Puerto Natales, Chile
Antarctica has faded from memory; and yet, a new adventure rises up to take it’s place…
The day I left Punta Arenas, I left with the intention of going to Puerto Natales to see the famous National Park of Torres del Paine and the glaciers of southern Argentina. Of course, when you’re hitchhiking, things never go according to plan; the nomadic gods laugh at your pathetic attempts to control your own life, and throw you a curveball every chance they get. This particular plan began to change the moment I hopped into the semi that pulled over about 30 clicks outside of Punta Arenas, Natales-bound.
The driver was a friendly chain-smoker who immidetly started to make good-natured jokes about the wind blowing me away while I was waiting on the side of the highway; I had gotten a late start that day, and the evening gusts had been whipping me around quite fiercely in the Patagonian twilight. I assumed the trucker was headed to Puerto Natales; after all, where else can you go? The road north runs out in Natales and leads to a dead-end part of Argentina. So you can imagine my surprise when he said he was heading to Santiago.
‘How are you going to get to Santiago from Puerto Natales?’ I asked, confused. ‘Why don’t you go the other way through Rio Gallegos and Bariloche? This route seems like it is the long way there.’
He nodded. ‘Sure, it’s the long way…if you take the roads. We’re headed for the ferry to Puerto Montt.’
A ferry? All the way to Puerto Montt? That’s more than 1,300 miles!
‘I didn’t know you could take a semi onto a ferry for that far.’
‘Yep,’ he said breezily. ‘It’s a very nice 4 day journey through the fjords. Very beautiful; picturesque, you might say.’
Hmm. That sounded ‘very nice,’ indeed; the Patagonian fjords are a wild and beautiful place, and I would like very much to visit them. I quickly made the 8,993,426,173rd impulsive decision of my life, and said, ”So, what are the chances of me riding on that ferry with you in your truck?’
The camionero looked over at me. ‘Well, you can buy a ticket, no problem. It’s about $350.000 pesos (US$300). But if you’re looking at jumpin’ aboard for free, it ain’t possible. They’re pretty strict about those things nowadays. You could ask, but don’t get your hopes up, my friend.’
I decided to give it a try anyways. When we arrived to Puerto Natales at around 11 p.m., it was just after dark; I hopped out of the semi, and shouldered my pack. Figuring the ferry itself would be the best place to start, I wandered off in the general direction of the massive docked boat.
The behemoth floated inauspiciously at the end of the small dock; I could see how semis got on here, she was a real beast. I walked up the ramp where there were a few workers puttering around with some forklifts and asked where I could find the capitan. I figured I would end up having to go to the company headquarters afterwards anyways, due to the usual shipping regulations aboard all freighters, but I’m hoping one of these days I’ll come across a capitan who will just say, fuck the rules, and let me aboard.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t one of those lucky times. I went inside and asked but was quite effectively denied. I had to buy a ticket, no way around it. I tried asking if I could jut get to Puerto Edèn, the halfway point, but, understandably, no dice. I hung around the office most of the night shooting the breeze with Oscar, the guy behind the ticket counter, and tried to decide what to do next. Oscar told me that I might be able to get aboard one of the small boats anchored around the small port that went to the Isla Madre de Dios, about 1 day away. There was a tiny fishing village there, and apparently the small company that ferries people to and from the island is based out of Puerto Natales, with weekly exits. Since it was a small, locally based company, I thought I might have some better luck there. I decided to go and try at this place the next day. I could arrive to Madre de Dios and then perhaps island-hop my way north to Puerto Eden and Puerto Montt, and, as Oscar pointed out, have a much more adventurous time than on the luxurious cruise ship (though I must say I wouldn’t have minded a few day’s luxury after these rough few months).
Anyhow, there was still Torres del Paine to visit. I looked at numerous maps of the National Park that evening, and decided to go and do some trekking before I went to try my luck with the home-grown company to Madre de Dios. I left the next morning after one hour of sleep to the Torres del Paine National Park about 150 km to the North. After a bit of a wait, I managed to hitch a ride to the park border.
When I arrived, it was about seven in the morning; this was lucky, because the park rangers weren’t up yet. My ride informed me that if they had been I probably would have been charged CL$15.000 to get in (around US$25). So luck was with me in that aspect, at least. My ride took me to a small hostel located within the park; from there, I started my trek. After about 15 kilometres, I arrived to the most famous area of the park, the Torres themselves at the Encampamento Japonès…
Three of them, side by side, literal towers of rock that stretch to a height of nearly 3.000 meters, these ‘towers’ are a real marvel of nature. Once part of a massive mountain, millions of years of erosion has weathered them away into one of the most famous icons of Patagonia.
It was certainly an extremely interesting and beautiful place to be; however, I felt that the experience was somewhat diminished. I did not feel the exhilarating thrill of the Torres which I was expecting; this, I think, was largely due to the presence of two groups of Europeans and a few guides. Don´t get me wrong, I am very glad that they got to observe these natural wonders, and they did seem to be of a nice kind of outdoorsy, earthy type. But them being there gave me the feeling of…well, of being in the zoo; the Torres seemed to me like caged lions; impressive and forbidding, but still easily accessible and safe. That doesn’t mean they weren’t worth visiting, but I didn’t get the adventure out of it that I thought I would. I tend to get that feeling of awe I was looking for when I come across something on my own, off the beaten path; an apparent discovery. Something you don’t hear about all the time because it’s relatively unknown. The Torres were fantastic, there was no doubt about that; the only bad thing about things like that is, understandably, everybody wants to see them. I saw the Torres; I decided to head back to Puerto Natales and see if I could get to Madre de Dios, an island with a population of about fifty people. That sounded like more my style.
When I got back the next day I went off in search of the owner of the two small yellow boats anchored in the bay; after eventually finding the sour-faced legatee, I got more frustrating news: the boats held only 15 people (by regulation…I hate that word), and he was all booked up for the next 3 months. Sour-face also was not to be persuaded to bend regulations and let me aboard, so I added that to my long list of Boating Companies Who Have Refused to Give Me Rides. Blast; am I incapable of getting on a single boat? What was wrong with me? What was I doing wrong? Curse it! I must find some way to make this happen!
I sat down and gave it some thought. I felt slightly ill; my past few months had been spent asking, asking, asking and more asking…for a boat ride. A simple boat ride. Then I began to feel rather bereft; lately, everything seemed to have been nothing but one failure after another! Antarctica, both from Ushuaia and Punta Arenas, and then my succession of boats here in Puerto Natales; I needed to succeed in something, quick, or I was going to go completely mad. I was going to travel the fjords…one way or another. I thought about just buying a ticket, but it would take awhile to make that kind of money and I would feel rather like a cop-out if I did that. There had to be some other way.
I walked aimlessly around town for about an hour, thinking. I went past the plaza where there was a giant bullitan board covered with advertisements and obscene graffiti. I stared absently at it for a moment, and then gave a start. There was a large green poster pegged up near the upper corner; It had a picture of the sea and a few surrounding islands; below that were the words,
79% water and ice
You´re gonna need a kayak
A kayak! What a fantastic idea! Thank you, magic bulletin board! I started off in no particular direction, in search of…a kayak.
Well, for that, I needed money. Quite a bit, actually. I was going to have to get a job, or start trafficking heroin. Much as the latter sounded like a real lark, I decided to just go find something washing dishes in a restaurant or something similarly degrading. I asked a few places, and on the third try I found work as a busboy at an extremely classy place called ´Angelica´s Resturaunt´ (I could tell it was classy because it had 17 different types of plates). The pay wasn’t bad, and I was to work every day for eight hours, food included. If I played my cards right and didn’t make any frivolous purchases, I could have the kayak in…well, one day! I need a change of pace, a few months on the water is just what I need! I felt better then; I was going to make this happen! No-one could tell me no, not if I had my own kayak. No more regulations to deal with, no more Capitans turning me away. This time, I´m the Capitan.
I began work at Angelica´s that evening. It was a place with an electric dishwasher, so the work wasn´t exactly super heavy stuff. I scrubbed, and saved. Usually, I would just bring my pack and things with me, but one day Angelica told me that I couldn´t bring it in anymore (some nonsense about lack of class). So when I went to work the next day, I stashed my pack in an old pile of rotting wood that, at one point in it´s history, might have been a boat. I would ask one of my fellow employees at work later on if I could keep it at his house after I got off for the mid-day break. When I went back to the boat around three to retrieve my bag and bring it to my co-worker´s house, I was in for a shock…
The heap of useless wood was, somehow, occupied; defying several obvious laws of physics, there was a man underneath the pile in a hitherto unknown space near what used to be the bow, working with a battery-powered sander. I walked up to the area where I had stashed my stuff, just under what had once been a stern; it was gone. Shit. I went around to the boat and looked into a small space where I could see a rather bouvine fellow grinding away at the weathered wood with a belt sander.
‘Excuse me!’ I started. The man kept sanding.
´Hey! HEY!´ He looked up, saw me, then shut off his portable sander.
‘What do you want?’ he said gruffly.
‘Well, I was wondering…did you happen to find a pack full of clothes and a tent over there under that wood?’
He appeared to think for a moment, then nodded. ‘Yeah. Some drunk probably left them here. I brought them over to the prison, made an…um…donation.’ He shrugged noncomittally.
‘W-What?’ I faltered. I was so shocked I didn’t even register how ridiculous that last part sounded. ‘You donated it?! To the prison? That’s my stuff! It’s everything I own in this world! I put it in there for safekeeping while I was gone for three measly hours, and you donated it?’
He gave me a suspicious glare. ‘Why did you put your things in my boat?’
‘Becuase my employer told me not to bring them in anymore! This is a pretty isolated spot; no-one would have come across it!’
The sander straightened up.´This boat (I mentally objected to such a lavish noun for this pile of junk) is private property,´he said loftily ´Only me – the Capitan – is allowed inside. You should have left your stuff somewhere else.’ The self-described ‘Capitan´of a decaying mass of probably termite-infested wood fifty meters from shore puffed himself up importantly.
´But´ I sputtered, ´My tent, my sleeping bag! What am I supposed to do to sleep tonight, then? You donated my sleeping bag! How am I supposed to stay warm tonight?´
´Not my problem,´said he, and went back to his sanding.
After hearing that, I might have lost it a little. ´Yes it is your bloody problem! You gave my things away! If you would have just waited for a few damn hours before you went gallivanting of to be so altruistic to the local jailhouse, we wouldn´t be having this conversation!´
´Go away´ he shouted over the roar. ´Can´t you see I´m working here?´
´Working?´ I bellowed back. ´Well, excuse me, but I´m missing every single thing that I own in this world thanks to your misplaced chivalry towards the Provincial Correctional Department!´ I vociferated hotly. ´And you know what? This whole thing sounds kind of shady to me; why would the prison need a tent? Do the prisoners get to go camping if they have good behaviour and don´t rape each other? Why did you donate it to the prison? Is my stuff really in the prison?´
The ´Capitan´ gave a hugely exaggerated sigh and shut off his sander once more. He ducked out of a hole in the side I hadn´t noticed before and walked closer to me, stopping a few feet away. Leaning forward, he fixed me with an obdurate stare. ´I told you your stuff´s in the prison; so that´s where it is.´
´All right,´ I said, staring back just as obdurately. ´Then how about you save your…´ I gave a doubtful glance over at the rotting heap behind him, ´…your boat, for later on, and come take a little walk with me to the prison and help me get my things back?´
He glared at me. ´You´re the one who left the crap in my boat (another egregious use of that noun), so it ain´t my fault! I´m working; I ain´t got time to go with you all the way over to the prison.´
´Oh really? You sure made time to go over there and donate it so quickly.´
´Yeah, well…I was…feeling some holiday generosity.´
´Guess that´s all dried up now, huh?´
´I guess so.´
I sighed. Neither of us said anything for a minute or two. Then I said,´So. You going to tell me where my stuff really is?´
He scowled. ´It´s in the prison, just like I said. You want it back, you go and ask. I´ve got a boat to work on.´ He flicked the switch on his sander and leered at me. ´Good luck, gringo…´
Fucking hell. I couldn´t think of anyhthing else to do so I walked away in the direction of the prison. Sometimes I wish I was a huge, jacked bodybuilder kind of guy so´s I could intimidate people into telling me the truth. But alas…I´m thin and non-threatening. So I had no choice to take his dubious word for it and go to the prison and see what I could find out. The trip was, of course, wasted. The guards had no idea what I was talking about. When I went back to the heap that man liked to call a boat, it was deserted.
Obviously, he had my stuff; the fucking lout probably kept the tent and sold the rest to resale shops. So there I was, thousands and thousands of miles away from home with nothing but two jackets, a t-shirt, a hoodie, my boots, 1 pair of socks, 1 pair of thin black pants, and no underwear (I was freeballing at the time). I had maybe a total of thirty cents on me in local currency, and it had begun to rain freezing rain. Peachy.
I had no choice but to go back to work with absolutely nothing and try to save and buy new things. The first two nights I slept under the disconnected trailer of a semi without so much as a sheet to cover up with. I managed to save enough to buy a sleeping bag (used, obviously) after the third day, and yesterday I bought a very old, but serviceable, pack. Still left to go is a tent and, well…clothes.
So right now, for the first time in more than a year of vagabonding, money has become a real issue for me. First off, I need it to clothe and shelter myself from the rain and ruthless Patagonian wind; second, I have to buy the kayak if I´m to explore the mysterious fjords of Patagonia!
Fortunately, this situation couldn´t have come at a better time…it´s nearly Christmas! So, if you´ve been enjoying my stories a lot over the past year and have been wondering all this time just what you could possibly do to help out your favourite bedraggled nomadic wanderer, here is your answer and your chance! Share a little holiday cheer this Christmas in the form of dollars, pounds, euros, rands, rupees, pesos, quetzales, soles, realis, yens, or any other type of currency you may have lying around your crash pad; just click t he obvious and shameless large yellow ´Donate´ button on the top of the right hand column of this very page and go crazy, you sexy beast! I need everybody´s help this Christmas; it´s up to all of you whether or not this kayaking trip is going to happen. Though I am working, I don´t exactly make a fortune; realistically, the only way I´ll ever be able to get a kayak before the arrival of the ruthless austral winter is if you, the astonishingly exquisite and physically attractive reader of my blog, makes my Christmas a little greener…with hundred dollar bills.
Well, go on then! What are you still here for? Donate, you magnificent, magnanimous creature, you!
The Modern Nomad
Still here? Oh…oh I see! You wanna see where you´re money´s going, eh? Well, all right, then, if you insist. For more information about the Patagonian Fjords Kayak Adventure I´m positive you´re about to help fund, click here!