Patagonia by Sea: Patagonia Travel, Part 2
Editor’s Note: This entry is part 2 of 3 of an ongoing blog about traveling to Patagonia. To read part 1 you can click on this link to our website: Expect the Unexpected: Travel to and from northern Patagonia part 1 of 3.
Most prospective visitors to Patagonia will know about the ferry they can take from Puerto Montt to Chaiten to enter this world of forests, glaciers and streams. Yet there is another, far more scenic route to take.
The same ferry company, Naviera Austral, runs a ferry a couple of times a week from Quellon in southern Chiloe to Puerto Chacabuco, 300-kilometers south of Chaiten along the Careterra Austral and close to Coyhaique, the only city in Patagonia. For this extended route, the best ferry to take is the Don Baldo, which is much larger and a whole lot more comfortable than the other boats. It still has a few small cabins, which help to make the journey seem like a very inexpensive cruise.
I would like to say that the ferry goes at “this” or “that” particular time, but I can’t, as my only experience was delayed by twelve hours due to the fact that the evening tide went out before we did. We spent the night sitting on a sand bar, not at all dangerous and most likely par for the course. Fortunately, my wife Konomi and I had paid a few thousand pesos more for a bunk in a cabin and our extra night passed by in comfort.
By early morning, on what was to be a gloriously sunny day, we were on our way to the port of Melinka which means “darling” in Russian and is located on a small island in the remote Archipelago of the Guaitecas. Melinka is a colorful little place and apparently a great place to go for a walk as we only saw one vehicle on the streets. Like everywhere else on the route, except the ultimate destination of Puerto Chacabuco, vehicles cannot disembark, only passengers.
The Don Baldo, which has a large top deck, is the perfect place to watch the wilderness of Patagonia pass by and to watch passengers and goods arrive and depart in small boats. The atmosphere has a touch of joy and happiness about it. It’s fascinating to see what goods are brought to these tiny, extremely remote communities. Toilet paper is popular. And for one island, we could well imagine the excitement when the watermelon arrived.
From Melinka it’s a few hours across the bay to Puerto Raul Marin Balmaceda, which sits in the shadow of the mighty Melimoyo Volcano, whose snow-capped peak can be seen for most of the journey. It is a spectacular sight that grows and grows until you are almost at Raul Marin, a village of two hundred people which sits in a sheltered bay where forested mountains fall rapidly to the sea, and dolphins play. The forests of Raul Marin are so beautiful that the government went to a lot of trouble to create an elevated wooden trail for tourists to admire them.
If only they would have thought to create a regular bus service to make the 75-kilometer journey from La Junta! We meet lots of backpackers who attempt and almost always fail to hitch a ride out there. There is a bus, but it’s a very infrequent, tiny bus, and Raul Marin residents get priority, which means that there is often no room for tourists.
We would have liked to have disembarked at Raul Marin, to journey to La Junta, where we live, but didn’t want to get stuck there for a couple of weeks. We traveled much further south, to Puerto Cisnes, where we knew we could get a bus within a couple of days. So, think twice before disembarking at Raul Marin, and be prepared to wait for a bus or take the next ferry.
As it happens we were happy to stay on board as the scenery following Raul Marin got more and more spectacular. Just outside the bay we passed a tiny rocky island that was absolutely jam-packed with penguins and sea lions. Then we passed through tight channels, squeezed between forests and mountains, and came to such impossibly remote, tiny communities as Melimoyo, which appeared to be just a few wooden shacks.
Most of all we loved our brief stop at Isla de Toto, which is in fact two small islands joined together by a short foot bridge. Anchored on the east side of the island we could see a few houses on either side of the bridge, and the pacific ocean through the gap… it all looked very romantic. We later discovered, much to our surprise, that on the other side of the island is a fishing community of 500 people and it is said that the seafood is excellent. As Arnold Schwarzenegger would say, “I’ll be back.”
The passage from Isla de Toto to Puerto Cisnes on the Patagonian mainland, gives you a rare view of Puyuhuapi fjord to the east, and to the west. The forested wonderland of Isla de Magdalena National Park is as close to this magnificent place as most people will ever get.
Puerto Cisnes itself, is a fishing village of a couple of thousand people. The center of administration for Comuna Cisnes–a vast municipality, bigger than some small nations– includes La Junta in it’s commune. In Cisnes, there are cabanas, hosterias and pensions of all standards, and that rarest of things for this part of the world, a hospital. But there’s no bank.
Cisnes is also an ideal gateway for Parque Quelat and its’ hanging glaciers, and is an hour-long bus ride away from the Ruta Austral which unites Chaiten in the North and Villa O’Higgins in the South. It is also a great place to dine on Salmon caught wild and fresh, and served to you at your seaside table by the staff of El Guairao, a very popular eatery for locals and tourists alike.
Puerto Chacabuco, several hours further south, is located on Aysen Fjord, just outside of Puerto Aysen, which is a relatively large community, where a bank machine can be found. More banking services, shops and accommodation can
be found at Coyhaique, which is a city of 44,000 people. Just outside of the city is Balmaceda Airport which has daily commercial flights to and from Puerto Montt and Santiago.
This route, from Quellon to Puerto Chacabuco coupled with the new ferry/road route that connects Patagonia with Puerto Montt through Parque Pumalin offers a glorious never-to-be forgotten experience.
Please check out the tariffs offered for this October for one way, from Puerto Chacabuco to Quellon or Quellon to Puerto Chacabuco. And visit Naviera Austral’s website where itineraries, routes, timetables, prices and more can be found. There are two types of cabins, both with four bunks each. With windows or without. Enjoy your trip.
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