Friday, April 2, 2010

In Bavaria

No, I haven't crossed the Atlantic recently. Technically, I'm still in Chile, but if I ignore the Spanish street signs, I could swear I was in Germany. I'm in Puerto Varas, just off the boat this morning from Puerto Natales, and this town was settled by German immigrants in about 1880. So the architecture is very reminiscent of the Black Forest (the main cathedral is modelled on the Marienkirche) and opportunities to eat sauerkraut and kuchen abound.

The boat ride was fantastic; it takes you through some of Chile's most stunning scenery, through the fjords off the coast, and you even have the chance to get off midway for a morning exploration of a remote community on one of the islands in the archipelago.

Sailing up through the islands made me think of one of the Narnia books (all of which I have read approximately one thousand times, as I love them all) -- do you know the Voyage of the Dawn Treader? The characters sail to the end of the world, through remote and beautiful islands -- I felt like I was doing the same as I cruised up through southern Chile. This side of the Andes is the rainy side; over the mountains in Argentina it's almost shockingly dry, but cruising up through Chile brought a lot of mist and rain. If anything, the fog improved things: it added to that sense of remoteness, being in our own little world.

We boarded in Puerto Natales on Monday night and spend the night on board; the ship actually left on Tuesday morning. Sleeping options range from berths in a corridor with communal bathroom (which I went for, at about $336 US after a 20% discount), upwards to 4-person cabins with no window and shared bathrooms, to cabins with windows and bathrooms, to the ultra-luxury (relatively speaking) two-person cabins with private bathrooms, desk, closets and large window, as well as access to a private dining room and lounge only for the people in the posh cabins. Fares at the high end went up to $1200 US.

But I was quite happy with my little berth ... and quite frankly, it would have seemed a waste of several hundred dollars just to have a door that closed. They ate the same food (albeit some of them ate in a separate dining room with tablecloths and real china, instead of the main cafeteria), slept in the same kind of bunks (just fewer people in a room), and had the same views as I did.

Unhappy passengers on the ferry
The only downside of the bottom-of-the-scale accommodations, I discovered, is that they're at the back of the boat just up from the cargo deck. Oh, the "ferry" isn't a typical ferry -- it's primarily a cargo run that has been partly outfitted for human passengers. Some of the cargo on this trip included four trailer loads of cattle, squashed in like sardines so they couldn't turn around, with no tops on the trailers so they suffered through the wind and the rain with no protection. It seemed very cruel that they should have to travel like this for 3 1/2 days! And the "downside" I mentioned came when the wind blew a certain direction, carrying that lovely bovine smell all through the back of the ship.

There were only 50 or so human passengers, in a ship that could hold 300, so it was easy to get to know most of the folks on board. I was glad to see again that it wasn't mostly couples -- there were a few older couples, mostly from Canada and the U.S. (they were staying in the posh cabins), but for the most part, it was solo travellers just like me.

We had communal meals in the cafeteria (costs of which are included in the fare) and hung out in the top deck lounge or on the outer decks during the days. A few people spotted wildlife along the way -- dolphins and a few sea lions -- but I wasn't so lucky. I was hoping for blue whales in the Golfo Corcovado on day 3, where I'd been told about 250 whales lived, but saw nary a one. Evenings, there were movies on offer (I sat through one very dreadful Matthew McConaghey flick, but saw a very good Argentine film too), or the lounge to hang out in, with fine Chilean beer on sale for about $2 a bottle. Wine was a little more expensive.

Puerto Eden, in the middle of the Chilean archipeligo
Day 2 took us to Puerto Eden, an isolated little fishing hamlet on Wellington Island. Primary industry -- only industry, really -- is fishing for mussels and crabs, but like many other fishing communities, marine populations have been declining dramatically in recent years, and it's become harder and harder to make a living. But the 300 or so residents carry on -- some of them try to supplement their fishing income by offering crude little handmade souvenirs for sale, and the ferry company collects a 4000 Chilean peso fee (about $8) from passengers who go ashore, donating all the funds to the community.

Day 3 brought us through the Golfo de Penas (literally, Gulf of Sorrows), which is notorious for rough weather and big waves, as it's open to the Pacific. But we sailed through with hardly a ripple in the water, so I still haven't been seasick ever in my life; there were a few folks on board moaning and groaning in the Gulf despite the calm, but clearly I'm a better sailor than those.

Day 4 brought us to Puerto Montt early in the morning, and we disembarked after breakfast on board (before the cows, thank goodness, or we'd have been waiting a while). A few people scrambled to get ready in time, having enjoyed themselves a little too much at the farewell party the night before. We danced, and (oddly) played bingo; the winners got prizes of bottles of wine, but had to do a dance in the middle of the lounge to earn their prize. I was sitting there at one point with one number left for a full card; I wasn't sure whether to be disappointed or relieved when someone else won. I could've handled the first few songs (I can dance to Elvis, or Chubby Checker, or Abba) but the later numbers switched to merengue and salsa. And I have NO latin rhythm at all (must be the Celtic blood).

Puerto Varas, Chile
Since Puerto Montt is an unattractive industrial port, I opted to catch a mini-bus for about $1 for the half-hour journey north to Puerto Varas on Lake Llanquihue (try saying that five times fast -- I stil haven't figured out how to pronounce it). To the right is a view of the town; don't you agree it could just as easily be a picture from Bavaria? Peter from the UK, who'd also been on the ferry, showed up at the same hostel as me, so there appears to be a backpacker trail in South America as well (but before you get any ideas ... Peter, although a lovely gent, is 70 if he's a day, and while very sweet is undoubtedly too old for me.)

So I spent today wandering the town, after I'd taken care of necessities like buying groceries to make dinner and booking a bus ticket for Bariloche (Argentina) tomorrow morning. I was very pleased that I managed to conduct the latter transaction entirely in Spanish; even though my Spanish was about the equivalent of saying "I want go Bariloche. When bus?", I managed to make myself understood. Perhaps I'll even sound semi-educated in Spanish after a couple of weeks of lessons in Bariloche.

Okay, dinner calls. Plus I'm getting pretty cold hanging out on the porch, and there's a lovely cosy fireplace inside ... spending the evening in front of it sounds like an excellent plan.

1 comment:

  1. Aaaah … and yes, totally right out of Germany, that photo!
    I am sure you'll be fluent in Spanish in no time!