Friday, February 27, 2015

The New Puerto Natales

The Hotel Indigo, as seen from an approaching ferry
In 1981, when I first traveled to Patagonia, Puerto Natales (pictured above) was a forlorn town on the appropriately named Seno Última Esperanza (“Last Hope Sound”). Today it’s the southern terminus for the weekly Navimag ferry (pictured below) from Puerto Montt, but at that time the only maritime connection was a rust-bucket freighter called the Río Baker that I and several other backpackers tried to talk our away aboard for the return voyage north.
Navimag's ferry Edén, which sometimes cover the Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales route
I tired of waiting for the Río Baker and, ironically, after I had made arrangements for visiting Torres del Paine (pictured below) – a hikers’ heaven known only to a handful of visitors at that time – my backpacker friends managed to persuade the captain to let them on board. It was another dozen years before I could enjoy the wild mountain and maritime scenery between Puerto Montt and deepest Patagonia.
The granite spires of Torres del Paine rise above less resistant terrain.
When I first saw Natales, it hadn't even a single stoplight, and it wasn’t so long ago that the first ones appeared. Until the 1970s, the biggest industry was the meat freezer at nearby Puerto Bories, which processed lambs for export but is now an industrial museum within a spectacular design hotel. Natales’s once neglected waterfront has become a park, dotted with children’s playgrounds, a skateboard park, and even innovative sculptures.
Sculptures on the renovated waterfront at Puerto Natales
Once there were only a handful of accommodations such as the Residencial Magallanes, a rambling residence where I slept in an attic that barely kept the wind out. There remain plenty of traditional “Magellanic” houses, today there’s also a multitude of stylish hostels, B&Bs like the Kau Lodge, boutique hotels such as Indigo Patagonia and resorts like the audacious museum/hotel complex known as The Singular at nearby Puerto Bories. An influx of Chilean entrepreneurs and expats has also brought sophisticated restaurants such as Afrigonia – a fusion of Patagonian ingredients and East African flavors – and Angélica’s, with high-end versions of traditional seafood dishes.
Just outside Puerto Natales, The Singular has converted the old slaughterhouse into a museum/hotel complex.

Natales used to be a minor stopover en route to the Andean spectacle of Paine. Now it’s become a destination in its own right that deserves several days or more.
Afrigonia is a creative fusion restaurant in Puerto Natales.

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