A maze of fjords with wild, wind-worn isles, abundant marine life and glaciers that tumble into the Pacific, the singular landscape of Chilean Patagonia is often best admired from the deck of a boat. From the humble ferry to luxury cruises, plenty of options for all budgets ply this spectacular coastline.
The Ruta Bimodal
South of Puerto Montt, the South American continent crumbles into numerous islands scattered from the Andean peaks that fortress the mainland. Roads are no longer a constant. Instead, travel requires routing a course of dirt roads and ferries. The Ruta Bimodal, operated by Naviera Austral (taustral.cl), marks three obligatory ferry crossings between Puerto Montt and Chaitén.
On a sunny summer day, it’s hard to beat the beauty of the Ruta Bimodal, which cruises a narrow corridor between islands and verdant peaks along the coast. Black dolphins cavort in the ship’s wake and passengers swap stories on the deck. The extraordinary Parque Pumalín is the crown jewel on this route, with trails to waterfalls, Valdivian rainforest and the smoking crater of Volcan Chaitén. For a hands-on aquatic adventure, explore coastal Pumalín via a sea kayaking tour (kokayak.cl) through the fjords, stopping in at isolated natural hot springs and sea lion colonies.
At the end of this string of ferries, the coastal village of Chaitén is reached via an hour-long drive through Pumalín. With yawning, rugged appeal, Chaitén is the northern hub of the Carretera Austral, the 1240km dead-end route through scenic and sparsely populated Patagonia. Ferries also arrive here direct from Puerto Montt via a longer ocean route and the island of Chiloé.
One ferry ticket serves the entire Ruta Bimodal and there are two daily departures in summer. Those traveling by car should reserve well in advance. For those traveling on the cheap, it’s also possible to take this route by bus from Puerto Montt. Pack snacks and a lunch and dress to enjoy potentially blustery weather.
The Navimag experience
The most famous sea voyage in Chile, and perhaps all of South America, is the three-day Navimag (navimag.com) ferry trip between Puerto Montt and Puerto Natales. For travelers it’s practically a rite of passage, with iconic Andean seascapes and plenty of time to gaze out on the glassy expanse of nature uninterrupted.
The best reason to complete the voyage in a southbound direction is to meet other international travelers on their way to Torres del Paine National Park. After three days of chats, card games and an occasional shared seasickness, strangers can become friends. Later trail reunions are not uncommon and add a curious intimacy to a multi-day trek in a sprawling wilderness.
The boat stops in Puerto Edén on the way, a unique village of homes on stilts on Isla Wellington, an island inhabited by the seafaring Alcaluf indigenous group. This voyage is exceedingly popular, so reserve your berth well in advance.
Navimag also runs a shorter overnight trip between Puerto Montt and Puerto Chacabuco, located near Coyhaique, a route where you are more likely to rub shoulders with the locals.
San Rafael Glacier
A sculpted tower of beguiling blue, San Rafael Glacier is the world’s closest tidewater glacier to the equator. A powerful expanse jutting off the northern ice field, it is unfortunately receding fast. At some estimates, this 760-square-kilometer glacier could disappear as soon as 2030. Meanwhile, it’s worth the pilgrimage to gaze upon this great rippled face that dips into the sea.
Cruise ship Skorpios II (skorpios.cl) sails from Puerto Montt on a six-day round-trip that includes a stop at private hot springs and a visit to the island of Chiloé. The entire third day is spent at the glacier, with Zodiac boats bringing passengers amongst the icebergs, a safe distance from the calving ice. On return, the ship crosses the Gulf of Corcovado, a key feeding ground for blue whales, the largest animals on earth.
A more adventuresome option visits the San Rafael Glacier via Valle Exploradores, a recently-minted 77km gravel offshoot from the Carretera Austral. For the time being, guide services that provide boat access are required. Several outfitters offer the trip from nearby Puerto Río Tranquilo, with an overnight option in yurts. For bonus views, hike the solitary glacier lookout trail with nothing between you and the gawping majesty of Chile’s northern ice field. For those driving the route, a four-wheel drive vehicle is a must.
Tierra del Fuego and beyond
Intrepid travelers with their sights set on Cape Horn are often disappointed to learn that while many ships make the crossing, few actually stop. Luxury cruiser Australis (australis.com) is one of them. Their three-to four-night cruises between Ushuaia and Punta Arenas roam the Magellanic Strait south to Cape Horn, visiting glaciers, remote coastline and austral forests. These expedition-style trips offer a good dose of comfort off the beaten path. Zodiac boat excursions and walks balance out leisure time when guests are sipping cocoa in the stateroom. For those who don’t have Argentina in their itinerary, passengers have the option of starting and ending the trip in Punta Arenas.
With a heavy dose of explorer’s gumption, small groups can also navigate the remotest parts of the region by sailboat. Puerto Williams-based SIM Expeditions (simltd.com) is an experienced outfitter offering two-week voyages to Cape Horn and the Darwin Range.
Most travelers assume that Ushuaia is the end of the world, only to find out that it stares southward toward the tiny Chilean burg of Puerto Williams on the wild Isla Navarino. Transbordadora Austral Broom (tabsa.cl) runs weekly ferry service to this fascinating destination from Punta Arenas. The ferry offers both bunk berths and reclining seats. Only bunks can be reserved ahead, as the cheaper seats are reserved for locals.
Do the 36-hour trip southbound and you’re rewarded with a daylight passage through an alley of stunning glaciers in the Strait of Magellan. From Puerto Williams, the route is the same but the glaciers are passed at night. Be on the lookout for whales between December and April.