As exhilarating as the Carretera Austral was, few want to turn around and do most of the route in reverse ( count us in that club ! ), which is one option for ultimately continuing south by land but due to Covid border restrictions with Argentina ( at time of writing ) that quite literally means going all the way back to Puerto Montt and beyond; in fact likely all the way back to Santiago because that border crossing ( to Mendoza ) is currently the only one open to Argentina. Clearly not an appealing option!

Our German and American friends checking out the camper during our last day in Caleta Tortel. Four of the five had cycled the Carretera – my hat goes off to them !

The only other option ( for those with a vehicle ) is to take the weekly ferry south from Puerto Yungay all the way to Puerto Natales in Chile’s Magallanes region, the jumping off point for both Torres Del Paine National Park as well as our ultimate PanAmericana destination, Tierra del Fuego. The choice, if there really ever was one, was simple – we’d sail to Puerto Natales !

On the way to catching the Puerto Natales ferry at Puerto Yungay we crossed paths with this Swiss/Canadian couple. They had just come north on the same ferry so provided some useful “survival” tips !

This was a bit of a leap of faith. While the 44 hour ferry trip is a wonderful experience in itself we would now be 100% counting on Chile to deliver on its promise to open the Puerto Natales land border to Argentina on January 1, otherwise we would be at the tail end of a very long queue of Chileans (who book ferry passages many months in advance) to head north again. Save for the ferry, if Argentina remains closed off in the south there is no other way out ( again, for those with a vehicle ). Mindful of the limited options and following our “fortune favours the brave” ethos, on Saturday evening the ferry “Crux Australis” pulled out of Puerto Yungay – and we were on it.

The “Crux Australis” our ride to Puerto Natales
When boarding we noticed the crew strapping the vehicles to the deck. Overkill, surely? Not when we saw how much they bounced around when the ferry briefly crossed a fjord in an area that was substantially open to the Pacific …!

At this point quite a few travellers who’d crossed our path before came together – in fact 7 of the passengers were known to us – two Americans, three Germans and the Belgian couple we’d bumped into way back in Pucon were along for the ride, with most having the same game plan as us – exit to Argentina overland on January 1st. As the ferry journey wound its way south we met more travellers and enjoyed chatting with them all – helped to pass what were at times some pretty boring periods.

This on board route planner showed us the stops, and sights along the way, but……
……most people used or Google Maps on their phones to track progress ( not much else to do on board at times ! )

The weather was mixed – rained a bit, then sun, then cloud, then wind – you get it all in Patagonia ! Quaint towns were passed, got real close to a shipwreck with an interesting story, and saw some dolphins and bird life. Occasionally sightings of a humpback whale ( or orcas ) are made on this route but we were not so lucky. Visibility at the time also hampered us in seeing a few glaciers that can occasionally be seen from the ferry. Still, an interesting trip, great company, reasonable food and it was relaxing to let someone else take the wheel for a few days.

The ferry was comfortable and the chairs reclined to a position comfortable enough to rest in, even if they did not guarantee a good nights sleep. Fortunately we could sleep in the camper ( and keep the roof elevated – no need, in the end, to use my “emergency” bed ! )
Mostly it was calm sailing, the seas looked like this…..
…and this
A highlight was passing the wreck of the Capitan Leonidas, apparently deliberately grounded on a shallow bank in an unsuccessful attempted insurance fraud in 1968. We were all surprised how shallow the water had to have been – and we were in the middle of a fjord !
Along the way the ferry called in at the quaint, and remote, community of Puerto Eden. The ferry is its only regular link to the rest of Chile
The fjords narrowed at times but were never quite as steep as those in Norway or even Milford Sound in New Zealand
Arriving in Puerto Natales…..the mountain backdrop appeared a bit similar to ( if not quite as level as ) Table Mountain in Cape Town

Once the ferry docked in Natales it was the usual mad scramble to get off. Our first stop was the ferry company port office to see if we could score a “backup” reservation to head back to Yungay in early January in the event the Argentine border did not open. Fortunately a spot was secured for January 6, cancellable until January 2nd should our worst fears be realized with the border not opening. Nice to know we at least had a way out if needed.

Campground in Natales. Nice view of the city, the harbor and mountain backdrop, but…..windy !

Natales easily occupied a couple of days for us with much of that time being used to prepare for a few days in Torres Del Paine National Park, replenish our supplies and generally enjoy a few sights while sampling the city’s excellent restaurants and cafe’s. Natales has quite the cafe and restaurant “scene” as the city sees a massive influx of both Chileans and foreigners between December and March as tourists descend on nearby ( world renowned ) Torres Del Paine National Park – and our next stop after Puerto Natales.

Celebrated the completion of the ferry journey with fellow travellers out back of the “Base Camp” restaurant in Natales ( group had grown with the addition of some Brits, and some Dutch folks and was too big to sit inside – Chile has strict Covid rules ! ).
Cafe Holaste was a favorite – the best cappuccino and hot chocolate in Natales and we went every morning !