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… 🙂

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Hello Puerto Natales

Since we’ll be spending the rest of the week here (unexpectedly), I thought I’d share a few snap shots of this little city of Puerto Natales.

Quick Natales facts:

It is the capital of its province, which is called Última Esperanza, which is Spanish for “Last Hope”, a name I find tremendously evocative and romantic.

About 20,000 people live here. A lot of businesses shut down during the winter season (i.e. now). Tourism is the big draw to Natales at this point in its history and people flock here in the spring and summer months to trek in the (amazing!!!) Torres del Paine National Park.

The town even has a brewery, and we approve of the place’s beer and food! 😉

Key points covered, here is a handful of visual impressions from around town, just to paint a bit of a picture. 🙂 As per usual, the photos are clickable for a closer view (may be worth clicking on the last image at least. 😉 ).

Loads of cute dogs hanging out around town. Am considering buying a big bag of dog treats to carry around with me cause I want to feed them all!

Love the colorful buildings!

Enjoying the sunshine

Snow, fence and light

All sorts of interesting water fowl!

Gull afloat above the water

Defunct boat

Love the colors along the waterside

And last but not least, flamingos and snowy mountains in the background. Because flamingos and snow go together like…. flamingos and snow…. Who knew!! 😀

Technical difficulties

We went over our to-do list over breakfast this morning. All the little things to sort out in preparation for three days on the Navimag ferry. We headed out to town to get things done, including stopping by the Navimag office to find out exactly what time the boarding was. What a surprise to be told that there wasn’t going to be any boarding. Not until Saturday anyway!

It seems there are issues with the ship we were meant to be on. It didn’t sail on it’s weekly run last week, and as they’re not even sure what the problem is, they can’t say when it’ll be fixed and ready to go again. Navimag has a second ship though – less cushy than the one we were meant to be on – and that is stepping in to do the route from Puerto Natales up through the Patagonian fjords to the port city of Puerto Montt. Only instead of departing tomorrow, it’s departing in five days.

We’ve of course experienced delays during this big trip of ours, but five days is most definitively a record. 🙂

I’m not complaining though. We decided the journey through the fjords is worth the wait, and our lovely B&B has room for us all week, so we’re happy to camp out here in little Natales for a while longer. It’s definitely not a bad place to be marooned, as far as we’re concerned. If nothing else, it’ll give me the opportunity to catch up a bit more on the blog! 🙂

So that’s all the news from our neck of the woods for now. Hope everyone else out there is having a good week – where things go to plan, or, when they don’t, the unexpected is something delightful, like it is this week for us. 🙂

So much to say

So few pictures, so little time, such insufficient internet access lately!

Phew!

The days since my last post have been chock full! We did some wonderful things back in Ushuaia that involved a lot of cold weather and outdoorsy-ness. I left my camera abandoned at the hotel for a lot of it. Some of it even involved getting over some apparently bigger-than-I-thought fears.

We’ve also been on the move a lot. We’ve left Argentina now (!!!) and have been in Chile (!!!!!) since Wednesday night (over thirteen hours on the bus to get there…!). First stop Punta Arenas and now we’ve arrived in Puerto Natales.

The days have been so full and there’s so much I want to say (write) – little details to capture before they slip through the cracks in my memory. It’s already past midnight though and we have to get up early tomorrow for our latest adventure – only recently discovered the existence of Torres del Paine but, when in Rome – or in this case southern Chilean Patagonia… So tomorrow we’re off to go check it out. Will try to get at least a few little vignettes together about recent events before the vividness of them fades before it’s time to board the Navimag ferry on Tuesday…

Just for now here is a snap shot of this moment though.

I’m sitting in the living room of our awesome B&B here in Puerto Natales. The lighting is low, the room is quiet and the fire in the wood stove has collapsed into a small pile of coals but still radiates heat. I suspect Roman may have fallen asleep on the bed in the next room. 😉 Outdoors, the quiet streets are filled with old snow; the sidewalks are miniature skating rinks that we skidded and laughed our way across earlier in the night. The current temperature outside is 30 degrees Fahrenheit, which only makes being inside in the warm all the more cozy. I’ve been scoping hotels on Tripadvisor for some of the next stops in Chile. I’m excited about visiting the National Park tomorrow and for the next day – our hosts at the B&B are lovely and the wife, Fabiana, has promised to show me how she makes her home-made bread. My belly is full of good food (vegetarian even – huzzah!) and tasty Patagonian beer from a local brewery/pub we visited for dinner earlier. Life. Is. Good…