Navimag Ferry from Puerto Natales to Puerto Montt, Chile

There were several ways to return north from Patagonia.  I could go back the way I came.  I could fly.  Or I could take the ferry from Puerto Natales to Puerto Montt.  I preferred not to backtrack, and if I flew I wouldn’t be able to see the Chilean fjords, so I bought a ticket for the four-day Navimag ferry.

Before leaving Puerto Natales I made an early morning photo trip to an old pier just north of my hotel.  I wore five layers of clothing and still froze in the pre-dawn dark.  The few locals who walked by gave strange looks to the gringo jumping up and down next to a tripod.


Pre-dawn in Puerto Natales


Old Pier in Puerto Natales


We were told to report to the ferry at 9pm on April 12th.  The boat left so early the next morning that all passengers were required to board the night before.  We gathered at Navimag’s waterfront office and marched onto the ferry.  Well over half of the passengers were backpackers in their 20s.  Most of the guys still sported the scraggly beards they’d grown while hiking, and more than a few didn’t seem to have bothered taking a post-trek shower.


The Ferry “Puerto Eden” at Night


Boarding the Ferry


Hydraulic Lift in the Cargo Bay


Our ferry was really more of a cargo ship than a passenger liner.  The lounge overlooked several railroad-car containers filled with cows and horses, and large trucks were parked on the main deck.  Our on-board entertainment consisted of two movies a day shown in the dining hall and occasional lectures on local fauna and geology.  I shared a “Class AA” cabin with three other passengers.  The aisle between our twin bunk beds was only wide enough for one person to walk at a time.

On our first morning the captain gathered us together for a safety briefing.  He started by warning a group of French backpackers that their excessive drinking the night before would not be tolerated, prompting a round of half-suppressed laughter and casting a sheen of high school hijinks over the trip.  At the end of his speech the captain broke out our nationalities:  38 Chileans, 17 British, 14 Australians, 12 French, 7 Americans, 6 Germans, 4 Brazilians, 4 Dutch, 4 Kiwis, 1 Swiss, 1 South Korean, and 1 South African.

After the safety briefing I went out on deck for photos in the early light.  Sea lions and dolphins swam alongside the ferry as we passed through a narrow channel.


Sunrise from the Ferry


Early Sun on Chilean Coast


Cargo Deck


Red-legged Cormorant in Flight


Paul, one of my roommates, was a thin, bald, 39-year old American who’d been in Patagonia for the better part of five months.  For two of those months he worked on an organic farm near El Bolson in Argentina, and the rest of the time he hiked and camped.  He’d spent most of his career as a structural engineer, but two years ago he quit his office job to become a ranger in an Idaho’s Sawtooth National Forest.  “Did you like Torres del Paine?” I asked.

Paul winced.  “I’m thinking about writing a letter to the Chilean government,” he said.  “They’ve completely ruined that park.”  Paul had been there a month ago and was appalled by the crowds, the development, and the lax enforcement of park rules.  “I camped at the refugio right below Torres del Paine.  I made the mistake of walking into the forest next to the campsite and, man, there was just toilet paper everywhere.  It was disgusting.”

Paul saved even higher levels of disgust for his fellow hikers.  He said that he’d spent a few nights camping in a trail-less wilderness area near Ushuaia, where he’d run into a Canadian and four Israelis who were dangerously underprepared.  “The Canadian had on regular cross-training shoes, and none of them had a topographical map,” Paul said in exasperation.  “If I’d found them in Sawtooth I would have escorted them out of my park.”

Paul’s next target was the company that made his hiking boots.  The boots had apparently worn out after only seven months of tough use, and Paul said he planned to write a stern letter to the manufacturer.  He named the brand, one apparently well known to serious hikers, and asked if I’d ever heard of it.  I admitted that I hadn’t, and I could see from the change in Paul’s face that I’d just revealed myself as yet another disappointment.


Chilean Fjords Sunrise


On our second day we crossed the open ocean.  People I’d met in Torres del Paine who’d taken the ferry south had shared half-nightmarish, half-comical stories of widespread sea sickness sweeping the passengers as soon as they left the protection of the fjords.  But our crossing of the Gulf of Pena was relatively smooth.  “These are the best ocean conditions we’ve had in two months,” one of the Navimag staff told us.

Throughout the day we passed large groups of humpback whales, too far away to see much more than a waterspout rising from a dark shape.  As we moved north and the temperature rose, being outside was no longer an endurance test and I spent more time on deck.  In the afternoon an unusually intense full-arch rainbow appeared on our port side, so close that it looked like it started and ended on the ferry itself.


Port Side Rainbow


Cormorant Flying


Sitting out on one of the upper decks I met Faustine, a 29-year old French journalist at the end of a three-week vacation.  “I am not attracted to the United States,” she declared firmly.

“Doesn’t everyone in France love the United States?” I joked.  Faustine furrowed her brow.  Sarcasm rarely seemed to be working for me on this trip.

In less-than-fluent English Faustine tried to describe how she felt about the emptiness of the Patagonian landscape.  “I am on a bus, and the people, they closed the window because of the sun.  They are in Patagonia and they close the window?  ‘Oh it is just nothing,’ they tell me.  ‘Only the desert, always the same, nothing to see.’  But for me it is different.  If you look there is so much to see, even when there is nothing.”  I told her I knew what she meant.


Prow of the Ship


Boat on the Chilean Coast


Chilean Fjords Pastel Sunset


Sunset on the Chilean Fjords


On our third morning someone spotted an orca, but I arrived too late to see it.  Later a group of penguins swam next to us, leaping out of the water in shallow arcs.  The weather had improved so much that one of the British backpackers walked around in shorts.

The most noticeable passenger on the ferry was Angie, a six-foot tall redheaded American with a loud, penetrating voice, a strong Southern accent, and an extremely extraverted personality.  She pronounced Spanish words as if she was intentionally trying to parody a clueless American:  “I sure did love that RAY-foo-JEE-oh, y’all!”

Paul shuddered whenever he saw Angie.  “My strategy is to never make eye contact,” he said.

Paul’s strategy failed when Angie and her friend sat next to us at lunch.  “So where y’all from?” Angie asked.  Paul recoiled as if he’d been punched in the gut.  He stayed silent and kept his eyes on his plate.  I picked up the small talk slack, trying not to smile and hoping I could find a way to force Paul to interact with Angie.

Angie said she’d grown up in Georgia and lived in Atlanta before moving to North Carolina.  “Did you like Atlanta?” I asked.

“Well I had a bad experience there,” Angie said.  “I got mugged at gunpoint.”  She’d been so traumatized she decided to relocate.  “I didn’t want to live in fear, you see.  The mugger was …” – her voice dropped to a confidential whisper – “… African American.  And after that whenever I saw a young black man I got scared.”  That was too much for Paul.  He abandoned his half-finished food and fled the table.

Thanks to the unusually calm water we made great time and docked at Puerto Montt the night before our scheduled arrival.  Most of us slept on the boat and left early the next morning, but Paul had been so traumatized by the past few days that he disembarked as soon as the first gangplank hit the dock.


Sunset from the Puerto Eden


Sunrise in Puerto Montt

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