The problem with heading south through Chile is that eventually you run out of road. We wanted to get to Puerto Natales, deep in the South of Patagonia, to trek in the Torres del Paine national park. But there isn’t any way to do it by bus other than crossing into Argentina which we planned to do for our return trip.
Of course where there is a problem, usually someone has found a solution, and in our case it was the Navimag ferry. Navimag had realised the need for passenger transport through the Patagonian Fjords years ago, and modified some 1970’s cargo ships to include basic facilities for carrying people. We had heard and read a lot about this trip, with mixed reports that it was a “backpacker party boat”, that the food was terrible, and the open-ocean part of the trip was stomach-churningly vomitous. We also heard that there was great scenery, a nice social aspect, and good educational sessions for planning the Torres del Paine trek (which almost everyone on board was going to do). We are really not into cruises but this was most certainly not a cruise; with only one short stop along the way, it was really more like a very long train trip. We figured that most people with a negative opinion of their trip probably went in with the wrong expectations, and were expecting a 5-star experience rather than transport. We decided that it was the best option for us, and after carefully watching for last-minute deals, we snagged a relatively cheap ticket price.
On the day of departure we headed to Puerto Montt on the local bus, for the check-in from “9 to 11am”. In typical Chile style we stood in one line to check-in, then another line to drop our baggage, and then were told that we couldn’t actually board until 4 hours later at 2pm. We had expected to carry our own backpacks to the cabin after checking in, but this is not the way it’s done! We had met some people in the lines (Pete and Karin from Australia and Paul from the US) so together we wandered into town to find some coffee and kill some time. We had already spent a less than fabulous day in Puerto Montt so really did not want to spend any more, but there was nothing else to do.
Eventually we boarded and met our cabin-mates, a lovely couple from New York. We settled in and stowed our gear in the locker, then headed up to the deck to observe our departure. The weather was pretty overcast, but it started to clear as we departed. We watched the port activity as we pulled out and into the fjords.
Despite having a lot of spare time, we were never bored – we used the time to catch up on some photo processing work, enjoy some interesting lectures, read, and just watch the world go by. We also spent a fair bit of time socialising with our fellow passengers. The bar upstairs was pretty nice, although at $5 a beer it was more than we were used to paying. The meals were regular, with the passengers split into two meal shifts to ensure enough space. The food itself was nice enough – actually better than lots of the meals we’d previously had in Chile (often dictated by either budget or availability). Mostly they were mass produced meat and veg meals, which were quite adequate. We also brought some fruit, snacks and wine along.
One of the highlights of the trip was on the second night as we entered the open ocean. As the sun set, an announcement was made that whales could be seen off the starboard side of the boat. We rushed outside to look, but they were quite a long way away and only the water expelled from their blowholes could be seen in the distance. However this put us in a good position to see the enormous pod of dolphins that swam alongside the boat a few minutes later! At first we only noticed a few near the boat, but as we looked further we saw there were hundreds of them swimming and playing together. I’ve never seen more than a half dozen dolphins at once, so it was a truly magical experience.
We were warned that the open water could be very rough, and it was with some trepidation that we went to bed that night, half expecting to wake up on the floor after being thrown from our bunks. However thankfully the crossing was very smooth and we slept well that night – a great relief for us both.
Another highlight was a detour taken to visit the Pio XI Glacier, the longest in the Southern Hemisphere outside of Antarctica. This is one of the few glaciers in the world that is actually advancing – by more than 10km since 1945 and still averaging 2 metres per day. This detour is only taken when the weather is good, so we were grateful for the chance to see our first Patagonian glacier. As we pulled in, the passengers crowded the front deck trying to take photos, although ultimately we had an hour there and there was plenty of time and space for this. The glacier towered above the boat, but it wasn’t until a small zodiac was launched to collect ice that the scale was really apparent.
We also went past the wreck of the “Capitán Leonidas”, a Greek ship that ran aground on a submerged island in the 1970’s in a botched insurance scam. The captain sold the cargo of sugar and then rammed the ship into an island, hoping to claim that the cargo had been lost (sugar would dissolve in water and therefore could not be recovered). Unfortunately for him the ship failed to sink and he was jailed as his fraud became obvious. The ship still sits there today performing as a bird roost and lighthouse.
Later that day we stopped at Puerto Eden, a small village of 180 permanent residents who are the last of the native Kawéshkar people. The town is only accessible on this ferry as roads are impossible to construct given the average annual rainfall of 5,745mm – yes that’s almost 6 metres of rain a year, one of the wettest places on earth! It was possible to get off the boat here, with local boats ferrying people to the shore for an hour long walk in the rain – most people elected to do this, but we decided to give it a miss and enjoyed having the boat mostly to ourselves for an hour or so.
Each night there was entertainment including a disco, a karaoke night, and a bingo night. We mostly steered clear of these, preferring to chat with new friends over a few wines, however many people did enjoy them. The backpacker party boat reputation proved to be pretty unfounded until the last night when some extremely drunk people had a party on the restaurant deck, stomping their feet and dancing on tables at 2am. It didn’t go on long before it was stopped, and the culprits were strongly rebuked in the daily briefing the next day – this kind of thing does not go down well in Chile!
On our final day we passed through the “English Narrows” – a very narrow section of the fjords that is quite challenging to navigate. We found out later that 2 years before, the ferry had hit an island which caused an emergency assembly to prepare to abandon ship and damaged an engine. Luckily we had no such mishaps and at around 4pm we pulled into Puerto Natales and commenced the tricky docking procedure. When the wind is high, this can be delayed for many hours (or even overnight), but we had a calm day and docked fairly quickly. We had to wait for the cargo to be unloaded before the passenger ramp could be lowered, and we walked off the boat and onto dry land for the first time in 4 days.
We really enjoyed our Navimag experience for the scenery, the company, the short break from daily organisation and most of all the friends we made. We’d run into some of them again in the coming weeks, and we really treasured our time together in the fjords of Patagonia.