Cruising the Patagonian Fjords

October 14th, 2016 by

There’s no doubt about it. Authentic adventure cruising is a hot trend in travel. Tourists by the boatload are taking river cruises, small expedition ships, and even ferries to countries as familiar as France and as remote as Patagonia.

What’s the appeal of touring Patagonia by ferry? The number of aging baby boomers is increasing, and according to Marketing:Travel, the 50-70 year-old “tends to be more seasoned and experienced and is now looking to discover places they’ve never been and to experience familiar destinations in totally new ways.”

Patagonia by Sea

One of most dramatic views on the planet is the jagged Pacific coast of Patagonia. Receding glaciers many millennia ago created deep fjords that today make direct north-to-south land travel along the coast impossible. In fact, the best way to experience the lacework of fjords, rugged peaks, and narrow channels of the Chilean coast is to be on the water.

Travel to Patagonia by SeaCruising the coastline by ferry is also an ideal way to get close to small villages and the marine life. The mammals, fish, and birds are tremendously diverse and plentiful in this remote part of the world. There are whales (blue, humpback, and southern right whales), dolphins (Chilean, Peale’s and Commerson’s dolphins), sea lions (elephant, leopard, southern, and South American fur seals), and sea birds, including two types of the elusive albatross. Don’t forget binoculars!

The marine wildlife is such a popular attraction that the Chilean government is designing a network of Marine Protected Areas (MPA) to safeguard the region’s ecosystems. Who knows? It could become the next Galapagos!

Slow Travel in Patagonia

Most visitors to Patagonia fly in, drive for many hours to remote areas by car or bus, hike for a few days, and fly out. Certainly hiking in Patagonia is a thrilling experience if one is in good enough shape to meet the physical challenges. But what if you’re not a hiker or an expedition adventurer? There are options for you, too.

Travelers who want to see more of Patagonia but spend less time in a plane and on the road or are on a tighter budget can take another slow-travel option — a ferry. International travelers have been touring the Patagonian coast by ferry for some time, and now Americans are following the trend.

Experience vs. Luxury

Patagonia Travel by FerryFerry-goers tend to be the kind of travelers who value experience over luxury. There’s no spa or swimming pool on board these refurbished cargo vessels, and amenities are simple. Besides, who needs a TV when the views outside your cabin look like the cover of a National Geographic magazine? And there are no zip-line excursions or climbing opportunities either. But there are stops in authentic fishing villages where travelers meet the locals and sample deliciously fresh seafood. Even more interesting are the people on board – a fascinating and lively mix of other travelers and locals who will regale you with their stories of life on the road.

The Eden and the Evangelista, the two ferries operated by our partner in Chile, Navimag Ferries, have been navigating the maze of coastal waterways from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales since 1979, adding passenger services in 1985. Today, a ferry can accommodate 150 travelers in simple comfort for a four-day, three-night journey.

Travel Patagonia by FerryOnce cargo vessels traveled transport lanes along the coast, delivering goods and people to the small towns and fishing villages. Today, the Navimag Ferries also have simple accommodations for tourists. These vary from a four-bed cabin with a window and private bath to a berth-like bed similar to those on a train and a shared bathroom. Since the cabins are small, there is a pleasant common room and a cafeteria-like dining room where meeting fellow travelers is part of the experience. Guided narration while navigating through the itinerary is a plus.

Pro Tip For Cruising

Flight snafus being what they are, we always build in extra time before the departure of a ship going anywhere. That’s because if your flight is delayed and you miss the boat, you’re also likely to miss the vacation you’ve been dreaming about. So why stress? Simply get there at least a day early.

The bonus for our ferry travelers in Chile is arriving a few days before departure can be used to take in the sights of Santiago and a few other interesting and typically must-see Chilean locales, such as Valparaiso and Viña del Mar.

Valparaiso is a large, sophisticated, and lively port city with cliff-top houses, cobblestone streets, and great seafood. (Pro tip: have the “cancato” stew of fish, chorizo, cheese, and tomato for lunch.) It’s known as “Little San Francisco” for its hills and charming, colorful architecture. Valparaiso is a favorite stop for cruises to South America. And yes…there is shopping!

Touring PatagoniaLater in the day you can take a beach walk or have a wine tasting in the aptly named coastal city of Viña del Mar (Spanish for “vineyard by the sea”). It’s a resort city that’s been called the “Chilean Laguna” by surfers and skim-boarders and a favorite vacation spot for citizens of Santiago, including Chile’s president.

Time for Touring

A two-hour flight the next day takes you from Santiago to Puerto Montt, a gateway to both the Patagonian fjords and the Andes, which can be seen in the distance.
Remember our tip about arriving a day before a cruise embarks? If all has gone smoothly and there haven’t been any delays, the extra day gives travelers an opportunity to go on a private tour of Ancud, a generations-old fishing village on the Isla Grande, and Chiloé Island, where colorful houses sit on stilts along the coast and lovely wooden churches dot the hillside.

By late afternoon, it’s time to board the ferry for the evening departure. As the ferry cruises south through a maze of channels, there will be stops along the way to walk through small fishing villages and meet the locals. Since this is not an “expedition” trip for hikers, cyclists, and kayakers, the leisurely walk-about is the extent of the land excursions.

Touring PatagoniaThe final destination for the ferry is Puerto Natales at the edge of “Last Hope Sound.” This booming port city has hotels, restaurants, and shops. You can recover your land legs with a climb up Dorotea Hill for a view of the city and maybe even a condor sighting.

Options For Upgrading The Itinerary

If you want to visit Torres Del Paine National Park, Chile’s most famous park, we highly recommend adding three days to your eight-day trip. The park entrance is a three-hour drive from Puerto Natales. There are a number of wonderful lodges within the park ranging from all-inclusive deluxe accommodations to hotels that offer less expensive self-guided hiking trails.

For travelers seeking more of an expedition-type cruise through Patagonia, we can also offer a first-class option, the Stella Australis. With just 210 passengers, 100 cabins, and daily land excursions, this ship is an easy upgrade in experience and amenities.

Photos courtesy of Navimag.

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