Yes, it was time to leave Puerto Natales, and we were going to remain in Chile while we were heading north. This is only possible by taking a ferry, as the only road north goes via Argentina… too much water in the way on the Chilean side of the border.
We had booked a passage from Puerto Natales to Puerto Montt, a journey of around 1500km – which would take 3 days… but we did book a cabin – so in theory we would get some sleep!
This journey has EXTREMELY mixed reviews on tripadvisor, with some people calling it ‘the trip of a lifetime’, and others calling it ‘one of the worst experiences of their lives…’. Hmmm – which one was it going to be?!
A lot of the negativity was around the state of the boat – it’s a 30 year old boat (built 1984) that used to run between Marseilles and Corsica… presumably too crap for the French to use anymore :-). So, it’s a bit run-down and not in the best repair… there are still a few signs around in French that nobody has bothered to remove or change…! So it’s important to remember that this is a FERRY, not a CRUISE!
It’s real purpose is for cargo, and for the remote community at Puerto Eden to get in and out – so it is subsidised by the Chilean government… but not for foreigners… so it’s not especially cheap. In fact you could have a 3 day cruise from Sydney in a luxury cruise ship for around the same price! Yes…. but on the other hand, this is the only way to pass through this part of Chile, as the channels it uses are too small for normal cruise boats. If you need to go from Puerto Natales to Puerto Montt, then this also gets you there. So for us it fit the bill…. we expected the boat and the food to be pretty rough – but that was the price we had to pay for a journey through the fjords…
So…. we were in Puerto Natales with plenty of time to get the check-in sorted, and the main thing that we wanted to confirm was that boarding was the night before… we had read somewhere that they board you the night before, as the boat leaves first thing in the morning, and so you end up with an extra night on the boat. This turned out be true! So in fact we would be spending 4 nights on the boat, but for the first night we would be docked.
We had to check in during the day, and then return for boarding at 9pm. Boarding was basically walking on to the boat, and getting allocated a cabin. We were ON! 🙂
So, the first exciting thing was that although we had booked the cheapest cabin (bunk beds with no window and no bathroom), we had been upgraded! 🙂 Our allocated cabin was bunk beds with A WINDOW! 🙂 YAY, we were excited to have a window. We also got a sink! Bathrooms were still in the corridor though – can’t have everything I guess….
So, pleased with our window – we set about inspecting the quality of the ship. Our room was in not-too-bad shape, the only major issue was that that the bunk-bed ladder was a little broken – making it a reasonably precarious activity to get onto the top bunk. So I told CC that she had to have the top bunk.. HA HA.. only joking 🙂 Like the true hero that I am, I gallantly offered to be the one to risk my life on the top bunk.
The rest of the ship was a bit run-down, but not terrible – and it was actually pretty clean (maybe that depends on your previous experiences….) We mentally noted the locations of all the toilets- in case of emergency – and there were 4 male and 4 female on our floor that we could find, with a couple of them located pretty close to our cabin. So ALL GOOD!
Probably the best way to describe the conditions of the boat, would be to compare it to a hostel. If you have ever stayed in a double room with shared bathroom in a slightly run-down backpacker hostel in South America, then you will be right at home on this boat – as that’s pretty much what it was like. As CC said – ‘This is better than some of the hostels that we’ve stayed in….’.
Having assessed the room and bathrooms, we set out to check out the common areas…. There were 2 decks outside – one at the front, and one at the back, and there were 2 inside areas – the dining area, and a smaller room with a few sofas in it located next door.
Now comes the big question… did we enjoy the boat trip….??
Well, I will say right now that YES WE DID! We had a great time in fact 🙂 We fall in to the camp of those that thought the trip was EXCELLENT! 🙂
So, what was it like on the boat? Starting with the food… we were a little apprehensive as a fair few reviews had complained about the food, calling it ‘like bad school dinners’… well I have to say that we thought the food was actually great!
Eating out can be pretty expensive in Patagonia, and most of our lunches so far had been cheese sandwiches, with most of our dinners cooked at home. To be served salad, soup, main course with a side, and dessert – for both dinner and lunch was like being at a gourmet banquet for us! 🙂 We hadn’t eaten this much food for quite a while! It was a buffet for the salads, sides, and bread – so you could have as much you wanted. A main course was put on a plate for each person. They even managed some good non-meat options for CC. We never went hungry – in fact we had brought some snacks with us just in case – and they were UNTOUCHED at the end of the trip.. yes hard to believe 🙂
Drinks wise, there was free tea, coffee, water and juice ANYTIME you wanted… WHOO HOO!
As far as alcohol went, there was a very strange ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ kind of policy going on…. nobody seemed to know what the rules were… and the story goes that they used to have a bar on the boat, but then one day some Chilean truck drivers got really drunk and tried to cook some food inside their room…?!? Yes, well they started a big fire apparently, and so then the boat company stopped sellling alcohol on board, and banned alcohol totally.
Of course, then all the foreigners who went on the boat would moan about not being able to have a drink, boo-hoo, and so they would sneak a bottle of wine on board and just drink it in their rooms. Of course, everyone knew this is what happened, and so gradually it became more in the open, and it became sort of allowable to bring your own alcohol on board, as long as you were ‘discreet’.. Yes, well… so ‘discreet’ seemed to mean you could have a bit of wine with dinner, as long as you didn’t get wasted and set fire to the boat…
The rules are particularly unclear, as the company provides you with a set of rules that states ‘no alcohol to be consumed on board’ – but then when you check-in, they give you another sheet of paper with check-in information, stating that ‘a bottle of wine or beer may be brought on board….’ Yep – clear as mud.
We couldn’t be bothered to bring any, but a fair few people had brought bottles of wine with them, and lots of wine appeared at dinner on the last night on board.
Now you might well be asking what we did for 3 days besides eating and drinking? Well, we spent most of the time out on deck drinking hot drinks, just looking out to sea, trying to spot animals. The front deck was generally VERY windy and cold, but the back deck had a few sheltered spots that we used to hang out in. It also had a sheltered area, so we could even hang around outside when it was raining.
Whenever the ship was on ‘auto-pilot’ (I think that’s what they said…. I guess ships can drive themselves now?) they allowed the passengers to go up to the bridge – ‘as long as you don’t touch any controls.’ I wondered briefly what kind of person might go up to the bridge of a ship and start messing with the controls… NOT ME!
The good things about the Bridge are that it is high-up, it isn’t windy (because it’s inside..), and you can look at cool radar screens. What more do you need?
Besides eating, drinking, and hanging out on the deck, the other main activity was attending the talks given by the on-board guide – Percy. Percy is about the only thing on the boat that everybody agrees on – eg. he is excellent – knowledgeable and very enthusiastic. Although I did read one minor complaint that his talks went on for too long.. no pleasing some people..
He did a talk per day – one on the route and the landscapes that we were passing through, one on the flora and fauna, and one on things to do in the area of Chile that we would be arriving in. They were all very enjoyable – good one Percy…
So, we had a good time hanging out on the boat, so all that remains is to tell you about the scenery, weather, and wildlife on the trip.. but that’s for the next post…