If the world were flat, the far southern tip of Chile would be just the spot to peer over the edge. The epicenter of this rugged destination is Puerto Williams of Navarino Island, on the nearly pristine Cape Horn archipelago. This frontier locale of 2,000 hearty residents faces Beagle Channel, the narrow waterway named after 19th century British explorer Charles Darwin’s iconic ship. Billed as the world’s southernmost city, Puerto Williams is developing new maritime and airport infrastructure to boost sustainable tourism and restore its legacy as the gateway to Antarctica, a slice of which is part of Chile. The city also aspires to become a hub for scientific research across the UNESCO Cape Horn Biosphere Reserve.
Modern-day explorers will discover a rich, untrampled landscape right around Puerto Williams itself, whether navigating through icy fjords or spotting crimson-headed Magellanic woodpeckers in sub-Antarctic primary forests. Boasting a more laid back, less commercial profile than the Argentinian city of Ushuaia across the channel, Puerto Williams is the ideal destination for intrepid travelers eager for immersion into a raw natural realm.
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Getting there via cruise
For travelers looking for outdoor adventure without ditching creature comforts, small cruises that embark from Chile’s central coast port city of Valparaiso are a posh option. Relying on the local Chilean naval base for logistics, Puerto Williams has long hosted turnarounds of passengers heading into or out of Antarctica. The first phase of a new multipurpose dock now under construction will facilitate the arrival of slightly larger ships with around 200 passengers by the end of the year.
Silversea, a unit of Royal Caribbean, plies Chile’s long coast to Puerto Williams. Silversea offers an indulgent month-long option that reaches the Antarctic Peninsula plus the Falkland Islands and other far-flung South Atlantic islands. Prime your camera for sightings of king penguins, seals and whales wolloping through the frigid seas, while majestic albatross soar overhead and cormorants flap across choppy waters.
Travelers looking for more time on land might consider flying into Puerto Williams. Chile’s DAP Airlines offers regular one-hour flights from Punta Arenas, capital of Chile’s Magallanes and Antarctic region that encompasses Cape Horn. The carrier serves remote destinations in southern Chile, including King George Island in Antarctica and Ushuaia. DAP also offers helicopter tours to soak in Cape Horn’s mountains and imposing glaciers from the crystal clear skies. Charter options are available too.
Budget-minded travelers might ride the 32-hour Yaghan ferry from Punta Arenas, operated by Chilean firm Tabsa. Outfitted like a long-distance bus, half of the no-fuss vessel is carved out for vehicles and provisions shipped into Puerto Williams twice a week. Ferry riders are rewarded with close-ups of Cape Horn’s best-known glaciers and breathtaking views of the Milky Way from open decks.
When to visit for the best natural wonder
Most visitors arrive in Puerto Williams in the southern hemisphere summer months starting in November. In contrast to the more terrestrial far northern hemisphere, the vast southern seas help to keep temperatures here from dropping too sharply even in winter, a tendency that’s reinforced by climate change. Bear in mind, the summer months offer long stretches of daylight to squeeze the most out of a remote destination that’s not easy to reach. Winds tend to ease in the winter months though, and the surrounding mountains are snow-capped year-round. No matter when you visit, pack a parka, toasty hat and gloves, and sturdy waterproof shoes. You’ll want sunglasses and binoculars too.
Once on shore, visit the government-run Sernatur tourism office in central Puerto Williams to arrange hikes through the snow-capped Dientes de Navarino mountains, horseback riding and sport-fishing. Bird-watching is a newer focus. The National Audubon Society is helping promote sustainable avitourism in conjunction with the Cape Horn International Center (CHIC), perched on a hill overlooking the channel.
Well-equipped sailboats offer dreamy half-day to 10-day tours though the fjords and tundra-swept islands of Cape Horn. Take a slow walk down to the local dock to see colorful fishing boats that harvest luscious centolla, or king crab. On the outskirts of Puerto Williams, visit the Yaghan Indigenous community of Villa Ukika for woven baskets and other handicrafts. Elsewhere, history buffs can duck into old military foxholes and meander through an open-air museum of relics left over from Chile’s near-war with Argentina in the late 1970s.
Where to stay and eat
There are only a few modest accommodations and family-run restaurants around Puerto Williams. Check out the charming Hotel Fío Fío near downtown Puerto Williams. It’s worth chatting with the hotel’s gracious proprietor Maurice Van De Maele, an anthropologist who heads the local tourism chamber and has lived here for nearly four decades.
A couple of kilometers outside of town is Lakutaia Lodge, named after a Yaghan woman. The hotel closed during the pandemic and served as a quarantine facility for travelers to Antarctica. Although the hotel remains officially closed, groups can still arrange for ad hoc stays. A new 150-bed expansion is planned for the site. Further afield is Errante Ecolodge where you can soak in a hot tub watching the sunset from a stunning bluff.
Puerto Williams has only a couple of year-round restaurants, Dientes de Navarino and Resto del Sur. A few others open during the summer months. Among the homestyle offerings are king crab empanadas and grilled Austral merluza. Wash down your meal with a pisco sour or Subantarctica golden ale, or pick up a hot cocoa at Notro Patagonia Emporio.
Puerto Williams has no taxis or regular public transport, although informal private options abound. Thanks to the thriving navy base, fiber-optic internet signal is robust downtown. There are modest grocery stores, but don’t count on too many choices as the town still relies on biweekly shipments from the mainland for most provisions. Local greenhouses supply fresh lettuce and herbs. Make sure to pack whatever medicines you might need.