arranged for guides and drivers as a way to navigate the logistics of seven different airports as well as sightseeing in remote and challenging locations. It also gave us an opportunity for a glimpse into the everyday lives of the people who live there. 

Santiago, Chile’s capital city, is a sprawling, sophisticated metropolis of 6 million people wedged between the Andes and mountainous coastal range. Our two days of sightseeing included trips to the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art, and the Museum of Memory and Human Rights dedicated to the victims of the Pinochet regime in 1972. We also rode a cable car up San Cristobal Hill where we had a panoramic view of the city and the Andes.

From Santiago we flew to Punta Arenas, near the tip of Chile’s southernmost Patagonia region. Located on the Strait of Magellan, this port city is a base for excursions to Antarctica. It was here, with 100 people of 15 nationalities, we boarded the M/V Stella  Australis which was to take us to one of the remotest corners of the earth.

Our 5-day sail began with the crossing of the Magellan Straits, bringing us into the White Side Canal between Darwin Island and the Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego. The Chilean crew motored us in Zodiacs for excursions that included a hike through a sub-polar forest at Ainsworth Bay, a close up view of the Magellanic Penguins at Tucker Islets, and sightings of many other bird species such as king cormorants, oystercatchers, Chilean skuas, kelp geese,dolphin gulls, eagles and the Andean condor.

We continued sailing through the Beagle Channel and to an area called Glacier Alley where a number of impressive tidewater glaciers flowed down the Darwin Mountains and Darwin Ice Sheet. Entering the Pia Fjord we boarded the Zodiacs for a panoramic view of the spectacular Pia Glacier. Extending from the mountaintops down to the sea, it is approximately the size of Santiago. 

On our final day we sailed to the legendary Cape Horn. Referred to as the End of the Earth, this 12,394 foot high rocky promontory marks the northern boundary of the Drake passage where the Pacific and Atlantic oceans meet. We were fortunate the weather permitted us to go ashore, where we hiked up to the Cape Horn Monument that commemorates the lives of thousands of seafarers who perished attempting to sail around the cape.

We were not so fortunate the next day when sea turbulence caused our landing in Ushuaia, Argentina, to be delayed a day. I was grateful for my seasickness patch. 

From Ushuaia, the world’s southernmost city, we flew to the city of El Calafate where we visited the Glacier Perito Moreno at Los Glaciares National Park. Glacier Perito Moreno is 3.12 miles wide and 197 ft. high above the Argentino Lake, making it the world’s third largest reserve of fresh water. 

It is one of only three glaciers in the world, including the Pia Glacier, known to be advancing rather than retreating. It is viewed from a walking tour through catwalks where you are warned to watch for the breaking shards of ice which can be deadly. The cracking sounds of the ice breaking inside and out was impressive, like a very loud shotgun. 

Shedding our winter clothes, we flew to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where the temperatures were in the 80’s. Here we met our guide, Florencia, who with her driver took us see the sights of this cosmopolitan capital city. 

Two things to know about Buenos Aires – they drive fast and eat late. Dinner is usually at 10:00 p.m. Referred to as the “Paris of the South,” the streets are lined with 19th century European buildings and numerous landscaped parks and squares. 

Our tour included the famous cemetery of Recoleta where Eva Peron (Evita) is buried. One of the highlights of our Buenos Aires visit was a Tango Show in one of the original theaters where the Tango started at the end of the 19th century.

During our conversations with our guides we were surprised to learn that many had grandparents who had immigrated to Argentina from Italy in the early 20th century. Our guide Florencia’s grandparents were from Sicily. She and her extended family, which included a husband who worked at IBM and a 4-year-old son, lived an hour outside Buenos Aires because housing in the city was too expensive.

They had recently bought a home which was a good investment but required a conversion of pesos to dollars to make the purchase. Striving for a middle class life is challenging in Argentina because of the plummeting value of their currency, which had dropped over 50% in this past year.

Our final stop was Mendoza, located in the foothills of the Andes where nearly 80% of the country’s wine is produced. With a tradition dating back to the early 20th century, new varieties thrived from grapes grafted from 100 year old vines. It was a perfect way to conclude a hectic trip. 

We went to see the magnificent glaciers and mountains, and to remind ourselves of the enormity and elegance of our planet. At the same time we were touched by the people we met, different in many ways, but basically, all wanting the same things; happiness, security and the ability to provide for their family. It was a good way to start my new decade.

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