February 24, 2019 13 min to read
Patagonia: Glacier Cruise in Chilean Fjords
Category : Natural Wonder
Patagonia is many things for many people. For most, it is probably the stunning landscapes of Torres del Paine National Park. Or it would be the glistening Perito Moreno glacier in Los Glaciares National Park. Or it could be the azure lakes around Bariloche, or the ‘End of the world’ experience of Ushuaia. But a lucky few get to sail through the stunning fjords in South Chile and view the remote and pristine glaciers of the Southern Patagonian Ice Fields. The world’s second largest extrapolar icefield is the source of all of the well-known glaciers in Patagonia – Perito Moreno, Upsala, Spegazzini, Grey etc. – as well as countless unnamed ones in the craggy coastline of South Chile.
Cruceiros Skorpios is the only cruise line operating in the fjords of Southern Chile – and water is the only way to reach this remote region. There are no human settlements, just miles of fjords and immense glaciers. Skorpios operates its ships on two routes in the region – Kaweskar and Chonos (names of indigenous people in the region). The ship Skorpios III is a small ice-strengthened ship (only 45 cabins), with an old-world charm, and run as a family-owned business. As it turns out, almost the entire staff aboard our ship was related to the family – siblings, cousins etc.
We booked the 3N cruise on Kaweskar route. We were in the deluxe cabins, one deck below the VIP cabins on the top deck.
Cruise Day 1
Skorpios operates from a dock in Puerto Bories, 3 km outside Puerto Natales. The boarding was at 15:00 and was super quick and breezy. The smiling crew members welcomed us and checked us into our cabin on the upper deck. It was a very nice room, with a large windows on one side and a surprisingly large attached bathroom. The bathroom was bigger than the one in our Hong Kong apartment!
The departure from Puerto Natales was delayed by an hour because of extremely strong winds – the captain said they were in excess of 80 kmph. But we were kept in good spirits at high tea, with loads of cakes, sandwiches, cheese and cold cuts. As luck would have it, our cruise was under-booked, so there were only 25 passengers on board, while the ship’s capacity is about 100. Which was great, as everyone knew one another by end of the day.
But we were the only foreigners on board – all the other passengers were Chilean. So we got to practice our non-existent Spanish on our poor co-passengers. The tables in the dining room were pre-allotted. We were on table 1, the Captain’s table – the Captain would join us when he could. Apart from the Captain, we had a young Chilean Navy helicopter pilot Nicholas and his girlfriend Isabella. We also had the ship’s physician and her mother. And the two guides on the ship – Luis and Fernando – would also join us for the meals.
We had a quick introductory session, where Luis spelled out the safety instructions in both Spanish and English. It was a pattern that would repeat in all the forthcoming days, where every communication was done in Spanish, and translated to English, just for us.
After high tea, we headed to the top deck to watch as we finally got underway, at 18:00. However, it was still windy and cold and soon everyone headed back downstairs.
There was an introductory session on glaciers in one of the three lounges in the ship. Fernando gave the presentation, while Luis was gave us a live translation via earpieces. They finished with details of the next day’s schedule. We bumped into a Chilean-American family (American dad/Chilean mom and teenage daughter). They were fluent in English, as they had previously lived in California and were our companions for most of the cruise.
Dinner was a lovely three course affair starting with a pie, roasted chicken and a beautiful dessert. Every meal on the cruise followed a similar pattern, with us chatting with Nicholas & Isabella (they could speak pretty good English) and Luis & Fernando. Accompanying every meal were excellent Chilean wines.
The strong winds continued well into the night, but since we weren’t in the open sea, the waves weren’t significant and we both got zero sea sickness and a good night’s sleep
Cruise Day 2
Next morning, we woke up to see the amazing expanse of Glaciar Amalia spread in front of us. Small pieces of ice, broken off from the glacier, were floating in the sea around us, giving the impression that the sea was completely covered in a carpet of ice! The sky was covered in clouds, but it couldn’t dampen our enthusiasm. Imagine waking up to see a glacier from your bedroom window!
At the breakfast table, everyone was excited to get going. The breakfast spread was excellent, at par with 5-star hotels. There were all kinds of breads, cakes, cheese, fruits, meats (both cold as well as cooked) and eggs-to-order.
While breakfast was underway, Fernando gave us last minute instructions on how to dress, how to sit in the boat etc. We wrapped ourselves in multiple layers, and headed to the top deck, where we were fitted into life jackets by the crew. A couple of small boats were unloaded from the ship, and it carried us to the small island in front of the massive glacier. It was drizzling a bit and we were being buffeted by spray from the boats, while the wind continued to blow. We were seeing the famous Patagonian weather finally, and unfortunately for us, it stayed with us throughout the cruise.
We landed on the side of the island which was free from ice and quickly covered the 200m walk to the front of the island, which was a natural viewpoint of the glacier. A bout of frenzied clicking followed, as everyone tried to take their best photos in this fabulous locale. But the best part of the visit was yet to come.
We got onto three inflatable boats (different from the earlier ones), and headed towards the glacier. The ride through the ice-crusted sea was one of the most memorable things in the trip. Some of the ice blocks were the size of washing machines and small hatchbacks! Yet our skillful crew navigated our boats through the floating ice. The boats were groaning as they rubbed against the ice, the engine straining to push through the jam, while the ice bobbed up and down in water. It seemed insane, and it was exhilarating!
We managed to get a bit closer to the glacier, before the crews turned around and headed back to our ship. All of us were completely awed with such a blockbuster glacier experience, and also completely chilled to our bones. Back on the boat, we headed to the top deck to take more photos, while the crew loaded the boats back on the rear deck. We got some great photos, while our ship raised anchor and headed back out. And to make an already great morning into a perfect one, a few dolphins started following our ship. The overcast sky wasn’t very helpful in taking photos of these playful creatures, so we just stood on the deck and watched them continue their play.
After 15-20 min, the dolphins left and our hands were almost frozen. So we retreated to the lounge, where the bartender procured piping hot chocolates for us! This was an all-inclusive package. So, we had countless hot chocolates and pisco sours during the cruise. Soon it was time for lunch, which was a fabulous three course affair, and included our favourite king crab pie. It is a simple rustic dish, but super delicious.
Soon after lunch, we were at our next destination – Glacier El Brujo. We followed the same procedure – getting our life jackets, while boats were unloaded from the ship. This time we saw some local wildlife – arctic terns – nesting on the cliffs close to the glacier, before we landed on a rocky ledge on the left of the glacier. We were much closer to El Brujo than we had managed with Amalia, and there was the usual frenzy of photo taking, with the glacier forming a looming white backdrop behind us.
We were lucky to witness a glacier calving too. At such close distance, it sounded like a hybrid of gunshot and thunder. A small portion of the glacier fell into the sea in pieces, and even that was enough to produce waves that almost swamped us. Every one clambered to higher ground – and we had a real-life science lesson on tsunamis!
In happier things, Nicholas had planned to propose to Isabella at the glacier. He had taken Pradosh aside at lunch and asked him to shoot the video of the event. Once everyone had finished their photos, Nicholas went down on his knees to Isabella and she said yes in a jiffy. Our entire group broke into loud celebrations and congratulations.
Back on the boat, we headed to the lounge, where the bartender had pisco sours waiting for us. Soon it was time for high tea again, while we anchored at Fiordo Calvo. This fjord has more than half a dozen glaciers, along with countless waterfalls. Dark clouds continued to cover the sky, and in some places, a light fog had descended on the cliffs surrounding the fjord.
From our ship, we transferred to a largish ferry, which was thankfully partially covered, shielding us from the cold wind. The ferry took us close to the sheer cliff faces, where we crossed small and big waterfalls, groups of seals and cormorants nesting on ledges on the cliffs. We also saw Glacier Fernando, Glacier Alipio, Glacier Piloto Marcelo, Glacier Capitan Constantino and a few others we don’t remember. There was some floating ice on the sea, but nothing like the white carpet at Glacier Amalia. As we headed deep into the fjord, the size of icebergs became bigger – some were as big as a house. Thankfully, we would always skirt around the bigger icebergs.
The crew then pulled up a small iceberg from the sea and proceeded to break it with an ice pick. Soon we were having whiskey in the 12/30 way – 12 year old scotch with 30,000 year old ice from the glacier – a good way to warm things up. Fiordo Calvo is the furthest point of the cruise and we turned back towards Puerto Natales.
Back on the ship, we had another great dinner, and a great night’s sleep
Cruise Day 3
Our first stop was Glacier Alsina, and for the first time in the cruise, we had a bit of a sunshine. Following our usual procedure, breakfast was followed by getting into boats and visiting the glacier. This glacier did not have any place for deboarding, so we stayed on the boat, while our boat driver took us as close to the glacier as he dared. Alsina is a smallish glacier, coming down a narrow valley. But there were signs that the glacier was receding. There was no broken ice in front of the glacier, and instead, the rocky floor underneath the glacier was visible at places.
Our last glacier of the trip was Glacier Bernal. The glacier has retreated half a kilometre from the sea, so now we land on the terminal moraine of the glacier and walk up to the glacier face. There is a rough gravel path and the route is fairly flat, so it was an easy walk. Luis explained about retreat of glaciers as we walked. After our usual photos, the slight drizzle turned on to a slightly heavy downpour, causing all of us to make a rush towards the boats, as there was no shelter to be had amidst the shrubs there. Thankfully everyone was safely on the ship before the rain became severe, and soon we were enjoying pisco sours and an excellent lunch as usual.
Our last stop for the day was for wildlife spotting in a small fjord closer to Puerto Natales. We transferred to the boats and cruised around for a couple of hours. We saw a family of seals and a couple of solitary dolphins, along with lots of cormorants, geese, terns etc.
To finish off the cruise, there was captain’s dinner that night, and the staff had begun preparing for it since afternoon. And the chefs had really outdone themselves. The spread was phenomenal and was laid out with a lot of decorations. The dress code was formal and the captain made a small speech before dinner. We are glad to report that the food tasted as good as it looked.
The dinner was followed by a party, where Latino music took over and all the passengers shook a leg. We got on the dance floor for a bit, but we were no match for the grace and spunk of the Latinos. We could only watch in envy as the Chileans rocked the dance floor with amazing moves, irrespective of age. After an hour or so of the festivities, we retired for the night.
Cruise Day 4
After breakfast, we said goodbyes to all our fellow passengers. Chileans are of course quite friendly, and there were many warm hugs and kisses. Disembarking was smooth, and we checked out of Skorpios around 08:30 and took a taxi to Puerto Natales.
The cruise is no doubt expensive and may not be for everyone. But we are also extremely happy at being among the lucky few who have witnessed the magical glacial world of these fjords at the end of the world. And doing it while cossetted in the luxury of high teas, unlimited cocktails and cozy cabins was one of the highlights of our South America trip.
- In high season, the Kaweskar cruise costs ~USD 1,900-2,600 per person, depending on the type of cabin. The price includes all meals and drinks during the cruise. For more information about the cruise dates, itinerary and prices, check http://www.skorpios.cl/en/english/
- How to reach departure point:
- The cruise departs from a dock in Puerto Bories, 3 km outside the town of Puerto Natales. You can take a taxi from the city centre or bus terminus.
- Punta Arenas is the nearest airport (and the only airport in Southern Chile). Punta Arenas has direct flights from Santiago and Puerto Montt and is serviced by daily flight of all the three Chilean airlines – LatAm, Sky and Jetsmart. Puerto Natales is 3.5 hours away from Punta Arenas and there are hourly buses between them.
- Puerto Natales can also be reached by a 5-hour bus from El Calafate in Argentina, but it is does not run daily
- You can look up bus schedules on Busbud (https://www.busbud.com/) and Recorrido (https://www.recorrido.cl/en)
- It is very useful to have a rain & wind proof jacket, with a hood, on any trip to Patagonia and more so on the cruise. Woollen & fleece jackets are good to keep you warm but they are useless in protecting you from the biting wind. The hood laid over a woollen cap is very useful in blocking out the cold winds, as well as keeping you dry. We bore the brunt of Patagonian weather on our cruise, and Pradosh’s jacket unfortunately did not have a hood (it was detachable and he had lost it). Water-proof shoes and gloves are also highly recommended. This was also the only time on our trip, where we used thermal innerwear and water-proof pants – so it’s good to pack those as well.
- The more popular option for a Patagonian cruise is the Australis Cruise that offers a 4-day trip from Punta Arenas to Ushuaia (and vice versa) and costs roughly the same as Skorpios per night. The Stella Australis vessel, with 100 cabins, is much bigger than Skorpios III.