Travels through Chile by Land and Sea

March 5, 2013

We are currently in Santiago, Chile’s capital and largest city. The country of Chile is the longest north-south nation in the world, spanning about 2,880 miles (4,630 kilometers) between the latitudes of 17°S and 56°S. Our journeys the past week has taken us over 1,500 miles (2,414 kilometers) of that distance as we traveled from Puerto Natales north to Santiago by land and sea.

The city of Puerto Natales (population 19,000) is located at the entry to the Última Esperanza (Last Hope) Sound on the Pacific Ocean. After last seeing the Pacific Ocean back in April when we were sailing to Singapore, it felt good to view our home ocean once again! Looking out at the water we could see inlets heading north and west.

Some of the most beautiful and famous fjords in the world are located on coasts. For example, the Inside Passage runs from Seattle, Washington to Skagway, Alaska along the U.S. and Canada. Two other famous fjords, which we have already seen during our expedition, are those along the west coast of Norway and in the southwest of New Zealand (including Milford Sound). North of Puerto Natales is a maze of inlets, fjords and canals with mountains and glaciers rising all around. Other than flying or going back through Argentina, the only other way to travel north in Chile is by boat.

We booked passage on a ferry that sails once a week from Puerto Natales to Puerto Montt, a three-day, 900 mile journey. This is a working ship that transports cars, trucks and cargo, in addition to passengers. We heard stories that in the winter months the cargo decks can be filled with cattle but we did not see any on this voyage.

Given the part of the world that we are in, the weather dictates much of the ferry voyage conditions and schedule. We heard that the sailing the week before we left was delayed in arriving at Puerto Natales by seven hours as the ship sat right outside the harbor waiting for the high winds to abate so that it could tie up. In our case we were fortunate and the boarding time of 9 pm on Monday was right on schedule for our Tuesday 4 am sailing.

Being a working ship, there are ladders between each level and small cabins. We opted for one of the two person cabins, with a window, that had a private bathroom down the hall. The cabin was so small that it was difficult for both of us to stand up in it at the same time. Most of the 220 passengers either stayed in four person rooms or in ‘dorms’, which are bunks located along the hallway corridors. Three meals are served a day, cafeteria style. The food was passable and supplemented by some snacks that we brought aboard.

When we woke up on Tuesday morning we had left Puerto Natales and were near the southernmost latitude of the voyage, and of our entire global journey, at Sobenes Pass, which is at 52°S. We arrived at the Skua Glacier, located in the Bernardo O’Higgins National Park, in the late morning. This glacier was amazing because of all the broken ice leading up to it. We have not been to Antarctica but, to us, it almost felt like being there as the ship glided past all the ice in the water.

We had calm and dry weather so the ferry was soon ahead of schedule. On Wednesday morning we reached the Messier Channel just after sunrise. This is the third deepest fjord in the world with a depth of 4,226 feet (1,288 meters). Halfway up the channel is the remains of MV Captain Leonidas, that ran aground in 1968 on a semi-sunken island called Bajo Cotopaxi. Today it serves as a lighthouse to remind ships not to stray too close.

At the end of the Messier Channel, the water opened up to the Gulf of Penas. Directly exposed to the Pacific Ocean, this is where the ship must go west and navigate in the open sea for about 12 hours before it can turn back into another channel. As soon as we reached the gulf we could feel the ship start to pitch and roll. Normally this passage is timed to take place during the night, but because we were so far ahead of schedule, we began this portion of the voyage in the early afternoon. The crew told us that this was one of the calmest crossings they had experienced, but a few people (not us) ended up getting seasick anyway.

On Thursday, the third and final day of the ferry journey, we sailed up the Moraleda Channel and into the Gulf of Corcovado and Gulf of Ancud. This passage here was wider than the narrow inlets of the first two days and we could see snow-capped mountains and volcanoes along the east side of the ship. We also had a chance to observe dolphins, birds and even a few whales! We docked in Puerto Montt at about 1 am on Friday morning, ahead of our scheduled arrival time of 7 am. Fortunately we could spend the night on the ship and not have to disembark until after 8 am.

The city of Puerto Montt, like much of Southern Chile, has its roots in Northern European immigration and settlement. We saw a statue in the main plaza commemorating the arrival of the first families to the area in 1852. The sign was in both Spanish and German.

After our time in Puerto Montt we boarded our 13th South American bus to journey to the capital city of Santiago. The 13 hour trip went by quickly as we spent a little extra to sit in the lower ‘cama’ section with only seven other people and had seats that fully reclined. The scenery outside our window consisted of farms and rural areas on the left and occasional Andes Mountain glimpses on the right.

We arrived in Santiago at about 9 pm and took the subway to our hotel. We are spending three days here to explore this city of about six million people. So far we have been impressed with its beautiful buildings, plazas and parks.

We have another bus trip, our 14th and last, to the coastal city of Valparaiso, which is about two hours away. We will board the Star Princess there and begin our voyage home, over the next 2 ½ weeks, as we visit five more countries along the way.

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