Less than 621 miles (1,000 kilometers) north of Antarctica, wedged between the rugged, snow-covered Dientes de Navarino mountain range and the south bank of the Beagle Channel, the windswept and desolate settlement of Puerto Williams feels like the end of the world.
As the crow flies, the Chilean capital, Santiago, is more than 1,491mi (2,400km) north of Puerto Williams, which is located on Navarino Island. The only significant human settlements south of the city are Puerto Toro, a tiny fishing village also on Navarino, and the scientific research bases on Antarctica itself. There are no road connections between Puerto Williams and the rest of Tierra del Fuego; to get here, you have to fly or travel by boat.
With a population of around 3,000, only a handful of shops and few buildings over two stories in height, Puerto Williams looks and feels like a small town, albeit one that is also equipped with a naval base and an airstrip. It’s the kind of place where residents leave their keys in their cars and rarely lock their front doors.
However, in May 2019, the Chilean authorities officially redesignated it as a “city,” allowing it to claim the title of “southernmost city on Earth” from its far larger Argentine rival Ushuaia, which sits on the opposite bank of the Beagle Channel, around 10mi (16km) to the north. Although some suspect this is little more than a marketing ploy, the hope is that this will help to boost tourist numbers when international travel starts to recover.
Even before the global lockdowns, few travelers made it this far south. Those who did were drawn largely by the opportunity to attempt one of South America’s finest hikes, the grueling but rewarding 43mi (70km) Dientes de Navarino Circuit. They also came to take boat trips along the Beagle Channel – prime territory for spotting sea lions, dolphins, whales and penguins – or around Cape Horn, the southernmost chunk of the South American continent.
Yet, they also found an incredibly friendly place in which it is easy to fall into conversations with residents on the street or in one of the few rustic restaurants, where locally caught centolla (king crab) is the standout dish. Even weather is less harsh than many fear; although the winter months are bitterly cold, the short summer is relatively mild, with highs of 16C or 17C (61-63F) in January and February.
Despite its new-found city status, though, Puerto Williams has long been on the margins of Chilean life, says Alberto Serrano, director of its excellent anthropological museum, the Museo Antropológico Martín Gusinde. “Chile is one of the most centralized countries – everything is absolutely centered in Santiago. In Santiago, if you ask a person on the street about Puerto Williams, they will say, ‘Ah, is that near the city of Puerto Montt?’ [which is some 870mi (1,400km) north of Puerto Williams]. For Chileans, that’s the extreme south.”
Puerto Williams was founded as a military outpost in 1953 and named after John Williams Wilson, a 19th-century British-Chilean naval commander and politician. Most of its residents are naval officers and their families, who live in rows of identical whitewashed homes with picket fences, neatly trimmed lawns and 4×4s parked out front. But the city also has a significant indigenous community.
Indigenous peoples have lived in Tierra del Fuego for more than 10,000 years but were devastated by waves of European settlers in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Many of them died from infectious diseases, such as measles and smallpox, brought to the region by the settlers, while many others were killed by ranchers and bounty hunters. Today, only small communities remain.
Puerto Williams is home to around 70 Yaghan people, members of what was once among the largest indigenous groups in Tierra del Fuego. Most live in Villa Ukika, a hamlet about a mile outside the city center. Its most noted resident is Cristina Calderón, who is now in her 90s and known universally as “Abuela Cristina” (“Grandmother Cristina”).
“The community has a president and a government structure, but Abuela Cristina is considered the matrilineal head,” says Laura A Ogden, a cultural anthropologist at Dartmouth College who has worked on a collaborative archival research project in Villa Ukika. “She is the grandmother figure for the whole community and a real political figurehead. She’s like the queen.”
Until recently, the Yaghan community was largely “invisible” to the Chilean authorities, says Ogden, but this is slowly changing. Recent years have seen a revitalization of cultural traditions, and the community staged a high-profile campaign to prevent the opening of a salmon farm in the Beagle Channel. “I think that was the first time the national news media in Chile really covered Yaghan issues,” says Ogden.
Covid-19, though, is now a major concern. Cases have been reported in Puerto Williams, and for the Yaghan community, in particular, the pandemic is a terrifying echo of the diseases brought over by European settlers almost 150 years ago. “We have been through this before and are scared that this virus will affect us in the same way [as diseases affected] our ancestors,” David Alday, the community’s vice president, told local newspaper La Prensa Austral.
Before the Covid-19 crisis, interest in Puerto Williams was growing steadily. The Chilean authorities have carried out infrastructure projects in recent years, including building a modern dock, new roads and a raised wooden boardwalk overlooking the Beagle Channel. Tourist numbers were also climbing, albeit from a low base, with several cruise ships calling in during the short summer season.
Although Puerto Williams’ connections with the rest of Chile and the wider world will continue to grow in the future, for intrepid travelers, the city is likely to feel like the end of the road in South America for many years to come.