Backpackers seem to have a shared, irrational decision-making process when it comes to transport. Price is king, while we hardly factor in time, enjoyment, comfort, and personal space. Weird pillows and snoring bunkmates have crashed our standards for comfort. We’ve slept on train station floors and sacrificed our stomachs to lukewarm chicken skewers. If a bus is just a bus, then we might as well take the cheapest bus, even if it’s the longest bus… or is it just me?
The journey from Patagonia back to Santiago promised to be a long one. A bit of research yielded indirect bus routes, expensive flights, and a Navimag ferry that was way beyond budget. Hitchhiking was always an option. But then I found the Naviera Austral ferry, and it actually looked pretty compelling.
They ran a ferry from Puerto Chacabuco to Quellón that only cost $25 (update: now it’s around $42). Not only was that way less than every other transport option but from my perspective, it was also a 31-hour tour through the Chilean fjords. The experience that could easily have been a glorified long-distance bus ride turned out to be one of my favorite memories from all of South America. It was picturesque and even kind of awesome.
If you’re looking for an alternative way to experience Patagonia, here are some info about booking a ferry in Patagonia and cruising the fjords with Naviera Austral.
Cruising the Chilean Fjords with Naviera Austral
About Naviera Austral
Naviera Austral offers ferry services in Chile or passengers, cars, and cargo. Most routes run between the Lake District and Patagonia. They operate two barges – the Queulat and the Jacaf – that seat between 245-286 passengers each.
The boats really are slow (cruising at around 12 knots) but as you’re cruising through the fjords, the journey is good enough to warrant the long hours onboard.
Naviera Austral runs five ferry routes: Chiloé, Chaitén, Cordillera, Cordillera Corta, and Lago General Carrera. You can find routes that stop in larger cities like Puerto Chacabuco, Puerto Cisnes, and Chaíten, but also tiny towns in Patagonia like Ayacara, Melimoyo, Melinka, Puerto Aguirre, Puerto Gala, Puerto Gaviota, Raul Marin Balmaceda, and Santo Domingo.
Most of the Naviera Austral ferries run two to three times a week, though the Lago General Carrera between Puerto Ibáñez and Chile Chico has daily departures.
The Cordillera Route
The ferry between Puerto Chacabuco to Quellón is called the Cordillera Route. It takes 31 hours in total and makes seven stops along the way.
Where is Puerto Chacabuco? Puerto Chacabuco is a small town in Patagonia about an hour outside of Coyhaique. It’s a gateway city to Patagonia, but still quite far from Puerto Natales, Ushuaia, and some of the other places that come to mind when you think of Patagonia. It’s a nice town, but the ferry is likely the only reason you’d go.
Where is Quellón? Quellón is a town in Chiloé, an island just off the coast of Puerto Montt. Both Puerto Montt and Quellón are in the Lake District. Most ferries and flights to Patagonia leave from Puerto Montt.
At the time of writing, The Cordillera Route ferry departs from Puerto Chacabuco every Monday and Thursday and Quellón every Wednesday and Saturday. It’s most commonly used by locals traveling between small towns, but some people onboard will join you for the whole journey. Passenger-only fares cost around $42 USD (2020). You can check current departures or check availability here.
Life Aboard the Ferry
There are no cabins on the Naviera Austral. Instead, you’ll have a comfortable seat that reclines much like a semi-cama bus seat. This is where you’ll sleep, but there are plenty of other places to sit onboard.
Tip: Your luggage goes into storage and you can’t access it until you exit the boat. Be sure to pack a day bag that has a toothbrush, a sweatshirt, a book, snacks, or whatever else you think you’ll need during the journey. If you have a sleeping bag or pillow, you’ll definitely want to bring it with you into the main cabin.
You’re free to walk around or sit outside on the deck. In fact, this is a far more pleasant way to experience the ferry ride! Bring cards, a book, or something else to entertain yourself. It’s a long ride but a beautiful one!
There is a cafeteria onboard with simple things – cakes, empanadas, cookies, etc – but I’d recommend going shopping beforehand to stock up on food. We brought foods that required minimal prep like cheese, bread, and peanut butter.
As for drinks, the tap water is potable, though it doesn’t taste great. You might also want to bring some of your own. You can get hot water for free, but you have to pay if you don’t have your own cup. They don’t allow alcohol onboard, but I may have brought some wine.
What about the Navimag Ferry?
Navimag is a competing company that popularly runs a tourist ferry from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales. Unlike Naviera Austral which acts more like a commuter ferry, the Navimag ferry is designed for overnight travel. You’ll have meal service and sleeping quarters. It stops less frequently. You’ll also have the option to go all the way to Puerto Natales while the ferry with Naviera Austral requires that you get yourself from Puerto Chacabuco to Puerto Natales or wherever else you’re going.
On the other hand, fare on a Navimag ferry from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales costs from $480 USD per person (for a windowless dorm) and up to $1,400 per person (for a double suite). Navimag is more comfortable, but I’ve heard mixed reviews on whether it’s worth the expense.
Navimag or Naviera Austral? If you’re looking for a fjords experience on a backpacker budget, the Naviera Austral is definitely the way to go. If you’ve got a bit of extra money to spend and are limited on time, Navimag is a quicker and more full-service option.
MartaNovember 26, 2017 at 3:53 pm
Hello! thanks to your post I already booked my trip with naviera austral! On the same way as you, to Quellon. But I really can’t find information how long lasts the journey? I see for you it was very long, but it seems like in some days it’s longer, in some shorter trip. How did you know how long will you sail? I don’t speak spanish so it’s also harder for me to look for information… 😉
Taylor RecordNovember 26, 2017 at 8:35 pm
Hi Marta! The website isn’t very helpful. Are you going from Puerto Chacabuco to Quellon too? Our ride was 28 hours, but this varies slightly depending on which day of the week you depart. If you’d like, you can email the itinerary to email@example.com and I’ll see if I can figure it out for you!
Preston RhoneAugust 10, 2018 at 5:33 pm
Hey Taylor! This looks pretty awesome. We are looking at possibly going the other way, from Puerto Montt to Puerto Chacabuco, then somehow getting from Chacabuco to Puerto Natales. Have you heard what its like getting deeper into Patagonia from Puerto Chacabuco? Also, you mention staying the night somewhere…is this hop-on hop-off or would it just be separate tickets? I am digging for more info on their site now. Thanks for writing about this, I am using your information on Torres Del Paine to plan that trip as well!
Taylor RecordAugust 23, 2018 at 2:45 pm
Hi Preston. It was pretty awesome! Funny enough, I did that journey in reverse! You can go Puerto Chacabuco > Aysen > Coyhaique > Puerto Natales by bus. Can you tell me more about what you’re thinking for the overnight? We slept on the ferry (in upright seats), but if you wanted to get off, I imagine you’d need separate tickets. So glad you’re finding the info helpful, and hope you enjoy your trip!
EveaJanuary 22, 2019 at 7:47 pm
Hi! Thanks for posting this – I want to get this ferry next week (Friday 1st Feb) but I can’t find a lot of info online about buses/transport to Puerto Chacabuco and I’m not sure I have enough time to get there (arriving in Los Antiguos morning 29th and want to visit Capilla de Marmol en route). What’s the best way of figuring out how the buses / collectivos work? Also, do you know how far before the ferry is set to leave you need to arrive? Also do you have any tips for where to stay in Quellon when I arrive? Thanks in advance!
TaylorFebruary 2, 2019 at 3:40 am
Hey Evea. I’m getting back to you a day too late! Did you find a way to get to Puerto Chacabuco? If you found a way, would love to hear it. In general, my favorite resource for overland travel is Rome2Rio. It doesn’t have all the collectivo routes, but it should give you an idea of how your journey will break down. We got there a couple hours prior to departure and ended up walking around the area (which is quite pretty!) until we were ready to leave. As for accommodation in Quellon, everything was pretty lackluster – I think we just walked around until we found a spot. Anyway, let me know if you made it and hope you’re enjoying Patagonia!
LindsayJanuary 22, 2019 at 8:11 pm
Do you recall if people could take their bikes on board the ferry?
TaylorFebruary 2, 2019 at 3:36 am
Hey Lindsay. I don’t recall specifically, but there was a ton of room on our ferry, and there was more than enough room for cars and luggage. You might have to pay a fee, but I have no doubt your bike will be allowed onboard!
DatApril 26, 2020 at 8:11 pm
Thank you for this great post. It helped me taking the decision to reach Coyhaique by sea. I was fully prepared for the 31 hour journey thanks to your tips. For any future travelers, please be advised that the price has increased: a one-way passenger-only ticket from Quellón to Puerto Chacabuco costs now 35800 CLP (around 42 USD) as February 2020.
Taylor RecordApril 28, 2020 at 10:34 pm
Hey Dat. So glad to hear it helped! Did you enjoy the trip? And thank you for the update on pricing.
DatMay 5, 2020 at 8:51 pm
As you said it, it was a long trip… But I was lucky to have a nice sunset and overall good weather to enjoy being outside. 🙂
Chilean Patagonia – La Carretera Austral | 14-25.02.20May 5, 2020 at 12:06 am
[…] dock and unload passengers and equipment. Fascinating! For the future travellers, I recommend this link which allowed me to prepare myself for these 33 hours of travel. In addition, I recommend taking a […]