My South America trip to the ‘End of the World’

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My earliest memory – around age 10  – of a personality from South America is not of any politician, artist, or explorer. It is of the heavyweight boxer, Luis Angel Firpo – The Wild Bull of the Pampas.

His nickname enthralled me. Firpo is buried in La Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires where I got a chance to pay my respects on Nov. 24th of this year.

It was the beginning of my wife Ann’s and my memorable two-week trip to Argentina, Chile and fabled “Cape Horn” – the end of the world. We finished our journey on Dec. 7, 2013.

Luis Angel Firpo – The Wild Bull of the Pampas. (Wikipedia)

As the fates would have it in that same Buenos Aires’ cemetery is buried Admiral William (Guillermo) Brown (1777-1857), a native of Ireland. He briefly lived in America as a young man, became a sea captain on merchant vessels and made his way to Argentina where he became a national hero. He is known as the Father of the Argentinian Navy.

Admiral Brown’s hometown in Ireland was Foxford, located in County Mayo. My mother, the late Nora Thornton, was born in the village of Tavanaghmore –  a few miles away. There is a monument to Admiral Brown in Foxford in the town’s square, which I saw on my first in visit to the Wild West of Ireland in the early 1970s. I never dreamed that I would one day visit his grave in Argentina. Go figure.

As for Cape Horn, my wife Ann’s great-grandfather on her mother’s side, William Walton Freed, did travel around the feared promontory as a seaman on the British bark, “Iron Crag,” on Nov. 15, 1878. His account, “Before the Mast,” is reprinted in the family’s history book (“A Freed Family History”). It reveals a harrowing experience. So, a visit to celebrated Cape Horn has been on Ann’s agenda for a good while.

Argentina's national hero Admiral William Brown.. (Wikipedia)
Argentina’s national hero Admiral William Brown.. (Wikipedia)

Although we have been to many countries in Central America over the years, and once to Venezuela together, and Ann alone to Peru, this was our first trip to the deep south of the continent – Argentina and Chile. They share a common border that runs roughly for 3,300 miles along the majestic snow-covered Andes Mountains.

At the moment, the most popular tourist attraction – Pope Francis, isn’t there. He was elevated to the Pontificate on March 13. We did get a chance to check out the facade of the “Metropolitan Cathedral of Buenos Aires.”

As the then-Archbishop of Buenos Aires, this was his last residence before moving to the Vatican. He is very popular in both Argentina and Chile. One woman told me: “Pope Francis is a breath of fresh air. I’m thinking seriously,” as she laughed out loud, “of coming ‘back’ to the church!”

Me too!

We spent four days in Buenos Aires and environs. Imagine traffic, like in the flick “Rush Hour!” The Plaza de Mayo, rich in the nation’s history, was our starting point. Sadly, there’s some evil-doing lately associated with it. From 1976 to 1983, the country was engaged in a “Dirty War,” a time of blood-filled “state terrorism.” There may have been as many as 30,000 innocent victims. To learn more about this grim subject, and the participation in the protest over the missing, led by the brave mothers, check out the web site: “Madras de Plaza de Mayo.”

I also recommend a visit to Buenos Aires’ artsy, working class neighborhood, the charming – “La Boca” – located in the old waterfront district.

Leaving Buenos Aires, we took a plane ride to a boomtown, Calafate – found on the great windswept plains of the Patagonian steppes. (Think film director John Ford and his fave cowboy, John Wayne.)

The flight took five hours as we inched closer to Chile. We visited by bus  “Los Glaciares National Park.” Is it big? Try 1,700 square miles. The highlight for us was a close-up view of the Perito Moreno Glacier. Along the way, we crossed the border with Chile and headed toward Punta Arenas – a bustling port city. Passing through the Torres del Paine, we saw a spectacular waterfall. There were also a wide variety of bird species, guanacos, Andean condors and gray foxes to admire. We even worked in a visit to a delightful sheep farm.

From Punta Arenas we boarded our expeditionary vessel, the Chilean “Stella Australis.” The accommodations and the food were first-class. This was our home for the next four days and nights as we sailed the pristine waters of the Strait of Magellan, Beagle Channel, Ainsworth Bay, Glacier Alley, Wulia Bay and eventually around Cape Horn, where the mighty Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet.

Pinochet in 1995. (Wikipedia)
Pinochet in 1995. (Wikipedia)

I did encounter one Chilean, in Punta Arenas, who was willing to speak off the record about the ex-dictator General Augusto Pinochet’s lethal 17-year legacy in his country (1973-90). He told me: “At the end of the day, Democracy prevailed. But, it was a very heavy price to pay. We’re glad to now say: Pinochet is gone! And yet we know the Far Right is till very strong in our country and it can come back with a murderous fury.”

As an American, I am sorry to note the late President Richard M. Nixon and his Iago-like hatchet man, Henry Kissinger’s, reputed roles as accomplices in that reign of terror.

Getting back to the tour. Our delightful cruise continued on Dec. 1, 2013, into Ainsworth Bay where our vessel moored close to the 120-foot-high Marinelli Glacier. Later, our expedition ship sailed to Tucker Islet, where we made an excursion near the shore via our zodiac life raft boats, to catch sight of the famed Magellanic penguins. The skua galls and the cormorant birds like to hang out here with other Fuegian birds.

I could have sworn I saw one of my fave actors, Danny “The Penguin” DeVito, hopping around on that island, while squawking his little head off. Check out his “Penguin” role in the popular flick, “Batman Returns” (1992).

We had a lovely excursion  –  one day to “Glacier Alley” where sits fabled “Pia Glacier.” Again, we used the ship’s zodiac life rafts boats to transport us to the shoreline. As a passenger on it, I felt like I was a member of a U.S. Navy Seal team. Once there, we checked out the glacier from its origins in the Darwin Mountain Range to where it meets the sea. By way of a cautionary note, a 2003 study by researchers from the U.S. Jet Propulsion Laboratory has documented the fact that the Pantagonian ice fields of both Chile and Argentina due to the effects of global warming, are “the fastest area of glacial retreat on Earth!”

I’d be remise if I didn’t say a word about the tour’s sponsor, “Overseas Adventure Travel.” Our tour leader, Ms. Gracieala Rubin and the Captain and the crew of the vessel Stella Australis. Well, here is that word: “Bravissimo!”

As for the people of Argentina and Chile, they couldn’t have been nicer to us. It’s true that their lands, lakes and rivers are very beautiful. And, so is something else that goes mostly unsung – the beauty of their women!

All of the above brings us to the apex of our journey – Cape Horn. On December 3, 2013, we reached it – “the world’s southernmost point.”

At times on our climb up the promontory, the wind speed hit around 60 mph. The rain felt, often, like it was cutting my face. While moving towards the “Albatross” monument, we were able to take refuge in a chapel and also a lighthouse, which is maintained by the Chilean Navy.

Finally, magnificent Cape Horn –  steeped in global maritime history deserves a poem.  I offer one from a Chilean poet,  Sara Vial. It is titled: “Cape Horn Memorial.”

“I am the albatross that awaits you
At the end of the world.
I am the forgotten souls of dead mariners
Who passed Cape Horn
From all the oceans of the world.
But they did not die
In the furious waves.
Today they sail on my wings
Toward eternity,
In the last crack
Of the Antarctic winds.”


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