From the Golfo de Penas to Tierra del Fuego , southwestern Patagonia is one of the planet’s most thinly populated and little visited areas. Its pre-Columbian inhabitants were “Canoe Indians,” a term applied to the Yámana and Kawéskar Indians who used precarious vessels to hunt seals and gather shellfish. Never numerous, they prospered on local resources until catastrophic contact with Europeans — first violence and then disease — nearly obliterated them.
Today, ironically enough, it’s possible to explore the dramatically scenic channels and icy fjords of the Kawéskar — also known as the Alacaluf — on board a comfortable cruise ship. Long known for its voyages from Puerto Montt  to Laguna San Rafael , the Skorpios line has incorporated the glacial fjords between Puerto Natales  and Puerto Edén  into a five-day, four-night Ruta Kawéskar itinerary that pays symbolic homage, at least, to the last sad survivors.
The area’s finest scenery, arguably, is the return trip’s Fiordo de la Montaña, a sheer-sided canyon between the Cordillera Sarmiento and Cordillera Riesco, just west of Puerto Natales . Also reachable by day trips from Natales, it includes the cruise’s only other shore-based excursion — a hike to the relatively small Glaciar Bernal. The last night on board, which includes a gala dinner-dance, is spent in the lee of Isla Focus, within sight of Natales.
Accommodating only 110 passengers in 48 cabins, Skorpios III is small for a cruise ship. Decorated with handsome wood veneer, with view windows rather than portholes, the cabins are spacious and have excellent bathrooms and showers. The food and wine are excellent, the service personalized.
The Kochifas family, Greek-Chilean shipbuilders based in Puerto Montt , have pioneered an appealing itinerary. What the Ruta Kawéskar trip lacks is information: The guides’ main task seems to be pointing out photo opportunities — already obvious enough in this extraordinary landscape.
The Skorpios III operates early September–mid-May, leaving late Saturday night or Sunday morning; high-season is mid-December–mid-March. Rates range US$1,050–3,200 per person, depending on the season and level of accommodations. For more detail, contact Cruceros Skorpios (Augusto Leguía Norte 118, Las Condes, Santiago, tel. 02/4771900, www.skorpios.cl ).