Puerto Williams: southernmost city in the world

Puerto Williams sits at the eastern end of the Beagle Channel on the northern coast Isla Navarino, a large island with a toothed mountain range at its heart. It's very proud of its 'southernmost city' tag, despite having less than 3000 residents, and marks Chile's ownership of the south side of the straits. Just across the water sits bustling Ushuaia, the Argentinian town at the heart of the cruise liner trade in this area. Europa uses it when setting off from here for Antarctica because it is easier to reach by 'plane from points north, but it is an expensive harbour. Besides the University of Magellan, with which our Expedition Leader is affiliated, has a strong presence in Puerto Williams.

It's a little dusty town with a surprising number of claims to fame. It is the home of the remains of the Yelcho, the ship which rescued Shackleton's men from Point Wilde. Once Shackleton reach South Georgia he was determined to get back there for his crew but the British authorities refused to help. They did have a war on but the refusal still seems extraordinarily parsimonious. He turned to the Chileans who loaned him the small ship, which,managed to bring all the men to safety. Understandably, the Chileans are quite proud of this and have mounted the ship's bow here. On the day we were there, it was being scrubbed up by the Navy, hence this rather untidy picture.

Wandering around the town, you see that it is not an easy place. Ponies are tethered but dogs run free. Every house had a large pile of firewood stacked up beside it (winter is coming) and I saw several people chopping more. There is a strong Navy presence here but even there part of town has dusty roads only partially paved. The setting, though, is absolutely magnificent.

Several of us went for a walk in the woods about half an hour's drive out of town. It was quiet and light under the trees, footfalls soft on the leaf mould that is gradually turning to humus and then to peat. On all the trees there are lichens and mosses in all sorts of leaf shapes and vivid greens, browns, yellows and reds. Some of the trees have enormous galls like cartwheels suspended around their trunks. Mistletoe hangs everywhere, and sometimes a ball of it lies broken and brown on the ground, shrugged off by its host like an unwanted shawl.

Of course, this is also a colonised landscape. Before the Europeans came, the indigenous Yaghan people lived here. They were extraordinarily tough, wearing very little even in the dire cold. I can see some logic to the strategy: it rains a lot with high humidity. They spent a lot of time in an on the water, even building fires in their little canoes. Managing wet fabric, even if you could make it resilient enough to be worth the effort of stitching, would be a real trial. If you could learn to live without it, life would be much easier. But, oh! It gets cold here and smearing seal fat over yourself only gives limited protection. As so often, Europeans brought disease, guns and violent disruption. Imogen Rhia Herrad writes movingly of her discovery of this brutal past in Beyond the Pampas, the history she found while searching for Y Wladfa, the Welsh colony in Patagonia. The picture below is of the last native speaker of Yaghan looking out at the land of her fathers. (It is by the Finnish artist Ville Lenkkeri and I wrote about it before here.)

There is an excellent little museum in Puerto Williams, which does not shy away from this past. Inside is this example of their fishing canoes (picture taken by fellow voyage crew member Lyndon) along with many of the pictures taken by the first white arrivals, as considerable efforts are now being made to preserve the language and culture of the Yaghan people. Their descendants (about 70 people) now live in Villa Ukika, about 15 minutes walk from Puerto Williams. Sadly or not, I didn't make it out there. For many people exploring the area, I suspect, the main relic of these tough nomads is the ferry which runs here from Punta Arenas, which is called Yaghan.

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2 Comments

  1. The blog is even better with the photos! Terrific!

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