Puerto Montt and Navimag - a Chile Reception

Trip Start Sep 07, 2005
Trip End Aug 18, 2006

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Erratic Rock hostel

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Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Argentina was a tough place to leave, but one of the last things we did in Bariloche was to reserve a room a nice hotel room in Buenos Aires (thanks to our hard earned travel reward points) for a few days surrounding the Chrismass holiday, so we took some solice in the fact that we knew we would be returning in a few weeks time. We had reserved two beds on the Navimag cruise ship that would depart from Puerto Montt Chile the next day, and promised to deliver us to Puerto Natales, Chile by the 1st of December.

After an uneventful bus ride and even less exciting border crossing we found ourselves in yet another Chilean city. Peurto Montt, as the name suggests, is a port town founded by one Se˝ior Montt in the mid 1800s. As is the case with many Chilean cities, Puerto Montt was founded by European settlers searching for the riches they were not able to find on the old continent. In the case of Peurto Montt, the settlers were of German origin and the fortune they sought was to come from the sea. For the past 150 years the main economic activity in the city was fishing. Needless to say, our noses knew we had arrived far before our bus found the station.

As we soon discovered, the other pillar of the Puerto Monttean economy is tourist driven cruise ship travel to all points south. Puerto Montt is the gateway to the small island of Chiloe, which we were not able to visit, but that supports a population of native Chileans that are reported to be quite interesting and far more insulated from the modern world than other natives in the country. There are two very large cruise ship operators based in town, and countless other smaller ones that offer service to and from the port of Peurto Montt.

For the first time on our journey, our friends at Frommers hit the nail on the head with their recomendations about Puerto Montt. Their suggestion was to minimize your time spent in the city and to not even bother going there unless you were planning to embark on a trip to Chiloe or a cruise.

The city itself is of moderate size, but as far as we could tell, it has almost no distinguishing features, possibly because the entire city was razed by an earthquake in 1961. Its geographic lay-out and proximity to the mighty pacific gave the city planners a fighting chance, but instead of taking advantage of their natural coast-line, they have done everything in their power to obscure the view to the sea with un-sightly peers, industrial equipment, and small fish processing facilities. They have also erected a large statue near the water┤s edge, but unless it is meant to be some sort of joke they would do well to tear that down too. The 30 foot high structure is seemingly constructed of paper mache and depicts a man and a woman sitting on a bench with their backs to the city gazing off into the pacific. The bright blue legs of the male figure appear to be made out of play-dough and the sculpture has positioned one of the enormous legs around the back of his female companion in a pose that looks downright uncomfortable for both parties. Based on its position near the crest of the city┤s main bay, its bright colors, and the sheer size of the thing, our guess is that the city views this insult to sculptures as their pride and joy. As soon as we set eyes on this atrosity, we knew felt good about our decision to minimize our time in Puerto Montt.

After a night in our sleep-sheets (which says something about the quality of our lodging for the night) we made our way to the port to confirm our berths on the Navimag. The ferry departs for Puerto Natales only once a week, so the thought of spending an entire week waiting for the next one made it almost impossible to sleep in. The folks at Navimag were expectedly buerocratic and annoying, but they gave us the news we wanted to hear, so we were pleased as punch. We killed some time on the internet and procured a few snacks for what promised to be a long boat ride.

Owing largely to the stories we had been hearing from other travelers, we were quite excited by the prospect of traveling by water along so much of the Chilean coast. At that point we had not been too impressed with Chile as a travel destination and our hope was that the natural of the beauty of the place would be served up all hours of the day and night while we were abord the ferry.

What we never considered, however, was that we would be sharing the boat with others. The Navimag is an enormous operations moving both passengers and cargo several hundred miles over some of the most wind battered coastline in the world. As near as we could tell there were about 200 other tourist-type passnegers and probably half again as many truck drivers and Navimag crew members. Adjusting to the notion that we would be sharing so much time with so many people was not easy, but we eventuall came to terms with the notion and settled into a groove of our own.

Actually, the groove we settled into was a shared cabin toward the back end of the ship. We chose to stay in a shared four person cabin with its own private, but detached, ba˝o. To our infinite good forture we had been paired up with two elderly British gentlemen who we soon learned were the picture of politness and good humor. We had spent quite a bit of time scoping out the rest of the Navimag passnegers and from what we could tell Rupert and Charles were the cream of the bunk-mate crop.

One of the main reasons we were so happy to have wound up with Charles and Rupert was that they were freindly. This may sound a bit odd to experienced and inexperienced travelers alike, but for the most part, the other travelers we had run across were downright rude. Actually, they may not have been rude people, but they often made a distinct effort to increase their rudness as soon as they learned that we are Americans. We noticed that the European travellers were the most likely to exhibit these icey tendencies (aside from the Canadian, of course, who stop at nothing to make sure everyone around them knows not only that they are not Americans, but that they dislike and disapprove of thier nieghbors to the south with an absolute passion). Our guess is that with a change of the Persidential guard in the US we would be met with warmer relations from our international counterparts. Despite our interest to in exploring this topic, the fact that about 65% of the ship┤s 200 passengers hailed from Europe, we decided to keep our political inclinations as close to the vest as we could.

Fortunately, the ship was large enough to contain not only a wide variety of view points, but also a large number of passengers. In addition to the two levels of bunks and cabins, there were several expansive sun decks, an enourmous calfateria, and a pub. For saftey┤s sake, the cargo areas and machine rooms were off limits, and to complete the Titanic-like segregation we didn┤t once spot a non-uniformed crew member or one of the many truck drivers who were no doubt accompining their cargo down to Puerto Natalles. We had visions of untold revelerry taking place on the ship┤s lower decks, but because there were no accidents, we never got a chance to interact with the entire population of the vessle. As far as we could tell, the only member of the crew who was able to pass from one world to the other without effort was Gitana, a medium-sized dog who enjoyed more good treatment and affection on any given afternoon than most dogs get in a lifetime.

The ferry left more of less promptly at 4pm Monday and chugged on through the valleys, channels and fjords of the southern Chilean region without stop until Wednesday morning. During that time, we floated by green humpbacks of mountains and hills rising from the chilly depths of the Chilean channels, spotted exuberantly flipping seals, peered through binocs at killer whales breeching in the distance, and marveled at the bulky grace of the countless albatross(es?) that soared alongside the ship, seemingly without effort (our attempts to recreate Samuel Taylor Coleridge┤s Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner fell abymsally flat, but we remembered enough not to try to mess with these birds; however, we did learn later that they are truly amazing creatures - they can cover up to 1000 km in one day and often fly from continent to continent across southern seas, just looking for food).

During the downtime, we also had opportunities to read Jonathan Safran Foer┤s "Everything is Illuminated" (at times funny, at times strange, with a rather unsatisfying ending), rekindle our enjoyment of chess, and pet poor Gitana, who really just wanted to be left alone to bask in the sun on the front deck. Navimag also thoughtfully arranged for several different lectures by their guides, who spoke passable English, ranging on topics as varied as glaciology to flora and fauna of the region, to the history of native Patagonian inhabitants. With these activities, along with the three squares we were fed daily, we were sufficiently entertained to pass away the hours. That said, we question whether we are good candidates for another cruise, ever. We may be far too impatient and parapatetic to be confined in one space for any length of time. And our fellow passengers, regardless of nationality, may have agreed if asked: ("Get these damned Americans off the boat! Their pacing is making me nervous!")

On Wednesday morning, the ferry let out a huge bellowing, bulching screech, which apparently signaled our arrival into Puerto Eden, a small, extremely remote fishing village with some exclusive arrangement with Navimag. Puerto Eden ostensibly was originally set up as a Chilean weather station but was abandoned in the 1920┤s, probably because people finally came to their senses and realized that weather could be monitored from more civilized locales. At any rate, when the Chileans left, the natives discovered the remnants of the town and set up shop there (even the weather torn edifaces that remained probably looked good in comparison with some of the conditions we were told the local indiginous population endured as a native way of life - little clothing, much time in canoes, and very few sources of heat). From there, the hamlet grew - a little - and was once again offically established on maps in 1969, at which point there were 170 inhabitants, about 20 of which were full-blooded native. Now, the population has hit 200, but only eight are pure indian, the youngest of which is around 45 and is married to a Chileno. In other words, Puerto Eden is the site of a dying race. Thankfully, Navimag is happy to facilitate the give and take of touristic voyerism of that slow death, all for a little extra cash, thank you very much.

For six dollars each, we were ferried over to shore from the boat in small dinghies and then set free upon the small town for an hour to peer into houses, ramble about walking t trails covered with wooden boardwalks, and guiltily avoid purchasing embarrassingly worthless trinkets from local vendors. Because we had had enough of being cooped up, we chose to disembark and had a decent hour┤s walk around the island before we were herded back to the ship for onward passage.

Next stop a few hours down the channel was a "sail by" of the Pio XI glacier, the largest in South America, and one of only two in the continent that is advancing, rather than receding. The ferry sidled up relatively close to the glacier, and we immediately sensed the enormity of the thing; we were only viewing the left arm of the beast, which extends five kilometers out from the main branch - and there is a right arm branching out another three kilometers in the opposite direction. Huge chunks of ice floated by as we plied the water - the icy clear parts exposed with deeper blue underbellies lurking just below the surface. Steve claims he saw the glacier calve off, creating ripples in the water, and, although Cori cannot verify this claim, Steve is certainly the very embodiment of truth and verity and thus cannot and will not be doubted. Officially.

The rest of the cruise passed largely without incident or excitment, save for our wake up the final morning on board, when we were again awakened at dawn with another belly-rattling honk to signal our passage through Paso White, the narrowest channel we would pass through on our way to Puerto Natales. And, as promised, this monstrous ferry, which may have been 35 meters across, threaded itself through a rocky eye of a needle only 80 meters across. We expected not to be impressed, but we were.

Not more than an hour, we pulled into Puerto Natales, another prototypical Chilean town - they all have weatherbeaten and windblown down pat. Wooden structures, painted all the colors of the rainbow, are all stripped of half of their pigment by the constant gale force winds and driving rains. Even the shrubbery, squat and hardy, looks as if they had been lifted straight out of a V-8 commerical. Penetrating light, mitigated only by a grey overhang of clouds, pierces the place from morning until night (5am to approximately 10pm during December, a prime South American summer month), apparently the result of a break-through in the ozone down here (likely due to the go-go years of Aqua Net overuse by American teenagers in the 80┤s). Unlike other Chilean towns, though, Puerto Natales is geared for the tourist: hostels, gear shops, and restaurants, sometimes all three in one, lined the streets, anticipating every tourist and trekker need for upcoming sojourns into nearby Torres del Paine National Park.

Following Gitana, who clearly had the run of this 15,000 person town, we made our way to the Erratic Rock hostel, a true backpackers┤ hangout run by American ex-pats. Our plan was to set out to the park after collecting some additional gear sent to the hostel by Cori┤s long suffering parents. But, upon arrival, we found that the 5 day guaranteed arrival promised by USPS had been overshot by almost a week, still with no package to be found. We visited the post office, tracked the package, and realized it wouldn┤t arrive for another day or two. So, with some frustration, we deferred our plans for trekking and set our sites on Puenta Arenas, some 200 kilometers south.
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