top of page

The Wild Fjords of Patagonia

I was at the bottom of South America, in the region known as Ultima Esperanza, or "Last Hope". Comforting as that sounds, it was time to start heading North, on my years-long journey to travel the length of the Pan-American Highway. I didn’t have a car (yet), so I needed to find an alternative means of transport.

Sunrise on Puerto Natales, the capital of Ultima Esperanza.

To get out of "Last Hope", most travelers take an airplane. Others commit to 2,000 kilometers’ worth of dirt roads by bus. I had something sexier in mind: a cargo boat, traveling through the fjords of Chile’s wild and uninhabited Southern Pacific coast. It would take four days to get from Puerto Natales to Puerto Montt.

Joey and I boarded the Evangelistas ship late one night, while the dockers loaded an assortment of livestock, trucks and containers. We were assigned bunk beds in an open corridor with other travelers. Sailing started the next morning at dawn.

Departure at dawn.

For the next few days, we sailed through no-man’s land. This entire section of the world is devoid of civilization. The only signs of human influence I saw were the occasional lighthouses, and the fishing port of Puerto Eden, home to 250 of the most isolated people on Earth. For ships making their way around South America, the fjords are an ideal transit route, as they offer protection from the temperamental marine conditions of the Pacific Ocean. That’s not to say the journey through the fjords isn’t risky. The weather is still some of the world’s wettest, more often than not delaying passage through some of the trickier sections.

Sailing through the White Pass, the narrowest section of the journey, at only 80 meters.

A ferry crosses us on its way to Puerto Natales.

In our case, the sun was shining bright more often than not, though menacing storms were never far on the horizon. The scenery was an ever shifting landscape of steep fjords, snow-capped mountains and immense glaciers. At times, we would cross large expanses of sea, dotted with forested islands. Dolphins swimming around the boat were a common sight.

A brief section of calm seas and skies.

Views of the "Fake Torres del Paine" from the top deck.

The most breath-taking section of the journey was the crossing of the Golfo de Penas (literally the Gulf of Hardships). The vast open water bay is unprotected from the might of the Pacific, and notorious for its nausea-inducing swells. With no other route possible, the gulf had to be faced for half a day before regaining shelter within the fjords. Standing at the front of the deck, looking across the dark open ocean, the ship tipped menacingly back and forth over the biggest waves I have ever witnessed. Nonetheless, with the sun shining bright, humpback whales and orcas diving in and out of the water, and graceful albatrosses gliding around the ship, I knew more than anything that I had made the right choice embarking on this journey at sea.

Cloud formations emanating from the Southern Patagonian Ice Field.

Waves breaking on the ship's hull at dusk. The ship sailed non-stop through day and night.

The ghost ship Capitán Leonidas, stranded on a shallow shelf for more than 50 years. It was grounded purposefully to claim insurance benefits, but instead the captain was convicted of insurance fraud.

The prospect of spending time at sea had struck me as an opportunity for slowing down and self-reflecting. Inevitably it seems though, Joey and I made friends with some other solo travelers aboard, and the days ended up flying by. A never-ending murder mystery, a sadistically difficult puzzle of dolphins, countless games of cards, and a notable lack of any alcohol onboard, all made for a memorable and enjoyable time on the boat.

Tim the German.

An afternoon well spent on the ship's helipad.

On the fourth morning, we woke up to a magnificent sunrise in the industrial harbor of Puerto Montt. Locally known as Dead Montt for its lack of any appeal, it was hard to understand it’s dire reputation while viewed from the top deck, with sea lions swimming in the waters around the hull. With my new group of friends, I spent an eventful day and night in this fisherman’s town, before traveling on to Argentina’s San Carlos de Bariloche.

Arriving in Puerto Montt at sunrise.

While the pleasure of journeying by ship through these untouched landscapes dotted with whales and glaciers was enough to write home about, the experience was rounded off by the unexpected friendships I made onboard during the four days. I look forward to the next time I can travel by cargo boat, taking the opportunity to slow down and enjoy the simple day-to-day life of being at sea.


bottom of page