At the Edge of the Earth at Cape Horn

IMG_1714-001Few places are as lonely as Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America. This isolated headland on Hornos Island marks the northern edge of the Drake Passage, a treacherous body of water that was the bane of many a ship before the construction of the Panama Canal. “Rounding the Horn” meant battling strong winds, dangerous currents, huge waves, and even icebergs. Countless sailors perished in the attempt.

Cape Horn is an evocative place to visit – even if the only reasonable way to do so in the company of 100 other cruise passengers. I’ve visited the Horn twice while traveling aboard the expedition ships operated by Cruceros Australis, one of the few companies to ply these waters. Even so, getting there wasn’t easy. On my first trip, we almost couldn’t go ashore because of high seas. After we were ferried to shore in Zodiac rafts we had to climb a long, steep staircase to reach the top of the cliff.

Once on the island, there’s a wooden path across the marshy landscape to the Albatross Monument, a memorial to all the sailors who lost their lives rounding Cape Horn.

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Near the monument is a stone panel with a beautiful poem by Chilean poet Sara Vial. The English translation is:

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I am the albatross that awaits you
at the end of the world.
I am the forgotten soul of the dead mariners
who passed Cape Horn
from all the seas of the world.
But they did not die
in the furious waves.
Today they soar on my wings
towards eternity
in the last crack
of the Antarctic winds.

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The island is part of Cabo de Hornos National Park and is home to a lighthouse station run by the Chilean Navy. The station consists of the lighthouse and attached dwelling, as well as a tiny wooden chapel.

A lightouse keeper lives at the station with his wife and two children – surely one of the most isolated job postings anywhere! On my first visit to Cape Horn it was raining, and the gray weather made the spot seem even lonelier. (Even on my second visit, when the sun was shining, I couldn’t imagine living in such a place.)

The station and the Albatross Monument are actually located about a mile northeast of the actual Cape Horn, which is difficult to access both by land and by sea. The actual cape can be seen in the distance beyond the monument and has a smaller lighthouse tower, the most southerly lighthouse in the world.

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