Sunday, January 1, 2012

Chilly Chile Turns Up the Heat

It's New Year's Day and I'm sitting in the lobby of the Weskar Lodge in Puerto Natales, Chile. We had to check out of our room at noon, but our bus back to Punta Arenas doesn't leave until 6:30, so we are just sitting around on the couches using this spare time to update the blog.

Chile has been cold, beautiful and dramatic. We flew into Punta Arenas from Buenos Aires and spent a couple days there hanging out. We went to a unique and highly recommended cemetery that happened to be across the street from our hostel, checked out a replica of one of Magellan's ships, the Victoria, and visited the Isla Magdalena penguin colony.

I've enjoyed the colors down here on the southern tip of South America. Many of the buildings are brightly painted and the sky feels so expansive that sunsets are breathtaking--the sky changing shapes and shades every minute. It requires a good attention span to enjoy it to the fullest.

Taking a walk around Punta Arenas:

This plant grows in the shape of a cactus, but it's not one.

Pretty flowers in front of a house.

A median turned into a park with fun wooden objects like a train and a tractor.

Burning man?

These cypress trees were my favorite thing about Punta Arenas. They were all so well-manicured, but we never saw anyone trimming them. Tree trimmers must be a substantial source of employment opportunity though, because the trees are all over town.

Cops in PA.

Plastic flowers sold outside of the Punta Arenas cemetery.

Inside the cemetery.

I hope this isn't too disrespectful, we just loved the trees.

If a tree was growing too close to a grave, someone very neatly trimmed it back at a 90-degree angle.

A cool art deco mausoleum.

Continuing the walk down to the waterfront:

Quite windy!

This is da hotel on the water.

The replica of Magellan's Victoria. Out of the five ships that sailed from Portugal, the Victoria was the only one that finished the voyage and made it all the way around the world. The voyage started with a crew of about 265 men (aboard the five ships). Of all these, only 18 men returned alive on the Victoria. Many of the men died of malnutrition. It was great to learn about history with such a hands-on experience.

The boat was sitting on land close to the water.

I don't know why this guy doesn't have pants on... I guess this is what happens to you if you piss off the captain.

Monica in shackles. She is a happy prisoner.

Trying to get into the mood of the ship.

To get to the Isla Magdalena penguin colony, we took a two-hour ferry each way.

Badass Monica opening a can of tuna with her pocket knife.

About to disembark the boat. Monica is excited about seeing the penguins!

We tourists had to stay in between two ropes, so we didn't disturb the penguins too much. They seemed pretty comfortable with humans.

So cold and windy. I'm glad I had my Patagonia windbreaker.

A family of four! I loved how the father (or mother?) here is protecting the babies by lying in front of them.

The penguins said goodbye to us as we got back on the boat.

Christmas Day, we walked around town a bit more.We were hungry for dinner, but most restaurants were closed. Eventually, we found a hotel with an open kitchen so we ordered steak sandwiches.

Outside the hotel, Monica found a rugged touring SUV.

On the bus now from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales, to visit the Torres del Paine National Park:

On the bus, I noticed how dry the landscape is ... a bit of foreshadowing.

Walking around Puerto Natales:

A nameless ship on the harbor. I like the ancient anchor sticking out of the water in the foreground.

Monica relaxing on a bench. I think she was drunk when this photo was taken.

In the local supermarket: whole lambs ($100 USD). They were refrigerated, which makes me proud of Chile.

Houses in Puerto Natales.

A run-down house a couple doors down from our hostel.

We took a 2.5-hour bus trip from Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine National Park, where we were prepared for a five-day, four-night hike called the "W-trail". We rented our camping gear from a local shop/hostel in Puerto Natales.

On the bus from Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine.

Off the bus, we briefly walked to this vista point, overlooking one of the lakes in the area before taking the catamaran to the west side of the park.

View from the catamaran. It was freeeeezing.

The beginning of the journey. The first part was hiking up to the Grey Glacier.

A rock slide, very crumbly.

You can see what the wind does to the vegetation here.

Our first view of the glacier. It was a bit dark and stormy, but it only drizzled, no heavy rain.

A bit closer to the glacier.

And closer still...

It was exciting to see chunks of blue ice in the water.

We walked 3.5 hours and arrived at a campsite (Refugio Grey), but we wanted to walk a bit further to a campsite closer to the glacier (Los Guardas) because we heard it was beautiful up there, and it was also free. The map said it was another two hours walking, but it took us a bit less time. There were a lot of ups and downs on the trail, but by far the hardest part was crossing the waterfall pictured below:

With our heavy backpacks on, it was hard to keep our balance and make sure we were taking secure steps forward, because otherwise it was a long drop down.

The view from the vista point at the campsite was gorgeous, and totally worth the extra effort:

To the left...

And to the right...

We hiked the last part of the trail with the hardcore solo hiker on the left, a woman from Holland who looks like Bjork. We parted ways the following day.

Our second day, we started hiking back down south (in the direction we came from). We passed a couple hikers who said there was a fire further down on the path and it was inaccessible at that time, but they didn't have too much information, so we continued down to the Refugio Grey campsite. A sign was posted simply stating: "Warning: the way to Pehoe is closed due to fire."

We talked to the staff at the refugio (hostel), but they didn't have much information. They told us there were possibly some boats coming later in the day to take us around the fire, but everyone would have to pay 35,000 Chilean pesos (~$70 USD) each to get on. At that time, we didn't know how big the fire was, and thought perhaps they would have it under control in a matter of hours, but we knew it was going to throw off our schedule unless we got on a boat, so we were willing to pay the money. We went down to the boat dock and ran into a park employee who said a boat just left within the past hour and he didn't know when the next one would come. We went back to the refugio to wait for more information, and we put our names on a list for the next boat.

Everyone passing time on the deck of the refugio.

We all realized we could now see smoke coming up from the other side of the ridge, only about a 45-minute walk from where we were:

Smoke from the fire.

People were starting to get a bit antsy as different people had different information about the boats, and the park employees were not very helpful. The situation turned into more of an emergency as the fire grew and grew because of the winds, fortunately blowing in the opposite direction of us. We all realized we were going to need to be evacuated, there was no other way out, but there was still talk of the $70 USD fee, which many people refused to pay.

Monica and I started getting more nervous after having talked to an Australian guy who told us about how almost 200 people died in 2009 after some bush fires started in the Aussie state of Victoria. It was a similar climate: dry and windy.

We walked down to the water again to wait for a supposed 3:00 boat. This was the view from our vantage point on the water, pretty scary:

We waited for about an hour, while more and more people showed up on the beach, waiting for the boat. Finally, we saw a boat arrive from the distance. It was the tourist boat (owned by a private company) that rides up to the glaciers for an up-close view of the ice from the water. This was the only means of evacuation, as the park does not have any of its own boats. As the fire fighters got off the boat, they handed us their life jackets. The emotions and adrenalin were running pretty high as people were basically in survival mode at this point, vying for their spot on the boat.

We were so relieved to be rescued!

Finally we could relax and find humor on the boat:

A German guy must have ripped the seat of his pants at some point, but he didn't seem phased by it at all. At one point, he got up on the viewing deck while every other passenger was inside the boat, seated. Everyone broke out in laughter at the sight of his tight European underwear.

This had to have been the coolest evacuation ever. The boat continued on its tour of the glacier, because there were paying customers already on the boat when we boarded. At this point, we still thought we had to pay for this rescue, but in the end I think the park worked something out and we didn't have to. Too bad for the cheapskates who stayed at the refugio, who weren't willing to pay the money to get on the evacuation boat. Though I imagine there was a later boat that came for them.

The smoke from the fire in the distance, ice in front of it.

We were even served pisco sours with glacier ice that a crew member fished out of the lake to put in the drinks! Monica has some great photos of this.

Back on land and boy were we happy.

Smoke in the distance...

A rainbow formed in the sky after we got off the rescue boat.

Please don't take your moped on this bridge.

We then decided to go to the other end of the park (and the other end of the W-trail) to hike up to see the towers. It took two bus rides to get there.

View from the first bus: freezing glacier water, nice for drinking.

The dirt on the bus's window created a filter effect on this photo.

The smoke made for a beautiful sunset. Las Torres (towers), which the park is named after, are on the right.

Inside our rented tent, both zippers broke but fortunately we had duct tape to partially close the flaps.

Horses are used for tours and also to remove trash from the campsites.

A fox on the loose.

The hike up to Las Torres was a challenge. It was literally up almost the entire way, on crumbly gravel trails.

The smokey view of the river and mountains surrounding us.

Looking up at the gravel mountainside...

Looking down at the gravel mountainside...

Crossing the river.

The enchanted forest. This was an enjoyable part of the hike.

We set up camp and then it was another hour to get up to the top of the vista point. After eating a quick lunch, we set off for the strenuous journey.

It was very cold and windy, and required a lot of climbing on rocks, down on all fours. Occasionally, Monica and I had to duck down and hug the ground so we didn't get blown off the side of the mountain. This was not for the faint of heart.

View of Las Torres.

On our way back down to the campsite. Originally, we thought we would wake up the next day and do the hike again at sunrise (a popular thing to do) but we both agreed that once was enough.

A video still of Monica with her Spam (Jamonilla).

Static electricity inside the tent.

The next morning at 7:00 a.m., a ranger came along and woke everyone up, one tent at a time, announcing that the park is now closed, and everyone has to leave.

One of our last views of the park, lots of smoke... very sad.

A bit of humor in the bathroom at the end of the trail. I think they meant to say "sink"?

Waiting for a bus to take us back to Puerto Natales, a man seemingly on safari spotted a guanaco.

Since everyone in the park was forced to leave at the same time, it made for quite a scene at the bus stop. We waited for about three or four hours, when eventually three buses arrived at the same time. Again, it was survival of the fittest, every man for himself, trying to get on one of these buses. Monica and I made it on one. As the buses drove away, we looked out the window at the swarm of people left behind, probably not able to catch a bus for another several hours.

When we got back to Puerto Natales and returned our camping gear, and a reggae band was setting up for a performance later that night. I think this is the funniest band name of all time: Jahnnabiss.

We arrived back in Puerto Natales a day earlier than expected, so we didn't have a hostel reservation for the night, and many other people were in the same predicament. It took us three tries before we found a hostel with beds for us. It was pretty run-down, but appearances can be deceiving. This was actually one of the best hostels we've stayed at so far on our trip. A couple of guys from the U.S. were cooking dinner and invited everyone in the hostel to eat with them, so we joined in and brought an ice cream cake home to share, which we all enjoyed. Breakfast was included with the rate, and the owner decided to have a community breakfast on New Year's Eve so we could all eat together, and it was really fun. Monica and I made bacon to add to the toast, omelet and cereal breakfast. It has been over a month since we've had bacon, and we were both craving it.

Later that day, Monica and I checked into the hotel we're at now and used the hot tubs to relax on the last night of the year. We left the hotel a bit late to meet up with our new hostel friends, and made it to the party just after midnight after a long, cold walk into town. Though it was midnight, there was still a slight glow in the sky from the sun fading away just over the horizon.

I can't believe it's 2012 now. Somehow time just slips away, especially when you're traveling. I have a hard time even remembering what day it is now, and I've gotten more comfortable with this. New Year's is about the passing of time, and I think a lot of travelers just don't really care about that, so it was sort of strange celebrating NYE last night.

I think the fire in the park has subsided a bit. It rained yesterday and there was surprisingly very little wind, hopefully putting a dent in the blazing destruction. It's a shame the park didn't have a better emergency plan in place for something as tragic as a fire. With the wind and the dry climate, there's really no stopping the fire through manpower alone. I read an article that said at one point the fire was spreading at a rate of 20 meters per second. Patagonia does not have lightening, so the climate is different from the U.S. in that wild fires are not naturally occurring, and therefore do a lot more damage to the habitat than wild fires in the U.S. For example, the native plant species in Patagonia take many years to flourish and thrive after being damaged, and the native trees will take many centuries to return to the state they were in before the fire. In addition to destroying the habitat, the fire also damaged many man-made structures like bridges, hotels, hostels and campsites along the trails. I feel fortunate that Monica and I were some of the last people able to see parts of those trails that will never be quite the same again.

We leave tomorrow morning on a flight from Punta Arenas back to Buenos Aires, where we'll catch a 17-hour bus to Iguazu Falls. Monica and I are relying on our books and iPods to keep us entertained through all the traveling we're about to embark on...