Navimag: after the hype

So here we are, in beautiful, rain-driven Castro, on the mystical island of Chiloé, on the other side of our Navimag journey.

There’s loads of things I want to write about, but after the last post I think it’s fair to do a quick debrief about our time on the Ferry.

After all the hype and psyching myself up about “the good, the bad and the ugly”, I think it’s fair to say that none of the extreme scenarios won out.

Our days on the Ferry were, unsurprisingly, a mixed bag, with the balance leaning towards the good.

Was it a miserable four days filled with vomit and regrets? Most definitely not! Was it a life changing experience? The answer is also no. Am I glad I did it? Sure!

I don’t know how soon I’d do it again, but I love what I got to see along the way, and it made me hungry to visit Patagonia again – by land – for a closer look some day.

Here’s an overview of my personal ugly, bad and good from our four days on the ferry.

The Ugly

Allegedly the cabins in the normal ship are a bit nicer (The Evangelista – currently out of commission waiting for a new drive shaft apparently).

We got to see the Evangelista when we arrived at Puerto Montt

Ours were ok. Simple but fine – but for a few (important) details, like the toilet seat not being entirely attached and my ultimate pet peeve: dirty bedding. The linens were ok, but the top sheet had questionable stains of the variety my slightly paranoid mind likes to run away with. My intellect was “certain” was just mud, but my inner five-year-old inevitably christened it “the poop blanket.” So there was that in my head the whole time to deal with.

Just SOME of the offending stains…

Our cabin

More serious on the ugly list though was taking in the reality of the truckloads of cows who were outside on the cargo deck, tightly packed and standing for the entirety of our journey. (Not to mention how ever long they had been and would be in that condition during the over-land portions of their journey). The patient, half resigned/half hopeful expressions on their faces – whether real or projected – were heart breaking to me.

The Bad

My Spanish skills!

I could just about have very basic conversations (provided things remained in the present tense only!) in Argentina with what I’d learned in the two week’s of class I had there. Chilean Spanish is a whole new kettle of fish though, and I’m really struggling with it.

I was the only person on board with next to no Spanish, and most people couldn’t speak any English at all, so I ended up feeling a bit out of the loop. I am positive that being able to interact more meaningfully – beyond being able to say “hello”, “thank you” and “excuse me” basically – would have made for a more interesting experience on board. Definitely feeling motivated to take some more classes at some point and get somewhat more comfortable with Spanish!

The Good

Patagonia, Patagonia, Patagonia! Our weather was mixed too, but we had enough luck to see some pretty awesome views – and some wild life! Check out the magic:

This is the view we had on Puerto Eden. (Love the recurring theme of awesome colorful houses since we’ve gotten to Chile!)

The Ferry docks here during the summer, but as it’s winter now, boats from the village came out to meet us to pick up supplies from the ship, and this is as close as we got. I would LOVE to come back and check this place out up close some day. From Wikipedia:

Villa Puerto Edén is a Chilean hamlet and minor port located in Wellington Island, in Natales commune, Última Esperanza Province, Magallanes Region. It is considered one of Chile’s most isolated inhabited places together with Easter Island and Villa Las Estrellas. The village is known for being the home of the last Kawéshkar people. Owing to the large tidewater glaciers caused by the region’s super-high precipitation, it is only accessible by sea, on the Navimag ferry from Puerto Montt in the north, or Puerto Natales in the south. There is also a monthly boat from Caleta Tortel.

The population is 176 (2002 census). Owing to the extraordinarily humid climate the village has no roads, with only pedestrian boardwalks connecting the houses and shops. A weekly transport boat takes local fish and shellfish products (the latter mainly mussels) to markets.

And last but not least, some videos. The iPhone had a tough time reading the light, so forgive some overexposure and blurry moments in the first video.

Views from the first day: waterfalls, water fowl and keep an eye open for seals.

And this. Was. Just. Magic.

Seeing this was the icing on the cake for me. Was lucky enough to have the phone in hand as it happened. I didn’t even know that seals did that. I still get shivers down my spine watching it – soooo magic and just awesome.

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Good bye Puerto Natales, Hello Navimag!

It’s our last night in Puerto Natales.

Well, technically that’s not entirely true. It’s our last night at the B&B in Puerto Natales – tomorrow night we’ll be sleeping on the ship as we have to “check in” the night before it departs (feel certain there must be a specific nautical term for this occurrence but have no clue what it might be. “Sets sail”? Only the ferry doesn’t have sails to set. Hm.) early on Sunday morning.

As usual, I’m experiencing pangs about having to leave some place I’ve come to love. (It’s an interesting sensation, having a simultaneous abundance of both wanderlust and sentimentality)

We have a draft itinerary for the rest of our time in Chile and there is no place we plan to spend as much time as we’ve ended up spending here in Puerto Natales (unless more unexpected things happen – never say never 😉 ). I’ve arrived in Chile with only a vague sense about the country and I still can’t really imagine what awaits us as we travel north through this shoe string of a country. What I can say though is that Puerto Natales has given us a lovely introduction and welcome. It’s felt really natural staying here and I’ve enjoyed every moment. The city is the gateway to the Torres Del Paine national park and yes, the park IS as incredible and beautiful as everyone says and I’m not lessening it at all but it’s really this little tourist-town-on-the-off-season and the experiences we’ve had here that have charmed me entirely, and entirely unexpectedly. What a lovely thing to have gotten stranded here. 😀

Happily we have something really exciting and adventurous as our next step, which tempers the verklemptness somewhat! 🙂 And that is four nights, three days on the Navimag ferry!

This is a trip through the Patagonian fjords along Chile’s southern coastline, and from all accounts, it can be either sublime or downright hellish. I suspect the reality will fall somewhere in between – so long as the weather isn’t too uncooperative.

(Well, we will see – according to Navimag’s website we are traveling during the second rainiest, second coldest month of the year. There is probably a reason why there are only two other tourists traveling on the ship with us. In fact we’re bunking with them in a room that appears just big enough to fit two bunk beds. Please keep your fingers crossed for both decent weather and decent company!)

I don’t think I can explain it better than Lonely Planet, so please excuse this large excerpt:

The Navimag Experience: The good, the bad & the ugly

Back in the prehistoric Patagonian travel days of the 1980s and the early ‘90s, travelers had to beg and swindle just to stow away on the rusty cargo freighters that plied the waters between Puerto Montt and Puerto Natales. No regular passenger ferries were installed as tourism to the region increased, but the Navimag shipping company caught on and decided to dedicate a section of their boats to passenger transportation. So, these days, you can have that same experience of stowing away on a freighter – packed with 18-wheelers, drunken truck drivers and cattle – but you can make a reservation online and they will charge you hundreds of dollars for your bunk.

The Navimag is not a cruise. If you are looking for a cruise, check out Skorpios and ready your credit card. The Navimag is a quirky travel experience that comes with the good, the bad and the ugly. If you like to have different experiences and are adventurous it just might be the highlight of your trip.

The Good

The boat takes you through days of uninhabited fjords, close encounters with glaciers and views of surreal orange sunsets over the Pacific. It passes through Aisen’s maze of narrow channels, navigates the Angostura Inglesa (a passage so confined that the ship seems to graze the shoreline on both sides) and stops at the impossibly remote Puerto Eden, a small fishing port (etc. etc. – other things that we probably won’t do because of the time of the year, as I’ve been told by the guy at the Navimag office here in town…)

Beyond the stellar scenery, the trip has become a unique bonding experience for independently minded travelers. Strangers become tight friends after numerous bottles of wine, round after round of pointless card games, sympathizing about queasy stomachs (I hope we have enough Dramamine to go around!) deck-top soccer matches, late-night dance parties and plans to meet up in Torres del Paine (most travelers do the opposite direction apparently). Even though the ship’s common spaces are bare and not particularly comfortable, the crew does a yeoman’s job of trying to entertain with games, slide shows, music and a respectable selection of English-language movies.

The Bad

If the weather is poor, your views are limited and you will spend much of your time watching movies or drinking in the dining area. If the weather is worse, you can spend a day or so pitching back and forth on rough seas and fighting to hold down your lunch. If the weather is worse than that your trip can be delayed (for days) prior to departure and you can even be delayed en route if the Golfo de Penas (on the open Pacific) is too rough to cross (the guy at the office told me that too rough means waves higher than 4.5 meters. Yikes.)

In the winter the boat can have less than a dozen passengers (check!), which can be fine or can really detract from the social experience. In the heart of summer, it is often so full that people are packed on top of each other and must dine in shifts. A very crowded boat can make the cramped downstairs dorm rooms seem less bearable.

The Ugly

During the winter, when there are fewer passengers and more cargo, hundreds of head of cattle are kept on the top and middle decks in open-top trucks. They are packed together so tightly that not all animals can keep their feet on the ground and after a day or two the stench of 300 cattle can be tough on your nose – especially if you are already seasick.

However, as you should know by now, no valuable travel experience comes without a dose of hardship. If you have the time, trips on the Navimag will not only change the way that you understand Chilean Patagonia, it will also add depth to your entire trip.

So, let’s see what happens.

Earlier when we booked I was really wondering what we were getting ourselves into. I’m definitely feeling calmer now and mostly just curious to see what it will be like.

Also, it helps to remember our time on the cargo ship in Myanmar – how those three days became and remain one of THE big highlights of our trip so far. Yes, we were sleeping on a one-inch mattress, the nights were freezing cold and I didn’t shower for days, but it was just magic and I wouldn’t give up a second of it. The fjords and open ocean will be something completely different from the Irrawaddy River, and the Navimag ferry is at least 10 times cushier than our ferry in Myanmar.

So, let the adventure begin! 🙂 We’ll be offline for at least a few days, so see you again once we reach Puerto Montt!

Before I go though, here’s a quick peak at Chilean Patagonia… Tons more photos to come at some point in the future… 🙂