Before you pack your bags and book your boat ride out of Puerto Williams—eager to let everyone you know that you visited the world’s southernmost city—you may want to travel a tad bit further south before you decide to lay claim to accomplishing such a feat. Though Puerto Williams is the world’s southernmost city, you will need to travel to the eastern coast of Isla Navarino and visit Puerto Toro to confidently say that you’ve been to the world’s southernmost community.
First established in 1892, Puerto Toro is a small hamlet located on the eastern coast of Isla Navarino. It was founded as a consequence of the Tierra del Fuego gold rush, with an influx of gold prospectors from Chile, Argentina and Europe traveling en masse to the archipelago region in search of the precious metal. However, by 1894, when mining extraction yielded rather meager results, the ‘gold rush’ was effectively over and many departed the region with only a sparse population left behind to occupy this once active boomtown.
Today, Puerto Toro is known less for its gold mining exploits and more for its centolla (king crab) exports. There are less than 20 people who live in Puerto Toro, namely: a few carabineros, a few fishermen and their families (including some children), a scientist and a few stray dogs to boot. Other than research facilities in Antarctica, Puerto Toro is the southernmost community of permanent inhabitance on Earth and the only human settlement located below the 55th parallel south (a mere 3,900 kilometers or 2,425 miles from the South Pole).
If you happen to be in Puerto Williams then a stop by Puerto Toro is a must. Every last Sunday of each month you can take a free (that’s right, free!) 2-hour cruise from Puerto Williams to Puerto Toro. In order to board the ship you must register with the carabineros (bring your passport) prior to departure, which can be done a day or two in advance at their office. Since there are vital provisions and supplies onboard for the residents of Puerto Toro, the ship leaves port at 8AM sharp so make sure to arrive 30 minutes prior to departure. It’s also a good idea to bring some food and snacks since none will be provided onboard the ship or at Puerto Toro.
Once aboard, the views of the fjords along Beagle Channel are magnificent to behold. Glaciered peaks of freshly laid snow reflect brilliantly in the distance as daybreak burrows through columned chasms of sullen gray sky. White tufts of airy clouds, like spindled strands of thickly spun cotton, intricately adorn creviced mountaintops, as the ship gradually makes its way along the ebon-hued waterway. Penguins, seals and dolphins will sporadically appear, often swimming alongside or in the wake of the ship’s current, with rough, sometimes turbulent winds whipping across the bow of the ship.
The grandeur and scope of the channel’s breadth ironically contrasts with Puerto Toro’s rather modest dimensions: there are several homes, a small church (enclosed by a small white picket fence), a carabinero station and a small rest area conveniently located by the dock. Upon arrival you’ll have a little more than 2 hours to explore, which is more than enough time to see everything and talk to everyone in town, twice. It’s important to pay attention to the departure time of the ship or else you risk being left behind. If you happen to miss the return trip, you will have to wait a month for the next ship to arrive or you can trek across the island back to Puerto Williams (takes approximately two days); there are no roadways leading back to Puerto Williams.
But there’s no need to panic since most people who go to Puerto Toro will opt to do a short trek up the hillside, so you can allay any fear about being stranded on the island. Karina, who served as our guide on the trek, took us on a 30-minute walk through moderate terrain (make sure to wear rain gear in case of rain and mud) for a top down view of Puerto Toro. Tours are conducted in either English or Spanish, with Karina guiding both tours one after the other. It’s a worthwhile trek, which is not difficult at all, and offers a humbling view of the entire hamlet, less than 100 meters in altitude from where you started upon shore. After the trek you’ll have plenty of time to take photos, walk along the coast and befriend many of the stray dogs that tend to venture and wander with purpose from sailboat to dock and back again.
Once the midday sun is set high above, you know it’s about time to leave. When all passengers are onboard, and the few remaining stray dogs are finally chased away from the cargo bay, the doors are closed and the ship heads back to Puerto Williams. Now, as you sit comfortably in your seat watching this tiny hamlet disappear in the distance, you can finally rest assured and comfortably say that you’ve been to the southernmost place in the world.