By day three, my long hours of standing at the bow finally pay off. The rain clears suddenly and unexpectedly; the clouds creep away from the horizon to reveal the green-fringed edges of a multitude of fjords, extending far into the distance.
I’m on the Navimag ferry from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales, a journey that has been a long time coming.
I took the shorter route through the Patagonian fjords between Puerto Montt and Puerto Chacabuco back in April 2016 but I’d always been curious to experience this longer trip.
Unfortunately, despite the build-up, the weather hasn’t exactly been playing ball.
We are in Patagonia, after all.
The Patagonia fjords’ “floating hostel”
We started the four-day, three-night adventure of epically slow proportions at the port in Puerto Montt on the northernmost edges of Patagonia.
Assembling in the lobby of the Holiday Inn Express, an efficient bus transfer brought us directly to the dock for boarding the 148 passenger Eden ferry, which would become our floating home for the next few days.
Well, our “floating hostel” is probably a more apt way of describing it, a term offered to me by the passenger experience manager. And it didn’t take long to see what she meant.
On the Navimag ferry from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales, everything had been designed to see you sharing the experience with the other passengers. Mealtimes – which, on the Eden, take place in two sittings due to the tiny size of the canteen – see you dining across simple plastic tables from other travellers.
The atmosphere is so friendly that it’s easy to get chatting and I find myself, at some point during the trip, talking to practically everyone on board. Some even become short-term travel partners when we are back on dry land.
There are people of all ages and from a wide range of countries. The Brits and French are heavily represented, but there’s a selection of other Europeans, plus those from the US and a number of Chileans on holiday.
Everyone is here for the experience: many are following recommendations from friends or, like me, are here out of a simple love of travelling by boat.
While there are certainly faster and cheaper means of travelling between Puerto Montt and Puerto Natales, just a few hours onboard drums home the message that that’s not really the point.
It is the uniqueness of the journey through the Chilean fjords – an area of the world as yet so unexplored and wild – that is the real purpose of taking this ferry.
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Activities aboard the Navimag ferry
Sunset fell quickly on the first evening and the gentle rocking of the boat leaves me nervous for what was to come when we hit the open ocean.
In our introductory lecture that night, delivered by our affable guide with his waft of a British accent and well-timed quips, we are told that the following day we could expect a “20-knot wind. The waves and swell will be three to four meters high.” He grins before adding: “to be in the open ocean after lunch is good for the fish!”
While the waves do hit us the next day, they’re slightly lower than expected, but the torrential rain keeps many of the passengers indoors. Luckily, there’s plenty to do on the ship.
For the 2017/2018 season, daily yoga sessions have been introduced, aimed at allowing those coming from Torres del Paine National Park to stretch out tired muscles but also as “a chance to be with yourself and to connect with where we are,” I’m informed.
It’s certainly a unique experience stretched out on a yoga mat in the middle of the Chilean fjords and the classes, run in both English and Spanish by the onboard yoga teacher, are understandably packed.
There are also craft activities such as origami and mandala, a type of Mexican-style weaving, a bingo night and even a machine in the cafeteria that allows you to take a photograph of yourself on the ship to be sent instantly to your FB page.
There’s also a small library of books about Patagonia in the cafeteria which provides excellent supplementary information for the lectures, although you’ll have to hunt the key from a member of staff.
Waterproof clothing to the ready
I pass a lot of the journey out on the front of the boat where the views are the most expansive – and the exposure to the wind and rain the most extensive.
Being outside covered head to toe in waterproof clothing does have some advantages; the more time you spend combing the ocean for signs of life, the better chance you have of spotting animals.
We see tiny seals that practically bounce through the water; the wiggle and splash of what is potentially an otter; and plenty of birdlife, including the occasional albatross, which we’re told have wingspans that measure up to four meters in length.
We don’t see quite as much wildlife as we’d all been hoping (the temptation of a whale sighting is what keeps most passengers outside) but we can definitely identify that which we do thanks to the informative talks delivered in English and Spanish each day.
A keen photographer, our guide has snapped images of practically all of the flora and fauna it’s possible to see during the ferry voyage between Puerto Montt and Puerto Natales, telling us stories of the time he saw a humpback whale that had so recently calved that the water surrounding it was still red with blood, and the numerous occasions when he’s spotted orcas and other spectacular wildlife.
It’s all a matter of patient watching and a little bit of old-fashioned luck.
He’s been working for Navimag since 2010 and has seen the journey in every possible climatic condition and I’ll admit to being a little jealous of his job.
I can’t imagine anything more exciting than plying this route twice a week throughout the summer, particularly because, as the passenger experience manager tells me “you never know what’s going to happen, you might see some whales or some other surprise; every time it’s a completely different experience.”
On the third day, we strike the jackpot and the clouds finally lift. The landscape has changed dramatically from the rugged, volcano strewn contours of the Andes Mountains that we saw on the very first day leaving Puerto Montt.
Now, we’re in a channel surrounded by lower mountains comprising craggy granite slices that lean drunkenly into the water. On top of these hunks of rock, trees grip desperately onto the thin layer of soil that covers them.
As the sun makes its appearance, raincoats are stripped off and almost all of the passengers on board find a seat or a rail to lean against out on the bow. Two sea lions float past sunbathing, their fins and tails poking out of the water to absorb the heat, while on the shore, glaciers begin to appear in the approaching mountains.
On day three, one of the most interesting points of the journey is a scheduled stop for depositing cargo and picking up passengers at Puerto Eden, a tiny settlement perched on the edge of an island about 320 kilometres and a day’s sailing from Puerto Natales.
Although it looks more sizeable than expected – there are around 200 houses in the village – Puerto Eden is only inhabited by a population of 60.
It’s drizzling as the boat stops and the passengers pile out onto the desk to watch speedboats slip through the water to the back of the boat for the unloading of precious cargo.
Arriving into port in Puerto Natales on the Navimag
On the final day, there’s a collective sense of disappointment that we’ll be arriving around five hours earlier than expected. Unlike my previous experience of the Navimag ferry, weather conditions have been in our favour and our leisurely cruise comes to an untimely end.
Just before breakfast, we sail through one of the narrowest and shallowest parts of the Chilean fjords and I’m invited up to the bridge to watch the captain and his crew direct the ferry with well-practised ease through waters that are only a few meters deeper than the bottom of the ship; luckily the crew are hugely experienced, many having worked around the world on other ships before returning to Chile.
It’s certainly a unique feature of the journey that passengers are allowed to head up onto the bridge at to watch the crew at work.
As Puerto Natales finally comes into view with its backdrop of glacier-riddled peaks that loom to the north of the town and hint at the wilderness of Torres del Paine National Park beyond, we spy a rainbow in the sky in the direction that we’ve come.
It’s a final gift from nature on a trip that, although waterlogged at points, has been truly spectacular throughout, giving us all the chance to step back and savour – above anything else – the experience of journeying through some of the wildest parts of Patagonia.
Information about the Navimag ferry from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales
Ferry timings can change
The Navimag ferry from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales commences boarding at 4pm on Saturdays between October and the end of March and arrives in Puerto Natales – weather permitting – at noon on Tuesday.
Before booking your onward travel, it’s important to consider the challenges of sailing through this part of Patagonia: we were told how various sections of the fjords can only be sailed at high or low tide and without a strong current or winds.
Many must be travelled during daylight hours, so timings are very much an estimation and can change significantly depending on climate conditions.
It’s therefore essential to have at least a one-day buffer between your planned arrival in Puerto Natales and onward travel to ensure that you don’t end up arriving late and missing out on your plans.
Note that the ferry also makes the return journey every Wednesday morning at 8am (although passengers must board at 9pm the previous night), arriving in Puerto Montt at 8am on Saturday.
A new ship is joining the Navimag fleet
The route is now run on the Esperanza, the brand-new Navimag ferry, which has updated facilities.
Expect surprisingly good food
The food onboard is excellent and a lot of thought has gone into making it as appealing as possible to passengers. Meals consist of a salad bar, a soup starter and a main dish, dessert and access to tea, coffee, water and juice throughout. Vegetarian options were available each day and I was informed by another passenger that they were very good.
There is also a snack bar with coffee, tea and other drinks, plus some healthy snack options – although prices are obviously a little higher than if you were buying the items on the mainland.
I did bring some snacks with me, but never felt hungry outside of mealtimes.
There are plenty of activities to keep you busy
I was impressed by the variety of activities onboard (something that made the experience very different to the Navimag ferry route between Puerto Montt and Puerto Chacabuco).
However, some weren’t very well-advertised on the boat (excluding the yoga classes and daily lectures) so it definitely helps to go and speak to a crew member about the options available to you.
Don’t miss out on heading up to bridge to see the crew at work – it was a really unique part of the journey!
Invest in sea-sickness tablets
There are sections of the route when the ferry passes through the open ocean and this can be sickness inducing. It’s wise to invest in tablets if you’re susceptible to motion sickness.
Most cabins have locks
On the Eden, I found all cabins had a door key or key card, although the shared cabins had lockers that didn’t seem to have keys.
Announcements keep you up-to-date
The crew members announced via the ship intercom when we were passing important landmarks, when meals were being served and all other useful information. This was great as it meant you didn’t miss anything exciting going on!
There’s hot water!
The showers and taps on the boat all had hot water (hooray!) and the water pressure wasn’t bad, particularly on the main deck (showers on the first floor had significantly less pressure).
The weather will definitely affect your journey
What you get to see during the trip remains very weather dependent (as it did when I took the shorter Navimag ferry route between Puerto Montt and Puerto Chacabuco).
That said, with a longer journey comes more chances that the weather will change – so, like we did, it’s likely you’ll end up experiencing practically all climates at some point during the journey.
It’s a boat for tourists
The longer ferry, from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales, is definitely a ferry mainly for tourists rather than local people.
There were some Chileans on board, including some on holiday and the truck drivers that frequent the route, but I found there were fewer opportunities to chat with local people on this Navimag ferry.
The Navimag ferry was worth the price
Most of the other passengers with whom I spoke agreed that the price they paid for the experience was fair. A bed in the four-person dorm costs $550 USD per person (based on four people sharing and booking together). You may well end up getting upgraded from a four-bed cabin to a private two-bunk room by asking nicely at the reception during check-in.
As everyone I’ve spoken with at Navimag have been keen to stress, this is NOT a luxury cruise; it’s a unique way of travelling down through the Patagonia fjords so don’t expect facilities to be similar to those on (far more expensive) other cruises in the region.
I travelled on the old boat and my cabin was a BB, without its own toilet. All cabins on the new boat AA ($1,860 USD based on two sharing) and A ($1,400 USD per person based on two sharing) have their own bathrooms.
A flight directly between Puerto Montt and Punta Arenas is definitely the cheapest and quickest way of covering this distance, however, bear in mind that any other way of getting to Southern Patagonia that is in any way scenic (i.e. bus travel along the Carretera Austral or through Argentina) will likely work out at least the same cost.
For me, the best part of the experience was just watching the landscape change and venturing to a part of Patagonia that few travellers have the chance to visit.
I travelled as a guest of Navimag, although all opinions in this article are, as always, my own. For more information about the routes and to book your cruise through the Patagonian fjords, visit the Navimag website.