Bottoms Up on Cape Horn, Chile

Senior editor Norie Quintos, who edits the magazine’s annual Tours of a Lifetime issue, is just back from a trip down South (way down) to Cape Horn, the Straits of Magellan, and Tierra del Fuego.

It’s the dawn of a new decade. And I’m at the end of the world.

Specifically, it’s 01/01/10 and I’m at Cape Horn, the tip of the habitable world, Land’s End, tailbone of the Americas, the planet’s last lick of land beyond which Earth’s two great oceans–the mighty Atlantic and the misnamed Pacific–clash in a not-so-friendly mashup. Beyond the Cape: the forbidding shores of Antarctica, 500 miles away.

Prosaic thoughts give way to profound during moments and at coordinates such as these. (It helps that I am beyond the tentacley reach of Wi-Fi and thus liberated from the neurotic, neuronic blips that pass for thinking in the Age of Twitter.) This is the perfect time and place for a Big Think.

The Chilean expedition cruise ship Via Australis has deposited me and 130 fellow passengers on this island in a manner far more cushy than previous travelers who have wended this way, among them Francis Drake, whose storm-tossed detour led to the accidental discovery of the Drake Passage directly to the south; the Dutch merchant-explorer duo Le Maire and Schouten, who named the Cape after the latter’s home town of Hoorn; and English naturalist Charles Darwin, who rounded the Cape on the Beagle on his way to the Galapagos Islands and eventual fame.

The carcasses of countless ships and steamers litter the ocean floor around these parts. The “furious fifties,” as the winds of the 50th parallel southern latitudes are called (Cape Horn is at 55° 58′ 47″ S), are legendary, and–squeezed by the Andes and the Antarctic peninsula–they give rise to equally fearsome waves. Throw in the odd iceberg to make things more interesting. Even now, only sailors who have “rounded the Horn” are by tradition permitted to wear a gold loop earring and to dine with one leg on the table.

Landing on or rounding the island remains enough of a dicey proposition today that the cruise line, Cruceros Australis, takes pains not to guarantee it in its promotional materials. (Queasy types shouldn’t worry too much. The rest of the ship’s route is through the sheltered passages of the Beagle Channel and the Magellan Strait.) The captain told me the ship manages a rounding of the Horn only about 50 percent of the time.


But the first day of 2010 turns out to be a lucky one: calm seas, the lightest of breezes, a hazy sun. It is summer in the Southern Hemisphere and the temperature is in the relatively balmy 50 degrees Fahrenheit. We make landfall, clamber up a steep set of stairs, greet the lonely Chilean Navy sailor at his guardpost, and snap the requisite photos. Eventually everyone scatters to explore the lighthouse and visit the chapel, leaving me, briefly, alone to gaze at the Cape. (The actual point is virtually inaccessible, protected from the erosive tread of visitors.)

For one brief shining moment, I’m the southernmost human in the Americas.

I whip out my Moleskine notebook. (Hemingway famously used one and therefore so do all the writers I know; interestingly, so did Bruce Chatwin, whose musings about Patagonia and Cape Horn I have just read.) I jot down deep thoughts, burning questions, fervent wishes, and firm resolves. I visualize them rising to the heavens, carried on the wings of the albatrosses–the souls of sailors perished according to sea lore.

It doesn’t have to be New Year’s Day on Cape Horn. Any combination of place and time (spot + moment) that takes you away from the incessant demands of daily living, that places you in direct contact with Nature’s majesty or civilization’s crowning glories, throws open the window on your essential self so you can get a good hard look. These auspicious times and places can be truly enabling, in the best sense of that much-maligned word.

So when and where is it going to be for you? Valentine’s Day in Tuvalu? April in Paris? Post-divorce in Bali (a la Eat, Pray, Love)? Christmas on the Equator?

At the lighthouse-cum-souvenir shop, I sign the guestbook (page 1!) and buy an “El Fin del Mundo” postcard stamped with today’s date. Then I rejoin friends old and new back on the boat.

The end, come to think of it, makes a fine beginning.

Share your own deep thoughts about travel in the comments below.

Photos of Cape Horn by Norie Quintos. In her next posting, Norie falls in love with Darwin, Drake, and a bunch of dead guys. Plus: Glaciers are cool.


  1. Charlie Thunemann
    May 1, 2010, 4:29 am

    I visited Cape Horn at 19th March 2009 to say a final bye bye to my father who rounded the Horn three times in 1936 – 1938 when he was 16. He was on his way to Iquique with Flying P-Liner “Priwall”, later called “Lautaro”.
    At the 19th the weather was like is written in nearly all books about the Kap Hornieres: stormy and raining. So my fathers ashes did’nt go with all the winds there but merely to my very very wet jeans.

  2. Leon Makasjian
    March 13, 2010, 5:59 pm

    We departed Fort Lauderdale aboard Carnival cruise lines newest behemoth the Splendor, circumnavigating South America reaching Long Beach after a two month journey. Of course the pinnacle of the journey apexed in Cape Horn where the dark waters tossed the 112,000 ton megaship unlike any other waters I have witnessed through my 300 days of cruise travels in many parts of earth. It is here where two oceans collide in anger reminding any living creature as to who exactly the boss remains. Cape Horn is a must see for adventure seekers.

  3. Remortgage Deals
    March 11, 2010, 12:39 am

    Wow!!!Really a wonderful place.It looking like heaven.I am very crazy for beautiful places.Thanks a lot for sharing.

  4. Etnies
    February 27, 2010, 5:51 am

    Great post. All posts have something to learn. Your work is very good and i appreciate you and hopping for some more great posts. Thanks a lot for sharing information with us. Keep it up. Keep blogging.

  5. Cannes Rental
    February 16, 2010, 2:31 am

    You explanation is excellent and clear. I was impressed with this post and am looking forward to reading more from you ….
    Bookmarked this.. ;)Thanks for sharing…

  6. hotel
    February 13, 2010, 5:41 am

    More adventure on this island.

  7. Cannes Rental
    February 10, 2010, 4:41 am

    You explanation is excellent and clear. I was impressed with this post and am looking forward to reading more from you ….
    Bookmarked this.. ;)Thanks for sharing…

  8. Christine
    February 8, 2010, 2:10 pm

    What a great place to start the new year! You captured the spririt of this barren land – I found it funny that the components of this landscape one for one are not really special: rocks and waves and just a little battered vegetation, yet the combination makes one of the most striking places I have ever seen.
    Thank you for this beautiful post!

  9. International Tours
    February 1, 2010, 6:30 am

    Informative post.

  10. Scott Burgess
    January 19, 2010, 7:23 pm

    What a beautifully written moment. To see and know that you’re the farther south than anyone — if only for that moment — on two continents.
    Thanks for sharing the thoughts and realizing some moments can’t be captured in 140 characters. It’s a wondrous world and to walk the same steps and venture out into the dangerous waters as Drake and Magellan and so many others is inspiring.
    Thank you Norie and Godspeed.

  11. Travel Blogs
    January 19, 2010, 1:08 pm

    Nice picture!