Puerto Natales is a nondescript town with little of anything interesting apart from the lakeshore. Like the other lakes in the area this one is fairly large and reflects the far mountains. The lake here also has a briny smell and…wait, is that seaweed? Oh, it’s not a lake, it’s the sea.
It doesn’t feel as though we’re at sea level but, sure enough, as our ferry departs the ‘lake’ opens up at the end. We’re on the weekly Navimag service to Puerto Montt. The ship – the Evangelista – offers basic accommodation, three square meals a day and a comfy lounge on the top deck. The lock on our door is hard to use and the shower doesn’t work – they point out in their marketing that this isn’t a cruise, but for the large sums paid for the voyage they need to do considerably better (a new ship is coming next season).
All such concerns are forgotten when the Evangelista draws close to Angostura White, which is a narrow channel just 70m wide. Water rushes through the gap as the 24m-wide ship squeezes through – close enough to the rocky islands either side to make out bark detail on the hardy trees.
Onwards the Evangelista sails, past the feet of ice-laden mountains close-by on both sides. The route twists and turns through this giant landscape which is devoid of human life but busy with waterfalls and the occasional diminutive Chileno dolphin. Occasionally the channel opens up wide and, on a couple of occasions, offers a glimpse of open sea. But here amidst the sunken Andes we’re protected from large waves.
At 6AM on the second full day we drop anchor at Puerto Eden. This village of 250 people – a handful of whom are still 100% indigenous Kawéshkar – is one of the most remote habitations in Chile. The Navimag ships are the only way in or out and so the population is at least 48 hours sail from civilisation. But this is a spectacular place to live, surrounded by forests, mountains and the sea, with the colourful houses connected by wooden walkways (no roads here).
Unable to disembark we watch the flurry of small-ship activity around the Evangelista for half an hour then gawp at the truly stunning landscapes through which we sail. Again the route narrows considerably and every detail of each tree we pass is discernible.
The ship’s horn echoes for many miles around as we go around a small, lonely island topped with a Virgin Mary statue dedicated to sailors. A couple of hours later we pass the shipwrecked Leonidas, which was allegedly scuttled in 1968 as part of an insurance scam. Unfortunately for the scammers they chose to scuttle the ship just above an underwater peak, atop which is a hidden other shipwreck. The Leonidas therefore appears to float, perched on this other boat and now beginning to sprout trees.
The verdant and snow-topped landscape grows further and further apart until we are in open sea. Before the Pacific waves begin their onslaught the ships ‘paramedic’ (a quiet, refined older gentleman who also seems to be tasked with doing the dishes) hands out seasickness pills. Every day there is a yoga class and a tai chi class, conducted by a man who is as happy in his job as any other I’ve met. Today’s tai chi class was a challenge on those five-metre waves.
Considering that we’ve travelled through the rainiest place on the planet we have been incredibly fortunate with our days of sunshine. The last full day was no exception. We were also blessed with views of distant volcanoes so spectacular they were hard to believe. Sunset that night – with those faraway cones as backdrop – was so vividly colourful it felt as though we were sailing through an oil painting.
Evangelista arrived into Puerto Montt ahead of schedule. A few hours later we were on our way to Cochamo – a small, off-the-beaten-path village with an enviable location. The village looks out onto a stage of still sea (which I once again mistook for a lake), curtains of reclining tree-covered hills and a backdrop of a volcano perfectly conical in shape.
This was the day on which we really felt the heat again. Summer had begun and we’d travelled a long way back north. We were in Cochamo to enjoy three days of trekking and, when we set off, the clouds had started to approach.
After three hours slogging along muddy trails, through a dense forest of countless shades of green and along a deep and swift river we came to a clearing. We’d passed no more than ten people along the way – this seems a particularly remote place. Ahead of us were behemoth granite mountains, suddenly it became obvious as to why this place is known as the Chilean Yosemite.
To get to the refuge we had to cross that powerful river in a box dangling from a wire and propelled by pulling on a rope. Safely on the other side we only had to walk several minutes more to find the refuge in its spectacular valley setting. ‘Refuge’ makes it sound a little basic; although we’d carried in sleeping bags and food the wooden refuge was actually a large, warm multi-roomed oasis of cosiness. We had a comfortable bed, a small hob on which to cook and plenty of space to relax in.
No relaxing just yet, however. We were determined to hike up to La Paloma – a valley which ended in a glacier. The hike turned out to be more of a scramble up through bamboo thickets and over large tree roots. Although only just over 4km each way, the route rapidly gained 800m in height. At points we had to scale cliffs with a rope (not quite what we were prepared for!) Our reward was magnificent views down the valley and across to other mountains.
Rain was lightly falling as we set out the next day to undertake the hike to Anfiteatro. Again, this hike was short but incredibly steep and involved several precarious crossings along fallen trees over raging rivers. This was a very wet and tough trek.
Anfiteatro (‘Ampitheatre’ in English) was an appropriate name. At the top of the hike we came to three walls of granite, each hundreds of metres high. On the one open side we were almost at eye-level with the snowy peaks across the valley. The return journey was no less challenging, although we did get to enjoy two beautiful waterfalls on the way down.
It was a blessing for us to find this valley so devoid of people. Whilst it would have been good to have the path a little more beaten (or at least a machete to clear it), it felt like a real escape and a big contrast with the pampered experience of the W. We passed few people on the three-hour return journey, including an old weather-worn gentleman atop a horse and beneath a wide-brimmed hat. This Cochamo horseman told us about his years working along this trail and seemed delighted that we were there to enjoy its beauty.
Puerto Varas was our next stop. Germanic influences can be found in much of the town’s architecture. This, combined with the town’s lakeside location, make it a most attractive place to enjoy a few relaxing days, enhanced by the horizon-hogging Osorno volcano – perfectly triangular in shape. We enjoyed a self-guided walking tour of the houses built by early settlers and were invited into one by a very kind elderly gent. His wooden house featured many original features, including ceilings with murals and chandeliers fashioned from antlers.
On one of our more active days we took a bus to Saltas de Petrohué – a powerful set of waterfalls with two volcanos as backdrop. It was a scene that was almost impossibly perfect. 6km down the road is the scenic Todos los Santos lake. It’s possible to take a bus here, cross the lake by boat to Puella (where you can stay the night) then take a bus to Puerto Frias, enter Argentina then take a boat across Lago Frias to Puerto Blest where you depart by boat to Bariloche. A convoluted but unforgettable journey!
Next stop: Castro (actually, next stop was Puerto Montt but that was so ugly it doesn’t warrant further description). This town is on the large island of Chiloé and is famous for some very colourful houses built on stilts over the water. What impressed us most, however, was the other side of the island. Here, facing the Pacific, were many miles of dramatic cliffs and empty beaches pounded by the ocean.
An enterprising landowner had set up a walkway which, if looked at from a certain angle, makes it seem as though you’re walking off over the sea and into the horizon. Apparently the Mapuche believed this is where souls depart for the next life (similar to a Maori place we’d seen across the water in New Zealand), I was impressed at how the landowner decided to build this walkway and charge a visiting fee to the hordes of tourists.
It had been a while since we’d taken a long-distance bus, but the seven-hour journey north to Valdivia was passed in comfort. One realisation I had along the way was that I hadn’t seen any fresh milk in Chile. I asked a fellow traveller (who was living here) about this and he simply stated that they don’t have fresh milk, just long life or powdered. BUT WHY?!