As forms of transport go, a ship through the silent, undisturbed nature of the Chilean fjords sounds particularly romantic. And the Navimag ferry, which sails alongside green-fringed coastline of national parks and reserves pursued by schools of dolphins and the occasional whale, definitely sounds like one of the most unique ways of exploring Patagonia.
But is it worth the cost?
- The 24-hour Navimag ferry from Puerto Montt to Puerto Chacabuco costs, in high season, $51.000 CLP ($85 USD) for a four-bed “dorm” style cabin without window and a shared bathroom.
- The four-day, three-night ferry route from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales costs a significantly higher $400 USD for the same facilities.
- On both, it’s possible to book a private cabin from $65,000 CLP ($108 USD) (per person, based on two sharing).
If you’re a budget backpacker in Patagonia, or even just someone keen to make the pennies stretch further, you might think twice about taking this ferry. Part of the issue is that a dearth of up-to-date information beyond the main company website exists, although the TripAdvisor Navimag ferry reviews do demonstrate that the quality of the service has improved markedly over the past few years.
This article is based on my personal experience of the Navimag ferry from Puerto Montt to Puerto Chacabuco. What I learned when I finally took the longer Navimag ferry through the Chilean fjords in March 2018 is that the onboard service and what you can expect to experience en route are very different. To find out more information about the latter, head to this article about the Navimag from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales.
If you’ve taken either of the ferries, I’d love to hear from you in the comments about anything you think I may have missed out.
Important things to realise before booking the Navimag ferry
It is not a cruise ship as the advertising on the website might imply
It is a cargo boat that also accepts passengers. It is not an expedition cruise.
You will depart late and quite possibly not on your original date for departure
A contingency plan for arrival at your final destination (see below) is essential, as is the flexibility of a handful of days either side of the voyage. The boat has been known to depart days late – so don’t be that person worrying about missing their connecting activities rather than enjoying their time on the ship.
That said, on my experience of taking the ferry from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales in March 2018, we left on time and actually arrived five hours earlier. It all depends on the weather conditions as some stretches of the fjords can only be sailed at high or low tide and without strong winds meaning that, on some occasions, the boat has to wait until it’s safe to continue.
If you’re out of season, you might be disappointed
As I discuss below, travelling in the low season as the weather starts to change can be somewhat disappointing and will most likely determine whether you get to see any of the promised sights on the voyage.
They no longer sail all the way to the San Rafael Glacier
Although my Chilean boyfriend told me I had to take the cruise ship to the San Rafael Glacier (one of the fastest retreating glaciers in Patagonia), it was unfortunate to learn that they had discontinued this route.
There is a cheaper way!
More about that later.
My review of the Navimag ferry
For me, travelling at the end of April meant that the four-day Navimag ferry to Puerto Natales was no longer running. As it’s aimed primarily at tourists, the ship only runs during high season and so had stopped navigating this route by the end of March.
Instead, I paid $37.000 CLP ($61 USD) for the cheapest, 22-bunk dorm room* on board the Navimag Ferry the Evangelistas.
*Note that it is no longer possible to book this type of accommodation. The cheapest beds are in four-bed cabins, costing $51.000 CLP ($85 USD).
The Good Bits
The views… if the weather is good
Ok so I’m a bit of sucker for pretty views anyway, but the landscapes of the lengthy Chilean coastline are what makes this trip. I could have literally spent days glued to the window watching the world go by – and I probably had the worst weather possible. That said, I had a beautiful sunrise on the second day and passing into the port at Puerto Chacabuco allowed us to get much closer to the shore than for the rest of the time, which was pretty despite the drizzle.
Unfortunately, you can’t do anything to plan around the weather – particularly given it’s unlikely you’ll leave on the day you originally intended. I was disappointed that the unshifting bank of cloud for the first evening was followed by an afternoon of drizzle, but another passenger who lived in Puerto Aysén, a short distance from Puerto Chacabuco, assured me that when she’d taken the route in the opposite direction a few weeks previously it had been glorious sunshine.
The fact is, if you get lucky and travel during the high season when sunshine and less rainfall is more likely, you will, no doubt have some excellent views.
However, since I sailed on the ferry back in 2016, the departure times have changed. From November 2018, the Navimag will be leaving Puerto Montt at 6am Thursdays and Sundays (in high season), arriving around 6am the next day in Puerto Chacabuco. This means that there will be more time to see the fjords during the journey, as you’ll cover a lot of the route during the day.
The Navimag Ferry, or the shorter route in particular, is really a form of transport for those who live in the remote towns close to Puerto Chacabuco and for whom it’s a cheaper and more comfortable prospect than the same journey by bus. If you know a bit of Spanish, your time on the ferry can be passed chatting away with these locals. In my experience, the oft-articulated claim that Patagonians are amongst the friendliest people in South America was proved by the people I met on the boat.
What was definitely a bonus of travelling in off-season was the fact that I got bumped up from CC to C class; a change from a 22-bed dorm to a 4-bed cabin. My cabin was very comfortable with a personal light for each bed, curtains for each bunk, a locker (admittedly without a key) and a plug socket each. But make no mistake, this isn’t intended to be luxury accommodation. The shower was freezing; luckily, this isn’t the case on the longer Navimag ferry journey.
While the food was certainly not haute cuisine, it was edible and there was enough of it. Our three meals over the course of the 24-hour journey included soup, a main dish with meat and vegetables and a desert. Breakfast was the standard Chilean cheese, bread and ham combination with tea and coffee available throughout the day. If you want anything more exciting, bring it with you as there is nowhere to buy extras on board
The not so good bits
You will leave late… and it will screw up your travel plans
We were supposed to leave at 8am on the Sunday but we ended up boarding the ship at 3pm that day and not actually leaving until 8pm.
To their credit, they do contact you to let you know about the changes, which is great if you have a Chilean phone number or your mobile actually works abroad. Their office staff do speak English too.
For me, leaving 12 hours late meant I arrived in Puerto Chacabuco at night, without a hostel booking, and realising that I wouldn’t be finding anything there for less than £40 for the night. Puerto Aysén, a short distance away, didn’t look very promising either, but luckily, I managed to jump on one of the final buses to Coyhaique that evening.
Bear in mind that there is no transport provided by the company from Puerto Chacabuco; instead, local colectivos (mini buses) do run to Puerto Aysén and if you ask, they can drop you off at the offices of one of the bus companies.
It’s really hard to plan your accommodation if you literally don’t know what date you will turn up, but unless you arrive at night as I did, you should easily be able to jump on a bus to Coyhaique where there is a lot of cheaper accommodation.
In Puerto Aysén (next door to Puerto Chacabuco), there are also a lot of budget-friendly alojamientos (basic B&Bs) which don’t show up on booking sites and which rarely need a reservation – although in high season you may run into a problem with this. I would personally recommend the simple but wonderfully-run Flor de Michay ($18,000 CLP ($30 USD) per person in a private room) or the more upmarket and superbly comfortable Hotel Patagonia Green ($75,000 CLP ($120 USD), both in Puerto Aysén.
Note that in high season*, the boat leaves Puerto Chacabuco at 8pm on Tuesdays and Fridays, arriving around 8pm the following day.
*These timings do change depending on the season so make sure you check the Navimag website for up-to-date information.
The weather will make or break your trip
As I pointed out above, this really can change the whole landscape of your trip – quite literally. If it’s cloudy, you will see squat. If it’s sunny, you’ve got incredible vistas of the Chilean coastline of lush forest and better visibility for spotting the dolphins and humpback whales that are known to frequent the area, particularly during the summer months.
As will the time of day when you finally leave
As many of the Navimag ferry reviews on Trip Advisor point out, the time you actually leave for the journey will affect what you end up seeing. Unfortunately, the Sunday we were supposed to leave was glorious sunshine – but we only had a brief sunset before it went dark. Again, you literally have no control over this but it’s worth taking into account. What I found taking the longer ferry route was that the four days allow for plenty of time to appreciate the landscapes, even if you weren’t necessarily passing them at the time that was initially indicated on the itinerary.
It is expensive
Given flights can cost as little as $25.000 CLP ($66 USD) from Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas, a town a short distance further south of Puerto Natales, neither of the two Navimag ferry routes seem to represent much value for money. Admittedly, both are a lot more competitive when compared with bus travel in the area (which is a lot more expensive than the prices you’ll find in the rest of the country), and the fact that you can get up, move around and sleep in an actual bed is a real bonus.
That said, as I discovered when I took the ferry from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales in March 2018, the experience of the journey is what you’re paying for.
The cheaper option
What I was surprised to learn when I was making my way back up the Carretera Austral (a highly recommended alternative which I discuss in my guide to Chile’s finest road trip), is that an alternative to the shorter route exists – and it’s much cheaper.
The Naviera Austral boat from Quellón (in the very south of Chiloé Island) to Puerto Chacabuco has more basic services, but at three times cheaper, it’s worth it. $17.450 CLP ($29 USD) gets you 31 hours on the boat (ouch), a standard seat like in a bus (also ouch) but probably improved chances of seeing wildlife.
Why? The traveller I met who had taken the route said that because of the extra stops in the boat’s itinerary further north of Puerto Chacabuco, it actually gets far closer to the shoreline. As a result, he saw Magellanic penguins, whales, dolphins and sea lions.
Admittedly this price doesn’t include food and the accommodation is less comfortable. But there is a small cafeteria on board, you can easily bring all the food you need with you, and there’s nothing stopping you from curling up in a corner of the boat on the floor and getting a proper kip. All in all, it’s actually surprisingly good value. Yes, I imagine it also gets quite busy in high season but it still sounds like an affordable option.
The website is all in Spanish which makes it more complicated (and explains why it’s a lot cheaper too).
The longer ferry from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales
In March 2018, I finally took the longer, four-day, three-night ferry. The experience was vastly different to the one I describe in this article, so if you’re considering this journey, instead head over to this post about the Navimag ferry from Puerto Montt down to Puerto Natales.
Although I had terrible weather, I personally enjoyed the Navimag ferry route from Puerto Montt to Puerto Chacabuco. It was a relaxing way to spend a day or two and for me, there’s always something romantic about travelling by boat – particularly when I’d spent the previous few months squished into over-night buses.
Having since taken the ferry from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales, I do think the $400 USD is a fair price for the journey. The thrill of this route is the fact that the ship passes through waterways that barely receive any visitors and where you’re much more likely to see animals than on the stretches of open sea.
This price also includes guides, who deliver daily lectures about the flora and fauna of the region, and there are even yoga classes; unfortunately, if the weather refuses to play ball, it could be a miserable few days (UPDATE: read about my experiences of the longer Navimag ferry from Puerto Montt to Patagonia and why I’d recommend you consider this route).
Final Navimag ferry tips
- The Navimag ferry from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales (and back again) runs once a week each way from October until the end of March.
- The Puerto Montt to Puerto Chacabuco route runs twice a week (and back again) throughout the year.
- On our boat, there weren’t any keys to lock the lockers. Although Patagonia is notoriously safe, I kept my camera, passport and money on me.
- Reviews on Trip Advisor suggest that it’s hard to get a window seat in the dining area on the boat. This is mainly an issue on the Eden ferry; on the Evangelistas, both sides of the large cafeteria are lined with large windows so you’re never short of a good view.
- Puerto Montt isn’t the nicest city and it’s not a great idea to wander around near the bus station or the centre at night time. If you’re looking for somewhere to stay, I strongly recommend Austral View Hostel (dorm $15,000 CLP (25 USD), double with shared bath $30,000 CLP ($50 USD) and dinner at the innovative Chile Picante (Vicente Peréz Rosales 567).
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