After having spent roughly a week between Buenos Aires and Northeast Argentina, we found ourselves on a plane headed down to Patagonia, a mountaineer’s paradise, although we had no aspirations (well, reasonable ones, anyway) of climbing.Â Our plans did include a five day trek of the famous Torres del Paine region in Chile, the 16th country of our world tour–not counting the good ol’ U.S. of A.
Our plane touched down in El Calafete, a scenic mountain town with a lovely crystal blue lake at it’s edges; we will be returning to this region after venturing into Chile for the next week, so I will save descriptions for a later time, although I will never forget the cheesy but apropos sensation of riding into town for our first scenic view of Patagonia while some epic movie battle music came blaring over the van’s radio.Â My heart was racing, and not just because I have trouble going to the bathroom on airplanes.
Basically, we spent the evening getting bus tickets for Puerto Natales and eating more gigantic portions of cow and lamb before heading off to Chile the following morning.Â We actually had a really nice dinner at a fancy restaurant that evening, but Sarah got sick again that night.Â At first, we thought maybe she was allergic to Malbec, but then we decided that she just still had the flu.
Crossing the border into Chile was a bit slow but really easy–just a matter of waiting in a couple of lines, and we found ourselves in the gateway town of Puerto Natales by mid-afternoon.Â Sarah was still feeling pretty rotten, so we upgraded from cramped dorms with shared bathrooms to a private room in a B&B (which according to my invaluable Lonely Planet language guide is “B&B” in Spanish) that turned out to be one of the best places we’ve stayed in a while; I would recommend it to any couple that was tired of bunk beds and messy twenty-somethings who long to be hippies but can’t put their cell phones down long enough to put away their friggin’ socks.Â
Anyway, we spent the rest of the day as well as the next getting prepared for the trek.Â We had heard mixed things about Puerto Natales, but I found it enjoyable, a little less touristy than El Calafete.Â It was cold, though, and we even spent our final evening of preparation trudging through the first snow of the year–we weren’t sure what that meant for our trekking plans, but it was an enjoyable backdrop for us while we rented our gear and sat down to even more large portions of pig and chicken (Sarah was sick, afterall, so no cow).
Saturday was the big day, and we woke up eager to get after it!Â Our bus picked us up bright and early–actually, it was still really dark but also really early, if we want to mince details.Â Sarah was feeling a bit better, though, and we were both excited to finally be on our way to Torres del Paine.Â The drive took about two hours, and it was quite scenic once the sun rose over the rolling hills; as we got closer to our drop-off point, snow-capped mountains began to pop up all over the horizon.Â We also saw a good deal of animal life along the way–large herds of guanico (wild llamas), rhea (ostrich-like birds but smaller), and even several condor with their giant wingspans were the three species of note.
After a brief registration and orientation session, we reloaded onto the bus for the short shuttle out to the shores of Lago Pehoe, the lake that we would cross by boat before starting our trek.Â It was here that we got our first taste of the notorious high-octane winds of Patagonia, and it became immediately clear (luckily not through any misfortune) that to put down any item of gear that was not secured to our body or our pack would be to lose said item forever.Â On the plus side, the sun was shining, although it was also raining, and the whole scene was beautiful; Patagonia is notably talented in producing four seasons worth of different weather not only in the same day but even in the same moment.
The boat ride across the lake was beautiful, although some clouds had come in and obscured some of the higher portions of the mountains.Â Besides the deep blue brightness of the lake itself and the numerous mountains on the horizon, we also passed an impressive waterfall called the Salto Grande.Â The girl sitting across from us looked vaguely familiar, and I soon found out that she was from Washougal and had most likely refereed one of Hockinson’s soccer matches over the years that I had coached there.Â Small world. Anyway, Colleen (sorry, if you are a one “L” kind of gal) ended up hiking with us for the afternoon, andÂ we enjoyed her company at the camps throughout the trek.Â Sarah and I enjoyed getting to know her.
From the lake shore after disembarking the boat, we were immediately treated to high winds but also a great introductory glimpse of theÂ Cuernos bathed in sunlight before the clouds sat down on us for the remainder of the afternoon.Â Our hike up to Campamento Los Guardas would cover 15 km and take about 5 hours (slightly faster than the average time).Â Much of the lower section of the trail was gushing with water run-off from the recent snow that had also closed the higher camps and viewpoints, along with backside of the circuit.Â For us, it just meant a lot of puddle-hopping, though.Â Every time we topped out on a ridge, the biting and vigorous wind knocked us about a little bit, but it was still great to be out on the trail!Â The route followed ridges that paralleled the Eastern shore of Lago Gray, and bright blue icebergs that looked like giant sno-cones floated in the waters of the lake below the giant Gray Glacier.Â While the mountain views were almost entirely sopped in, the glacial views more than kept us occupied as we hiked up to camp.Â Still, we were glad to be in camp; Sarah had done well for a first day after having the flu, and I had managed to lug up almost all of our group gear until she felt better, so a half-day was enough for us on day one.Â We made camp quickly and enjoyed some soup and spaghetti while sipping on our unfortunate choice of tea…I found myself wishing that I had known the Spanish word for “hay.”
Easter Sunday proved to be much more rewarding–and not just because we had finally found a country that celebrated a holiday that we knew with the same kind of candy–in terms of weather, which was nice because the entire day was filled with a magnificent array of scenery!Â We had originally entertained thoughts of continuing up past our camp to a higher viewpoint of the glacier, but the camp had been nicely protected from the noise of the wind, and the sun doesn’t even rise until after 8 AM, so we slept too late for that option.
Our morning took us back down the Western line of the “W,” named for the shape of the route through the Torres del Paine region, along the same path we had climbed the previous day.Â The weather was much more clear, however, so we got to enjoy grand views of the large snowy peaks above us in addition to the lake and the glacier.Â I believe we were looking at the Andes to the West and and the Cumbres and the Cerros to the East, their summits periodically popping out from behind the high clouds.Â One nice surprise about going this late in the season is that it is actually Autumn here, and the leaves are orange and red–much of this portion of the park was ravaged by fire a few years back, but enough has regenerated to provide a beautiful bright contrast to the grayness of the lake and the whiteness of the snowy mountains.Â It got even better in the following days as we returned to areas outside of the fire zone.
We covered the 15 km back down to Lago Pehoe fairly quickly, stopping for a quick lunch while hunkered down in a wind-protected spot beside a creek before turning northeast and heading back up the hill towards Campamento Italiano, halfway up the Valle del Frances but lower than Campamento Britainico…I was internationally confused!Â This added another 7.6 km to the day, so we covered a lot of ground in total, definitely a long haul for two backpackers who had spent the better part of the past 10 days on airplanes and bus rides!Â Luckily, the views just kept getting better, and we spent more time worrying about camera angles than on sore knees and ankles (and hips and toes and shoulders and…).
Over the next couple of hours, we enjoyed gazing at the bright blue waters of Lago Pehoe and Lago Skottsberg while staring at the awe-inspiring Cuernos Range to the North and the East (and sometimes even the Northeast).Â At first partially veiled in thin clouds, these massive spires sat atop mammoth smooth walls that left these two climbers stammering, “howouldjaever”!Â Â Â The one drawback–the huge gusts of wind that sent us staggering from side to side–was simultaneously an added bonus in terms of adventure, and we even saw water being swept up into funnel clouds that spun high above the lake’s surface.Â It was amazing!
Campamento Italiano, like our previous night’s camp, was well-protected from the wind–I had been expecting to be much more exposed and cold at night, but really we were pretty cozy the entire time, although flat tent sites were few and far between.Â Set halfway up the valley, the views here weren’t great, but there was a flush toilet, and ramen noodles taste just as good here (at camp…not actually in the toilet) as they would at more scenic campsites, so we were happy enough.
Monday was probably the longest and most challenging of the trek, but it was also one of the most rewarding; even more importantly it was April 9, our one year wedding anniversary!Â Actually, this entire week, we had been enjoying reminiscing the events of each day leading up to the wedding last year, and it was especially nice to share the memories along the trail.Â Many of you were with us as we hiked along the trail.
We spent the morning hiking the 7.5 km up the Valle del Frances to a grand mountainous panorama.Â Much of the hike was steep, and it was blustery cold towards the top as we hiked to a rocky outcropping at 1250 m (about the elevation of Timberline Lodge).Â Most of the trail followed the rushing Rio Del Frances, with increasingly impressive views as we climbed.Â Along the way, we also spotted a really neat bird that was about the size of a small duck, blue and red in color perched on the river bank watching the world go by.Â The clouds had started to set in as we neared the vista, but we topped out just in time to get some pretty awesome views–only the mountain tops were obscured, but that is pretty common here anyway.Â Most of the mountains belonged to the Cerro Range, but the variety in shapes and sizes–most jagged and magnificent–made each peak a uniquely impressive entity.
After descending back down to the high camp and huddling under a manger-like shelter for a snack, we hoofed it down the valley and broke camp back in Italiano before heading east again towards Refugio (like a lodge or hut) and Campamento Los Cuernos.Â This was a relatively tame portion of the trek, a quick 5.5 km to finish the day at 20.5 km; it had been a long but fun-filled day.Â As we finished today’s portion, we were basically hiking around the opposite side of the Cuernos, and they seemed even more intimidating and steep from the East.Â The strangest thing of the entire trek was this little bird with a freshly caught worm hanging from its beak; it was convinced that we wanted that worm!Â Â Whether just really dumb or caught in some worm-induced stupor, I don’t know, but it continued to fly up the trail 20 m at a time for nearly a quarter mile, worm wagging the entire way, before it finally figured out that if it left the trail, we might not follow.
Campamento Los Cuernos, which is actually situated on private land, is located near a lovely lake shore with the Cuernos (thus the name) towering directly above camp.Â Unlike our other campsites, we had to pay to stay here, but we also got to use the Refugio’s hot showers.Â This was especially nice if you were me and wondered innocently into the nice indoor showers that were reserved for the people staying inside the refugio instead of using the grimy outdoor ones meant for the lowly tent campers.Â It was my anniversary, dammit!
Anyway, once we were clean, it was time to celebrate year one, so we bought a couple of beers and sat inside the refugio playing cards.Â We had planned from the start to buy dinner here instead of cooking, but we had no idea what to expect (other than an exhorbitant price).Â It actually ended up being a simple but tasty three-course meal of soup and bread, mashed potatoes and meatballs, and fruit cocktail.Â While eating, we sipped on the drink that both Peru and Chile lay claim to inventing, the tangy and delicious Pisco Sour–lime, grape brandy, and powdered sugar mixed in a shaker and served in a champagne flute (thanks for the suggestion, Ryan Morrison!).Â Seating was family-style, and we actually had to sit diagonally from each other, but nothing gains you friends like shouting, “I love you very much, honey,” or “I hope we live to see 50 more before we’re done, my love,” across the table and over the roaring rip of incisors tearing apart humongous rolled balls of beef!
Thursday was the final full day of the trek, and it would culminate in seeing the actual Torres (towers) of Del Paine, the highlight of hiking “The W.”Â The day started out wonderfully as a gorgeous sunrise lit up the lake below and bathed the Cuernos in a soft pink and orange glow while a slight mist produced a full rainbow (I refuse to use the term “double rainbow” after years of teaching adolescents who all believe that they were the first to find that heinous skit on You-Tube) that spanned across the sky beautifully.
Really, the whole day was gorgeous.Â If you would have told us before the trip that we would have three bluebird days in a row this late in the season down here, we would have laughed heartily, but the weather has been amazingly cooperative; even the wind has been relatively scarce.Â For some reason, we thought that we were in for a shorter day, but we still put in around 18 km over mostly moderate rolling terrain with several steep slopes both up and down.
The morning took us through much more openÂ land than the previous day, with seemingly endless lakes and golden rolling hills.Â The Cuernos eventually gave way to our first views of Monte Almirante Nieto (a big mountain with a big name) and the Torres themselves, as well as Cerro Nido de Condor.Â As we hiked up the valley, the land becamed forested, and orange leaves again provided stunning contrast to the peaks above.Â It was breathtaking, as well as a welcome distraction to our aching knees.
We rolled into Campamento Torres in the late afternoon, set up camp, and had a quick snack before heading up with Colleen to the viewpoint at the base of the towers.Â This little hike was steep but quick with a boulder-hop finish that ended in one of the most stunning places that I have seen in my life.Â There, the three towers rose imposingly above the glacier that runs between them, surrounded by other large peaks, and hovering aboveÂ a glistening sea-foam tarn.Â Condors soared effortlessly in front of the towers, whose summits were mostly shrouded in a thin layer of cloud that sometimes cleared just enough to make out the shape of their tops.Â The whole landscape seemed to instill both awe and serenity, and we mostly sat in silence while taking it all in over the next half-hour.Â It was truly a magical place.
Our luck ran out on Wednesday as we woke up to high winds and steady rain, but we decided to go back up to the towers just in case it lifted in time for sunrise, a distinct possibility with the rapid rate of change in the weather up there. Unfortunately, it grew progressively worse; although Sarah, Colleen, and I did have a lovely cup of coffee at the base of the Torres del Paine while shivering and soaking in the steady rain that was by now starting to come down at angles.Â After admitting that the sun had actually already risen somewhere behind all those shades of gray, we slogged back down to camp for breakfast and a depressingly soppy pack-up while breaking camp for the final time.Â While not the life-changing moment the equipment rental dude had promised in Puerto Natales, none of us will soon forget sunrise below the Torres del Paine…then again, I guess my life is pretty good as it is right now.
There really is not a whole lot to tell of our final hike down the valley and out to Hosteria Los Torres, a fancy hotel at the Eastern border of the trek.Â We basically sprinted–well, as close as one can come to sprinting with fatigue-swollen knees and rain-swollen packs–the 10 km down the hill, soaked to the bone and shin-deep in mud.Â After stripping down to the cleanest possible layers that still invited public approval, we celebrated with real coffee, several games of rummy, and adult beverage, and French fries–glorious French fries–smothered in melted cheese.
The weather had improved by the time we caught the bus to leave the park, and so it was that we departed the Torres del Paine surrounded once more by lovely views of deep blue sparkling lakes, golden hills, and snow-dusted mountain tops in the distance.Â Even the guanaco seemed charming, and I cannot believe just how lucky Sarah and I were to have shared this together!