More public transport than a cruise, the Naviera Austral runs through the Chiloe archipelago and into the fjords with the primary purpose of transporting locals and their cargo between major settlements. Onboard services are admittedly basic (bring some snacks and be prepared to sleep on a reclining chair), but it’s a cheap and cheerful way to get a taste of the region without breaking the bank. In fact, travel on the Naviera often works out at a paltry US$25 per 24-hour journey.
The ship departs Puerto Montt every day and passes Chaíten before terminating at Quellon, where there is a connecting service into the fjords as far as Puerto Chacabuco. This last section is only available in the warmer months when there is sufficient demand.
A great advantage of this service is that travelers can disembark at numerous points along the way to hike and camp through the stunning Patagonian wilderness before reembarking at a later date. At the end of the line, passengers have the option of continuing south on the Carretera Austral, one of the most rugged and remote highways to be found anywhere on earth.
The only real drawback, aside from minimal comfort and style, is that the voyage terminates long before the most spectacular fjords at the very southern tip of the continent.
A classic Patagonian sea voyage, this charming 70s-era cargo ship has been converted into a passenger ferry to provide travelers with an affordable way to experience the most jaw-dropping Chilean fjords. Bear in mind that the Navimag is first and foremost a freight vessel, so don’t come expecting a luxury cruise. Nevertheless, each guest gets their own bunk bed (or a private room if the budget permits), and the included onboard meals are actually pretty good.
The Navimag departs Puerto Montt every Friday at 4 p.m. and returns from Puerto Natales on Mondays at 10 a.m. All-inclusive low-season rates start from US$350 for a bunk in the cheapest room and stretch all the way up to US$1050 for a single bed in the most luxurious private cabin.
During the four-day journey, guests are treated to a variety of stunning wildlife, including pods of curious dolphins, herds of lazy sea lions, and perhaps even a humpback whale or two. Of course, all the natural splendor of the Chilean fjords, including its southern glaciers, can be admired from the ship as well.
A great advantage of heading southwards is that passengers can easily meet like-minded travelers to form a group for Torres del Paine, South America’s premier national park.
Book well ahead in high season, as the Navimag can sometimes fill up.
More affluent travelers may prefer to cruise with Australis, a renowned Chilean company who operate two specially designed cruise ships along various routes throughout the region. Both their custom-built vessels provide a high level of comfort and personalized onboard service which are far superior to the aforementioned options. Another major point of difference when traveling with Australis is that they are the only service with permission to land at the remote Wuila Bay and Cape Horn, the latter of which is famous for its colossal king penguin colony.
Itineraries range between four and eight nights and cost from US$1,440 to US$4,268.
Nat Geo also run their own vessel, the National Geographic Orion, between Puerto Natales and Ushuaia. This exclusive excursion has just one departure per year and is offered as part of a more extensive tour 12-day tour.
As you might expect, wildlife is the primary focus here, which is why a qualified marine biologist accompanies guests for the duration of the tour. Other great Nat Geo pluses are that they visit the more isolated southern extremities of the continent and include ample side excursions so that travelers can get up close to the native fauna.
Prices start from US$$8,950.