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Perhaps it was the magic of the name Strait of Magellan, with its associations of danger-fraught adventure (at least to those who attempted passage 500 years ago). But it was probably the photos of Magellanic penguins on the brochures I looked at: The opportunity to visit these irresistible creatures, not at the zoo but on their own turf, was what finally precipitated me across the Equator to Chile.

The adventure began in Punta Arenas, at the southern tip of South America, a four-hour flight from the Chilean capital of Santiago. Although Punta Arenas has a population of more than 100,000, it still has the feel of a frontier town. There are no skyscrapers; in fact, many of the buildings are wooden. Surrounding the lovely Plaza de Armas are several opulent mansions now converted into banks, museums or hotels. However, the most elegant houses are the homes of the dead, in the Municipal Cemetery a mile north of the Plaza. Marble mausoleums and monuments stand shoulder to shoulder, the names engraved -- MacLeod, Bosnic, Stubenrauch, Grimaldi, Gomez -- a catalog of the immigrants who built Punta Arenas.

The city lies on the strait named for Ferdinand Magellan, the Portuguese seaman who first sailed these waters in 1520 searching for a route west to the Spice Islands. We begin our own sea adventure by boarding the M/V Terra Australis, which can carry 102 passengers. The ship is small enough to provide a feeling of intimacy and adventure, large enough to boast open decks, two lounges, a dining room with one seating, and cabins each with private bath, lower berths and picture window. My cabin, on the Magellan deck, was larger than most I've had on cruise ships, including a closet large enough to hold the bulky jackets and sweaters needed for this trip.

Our first dinner aboard, although billed as informal, is a gala affair with red and white Chilean wines (in fact, all drinks throughout the cruise are included in the cabin price), a sumptuous appetizer buffet featuring king crab, a choice of three entrees and a laden dessert table.

The assortment of passengers is international: British, French, German, Swiss, Italian, Argentinian, Bolivian and a few Chileans. My Anitours group consists of 13 Americans. This is an informal ship and dress is casual except for one captain's dinner.

Soon after breakfast the first morning, the Terra Australis nestles beside Videla Glacier, which is split by a rocky promontory. We inch forward cautiously. An enormous iceberg lies yards away; it has fallen off sometime since the vessel's visit the previous week. Glacial fragments crash into the water. The glacier rumbles ominously, the sounds coming from deep within the mass of slowly moving ice.

We soon reach Agostini Glacier, where the motorized rubber rafts called zodiacs are used to transport us to the base of the glacier. There we tread rocks pulverized by thousands of years of glacial churning. Chunks of ice stud the ground. Dressed as we all are in yellow rain slickers and pants with bright orange life vests, we make a colorful sight. Before returning to the ship, we toast each other with Chilean champagne and whiskey, chilled with slivers of 30,000-year-old glacial ice.

Our second night aboard has several wild intervals, during one of which I clutch the bed to keep from rolling off. By morning, all is peaceful again as we enter Beagle Channel, named in honor of Charles Darwin's expeditionary vessel. The channel is lined with the glaciers of the Darwin Range, each honoring a European country -- Spain, Germany, France, Italy and Holland. A passenger comments as we stand on deck watching each glacier, "I'm not sure I know how to deal with all this fresh air and beauty."

I do, spending as much time as I can outdoors -- bundled up against the cold and wind of southern Chile's summer -- feasting my eyes on the panoramas.

That afternoon we dock at Puerto Williams, which styles itself "fin del mundo," the end of the world. Primarily a naval base, Puerto Williams' population that day stands at 1,853, with much of it congregating in either the post office or the adjacent telephone/fax office, making contact with home.

The following day we sail to Tierra del Fuego, the enormous island shared by Chile and Argentina, that we have been skirting ever since we left Punta Arenas. Landfall is now on the Argentinian side in the pretty town of Ushuaia. During our full day here, I join a mini-expedition to nearby Tierra del Fuego National Park, 45 minutes from from Ushuaia. The park is a serene area of pale green lakes, beech trees hung with moss, peat bogs, red foxes (we see one foraging among picnic tables) and rabbits (abundant).

Ushuaia bills itself as the gateway to Antarctica, which it is, though the continent is 600 miles away. Many expeditions depart from here. Ushuaia also is is a thriving town of 40,000 with a wide choice of hotels, loads of souvenir shops and duty-free stores and a civilized assortment of confiterias serving coffee, tea and pastries. It's a pleasure to stroll its hilly streets, particularly as the day is balmy and I can shed my thermals and heavy jacket.

The next morning, we take the zodiacs to Harberton, an Argentinian estancia (ranch) settled by a British missionary 110 years ago. Members of the family are now in its sixth generation on the estancia and welcome visitors. The three hours we spend here prove to be one of the highlights of our voyage. The family dog, Mitzie, now a retired sheep dog, greets us, as do many of the 50 cats who sun in the lovely garden. (Why 50, we ask? To keep down the field mice, which would otherwise overrun the place).

We visit native Yahgan Indian huts in the forest, the shearing shed where the estancia's 5,500 sheep are trimmed annually, the shore to collect shell souvenirs and the tea shop. As one passenger observes, "How very civilized to have one's cocktails beside a glacier and one's tea beside a Tierra del Fuegan flower garden."

Harberton is the farthest point on our voyage and sometime late that afternoon we begin the long trip back to Punta Arenas. Two days are left, and two major excursions remain to be made. On Thursday morning, we enter Garibaldi Fjord, sailing past fir-tree-covered mountains that plunge precipitously into the iceberg-strewn water, past ribbonlike waterfalls that cascade down mountainsides, past ice blue glacier fields as condors glide overhead.

And -- finally -- the icing on the cruise cake: the penguins. I'd been looking forward to visiting them on Magdalena Island ever since I decided to come on the trip. Alas, it was not to be -- for me, at least.

The night had been rough and the day -- although bright and sunny -- had continued so, with choppy waves swaying the ship. When the decision is made to launch the zodiacs despite the turbulent waters, I remain behind. Fifty-two stalwart souls land on Magdalena Island to visit the 40,000 or so Magellanic penguins in residence.

All is not totally lost as far as penguins go, however. After we disembark the next day and just before my departure home to New York, our group travels west from Punta Arenas to one of several protected penguin colonies. The penguin population here numbers almost 3,000 but due to seasonal migration only a few dozen adults and chicks remain.

I peer into penguin burrows, scanning the darkness within for babies. I photograph a few stately adults parading the confines of each small colony as if on guard duty -- perhaps they are. I am happy. I have seen what I came to see -- with the added bonus of fjords, glaciers, several frontier towns, an estancia and a first-rate ship to reach them in. If you go I traveled with Anitours, a company I have used before. Anita Ream, a Chilean-American and president of the company, accompanies the groups. Our trip through the Strait of Magellan to Tierra del Fuego was part of a three-week trip to Chile that included Puerto Montt, the Chilean lake district and Torres del Paine National Park, considered the finest in South America. The price, including airfare from New York, was $4,984. Call (800) 243-8264 or (201) 299-8180 for additional information. The M/V Terra Australis is owned by Cruceros Australis, based in Santiago and Punta Arenas, Chile. The cruise cost alone in mid-season (November to mid-December and March) ranges from $1,244 to $2,400 per person, this last price for a large suite. My spacious cabin on the Magellan deck cost $1,659. This included all meals, most excursions (except for several choices offered in Puerto Williams and Ushuaia), lectures and an open bar. There is a supplement for singles. The Terra Australis sails between October and April. I flew Lan Chile from New York to Santiago, the airline I have used on my three trips to Chile. If you can, upgrade to business class for the New York-to-Santiago portion, a flight of 10" hours. Call (800) 735-5526 for information. Julie Skurdenis is a freelance writer specializing in travels to historic and undeveloped destinations.

Originally published March 9, 1997

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