Circuito de los Dientes de Navarino

Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
Trip End Jun 08, 2006

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Residencia Pusaki

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Wednesday, February 8, 2006

I have to confess that one of the reasons that I wanted to come to Puerto Williams in Chile was because home (in Scotland) is right next to a little village called Port William. Both villages share the geographic honour of being very southern in their respective countries, although people in Puerto Williams expressed some surprise when I told them that Port William has a lot less than 2,200 inhabitants. Both places also have the same end-of-the-world feeling that comes from being small, isolated, with limited shopping possibilities, and full of interesting characters.

We get on the little 20 seater plane in Punta Arenas, and carefully select seats on the right hand side so that we can see the glaciers on the way south. We are lucky that we have not had to pay any excess baggage charges although our bags were slightly more than the allowed 10kg each (about 26kg combined).

As the little plane taxis down the runway I can see the two pilots at the front managing the controls effortlessly, so I sit back and relax and enjoy the flight. After about 20 minutes the landscape starts to change dramatically as we leave the flat Patagonian steppe behind and enter an area of snowcapped mountains, sweeping glaciers reaching down to the sea, and sub-antarctic forest.

We are fortunate that the weather is really fine and the views down to the wild landscape below make the flight seem like a sightseeing excursion. I am continually clicking away on the camera as we fly along and Rachel starts to feel more enthusiastic about this part of the world. Thats good because its her 32nd birthday today!

Soon we touch down in Puerto Williams airport, which is just next to the town, but due to a river flowing between the airstrip and the town the road distance is 4km. We wander outside to look for the bus and rapidly find out there is none, and no taxis either, so we resign ourselves to a long walk into town. After about 5 minutes a lady pulls up in a large 4WD truck and offers us a lift. We thank the lady and get out at Hostel Residencia Pusaki recommended in Lonely Planet at GBP7.00 per night. We find the prices have gone up somewhat, despite ours being a 2005 edition, we have to pay 10,500 Pesos (about GBP11.00) each per night.

Inside the hostel it all seems fairly chaotic as workmen are building a new extension at the front of the hostel. Inside the crowded open-plan kitchen and living room there are people eating, chatting, smoking, and generally making the place look very ´lived-in´. We are shown to a little bedroom of our own out the back which seems cozy and tidy.

A friendly German filmaker, called Hugo, who is making a film about the arrival of mink in Isla Navarino, gives us a quick tour of the village and takes us to a tour operator where we find the illusive route notes for the Dientes de Navarino circuit. We find a little shop next door where there is a photocopier and we get the all-important notes copied for a fee of just 500 Pesos (GBP0.50). If only I´d known that before I could have saved myself a lot of time in Punta Arenas.

The town has no tarmacked streets and since it is a dry sunny day, there´s quite a bit of dust as cars go past. The dust doesn´t detract from the colourfully painted corrugated iron facades of the houses and shops dotted around the central area. Littered all over the town though are the carcasses of ancient cars and machinery that have died and have been left to rot where they last stood. It makes the place look like it needs a good tidy up. From everywhere in the town there are great views to the north of the Beagle Channel and the snow-capped Argentinian mountains beyond. From the town square we can also see the Dientes de Navarino; a range of incredibly spiky rocky spires at the end of a valley to the south.

The town seems to be full of Navy personnel, and we find out that it is a major base for the Chilean Navy; over half the towns population work for them. In the small harbour we see a small gunboat docked and lots of well-dressed military types going to and fro.

In the evening we have just one item left to buy - some shellite or ´benzine blanca´ for our stove. Unfortuntately I can´t find it in town so I have to buy a litre of unleaded petrol instead. I wonder to myself if it will work OK, as I´ve not used it before. A little test in the backyard of the hostel confirms it seems to be OK, if only a little uncontrollable and sooty.

Rachel is surprised by how cold and windy it is and she is glad she has brought all her layers with her. Despite being a sunny day, the temperature feels like no more than 12 or 13 degreesC. As we wander through town in the evening it starts to get even colder and we wonder how we will cope in our little tent over the next few nights.

Day 1 Puerto Williams to Laguno del Salto
Next morning we head out of town passing one of those signposts which tell you the distance to all the major capitals in the world. We take a quick photo and then Rachel worries me by saying perhaps we don´t have enough fuel with us. We walk back to the only petrol station on the island, but despite it being 9.30am its still not open, so we figure we´ll just have to survive with a litre. Images of starving to death in the wilds of Tierra del Fuego flash before my mind, but then I console myself that its only a 53km walk - never further than 30km from civilisation.

Within about 5 minutes we are lost as we can´t find Plaza De La Virgen, our first landmark, at the edge of the town. Turns out that there are two roads west out of town and we took the wrong one. Fortunately we work out the problem fairly quickly and find the spot where the trail begins.

We walk along a gravel road for a bit and then, where it ends, there are three tracks leading off into the forest. We wonder for a while which is the correct one and then figure out eventually that it must be the track marked with two red slashes, a symbol we get to know and love over the next few days. Strange that such extensive route notes should not mention a basic fact like this.

The walk beside a bubbling stream in the dark sub-antarctic beech forest. The path seems fairly easy to follow and eventually branches off up a hill on the left. With our packs on we find the going really tough and we´re soon down to T-shirts. We get to the treeline where the beech trees are extremely stunted and contorted as they keep their profile low to avoid the crushing wind gusts. We scramble up a gravelly hill and eventually find ourselves unexpectedly beside a huge Chilean flag on the hillside above Puerto Williams (another fact not mentioned in the route notes). We find out later that this flag was erected by the Chileans during territory disputes with the Argentinians a few years ago, presumably intended as a giant symbol to remind the Argentinians to keep their hands off. The views from the flag are stunning as we gaze out over the Beagle Channel and to the snowy mountains in Argentinian Patagonia.

From the flag there are other routes but reference to our little map makes it clear that we have to keep to the right of the hillside skirting the treeline. We follow on for a while and eventually stop for lunch beside a bubbling stream. We test out the stove and enjoy a tasty snack of instant noodles - our least favourite food from China.

Pushing on, the views of the Dientes start to open up and we admire the tall teeth-like mountains that tower over the entire island of Navarino. Apparently they are only just over 1300m tall, but they certainly appear to be much taller than that.

The last section of the days walk is a steep scramble down the scree to Laguna del Salto where we set up camp for the night. We arrive in fairly good time, but just as we´re putting up the tent it starts to rain. All evening the rain just seems to get harder and harder. Rachel starts to feel cold and miserable so she gets into her sleeping bag and spends her time in there while I sit out in the rain and do the cooking. Rehydrated potatoes and salami sausage tastes quite good when you are cold and wet.

When I get back in the tent I see that Rachel´s thermarest sleeping mat is flat and we discover that it must have burst when we put the rucksacks into the tent. This in part explains why Rachel is so cold, because without air in it, there is no thermal insulation from the cold ground. The good news is I have some gunk that can seal the tear, but the bad news is that it has a 12-hour cure time. We rearrange things in the tent so that we share 1.5 matts and leave the top half of Rachel´s thermarest clear with the gunk on it to cure. About 6am in the morning I wake up and find to my relief the gunk has set and roll over onto the matt properly for a couple hours.

Day 2: Laguno del Salto to Laguna Escondida
In the morning everything seems much brighter as the tent is dry, there are blue skies, Rachel´s matt is back in action, and it doesn´t feel quite so cold.

After a breakfast of steak empananas brought along from the Puerto Williams ´supermarket´, and hot tea boiled up on the stove, we head out for the second days trekking. We climb up the course of a waterfall running into Laguna del Salto, and on to much firmer rocky ground as we wander along the base of some of the Dientes mountains. We enjoy the grandeur of the spires all around us and the sight of lakes that appear magically as we climb higher. After Paso Australia, the highest point in the day, we decend to a very wild south-facing lake of bright turquoise blue nestling under the mountains, Lago Paso. We scramble over boulders and the odd snow patch at the side of the lake to reach another high pass called Paso de los Dientes, where we suddenly have views all the way to a distant archipelago, of which the most southerly island is Cape Horn, the most southerly point in the the Americas. We consider that we are lucky to have such great views in a place where the annual rainfall is over 2000mm and it can pour for days on end.

We descend from Paso de Los Dientes through a series of glacial lakes, and after the second one we pause for lunch. The stove plays up a bit - I figure because of the wind, but eventually we manage to cook up some spicy rice from a packet which we eat with the remaining sausage from the previous night. At this point we can´t see any more markers and the route is unclear. While Rachel is tidying up the lunch scene I scout for the next red route marker and eventually find it further down the valley. We spot the first other humans at this point, a Dutch couple called Annette and Ronald. I meet them just at the moment Annette falls over and breaks one of her walking poles. They comment that the trek has been tougher than they expected in many ways, particularly the navigation, and they have a GPS system to help them along.

Rachel and I continue round the mountains enjoying the spectacular pyramidal shape of Cerro Gabriel as it towers over Laguna de Los Dientes. After some bushwhacking through the calafate and stunted beech trees, we stop for an afternoon chocolate break and notice that the wind seems to be getting up.

An hour or so later we are on the shores of the bleak Laguna Escondida our destination for the evening. Roland and Annette have arrived before us and as we sit chatting by the campsite the wind starts to get really strong and gusty and we can see water being whipped up off the lake in gusty whirlwinds that seem to be spat down from the mountain. We decide to head down the valley a bit further because the winds seem strong enough to knock over a tent.

Down at the next campsite the ground is a bit boggy but its definitely less windy and we camp next to a beaver dam. Its the first time I´ve had a chance to inspect such a construction, and I am amazed that such a small creature has the strength and instinct to build such a vast construction which so radically alters the river flow and the surrounding landscape. All around the dam, the beavers have killed all the beech trees by knawing them down to retrieve the branches for the dam. The stark sun bleached dead trunks, which are too heavy for the beavers to move, litter the landscape like the bones of long dead prehistoric creatures.

That night in the wind the stove plays up and goes out halfway through cooking the evening pasta dish. Annette tells me to wrap the pot in my hat to thermally insulate it, and it will cook without the need for the fire. The trick works a treat although my hat ends up with black soot coating the inside from the poorly burning stove.

That night the wind becomes really gusty and violent squals rock the tent viciously. As I lie in my sleeping bag, I worry that that the tent wont make it through the night. I´ve never experienced wind like it, because one moment its still then the next moment I can hear a roar coming down the valley, which after a short delay suddenly hits the tent from all directions and knocks it around as you might ruffle a childs hair with your hand.

Day 3: South of Laguno Escondida to Laguna Martillo
In the morning we get up all bleary eyed and suffering from a lack sleep. Its still windy, but not as bad as the previous night and we cook up some porridge to help us start the day. I see that Ronald and Annette have already left before we get out of the tent.

We head off through the wild Patagonian landscape, pausing frequently to add and take off layers as the sun and the wind fight with each other, and we struggle to avoid being too warm or too cold. Soon we start to climb slowly up to the summit of Paso Ventarron, where the wind is blowing strongly. At the top we put on all the layers we have, because it is absolutely freezing and we cross over into another wild and desolate valley where take our last glimpse of Cape Horn, and see there are more impressive mountains to gaze at on the other side.

The path down the other side of Paso Ventarron is reasonable well marked, but once we get to the valley floor it seems impossible to trace it. We work out a bearing with the compass and strike off in the right direction making our own path through the bogs and beech strands. After a while we catch up with Annette and Ronald who are enjoying lunch in a sheltered spot. Ronald, pointing at his GPS, tells me that we are only 100m from the next trail marker which makes me feel happy with my navigation skills.

We trek on past the Dutch couple and climb another small pass and decend the side of a large lake (Laguna Hermosa) where we make lunch. The sun starts to come out and we peel off a few more layers and enjoy the warming rays. After lunch we realise that we´re not actually that far from the suggested camp spot for the evening on the southerly shores of Laguna Martillo. Because we´ve made good time we decide to press on to the northern shores instead which takes us about another hour of trekking. The campsite there looks really peaceful, sheltered, and has the most amazing view of the lake and a towering rock massif behind it. As we are pitching the tent I spot a beaver den just a few yards away and wonder if we will have any visitors in the evening.

As we have plenty of time and its a fine evening, we make a campfire, and enjoy sitting beside it in the late evening sunshine eating our food. There is no shortage of dried out timber to make the fire thanks to the beavers leaving behind enormous quantities of dead wood. At about 8pm we hear a loud splashing sound from the lake and look out to see a beaver expressing his annoyance with our presence next to his house, by striking his tail in the water. He swims back and forward offshore slowly getting closer to us, checking us out, and slowly realising we are not a threat to him. We take a couple of photos of him coming into his little house and knawing branches on the lakeside.

As we sit there watching Mr Beaver, a Condor circles around the towering rock spires above us and we think that this could be a strong contender for the perfect camp spot. That night we get a much better sleep.

Day 4: Laguno Martillo to Laguna Los Guacanos
Day 4 begins with a trudge through the undulating valley to the base of Paso Virginia. At the point where we have to start climbing to the top of the pass we have to scramble through a steep section of dense forest where we completely loose the path and struggle to maintain a sensible bearing on the steep hillside. When we pop out of the trees we can´t see where we´re supposed to go anymore, so I see a nick in the ridgeline and decide that it may be the best place to get over to the pass. As we climb up to the top of the ridge its starts to get scarily steep and the rocks are continuously moving beneath our hands and feet. Rachel starts to look really worried and goes extremely slowly because she´s scared of falling. When we finally get to the top I realise that we are not on the right path at all and I look out across a wide stony landscape like the surface of the moon and try to figure out where we are.

After some puzzling we realise that we´ve ascended the pass too early, and not at the lowest point, and we need to walk across the plateau in a northerly direction to rejoin the path. We are both relieved when after a short trudge across the empty windswept wasteland, we come across a tiny little cairn with the red markers on it. We follow a line of cairns to the edge of of the plateau and we get to the paso Virginia. We are shocked to see that the plateau falls away steeply in the most perfect glaciated U-shaped valley; one which my school geography teacher would have been proud of.

Seeing how steep the valley is we study the route notes carefully to work out how to get down safely. We skirt to the right and then get on to a section of steep loose scree where it feels more like cycling than walking as we head down. I see infront of me a section of vertical cliff and a path going left and right to get round it. We can´t work out which path to take and eventually plump for the right-hand one which turns out to be the wrong one. Despite taking the wrong path, we manage to get past the cliff and walk slowly down a section of steep scree to get to the bottom. Once at the bottom its obvious that the left-hand route would have been easier, but we feel happy to get down safely.

At the bottom we fire up the stove and eat a long overdue lunch. On the pass it was just too cold and windy to do any cooking. As we´re eating our rice and sardines, I see another figure appearing at the top of the pass. Despite me trying to signal with my walking poles, he too takes the wrong way down, but manages to recover by skirting along the top of the cliff to the left-hand path. A short while later, Toli, a Siberian student from Novobirsk, studying in Edinburgh, is chatting to us in the warm afternoon sunshine on the shores of Laguna Las Guanacas. I can´t believe it when he tells us that he has been to the Tesco store in St Neots before. Its a small world.

Before we´ve finished lunch, Toli heads off with good pace to the next campsite. Its taken him a day less than us to get to the same point, and Rachel and I figure there is little point trying to keep up with him.

In the evening we find Toli setting up camp in a sheltered spot in the trees beside Laguna Los Guanacos. We find a spot nearby and get the tent ready. In the evening we light a campfire and experiment with cooking on it instead of the MSR stove. It turns out to work out quite well, and the dinner is just as unappetising as usual.

In the evening the three of us sit around the campfire on the edge of the woods, chatting and shuffling positions as the smoke alternately blows in different directions. Suddenly the huge golden orb of the moon rises to the north and it seems to fill the sky as it casts shadows through the woods. It feels isolated and remote, and we have the feeling that we are somewhere special.

Day 5: Laguno Los Guanacos to Puerto Williams
On the last day of the hike we get up a bit later than usual knowing that at least half the distance will be along the main highway in Navarino and we plan to hitch it if anyone turns up. The path meanders down through marshes and strands of forest to a point where we find a familiar view of the Beagle Channel and the mountains beyond. The path is very difficult to follow and we have to keep backtracking whenever we lose it. Soon the path stops altogether and we have to make our way down through an area of rough hill grazing dotted with calafate bushes and trees. This proves the toughest part of the walk as we are supposed to head in the direction of a fish factory, but it keeps disappearing from view. Its another sunny day and soon we are down to T-shirts and our arms are scratched from pushing through the dense calafate undergrowth.

Just in the last few metres before the road Rachel steps in a muddy puddle right up to her middle - much to her distress after keeping herself dry for the entire 5-day duration. We press on for a few more metres and pop out onto the road and wander down to a grassy area on the beach in front of the fish factory where we eat some snacks. The factory is completely silent, I think because it is operational during the King Crab season in the winter, when the population of the Isla Navarino inflates with seasonal workers involved in crab harvest and processing.

As we are relaxing in the sunshine Toli appears on the hillside - apparenty he left an hour after us; it just shows how fit some people are compared to us.

We set off along the road listening carefully for cars and Toli soon puts in a huge gap between us. After 15 minutes or so a tiny Renault car appears and stops for us to let us on board. There are already three people in the car, and the boot is full, so we have to sit with our rucksacks on our laps in the backseat which means we see nothing during the ride. A few minutes down the road we wave to Toli, but after the 8km I am glad to be getting out. The driver drops us right in front of our hostel and I give him a half litre of petrol that I still have left from our stove. Im not sure if he really knows what it is despite my gesticulations at the petrol filler cap.

Back in Puerto Williams we see that there is a new front on the hostel, and the door is in a different position. Inside the same friendly crew are present and we hear some congratulations for completing the trek.

We enjoy taking the first shower in five days and relaxing around the town. We find a little restaurant aptly named Dientes de Navarino where we eat the menu de dias (menu of the day) for 2,500 Pesos (GBP2.50) each. We have homemade vegetable broth followed by a beef steak with potatoes, salad, and green beans. Basic but tasty fare, and just what we need after five days in the wilds.

The evening and the next day we take a little look round the town trying out all the things to do- which is not much. We go to the museum which is temporarily housed in a small building down by the waterfront. The museum has several exhibits relating to Martin Gusinde, an German priest who did a lot of work with the natives in the early 1900´s. It is a mish mash of poorly presented information, and we learn little about these facinating people. There are some frightening photos of young males dressed in bizzare and macabre outfits for ceremonies welcoming them into manhood. There is no information about the slaughter of these indiginous people to make way for sheep farmers, which is a pity because for me, these are an ethnic group shrouded in mystery. Outside the museaum there is a brass plaque displaying the opening times. The Chileans must like bizarre opening hours because apparently it opens at 9:06 and closes at 19:18 every day.

After writing some postcards and visiting the same restaurant again, we wait outside the hostel for our transfer to the airport. Half an hour before the flight is due to leave, our landlady spots the DAP plane in the air and runs out of the house all concerned because she thinks it is taking off and we have missed our flight. Fortunately its landing and 5 minutes later a jeep arrives to drive us down to the airport.

Down at the little shed that passes for an airport arrivals and departures, a guy shouts out that we can get on the plane and we make our way through the doorway to board the twin prop 20-seater. As we sit in the plane we can see the grey spires of the Dientes De Navarino lit up by the afternoon sunshine. We say our goodbyes to Isla Navarino and consider it is a memorable visit.
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mtrinko on

I am moving to Puerto Williams
Your details of the Dientes Trek are much better than any I have read so far. Love your insight. Thanks.
I start teaching English in Puerto Williams April 2007

rachel_john on

The end of the world
You're very fortunate to be going to Isla Navarino - the circuito de los dientes was one of the best hikes of our around the world trip. Puerto Willaims is an unspoilt wilderness and full of friendly people. Enjoy your stay!

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