Chile - Four days with Navimag in Patagonia

Fellow shipmates on deck. There was a constant cycle of rain and shine through the Patagonian channels and fjords.

Fellow shipmates on deck. There was a constant cycle of rain and shine through the Patagonian channels and fjords.

Bill Laurance - December in New York

We leave Puerto Montt, the industrial port in the middle of Chile, to head down to Puerto Natales in Chile’s southern tip. There are few roads for this long voyage, and all of them require a passage back to Argentina. So we picked another route: we’re about to embark on a boat through more than 1,500 kilometers of Patagonia’s channels and fjords. 

The beginning of our four day trip through the Patagonian fjords from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales. Where else can you hitch a ride on a cargo ship?

The beginning of our four day trip through the Patagonian fjords from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales. Where else can you hitch a ride on a cargo ship?

After a warm welcome by Percy, our naturalist for the next four days, a bus takes us along Puerto Montt’s docks. We walk onboard a simple cargo ship, with lorries and their drivers, motorcycles and their heavily bundled adventure riders, large luggage and their unprepared tourists, a few locals making their way south, and us, climbing the vessel’s ladder with childish eagerness and apprehension. We set our backpacks in our tiny room, lucky to be given a private one, and race to the top level to watch the crew loading and securing trucks. We all gather in the cafeteria, warming up on tea. Safety disclaimers and route are explained by Percy before we leave, already a couple hours late.

And for the next days, we navigate the narrows in the cold, barren Patagonian landscape.

Observing the 1968 Captain Leonidas shipwreck in Messier Channel.

Observing the 1968 Captain Leonidas shipwreck in Messier Channel.

First signs of snow.

First signs of snow.

It’s an overwhelming feeling of peace amongst the quiet channels, in the cold winds, in the gentle rain on empty land, only disturbed by the energetic cormoran making its way to the other island. We feel at the edge of the world, a place where it all started. Percy explains how the difficult climate helps us understand how vegetation started on the rest of the planet, with lichen, brush, small trees, and bird poop as fertilizer. We watch the deserted landscape, bare of any human life except one village we’ll pass by and stop for a two hours, dropping off groceries. The twice-weekly boat is their only connection to other cities in Chile.

Always on lookout. We saw everything you could possibly imagine: orcas, blue whales, Commerson’s dolphins, baby seals, cormorans, albatross, arctic terns, petrels, and, of course, double rainbows.

Always on lookout. We saw everything you could possibly imagine: orcas, blue whales, Commerson’s dolphins, baby seals, cormorans, albatross, arctic terns, petrels, and, of course, double rainbows.

Madie and I carefully isolate ourselves, finding an empty bench by the sea level, talking for hours and waiting for orcas, whales, and seals. The rain is always here, on and off, a companion we’re getting used to while we sip on boldo tea. We fall silent to the sea, laugh at double rainbows, and awe at sunsets. We spy albatross, petrels, and Commerson’s dolphins. As we make our way south we bundle up and put on more layers; Madie is wearing as many clothes as she can.  Back to the top level for dinners, stories of high school are exchanged over cafeteria food as 3-meter waves start when we exit to open sea for a night. We walk back down, carefully walking to the waves’ rhythm and try to fall asleep.

Trying to spot the Commerson’s dolphins surfing on the wakes.

Trying to spot the Commerson’s dolphins surfing on the wakes.

Unbelievable rays of light.

Unbelievable rays of light.

You can see the change in flora as we near the end of our four day voyage.

You can see the change in flora as we near the end of our four day voyage.

It’s already the last day, we approach Puerto Natales, stuck at sea until the winds calm down. A few hours late on schedule, we exit the ship amongst a handful of unhappy tourists. We didn’t want to leave. Patagonia, our newfound friend still has much in store for us, but we’ll always remember the amazing introduction of its channels and fjords. Our backpacks back on, we walk a mile to our homestay, our minds still at sea, still in the tiny cabin, in our laughs at rainbows and cormorans, in the heart of Patagonia.

A photo with our naturalist, Percy. We were the last ones to disembark.

A photo with our naturalist, Percy. We were the last ones to disembark.

The Navimag ship at the end of our 1,500+ km journey, docked at Puerto Natales.

The Navimag ship at the end of our 1,500+ km journey, docked at Puerto Natales.

Links

  • Puerto Montt has little to offer, apart from the entrance to the pretty Chiloé, and the port that leads to South of Chile.
  • Navimag is the only carrier for this route by boat, well worth the money for the unique experience of Patagonia via its channels and fjords. However, do not expect a cruise. There were a few unhappy customers expecting a lot more luxury than what it actually is; your fellow riders are lorry drivers.
  • We landed in Puerto Natales, the entrance to Torres Del Paine. Tours to El Calafate are also available from here, although not advised considering how far it is.

Chile - Three Days on Chiloé Island

Palafitos: the wooden stilt houses in Castro, Chiloé that were built to withstand the dramatic rising tides.

Palafitos: the wooden stilt houses in Castro, Chiloé that were built to withstand the dramatic rising tides.

Y La Bamba - Ojo Del Sol

Together with Tonya we make our way back to Chile on another Andes bus crossing. After a night in Puerto Montt, we rent a car and hop on a ferry to explore the island of Chiloé, its ceviches, churches, and beautiful rolling hills. We have no real plan except to follow the chain of wooden UNESCO iglesias. The dirt roads of Chile bring us to impossible places - places we settle and stay silent (sometimes), meditate, do yoga, get attacked by bees, eat pasta, and drink. 

The open road on Chiloé Island, Chile's largest. It felt good for Alex to be behind the wheel again, driving through the rural landscapes, sleepy fishing towns, and tracing the wooden church circuit.

The open road on Chiloé Island, Chile's largest. It felt good for Alex to be behind the wheel again, driving through the rural landscapes, sleepy fishing towns, and tracing the wooden church circuit.

Chiloé’s colorful produce. We thought the brown wrapped items were some kind of animal skin because they look like thick pieces of leather, but they’re actually folded pieces of dried bull kelp leaves harvested from the sea. You learn a lot about food culture browsing local markets like these. This one was a reminder of how remote Chiloé is from the rest of Chile, and how resourceful the island people are.

Chiloé’s colorful produce. We thought the brown wrapped items were some kind of animal skin because they look like thick pieces of leather, but they’re actually folded pieces of dried bull kelp leaves harvested from the sea. You learn a lot about food culture browsing local markets like these. This one was a reminder of how remote Chiloé is from the rest of Chile, and how resourceful the island people are.

All signs point toward a fishing boat, toward the coast.

All signs point toward a fishing boat, toward the coast.

Happy cows.

Happy cows.

We’ve seen countless roadside memorials traveling through South America, but this was the first time we could stop the car so I could take a photo. There’s a strange vibrancy on this large, quiet island full of colorful churches, decorated cemeteries, and bright markers like this one.

We’ve seen countless roadside memorials traveling through South America, but this was the first time we could stop the car so I could take a photo. There’s a strange vibrancy on this large, quiet island full of colorful churches, decorated cemeteries, and bright markers like this one.

Chiloé is a recluse isle of farmers, fishermen, and new tourism. Small wooden boats, houses on pilotes, and a few roaming dogs. The icy winds remind us we’re now in Patagonia. It’s a colorful road trip of friendship, long talks, shared music, and hope for the next bottle of wine. But our time is short. After a spontaneous drive north to Puerto Varas for a night, we are back in Puerto Montt to say goodbye to Tonya and prepare to board a four-day boat ride through the Patagonian channels and fjords.

Links & Tips

We chose to visit Chiloé Island since it is off the beaten path and looked like a perfect places for slow travel. 

  • Follow the wooden church road: Churches of Chiloé.
  • We enjoyed Club Social Baquedano in Ancud for their ceviche, fish soup, and beer selection. This is the second most populous town, but it still has a very small feel. Be sure to stop by the local market and the museum and artist workshop off the main square. The sculptor of the mythical stone works around town might just be working.
  • In Castro, visit the most popular church on the iglesia circuit (the big yellow Church of San Francisco), and restaurant Pomodoro for a bit of comfort food: pasta and wine. Passing through Llau-Llao check out Puntilla Ten Ten for wooden artwork and the perfect boardwalk to do yoga.
  • There is also a penguin colony in Puñihuil that we did not have time to see, as well as recommended trips to the smaller islands on the east side (you have to ask a local fisherman to take you!). 
  • One of the best things about Chiloé is the free roaming sheep. There are beautiful wool works in every small village shop, so support the local community and take a beautiful handmade sweater or woven tapestry home. 

Argentina - Our Route & Numbers

Alex & Madie’s travel route in Argentina.

Alex & Madie’s travel route in Argentina.

Some Final Thoughts

Our time here feels unfinished. We thought we’d circle back to Buenos Aires so I could show Alex more of it’s culture (a tango show, a night at the theater, a few drinks in San Telmo or so), but we never returned. We also never explored the Argentinean of Patagonia, made it to Ushuaia, nor ventured north to the rainbow hills and rock formations of Jujuy and Salta. For those reasons, many more, and for as long as our friend Tonya is in this beautiful, vast country, we are sure to be back.
 

Numbers from Argentina

  • Days in Argentina: 15 days
  • Our daily average cost for lodging and food per person: ARS $630 ≈ $41.00
  • Cost of a 2L water: ARS $14 ≈ $0.90
  • Cost of an empanada: ARS $20 ≈ $1.30
  • Cost of a good bottle of Malbec: ARS $150 ≈ $9.75
     
  • Total time on an airplane: 15 hours
  • Total time on a bus: 30 hours
  • Total time on a boat: 1 hour
     

How We Got Around

Alex & Madie’s mode of transportation in Argentina.

Alex & Madie’s mode of transportation in Argentina.