72 Hours In The Chilean Fjords

20th Jun 2014
Photo of 72 Hours In The Chilean Fjords 1/5 by Braden
Eating With The Locals
Photo of 72 Hours In The Chilean Fjords 2/5 by Braden
End Of A Journey
Photo of 72 Hours In The Chilean Fjords 3/5 by Braden
Going towards Chiloe
Photo of 72 Hours In The Chilean Fjords 4/5 by Braden
Leaving Puerto Natales
Photo of 72 Hours In The Chilean Fjords 5/5 by Braden
Navimag's Armadeo I

One of the most unique ways to see the coastal scenery in the southwest of Chile is by sea.  Navimag Ferries, which runs passenger service north and south from Puerto Montt in Chile’s Lake District to Puerto Natales, the gateway to Torres del Paine National Park, offers the opportunity to live aboard a working ferry for three days and nights.  Accommodations are basic 4- or 6-bunk cabins with utilitarian bathroom, food is decent overall and served buffet style in the ship’s only passenger dining/common room, and the only other place that passengers can be is out on deck.  This is not a cruise, but instead a glimpse into the daily activities of a ship that keeps Chile’s 1,500 kilometer coastal trade route–and one very isolated village–alive.

The beauty of this journey is how slow it was.  Steaming along at a rate of only 11 knots (roughly 21 km/hr or 13 mi/hr), the scenery was always changing but never quickly.  With only the surrounding water, your fellow passengers, and perhaps a good book to keep you company, these three days sailing through the Chilean fjords were a perfect time to reflect and enjoy a respite from the momentum of everyday life.  Early the next morning, the Amadeo I docked in the harbor of bustling Puerto Montt and travelers-now-friends from around the world scattered like the Diaspora on to their next destinations…

My northbound passage through the Chilean fjords, aboard Navimag’s Amadeo I began on a Tuesday afternoon in December. Departing from Puerto Natales’ windswept harbor with sun shining and just a few scattered clouds ushered a feeling of excitement among passengers, who hailed from Spain, The Netherlands, Germany, France, the United States, Chile, Great Britain, Switzerland, and Argentina. Among personal vehicles, trucks, and an assortment of containers, our cargo included a few hundred cows. I couldn’t help but wonder if they were being ferried to greener pastures. The scenery was beautiful from start to finish. As we began our journey, the white-capped peaks surrounding Puerto Natales gave way to rolling mountains of various hues: cobalt, indigo, robin’s egg, navy, slate. Sailing through the White Narrow and into the fjords, the mountains drew nearer, revealing their true, rugged coloring. Despite the fierce winds, my fellow passengers joined me on deck, exploring the walking areas of the vessel while taking in the sunshine, vistas, and condors. Many of the truckbeds in the hold were covered with protective tarps which had collected water from a recent rain; I watched as the wind whipped a small lake from one of them overboard and into the sea in a matter of minutes. Our sunset was obscured by clouds, but the view from the ship’s bridge, open to passengers during daylight hours, more than made up for the shying sun.
Photo of Puerto Natales, Natales, Chile by Braden
The first full day of sailing was both the cloudiest and the busiest for the ship, and in the morning we had the strongest winds of the entire journey. After breakfast, most of the passengers braved the elements only to assemble in the protected lookout of the ship’s bridge. While perusing the collection of instruments, the Captain gave us a crash course on navigation and the unique challenges of sailing in these particular channels. His demeanor was one of staunch pride without hubris, exactly how you would imagine a ship’s captain to be. With puffed-up chest and ruler-straight spine, he explained the intricacies of our route.
Photo of Navimag's Amadeo I, Chile by Braden
But his speech was short-lived; shortly after, the crew closed the bridge for our approach to Puerto Eden. And indeed this fairy tale seaside village, huddled against the shore, sheltered from the wind by the hill on which it’s built, isolated by hundreds of kilometers of sea, fjords, and wilderness, was a veritable Garden of Eden. But with no apples in sight, Puerto Eden depends on this ferry for survival. As we approached, a flurry of bright yellow skiffs swarmed towards us as if from a hive of floating bumblebees. Unloading at Puerto Eden, the loading ramp of the Amadeo I rumbled open, and the process of unloading goods to this tiny town began. Passengers were allowed down into the loading area to watch the process, which considering the amount of steps involved was rather efficient. Barrels of gasoline, cartons of groceries, and other essentials were loaded onto the skiffs and they puttered away. I managed to snap a picture of toilet paper and Coca-Cola waiting to be unloaded, thinking of course, what more do you need? It seemed as if each skiff was operated by a different family, and both adults and children lent a hand. From the sheltered vantage point inside our ship’s loading area, I realized I had probably set eyes on most of the town’s population during the half-hour process. After the last skiff pulled away, we were intercepted on our way back to the upper decks by a few Chilean truck drivers who were sharing the ship with us. They had brought barbecue grills on board and lit fires to cook the mussels and clams that they had just bought from the locals at Puerto Eden. They invited us to join them, and we imbibed with wine and freshly-cooked mollusks as our ship continued northwards. With so many different languages on board, most of the communication was smiles, animated hand gestures, and passing around cups of wine.
Photo of Puerto Edén, Santiago, Chile by Braden
Just after our barbecue, the Amadeo I came to perhaps the trickiest maneuver in the fjords: the English Narrow, an S-curve that requires precise navigation. The passengers shuffled to the ship’s mirador de proa (prow lookout) en masse, braving the winds to witness this delicate bit of captaining. Just before the turn, I looked up to the bridge and met eyes with the Captain. He raised his brows at me as if saying, “Look what I can do,” and proceeded to execute the maneuver with ease. We were left to admire the scenery as a thick fog rolled in. Our ship’s horn blasted four times to warn the cargo ship a few kilometers to our rear that the fog would be obscuring their sight at the English Narrow. In the afternoon, we passed the Capitán Leonidas shipwreck, a picturesque but sobering reminder of how deceptively shallow these channels can be. My initial wish was to get a closer look, but I quickly realized that would be a poor idea. As the day drew to a close, the ship’s hostess passed around motion sickness pills. I took one just in case. That night we were sailing through open waters, and the ship did dip and swoon as unobstructed Pacific winds combed across our route.
Photo of English Narrow, Chile by Braden
The island of Chiloe, with its plethora of wooden churches (all UNESCO World Heritage sites), glided by off the port side of our ship in the late afternoon. A wistful twinge of so-close-but-so-far manifested in my gut as I thought, those will have to wait until next time. We were treated to excellent views of the Corcovado Volcano, and a wispy, colorful sunset bade us farewell as the Amadeo I plowed ahead to our final destination, Puerto Montt.
Photo of Chiloé, Santiago, Chile by Braden