Puerto Natales – Puerto Montt, Chile

Puerto Natales – Puerto Montt
Chile

From Puerto Natales in southern Chile there are no roads northward, unless you care to detour via Argentina, so you travel by ferry to Puerto Montt. This takes three or four days, costing $55 for food, and $145 for a bunk in a double cabin. Few people travel in winter, so there is only one ferry running a ten day round trip through a thousand kilometers of fijordland. In summer there are two ferries, and they run from further south, Puntas Arenas on the Straits of Magellan.

I arrive with a few days before the next departure, which I spend wandering around the town and its surrounds. Puerto Natales is a bit like the town of Wanaka (NZ) on the shores of Lake Hawea, without the tourist encrustations. The countryside is yellow-brown tussock grassland, but across the lake, or rather, sea fijord, are snow-clad mountains with a sea-level glacier at its head. The town’s buildings are all of wood, reminding me of the West Coast.

The boat day rolls around, so in the morning I check at the ferry offices: a blackboard says that we should board by eleven tonight, ready for a morning departure so I spend the day obtaining supplies for desserts, and writing letters. At four, I wander down to the docks to see what is happening, and see the ferry leaving! Ah, no, it is making another attempt to moor in a stiff onshore breeze.

In the early evening I board the Puerto Eden by means of its stern door, lowered as a ramp to the wharf, and find that I have a cabin to myself. We leave (“zarpe”) at dawn, which is about eight-thirty, heading south west along the vast fijord, with mountains to our right. At one p.m. we do a loop so as to face a tiny channel in the side of the main range. This is called Angostura (“narrows”) Kirk, and is rather tighter than the entrance to Tory channel. The South American Handbook speaks of the channel being a stone’s throw wide so I had made a point of bringing some stones with me, and having flung a stone from each side of the ferry, I can report that the channel is in fact somewhat more than two stone throw’s plus a ferry’s width wide, though perhaps my shoulders were a bit stiff from supporting the Green Toad (my backpack). Beneath a lid of cloud, stern bush-clad mountainsides frown down in dark green silence on all sides as the ferry threads through at an angle; there is no sign of a strong current at the moment, but on shore are a number of markers to indicate the proper course.

Ahead are only more mountains, with snow, ice and cloud all around. Our captain knows the way, but it is not at all obvious nor straight.

Our meals are prepared within the body of the ship, but we eat them in a canteen/lounge formed by joining two standard containers side by side on top of a second pair that forms the restaurant for the truck drivers. In summer time, the horde of passengers occupy every available space, sleeping under tables or out on deck, but in winter there is plenty of space, and our meals are good and hot. Alas, the ventilation is poor, but the still inland waters make little call on sea legs.

The next morning finds us in scenery similar to yesterday’s, as if we hadn’t moved but are condemned to stay forever in the same spot like the Flying Dutchman, but no, at ten we are approaching a cluster of houses on the side of a vast mountain. This is the fishing village of Puerto Eden, and a small boat stands out to transship goods and passengers via the lowered stern door. An hour later, we weigh anchor and the village is soon lost in the immense landscape.

That evening’s dinner finishes as the ferry’s motion starts to increase. We are moving out into the open ocean, and queasiness grows in the stuffy air of the canteen so I retire early for a swift shower and get to my bunk just in time to avoid tasting my supper over again.

In the morning we’re still at sea in misty rain, but I’m feeling better, and at midday we return to the inland shelter. Some dolphins swim alongside, and endless mountains lurk amongst the clouds. So the day continues, towards the last night.

We approach Puerto Montt just after noon, anchoring out in the stream with a good view of the city, whose wooden houses on hillsides resemble Wellington’s although the hills are not high. Eventually a launch turns up, so we passengers depart via a gangway. The sea is calm, but somehow it is the shore that is swaying!

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