Patagonia Ferry Ride
When we first started planning our South America trip and started doing research about Southern Chile we had several friends tell us about their experiences taking the Ferry through Chile’s southern fjords from Puerto Natales to the tiny town of Tortel. Often called the poor man’s Patagonia cruse it was something we knew we didn’t want to miss, so I reached out to the ferry company offering my services as a photographer in exchange for passage for our family.
After spending a little more than a week exploring and shooting in Torres Del Paine National Park, we packed our rental truck in the pouring rain and headed back to Puerto Natales to catch the ferry (try fitting 4 people plus all their gear inside the cab of a small 4 door truck in order to keep it all dry, talk about crowded). After dropping our bags at the ferry office, we returned our rental truck, apologizing for turning the white truck into a brown truck due to all the muddy roads of Torres Del Paine. The ferry was scheduled to board between 8-10pm but wouldn’t be sailing until the middle of the night with the outgoing tide so we knew we had lots of time to kill. After finding some very good and very overpriced Asian noodles, we were back at the ferry in time for me to shoot “sunset” photos of the ferry being loaded in the howling wind and rain. Unlike the ferries I grew up with in Washington’s Pacific Northwest that have big elaborate ferry terminals, the ferries in Patagonia pull right up to the beach with a fold down bow (no terminal needed).
After boarding and finding the seats that would be our home for the next 2 nights/3 days the kids set off to explore the boat. They were so excited that it took quite a while to get everyone’s teeth brushed and tucked in for the night. Once asleep the kids were so tired, they slept right through the sound of the anchor being raised and the engines revving up as we started our trip north at about 4am.
By the time the sun rose we were well on our way north through the narrow fjords of southern Chile. For most of the journey the wind was howling, and it poured rain, but being I was shooting promo photos for the ferry company I kept my camera handy and every time the weather broke, I was outside shooting. Especially when there was a rainbow, shipwreck, or impressive shoreline. I also spent part of the first morning shooting the captain and first mate in the bridge as they navigated the ship through some incredibly narrow passages that seemed too small for a ferry of our size to even attempt.
Due to the high winds, in some of the bigger straights the seas were rough, and the ferry had to reduce its speed to keep people from getting sick. Knowing we were slowly falling behind schedule didn’t seem to bother anyone onboard as people watched movies, chatted with fellow travelers, and of course drank lots of Mate. Our one scheduled stop enroute was at the tiny community of Puerto Eden which is only accessed by boat and has no roads. While the ferry unloaded supplies like firewood, propane tanks, and other staples we were free to explore the photogenic town. It reminded me a lot of some of the smaller communities in Southeast Alaska, in that it was all about self-sufficiency and people had little time to worry about style or the trappings of tourism. Many people wore knee high rubber boots, and everyone worked together to unload supplies and load them into smaller boats which were then running supplies all around the waterfront community. The photographic potential of this town is amazing with its friendly hard working people and aging boat fleet. My only regret from the ferry ride was that we should have gotten off and stayed in Puerto Eden for a few days (But with the ferry running on its winter schedule a few days could have ended up being a week or more). So, after a quick hour of photography when the ferry blew it’s horn, we all sadly reboarded and continued heading north.
Though originally scheduled to be a 2 night/3-day trip, due to the high winds and poor visibility by the time we left Puerto Eden it was obvious we were running behind schedule and would likely not be arriving at our scheduled stop in Tortel by early that evening. None of this came as a surprise in that when arranging the trip, the ferry company had made it very clear that the published schedule was only a best-case estimate and that the ferry was often delayed due to weather/conditions… so we were well prepared with extra snacks and settled in for our third night of our “two night” adventure.
By the time we arrived in Tortel the next morning at 6am we were becoming professionals at turning airplane seats into beds. It was dark and raining as we walked up the ramp into the darkened town of Tortel (apparently the power was out). Like Puerto Eden, Tortel has no roads and much of it is built over the water with a series of wooden boardwalks connecting different parts of town. For most of its existence the tiny town of Tortel was only accessible by boat. While there are still no roads in town, it is now connected by a dirt road to the Carretera Austral making it the southernmost point along on the route.
While Tortel turned out to be one of our favorite locations along the entire southern part of the Carretera Austral. It was a bit demoralizing when we walked off the ferry in the dark and realized with the power out there was no cell service, and we had no idea where our lodging was and that we had no way to communicate with our host who had planned on meeting us at the ferry landing 12hrs earlier at our originally scheduled arrival time. Having only seen a couple photos online before boarding the ferry three nights ago, we spent the next hour wandering the dark wet boardwalks in the rain via headlamp looking for clues to our place. Eventually after Francisco slipped on the wet boardwalk and Kai was melting down from being tired and carrying his heavy pack, we decided to drop our bags and hide from the rain under a picnic shelter and wait for daylight.
While Jen and the kids huddled in the picnic shelter, I systematically started walking every boardwalk looking for something that I recognized from the photos I had seen days before (not an ideal way to find a cabin). Eventually I found a cabin that seemed to fit the general location with a key in the door. Hoping I wasn’t trespassing, I knocked loudly on the door and eventually slowly opened it to discover that it was empty and indeed our cabin.
As everyone unloaded their wet gear and climbed back into bed to get warm, I struggled to get a fire going in the wood stove with damp wood. Eventually after discovering a soda bottle full of what I think was diesel I got the fire going and the cabin started to warm up. After three nights in airplane style seats on the ferry everyone was exhausted, and we all fell back to sleep waiting for the cabin to get warm enough to venture out of bed.
After a few more hours of sleep, we got up and sitting next to the woodstove ate what little remaining food we had. As we ate, we watched the rain slowly stop and the clouds begin to clear. After a second cup of coffee and filling the wood stove with as much wood as we could fit, we ventured out to explore the town and find something for lunch. As with most of our trip heading north through Patagonia we were outrunning winter, and most tourists had long since departed for warmer climates. Tortel was no exception, while the weather was cold and rainy it was still quite pleasant in our rain pants and down jackets… but the best part was that there were basically no tourists in town. Aside from two others who had gotten off the ferry at the same time as us, we saw no other travelers in town. All the hostels were closed, and people were going about their normal everyday lives without the interruption of what we guessed would be a large tourist population during the summer.
We spent the next three days sleeping in, enjoying coffee by our warm fire, and exploring the boardwalks of Tortel. We even became friends with the two other travelers as we all hiked to a viewpoint above town, sharing cookies and stories from our travels through Patagonia. After days rushing for sunrises in Torres Del Paine and then 3 nights on the ferry, we loved the slow pace of Tortel so much we decided to extend our stay by a couple nights. We were sad to see the boardwalks and shoreline of Tortel disappear behind the mountains when we finally caught a ride north on the dirt road towards Cochrane. What had originally been planned as a quick stop in route to the Marble Caves, Tortel had turned into one of our favorite spots in Patagonia. As with most things in travel, it is often not the destination, but rather the unexpected places and experiences along the way that end up being the most satisfying.
A few tips for the Ferry
While the ferry ride is amazing, it really is the “poor man’s cruse”. While they do provide three meals a day, they are very basic and portions aren’t huge, so bring extra snacks. There is plenty of hot water so bring your mate/coffee and plan on just relaxing and watching the scenery go by. Ferry times are a rough estimate so make sure you plan accordingly with an extra night on either end of the trip just in case. Lastly know where your lodging in Tortel is before boarding the boat in Puerto Natales… and keep your headlamp handy!