Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Puerto Chacabuco Revisited

In early 1979, when I first headed to Patagonia, I dreamt of the scenic Chilean channels and fjords beyond the city of Puerto Montt, but I had only a limited notion of them. I’d never met anybody who’d sailed the 900 nautical miles to Puerto Natales, the gateway to Torres del Paine.
Part of the Puerto Montt shoreline, with Volcán Calbuco in the background
At that time, the rusty freighter Río Baker carried cargo between Montt and Natales, but without formal passenger service—the captain’s whim determined whether or not you boarded. Instead, I settled for the freight and passenger ferry that then connected Puerto Montt with Puerto Chacabuco, the port for the Aisén regional capital of Coyhaique. That 24-hour voyage was my first Patagonia adventure, a route that I’ve just repeated on Navimag’s ferry Edén.
Waiting to board Navimag's ferry Edén, the night before sailing

The Seno de Reloncaví, as seen from the sea
Puerto Montt’s natural setting on the Seno de Reloncaví always reminds of Puget Sound, where I grew up in Washington State—the Chilean port is no Seattle, but its inland sea has the same densely forested shores and islands, with several snow-topped volcanic summits in the vicinity. To the southwest, the big island of Chiloé compares well with Vancouver Island and, as we sail south, the landscape resembles coastal British Columbia and the Alaska Panhandle.
On the Edén's bridge, a chart of the route through the channels
In fact, nearly the entire route to Chacabuco is an inland sea where the waters are usually calm but, as we pass Chiloé’s southern tip, at the Golfo de Corcovado, there’s a surge of open ocean where the Edén starts rocking slightly—not alarmingly, but noticeably. Soon enough, though, we pass through the gulf and the waters calm down.
Recycling and disposal bins aboard the Edén
Shortly thereafter, I see crew members moving bags of trash and recyclables. In several places around the ship, labeled bins remind me that, on my previous voyage here, that vessel’s crew dumped debris off the stern and into the sea—something that would never happen today. Then, as I visit the bridge, we spot a school of dolphins and the pilot tells me he’s seen orcas in this area. Marine mammals, and the penguins, appreciate the change.
The Fiordo de Asian, approaching Puerto Chacabuco
I can’t recall much about the accommodations back then, but I believe we had narrow reclining “Pullman” seats, rather like those on a Greyhound bus. Nor do I remember anything about the food and, frankly, I didn’t much care—the goal was to see this remote region. Compared with that, the simple though compact cabins on the Edén are almost unimaginably luxurious, and the cafeteria food filling and nutritious enough.
Puerto Chacabuco's ferry ramp awaits the Edén
En route then, I met a pair of young German doctors who had shipped their VW campervan to South America and were headed for Tierra del Fuego—the exact same place I wanted to go. After arriving at Puerto Chacabuco, they drove me and a German backpacker up the narrow verdant valley of the Río Simpson to Coyhaique, across the border to the Argentine town of Río Mayo, and then to the Atlantic coast city of Comodoro Rivadavia. There we all separated, but I soon managed to hitch a lift all the way to Ushuaia with an Argentine trucker.
The Río Simpson valley, between Puerto Chacabuco and Coyhaique

Back then, there wasn’t much opportunity to explore this sector of Chilean Patagonia overland—only parts the now completed Carretera Austral (Southern Highway) even existed. Now I’m fortunate enough to have my own car here, and I’ve since driven the highway many times without ever tiring of its rugged mountains, thundering rivers and pristine lakes, and its scenic coastline and pioneer settlements. I’ll be doing it again for the next couple weeks.

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