Bottoms Up on Cape Horn, Chile

Cape Horn, Chile

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 guard post, 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 (à 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.

This post was first published on the Intelligent Travel blog on January 19, 2010. Photo © Norie Quintos