Location: Patagonia, Chile
Distance: 54 km
Camping: Wild camping
People seen: 4
Guidebook: Trekking in the Patagonian Andes
The Dientes de Navarino Circuit is one of the world’s most southerly hikes. This is part 1 of 6 posts about the 5 days I spent hiking the circuit in December 2013 and January 2014. This part covers preparation and logistics.
Part 1: Preparation
Part 2: Laguna Salto
Part 3: Monte Bettinelli and turning back
Part 4: A long day to Laguna Martillo
Part 5: Paso Virginia and Laguna Guanacos
Part 6: The final stretch to Puerto Williams
Dientes de Navarino – An Idea is Born
“This trek into the wild interior of Isla Navarino should not be taken lightly. It is not recommended for solo trekkers. Although somewhat protected by the mountains further to the west, the island experiences constantly unstable and often savage weather, with strong winds and summer snowfalls. The route is extremely isolated and mostly above the tree line in exposed terrain, where careful navigation and route finding is required.”
I suspect the Lonely Planet Trekking in the Patagonian Andes‘ blurb about the Dientes de Navarino Circuit was meant more as a disclaimer than a recommendation, but with an introduction like that, who could resist? Having already trekked extensively in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park and Argentina’s Los Glaciares park, I was looking forward to this third famous Patagonian adventure.
The Dientes Circuit, also known as the Dientes de Navarino or the Teeth of Navarino, is a 54 km (34 mile) trek often billed as the ‘most southerly trek in the world’. Its starting and ending point is Puerto Williams (the world’s most southerly town) on Chile’s Isla Navarino, across the Beagle Channel from Ushuaia in Argentina (which also calls itself the world’s most southerly town). Over the course of 3 to 5 days trekkers can expect to encounter typical Patagonian weather including hail, snow, and of course the notorious winds, as you cross mountain passes, pass through valleys, and circle lakes. There are no campsites or facilities here – all camping is wild camping, although finding a decent, dry spot can be difficult. The relative difficulty of reaching Isla Navarino means the circuit is far less busy than the aforementioned Patagonian treks. Although you are likely to see a few other trekkers here, you do need to be completely prepared and independent: there are no facilities whatsoever on the circuit.
Getting to Isla Navarino
There are three main ways to reach Isla Navarino:
- By ferry from Punta Arenas (Chile)
- By plane from Punta Arenas (Chile)
- By boat from Ushuaia (Argentina)
I settled on the final option. The ferry from Punta Arenas takes around 36 hours, but sails through almost the whole length of the Beagle Channel, passing scenic mountains and glaciers. I would probably have gone for this option if I had not already taken the Puerto Natales to Puerto Montt ferry a few years ago on the way back from Torres del Paine. I considered the flying option since the views over the channel and the surrounding mountains would surely be fantastic; however, the airline has a strict 10kg luggage limit and I was sure I could not meet it with all my camping and photographic gear. The boat from Ushuaia goes on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and takes about 30 minutes, plus 90 minutes to drive from Puerto Navarino to Puerto Williams. The cost in December 2013 was $115 USD.
Clearing customs on Isla Navarino was generally easy, though it is worth noting that Chile and Argentina have very strict rules about importing food (particularly fresh fruit) – bags are given a rudimentary search and sometimes x-rayed on entry. There seems to be no problem with dehydrated camping food though, providing it is in the original packaging. In both directions the ‘search’ of my bag consisted simply of opening the top and looking at the immediately visible items.
There are no hotels on Isla Navarino, only basic hostels. I stayed at the Bella Vista in a private room which was only slightly bigger than the bed it contained (and was very cold). However, the views over the town and the channel were great and I am told it is one of the best options in Puerto Williams. Either way, for $20 USD a night there is not much to complain about.
I saw three supermarkets in Puerto Williams, all of which carried enough produce for a camping trip – though nothing specialised (such as dehydrated meals) was available.
Before embarking upon hikes from Puerto Williams, you are supposed to register your destination and expected return date with the carabineros (local police), and check-in again when you return. I have no idea if they will come looking for you should you fail to return, but registering is worthwhile, literally takes a minute, and they are very used to dealing with tourists with less than stellar Spanish.
Gear is always a balance between weight and necessity, but in the subarctic conditions on Isla Navarino you cannot take shortcuts; weather changes extremely rapidly and every day I experienced high winds, warm sunshine, rain, and snow. Temperatures can drop close to zero even during the day, before wind chill is taken into account. Below is a generally complete list of what I took:
- Tent (REI Arete 2 ASL)
- RAB Ascent 700 sleeping bag
- Trangia stove (I was unsure of fuel availability in Puerto Williams so brought some from Ushuaia, where alcohol is easily available in the first aid sections of supermarkets)
- SteriPen for water sterilization
- Paramo waterproof jacket and trousers
- Icebreaker base layer
- Liner gloves
- Mammut Impact GTX boots
- Walking socks (You will have wet feet each day, so take quite a few pairs!)
Given that one of the main purposes of this trip was photography, deciding on the right equipment was very difficult. Eventually I settled upon:
- Canon 70D as an upgrade to my old Rebel 450D
- Canon 24-105 f/4 L IS as my main lens, since it offers a good focal length range
- Canon 10-22 EF-S for extra wide shots of those huge Patagonian skies.
- Hoya R72 Infrared filter as I am attempting to learn more about IR photography
- MeFoto tripod (barely used!)
I decided against taking the (extremely nice, but also quite heavy) Canon 70-300 f4-5.6 IS L, and against taking my old Rebel body as a backup / second camera for the UWA lens. With hindsight these omissions were not a problem – I saw very little on the trail that would have required a 300mm lens and almost all shots were taken with the good old Canon 24-105. Although rarely used, the MeFoto was invaluable for low-light evening shots (although more so on my other Isla Navarino hike to Lago Windhond).
Maps, Trail markings, and Navigation
The Dientes Circuit is generally marked by a series of posts (‘Snupies’) that indicate the direction. However, these should not be used as the only method of route-finding – in several sections I struggled to find the next marker, even in good conditions. Often the path remained visible, but sometimes multiple routes confused things. In low visibility it would be a nightmare relying solely on the markers. A simple topographical map is widely available in Puerto Williams – I paid 3000 Chilean pesos for mine (about 5 USD). I didn’t see this map anywhere else outside of Puerto Williams. Before the trip I bought Lonely Planet’s Trekking in the Patagonian Andes book and photocopied the relevant pages to carry with me. To be honest, I never used them on the trip, though the route descriptions make interesting pre-travel reading.
If you use a GPS (I didn’t), the locations of the trail’s Snupie markers are available online. Of course, GPS should not be used as a substitute for navigational skill – I have seen several instances (Iceland for example) where extremely low visibility has caused wildly inaccurate GPS readings – just when their users needed them the most – and I can easily see weather like that closing in on Navarino.
Puerto Williams also has a small tourist office (right around the corner from the immigration building) with some of the friendliest, most enthusiastic, and most helpful staff you can imagine. They are well worth a visit, and might be able to sort you out with a map if the local shops are closed or out of stock.
The tap water in Puerto Williams is generally safe to drink. On the circuit itself there were quite a few small streams, many of them snow melt from higher up, on most days of the walk. I generally found no need to carry more than a litre of water at once because of this. The exception to this was the first day, where there were very limited water sources.
The abundance of beavers across Isla Navarino means giardia (‘beaver fever’) is a major concern, so all water needs treating before drinking. I used the SteriPen which sterilizes using UV light and is very handy as it treats viruses, bacteria, and cysts. The UV light does not kill these nasties but it damages their DNA, preventing them from reproducing. I have used the SteriPen on quite a few trips now and have had no problems except for battery issues. It is always worth carrying a spare set of batteries, as once the warning message appears the batteries die quite quickly. There are quite a few versions of the SteriPen available; I have the ‘Journey’ version which comes with a small plastic particle filter for initially cleaning up water sources (like most treatment methods, the UV light works well in clear water) and a handy water bottle whose neck is wide enough for the pen to fit into.
Having bought my supplies and registered with the police, I set off on day one of the Dientes Circuit…