Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia

02 Dec 2002

Hey all!  I survived the 4-day trek through Chile’s fantastic “Torres del Paine” National Park.  It was a spectacular hike, chock full of amazing granite towers (6000+ feet), glaciers, condors, snowy mountains, sparkling lakes, wind, guanacos (relatives to the llama), camping, fireside meals in the refuges, GREAT companionship, beautiful weather — and that’s only the start!

The entire hike was marvelous, and I’ll tell give you the details as soon as I can.  Now I must meet some new friends (Brits) for dinner then off to bed.  I have a 6 AM bus tomorrow back to Argentina, then off to see the whales!  I’ll write more soon…

Pedro el peatón

06 Dec 2002

Where to begin?  So many good things have happened since I last wrote, but I’ll back up to the fantastic “W” hike I completed in Chile’s “Torres del Paine” National Park in southern Patagonia on the Tierra del Fuego border.  The evening before, I carbo-loaded during a pleasant Thanksgiving dinner at a seaside restaurant overlooking sharp snow-capped peaks across the blustery Seno Última Esperanza (Sound of Last Hope).  It’s a fjord-riddled area, full of constant wind and dramatic clouds.  After many days in southern Patagonia, I still hadn’t adjusted to the long days — the sun sets around 10:30 PM and is high in they sky long before I awake.

The tiny Puerto Natales town, with it’s colorful corrugated-steel houses (many of the original ones imported from Britain at the turn of the last century) sits calmly looking seaward.  I dined with a Portuguese and French couple, later joined by an North American ex-pat from Oregon who said to be so fed up with the general apathy in the US that she moved to Santiago de Chile where she now teaches English.  Having not spoken Spanish before she arrived, I was impressed with how much of the language she has learned in a few short months (it certainly helps that she takes Spanish classes twice a week and shares a flat with Chileans).  So the four of us had lively conversation over a feast of seafood, starting with king crab and steamed mussels, a HUGE portion of grilled salmon and spicy salsa, ending with homemade flan, and of course a couple bottles of always excellent wine from the north.

Ferry Arrival, Puerto Natales, Patagonia, Chile

After dinner I sat on the seaside promenade and watched the ferry from Puerto Montt arrive to port, while waves of backpackers disembarked all excited to arrive on tierra firme after a leisurely 4-day trip through the southern Chilean fjords.  I met many of the passengers afterwards on the trek, and all of them said it was a really fun trip — lots of camaraderie with fellow travelers, comfortable berths and meals, and spectacular scenery (Paul, this is on the “to do” list — you’d absolutely love it!).  The sun was still above the distant mountains, but alas time for bed.  Tomorrow I was to rise early to start my trek to the famous Torres del Paine!

The transport bus to the park arrived (predictably) half an hour late, but soon I and a busload of mostly Europeans were speeding happily along the dusty road, and three hours later turned reached the top of a pass and before us lay the magnificent Torres!  Even more spectacular than the pictures, we witnessed a rare spectacle:  a cloudless azure sky surrounding the majestic granite towers, soaring a nearly-vertical 6000 feet from the glacier-laden range of the lower Andes.

Eager to begin the 4-day trek in such ideal weather (other travellers I met previously reported they were covered in clouds for days), I set off with bags of food (tuna, sardines, cheese, bread, yogurt, fruit, nuts & chocolate), clothes and my backpack to the first refugio (mountain refuge) to claim my bunk and grab a quick lunch before the first afternoon climb.  The refugios are awesome — similar to the AMC huts in the NH’s White Mountains — these are staffed with energetic young environmentalists, have comfortable bunks, hot showers, and warm meals (homemade bread!  veggie soups!  vino & beer!  yumm!) and are situated in faraway but spectacular spots, affording fine views of the surrounding lakes and peaks.  They also have camping equipment for overflow, but the first night I was lucky get a bunk for US$20 which is relatively expensive, but absolutely worth every penny, considering the once-in-a-lifetime experience and the fact that all provisions are packed in on horses (there are no roads, only footpaths and bridleways).  The dining area is always full of tired but gregarious hikers so it’s easy to chat with others.  Bedtime is usually early (as is the wake up) and the curtains are drawn tight to keep out the seemingly omnipresent daylight.

My trekking mate Kate

Five minutes after setting out solo for the first afternoon trek I chanced upon a super Brit named Katie and we really hit if off so spent most of the rest of the trek together.  She was really cool, quirky and a great conversationalist, in the middle of a 6-month round-the-world jaunt.  Kinda spacey but with a quick (sometimes acerbic) wit, I got a kick out of her travel stories, like the time she accidentally booked a 60-hour bus trip (and went anyway), fell asleep in a museum in Lima, and such.  We talked a lot about England, South America, etc. and with conversation the distances on the trek seemed shorter and it’s always fun to share fine views and moments with a companion.

After 3.5 hours of a rough but gorgeous climb, we arrived at the first destination:  a full-frontal view of the three magnificent towers reflected in a still turquoise mountain lake.

Beneath the iconic "horns", Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia

It was great, and we just sat for an hour, alone amid the lightly falling snow, just gazing at the towers.  Beautiful!  Finally, we descended and satisfied our thirst with pure water from the numerous mountain streams, fresh from the glaciers (this is one of the few places on earth free from contaminants).  When we got back to the refugio, we ate and chatted with others, then I fell asleep for a solid night’s sleep.

Lago Nordensköld, Torres del Paine, Patagonia, Chile

The hike the next day was not too difficult (only about 5 hours) so we leisurely took our time along the easy path, enjoying the fine views and weather (another beautiful day, but a lot more blowy).  We walked the length of the Lago Nordensköld (brilliantly bluish green) through the springtime land with many, many wildflowers and shrubs in bloom.  We stopped to watch two condors soaring far overhead, ate some lunch beside a flock of guanacos, and by early afternoon we arrived at the next refugio, tucked on the shores of the lake beneath the impressive Cuernos del Paine (or “horns”) — massive pillars of tricolor granite.

We had to camp at this refugio, so we found a decent spot (out of the wind) and I napped in the sunshine on the stony beach below the campsite.  The wind was lashed across the lake so the waves were roaring loud — it sounded like the ocean!  It was nice to have a lazy afternoon, reading books and drinking beer (I brought almonds and olives to enjoy).  Bedtime came soon enough.

Glaciar Ventisquero up the Valle Francés, Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

I slept a sound nine hours to awake early to a cloudy (but seemingly dry) day.  We had a big day ahead of us (we were expecting 10 hours) and soon enough we were in a big climb up the middle Valle Frances, a beautiful stretch in good weather.  Fortunately we bumped into our Portuguese/French friends who were making breakfast at their camp site, and we left one of our backpacks there and consolidated our essential stuff for the ascent (we would have to return the same way).  Soon, of course, it started raining so we dug out the foul weather gear and continued to plow forward, spirits dampened.  Yet miraculously, as we approached the  lookout area, the skies cleared and we had an amazing panoramic view of the Torres, the Cuernos, the Cerro Paine Grande (the highest mountain in the range, rife with glaciers) and other various and sundry “minor” peaks such as the Aleta del Tiburon (literally, the “shark fin” ridge).

Inspired, we continued to climb, drinking regularly from the pristine alpine streams, and soon were at the foot of the cuernos, marveling at the high frozen tarns, slid down snow banks, and shared chocolate as the sun made the surrounding peaks sparkle.  Reluctantly we started the descent, enjoying the missed views from the misty ascent, listened to the high glaciers thunder every now and again.  Feeling no rush to the next refuge, I let Katie go ahead and I dawdled slowly forward, stopping regularly to dry my feet, snack on the ripening murcilla berries (crunchy like cranberries, but sweet), and passed two more beautiful lakes both of markedly distinct colors — one cobalt blue, the other turquoise.  At one point, with the sun behind me, I watched the wind blow spray off the waves high into the air through which fleeting rainbows soared easterly.

Patagonian Paradise Found

Every moment of the trek so far was filled with serendipitous moments;  it was like an action thriller, every part of the landscape was designed to grab your attention, entertain and amaze.  With some hesitation, I made the final descent to the third refugio, and soon I arrived, windblown and with blistered feet, only to be met by a cozy room, a hot fire, a bowl of fresh pumpkin soup and a warm cup of tea.

That night we again chatted with the international crowd of fellow trekkers, and with the sun still casting long shadows beside the feeding horses, I fell fast asleep in my bunk, hardly able to enjoy my 5-star view of the lake and mountains all around.

Trail's End Refuge

The next morning I arose very early and was on the trail by 6 AM — I had to complete the final leg of the “W” circuit by 12:30 PM in order to catch the boat back to civilization.  I hoofed like mad, stopping briefly out of the wind to finish the last of my food, and traversed the Lago Grey towards yet another majestic glacier.  I climbed steadily, noticed more and more icebergs, and finally I reached a pass and before me I saw the breathtaking expanse of the glacier, miles wide and immeasurably long, sloping steadily towards the high mountains far away in the distance.

Glaciar y Lago Grey, El Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, Chile

After a lengthy, circuitous route to the foot of the glacier, I finished the last of the chocolate, marveled at the glacier’s animated face (it is more chiseled than the Moreno glacier, but far less active i.e. it moves more slowly).  I made it back to the refuge in time for the noontime catamaran back to the base camp.

Ferry crossing, Torres del Paine, Chile

This ride, a rough but exciting 30-minute tour, traverses the azure Lago Pehoe with fantastic “summary” views of the mountains, glaciers, waterfalls, towers, and horns that I passed during the trek.  Sad to leave such an untouched paradise, but exhausted by the four days of walking, I finally arrived, dusty and sore to Puerto Natales.  I met Katie (she arrived later) and two other Brits (on a year-long round the world) for a celebratory feast, featuring fine wines, heaps of seafood, and cheery goodbyes as we parted to go our separate ways.

It’s what I love so much about traveling — the shared experiences with “strangers” who soon are fast friends, and the freedom to go one’s way, heartened by the fine memories and anticipating future adventures.

Lots more to tell, the whales and the Welsh, the gay Argentines and the bonny Brits.  But now I’m off to the bus station to return to the Andes.  First stop: hippy-dippy El Bolson!

Pedro, el pinguino

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