One of the most commonly asked questions on the Lonely Planet’s South America thorn tree over recent months (apart from the old chestnuts of “Is Rio dangerous?” and “Which country in South America has the best women?”) is what is the Navimag boat trip really like. A few weeks ago I took the trip and am pleased to report back that it was a memorable trip and considerably different from how I imagined it. I have cobbled my notes down into a beginners guide to the trip.
The Sales Pitch
The Navimag brochure positively gushes with enthusiasm: “Embark upon this sailing adventure through fjords, coves and bays between Puerto Montt and Puerto Natales (or vice versa) on board the M/V Puerto Eden or M/V Magallanes, the best alternative to begin or start once again your trip to Patagonia and Torres del Paine. In this cruise through the numerous archipelagos of the Aisén region and Magallanes, you can become immersed in the unequalled beauty of the Patagonian channels and its countless islands, many of which are practically unexplored.”
I wonder who their copy writer is and if he is available to write my resumé.
The Puerto Eden is a cargo and passenger ferry that was built in Rauma Repola (Finland) in 1972 and refurbished in Brazil in 1993. It has a length of 113.5 meters and a width of 19.2 meters. It travels at a speed of 13 knots and sails all year round. It is a really spacious ship and even when packed with tourists never seems small or claustrophobic.
It has lots of deck space and a cozy bar and lounge area where videos are shown most afternoons. It is clearly a well looked after ship, despite the outside looking a bit tatty, and the Captain took considerable pride in sailing her.
The crew is composed of 40 members: 20 maritime members and 20 who work on the hotel side. Each trip has a bilingual host who is on-hand 24 hours a day to organise activities, answer questions and make announcements such as:
Ladies and gentlefolk, we have icebergs on the starboard bow.
Ladies and gentlefolk we will shortly be serving dinner, now is a good time to open a bottle of wine.
Although Navimag may be a significant cause of stress on land (try turning up an hour before sailing to collect your reservation and see what I mean), once on the water they ooze professionalism and really do go out of their way to make the trip as interesting and comfortable as possible.
I had expected the boat to be packed with smelly backpackers who hadn’t seen soap and water for several countries. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find the age range for the passengers, which our guide told us was probably typical, was from about 7 to 75 years and even the backpackers were relatively well groomed. If anything, there were more older people on board, most notably an unintentionally hysterically funny bunch of English golden-agers, who spent most of their time making comments about the weather and the time they were buggered at public school.
Almost everyone I spoke to had travelled extensively, “oh, and when I was in Damascus last week…” and were either on a long (6-18 month) trip or squeezing Chile in as a side trip between more extensive trips.
There was also a good mix of nationalities. On my trip there were Germans, Dutch, English, Brazilians, French, Australians and some South Africans. It was relatively easy to distinguish between the different nationalities as the Germans (they seemed to walk about in packs of three – always two guys and one girl) always wore socks and sandals (a most heinous crime). The Finns wore matching jackets and trousers, the English spent all their time on the bridge smoking pipes and reminiscing about the last time they sailed these waters during the war. The Brazilians looked like they were about to die of exposure, whilst the Aussies were never seen without a bottle of wine under their arm.
The Type of Conversations You Will Hear
As most people had travelled the conversations tended to revolve around which countries you had visited, which was the best place to get lentil soup in Central Asia or, surreally, the best place to buy petrol within the M25 radius. One morning whilst I was up on the bridge I overheard the following conversation between an elderly English chap and a similarly grey haired German:
English Man (looking at the charts): Ahh, yes, I remember this sand bank back in 1942.
German: Ah, so you have been here before?
English Man: Yes, in fact I was Captain of a frigate, spent the best years of the war up here. Kicked the crap out of Jerry many a time…..
I missed the rest of the conversation as I was too busy having major hysterics.
You may also hear the bog standard backpacker conversation:
BP1: Just got back from Turkistan. Do you know I only spent six pence the whole eight months I was there.
BP2: That’s nothing, I have just got back from Mongolia and I stayed for a year in this lovely little hostel for only 80 Mongolian scrotes per year and the owner insisted that I shagged his daughter every day whilst his wife cooked dinner.
Oh dear, Navimag are never going to win any awards for their functionally edible and often experimental food. The food isn’t bad in itself, it’s just that it arrives with frightening regularity and is terribly bland and uninspiring. Examples of the food include boiled meat and pasta, boiled meat and rice and one night, for a special treat, a jolly nice salmon steak. The food was well prepared just bland – I got through a bottle of chilli sauce per day.
Most people turned up with at least their own body weight in beer, wine and food for the trip and the least employed person on the boat must have been the barman who spent the entire trip watching everyone get plastered on their own booze.
There are three meals a day; breakfast, lunch and dinner. The people staying in the cheaper accommodation have a separate dining area (the same food is served) whilst the cabin class people have their meals in two shifts. My advice would be to go vegetarian as the veggie food, which was lots of quiches and flans, looked really tasty. No one really complained about the food but the snacks and junk food I took with me was really appreciated.
The Gulf of Penas
On the second night the ship leaves the calm inland waters for a short sea crossing of the infamous Gulf of Penas (which I am sure translates as Gulf of Pain). This is a notoriously rough area but there is really nothing to be worried about. The strange thing was not that 95% of the people were sick but that the sea was actually relatively smooth and no where near as violent as some crossings I have made in the English Channel, yet still everyone was sick.
I have come across any number of seasickness cures in my time and the only thing I can say with any degree of certainty is that my own patented method of drinking as much beer as possible before hitting the rough seas definitely does not work. I had never, ever been seasick before so I am blaming my spectacular chundering on bad beer.
The other piece of advice I would offer on crossing the gulf is not to stand on the lower decks. On my trip we had a lovely, sweet, inoffensive Japanese couple who were on honeymoon. They were typically Japanese and spent most of their time photographing everything that moved or doing “Japanese-type things” in their cabin. It was, therefore, rather unfortunate that at the precise moment they decided to take their afternoon stroll on the lower deck I decided to chuck up my lunch (six cans of beer and some pasta) from the upper deck, scoring a direct hit of unbelievable accuracy (I must confess that I nearly choked laughing). I then made the mistake of trying to puke into the wind and managed to cover myself that time.
When I finally made it back to my cabin, the anally retentive Germans who I was sharing a cabin with (they had laid all their gear out with military precision and neatly folded their clothes in the wardrobe) were laying in a mess of clothes and gear, looking very grim. Mrs German told me “Oh, this is so funny, my husband and I have been sick 25 times today.” And then dissolved into fits of hysterics, so much so that she puked again. Funny people, the Germans.
During the time that everyone was heaving their guts up the cleaners were running round the ship in gangs (one cleaner was puking as fast as she could clean) making sure that the ship remained in pristine condition. When we all emerged from our cabins the next day it was hard to imagine that anything untoward had happened the night before. Full marks again for Navimag.
The boat has a ship owner suite, which has three beds, large windows, a bathroom divided into two rooms, a sofa, coffee table and television.
There are also 14 type ‘AA’ cabins (with four beds and a suite bathroom), 8 type ‘A’ cabins (4 beds and a private bathroom outside the bedroom), two type ‘B’ cabins (4 beds and a private bathroom, the room does not have a view) and a whole load of cheaper “pack ‘em in as close as you can” type bunks in the bowels of the ship.
The good news is that all the accommodation is comfortable, clean and more than adequate. The lower bunk-bed accommodation is of a higher quality then most hostels I have stayed in but does suffer from lack of bedding (bring your own sleeping bag). ‘A’ type cabins were good value and their separate bathrooms were spotlessly clean. I splurged on a ‘AA’ cabin which was luxury personified – it was twice as expensive as the basic bunk bed but was money well spent – if only to laugh at Mrs German’s antics.
Our guide let us into a little secret – 8 times out of 10 the weather is pretty uninspiring and the views are pretty limited. This has led many people to claim that the trip was “boring” and that “it’s better to fly”, neither of which are true. On my trip it rained most of the time but for atmospheric value you can’t beat the low-lying mist and rain shrouded mountain peaks which are just tantalisingly beyond reach. I spent nearly all my time on deck and took an inordinate number of moody, gloomy pictures.
Undoubtedly it’s very pretty and the pictures I have seen of bright sunny crossings are spectacular. Chile seems to be a difficult country to travel in with regards to scenery. On my trip (I spent about 6 weeks there) I was lucky with the weather almost every day and saw many spectacular volcanoes and jagged mountain peaks whereas some people I spoke to had seen only mist and rain and believed that Chile was actually flat.
There is also plenty of wildlife to see, including Albatrosses (I entertained the Germans one afternoon by reciting the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner to them), penguins, dolphins and even the odd whale.
Cost and Where to Book
The one point where Navimag fall apart is actually getting people onto their boat in the first place. The route is extremely popular, so much so that they have just bought another boat (delivery, however, has been delayed indefinitely due to financial problems).
Once you are actually aboard then everything goes swimmingly but getting a ticket can be quite stressful and if you turn up at the booking office a day or so before sailing you could quite easily believe that you have stumbled into Chile’s own Hamburger Hill. I booked my ticket several months in advance through an agent in Pucon (who is notorious amongst travellers in Chile for being a really nice guy but an incompetent travel agent) and still had to wait a day at the Navimag office whilst they sent faxes backwards and forwards to confirm my booking. Probably the best way to book is directly with the company by sending them a fax or email a few weeks before departure.
The schedule for sailings can found at:
but this is somewhat flexible and due to adverse weather the boats can run up to four days late. You really need to be flexible when considering the amount of time you allow yourself for this trip.
The current cost for the trip (which ranges from US$200 for a bunk to US$400 for a cabin) can be found here:
The Hundred Million Dollar Question
Well, is the trip worth while? I would say most definitely yes. The trip was probably one of the highlights of my extensive South American travels purely because I saw penguins, icebergs and I was sick on some people.
It has the potential for being a truly spectacular trip if the weather is good but even if the weather is pretty gloomy it is still an interesting way to spend four days. Besides, Chile is a wonderful country, incredibly beautiful and full of wonderfully warm people – it should be high on every traveller’s wish-list.
About the Author
The author has lived and travelled extensively in both hemispheres. He is co-founder of the “Let’s travel in Chile and Uruguay” society. When not travelling or contributing to numerous travel magazines he can be found in Cambridge, UK. He lists his favourite activites as: writing complaining letters to Air Portugal, drinking copious amounts of alcohol and hanging around airports. He may be contacted via: firstname.lastname@example.org