After finishing our W trek we were happy to have planned for a day of rest back in Puerto Natales to wash all our smelly camping gear, relax, and prepare for our next move. The most awesome part about our day though, was our new friends Lisa and Mike, who were staying at the same campsite with us again, invited us to join them for dinner. Lisa made an awesome seafood chowder that totally hit the spot on another cold, windy, rainy day. We were so happy to sit around a table with friends, share a meal, and laugh together about our adventures.
The following day we were starting on yet another unique journey – a ferry ride through the Chilean fjords. We had booked our 4-night trip on the Navimag Ferry from Puerto Natales to Puerto Montt over a month in advance, and we were glad we did – the morning of our trip Lisa and Mike tried to make a booking as well but were told the ship was full. We were so disappointed they wouldn’t be with us for the next leg of our travels, but we’d had such a nice time hanging out together that we went our separate ways feeling sure our paths would cross again.
The Navimag Ferry is an interesting beast. On the one hand, we were excited about the concept of making northward progress without actually having to drive. What a treat! We were also happy to get out on the water, and super interested in ferrying through the maze of channels off Chile’s coast. On the other hand, we had heard very mixed reviews about the Navimag onboard experience. The journey is billed as a ferry ride, but it is rather expensive, and since we would be spending four nights onboard it certainly felt a bit more like we had booked a cruise… we had no idea what it would really be like so we decided to approach the experience with no expectations.
We had a receipt showing that we had booked but not much other info about boarding, loading our vehicle, or really much of anything. We decided to just show up at the dock early in the day to try to figure out what to do. When we arrived at the dock, security guard said we should go into the Navimag office across the street. So I headed inside and they told me that actually we had to go back to the bus station across town to pick up our boarding passes. So we headed back across town and retrieved our boarding passes. Then they sent us back to the dock and told us we had to go see the customs agent. So we waited in line at the Aduana office and when we got to the front, they told us we first needed to go back to the Navimag office to get a form to complete. So we went back to the Navimag office, got the right form, and back to Aduana to get our stamp. Then, back to Navimag to show them the form and do an inspection on our vehicle. All this for paperwork that no one ever asked to see again. The process certainly wasn’t intuitive and we were surprised that there wasn’t more info about what to do and where to go.
Once we had shuffled as much paperwork as possible, we were told to be back for boarding around 10pm. With most of the afternoon and evening remaining, we grabbed coffees and then Wolf went for a haircut while I shopped for snacks to bring on the ferry.
We lingered over pizza for dinner, and eventually ran out of ways to kill time and headed back to park at the ferry dock around 9pm.
We went for a walk on the water and then listened to a few podcasts… still waiting.
Finally, around 11pm, we made our way onto the ferry, parking deep in the belly of a very industrial-looking ship.
We locked up and grabbed our bags, stopping a crew member to ask where we should go. He looked at us like we were crazy and shouted at someone else to ask for where we were supposed to go. I guess at that point I should have understood that Navimag would be a very confusing experience.
We found our way to what seemed like the right passageway and struggled up a few flights of very narrow stairs that led to what looked like it might be a reception desk. It was empty, so we stood there, waiting for a few minutes… when no one came by, Wolf peeked around the corner and found a room full of people listening intently to what seemed to be an introductory presentation. We had watched the vast majority of people walk onto the ferry – there weren’t many who had brought cars like us. And since we’d had to wait for all the semis and industrial traffic to load before we could get on board, we were about the last people to board. I was instantly annoyed that we had obviously missed all the important information. The presenter was wrapping up his speech just as another member of the crew came up behind us and told us we had to go move our luggage to our cabins. At that point they were starting a safety video and I asked the steward whether any of the information we had missed or would be missing was important. He assured me that it was, and then told me to follow him. Hmm. We stashed our bags in the room and came back to find the safety video nearly over and everyone starting to disburse. The control freak in me was VERY concerned that we had missed everything, so I walked up to the first person I heard speaking English and asked them what we had missed. The poor girl was probably wondering what was wrong with me but she patiently explained about mealtimes and rules and schedules and where to go before calling it a night. I was amazed that the ship knew passengers were loading cars and still allowed us to miss the safety briefing. I kept thinking that their insurance carrier would probably be outraged and started off on an irate tangent until Wolf gently suggested that we weren’t on a luxury cruise and we certainly weren’t in the States anymore, so perhaps I needed to re-set my expectations. As usual, he was right.
Apparently the crew loaded and prepped the boat all night before we set sail, and just in case the passengers didn’t notice we had started moving, they sounded the loudest alarm in the world around 5am. I mean… the loudest. In the world. Perhaps the safety presentation we missed mentioned something about this alarm, advising everyone to remain calm and just go back to bed, but of course I assumed that the captain wanted us to evacuate because the boat had started sinking. Wolf refused to get out of bed, sure that it wasn’t anything to worry about, but I jumped up, put on my shoes, and raced into the hall to find… nothing. No one else even bothered to poke a head out of their cabin.
So our Navimag experience was off to a rough start, but eventually we got the hang of things. Meals were served school-cafeteria-style with plastic trays and lunch ladies wearing face masks and plastic gloves.
Most meals were in shifts to accommodate the 125+ passengers, and the food was decent but basic. We did end up meeting some really nice people as we sat at random tables for each meal. We had a lot of fun chatting with two German couples in particular. One couple had some amazing travel stories to share having spent their careers travelling the world as diplomats. The other couple had been at our campsite in Puerto Natales and had been on the road for many years – veteran travelers who could certainly teach us a thing or two. Strangely, the ferry didn’t allow alcohol on board; you would think they could triple their profits by selling drinks to a captive audience over the course of three days. Instead, it seemed everyone had planned ahead and most people, including our new German friends, could be found on the deck at sunset clutching plastic cups and sitting with wine bottles peeking stealthily out of backpacks.
One highlight of the trip was the first day’s route which featured some picturesque scenery and technically challenging navigation. The scenery felt like the Pacific Northwest, except here, off the coast of Chile, the coast is basically unpopulated and totally wild.
The captain guided us through some impressive narrows – the most amazing of which were the White Narrows, clocking in at a whopping 80 meters wide, barely enough for our ship to pass through.
When we passed through the few super narrow points even the crew was on deck taking pictures – seemingly also surprised that such a huge ship could squeeze through such a tiny passage. We stood on the deck amazed at the beauty of the area, and feeling lucky that it wasn’t pouring down rain – we even had some sun to enjoy.
Other than mealtime, the days were basically unscheduled. There was an awesome guide who made an announcement anytime there was important information or we were passing something interesting. He put together a few slideshows on ecology and geography of the area and showed one each day. His passion for the region and its flora and fauna was pretty amazing; he loved talking to people about the scenery and animals we were seeing, and most of the time he was out on the deck with a huge telephoto lens grabbing pictures of obscure birds and plants to share with us later. He was the closest we came to a cruise director and his passion for the area certainly went a long way in increasing our excitement.
We did get to see a decent amount of wildlife from the boat. Amazing birds were everywhere, sea lions were constantly playing off the side of the ship, and dolphins were jumping around occasionally, too. There were orcas at one point, although we didn’t get to see much more than their fins. The highlight was seeing tons of whales! For the most part we were seeing the blowhole sprays only, but a few times we were able to see them surface briefly. Over the course of a few days we must have seen a couple dozen whales off the boat. It was super cool. And actually very refreshing to see wild animals thriving in such a beautiful, wild place.
The entire trip was ridiculous nature and gorgeous scenery and days of tranquil waters. We really didn’t even see other ships. We lucked out with calm seas by the time we reached open water, and to top it all off, we also had amazing weather. We’d been shivering and dealing with rain and wind and many layers of clothing for so long, but on the ship, I even wore a tank top the last day! In my wildest dreams I never thought a ferry ride through the icy waters of Patagonia would deliver summer weather.
Wolf in particular thought it was super awesome that we were allowed to go hang out on the bridge and interact with the crew there. We checked the charts and all the instruments just to make sure everything was in order.
In addition to people, Navimag was transporting trucks full of cargo, including a few trailers loaded with cows.
It was a bit bizarre to walk to the back of the boat and peer down to the lower deck and see a huge herd of cows staring back up at you. By the third day, the cows had produced a pretty potent stench that had become hard to avoid. For me, it added to the bizarre experience – part luxury cruise, part discount hostel, and now part dude ranch…
Perhaps most of all, we liked that for three days we had nothing to do but sit back, enjoy some beautiful scenery, and hang out.
We didn’t have to drive. There was no internet connection available. There was no entertainment or activities… All we had to do was just hang out with each other and relax. We both did a lot of reading. Wolf had time to sort through emails he had downloaded. I spent time writing about places we had just been. We listened to music. We tried to get our brains where we’d been and where we were going… but that’s about it. For the most part, we just kind of hung out. It’s so rare to have down time that doesn’t involve trying to gain access to the internet. We almost didn’t know what to do, but in the end it felt great to take a mental break. We caught some awesome sunsets, and we even set our alarms for 2am one night and went stargazing on the deck of the ship and caught the moon rise. It all felt awesome.
We skipped out on Bingo Night, the grand finale to celebrate one last evening on the ship, in favor of knocking out a few details of our trip over the next few weeks. And the next morning, we left Navimag and all its quirks behind us, again driving north through Chile.
In all, I would say the Navimag experience was interesting. It’s priced like a cruise, so I can appreciate why people might go into it expecting a bit more of a luxury experience and end up bitterly disappointed. The vibe is definitely a bit weird and most people seemed unsure of what to expect the entire time. But in the end, we were glad we tried it. The scenery alone was worth it, and the experience was quite unique. Low expectations, open minds, and excitement about a few days being disconnected were key for us.