Monday, January 2, 2012

Hiking in Patagonia

We're about to leave this beautiful corner of the earth called Patagonia, to head back to Buenos Aires via several buses and planes, and then head north to Puerto Iguazu by a 17-hour bus ride. I am starting to fill with sadness for leaving this place, one of the most beautiful my eyes have seen so far. I am leaving a piece of my heart here and making a promise to return for more one day.

Anne and I at the beginning of our 5 day hike in Torres del Paine.
About 50% of Patagonia's surface is covered by national parks. Torres del Paine is one of them, not the biggest, but more attractive to tourists, mostly because of its 3 towers of over a kilometer of vertical wall of rock, glaciers, glacier lakes, amazing views and easy accessibility from both Chile and Argentina. Many of the other national parks in Chile are just as breathtaking, if not more, but are harder to get to. To get to Torres del Paine you have to fly from Buenos Aires or Santiago de Chile to either El Calafate in Argentina or to Punta Arenas in Chile. From Punta Arenas you take a 3-hour bus to Puerto Natales and from there another 2.5h bus to the park entrance. Similar travel time if you're coming from El Calafate in Argentina. This is what easily accessible means.

Based on some tips from other hikers we met, we decided to do a 5 day hike in this area.We went to Base Camp, a cool spot in Puerto Natales where you can rent any of the gear you need. Most people come prepared with good quality gear from home, but since we're on a 6 month trip, we don't haul around a tent or camping gear, so we had to rent it. The staff at Base Camp is really nice and helpful, and they also do an orientation every day at 3pm. The photo above shows one of the staff members, a super nice Dutch guy whose name I forgot, giving us the spiel on what to do and what not to do in the park. It was really helpful. A lot of the tips have to do with the length of time it takes to get from one campsite to another, the difficulty of the trail and suggested routes and days it takes to do it. There are basically 2 main hikes people do: the circuit, which takes about 8 to 10 days and it takes you all around the park, or the W, which takes about 5 days. We decided on the W for various reasons: we are not experienced hikers with great physical resistance, we didn't have 10 days at our disposal and we were afraid of the snowed up pass at the top that allegedly is very dangerous. Maybe another time...

In terms of accommodations, there are again a few different options: 1) you can camp for free only at designated campsites, 2) you can pay $10/person for camping at other designated campsites that have a shower or 3) you can sleep in one of the 4 refuges for $40/person/night. We obviously went for the free camping, since we had other expenses with buses to get there and back, park entrance fee ($30/person) and boat ticket to cross a lake. We got our shit ready for 5 days of backpack camping. The above image shows all our food supplies for 5 days: lots of carbs, pasta, oatmeal, dried fruit and nuts, the usual...

Here's Anne on day 1 close to the ranger station Pudeto where we got dropped off by the bus. We were waiting for the catamaran to get across a lake and we had 1 hour to kill. So we walked around and over a hill until we came to this little lake. Many lakes everywhere, all with the most beautiful turquoise water. When it's overcast, the water doesn't look turquoise, but as soon as the sun comes out, it's a huge transformation. Also, I wanted to mention that when we entered the park at Laguna Amarga, I heard a group of people speak Romanian and went to talk to them. They were 2 girls and 3 guys from Bucharest and Timisoara, and they had come to Chile all the way from Romania to hike the grand circuit of Torres del Paine. Kudos to that!

Pile of backpacks on the Catamaran.

The Catamaran crossing Pehoe lake. It was so cold, and so windy, and so, so very beautiful. I haven't seen water that color yet in my entire life.

The W hike has this name because it's shaped like the letter W. The only thing that I don't like about it is that you have to backtrack on the same route that you came from, which means you're doing the same stretch twice. We started on the left-hand side of the W, where you can hike all the way to the top of the Grey Glacier. You can continue on this route to do the Circuit and cross the Gardner Pass, but we stopped before we got to that part.

You can't quite see in this photo, but my face was lobster-red from exertion. Many things hurt: my right kneecap during the downhill stretches, my shoulder blades from the weight of the backpack. Somehow, the straps of my backpack are not very well padded, so they started cutting into my skin through two layers of clothing. I ended up putting a pair of wool socks in-between my body and the backpack straps, and that really helped a lot.

Anne on the trail to Glacier Gray.

It was very windy the entire time. Now, about the winds in Patagonia: they're unlike any winds you've ever experienced. They're fierce. And they're non-stop. While inside houses, you hear the wind beat on the corrugated sheet metal roofs and it feels as if it's about to rip the entire roof off. While you're inside a tent, it feels like you're Dorothy from Oz, about to be taken up in the air. Seriously gnarly winds.

The only way is up! Before starting this hike, I went to a local store and bought the black jacket I'm wearing. It's all polyester and dries real quick. Best purchase ever! All you have to do is hike with your arms up for a few minutes, catch a gust of wind and your armpits are dry again. Also, when you get to the campsite, you're not all drenched in sweat, cold and miserable.

The beautiful trail to Glacier Grey, which you can faintly see in the background, as the big white blob. It's where we camped the first night, at the campsite Los Guardas.

At a vista point of the glacier and very close to our campsite, with our new friend, a Dutch lady who was hiking by herself. Pretty bad ass.

Massive fields of ice on glacier Grey. Apparently, there's a travel company in Puerto Natales that organizes hikes across the ice, where you can go inside ice caves or climb on ice walls on crevices inside this glacier. Sounds like it could be really cool and really dangerous at the same time. Not for me, at least not now.

Profilactic pre-blister protection. I managed to do this entire hike without getting any blisters, because I covered up all the gentle parts of my feet with moleskin and tons of band aids. It made a huge difference.

The awesome part about camping in Patagonia is that in summer time, it gets dark at 11:30pm. So you have lots of daylight hours to hike, set up your tent, cook and even read. We were in the tent by 10pm and I still had about 1.5 hours left of daylight to read my book before going to bed. The photo above is taken at about 10pm.

Our daily water supply. We were told the water is very clean and safe to drink, and we don't need to treat it with Micropur. So we just drank it straight up from all the streams crossing the trail. I was a bit skeptical at the beginning, but then started drinking it and loved it. Cold, fresh, clean, tasty glacier water. Can't get any better.

And then the fire started. On our second day, we were heading back to Refugio Grey, when someone we met on the trail told us the trail is closed 45 minutes outside the Refugio because of a fire. We hung out in the area for about 3 hours with other hikers, trying to figure out what to do. The merciless wind was not helping at all, making the fire bigger and bigger by the second. We finally got evacuated by boat, since the only overland option was to go back on the circuit and over the snowy pass, which we were not prepared for.

The boat was unloading firemen and loading hikers waiting to be evacuated.

The boat that evacuated us was actually a private enterprise tour boat that gives rich tourists close-up tours of the glacier. It costs $70 for a 1 hour tour, but we got the whole tour FOR FREE because we were evacuees. Initially they wanted to charge us, but then the Chilean government declared red alert and I guess it reimbursed this private company the cost of helping evacuate all tourists from the area.

Scooping a big block of ice from the glacier to make ice cubes for drinks on the boat.

The glacier, up close and personal.

This photo sucks, and I was really not prepared. The block of ice was transparent and intensely blue. The boat went by it really fast and I had no time to go out on the deck and take better photos, but it was really one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen.

Drinking free pisco sours and whiskeys with glacier ice cubes on the rescue boat, while touring the glacier for an hour, while other people on the shore were waiting to be rescued. Classy!

Anne with Lake Grey and the fire smoke in the background.

View of lake Pehoe covered by smoke from the fire. The smoke surely makes the sunset more mysterious.

Second night campsite. We tried to sneak in and avoid paying the fee (5USD/person), but the attendant saw us and made us pay.This campsite was not part of our original itinerary, but after we got evacuated from the Grey glacier area, we only had 2 options: either leave the park completely or try to get back in through the other end where there was no fire (yet). The middle section of the W was already threatened by fire, so we didn't want to risk it. We went for the right side of the W and luckily they still let us in. At the park entrance they seemed very disorganized and uninformed, so at that time they were still letting people in. It took us a whole day to get across the park by 1 boat and 2 buses, we were exhausted and hungry, we camped for the night and planned to start hiking again the next day in the morning.

Delicious tortellini with chopped up Italian salami, shredded Gouda cheese and tomato paste. Camping food somehow tastes better, even if it's really crappy. Maybe it's because you're always starving before you eat it.

Horses and gauchos at Hosteria Torres. The horses here are the only way to get food up to the refugios, and take trash back down. They use the same trail as tourists. I'd be really scared to be on a horse on some parts of the trails, especially the narrow steep gravel sections that were created by landslides.

Hosteria Torres. From what I've heard, they were able to fight the fire before it got to it, so fortunately it hasn't burned down like some of the other refugios in the park. Apparently, a piece of land in the park (that includes the 3 towers as well) is owned by a Croatian immigrant family. They refuse to sell it to the Chilean government. They've built a lot of hotels and charge money for camping on their land. So now, their former ranch is a cash cow.

Day 3 on the trail to Torres campsite, from where you have a little hike left to do until the top where you can see the 3 towers. It was uphill the entire day.

The bridges in the park were flimsy, swaying and fun. The waters were really fast. I wonder if they do white water rafting around here, it seems like the perfect spot for adrenaline freaks. I haven't seen any boats down the rivers, so I'm wondering if it's even an option.

Anne called this section the "enchanted forest" - it was a really lovely part of the hike, with trees whose trunks were twisted and shaped in weird contortions by the strong winds.

Night #3 at Torres Campsite. The campsite was hidden in a pocket of trees in a valley, with a little creek running through the middle of the site. It felt protected from winds when we got there, but we were wrong. The wind got so fierce overnight that I was praying it would not lift up the cover. It was also very cold, I slept with all my clothes on and 2 layers of wool socks on top of each other. When we got there there weren't many tents around and we were afraid we're some of the only people left in that area, but towards the evening the campsite filled up. Everyone came for the special sunrise. Since the Torres vista point is only one hour away from the campsite, people camp here, wake up at 4am, then hike up to the top with their sleeping bags and a cooking stove to make tea, and sit there at the top waiting for that magic sunrise that projects red light on the towers, turning them into that picture perfect postcard image.

This is the spot for the magical sunrise, but we did the hike in the evening instead. It was a really difficult and dangerous hike, only because of the wind. We often felt we were close to being swiped off the cliff. We often had to duck down and hold on to a rock. The wind would also raise dust storms, which would get into your eyes, nose, mouth. Kinda like Burning Man, but here we didn't have goggles and scarves to protect our faces. We did the hike, we loved the view, but decided it was too dangerous to do it again next day in the morning at 4am in semi-darkness. It was a good decision in hindsight, as the next day was overcast, so there was no magic sunrise after all.

Anne and I at the Torres del Paine vista point on December 30th. We felt so happy and peaceful. What a great way to end the year.

Hiking through rocks. No vegetation in sight at all at that altitude. Dry, harsh winds. And this is their summer time, warmest weather there is around those parts. I wonder how cruel winter must be.

Two people heading down from the vista point. It was also very hard to figure out where the trail was over that rocky section. Anne and I missed the trail a few times and hiked our own made-up trail.

Back at the campsite, it was tea time.

Torres campsite. Behind us there was a French couple and behind them a French family with 2 little boys, who were running all over the campsite with bows and arrows made of branches, trying to shoot birds. I thought it was really brave of that family to bring their kids (who must've been 5 and 7 years old) on such a difficult hiking trail with such strong winds. If I feel like getting blown off the cliff by the wind, what about a 5 year old boy? Crazy and cool at the same time. I want to be like that with my kids too. Raise them to love the outdoors from early on.

Reading time in the tent. Every night I would read for an hour or two, depending on how much daylight I had left. I finished The Giver while on this hike - and felt very sad and dissatisfied by the unredeemed ending of this book. It was also ironic to read this while on a hike in the middle of gorgeous nature... it made me appreciate the things we have, color, trees, birds, all the beauty and diversity that surrounds us.

Day #4 - heading back out of the park. A ranger came to our tents early in the morning and told us we have to pack our stuff and leave right away, the fire is spreading fast, all hikers have to get out and the park is closed. Indeed, on the trail back out there was more smoke in the air, you could no longer see the mountain ranges in the horizon and from certain points you could even see red flames in areas where everything had been fine a day before.

At Laguna Amarga park entrance lots of people are sitting around for hours waiting for buses to get people out of the park. You can see how smoky it was already. Since it takes 2.5 hours to get to Puerto Natales by bus, and a row of 3 buses had already left, we had to wait for these buses to return and do another load. A lot of waiting around, while it was either sunny, windy, rainy, smoky. We finally boarded one of the buses and passed out exhausted, like everyone else on the bus.

At the time I'm writing this, January 2nd from the Buenos Aires airport, 3 of the fires have been contained, 3 are still burning, the park will apparently be closed for the entire month of January and they caught a guy who allegedly is guilty of starting the fire. A 23 year old Israeli guy apparently tried to burn off the toilet paper that he used to wipe his ass, since the park rules ask people to not leave TP behind. He's now arrested, he claims he didn't do it and from now on I don't know much.

I feel grateful to have been one of the last people to see this place. I hope the Chilean government is able to control this fire before it does even more damage. After the hike we went back to Puerto Natales. It was already 6pm and all the hostels were full to the brim. At some of them people were sleeping on couches. We finally managed to find beds in a hostel, met some wonderful people and had a lovely time. I'll talk more about that in a different post. Happy new year everyone!