I ended up spending a hell of a lot more time in Punta Arenas than I’d initially bargained for. It was awesome to check penguins off the list but after that and a few museums there wasn’t a lot else going on. In a way, I was kind of stalled though. There were only three ways out that I could see:
- Travelling overland by bus back up in Argentina, across the steppe and back over into Chile, north of the Carretera Austral. A couple days of bus riding through empty steppe held little appeal.
- Flying north to Puerto Montt or Santiago. I’m not terribly fond of flying – not a fear thing, just hate the security impositions and feeling squished and unable to walk around – so I scratched this idea immediately.
- Taking the Navimag ferry from Puerto Natales north to Puerto Montt. Four and a half days on a boat, motoring past fjords and glaciers and seals and dolphins sounds awesome, count me in. Unfortunately the boat leaving on the 5th was full so I had to settle for the 12th. Still preferable to the bus or flying, though.
I spent most of the remaining week-plus just walking around town, cooking big pots of noodles at the hostel and drinking wine with the random assortment of people who passed in and out of my dorm room. Some of the characters were a German girl who I had some professional overlap with (she’s a Master’s student using ArcGIS for her research), a Korean girl who enjoyed her wine but really couldn’t handle it and had to be woken up off the kitchen table, and an American sailor named Ronnie who was trying to find a boat heading to Antarctica to get some work on. Ronnie was around for almost a week and not only does he enjoy drinking as much as I do, he also enjoys telling stories as much as I do, so there were a few nights where we were still up bullshitting when the eager-beavers were getting up and starting their days.
Those were the days I felt less inclined to go for a walk and more inclined to lay in bed and play Oregon Trail. I forgot what a bitch that game can be sometimes.
One idea I tossed around was going to Torres del Paine, like most of the people passing through Punta Arenas were doing. I decided against it for a few reasons, though. First, it’s high season and according to a lot of the people I spoke to on their way back, it was packed. Second, it’s pretty expensive – even entering the park is close to $40 and getting around inside the park, not to mention staying in the refugios, is expensive as well, unless you want to hike the whole way. Third, to hike the whole way I’d have to sleep outside which would require buying/renting some real equipment, also expensive. Fourth, I need to leave something for when I come back in the future.
For the most part I left the camera stashed for the week but I did take it out on a couple of occasions. One was just to get a few downtown and waterfront shots…
The other was to one of the museums, a fancy old family house formerly owned by Russian immigrants that’s been keep more or less “in state” from sometime around The Great War. A guy at the door made everyone put cloth booties so we animals wouldn’t fuck up the carpets. Note the bust of Czar Nicholas II – the house also acted as the Russian consulate when Punta Arenas was an important port, prior to the creation of the Panama Canal:
Needless to say it was good to finally get back on the road when I grabbed the three-hour bus to Puerto Natales on the twelfth. The ride was uneventful aside from some miniature ostrich-looking things that I’d previously only seen on tourism brochures – I saw dozens of them just standing around, doing their flightless bird thing, and a quick google later on told me they’re called rheas. Rolling up to the bus station I could see the waterfront a mile or two off and as everyone piled off the bus I sort of snickered at the gringos mulling about and asking aloud where the ferry office was. “Down by the water, duh”, I thought as I stomped down the hill. When I got to the ferry a half hour later I was told that the ferry office is in the bus station. Well sheeeet. I clamber back up the hill like the jive turkey that I am. After checking-in I roam around the town to burn the remaining 4-5 hours until embarkation and drink a heroic amount of overpriced coffee. Everything seemed overpriced actually, no doubt taking advantage of its role as a tourist hub between TDP, the Navimag ferry, Punta Arenas and El Calafate. It’s not exactly a sleepy podunk backwater but there wasn’t really a lot going on either – a lot of hostels, apparently for people doing day trips to Torres del Paine, a lot of restaurants and shops catering to tourists, and of course the obligatory Patagonian proliferation of mangy street dogs blocking intersections and giving vehicles a piece of their mind and somnambulant, cross-eyed, mangy drunks pissing on the sidewalk or approximately thereabouts.
Rather than just strolling onto the boat we have to congregate at the bus station, climb on the bus and then drive onto the boat. The bus rolls into the hold and we hoof up the four flights of stairs but on the second flight there’s this blonde teenage girl that I swear I know from somewhere – she looks at me the same way… I can’t figure it out until she says “Lago O’Higgins!” Oh shit, she’s from the French family that did the Villa O’Higgins to El Chalten border crossing the same time I did. Sure enough I see her brother who’d I been shooting the shit with quite a bit on the boat and then on the next floor is her mom, whose eyes light up before she gives me a kiss on the cheek a la francais and says “Happy New Year!” There have been quite a few times now where I’ve seen the same people around across different towns, it’s really a small world down here…
I toss my bag in my three-bunk room, two bags are already there but no people, and take a quick look around the boat. Pretty small dining room, a “lounge room” with a bunch of reclining chairs and a few TVs (and no windows), and a more open room with couches, open space, big windows and TVs. There’s a lot of space topside, which is great because weather permitting, this is where I’m planning to spend most of my time.
Back to my bunk and I meet my roommates, a Swiss couple who I’d guess are roughly my age. Really cool folks, the dude’s obviously a metalhead – long hair, braided beard, Dream Theater t-shirt, tatted out – and they tell me they’ve been to Canada but only briefly, just to Montreal, Ottawa and Vancouver. “We only went there to watch ice hockey.” Holy shit, we’ll get along fine. I later find out his name’s Roger but embarrassingly I don’t think I ever got her name.
An announcement comes over the PA telling us to muster in the dining room. The captain’s a Spanish guy named Percy and he gives us a safety talk, he’s a character, every sentence is animated and every second sentence is some kind of joke. He also tells us we’ll be setting off at 6 a.m. – we have to wait for the tides, but they wanted to get everyone on board tonight to prevent a gong show tomorrow morning.
One extremely disappointing part of the safety talk is learning that the ship is dry. I’d been told this by a few people in Punta Arenas but I was hoping it was a filthy, baseless rumour. I’m pretty sure five days at sea without a drink has to be some kind of nautical world record.
Sans bar and desiring to watch the scenery as we set off, I crash out uncharacteristically early.