Puerto Natales is the jumping off point for Torres del Paine National Park, and anyone wishing visit it – in particular for the renowned W Trek – will no doubt find themselves here.
You may spend a day or more organising yourself, picking up supplies for a trek, grabbing some last-minute gear or unwinding after you’ve you’ve already slogged it in the mountains.
The town itself is a hodgepodge of gridded streets, mostly residential, filled with weathered houses and ramshackle buildings made of wood and corrugated iron. The downtown area is set back from its watery front yard – the Señoret Canal – which offers stunning views to the Torres del Paine NP and surrounding fiordland.
The waterfront itself doesn’t have a wealth of redeeming features, but it may be worth spending some time to catch the warm sun, take a few pics at sunset or grab a bite or something to drink from a couple of places along Avenida Pedro Montt.
It’s down on the waterfront that you’ll find the best coffee in Puerto Natales, located beneath the KAU Lodge, which has fantastic views over the canal and nearby mountains.
There’s a small range of snacks, cakes and sweets, plus beer, wine, tea and hot chocolate. Each morning the cafe is set up for breakfast for guests staying upstairs, but if you’re not a guest and desperately need one of their brilliant coffees, don’t be shy, just plonk yourself down and make yourself at home.
The Coffee Maker, Avenida Pedro Montt 161
A few steps past the petrol station on the waterfront is Centro Cultural Galpón Patagonia, an arty space housed in the refurbed Braun & Blanchard warehouse that showcases an ever-changing art and sculpture exhibit.
The multi-purpose cultural space also features workshops, lectures, theatre and dance.
Infront of the cultural centre are the remains of the Braun & Blanchard Pier, which was built by the company during the livestock boom in the first half of the 20th century. The pier’s days soon ended when it was torched by protesting and striking workers who participated in the great labor revolt.
Centro Cultural Galpón Patagonia, Avenida Pedro Montt 123
A few hundred metres away is Monumento de la Mano, a copy-cat reproduction of others constructed in various cities by sculptor Mario Irarrázabal. The best time of the day to view The Hand is in the late afternoon with the dramatic, mountainous backdrop as the sun sets and bathes the concrete fingers in a golden glow.
Head into the centre of town and you enter a world of outdoor stores, grocers, restaurants and tour agencies. During the week it’s a bustling place that teems with locals and tourists alike. Come the weekend, however, and you just may see tumbleweeds bouncing down the main streets with stray dogs chasing them. It’s a virtual ghost town, as barely anything opens.
As for those dogs, every town and city we visited in Chile and Argentina had a stray dog problem. Councils seem to do nothing about control or castration, but at least there are some folk that feed the pooches that have (mostly) been dumped by their careless, former families.
For a dose of retro, head down to this place that’s two businesses in one. On one side is a gem store that sells jewellery and crafts made using local minerals. On the other you can sit at small round tables or on well-used vinyl lounges amongst used books, quirky artworks and hanging mobiles made from driftwood, wire and stones.
There’s a tiny menu with sandwiches, pizza, pancakes and basic snacks. Skip the coffee and maybe give the tea, hot chocolate or mate a go, and focus on the multi-lingual books and free wifi.
Minerals Exhibition Book Cafe, Blanco Encalada 226A
Argentines seem to love their helados, or ice cream, and here in Puerto Natales there are a few very decent contenders that do well with the cold stuff.
Helados Hechos en Casa (pictured above) is one place you can get your fill on some very nice flavours, but the most popular – with the locals – is the hole-in-the-wall heladería called Helados Bruna. It’s pretty cheap, too, and you can try flavours like calafate (a native berry) or rhubarb.
Let’s not forget Gelatería Artesanal Aluén Patagonia a few blocks away. Yes, they do coffee, but it’s the sorbet and gelato that’s the star attraction. Cheesecake, sesame & chia, calafate, lemon & ginger, yerba maté, and our favourite – cucumber & mint.
Helados Hechos en Casa, Calle Herman Eberhard —
Helados Bruna, Calle Bulnes 585 —
Gelatería Artesanal Aluén Patagonia, Calle Barros Arana 160
It wasn’t until we sat down and looked at the menu that we realised El Living doesn’t to the meat thing. This fully fledged vegetarian restaurant can be found across the road from the plaza, where you can lounge on the sofas with your mug of hot chocolate, tumbler of Johnny Walker or glass of vino. They do have regular seating, as well.
Bruschetta, nibbles, salads, sandwiches, burgers and more are up for grabs and it’s all fresh and made with love.
The burrito (4600) is a light affair with refried beans, cheese and a scant scrape of avocado. A pity that lettuce is the main ingredient here.
I went for the much more substantial black bean & aubergine chilli (6800), which also featured mushrooms and zucchini on unseasoned, chunky mash. There’s a curious sprinkle of dark chocolate on top, which actually worked really well, but I was wondering where the chilli came into it. None whatsoever. Maybe that’s why tabasco sauce sits by the salt and pepper.
The highlight of the meal was the key lime pie (2900). This is a key lime pie like no other, where it’s served parfait-style over a mixture of oats and chocolate. They may have held back on the lime topping, but what there was of it, certainly was enjoyable.
El Living, Arturo Prat 156
As the stray dogs roam the streets and tourists wonder what to do in town on the weekends, there are a few places open to grab a bite. One place the locals seem to hang out in is La Burbuja, or “The Bubble”, which serves up big portions of Patagonian food at reasonable prices.
There’s nothing fancy here, just plates of local trout cooked in butter, sandwiches, king crab, milanesa, salmon and carne.
Our first visit was a meaty affair of chuletas de cerdo (4500), which is basically grilled pork chops with either fries, or my choice, duchess potatoes. The guy at the parrilla sure knows how to grill his meat, as these things were so juicy and needed little more than the perfect seasoning that was already on them.
Complimentary bread and pebre is usually given with almost any meal in Chile, but teaming that pebre with the pork was incredible. It’s a salsa made with tomato, onion, coriander, oil, garlic and sometimes, hot peppers. Nice on bread, but sensational with grilled meats.
Second visit involved a rather bland sopa de pollo (2000), chicken soup, and a soup typical to Chile – especially around Patagonia and the Lakes District – called paila marina (7000).
Clams, mussels, hake and king crab can be found in La Burbuja’s take on the dish; tenderly cooked and swimming in a broth that’s heavily flavoured of these ingredients. Lots of freshly squeezed lemon juice is the traditional accompaniment with paila marina, but I couldn’t help myself by adding in some pebre, as well.
The only downside was the mussels still had beards and there’s a lot of grit in each one of them.
Restaurante La Burbuja, Manuel Bulnes 300
One of the best value meals in Puerto Natales can be found at El Bote, or “The Boat”, a family restaurant that rakes them in at lunchtime. I think the daily menu of the day they put on for lunch has something to do with this.
4000 pesos for three courses. That’s about AUD$8 for some really tasty food in a town that aint so cheap.
Chupe de jaiba for starters – baked clams in some kind of thick saucy-type stuff that may have been a bit heavy on flour to thicken, but it was tasty enough. Can’t complain too much for $8, remember.
Main was ajiaco – a soup that can be found up and down South America in a variety of forms. The Chilean one is brothy, full of beef and vegetables and absolutely packing it with flavour. All you could smell in the restaurant as soon as you set foot in the door was this soup. Delicious!
Dessert is postre, a vague word to use when dessert is going to be surprise. Low cost menus like these can’t cost the restaurant too much otherwise there’s no point in putting them on, so dessert is usually something really simple. This one was rice pudding. A very delicious rice pudding that isn’t thick like most. Instead, it’s runny, sweet and the perfect low budget dish to a bargain lunch menu.
El Bote, Manuel Bulnes 380
There are dozens of hostels in Puerto Natales that cater exceptionally well to the backpacker and trekking crowd. Transfers, tours and tailored trips into the national park, camping supplies and more.
Wild Hostel is no exception, and, despite not staying there, we did spend a little time lounging about the restaurant and bar several times during our stay in Puerto Natales.
There’s a front terrace where you can sit back and people-watch over the street, inside bar and lounge and a rear garden where you can kick off the shoes and sandals and walk barefoot in the plush lawn.
You’re bound to meet the owners pooch that has some serious door opening skills. He even has a girlfriend, one of the strays from the street that hasn’t quite mastered her door opening technique.
If you’re staying at Wild and happen to do a group tour, you may even be lucky enough to score a feed on some kind of barbecue, like the one above. There I was thinking this was available for anyone wishing to pay for it, but no, us blow-ins had to stick to the regular menu.
Burgers, quesadillas, soup, chicken wings, ceviche and nachos. Plus a few more, although everything isn’t always available.
One bonus that had us return say, three times, was the free beer with each burger (7000) or quesadilla (6000) you order. Pretty good value considering the beer on its own costs 2500 pesos. On top of that there’s free wifi, something most of us can’t live without, these days.
Wild Hostel, Manuel Bulnes 555
For info on hiring trekking gear, booking campsites and refugios in Torre del Paine National Park and where to pick up camping supplies in Puerto Natales, just tap this link.
How we got from Ushuaia to Puerto Natales.
We got the 8am Bus-Sur from Ushuaia to Punta Arenas, which arrives around 7 pm. Cost was ARS$30,000 per person. This involves crossing the border from Argentina to Chile, which is pretty straightforward, but can take a while due to inefficiency, congestion and people not declaring things they should have. Be sure to eat or dispose of any unprocessed fruit, cheese, meat products etc prior to the border crossing.
A very light snack of muesli bar, drink and cookie is provided, so bring your own snacks and drinks as they don’t stop anywhere long enough to have a proper meal.
We spent the night in Punta Arenas and left the following morning at 10 am on Bus-Sur, cost CLP$6000 per person. The journey takes about 4½ hours.