Monday, 25 May 2015

My Navimag Journey

To tell the story right I would have to go back about a month, back to when I was still in Brazil going insane trying to fix a route though Argentina. I had about 1 month left in South America and the end target was Santiago for I had a scheduled flight out to Miami from there. Where to go what to see and sadly what to give a skip and miss.

Bueno Aires was a must, but I also wanted to see a little or Uruguay and then there was Mendoza, and Barriloche, Santa Fe, Cordoba, Catamarca, Rosario, Mar Del Plata, Rawson, Puerto Madryn, Ushuaia,  …. and the list goes on. What do I know about these places? Well there was just places on the google map which was how I did most of my journey planning.
By means of google map I also notice there was a little dotted line going out of Bueno Aires to Colonia which got me excited knowing it was a ship route. It started me thinking of other possibility and looking at South America map, the straits of Chile with its jagged knife of broken blade, I figured that it would be an incredible journey to do that strait by boat if there is one. I found that dotted line from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales. Further keyword search using google I found Navimag Boats.

From that point on all my route planning went about to get onto that Navimag Boat.
The Heart Break in Ushuaia

When I reached Ushuaia I notice the Navimag Logo at some tour agency and could not resist trying to book a spot. The boat was full …. Or at least the cabin I could afford (Cheapest of USD450) was no longer available and the next upgrade was USD 1000.

Like a heartbroken lover I did not gave up immediately …. Maybe at Puerto Natales the port where the boat departs the company itself might have space if not the ticket agent. I’ll give it a go I thought and started planning a contingency plan along the way.
I Got A TICKET !!!

While walking around Puerto Natales and trying to find the Navimag Ferry office, my head was going over all the contingency plans, for at this point I had more or less set my soul to be disappointed and the back-up plan was becoming more and more intricate by the minute. The chance of me getting a ticket was very very slim.
We have 5 space left for the cheapest USD 450 cabin, the ticket girl said to me ….

My Jaw dropped and for a moment, I could not believe it was happening. I bought the ticket immediately and paid with MasterCard and could not stop grinning the whole day. I could now just lay back and relax waiting for the boat to depart.
3 days later when I thought I would be on the boat and stress free for 4 days looking at beautiful sights along the Chilean Straits, I was informed at the check in counter that the boat was delayed due to bad weather. The boat won’t arrive for another 2 days they think, and might not make the journey to Puerto Montt in one piece. OK the last part was my imagination running wild again.

They could give me a full refund they said if I wanted …. Or I could wait …. Luckily for me I still had a bit of buffer time and could wait another two days but any further delay for even one day would mean me missing a crucial flight from Santiago to Miami.
People was cancelling one after another for they did not have the luxury of time. The boat was now very empty and some good complainers were getting free upgrades for the delay.

I stuck around and kept my hopes up that the boat will arrived with no further complications.
The Navimag Boat - Eden

Life on the Navimag Deck
The boat arrived two days later as promised and I marvel at the cargo ship called Eden that would be my home for the next 4 days. I realized I have never been on a cruise boat before and although Navimag Boat is not technically a cruise ship but really a cargo ship, it was still the largest boat I was going to be on.
I was having second thoughts about the boat ride now that I was on the boat. Bad weather and cargo boat would mean probably rock like shit and me would be puking like shit as well. 4 days of no escape and with bad weather. The suffering could be prolonged endlessly. Motion sickness pills are useless in these situation when it’s too long a journey and when the boat won’t even let you sleep by tossing you out of bed it might be hell on ship ride instead of a beautiful journey. Well too late to turn back now.

Board and explore with all the rest of the people on board all strolling around, looking in and out every nook and corner, doors, rooms, toilets, kitchens, tv room, lounge, deck, upper deck, under deck, everyone looking for that special secluded spot that is wind sheltered, rain sheltered, with a lovely view and smoking allowed (the last one is me)
The boat was not due to depart till the next day evening although we were all on board and check into our respective cabins. 4 days of journey but they allow you to sleep in the night before and the night you arrived at the next port as well hence it was a 4 day 5 nights journey which was good in saving accommodation money.

Very fast on the first day we all knew this boat ride was going to be a long and boring one. No entertainment other than a general TV room and definitely no internet access. Somewhat it was also refreshing to be back to old school and disconnected from the world for a while.
Travel Different with Navimag

Travel different was the theme of Navimag Boat and it was one of a kind alright. The journey through the Chilean Straits was one of the most beautiful scenery I had ever seen on the whole of my journey. I enjoyed every lovely rainy day on that boat.

Chilean Straits
Shipwreck Along the Chilean Straits
First day since we departed late in the evening the boat ride was not really eventful and I was binge chasing all the TV episode I had downloaded to the computer for time wasting. By the 2nd day morning I had no more shows to watch and had to switch to reading instead. 2nd day was lovely, for morning after breakfast, I spotted a whale. Not sure what kind of whale or even if it was an Orca but it was spurting every few minutes. Not a very active whale which kinda makes me think it was sleeping. A few whales in fact together.

Later in the afternoon we spotted dolphins and many times too along the way. The scenery also was one crazy view looking at all the isolated places and snow-capped mountains, waterfalls from melted snow and untouched nature. Evening of the 2nd day and we had a stop in a small village called Puerto Eden where only a boat can get to it. The boat unloaded some cargo for the village and we were only allowed to see from deck and not to go ashore.
Puerto Eden
Night came on the 2nd day with a surprise. By 9 pm the boat was approaching the Gulf of Menos which was the place that cause the boat to be delayed in the first place. Boat started rocking more and more and I went to bed early popping a seasick tablet but still could feel the heavy movement non-stop. By morning 9am we were almost cleared of Gulf of Menos ( the open sea ) and was slowly heading back into the sheltered channels. The boat rocking reduced thankfully and I survived the hardest part of the journey without puking. Yay.

A Typical Dinner on the Navimag
The ships food was way too good to be true. Most of us on the boat wonders why some reviews and comments on the internet says that the food was horrible because the group of us that seems to always dine together find the food superbly marvellous, rich and tasty. First day morning breakfast and there was always ham, cheese bread, butter, yoghurt and one cooked dish of sort either soup or scramble eggs. Lunch and dinner was more or less stapled with a vegetable plate, soup, bread, desert, and a main dish of meat and carbs (either rice or potato). I keep swapping to vegetarian when the meat was beef and even those were lovely.  
In a way I guess the people who did not like the boat are those that are used to luxury cruise boats and this was more of a cargo boat with a few place to spare for passengers. In fact I think they could care less if there were any passengers. We were a side dish, lovely to enjoy but not the main course of the boat.

Times flies doing nothing on the boat. Before we knew, it was already the fourth day and last day of the journey. 3rd night was fun thou for they had Saturday Karaoke night and although not a crazy party but more of a shy sort of crowd it was still entertaining after so many days lazing around just reading a book. In a way everyone was glad for the little variety that the Karaoke had to offer.
Dock at Puerto Montt in the late evening of the fourth day a few passengers decided to head off while the majority of us took advantage of a free night stay. Next morning we all parted ways in Puerto Montt and I would do it all over again if I ever find myself in Chile in the southern region of Patagonia.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

My Time about Puerto Natales

I finally made it to Puerto Natales. The main goal for this place was all for that 4 days boat ride on Navimag along the straits of Chile to Puerto Montt. A long story for the next post My Navimag Journey. Still I was here in Puerto Natales and after getting my tickets for the Navimag Boat which was only due to leave 3 days later I had a choice to make. To track Torres Del Paine or to just laze about.

Puerto Natales
Torres Del Paine
Torres Del Paine was the reason people goes to Puerto Natales. It was the base camp for the amazing track into one of the national park of Patagonia which was filled with breath taking views. The famous peak of Three Fingers and if you read between the lines this place is bound to f*ck up most travellers plan that give them that ave of happiness. Torres Del Paine was actually a hikers and campers heaven not a backpackers one.
Welcome to Patagonia where nothing is predictable. You need a good 5 days to do Torres Del Paine and proper camping gear to survive it. That or a hell a lot of money a good luck. Everything could be rented in Puerto Natales for a price or one could go luxury on cottages they call Refugio only bookable from local agents all along the park. One thing for certain is that nothing is confirm till you get to Puerto Natales and then you have to be lucky in three parts to be able to see amazing Torres Del Paine.

Lucky part one is weather …. Pray to all gods that you get good weather else that will be the first torment of the beautiful National Park. Lucky part two is gear or cottages. Hope there is space on camping ground or cottages else you will have to hang around in Puerto Natales till there is and that is tied to lucky part 3 which is that you have time to hang around. I was not lucky in all three parts.

Day Trip’s On a Minivan to Torres Del Paine
I chose the next best alternative, instead of hiking inside the Torres Del Paine National park I decided to go old folks and kid’s day tour on a minivan. This is not the same as hiking the majestic national park and seeing the glaciers up-close and getting that amazing sunrise view at the peak of three fingers and getting in touch with nature camping in the wild. But it was the only time frame activity that permit for me.

So I stupidly buy a ticket for a day trip to Torres Del Paine. With the amount of tourist visiting Patagonia surely the old and very young won’t be trekking around with heavy backpacks on their backs. So day trips were invented nowhere near the tracks of Torres Del Paine but along the road towards the national parks and many detours to high vantage Viewpoint that would make viewing possible but photo taking useless as a tiny prick.
Worst is if you happen to be on a bad weather tour you will only see …. Bad weather.

I don’t grudge the tour for they depart every day. I guess it’s destined I’m not to see Torres Del Paine National Park …. At lease this round.
Torres Del Paine - On a Bad Weather day you only see Bad Weather ....
Lazing About Puerto Natales
……. To kick me in the nuts while I am down, I got a delayed Navimag boat for on the day of departure. I have to wait for another three days in Puerto Natales meaning I had a total of 6 days in Puerto Natales. I could have done Torres Del Paine …… *ARGHHH*

Still I got a good 6 days of lazing around done in Patagonia, catch up on reading, downloading, guitar playing ( the hostel had one) and just pure stoning. It helps when the hostel gives you free breakfast which came with home cooked omelettes every morning.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Journey from Ushuaia to Puerto Natales

The bus ride from Ushuaia to Puerto Natales was ARG 950 peso and it was a journey to Chile stopping at Punto Arenas before changing bus to go to Puerto Natales. Long journey and expected to arrive late in the evening if everything goes well. For some reason I decided not to book hostels in advance and I guess was lucky for the choice as delays were inevitable in Patagonia.

Same border crossing into Chile and the same drill of custom checks to ensure no fresh food, livestock or illegal stuff was crossing over the other side. Chile was pretty strict when it comes to customs. Immigration was simple and before we knew it were off on our way in Chile territory.

The ferry crossing. Ushuaia is not really on the continent but in fact on a damn large island at the southern tip of South America. Therefore if going by land the ferry crossing at Magellan Straits was unavoidable. On a good day like the day I travelled from Rio Gallegos to Ushuaia the ferry crossing took 30 minutes with barely any waiting time. On a bad weather day like today going out to Punto Arenas only luck can assist you.

The bus driver meanwhile enjoyed toying with the passenger’s on the bus. If the ferry comes and we leaves this side of the shore before 7pm we should just make it to Punta Arenas for the connecting bus to Puerto Natales at 9pm but else all hope is doomed.
Anxious people on the bus kept looking across the bay and at their watch at the same time. We set our eyes upon the ferry across the strait and try to will it to come to our side. The hours pass and the sun set while the moon rises before the sea weather was good enough for the ferry to make the trip. By the full moon that rise across the horizon I was now calm again. I figured that if things go wrong and lots of people are stress out to find a place to stay, or to get the connecting bus I was sure I could just quietly tag along and let them do all the hard work worrying.
The bus driver was kind enough to help those with hostel bookings in Puerto Natales to call them up and hopefully postpone or cancel their one night booking. Suddenly my stubbornness paid off and I was glad I did not do any booking and was pretty sure I would have a hostel in Punta Arenas with the amount of stranded people around me.

Ferry at Straits of Magellan
About 10 pm the boat finally arrived once the weather permits and we all rushed to get moving and boy was the ferry rocky as hell for better weather. We reached Punta Arenas nicely at 12 midnight and the bus driver said if no one has a place to stay in Punta Arenas he could drive and drop us at the Patagonia Hostel. About 10000 Chileno Peso a night and all of us poor stranded souls huddle together and stayed on the bus onwards to the hostel.
Punta Arenas, I would have love to stop there longer but time did not permit and hence I had decided when in Ushuaia I would skip it entirely other than the connecting bus. A sign from above that I had to camp there for the night I guess and the next morning onwards to Puerto Natales. Thou we all shared a cab to get to the bus stop from the hostel I ended up paying the entire fare for the hostel. 2000 peso for the two people with me had no Chileno peso at all at that time and I was not in the mood to collect.

Bus ticket from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales fortunately was exchangeable for a new timeslot the next day. By the looks of the bus attendant this was a normal ritual and we all go on for a few hours ride to Puerto Natales.

There is a saying in Patagonia …. You can’t predict the weather here …. Despite what your phone says.

What an exciting day.  

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Southern Most City in the World – Ushuia

Penguins Tours
I wonder what I am doing here really. The appeal of the end of the world, the southernmost city in the world caught my attention in the beginning of south America travels but since I am here and looking at all the tourist faces and all the happy locals bleeding us slowly makes me wonder twice why I came here. Everything that is worth seeing cost money. Boat ride to see penguins, boat ride along the beagle channel, hike up the national parks, museums, train ride into the forest, glacier trekking, anything at all cost a load of cash.

I have yet to see a tour for less than USD 100. That price seems to be the minimum staple here and the psychology effects works out well too since if you spend all that effort getting down here you have got to do something. I did nothing.
The end of the world … unless you consider Antarctica the new planet. Last minute discounted boat ride to Antarctica cost at lease USD 5000 and that is if you are lucky enough to get a space and have to hang around until the boats departs which could be once a month since a round trip takes a minimum of two weeks. That and you have to stick around a town that is built around tourism waiting.

Inca Rose Stone Carvings
The best I did was walk around downtown which was tourist town. Window shopping for Inca Rose stone carving and still could not afford to buy a single one for even the smallest 1 inch carving cost USD 100. For those that are wondering Inca Rose is the national stone of Argentina in deep red flowery rose pattern which is only found in one mine in the world. They even have a love story of how the stone came to be.
2nd most thing I do of course is gambling for there was a total of 3 casinos in Ushuaia at very reasonable wager. I had never played 6 deck blackjack for only USD 2 a round. Dirt cheap hence when I lost 900 peso in a day ( about SGD 90 in 12 hours ) I thought I was worth it. Then I remember it was money I could have spent on something else then the hurts sets in. Still it was a good way to pass time. Fav pass time so of course I went back a few days in a row but long story short I made money but not enough for that boat ride to Antarctica which was the aim really :P

Strip Club in Ushuaia
Supposedly there was a famous strip club at the end of the world and I could not find it till the last day. Wandering around in the morning I finally saw it when I was not looking for it. One signboard with a girl in lingerie which I almost thought it was a beer commercial for it was mounted on a traditional wooden shack house. A HOUSE ,,… almost like the owner stayed there, eat there and at night strip there for money. Daytime normal house but open hours a day for some nice hard cash. I never saw it open so never did get a chance to venture as curious as I am.

Friday, 8 May 2015

Journey to the End of the World – Ushuaia

The bus ride from Puerto Madryn to Rio Gallegos cost me ARG 1008 and by now I notice that money is flying pretty fast in Argentina if you do not travel slowly. Without the blue dollar exchange rate I would be screaming broke by now.

Patagonia  Barren Landscape
18 hours on a semi-cama bus which was a lousy bus with bare minimum food. Landscape out the window looks like a flat plane deserted of any life save a few grass patch here and there. Patagonia was not very pretty and the 30% that was pretty, was crowded with tourist.
At one point of the bus ride we (the passengers of the bus) nearly died of thirst due to lack of water. We were driving for hours and all the water bottle had ran out and looking out the window you know there will be a long way before any civilization that gives you water. People was asking strangers if they could spare water. That was how bad it was. Finally a stop and all of us rush out to buy bottled water and I stocked up another bottle just in case.
Bus from Rio Gallegos to Ushuaia
I also almost froze to death since I forgetfully checked in my jacket and warmer cloths underneath the bus. The bus had heating but I curse the driver who shut it off 4 am in the morning and cause me to wake up due to the pain. So cold that my skin hurts.
Finally Rio Gallegos stop 18 hours later and I contemplated what I should do. Find a hostel in town for a night to break the journey or ….. I decided to check the bus timing and price to Ushuaia since I was at the bus station anyway. It was 9 am in the morning and the sign on the counter reads bus to Ushuaia 830am. I asked the guy at the first counter how much was the ticket and he decided to rush me to the bus outside, chuck my bag pack into the undercarriage and collect ARG 680. I did not even receive a ticket for the bus ride from Rio Gallegos to Ushuaia. Apparently the bus was delayed and did not depart at 830 am and had exactly one seat left and I was herded like a lamb.

Rio Gallegos to Ushuaia
The journey from Rio Gallegos to Ushuaia took 12 hours by bus and boat and that’s if you are lucky. That is the shortest duration without delays but usually it always goes wrong. I found out first hand on the return journey a week later that it is quite common for the ferry crossing to be delayed for 6 to 12 hours if bad weather kicks in. My advice …. Plan to be delayed and you’ll be fine.

Border Crossing From Rio Gallegos to Ushuaia à  Argentina – Chile – Argentina
The bus ticket takes us through two border crossings. From Argentina into Chile and then out again into Argentina. I guess it’s like Alaska in the states …. Unless you fly then you have to cross Canada to get into Alaska.

First border crossing was from Argentina into Chile. During the bus ride, immigration forms was handed out by a bus attendant and he spoke English, Spanish, Portuguese, fluently. He had a flare of performance entertaining us with his jokes and sarcasm while guiding us along the forms. We were warn to discard all fruits, food, meat, juice and particularly illegal stuff such as coca leaf and Marijuana.

The Mutt Scanner
Arrive at the border and down the bus we went into the Chile customs first with only our hand carry baggage. We were all lined up in a single file and were told to place out bags at our feet. The hi-tech bag scanner was not even on and once we were properly ready for the grill, out came the dog. One cute little mutt and I think that was even tougher to escape than the scanner. If the dog barks you are screwed even if you don’t have anything on you.

Please don’t bark.
Sniff Sniff Sniff, all the bags he walk by sniffing one after another for two rounds and a few bags where he linger longer than usual was taken and placed at the counter for further inspection later on. The rest of us was allowed to leave but those whose bag was suspicious was held back. Apparently someone forgot to discard all their food. Outside the undercarriage luggage was undergoing the same mutt routine.

Ferry Crossing
We then headed to immigration where Argentina officer and Chile officer sit next to next processing the passports. Stamp out of Argentina and stamp into Chile. Chile side gave an additional slip of paper with a stamp at the back which was to be kept till exit of Chile.
About an hour bus ride later from the border we came to the ferry crossing. Everyone off the bus, walked onto the ferry while the bus rolled up alongside slowly. 45 minutes of free crossing and we were on our way again driving through Chile

3 hours later the next border crossing from Chile back into Argentina and this time no customs just immigration. Same ordeal and back into Argentina. Loads of stamps collected into the passport now. 7 hours later we arrived at Ushuaia. I somehow survived 30 hours from Puerto Madryn to Ushuaia.
The end of the world ….. Cold ….


Friday, 1 May 2015

Puerto Madryn - Argentina

I am on a bullet train (metaphorically) now flying through places without really getting to know them. Buenos Aires for only 3 days and hopped onto the bus to Puerto Madryn skipping everything else in between. 18 hours bus ride and only for 2 nights in Puerto Madryn before I hopped onto the bus again bounded for Rio Gallegos for another 18 hours.

Puerto Madryn was a nice cosy town. If I had time I would have probably stayed there a week given it was the perfect town to just chill. Food was good and cheap and the Hostel La Tosca had a kitchen which further helped since a good supermarket was nearby and given time I would have been in the mood to cook. Petite little hostel with great rooms big size cage lockers below the bunk beds, very clean and amazing cake breakfast. I really wanted to stay longer and in fact I am regretting not staying longer in Puerto Madryn.
For entertainment there was tours, not pricey but not dirt cheap either. I hopped on the Peninsular Valdes tour for 560 Peso plus an entrance fee of 180 peso. A whole day trip seeing wild animals.

The count
  1. Huanchaco
  2. Amiridalo
  3. Witch Something Bird
  4. So many birds
  5. Snake
  6.   Lizards 
  7.   Sea Lions
  8. Elephant Seals
  9. Penguins ….

Poor thing we did not see an Orca (Killer Whale) which was said to be spotted around that region quite frequently. It was even in season said the guide but then again with global warming you never know nowadays. Luck! It always has to be a little luck to see any real wild animals. Penguin colony was a small one and the viewing platform was from afar so one could only see and watch. No petting, no bagging a penguin for a pet although I was asked by quite a few people from b
Sea Lions at Puerto Madryn
ack home to do so. I was content I guess and did not pursue to Puerto Tombo which I heard would have ten of thousands penguins and you would be walking among them wear a bowtie and click glasses of champagne together. No time I thought and gave it up for Ushuaia thinking I could see some there too.

Night time was spent passing in the Puerto Madryn Casino. Only one casino which was rather small but they had those electronic roulette machine at a dirt cheap rate. Put it 100 peso which is about SGD 10 and played for many hours (at night) and numerous days (two) only to walk out with a profit of 100 peso. Good entertainment.

Puerto Madryn, the town was a short walk of 1 hour and you will see everything there is to see. Outskirt are lovely neighbourhood but can be boring to death. It was the type of town you just do nothing and watch the world skip by.

Somehow when rushing the things you enjoy is not as much as when you are travelling slowly.
Penguin at Puerto Madryn .... Can you see it ???