No one goes to Puerto Williams by chance. If you’ve managed to meander your way this far down the South American continent then you’re exactly where you want to be.
I had never heard of Puerto Williams, until one day, while having breakfast at my hostel in Ushuaia, a retired German sailor named Herbert happened to mention the town’s name in passing to me. Astonished by my ignorance of this apparent ‘end of the world’ hotspot, Herbert’s exuberance sprang anew as he fondly recalled past and recent memories of this seemingly forgotten port city. The marked sagacity of his countenance, coupled with the enlivened nature in his disposition, was enough to convince me that a change in my travel itinerary was in order and it was then I knew exactly where I wanted to go next.
Located on Isla Navarino (Navarino Island), Puerto Williams (Port Williams) is situated along Beagle Channel and is recognized as the world’s southernmost city. Originally named Puerto Luisa, the city was eventually named after British Navy Commander John Williams Wilson, founder of Fuerte Bulnes (the first human settlement along the Strait of Magellan since 1587). As capital of the Chilean Antarctic Province, Puerto Williams is home to a key naval base with a sparse population of less than 3,000 residents, consisting mostly of naval personnel, civilians and expats.
As the nearest (and final) port to Antarctica, explorers and scientists have long known about Puerto Williams. In recent years, an influx of adventurists and wanderlust travelers have frequented the island in search of isolated seclusion, unmarked trails and the opportunity to conquer difficult treks, including the renowned Dientes de Navarino (Teeth of Navarino) and Lago Windhond (Lake Windhond).
Those left unscathed by the 5-7 day Dientes de Navarino trek will have traversed almost 53km of moderate to difficult terrain, with 100-400+ meter-high altitude ranges and difficult to detect (albeit visibly marked) trailheads being the greatest obstacles you’ll face on this trek. The best time to go is between December and March and it’s advised to always bring a guide, GPS, maps and proper trekking gear and equipment with you before attempting any trek. For those trekking longer than a day, you need to register with the carabineros (carabineers). Due to Puerto Williams’s microclimate, sun, rain, snow, wind and freezing temperatures can arrive at a moment’s notice. Keep in mind that it’s not uncommon for poorly prepared hikers and trekkers to be left stranded by the seemingly tranquil, though highly unpredictable, weather of the island. Thus the need to register with the carabineros is important, in case they need to search for you in the event that you’re reported missing.
Take it as fair warning and learn from my experience, because our group happened to lose track of the trail markers on our way back from Lago Windhond and, if it weren’t for the savvy ingenuity of a crafty Frenchman who remembered our direction home to be due North on the compass, this article (along with said trekkers) would still be lost somewhere in the wilderness. In other words, a simple day trek could have turned into something much more serious, especially since we didn’t register with the carabineros.
There’s a saying that is oft-repeated in Puerto Williams: it’s easy to get here but difficult to leave—a practical itinerary precaution as much as it is an omen. There are almost daily boat rides from Ushuaia to Puerto Williams (via an hour long bus transfer from Puerto Navarino) and weekly arrivals by cruise ship from Punta Arenas. But if you happen to miss the weekly cruise ship to Punta Arenas or the flight from the city’s local airport, you’ll need to wait at least another week for the next opportunity to depart from Isla Navarino.
However, the longer you stay in Puerto Williams the more susceptible you become to the charm of the Island’s isolated, yet seductive simplicity, which inevitably draws you in with the help of friendly locals and ‘conveniently lost’ expats. The city (though it can best be described as a small town) has a rich fishing culture, where every morning large trucks rumble along the dusty frontage roads from the sea docks to the city center. Land development and construction projects are constantly underway, with new roads being paved, along with old homes and the city’s lone bank building receiving long overdue renovations—a new dock is also well on its way to completion.
It’s a place where the arrival of a brand new fire truck means more than just an extra utility vehicle; it is a source of local pride knowing that their little city is steadily growing. At 7AM, local bomberos (firefighters), dressed in full regalia, line up to greet their newest comrade with pomp and ceremony, complete with water cannons shooting sea water high into the air. Just after daybreak, the truck’s horns bellow loudly in the early morning hours, formerly introducing itself as the city’s newest and proudest patron.
But no island can be unto itself.
Weekly shipments from neighboring Punta Arenas provide all the provisions and supplies this small port city will need. In fact, there are enough supplies to support a small post office, boutique shop (with every known brand name represented from The North Face to Patagonia), restaurants/homes (because any home can be a restaurant if you’re invited to the table), a public school system, a museum (which, along with the library are the only two public Wi-Fi areas in the city), Micalvi Yacht Club (where an impressive group of sailors and travelers gather from every corner of the world to swap and share stories at the well-known Club Micalvi bar), and a handful of cozy hostels and guesthouses to comfort even the weariest of travelers.
And no stay at Puerto Williams can be complete without a stop at Refugio El Padrino. Named after the much beloved Eduardo Mancilla Vera, the refugio was constructed to preserve and honor the memory of a man who played an integral role in helping to retain the rights of the austral islands as part of Chilean sovereignty. So admired and respected by the local residents that he was often referred to as el padrino (the godfather), with many asking that he bless their children for baptisms and be present at their wedding ceremonies.
Unlike hotels, hostels or even other refugios, Refugio El Padrino abides by a different set of principles, namely: the door is always open to any and all travelers (regardless of availability of beds or space), any talk of payment prior to departure or money in general is strictly forbidden (especially while in the presence of a meal), food is available to all and no one shall ever be denied if hungry, and, most importantly, you must relax. The ‘open door’ policy (literally, since the door is never locked) of the refugio means no traveler will ever be denied entry.
And meeting people like Cecilia, patron mother of this home away from home, is the reason why traveling continues to be a worthwhile endeavor. Upon first sight, each traveler is provided with a standard care package of a warm hug, a kiss upon each cheek and a mandatory greeting of ‘¿Cómo estás, amigo/a ______?’. As ‘Amigo’ Alonzo (an obligatory salutation bestowed upon all patrons of El Padrino), I was privy to Cecilia’s daily routine of welcoming newly arrived travelers to the refugio, as well as past and familiar faces of recently returned trekkers from their weeklong excursion into the Dientes.
During the course of several hours (often until the early morning hours), some eclectic mix of French, German, Chilean, American, Turkish, Argentinian, English, Swiss and many others from every conceivable nationality occupied the dinner table. Memorable moments of everyone’s day on the island were fondly recalled, conveniently providing new travelers with valuable insight on what to expect on their forthcoming journey along the island’s numerous treks and hikes. And any remark or question that had nothing to do with enjoying and sharing the meal before us would be greeted by Cecilia’s oft-repeated phrase of ‘¡mucho confusión!’ (‘So much confusion!’); a gentle reminder that even in the world’s southernmost city, there can be no topic or issue as important as a meal shared by newly formed friends. And as the cultural and political barriers of our respective countries were broken down with each edible morsel of home-cooked pasta and copious amounts of red wine, Cecilia was always there to facilitate the conversation with her charmed enthusiasm and passionate exuberance for bringing people together.
If there is one takeaway from my time in Puerto Williams it should be this: never allow the prospective fear of change or desire for complacency to define your traveling goals and expectations. If it were not for a chance encounter with a group of backpackers, who raved about their experience in Budapest (whom I befriended while sitting on the floor of a train car on my way to Vienna), I would never have had the opportunity to change my itinerary and experience one of my favorite cities in Europe. Or, if I had given heed to my initial inhibition to avoid Scandinavia (solely because of how expensive it would be), I would have missed out on experiencing the fjords of Norway, one of the most beautiful and amazing natural wonders in the world.
Whether you venture to a new and unfamiliar destination solely based upon a whim of curiosity, accept an invitation to dine with locals whom you befriended at a bus stop, or attempt a conversation with a complete stranger in a language other than your own, the opportunity to adapt, move and flow with the current of new experiences is a quintessential skill that every traveler—let alone every person—should learn to embrace. So, the next time you hear a traveler reflect fondly about some seemingly unknown, distant or obscure location, remember to pause, smile and extend an offer of gratitude because now you know exactly where you’ll want to be.