The same sea that isolates the tiny community of Puerto Gaviota from the rest of the world also gives reason for its existence. Situated inside Isla Magdalena National Park, the town was officially founded in 1999, after slowly evolving from makeshift camps known locally as “nylon ranches” that began during the decade of the 1980’s when a few brave fishermen came in search of the coveted Austral Merluza. Today, these rustic camps have evolved into a tiny village with basic services including a church, school, boardwalks, boat slips and homes.
Visiting Puerto Gaviota is an adventure that is not for everyone. The isolation of the island results in conditions that can be challenging, but if you are the type of traveler who views these challenges as part of the fun of the adventure, you will be rewarded with a unique experience. To visit, you’ll need to coordinate boat passages, either with a private boat operator in Puerto Cisnes, which is more expensive but provides you with added flexibility, or via the Cordillera Route operated by the ferries of Naviera Austral. If you plan to travel via ferry, have some flexibility with your plans; the ferries only stop a few times per week and the weather of the fjords sometimes results in delays. There is a residential on the Island, named Residencial Isla Magdalena, managed by Señora Galicia Saldivia, and two cabanas, owned by Señora Blanca Morras Rathgeber. There is no medical service of any kind, so you should be prepared with your medications and first aid supplies. Electricity is obtained by a generator, but you should be prepared with flashlights and headlamps, just in case.
During your visit, you’ll likely spend a lot of time on the boardwalks that connect the houses and docks of the town, from one end to the other. Think of it as the off-line version of the information highway and the social media of the island. It’s the place where you can introduce yourself to local residents and find out local news and happenings. Don’t be shy, news travels fast through such a tiny place so they’ll already know that you’re in town and where you’re from. Say hello and ask them about their lives on the islands; once they warm up, you’ll be treated to great stories.
You can also arrange to accompany some of the fishermen and learn the rhythms of their daily work. The cycle starts with preparing the bait, which usually happens the day prior to actual fishing and is a great day to relax, help out and share some great stories and jokes. On fishing days, you’ll have to get up very early and have a big breakfast before meeting your crew. You’ll navigate to a good fishing spot, place the buoy with the nets and wait for the merluza to nibble. Once they’re hooked, you’ll bring them in and remove each fish by hand once they’re safely on the ship’s deck.
You’ll also want to trek to Puerto Amparo during your time on the island. It’s only a 30 – 40 minute hike, but you may spend at least that long, finding the trail. The dense vegetation of the Valdivian forest tends to grow over quickly so pay attention along the way. The trail begins behind the community center and ends at the beach, winding its way through an area with the greatest diversity of flora of the entire Region. If you have the chance, take along a local who can show you the way and explain the names of plants and birds you encounter. At the beach, there are great picnic spots and a soccer field where the community gets together for local competitions.
Circling the peninsula in a small boat or kayak is also a lot of fun. The area is well protected from strong winds and waves and you’ll see lots of sea life, including mussels, sea urchins, starfish and other mollusks. Although it’s tempting to collect and eat a few clams or mussels, remember that red tide has contaminated some of the shellfish in this area and since there’s no testing facility or healthcare on the island, you would be taking an ENORMOUS risk.
If you want to go to learn about the cave of San Andrés, believed to have been a refuge for nomadic chono canoe people who once inhabited this area, talk with local captains and organize an excursion. Another great excursion visits the María Isabel Islets, home to a variety of sea birds like pelicans, cormorants and seagulls. Bring your bird guides, binoculars and cameras because you’ll see thousands and thousands! Behind the first islet there’s a great place for viewing sea lions – you’ll encounter several families resting and playing on the rocks. Don’t be surprised if they swim over to check you out – they are quite curious and will want to know who the stranger is invading their peaceful world!
In spite of the challenges and logistics, a visit to Puerto Gaviota has the potential for providing some of the most incredible moments and memories of your trip to Patagonia, offering you the chance to truly escape the fast pace of the modern world and disconnect, rediscovering simple pleasures and joy.