We (briefly) left Chile behind a week ago, and headed for El Calafate and El Chalten, in Argentinian Patagonia. Our destination was the most northern part of Los Glaciares National Park, where we would spend 4 nights looking at some pretty spectacular bits of granite. The aforementioned Wisconsinites had scouted ahead for us, and reported some cold conditions… This mostly held true for our first 48 hours, as we shivered in the mid-afternoon wind while waiting around to eat dinner. But man did we eat! Sheena and I believe we spent the same amount on food for this 5-day trek, as we did for the Torres del Paine 9-day trek… peanut butter, chocolate, cookies, mozzarella, muesli… all things we didn’t even have the first time around.
Los Glaciares was definitely different than Torres del Paine, mostly in a good way. We were sternly lectured by the Park Ranger when the bus pulled into El Chalten. “Leave No Trace” was an important message. The Park Ranger used every tactic to convey the importance of conservation here. He scared us into using the latrines by warning of puma attacks.. he pleaded with us to preserve this place “for the children.” He asked us if our own national parks had water so clean that we could drink it without purification (and then answered his question with a chuckle; no ours certainly did not). This part of the national park was free to enter, and free to camp. Following our normal backpacking guidelines was no burden, and a greatly welcomed message.
The two main attractions within this portion of the park are the Cerro Torre and the Cerro Fitz Roy massifs. We camped near the base of each our first two nights, and were generally rewarded with stunning views (at times). At Cerro Torre, we ran into a familiar traveler from the Netherlands. He related a very specific weather report, that the changing pressure would bring clearer skies within the next few hours. Lo and behold, two hours later the clouds magically started to evaporate and reveal the granite hidden on the other side. The weather seemed much more fickle than in Torres del Paine. We had rain, sun, cold, and wind just about every day.
In part because the Wisconsinites had recommended it, and in part because it was a place I hadn’t been before, we headed for the Piedra del Fraile refugio on night three. As we made our way up the Rio Electrico valley the winds howled and the air become colder, coming straight off the southern ice field. I had second thoughts about making the long trek all the way out there… but a nice Argentinian family greeted us upon arrival and showed us where the hot showers could be found. We spent the evening indulging in the world’s most expensive Quilmes Cristal ($8 for a 12oz beer…) next to a wood-fire stove, drying our hair from the nice shower (they had soap!).
Today is a day for relaxation. We spent 12 of the last 14 nights in a tent. Today we have had two meals, multiple cups of coffee, picked up clean laundry from the reception, and made progress in books, all from the warm dining room in our hostel. They say today is Sunday, so I guess it’s only appropriate that we rest.
Nine days and eight nights is the longest backpacking trip I’ve ever attempted. That’s a lot of food to carry, and when you’re used to freeze-dried ready-made meals when you’re out in the woods, food-planning gets a bit hazardous, as you will see…
We had an auspicious start on Day 1 with warm, but windy weather. (Wind is unavoidable in Patagonia.) We had decided to do the full circuit instead of the more popular W-trek, as Craig had already done the W last time he was down in Patagonia. We were quickly surpassed by an acquaintance we had made at our hostel the night before, a Texan who ambitiously planned on doing the full circuit (85 miles!) in FIVE days. We wished him well, he sped on past us, and we watched him go with the firmer belief that Texans are indeed pretty crazy.
After 19km, we reached Camp Seron, which had hot showers, bathrooms with flush toilets, a sink for washing your dishes, and even dishwashing soap. To me and Craig, this all seemed like unheard of luxury. Backpacking in the States, the most you can hope for is a solar composting pit toilet that is completely open to air (which is why I never backpack without my trusty spade!). A private bathroom with a door, a sink, and soap?! What is this, GLAMPING?? We decided to forego the shower. You never smell that bad on the first day anyway.
Day 2 was another long one, 18.5km to Camp Dickson. There was a refugio there, which are basic hotels in the middle of nowhere. Theoretically, you can just hike with your clothes and toiletries, and then stay at refugios, where they’ll give you a bed, bathrooms, and meals (for an extremely high price). Craig and I, on the other hand, had to carry our tent, sleeping bags and pads, and all of our food. We didn’t meet any day-hikers on the back side (the W-trek is the “front side”), but we definitely talked about them a lot and how they were CHEATING.
When you’re carrying about 30 pounds on your back and walking 10 miles in one day, your mind tends to wander in a lot of directions. Sometimes you think about the pain you’re in (this is the last thing you should really think about), sometimes your thoughts are occupied for an hour trying to remember how a certain movie ends, and other times, you realize that the date you told your friend to meet you at a certain campsite was TOTALLY WRONG. Sonia, my friend and coworker who is also travelling around South America (for 5 months by herself–here is her blog), had planned to meet us at Campsite Grey on the night of the 11th, which we had seemed to plan out very well as our 4th night out. As I was walking along on Day 2, the realization suddenly came to me that our 4th night was actually the 10th! Crap.
But there was nothing to do but keep going on… and every now and then, Craig and I would bring it up and worry about all the possible scenarios in which we might meet Sonia or just miss her completely.
We also made some new friends at Dickson, Phoebe and Joel from Wisconsin. As Craig said about them later, “It’s pretty unusual to meet cool Americans abroad.” The Wisconsinites (as we call them) defied the norm and we felt very fortunate to meet them. As he was heating up water for the hot chocolate they were generously sharing with us, Joel insisted on getting up and showing me the trekking poles he had gotten for Phoebe (and of which I was insanely jealous, having decided renting trekking poles was out of my budget). Suddenly, the fuel canister, which had overheated from over-enthusiastic use of a windscreen, popped up and dumped boiling water exactly where Joel had been sitting. Whew! Those trekking poles saved Joel from getting some nasty burns.
We started Day 3 feeling great and we were thinking of bypassing Los Perros camp and heading straight over the John Gardner Pass, which is an intimidatingly steep climb (but not as steep as the Mailbox Peak hike–ugh!) over rocky slopes with a great possibility of gale-force winds, rain, and even snow and ice. We also thought this would give us a better chance of meeting up with Sonia. But by the time we reached Los Perros, we were kind of beat by the climb, and a park ranger told us that the Pass was experiencing higher winds and the forecast would be better in the morning. The park authorities also block the path after Los Perros camp after 2:30pm, to try to limit the danger of going over in dark conditions.
In light of all this, we decided to just set up camp at Los Perros, and wait for better weather the next day. This plan also had the added benefit of hiking over the pass with the Wisconsinites. Four people looking out for each other is better than two, right?
Los Perros camp was probably the coldest I was during that trek. For the most part, I was nearly always cold as soon as we stopped hiking, and I had tremendous fantasies about the fleece that I decided, last minute, to leave behind in California. (It’s easy to think you won’t need warmer clothes when you make packing decisions in 80-degree weather…) Craig and I would set up our tent, and then I would immediately dive in, put on all of my long underwear and any extra layers (which alas, were few!), and lay shivering in my sleeping bag for a couple of hours until it was time to cook dinner, at which point I would be warm for about 5 minutes while wolfing it down, then start slowly freezing again. It was also at Los Perros that Craig and I were coming to the sad realization that perhaps we didn’t bring enough food… a consequence of being frazzled while meal-planning and having to figure out how to eat without the luxury of the pre-made, freeze-dried meals we were used to.
Nevertheless, we woke up at 5:30am on Day 4 with the Wisconsinites to get an early start over the Pass. Thankfully, we were blessed with relatively great weather and we made it up in good time to the awe-inspiring vistas of Glacier Grey. At 17 miles long, you can’t help but be impressed by its size and beauty. They have a saying at Torres del Paine, “The Bluest Grey You’ve Ever Seen”, and we all thought it was an apt description. We lingered for as long as we could in the gusty winds until we started our even steeper descent, a slow, demoralizing pounding of the knees for 2 miles. Craig and I were also thinking this day that we would try to bypass Paso campsite at the base of the Pass, and go on straight to Grey campsite (more for trying to find Sonia), but after reaching Paso, we were just way too tired, and it had started to drizzle anyway.
We had another early start to Day 5, since Craig and I had weenied out of our ambitious plans each of the two days before. Our goal was the Paine Grande campsite, 21km away, by that night. Craig was able to get some amazing shots of the Glacier at sunrise, and the hike was much easier than the last two days, despite being twice as long.
We staggered into Paine Grande camp (a starting point for W-trekkers) and finally decided to take advantage of hot showers, since we were starting to smell. We had been hoping to intercept Sonia at some point that day, but we had failed to appreciate just how many people were going to be doing the W-trek.
Hundreds of tents, trekkers, day-hikers… it was overwhelming and we had pretty much given up hope of ever finding Sonia among the throng when, suddenly and amazingly, we found her! It was a close shave, and the only reason we spotted her was because she and her friend, Alyssa, had stopped to take out and adjust their trekking poles before trying to hike 11km in the waning daylight to Grey campsite like we had (mistakenly) planned for her to do. Trekking poles save the day once again!
They also saved our stomachs as Sonia and Alyssa brought too much food and generously shared with us. Craig and I nearly cried with joy when they even gave us a bag of Peanut M&M’s.
After the success of finding Sonia, I felt as if the rest of the trek could go to shit and I’d still be happy. Thankfully, the rest of the W flew by in increasingly warm weather. Day 6 we hiked to Italiano camp and were awed by the beautiful French Valley (and met up with the Wisconsinites again, hooray!).
Day 7 was another long day to the campsite near Hotel Torres, since the free Las Torres campsite was closed due to plumbing issues. We had to pay for this campsite with some of our hoard of US dollars, since oh, did I forget to mention? Not only were we short on food and warm clothing, but we were also short on cash, since we hadn’t figured the cost of camping would be per person versus per tent. But we spent a blissfully warm afternoon sunning ourselves and making more friends with some hardcore outdoorsy folks from the Bay Area.
Day 8 was also warm and sunny, and I felt like Pigpen from the Peanuts comic, surrounded by flies as we hiked up to the Chileno campsite. We also met the Wisconsinites there, who then accompanied us on the 18km round-trip hike up to the iconic Torres, the main attraction of the park.
Sonia also found us again at Chileno camp, and for our last night, we enjoyed some vino tinto (red wine) that Sonia had carried with her. Despite the pressing crowds and not very nice campsite, it was a great way to end our trek.
I just showered away that nine-day, Patagonian grime… it feels pretty amazing right now. The hamburger that I’m going to eat in two hours is going to be equally amazing. And the beer I drink… and most everything for the next few days! =) It feels good to be off the trail.
Torres del Paine National Park is a strange, beautiful, sometimes frustrating, but always interesting place. Let’s see if I can paint a picture. We did the full circuit hike, which circumnavigated the Paine Massif. The first four days are spent on the less-crowded “backside” of the park. We were surprised to encounter at least 50 tents at the campsites, each of the four nights. Most everyone does the same amount of hiking each day, so we quickly met a few people and really enjoyed their company. Our new friends from Wisconsin, Brazil, Chile and the Philippines greeted us with smiles and good conversation after hard days and long miles.
We were also surprised at the number of people who were hiking the circuit with no backpacking experience to speak of. Lot’s of Europeans and south Americans informed us that this was the first time they had carried anything on their backs with the intent of sleeping in the woods. This is still just beyond us. How do you sign up for a 9-day trek, 100+ kilometers long hike through some of the most extreme weather, if you’ve never done backpacking before!? These people were equal parts frustrating and inspiring. We helped adjust packs, set up tents and watched people cook with real skillets over their large propane stoves. We saw the largest packs imaginable, with all of the Doite brand rental equipment strapped to the outside (what was inside those packs?). But these people did the same thing we did. They didn’t cheat* like some we met along the trail. They didn’t do it the way we did, but they completed the thing, and that was certainly admirable.
The more crowded, but also more beautiful, frontside of the park gave us an even more polarized love/hate feeling. Instead of 50 tents, there were well over 100 each night. We were confronted with ever increasing backpacking ignorance and disrespect for nature. There was evidence of forest fires everywhere, much of it new since the last time I visited, six years ago. But the views are incomparable… We were interviewed by a CONAF (Chilean Park Rangers) employee on our fifth night. He asked us for ideas on how to improve the park experience. I suggested that they look into limiting the number that can enter the park each day. I don’t know if this is the right thing to do, but the increasing popularity and commercialization of the park can’t be sustainable. Oof, do you feel like you’re reading Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods? OK, I promise many more photos in the near future!
*cheaters ride horses, hire porters, and day hike between refugios (therefore not carrying tents/sleeping bags). most of them get showers daily.
Hello from Puerto Natales! We’ve had a very busy and interesting 24 hours. No more 80-degree weather… our flight (2 more flights actually) has taken us to the cold and windy climate of Patagonia. Eduardo, host of the Hospedaje Independencia, made our quick stop in Punta Arenas quite enjoyable. He spoke quickly and precisely, but somehow we still understood every word. His wood burning stove kept the quirky house nice and warm.
We left Punta Arenas this morning, boarding a bus after walking (running partly, we almost missed it…) to the bus station in the rain. We have to thank our friend Kelsey for recommending our current lodging in P. Natales. The owner, Andres, is extremely helpful, and the place is very clean and comfortable. He helped us plan out the full circuit hike we’re starting tomorrow morning, in the Torres del Paine national park. Andres thought this had been the worst summer in Patagonia in some time. We had heard from other traveler’s blogs that the rain had been particularly bad this year. It sounds like it’s getting better though, so we’re going to be optimistic about that.
Our last couple hours have been spent in three different grocery stores (some more than once), a dried fruit and nut shop, a hardware store (for fuel canisters), and a bank. Difficult items to find included: tortillas, Ziplock bags, and salami. Meal planning for a 9-day trek while walking around a foreign grocery store was pretty difficult!
Torres del Paine has gotten a lot more expensive since the last time I was here. The park is down to only two free campgrounds. One was closed last year when a few selfish people made a fire and ended up burning 190 hectares of the park… We’ll be paying between $8-12 for the pleasure of pitching a tent most nights.
Don’t expect any updates here for a little more than a week. Wish us luck!