Chile’s wild west fiordland coast is a fascinating region of unique natural beauty. The ice fields of northern Patagonia have glaciers that descend into the sea and the famous San Rafael Glacier with its lagoon of drifting icebergs is accessible by cruise ship from Puerto Chacabuco.
The ship Lago Yelcho is moored at the jetty. A steady stream of expectant tourists file up the gangplank – 45 in all, although the vessel can take 64 passengers. At 5 pm we cruise sedately down Fiordo Aisén towards the Pacific and the cool breeze from the snowy mountains soon drives most travellers indoors to fraternise in the lounge and patronise the bar.
Dinner is delicious, poached salmon with caper sauce. My evening is spent playing chess with a Swiss gentleman who refuses to be beaten. We call it quits and wonder if we should join in the discotheque with all its flashing lights and fantastic rhythm. At 2am I collapse into my reclining bucket seat wondering how the captain can possibly navigate the ship through the maze of channels in the darkness to the famous Laguna San Rafael.
Breakfast is a hurried meal because first light shows an intriguing shoreline – first a little fishing village, then a narrow channel between smooth glaciated rocks and stunted beech trees, with clouds scudding around more distant snowy peaks. The ship does a little dance around various navigation beacons and then glides confidently into Laguna San Rafael and its icebergs.
The ship hoves to about a kilometre away from the glacier front. Twenty volunteers assemble themselves in a lifeboat. Clad in thick winter woollies and life jackets, shivering and expectant, we putter off into the gloom and mist towards the glacier.
Two crew members guide us to our objective. One crewman operates the inboard motor and steers the boat under the cry of the lookout man standing in the bow who has a long pole used to fend off baby icebergs. I soon realise that colliding with an iceberg just a foot across is like hitting a floating rock.
Our lookout in the bow manages to haul aboard some chunks of ice from a passing berg. Each boat is dispatched with two bottles of whisky and glasses. Being in the bow, I have the job of filling up glasses and passing them to passengers. Eight-year-old whisky served with 10,000 year-old ice. The freezing cold seems suddenly bearable after three swigs.
We drift to within half a kilometre of the glacier cliffs; quite close enough, I decide, after seeing the effect of a small ice fall: a frightening boom, a cloud of ice dust, a huge splash followed by waves up to half a metre high radiating across the lagoon. This happens every 10 minutes or so. Up and down bobs the boat. Hearts flutter.
After lunch we leave the lagoon and cruise northward through the fiords, finally reaching Puerto Chacabuco after breakfast the next day.
We watch the huge Navimag transbordador Evangelistas arrive from up north, lower its front door and discharge seemingly a never-ending stream of trucks and private cars chockers with everything but the kitchen sink.
This ship serves the double purpose of vehicle transportation from Puerto Montt to Chacabuco and, once unloaded of cargo, it becomes a cruise ship to explore the southern fiords for a few days. The 250 passengers from Puerto Montt have a day of optional bus tours in the mountains and to Coyhaique while the change to cruise ship takes place. Eight more passengers join the ship at Puerto Chacabuco.
We explore the huge ferry with its 3 decks of reclining armchairs, lounges and snack bars. It can take over 400 passengers. All meals are provided, served over several sittings in order to cope with the multitude. Plain fare for budget customers.
A fun feature of the Evangelistas cruise are the nightly discos and the crew organized a riotous concert on the vehicle deck the night on leaving San Rafael. The fantastic scenery remains the same as does the close approach to the glacier by lifeboat.
Isla Grande de Chiloé
We go by bus from Puerto Montt to Ancud (population 20,000), an attractive fishing port on the north end of Chiloé, an island 180 km long and 50 km wide.
A vehicle ferry takes the bus across the channel. The bus terminal is on the outskirts of town so we hire a taxi to go and see the old Spanish fort having many cannon guarding the harbour. A short walk downhill brings us to the busy port where fishing boats discharge not only many fish species, but crabs, shellfish and seaweed.
Ancud’s Regional History Museum located on the main plaza is well worth a visit with special art displays. An enjoyable day is spent browsing the shops, lunching and finally we bus through to Castro 90kms south to stay overnight.
Castro (population 15,000), well known for its purple and orange-colored cathedral, is worth stopping at for a few days. There is a great craft market with woollen goods on the waterfront where I note with envy a Skorpios cruise ship moored.
We spend a day a-roaming, colectivo to Dalcahue, a handcraft center where we scoff seafood empanadas. Next we take the ferry to neighboring Isla Quinchao and bus out to the fishing village of Achao where there is a beautiful wooden church being restored and many picturesque bars and restaurants. The Dalcahue flea market on Sunday mornings is worth a visit.
My last trip here took in the village of Chonchi by the sea, to fish nearby Lago Tarahuin for trout, and Cucao on the wild Pacific coast which has excellent hiking in the National Park. Anglers should head towards the river mouth to tangle with hefty sea-run fish.
It is an easy morning bus trip from Castro to the southern fishing port of Quellón 92 kms distant. In the afternoon we catch the overnight vehicular ferry to Puerto Chacabuco. A few days stopover at Coyhaique (population 50,000) is a must-do excursion and being 80kms from the coast it has a nice sunny climate – it is the little “Santiago of the south” where all the townsfolk are smartly dressed.
To return northwards by bus via the Austral Highway to Chaitén, Caleta Gonzalo and Hornopirén is a bone-shattering experience requiring patience and fortitude. You can always take the regular ferry from Chaitén to Quellón or Puerto Montt, but the fiordland scenery along the main coastline is great and worth the effort to see if possible.
If you want more information about this area you can email the author or check out our South America Insiders page.
How to Get There
Fly to Santiago, Chile by Lan Chile. Use a Chile Air Pass to economically fly within the country; e.g., for US$250 you get 3 flights in a month. Check also Chile Airlines. Better still is to get free internal Chilean flights by using a “One World” RTW ticket. Consult your travel agent.
Fly to Puerto Montt the main seaport for the Chilean Lake District and capital of the 10th Region. Alternatively take an overnight bus, Santiago to Puerto Montt (950 kms, 16 hours, cost US$18). See Chip Travel.
Puerto Montt, (population 130,000) port-of-call for cruise ships, Navimag ferry terminal and exporter of wood chips. A fascinating place, but I prefer to stay inland at Puerto Varas (population 30,000) a tourist center 20 kms distant on the shore of Lago Llanquihue.
Laguna San Rafael Cruises
From Puerto Montt there are many options open to visit the Laguna San Rafael National Park (600 kms south), depending on time and finances. Cruise ships leave from Puerto Montt and call at Puerto Chacabuco thence go overnight to Laguna San Rafael to see the glacier and icebergs and return the same way for a 5 day and 4 night round trip.
The largest ship is Navimag’s Evangelistas, which offers a range of accommodation viz., butacas (reclining armchairs), bunks and cabins. Cost is butacas US$224, bunks US$385 per person. For price details and sailing schedule consult Chip Travel and Chile Airlines. By joining the cruise at Puerto Chacabuco (2 nights) you get a cheaper rate (US$173).
Skorpios has 3 ships (named I, II & III) doing luxury 6 day cruises from Puerto Montt, stopping at various spots en route. Lowest share cabin accommodation on Skorpios I is ca. US$800 – $1130 per person, low-high season (high is Dec-Feb); Skorpios III is more luxurious.
Chip Travel for details.
A luxury catamaran, Patagonia Express, operates from Termas de Puyuhuapi.
Cruise ships come and go. Check with a travel agent to see what is operating this coming summer. Other possibilities are Transmarchilay’s El Colono and CNP’s Lago Yelcho. Expect US$200 minimum buying ticket at Puerto Chacabuco for 2 nights aboard ship.
By joining a cruise at Puerto Chacabuco you have the challenge of DIY travel, getting there and back by land and sea from Puerto Montt. This way you will experience the countryside and Chilean hospitality.
A suggested route from Puerto Montt is bus south along the Island of Chiloé, stop o’nite at Castro; then bus to seaport of Quellón, take o’nite ferry to Puerto Chacabuco; stay in Puerto Chacabuco, Puerto Aisén or Coyhaique.
After the cruise return by bus to Chaitén, thence ferry to Puerto Montt (or Quellón). In summer (Jan – March), it is possible to go by ferry from Caleta Gonzalo (of Pumalin Park fame) to Hornopirén, thence bus to Puerto Montt.
Staying at hospedajes (family guest houses) is a great way to meet the Chilean people. Normally cost does not exceed US$10/night. The better quality hospedajes are listed in the brochure “Backpacker’s Best of Chile”, also on their web site.
Some recommended places are given and the town website gives other accommodation and services available, or check Lonely Planet.
Puerto Varas: Hospedaje “Colores del Sur” on Santa Rosa near the Plaza, & around the corner is Hospedaje “Ellenhaus”.
Puerto Montt: Hostal “Suiza”
Ancud: Hospedaje “Miranda”
Castro: Hospedaje “El Mirador”
Dalcahue: Hospedaje “San Martin”
Chonchi: Hospedaje “La Esmeralda”
Cucao: Hospedaje closest to National Park entrance.
Coyhaique: Hospedaje Nathy, at Simpson 417;
Chaitén: Hostería Llanos on waterfront;
Hornopirén: Hospedaje de Sra Rosa at ferry ramp;
Lake District travelers to Pucón, check out Hospedaje “Sonia”, Hostal
“Ecole!”, andLa Casita.
You can visit Allano’s web site by clicking here.