Navigating the Chilean Fjords and Not a Man Overboard

by Curley32 on April 12, 2011

Navigating the Chilean Fjords and Not a Man Overboard

Bus travel in Patagonia, whether on the Argentinean or Chilean side, is expensive. The cost is understandable given the distance traveled, but for the budget traveler, it is a difficult fact to acknowledge that your bus ticket is more than a return flight on Ryanair in Europe. (In order to allow me to make my point, please ignore the fact that Ryanair service is pitiful and likely to increase stress levels in even the most horizontally laid-back of people.)

For the majority of people, journeys in South America are mainly by bus. Given how enormous the continent is and the length of distances covered, I estimate that by the end of my nine months, I will have spent the equivalent of several weeks sitting on a bus. These rides involve little other than snacking on crackers and nuts and reading, interspersed by prolonged periods of staring out the window in a semi-meditative state. I’d like to say that there are profound philosophical thoughts going through my head during these times, but my mind tends to prefer repeating lines of random songs than thinking too profoundly. Bjork’s old Christmas song "It's Oh So Quiet" is one of its favorites.

When there arose an opportunity to travel a great distance by an alternative mode of transport which wasn’t any more expensive than a bus, I eagerly snapped up the ticket. There is a weekly freight ferry that transports cattle between Puerto Natales in the southern Patagonian region of Chile and Puerto Montt, a port town a good distance up the west coast. The ferry sails through the Chilean fjords and takes four days. In peak season (summer) when the weather is fine and visibility is clear, you are afforded views of glaciers and volcanoes and much sea life, such as whales and penguins and seals. I traveled in off-peak season as this is when the price is at its lowest, and we saw all of the above, except for the glacier due to bad weather on our first day.

What follows is an amateur captain's log-style account of the journey.

Log Entry 1 – Permission to Come Aboard

Boarding commenced at 9pm the night before departure. All passengers met in the holding room at the Navimag building, and walked en masse to the boat. We all stood in a designated square, which turned out to be a kind of escalator without walls or doors that took us up a level to the living quarters of the boat. Eagerly, we made our way to our assigned quarters. Mine, being the cheapest option, was the 16-bunk dorm. I was pleasantly surprised by how clean and tidy everything was. Must dismiss stereotype of sailors being unkempt and smelly, although I do hope that they are voracious rum-drinkers. The bunks were comfy with curtains for privacy, and each had a light and small lockable cupboard for storing valuables. The bathrooms were right across the way, and they too were spotless, and the showers hot and strong. Upstairs was the bar and dining area. Some hardy mateys were already breaking open the 2-liter cartons of cheap wine. In an uncharacteristically sensible maneuver, I retired to my bunk to be gently lulled to sleep by the soothing rocking of the waves. My last lazy thought before I dreamt of mermaids was, "Where are the cows?"

Log Entry 2 – Where Be the Land?

I woke slowly and indulgently to the realization that we were moving. The boat set sail at 6am. Babies must lament getting too big for their prams, for it is delightful to just lay and sway. The shower was hot and refreshing, with the only slightly unnerving aspect being the unsteadiness of the shower floor. The cows arrived in the night, trucks and trucks of them, and some horses too. This really does take traveling cattle class to a whole new literal level. The highlight of breakfast was the Lipton tea bags and real milk, the closest thing I have had to Irish tea the whole trip. I had four cups. I am very Irish.

Weather was bad today with squalls of wind and rain, so everyone sat indoors and partook of those fundamental backpacking activities that transcend age, gender and sexual preference--reading or playing cards. Folk music played over the speakers to create a faux coffee lounge atmosphere, which is infinitely better than the continuous loop of 90s music that generally seems to be everywhere in South America. Went downstairs to the toilet and was overwhelmed by the smell that seemed to permeate the sleeping quarters. It was as though someone had done an incredibly large, lingering fart. Took me some time to realize that said smell was the cows, emitting their toxic methane gases into the atmosphere and up my nostrils. Lunch was tasty, a big steak of salmon, and as I was very virtuous last night, I decided to wash it down with a glass of red wine. Today was about getting to know my fellow shipmates, and so we played games and drank some cheap wine and parlayed until the early hours. I looked forward to my bed so that I could resume my soothing rocking.

Log Entry 3 – Pass Me Those Binoculars Cap’n

The weather was much better today, still quite windy but dry and brisk. I spent the morning indoors reading. I stumbled upon a book that has consumed my attention. So often when traveling we have to make do with what’s on offer at the book exchange, and very often what’s on offer is decidedly average but has to do. It was a pleasant change to have a good book. I absorbed myself in it. So much so, in fact, that I failed to see the veritable masses of sea lions and dolphins and penguins that swam past the boat, practically doing acrobatics for everyone else to enjoy. I did at one point, however, manage to look overboard and see what appeared to be a duck in distress. An American lady beside me informed me that it was, in fact, a flightless duck. Apparently, there is a whole species of these poor creatures who do not look as though they have adapted to their flightless status and who look as though they are struggling to take off. Nature seems cruel.

I took myself up to the bridge, the area of the boat where all of the important navigation stuff is done. It even has a cool map room that makes up for the fact that the steering wheel is tiny, like in the racing cars at the amusement arcades. However, that didn't stop me from giving it a twirl. Nothing happened. We were on autopilot. They have had many idiots like me in here before who are predisposed to touch what they shouldn’t. Tonight is when we hit the open seas, and so we are all advised to take a sea sickness tablet. I didn’t feel sick at all but the tablet knocked me out, and I could hardly make it from the dinner table to brush my teeth without choking on my toothbrush before I was out cold. I slept for almost 12 hours, one of the best sleeps I have had.

Log Entry 4 – Hardy Har and a Bottle of Rum

On days like this, I might seriously consider running away to sea and becoming a rum-drinking, rosy- cheeked sailor. Awoke to bright sunshine and a mild breeze. After breakfast, I went straight to the front of the boat to assume my position and watch out for these acrobatic fish. The boat passed through some particularly pretty inlands, and many people were out enjoying the fresh sea air and views. I remained firmly at my viewing point, eyes concentrating on the water until I was almost cross-eyed from the effort. Before long, I became desperate for the toilet, after my by now habitual four cups of Lipton tea for breakfast. I struggled with the certain knowledge that the minute I leave, a veritable performing circus of sea creatures would cruise past the boat. I dashed there and back and was relieved to learn that all I missed were some gigantic, electric green jellyfish. Who cares about jellyfish?

I was rewarded with my diligence by seeing mini penguins, a couple of sea lions and a pod of dolphins, all before lunchtime. Nature is in a social mood today. After lunch, the sun smiled down with soothing warmth, and the upper deck transformed into a moving beer garden as everyone stripped down to t-shirts and, in some cases, shorts. The bottles of wine and beer started to appear. The mood was jovial and chatty, and the view spectacular. We passed by many snow-capped volcanoes as we happily lazed and parlayed in the hazy afternoon warmth.

Ahoy indeed it’s a sailor’s life for me today. The captain assured us that we would have a date with whales at 5pm, and so we all waited expectantly at the appointed hour, not considering for a moment that the whales might have had a better offer and decide to stand us up. They didn’t. It seemed, however, that they might have been Argentinean whales for they were quite late, making their appearance a little after six. Sunset was spectacular, with dusky pinks and blues on one side and burnt oranges and yellows on the other. Cue snap happy, slightly drunk passengers dashed from side to side to capture the colorful curtains closing on a delightful day.

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