Patagonia’s ice-carved waterways

Explore the convoluted coastline of the western fjordlands on a three-day cargo ship journey through some of the world’s most remote land and seascapes.

It was a grey, windblown afternoon in the western fjords of Chilean Patagonia. As the ship plied the leaden waters between steep, green valleys, there was a sudden announcement over the PA system: “Passengers on deck – narrowest point of passage.” 

It was not clear whether this was a safety warning to don lifejackets and man life rafts – or whether the order to the decks was to witness a breathtakingly deft act of seamanship.

With all the passengers looking on, the captain steered the ferry at full speed towards a sheer wall of beech-forested fjordside to counter the swirling current. As we seemingly charged towards destruction, the captain skilfully manoeuvred the 114m ship through a series of delicate turns, and a narrow channel, the 80m-wide Paso White, appeared before the bow.  The ship’s horn sounded as it cruised through – and there was an audible gasp from the passengers as we sped past land almost close enough to touch.

A remote voyage
The MV Evangelistas is the only ship that regularly plies the convoluted coastline of Chilean Patagonia, making it an important transport link between the towns of Puerto Natales (the jump off point for the famous Torres del Paine national park) and Puerto Montt (the gateway to Patagonia). On its three-day journey through some of the world’s most remote land and seascapes, the cargo-and-passenger ship stops at just one point of habitation, the indigenous settlement of Puerto Eden. On the way, there are sheer-sided fjords to traverse, tumbling glaciers that crumble into milk blue water, shipwrecks, dolphins and sometimes whales.

While 150-odd passengers enjoy simple cabins and three convivial meals a day, the decks below house mooing cattle, bleating sheep, roaming horses and creaking trucks. This is a journey that's not quite a tourist cruise nor a hardcore adventure; it’s a wonderfully original way to see territory few others experience.

Plying north
The ship departed the wind-blasted town of Puerto Natales at first light, with passengers boarding the night before. There was a mix of tourists and locals: walkers and climbers full of adventurous stories from Torres del Paine National Park; cyclists who had covered the length of Patagonia on the famously beautiful Careterra Austral; truck drivers with their cargo of sheep; and locals returning to their village of Puerto Eden the only way possible – by sea. We grabbed a tray of steaming-hot school refectory-type fare in the sparse dining room before retiring to our cabins, which varied from 22-bunk hostel-style rooms with shared bathrooms, to simple two-bunk rooms with an exterior window and private bathroom.

The first sunrise revealed ice-carved waterways, so I strolled onto the bridge to view the complex and precise process of navigating this maze of land and sea. The ferry passed the snowy peaks of the Cordillera Sarmiento, one of Chile’s most remote mountain ranges, and followed narrow channels between endless archipelagos, including Isla Carrington, Isla Vancouver, Isla Owen, Islas Evans. The current swirled in foamy eddies, and waterfalls cascaded from fjordsides. In forests of native cypress and Magellanic and Antarctic beech, unseen as the ship slipped by, the diminutive and endangered huemul deer roamed, as well as rarely seen pumas. Later the waterways widened into the Pulluche Channel, with Commerson’s (or piebald) dolphins jumping and speeding beside the ship. Bottle nosed dolphins were seen in the Errázuriz and Chacabuco channels.

The high point of the journey came on the second afternoon of the trip, as the ferry approached the incredible ice walls of the Patagonian glaciers, entering a turquoise-tinted bay thick with floating icebergs. A blue tongue of ice, easily 1km across, stretched into the water. Huge blocks of ice calved off and collapsed into tidal waves of icy slush. As the ship inched closer, a Zodiac was lowered, the crew clad in survival suits in case of capsize. The launch returned with chunks of glacier ice, which the bar staff served up in glasses of whisky and whipped up into pisco sours – Chile’s national drink.

The mid-point of the cruise was Puerto Eden. With just 180 inhabitants, this is the only settlement on the 650km stretch of coastline between Puerto Natales and the village of Caleta Tortel which is just off the ferry’s route further north. The indigenous Kawéska people have inhabited this part of Patagonia for 6,000 years, and little of the surrounding nature (all now encompassed in Bernardo O’Higgins National Park) has changed in this time. The MV Evangelistas is the tiny settlement’s main link to the outside world, bringing a twice-weekly delivery of food and supplies. Weather conditions permitting, passengers can disembark here for an hour or two and watch locals shyly showing off their canoe carving expertise while supplies are unloaded by the ship’s crew.

After leaving Puerto Eden, there was just one open-ocean stretch to test passengers’ mettle. Just south of the Taitao Peninsula, the large Golfo de Penas (Gulf of Sorrows) is open to storms from the western Pacific and swells can reach 5m high. This leads to plenty of rocking-and-rolling during the 10-hour passage, with many passengers confined to their bunks.

On the morning of the third day, the ship entered the Moreleda Channel. Forested slopes plunged steeply to the sea from their cloud-shrouded peaks. On the mainland, the glacier-covered cone of the Cerro Macau volcano peeked above the cloud and the straggly fishing port of Puerto Montt came into view. MV Evangelistas now suddenly seemed more cargo ship than cruise vessel. The crew sprang into action. Ramps were lowered, sheep bleated and horses kicked. Truck engines spluttered to life, men shouted, grease-blackened hands waved instructions to drivers. Passengers made their way down to the lower deck and strolled off into the busy docks – their Patagonian fjordland journey complete.

MV Evangelistas plies Chile’s far southwestern coast year-round, although the  summer season (November to March) is when most visitors cruise. Bookings can be made online through Navimag Ferries.