Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Yet Another Ferry Tale

Having grown up in the Pacific Northwest, a region whose natural environment of sheltered inland waterways, islands and forested mountains so closely resembles southern Chile, I have always considered ferries an integral part of the public transportation system. On and around Puget Sound, the terrain often made it impossible to build enough roads and bridges, or unnecessary to do so when a simpler solution - a car-carrying vessel - was a cheaper, more efficient and more elegant response to the problem.

In some ways, Chile has always understood this and, over the recent holiday, I got a glimpse of this on a visit to the Hotel Mítico Puelo (pictured above), a former fishing lodge that’s reinventing itself as an activities-oriented destination on Lago Tagua Tagua, about 150 km southeast of Puerto Varas (fishing will remain part of the Mítico’s mix, but the idea is to include trekking, riding and other options). The hotel is only accessible by Naviera Paredes’ ferry Caupolicán (pictured below), which shuttles twice daily from the west of the lake to Puerto Maldonado, at the east end, where a road is proceeding toward the Argentine border.

On Sunday, when I returned to Puerto Varas, I did so via the south shore of the Estero de Reloncaví, where the roll-on, roll-off ferries Gobernador Figueroa and Trauco (pictured below) shuttle back and forth between ramps at Puelches and La Arena from 6:45 a.m. until half past midnight. Tonight I’ll be taking Naviera Austral’s ferry Pincoya to Chaitén as I begin to update my coverage of the Carretera Austral for the upcoming third edition of Moon Handbooks Patagonia.

Given the history of Chilean ferries, it’s unfortunate that the Ministerio de Obras Públicas (MOP, Public Works Ministry) has placed priority on overland “connectivity” between the northerly town of Hornopirén and the Parque Pumalín gateway of Caleta Gonzalo, through almost impossibly difficult terrain at great environmental cost. Partly, this stems from the fact that one of MOP’s jobs is to build roads, and partly from an archaic theory of geopolitics that spurs it to reinforce the state’s presence in Pumalín - despite the fact that Chilean sovereignty is beyond question.

Chile’s ferry system, though, desperately needs modernization. In reality, to reinforce that presence in the thinly populated region between Puerto Montt and Puerto Natales and improve connectivity to its heartland, the country would do better to create a modern maritime system like the Washington State Ferries, Canada’s BC Ferries or, better yet, the Alaska Marine Highway System. Despite the fact that the territory of another country separates Alaska from the rest of the United States, and that the area is almost as thinly populated as Chilean Patagonia, sovereignty has not been an issue there for nearly a century and a half.

Caleta Gonzalo & Chaitén Update
In a visit to Naviera's Austral's Puerto Montt offices today, I learned that - despite Naviera's map in my previous post - all the ferries from Hornopirén to Caleta Gonzalo will be non-stop until at least mid-January; after that, they may get permission to use the overland connection from Leptepu to Fiordo Largo. Likewise, in another visit, I learned from Cielomaraustral (cielomaraustral@surnet.cl) that they are flying air taxis from Puerto Montt to Chaitén almost every day (about US$85 one-way).

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