The small city of Puerto Montt has very little to offer the world weary tourist and would hardly merit a mention if it wasn’t for the Navimag boat which sails from there twice a week.
However, whilst waiting for the boat to sail there are some interesting things to see and it’s possible, with just a little imagination, to spend a quiet couple of days there without having to resort to chewing off your leg due to boredom. The local tourist agency told me that, “One of the things people like about Puerto Montt is its location. Many people like to stay here and take day trips to Chiloé Island, to the National parks, waterfalls, lakes, mountains, go fishing and do many other outdoor activities. Stay here, eat here and rent a car, take a tour, or bus to explore the outdoor adventure around the area.”
Who could resist?
Geography and History
Puerto Montt is situated on the Bay of Puerto Montt. Founded in 1853, the settlement was named for Manuel Montt, then president of Chile. Early German settlers gave the town a distinctive appearance which perhaps isn’t to everyone’s taste. Today, Puerto Montt is a commercial centre for an agricultural hinterland, which yields grains (especially wheat), potatoes, and livestock, as well as for the offshore fishing grounds.
The city’s industries include fish canning, tanning, and saw milling. The Pan-American Highway and main north-south railroad terminate in the city, as do sea routes through the archipelagos southward to Punta Arenas. It also has an international airport. It’s setting, amid forested hills, fjords, lakes, and snow-capped Andes peaks, has made it a popular resort, despite earthquakes.
There are daily flights from Santiago, Punta Arenas and other Chilean destinations. The chaotic and dimly lit bus station, which reminded me of an opium den, is on the waterfront a few blocks from the bustling commercial centre of town. There are buses to many destinations but the main ones of interest to travellers will be to Chiloé, Santiago and Punta Arenas.
There is a change bureau in the station and a tourist information office. However, last time I was there (Dec 2000) the office appeared abandoned and it looked like squatters had moved in. The other small shops dotted around the bus station sell snacks, post cards and surreal tourist tat. The bus station is a lot safer then it looks but do be aware of what is going on around you and where your bags are.
The Navimag ferry operates from the port which is about 3km west of town. Tickets can supposedly be bought from there up to the day of sailing but the office often resembles a war zone. Quite how the lovely girls who run the office keep smiling in the face of such extreme provocation is one of life’s mysteries. Try if at all possible to get your tickets well in advance. Whilst you are waiting for the boat to leave you can always pop over to the magical island of Chiloé for a few days.
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Places to Stay
Like most other cities in Chile there was a group of locals waiting for the bus all offering rooms for rent – this may however change in Puerto Montt in the near future as the local council has just passed a rule outlawing touts. During six weeks travelling in Chile I never had to make an effort to find a place to sleep and relied on a tout picking me up and taking me home with them.
In December 2000/ January 2001 the going rate for a good room was about US$7 per night per person – this often included the infamous experimental Chilean breakfast. Ask around for the best deals and where other travellers have received the warmest welcome.
I stayed in very two different places. On my first trip I stayed in Hospedaje Betty which is high on the hill at the end of the street with the market. This was the most expensive place I stayed in during my six weeks in Chile – I paid about US$12 per person per night for a magnificent double room, cable TV, ensuite bathroom and a massive breakfast. Betty is clearly one sandwich short of a picnic but don’t let that put you off. The view from Betty’s is pretty amazing too. From my diary:
‘…oh the luxury of a double bed, a good bottle of wine and this inspiring view. The windows take up three sides of the room and I am watching the calm Pacific waters turn from coppery gold to inky purple as the sun sets over the snow capped mountains. The sky is filled with puffy clouds which promise another good weather day tomorrow. The lights of the battleships in the bay are twinkling like lights on a Christmas tree. I want to stay here…’
The next time I was in town I stayed in Hospedaje Maggie which is high on the hill above the town and a bit of a slog with a full backpack. Despite the fact that the rooms were cheap, the breakfast was reasonable, there was a good book exchange and the showers were hot, I didn’t really enjoy my time at Maggie’s. She was a bad tempered lesbian who spent all her time flirting with the female guests and being incredibly rude to me – I think she just hated men, especially good looking, charming and charismatic men like myself (I guess I also shouldn’t have told her my lesbian nun joke either).
She was a mine of misinformation and if it hadn’t been for the lovely girls at the Navimag office we would have missed the boat as Maggie had insisted that it wouldn’t sail that day and refused to make us breakfast. Needless to say Maggie wasn’t Chilean and there should really be no need for travellers to stay there unless everywhere else in town in full or they fancy spending a few days lesbian-baiting. Maggie can often be found giving out cards at the bus station.
In the town centre there are a few good travel agents who can book, as one agent told me, “everything from cruises, hunting trips, ice climbs and a night out with Britney Spears” – I think he might have been exaggerating a little but my girlfriend wouldn’t let me book a trip to find out. Most of them are of similar quality and speak some English but it’s worth shopping around for special deals. The travel agencies all change traveller’s cheques at a reasonable rate.
I love Chilean banks. They may be totally useless when it comes to anything money related, but that doesn’t stop the people working there being some of the nicest people you could possibly meet. In fact, I challenge anyone to go to Chile and not like the people. Whilst in Puerto Montt I had to deposit some money into someone’s account. Of course I had lost the piece of paper with all the details but this didn’t deter the friendly bank manager one bit. He put his staff of about 25 people at our disposal and had people running all over the town to help us. Whilst his staff did this he sat us down in comfy leather chairs and gave us a history to Chile, a few recipes for making his famous clam stew and an invitation for dinner next time we were in town.
For some bizarre reason the banks do not touch traveller’s cheques or do foreign exchange. They do, however, all have ATM’s which accept most cards (Visa, Cirrus, Mastercard etc).
Places to Eat
Around the docks there are lots of restaurants offering standard tourist scoff. Most of these seemed to be of the same price (reasonably expensive) and quality (reasonably high). Most locals who rent out rooms are happy to let you loose in their kitchens which works out a lot cheaper. The supermarkets are good places to hunt down cheap and tasty empanadas, roast chickens and other nutritious and cheap goodies.
Things to Buy
Close to the Navimag office and the port is a wonderful little craft market which specialises in chunky wool sweaters and lapis lazuli. The wool sweaters, which cost about US$10, are essential for the boat trip and are both warm and practical. The shops also sell ponchos which look brilliant at the time but tend to make the wearer a bit of a social outcast if worn in public – remember guys, only Clint Eastwood looks cool in a poncho.
The other really good buy at this market is the semi-precious stone Lapis lazuli which can only be found in Afghanistan (if the Taleban haven’t banned that as well) and Chile (I am glad I sat through all those long geology lectures now).
The name means blue rock and the stone is brilliant blue with violet or greenish tints which depend on the impurities present (it’s not often I get to use this knowledge and I am not going to waste this chance). It’s quite expensive but very beautiful. It seems to have a strange effect on women and after splashing out for some lapis ear rings for my beloved she didn’t mention my smelly feet or the fact that I was English for an entire day. You can also buy, very cheaply, great uncut lumps of Lapis which are also very attractive – but look less appealing dangling from your loved one’s earlobes.
About the Author
The author has traveled to about 50 countries and lived in places as diverse as Brazil and Japan. When not travelling he can be found writing sarcastic letters to Air Portugal or with his head in a map whilst nursing a pint in his local Cambridge pub. Travelling or not, he can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org