CAPE HORN, Chile - As we pass from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the wind comes howling out of Antarctica at 75 m.p.h., gusting up to 104. The deck pitches and rolls, cresting and collapsing in the 15-foot swells. I brace myself with both feet.
A fellow passenger steps out to join me with his camera dangling from his neck by a strap. The wind blows it into his face and bloodies his nose.
It is a relatively calm day here at the single most feared spot on the globe for mariners - but even in a 709-foot, diesel-powered cruise ship, rounding Cape Horn on the gale-washed tip of South America is an adventure. I struggle to imagine what it was like on a bad day for those square-rigged wooden sailing ships battling upwind a century ago.
The haunting, mournful notes of Mozart's Requiem waft from the speaker system of the Regent Seven Seas Mariner, and in a time-honored tradition of the sea, the ship's horn sounds three times in memory of the estimated 10,000 seamen who have died in these waters.
When the music fades, Terry Breen, the on-board destination specialist for Regent (formerly Radisson) Seven Seas Cruises, continues her running commentary from the bridge. "We're at 55 degrees, 59 minutes south latitude. The screaming 50s. There's an old sailors' saying, 'Below 40 South there is no law, below 50 South there is no God.' "
Breen is a cultural anthropologist, specializing in Latin America, and later, over coffee in the ship's library, she says: "We plan these things very carefully. I work with the captain to time our sailing so we don't pass something important in the night. We will detour, go up dead ends, turn around, whatever it takes, so long as it's safe."
A cruise around the Horn, from Buenos Aires to Lima, carries a bonus beyond fascinating ports and exciting shore excursions: There's lots of action at sea, and the scenery from your balcony suite is jaw-dropping.
After Cape Horn, we cruised the Beagle Channel (named for the ship that carried Charles Darwin, who went by here in 1832) and sailed down the "Avenue of the Glaciers." Each time we passed one of these slow-moving rivers of ice, Capt. Philippe Fichet Delavault obligingly had the Mariner do a 360-degree pirouette so that all passengers got a full view of the spectacle.
Each time, he played a musical accompaniment - Dvorak's New World Symphony, Smetana's On the Moldau, and Vivaldi's Four Seasons.
The fastest of these Chilean glaciers, Breen tells us, are moving at one foot per day, and some move as slowly as six inches per day. Some of the ice we see is 1,000 years old.
Here is the last gasp of the Andes, the longest mountain range in the world, coming down 4,400 miles from Venezuela across seven nations. The slopes are ribboned with waterfalls from melting glacial ice. Mountains, sea, and ice are united in stunning conspiracy.
As the sunset drizzles gold on the landscape, the Mariner crew motors out in one of the ship's tenders and brings back a basketball-size piece of glacial ice that will be displayed that night in front of the main restaurant.
Earlier in the journey, off the Falkland Islands well north of Cape Horn, an iceberg was spotted. "This is actually a large chunk of an ice shelf in Antarctica that has calved, or separated," Breen said. "I have never seen these this far north." Later, the bridge reports that the last sighting of an iceberg in this area was in 1772.
Three days after our tumultuous passage around Cape Horn, we took a detour into a Chilean fjord and cruised at a leisurely 16 knots. It was a weather-perfect afternoon, and I sat on my suite's balcony basking in the warm sun. The only sound was the water parting with the passage of the Mariner's hull.
The snow-covered Andes were in the background. Near the shoreline, the slopes were lush with vegetation and plumed with foliage. Sea lions frolicked in the water. Shards of sunlight glistened like jewels on the placid water, broken only by dolphins leaping playfully. There was no sign of human activity. Chilean fjords are among the least populated places on Earth.
One morning just after daybreak the Mariner slowed down so early risers could get a daylight glimpse of the wreck of the Santa Leonora, an 18,000-ton freighter that ran aground on its maiden voyage in 1964. No lives were lost. As the rising sun bathed the Andes in pink, we viewed the rusting hulk.
"The captain and the pilot were arguing over the correct course," Breen said. "Finally, the captain threw up his hands and said, 'All right!' The pilot mistook these words for an order, and veered the ship to the right - onto the rocks. It changed maritime procedure forever. Now only the words 'port' and 'starboard' are used on the bridge."
There was ample time for shore excursions during the three-week cruise. Our first landing of the cruise was at West Point Island, which is part of the Falklands; it has 3,100 acres, two inhabitants (sheep farmers), no roads, and something like 100,000 albatrosses and penguins.
We hiked 11/2 miles to their colonies, where black-browed albatrosses cruised elegantly on eight-foot wingspans and rockhopper penguins strutted around, puff-chested, like little Napoleons. Then we visited the modest frame home of Rod and Lily Napier, who served us tea and scones. Next day we were in Port Stanley, the main town in the Falklands. It's very British, with red phone booths, pubs, and all the refinements of Her Majesty's Realm.
After Cape Horn, we docked in the mountain-rimmed Argentine port of Ushuaia, the world's southernmost city, on the island of Tierra del Fuego, and the jumping-off point for Antarctic expeditions. The town itself is touristy (get your "I Survived Cape Horn" T-shirts), but it's a short drive to Terra del Fuego National Park, a pristine place of serene lakes, beech forests, and sharp, toothy mountains decapitated by clouds.
I gazed across Ensenada Bay to Chile, just six miles away, and inhaled air so pure I quaffed deep breaths. We drove back to the Mariner on a graded, 11/2-lane road that is the Pan American Highway. A sign said, "17,848 Kilometers to Alaska."
Chile's answer to Argentina's port of Ushuaia is Punta Arenas, a lively city of 40,000 with several excellent museums and restored homes that convey a sense of life here before the Panama Canal opened in 1914. In those days, Punta Arenas was a busy shipping and commercial center. The Chileans and the Argentines are in frequent disputes over land at the bottom of the world, and they seem to agree on only one thing - that this territory has a single name: Patagonia.
Chile is a 2,700-mile-long string bean of a country, hemmed in by the Pacific and the Andes, and we cruise just offshore, stopping every day or so to sample a small port. One of them is Coquimbo, where the fishermen paint their houses the same color as their boats so husbands and wives can spot each other during the day.
From Coquimbo we take a coach up Cerro Tololo Mountain, negotiating dozens of switchbacks until we are at about 6,000 feet and standing before the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory. The largest telescope there is 25 feet in diameter - so powerful that scientists can watch the birth of stars. That night aboard the Mariner, I step out on my balcony and pick out the Southern Cross from the dazzle of stars overhead.
One morning I awake to find that Peru, rather than Chile, is just off our starboard side. We make an excursion to the well-preserved ruins of Tambo Colorado, which was built in 1446 as a kind of inn and resting place along the Royal Inca Road. The road once ran about 3,300 miles from Argentina to Colombia, but today only bits and pieces of this ancient engineering feat survive; I stand on one of them, savoring a sun-soaked breeze coming off the ocean.
The following morning we dock in Lima. We have come more than 5,800 miles in 20 days.
Cruising the Horn
The Regent Seven Seas Mariner sails around Cape Horn, from Buenos Aires to Lima, over 19 nights. The current price of the cruise is about $9,370.
The Web site for Regent Seven Seas Cruises is www.rssc.com. The page for the Seven Seas Mariner is www.rssc.com/voyage/details.
Cruceros Australis' Mare Australis and Via Australis sail between Punta Arenas, Chile, and Ushuaia, Argentina, with a stop at Cape Horn. The ships, which each have 63 or 64 cabins, are small enough to sail through channels, bays, and fjords, past glaciers, mountains and forests that larger ships cannot reach. The three- and four-night cruises cost $960 to $2,290 through April.
The Web site for Cruceros Australis is www.australis.com.
The government tourism Web site for Argentina is www.sectur.gov.ar.
The government Web site
for Chile is www.visit-chile.org.
The government Web site for Peru is www.peru.info/peru.asp.