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March 29, 2009

Puerto Natales to Las Torres

Filed under: Chile 2009, Travel — anotherheader @ 2:50 am

Puerto Natales in the setting sun

Puerto Natales in the setting sun

Our uneasy sleep was broken when the intercom blared to life with rapid, urgent Spanish.  Outside the window, the sky was dark.  We waited patiently for the English translation that usually, but not always, followed and was on some occasions understandable.

Watching while the Navimag ferry heads towards a narrow channel

Watching while the Navimag ferry heads towards a narrow channel

“Come up on deck to see the glacier.  The glacier is off the front of the boat,” the intercom eventually crackled in accented English.

Looking out the window into the faint blue light of the overcast morning, we didn’t think we would see much of anything.  It also looked to be cold.  It had to be cold.  It was always cold when the sun wasn’t shining.

The Skua Glacier under poor light conditions

The Skua Glacier under poor light conditions

But we always did what the intercom commanded and we bundled up and headed out onto the deck.  Off the front of the boat, the massive Skua Glacier was barely visible in the predawn light and coming closer as the ferry moved slowly through the flow of sea ice.  It must have been a sight in the daylight, but we wouldn’t know as the ferry soon pulled away and continued its journey to Puerto Natales.

With heavy overcast, frequent rain and wind, the patterns of the ship continued only broken by calls to the deck to see the ferry move through impossibly narrow sections of the channels.  As the day progressed, the passage widened and the weather began to clear.  When we arrived in Puerto Natales, the glow of the setting sun highlighted the now partially cloudy sky.  With help from local boats, the ferry slowly maneuvered to the dock.

We just went through that?

We just went through that?

The call came from the intercom to debark.  Though the crew would transport our luggage on shore if we wanted, we chose to save time and lug our bulky 50.6 kg of personal belongings off the boat ourselves.  Along the way, I turned to the other passengers and indicated that the luggage was “All her shoes.”  They all looked with suspicion at Becky and then nodded to me in sympathy.

To debark, we had to first move down a ladder-steep stairway to the top level of the two truck and vehicle transport decks.  With the passengers waiting at the bottom of the staircase, the crew started to lower the ramp that would be used to drive the semis out onto the dock after the passengers had used it to walked to shore.  With the shrill sound of the claxon sounding, the ramp moved, almost imperceptibly, and then stopped.  The crew talked amongst themselves and tried again.  The same thing happened.  After a few more attempts, we heard sledgehammer-like sounds banging from below, but still the ramp would not move.  The officer in charge shook his head, and they tried a few more times but still the ramp stayed up.  The passengers had been waiting about twenty minutes when the officer gave up and waved the crowd through the alternative exit.

Clearer weather from the deck of the Navimag ferry

Clearer weather from the deck of the Navimag ferry

With our awkward array of luggage in hand, we followed the directions to the exit.  We squeezed between semi trailers as the claxon sounded again this time almost directly into our ears.  Next we worked our way around the massive winches used to tighten the ropes holding the boat to the dock.  The axel grease we picked up along the way had to have helped as we squeezed past an elderly woman with an impossibly large suitcase stuck at the top narrow, ladder-steep staircase.  No one could help her; there was not enough space.  She’d have to wait for everyone to pass and have the crew come up and get her down.  With our knees screaming from the load and the steep stairs, we popped out of the stairwell and the diesel fumes onto the ramp and into the cool night air on the dock.  We were finally in Puerto Natales.

A boat coming to help dock the ferry

A boat coming to help dock the ferry

At the end of the dock, we found our driver.  After about a minute of his Spanish, we finally realized that the “mas” meant that he was asking whether we had anymore luggage.  Given the amount we had with us already, it was the last question we expected to hear.

“It’s her shoes,” I explained to the driver as he loaded the luggage into the van.


Securing the line from the ferry

He didn’t seem to understand what I said, exactly, but seemed to sense the meaning as he gave a slight, knowing nod.  With the luggage issue resolved, we climbed into the van for our journey to Torres del Paine, Chile’s iconic national park in Patagonia.


We were heading to Hosteria Las Torres.  Las Torres is tucked away in a corner of the park near the granite massif that includes the towers or “torres” that gives the park and the hotel their names.  Our van ride started with the paved roads in Puerto Natales followed by a half paved half unpaved section as the road construction continued towards the park.  Before long, the road was entirely dirt as we headed the 136 km to Las Torres.

It felt like we were getting close when the van crossed a narrow low bridge and then pulled to a stop short of an even narrower suspension bridge higher up over the river.  The driver got out of the van with a socket wrench in hand.  We thought perhaps that he was tightening something up on the van that had been loosened from the washboard road but instead he unbolted the driver’s side mirror.  He then folded in the right side mirror, got back in the van, pulled out a flashlight and moved onto the bridge slowly.  With the driver’s head out the window, using the flashlight to see, and a slight scrape from the right side of the van, we moved onto the bridge with an inch or two to spare on both sides.  We crept across the bridge with the driver moving his head back in the window as we reached the suspension support tower on the far side.

The setting Sun in Puerto Natales

The setting Sun in Puerto Natales

Off the other side of the bridge, we moved forward slowly, rocking back and forth on the now rough, puddle-filled, and potholed road.  There were more bridges to cross, but these were all small wooden sketchy-looking structures that crossed drainages and looked way too small to support the weight of the van.  It felt like we were a long ways from civilization when the driver told us in Spanish that the hotel was 15-minutes further.  If this was the only way in, how could there be much of a hotel at the end?

Another boat helping out with the docking

Another boat helping out with the docking

Before much longer, we crowned the ridge and saw the impossibly large red hosteria glowing in the lights at the base of the massif.  It took about 2 hours and 15 minutes from Puerto Natales to reach the hotel.  Arriving around 11 pm, we checked in, ate dinner, and settled in for the evening.  It felt like had come a long ways from home, but we were finally in Torres del Paine.

More pictures are included with in this set:

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