Our current time zone: GMT +8 (We're home in Singapore!)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Eat, Sleep & Ship

The poor Chileans have a really hard time when it comes to country maps. With their skinny noodle of a country stretching 4,300km from north to south, their maps have to be in the form of:

(i) a huge movie poster-sized board;
(ii) a long narrow trail of paper resembling Rapunzel's never-ending rope of hair; or
(iii) a collection of at least 5 or 6 smaller maps, each showing a slice of land (which is a pain for travel planning.)

So when I tried to pinch an image of our route map off Navimag's website, I had to upload it in 4 different sections below. In total, the 4 images only represent one third of Chile's entire length.

By the time you read this caption, your right index finger should have gotten some exercise from all that scrolling

Stretching across 1,500km, Navimag's passage through the Patagonian Channels is the longest ferry ride in the world. We had booked our places on the boat about a month before departure, which was scheduled for 30 Oct. Being the last departure from Puerto Montt for the low tourist season, prices were still at their lowest at US$299 per person for a 4-day 3-night journey, inclusive of meals and accommodation in the lowest category of cabins (which is basically a bunk bed along the corridor.) Moving into high season just a week later, prices were set to rise to US$500 for the same entitlements.

Hurrying to board the Navimag ship before the summer crowds and summer prices arrive

With the boat just slightly more than half full, we got upgraded from Scum Of The Earth class to the next class of cabins - a quad-share windowless box. But hey, at least we had a door and 4 walls now. Upon being shown our cabin, we were pleasantly surprised to find that only our 2 bags had been delivered to the room... Could it mean that we had the whole 4-person cabin to ourselves? We waited with bated breath for our room-mates to arrive.

The ship blew its horn and set sail from the dock. Still no room mates.


Whoo hoo! And we're off to Patagonia!

Not that we don't like meeting new people. But the cabin was really tiny. Even with just the two of us, we had to squeeze around each other and our bags. Plus, whoever had to room with us would probably have voluntarily downgraded themselves to the corridor bunks for the full 3 nights to escape from Dan's snoring, which is not terribly loud (provided I fall asleep before it starts) but within the confined space of the cabin, it would have been thunderous to untrained ears.

That's all the space there is! No space for a bathrooms either - we had to use the shared toilets and showers

Upon arriving in Santiago on 25 October, the hostel owner there had told us of the recent terrible weather along the sailing route, and had advised us to postpone our trip by 1 week to allow the weather to clear up. He clicked on The Weather Channel website and showed us dismal-looking cloud and rain icons marching steadily through the next 10 days. He warned that in bad weather, we wouldn't be able to see anything from the boat at all. We were highly reluctant to postpone our departure, given the onset of high-season prices in November and also, what were we going to do in Santiago for a week till then? So we stubbornly stuck to our guns and prepared to ride out the bad weather, should there be any.

While in Santiago, we chanced upon a couple of lost backpackers wandering around the neighbourhood in search of a place to stay. Before I could stop myself, I opened my mouth and told them that our hostel was just around the corner. I even handed them a flyer with the hostel's rates. Only then did I remember the consequences of a similar do-good action earlier in Huacachina, where I had also gallantly provided information about our accommodation to a fellow traveller on the bus, resulting in us having to share our room with him. Ah well. It doesn't pay to be selfish when it comes to sharing information about cheap and good accommodation. Plus, I knew how unpleasant it felt to arrive fresh in a big new city and to be wandering along the streets with a heavy pack under a quickly-darkening sky. We could only hope that these 2 guys wouldn't transform from weary backpackers to rowdy drunks during the night.

I casually mentioned that maybe my good deed would amount to good karma, which would in turn equate to good weather over the next few days on the ship.

Well, well, well! Check out the glorious blue skies and golden rays in the photos below! :)

Walking on sunshine

Well, you can't exactly tan in a bikini out here, but it's sunny and that's good enough by Patagonian standards!

Guess which legs belong to the cold tropical guy? But hey, he makes long thermal underwear look sexy and isn't shy to show them off under his berms!

A path of sunshine lights up the dark waters

That said, we did have a few overcast moments and light drizzle but these didn't last for long. In fact, the rain and fog helped set the mood for some of the places that we sailed past.

Uh huh, just the slight touch of gloom and doom here please as we're passing the shipwreck. Thank you.

We also got tossed around a bit on the second night as the ship ventured out into the Pacific Ocean and encountered some "small" waves, "just" 2 to 3 metres high - hardly anything to rattle our teeth or shake our bones. Instead, all that rocking only lulled us peacefully into deep slumber. Once back in the calm sheltered fjords, the rest of the journey continued on a very uneventful note.

Given the lashings of creamy soup and cheese doled out with our meals, I think most guests were thankful for the calm seas. I didn't have very high expectations when I saw the cafeteria-style set-up (grab a tray and accept what's handed out to you) but the food turned out to be pretty good! For breakfast, we had yogurt (haven't seen that for a long time), cereal (finally!), hot oatmeal (I last ate that in July), eggs, ham and cheese. And to top it all off, we got brownies. But because it was so very strange to eat dessert in an early morning meal, I saved the brownies for afternoon tea. But hey, who's complaining about being presented with chocolate first thing in the morning?

Lunch and dinner menus included staples like potatoes, rice, pasta, salad and fresh fruit (kiwi was in season!) But what really got us raving were the huge pieces of fresh salmon and hake, fished right out of the chilly Patagonian waters. Even though he only got his jowls around one piece of chicken over those 4 days, my furry blue Chicken Monster was appeased with the offerings from the sea.

Unlike a cruise liner, Navimag's main responsibility is to bring people from Point A to Point B, so it doesn't call at other ports en route, and passengers can't disembark at anytime throughout the 72-hour journey. But Navimag tries their best to entertain you anyway. Each day is peppered with short lectures in English and Spanish on the flora, fauna and glaciers found in the Patagonian Channels. Local movies and documentaries such as March of the Penguins are screened. Guests can also purchase cards for the only over-water Bingo game in the whole of Patagonia. BINGO!

Amidst the daily activities, people would occasionally crowd the deck for the day's highlight, such as when the vessel called at Puerto Eden on the third day to drop off passengers and pick up new ones.

Puerto Eden at a glance

Zodiac and speedboats are involved in the quick exchange of passengers

The highlight of the fourth day was when the huge vessel had to navigate an exceptionally narrow channel, dotted with windswept islands. Breakfast was postponed just for this event! Everyone lined the sides of the deck and watched with bated breath as our floating giant slowly inched its way through the watery narrows, barely skimming past the dangerous line of rocky outcrops flanking the ship. Once safely through, the captain blasted the horn to signal success!

It may look like a pretty big gap between us and the rocks but when you're on such a big vessel, such gaps are but the breath of a whisker.

Although pricier than traveling by bus down the Carretera Austral - the main highway running down Chile's spine to Patagonia, sailing was a welcomed break from life on a bus. We enjoyed eating hot meals fresh from the kitchen instead of chewing on cold dry sandwiches filled with strange-tasting pink pate. We sipped hot coffee and tea in the morning, which we usually decline on bumpy bus rides, for fear of dousing our laps in hot liquids. No need to ration our drinking water or worry when a clean toilet was next going to appear. No need to lug our bags between hostels and bus terminals. We had proper beds. We could shower (and piping hot showers too!) We could walk about while traveling.

As you can see, there was lots to celebrate on board the ship!

After almost 72 hours of eating, sleeping and shipping in the Patagonian Channels, we arrived at our final destination, Puerto Natales - the gateway to Chile's famous Torres del Paine National Park.

But more on that later!


Tracy Su said...

I heart your funny hat and mittens!!

Maybe the hostel owner made up the gloomy forecast to get you to stay a few more nights. Aren't I cynical? Hehe.

Yi Lin said...

Actually the hostel owner invited us to travel with him the week after, to show us "some places that tourists never get to see." Well after finding out what a crusty old guy he was (and a big slob too, his kitchen was a mess), we were glad we didn't extend our stay nor go with him.

I bought the hat and mitts at some outlet in the US! The mitts are really cute - they are actually cut-off gloves with an extra "pocket" which you pull over your fingers. Comes in handy when I need my fingers nekkid to take photos! The Smallies were most inappropriately dressed for Patagonia though - they froze. Will post pix to show ya soon!

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