Finally, the last instalments of our nine months in South America are ready to share, as we hot foot it back to Santiago from the deep south. With around 3000km to travel two thirds of the length of the most slender country in the world through fjords, volcanoes, lakes and national parks flanked by the Pacific and the Andes, and with a plane to catch in just over two weeks that we`re keen not to to alter for a third time!
This is Part One – in which we bus overland from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales then cruise on the Navimag ferry through the Chilean fjords to Puerto Montt…..
We arrive back from the Falklands to Punta Arenas in Chile’s deep south Patagonia on the day before Easter. The children would have loved the flight to have been cancelled again as it was on the way out as we would have got `stuck` in the Falklands for Easter Sunday, but it wasn’t to be! .
Grotty hostels and an egg catastrophe.
We land about 4.45pm and take a cab to the centre of Punta Arenas. We’ve been over-optimistic thinking we can show up to the same hostel and get lucky with the family room on Easter weekend. Oops! We have a bit of trouble finding accommodation. After I’ve jogged around and asked in at least 6 places, while the others sit around on the street and guard the bags, we end up at the ‘Bed and Breakfast Hostel’ which ironically is without any breakfast and only two beds between us – but hey ho! At least we’re not on the street! The lady who let us in is just packing up and heading off. It`s dark and quiet but clean enough and we have a gloomy kitchen and bathroom to share with three guests occupying just one other room.
Thankfully next morning, Easter morning, we awake to find that the Easter bunny has found us and created a little tail of eggs around the room! Ben helpfully notes that the eggs look familiar to those in the West Store in Stanley. Hmmm!
The kids and I walk around town but there’s nothing open for breakfast, so they happily nibble their chocolate before we lug our bags to the bus stop to catch an 11am bus to Puerto Natales.
An hour in Ben looks for his bag of eggs and realises he left it hanging on the railings by the bus stop. This bag not only contains the eggs he got this morning but a few Cadbury`s Creme Eggs he spent his hard earned pocket money on in the Falklands and has been saving for Easter. Imagine the devastation!? And trying to reason with him why we cannot return to Punta Arenas? He is eventually consoled by the girls who are adorable in offering to not only share but give him theirs… and an offer from me that we’ll look out for post Easter sales to try and find something to replace them in Chile! Another hard lesson learned. He is doubtful that anywhere in Chile will stock Cadbury’s Creme Eggs and he is of course right!
We get into Puerto Natales about 2pm and are picked up by an old lady scouting for custom and offering a lift to her Malinda Hostel which is for 20,000 pesos (about £8) It’s grotty. The electrics in the bathroom are something else and again, just two beds to share. Ben and Zoe share a big single and Lara’s in with us in a small double! We just about shoehorn us and the bags in the door then go explore town.
Martin struggles to see anything familiar from 21 years ago – the guidebooks says its ”transformed from dull fishing port on Last Hope Sound to pastel washed hub of Goretex-clad travellers headed to Torres del Paine” one of SA’s top national parks for amazing hiking. Sadly we have a boat to catch so we’ll have to skip the National Park this time.
Instead we enjoy great pizza at La Messita Grande, a place on the central plaza where everyone sits at one long bench table and mostly talk about their forthcoming trips or just finished hikes in Torres del Paine!
The kids stretch their legs running round the huge plaza and watch local kids doing stunts on bikes and skateboards, then we play in the park by the waterfront where we enjoy a glorious sunset before heading back to our little box of a room with cardboard walls!
In the morning, Martin and Zoe go investigate the Navimag check in – and return with great news that Zoe may have unwittingly batted her eyelashes just right and charmed the chap in charge of check in, who made some mention of a possible cabin upgrade from public deck corridor bunks! We hope so!
We have the day to occupy ourselves, so after delivering our bags to the boat check-in by the port, we stop for tasty almuerza (Menu/Lunch of the day), mosey around some shops and buy new walking shoes for me, Zoe & Lara.
The kids run races in the plaza and we while away some time in a nice cafe before having a slap up supper in a fancy place called Afrigonia. Finally we get to board Evangelista at 9pm, finding ourselves in a super AA cabin with en suite and sea view – wow! Good batting Zoe:) We can’t believe it, this never happens to us!
Evangelista is fabulous, with a huge comfy bar area in the top, spacious restaurant on the next deck. Understand, it is not a cruise ship it’s a passenger ferry, but cross channel ferry it is not! Also good, the ship seems only half full! We have a drink in the cosy bar and soon it’s gone 11pm and time to turn in! The upgrade means two bunks between 5 of us but this is WAY better than 5 berths in the cold public corridor two decks down, which we smugly check out a little later! The kids agree to take turns so Ben and Zoe top and tail tonight on one lower bunk, Lara has her own and Martin and I take the top bunks. We all sleep very soundly!
Cruising the Fjords from Puerto Natales to Puerto Montt
We wake early to hear the engine’s gentle whirring and look out of our tiny porthole to see us gracefully gliding our way through the majestic sounds. After breakfast in the canteen we begin with a briefing from the on board trip guide Mauricio.
We find out that the northbound itinerary doesn’t include a visit to the San Rafael glacier which is a bit disappointing as this is where Martin spent a few weeks based, well more accurately stranded, on the banks opposite this fastest moving glacier in the world during his 1982 expedition. Oh well, nothing we can do about that and we are especially glad we made it to Perito Merino glacier in Argentina! Our day is a relaxing mix of films, time on deck, card games,and for the girls painting and colouring the art sets given them by Mauricio. It`s quite cold and windy… The Die Hards however are rewarded with a rare whale sighting while we only hear about it 4 hours later as we’d been tucked cosily in the bar with books, coffee and playing cards!
Lunch and Dinner are excellent. (No ‘posh dining’ with the captain as we might have had if we’d actually paid for our AA cabin but the canteen fare is good) A gong sounds and everyone rushes to queue with their tray to serve themselves. Then there’s a National Geographic film about Patagonia in the evening. Lara makes lots of friends through the day and also manages to fall down a whole flight of steps grazing her back, knee and leg plus bumping her head! The crew are concerned and kind and whisk her to the emergency first aid cabin for a plaster or two!
Next day, keen not to miss any more whales or other sightings, Martin and I spend the morning outside on deck. It’s chilly but sunny and we get chatting with others including a friendly couple from Australia. There are more briefings (optional mini-lectures with slides by Mauricio) on Patagonia wildlife and indigenous People. Ben and Zoe are loving these and sit up front, amazingly attentive. Lara is busy with many new friends – mostly adults, who she entertains with her travel tales or gets them playing cards with her!
After lunch, we spend a lovely time in the bridge with the captain and crew. The kids get to steer and learn a lot from the crew who are really sweet explaining everything! Then they run off enthusiastically to attend a knot tying class and then we’re suddenly in the open sea and crossing the Golfo de Penas (Gulf of Pain!).
Mauricio has warned everyone in the morning about this stretch of open sea and recommended we all take sea sickness medication and lie down in our cabins. I guess there must have been previous trips that have got quite messy!
It’s quite windy and very undulating. We’ve taken the meds we’ve carried since Brazil after some tricky Portuguese translation for the right doses and we survive but do need spells lying down. The only casualty we see is a little lad of 2 who spectacularly pukes all over his parents and the canteen at supper!
The kids are pretty happy to turn in soon after dinner while we enjoy a fantastic film about Antarctic emperor penguins then turn in too. I’m awake most of the night with a swirling head from the rocking motion as we head up the coast and poor Ben wakes with a chesty cough and feeling sick. Another dose of medicine sorts him out.
By 8am next morning when we wake we are back in a calm and smooth inland passage. The day is glorious and we spend a fair amount of time outside, between cards and reading in the bar. The kids amuse themselves and Lara seems to have made friends with literally everyone! She runs around busily sharing out our giant bag of crisps and being given other peoples’ chocolate and treats!!
Around 6pm whilst the kids are watching Ice Age 4, we see a huge school of dolphins – black and white – who put on a great, if brief show of jumping alongide the ship for those of us on deck!
In the evening we have bingo and a lively goodbye party in the bar with the kids all upset when they lose the bingo! But they enjoy some dancing and later buy themselves Navimag hip flasks as souvenirs! We all have a fun time with our new friends Ang & Matt from Torquay, near Melbourne then turn in for our final night on Navimag. In the morning we’ll be in Puerto Montt!