Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Navimag's Rocky Voyage; Chilean ATMs

At least half a dozen times, I’ve taken the Navimag ferry from Puerto Montt south to Puerto Natales, and every time I’ve experienced the same sense of eager anticipation about departing “civilization” for the wilds of Patagonia - despite the fact that I first visited the region in 1980, and have traveled there almost annually since 1990. Despite my familiarity with it, Patagonia never ceases to thrill me.

Yesterday, I was scheduled to take the ferry from Puerto Natales north to Puerto Montt - reversing my usual pattern. From my hotel overlooking Seno Última Esperanza (“Last Hope Sound”), I could see the snow-topped summits of nearby mountains and, on a clear day, parts of Torres del Paine, while waiting for Navimag’s ferry Evangelistas to arrive. Unfortunately, an email informed me that the vessel would limp in late to Natales, and would require repairs that would postpone the next sailing for two weeks.

On arising this morning, I went to the Natales pier (pictured above), where passengers were disembarking after spending the night on board; as the ship arrived around midnight, it would have been senseless to send them to hotels and hostels at that hour. There are numerous rumors about what happened, but the only apparent facts are that the vessel struck an islet and, as a consequence, had damage to the bow and one disabled engine. Two Swedish passengers told me they felt the hit, but that the crew handled everything professionally and there was no panic aboard.

At the moment, divers are inspecting the damage, but it appears that the ship will sail back to Puerto Montt, with freight but without passengers, and that the repairs will be undertaken there. Puerto Natales lacks a shipyard to deal with anything but minor repairs, though Punta Arenas (the home port for Navimag’s sister company Cruceros Australis) would conceivably be able to handle bigger jobs.

In any event I, and more than a few other travelers, were sorely disappointed. In my case, I had no desire to return to Chile through Argentina on RN 40, which I had driven so recently, but I managed to turn lemons into lemonade by arranging a week on the new Cruceros vessel Stella Australis, from Punta Arenas to Ushuaia and back, for this coming Saturday. I will then return to Puerto Natales for the ferry's scheduled sailing on the 15th.

A Chilean ATM Glitch
I’ve written several times about Argentine ATM problems recently, but maybe it’s not just Argentina. Sunday afternoon, when I was ran short of cash and headed to BancoEstado in Puerto Natales, I tried to withdraw 200,000 pesos (about US$400) from the ATM, but without success. Wondering whether I had run up against an unprecedented withdrawal limit, I reduced the amount to 150,000 pesos, then to 100,000 pesos, then to 50,000 pesos - with no more success. Then, in desperation, I took one last chance at 40,000 pesos - at which point the machine coughed up 40 crisp new 1,000-peso notes (worth about US$2 each).

I can only conclude that, by Sunday afternoon, the bigger bills in the machine had run out and it was programmed to limit withdrawals - fortunately, plenty enough for pay for my lunch and a bit more. By Monday afternoon, service was back to normal and, though I anticipate no further problems, visitors to relatively small towns such as Natales might make preemptory withdrawals on Friday or Saturday if there’s any chance the money might run out over the weekend.

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