This trip came about gradually. As any other trips it evolved over time, step by step getting into its final form. Initially I thought we would go around Thanksgiving. There are two days of holidays that can be added to the long trip minimizing the total number of the precious vacation days that have to be used. But later the leader said that the trip will be over the Christmas+NY period, which was actually better. Christmas+NY period offers 4 days of Government holidays. There is also this dead week in-between when usually nothing happens. So much so that some companies even close their offices during that time. Not my current one, but still I was able to get 10 working days off that fit right into the trip schedule. On top of it we could stop in LA on the way back.
Thursday, December 13 + 14
It was really one single long day. The plan for this very long day was to eventually get all the way to Puerto Natales – the gateway town for the Torres Del Paine (TDP) national park. Different members of our group were going to the final destination via different routes. We were sort of like spies that were all going to the meeting point by different routes to avoid detection. We, in particular, had a pretty decent direct route through LAX with just two stops.
We started in the predawn hours of the morning to catch the first Caltrain going North, almost didn’t make it. Eventually we made it to the domestic terminal of the American Airlines for the first and the shortest leg. Since I booked the tickets all the way to Punta Arenas we only had to deal with the luggage at the start and the end of the journey. Hopefully LAN, the airline handling most of our long journey, wouldn’t lose them. Interestingly, right at the start they gave us three (3) boarding passes for all the planes all the way to the end.
In LAX, we (we also picked up Sayuri who was taking the same path) had to move to the international terminal. Not too bad considering that we had no large bags any more. The Tom Bradley International Terminal was still undergoing the renovations, so after we got thoroughly X-rayed (again) we had to go to some back location which looked more like warehouse than a terminal. It was just a simple rectangular space with people lining up to a gate leading right on the airfield. Then a bus would take you to a different building connected to the airplane (no use of the portable stairs to climb, sadly). There were lots of A380s moving around. I guess the use of this airplane is picking up. We could see groups of tourists going to the same place as us. There was a group of some Asian dudes with their backpacks as carry-on. I was skeptical that the packs will fit into the carry-on space, but they managed. I suppose it was one way to make sure your gear won’t be lost. But it won’t work for the real backpacking because the gear would include items like knife, stove, poles, etc.
The flight was a bit too long (the way back was much better, but that was still in the future). We started at around noon and arrived to Santiago at 2AM California time. The food was good. Entertainment was good with personal LCD displays (not like some old 747s that United is flying to Asia). Just the sound quality was so poor that it was almost impossible to hear what the people were saying in the movie.
Santiago greeted us with warmth and crowds. The first order of busyness was to pay the entry fine. Only citizens of US, Canada, Mexico, and Albania have to pay it. And it wasn’t the same amount for everyone. Gringos had to shell out $165. I guess it was the retaliation for the similar fees that aforementioned countries levy on people who want to visit them. I suppose it was fair, it just took too long. After the fine was the most tricky part of the trip – the dreaded Chilean customs. The rumors on the web were that they could confiscate anything that can be eaten, levy fines, detain people, and otherwise greatly delay any progress. As a result of all this scare I didn’t bring much food. Just 5 packages of freeze-dried dinners. That was all. But it turned out to be unnecessary – people brought cheese, oatmeal, trailmixes, etc. As long as the food was declared and factory packaged it was fine. So I could have brought pretty much most of the food without any worries, but who knew.
Once we relocated to the Chile domestic side terminal (Santiago airport was no LAX – it is just one large building) in a half-sleeping state our comrades weren’t there. We were supposed to meet Michael, who arrived the day before, and others who didn’t get the direct flight. That was a bit concerning. There were too many variables in this equation and any one of them could mess up the original plan. Oh well, at least we were in the right location at the right time. We tried to find some breakfast. The usual terminal food would do at this point, it was all new to us anyway. After some usual wanderings and no one really wanted to make a final decision we settled on some expensive sandwich shop (I was quite surprised at the prices there. Sure, I didn’t expect Thailand prices, but not European prices either). Ok, a simple sandwich and coffee (they didn’t have what we really wanted). My Spanish could have been better too. I looked at the list of available coffees there and chose the most boring one – Nescafe Coffee. What it amount to was a glass of hot water and a small pack of instant Nescafe coffee. Dough!
When we came back to our gate we met Michael, Kim, and Girish. The group was growing. Michael was up to date on the status of other people – who is there already, who got stuck at customs, and who slept at a wrong gate. We were in good shape.
I don’t remember much about the flight to Punta Arenas. It was a shorter flight and I was still jet lagged. They provided good food. The airline also gave out these little boxes with snack – a cookie, bag of nuts+raisins, and something else. Nothing special, other than good taste, just interesting. I’ve never seen any airline doing this.
Surprisingly all the luggage arrived. After traveling half way across the globe it was there in the tiny Punta Arenas airport. For some reason the workers took Girish’s bag, but otherwise it was all fine. We took some taxi to the bus station in the town. The taxis looked shady to Rita and she complained about. Well, I doubt that some bogus taxi cabs could be allowed working this very lucrative airport route. But we got to the bus station fine. On top of it the next bus was right in half an hour. Great. Rita went to her hostel and the rest of us just had a bit time to kill perhaps to change money and buy some supplies.
Punta Arenas looked grey. Maybe it was the cloudy weather. It looked dusty with some trash on the streets and graffiti everywhere. Lots of stray dogs wandering the streets. It reminded me Deadhorse for some reason, without the dogs. I guess these towns on the edge look similar. We walked around the central area. There was a promenade street that was being renovated. It was clear that this was either outdoorsy or tourist catering town, mostly due to all the outdoor gear stores prominently present in the center. The food places were mostly closed due to the siesta time. Still Michael managed to buy a large glass of beer in that limited time we had before the bus time. The bus did leave on time, which was good.
After a couple of hours of bus ride we have arrived to our final destination – Puerto Natales. Good thing that we were so far South because it was still well light outside despite being 8PM. The town was as dusty as Punta Arenas, just smaller. I mean, Puerto Natales wasn’t really that dusty that it was impossible to breathe, after all there were lots of rains there. But it had these subdued colors, with no vibrancy. I suppose it has to account for the “interesting” weather that occurs there in Winter season. The town was all 1-2 stories on a simple grid pattern (like LA). The people there were also quite used to foreigners so we were able to find our hostel fairly easy.
Singing Lamb, the hostel that I found by accident whose workers were very helpful answering my e-mails, would be our refuge for this night. It turned out that I steered most of the group (except for some cheap skates) to stay there too. Not that I advertised this place, just people followed my random choice. And I also wanted to give these guys some busyness since they were very helpful. But it wasn’t a bad choice – the place was clean, well run, a bit small, but they were expanding. The folks there were expecting us. Some people from our group were already there so they knew what was coming. They actually gave everyone a small tote bag with a towel and bedding (no other hostels we stayed at on this trip did that). After settling in the first order of (at least my) busyness was to get supplies. Since I didn’t bring much of food I really needed to buy it.
Puerto Natales has many small grocery shops and one large one, at least that what we found out. The large grocery store was normal looking – isles, some deli, vegetables, and huge liquor section (we can see who was the largest consumer of that section) – almost like a Safeway. The problem was that it had different products! So I came with this mindset of what I needed – oatmeal, raisins, bread, cheese, salami, coffee, peanut butter, etc – regular stuff. But they didn’t have this regular stuff. There was cheese and salami, of very good quality. And that was about it. So I had to improvise. Got two boxes of granola, two packages of pita bread, a small pack of coffee, and some nuts. That was all. Should have bought some “fire water”, but under stress I forgot about it. Didn’t get the dried milk because the pack looked too large. That was a mistake – dried milk in Chile is the real deal, not that ground up chalk they sell in US. So, not exactly my usual food, that had to do.
Met with V and Rima. Their hostel was right next to the supermarket. V was recovering from some food pathogen he acquired on the Argentina side of his trip. Due to that he may not be able to go, which was getting to me as the substitute leader. It was also possible that the pass was closed. Allegedly some fresh snow and ice and fog did it. Looking at the weather in Puerto Natales it was totally possible. Little did we know that the current weather in the city is not very representative of the actual weather in the park. But we had to try. It would totally suck if we spent 3 days backpacking to a closed pass (then spend 3 days going back and the vacation is over). We got some simple Chilean fish dinner, bought bus tickets to the park (they actually sold round trip tickets which was good), and closed the day for busyness. It was kind of busy in the hostel. They just had several large rooms and different people were trying to do stuff, shower, pack, check e-mail, and sleep at the same time. I went through some of my teammate’s food and asked them to leave some behind. They brought way too much. After all was done I passed out like dead. Tomorrow would be an early start.
Interesting thing was the fuel – the white gas or kerosene. Usually it is sold in containers like this. It is fuel after all, not for human consumption. In Chile (or Argentina) the fuel is sold in bottles that look like water bottles – clear, cylindrical, and plastic. You really need to carefully read the label and then sniff the contents before you can be sure that it wasn’t water. We were wondering about the number of poisonings that they have per year of people who mistake white gas for water. Not that I’m a bit proponent of metal containers, plastic will do, but at least they could have put some clearly visible label on their bottles.
Saturday, December 15
The bus was supposed to come at 7AM. Singing Lamb people would cook the breakfast for the guests starting at 6:30AM. For some reason I got up at 6AM. Took the last shower, checked my e-mails. Surprisingly the world was going on without me no problem. Breakfast was the freshly baked bread (by a machine), omelet, and coffee. Not much, but will last for a couple of hours. The bus came on time. Our place was the first stop, but it then went to pick up other people and it was full in the end.
There was pretty much one main entrance to the park where all the buses from Puerto Natales come – Guarderia Laguna Amarga. There was a whole caravan of buses heading towards that place. For whatever reason we stopped at some intermediary gift-shop thing that was just barely opening. The bad thing was that very cold wind was blowing. The good thing was that V decided to come.
At the entrance station to the park we payed the dues and provided some personal information like passport number and occupation. I’m not really sure why Chilean government collected this information (everywhere: in hostels, on every campground). Maybe passport number would make some sense, but occupation? Why do they care what I do in my time? But the most outrages was the entrance fee – 18000 Chilean Pesos (which was ~$36 at the time). I guess they just want to milk this cow as much as possible, because this is higher than Yosemite per person. At least now they started forcing everyone to be educated about Leave No Trace philosophy. After paying the dues you are ushered into a room where they show a nice video about picking up trash, not making fires, and so on. Not as extensive as in Yellowstone, but still something. I suppose people tried to warm themselves and couldn’t control what they created. With the winds there it could be a big problem. Especially considering that most of the visitors were rather new to backpacking. There was one English-speaking girl the administrative office, seemed like a volunteer. She said that cougars may be seen in the park. But other than that there were not much of large fauna. Then we took one more bus to Las Torres, the real start of out trek.
I was a bit worried before going to this trip about the buses. There may be many buses, how to find the right one, and so on. My typical worry. But the reality was much simpler. There was a large number of people, primarily foreigners, who were doing the same thing we did. So there wasn’t much room to get lost – just follow the crowd. It really showed on the way back when all the buses waited for all people to board and go back. After they left there were no tourists in the entrance area.
After some initial packing we started hiking North. The land was mostly what looked like a prairie or a pasture – open land with expansive vistas. There was some thin deciduous forest. We were actually on the private ranch land, at least that was what the map showed. Some remains of the largest cattle producer in the world. That made for hiking on some old road and crossing several fences. It seemed that they were still raising cattle there because the land was ‘mined’. That made finding a good lunch spot rather difficult – it was either wind or flies. But V managed to find a nice place with some views.
Especial consideration had to be taken to the trail signs in this area. Since it was private land it didn’t really follow the common guideline in the rest of the park. The wooden board would show some sort of elevation graph (I didn’t check how precise it was) with points marking highest and lowest altitudes and distances between them. So the sign may say 1.2 km left, but till the low point as opposed to till the next junction, which what we were interested in. In reality I couldn’t quite figure out the nomenclature of those signs. I guess they were trying to provide more information about the trail, but it ended up being more confusing.
Puesto Ceron was a simple installation at the end of the flat grassland a bit off the glacier river. It provided water, flush toilets, even showers. But no food. All of this for the price of 4000 pesos. Mosquitoes there were going at us incessantly. As a result, after a regular camping dinner nest to the remains of some old barn we called it a day. It wasn’t really cold at the camp, but I can’t say it was warm either. You can feel it that the area was not tropics, you could feel this cold, especially after sunset (at 10PM, sweet). The mountains behind actually had fresh snow on them.
Sunday, December 16
Finally I slept well. It was raining during the night, but cleared out by working. Get up, eat, pack, some people even took shower. Standard camping procedures. The day’s entertainment started from weighing the packs. For some reason there was a mechanical weight on a tree right next to the cabin. Perhaps the workers were measuring how much their horses could carry or they wanted to make fun of the tourists. Well, the packs were lighter as expected. But some common gear got reshuffled as soon as people compared the weights.
Continue walking towards the pass. That was all we had to do. The weather was great – sunny and relatively warm with a slight wind. Good thing there was some wind because it was blowing away the mosquitoes. I personally didn’t mind that much the mosquitoes if the other choice was some cold wind. We quickly passed the valley of daisies and started turning more towards West. The trail was going steadily up in what looked like a glacier valley almost devoid of trees. We had to climb over a couple of fences demarcating the limits of some private land. Pretty much right after the camp Ceron we hit the trail, no more of that road busyness. The trail was reasonably well maintained. Not that it was very complicated, none of that Kings Canyon or Yosemite insanity. But they didn’t make it very easy to travel either. I mean there were no switchbacks and very little steps. On the way our group developed interest in the fossils that could be found on some of the slippery slopes. The slopes were not well made for the walking with a backpack, but good for finding fossils.
After we turned more West the views became better. We could see the glaciers and mountains on the Argentinian side of the river. We could also see the mountains, covered with fresh snow, close to the center of the park. Had lunch in a forest of sorts. The path was going through it and we just found an empty spot away from other people.
Those other people were actually interesting. I didn’t really notice it at the time, but there was just one trail there – The Circle. It was also far enough for the day hikers from Las Torres. Which meant that these folks that we passed, if they follow the standard Circle schedule, would be with us for about 9 days. That what actually happened. Yes, there were some geniuses who ran through the trail doing double mileage. But the regular route was fine too. At least it would allow you to absorb all the scenery, not just get an exercise.
There was one French citizen who was training to be a guide. I believe he was also a photographer because he was carrying fair amount of photo equipment. Then there was a family from Belgium (if I remember correctly) – parents with their adult son. They were doing some serious mileage and were cooking great food. And then there was a couple from US – grandfather and granddaughter – on vacation before college. Initially we sort of ignored each other. But then towards the end of the trip the relationship was much friendlier. After all we saw each other every day going through the same obstacles.
But the day was continuing without much events. We passed some swampy area with half working wooden walkways. There there was a stampede of running horses carrying supplies. Their handlers were behind them in not much hurry to catch them. I guess they didn’t care much if some careless foreign hiker would get stamped on.
The Lago Dickson camp site was on a flat meadow by the lake. It was a beautiful sight to see from the hill above. There was a small log house, another one with the store, restrooms, and old showers (the French guide, Jan, said that those showers were so poorly maintained that someone fell through), and lots of room for tents. It seemed there were people saying there doing something with the horses across the lake.
Right when we arrived the hosts asked who wanted to have dinner. Yes, I planned on it. It turned out that there were just two takers – me & Michael. Two takers from all the groups. I guess the dinner wasn’t that popular. That was probably a good idea to bring your own dinner; however, we were rewarded with an interesting meeting. But about it later.
We finished relatively early. So the group just wandered around after setting up camp. It was nice to walk barefoot on the grass. The weather was warm so that I was contemplating swimming in the lake. However, the water there looked like someone diluted cement in it (this was all from glacier runoff) that I decided against it. We did have a small yoga session while consuming the precious supplies of “potato juice“. Local fauna showed up in the form of two grey foxes. They have been apparently quite habituated to humans that they didn’t pay much attention to us trying to photograph them. They were not as strong as bears and couldn’t chew as much as mice. But these guys could probably steal the food if not stored correctly.
The dinner was called! Interesting. I suppose the camp was so small that it was not possible to get lost. I’m not sure what I expected exactly from that dinner. It was ok, considering the circumstances. There was some meat, probably ground beef from a can, mashed potatoes, nice soup, corn, fresh salad, a desert of pineapples, and freshly baked bread! Michael also bought a bottle of vine.
There were just two of us eating, but we had a companion – an elderly hiker from Israel. It turned out that he was also doing The Circle with a group. However, he was a bit slow for their taste and they abandoned him on the approach to the pass. As a result he had to spend a night in the forest (I guess he didn’t have some common gear). So he was going back Las Torres. The Chileans actually allowed him to stay in this cabin and fed him for free. He said that the next day they would evacuate him back.
When we were eating people were coming and going all the time, mostly to visit the hot showers. But also to get some of the vine. In the end Michael and I bought some food from the store to bring to the group table to sort of mend the spoiled relationship. It was really not very nice to eat separately.
Monday, December 17
I had to get up at night to offload that vine. It was cold and clear with a beautiful sky full of starts. The start did look different of course. Funny that on this trip I never really saw starry sky that much. Either it was rainy or cold. Also the days were so long that I was just too tired to stay up so late.
We started a bit late. Lazily had breakfast and packing. We went to the lake to do some artsy photo-shoot. Well, at least we tried. The view towards Argentina across lake Dickson was spectacular. We can see the glacier flowing down to the lake, clouds blowing slowly over the mountain covered with a fresh snow. It is hard to say if my photos actually did justice to what we saw.
After that it was very simple hike, at least before lunch. The trail was just going up and up – all towards the pass. Good thing about climbing up was that we could have better and better view of the Argentinean mountains. The strange was the forest we were walking through. We were quite a bit South. It would have been around Southern Canada for the same distance from the equator and that would have had a mixed forest. But we were in so-called Magellanic subpolar forest. So the forest was mostly southern beech. Really. There was no much diversity in trees at all. Interesting. Other than that the forest was blooming – lush green dense trees with some flowers at the ground level.
Eventually the trail plateaued for a bit. We found a great place to have out meager lunches on a bank of some fast flowing creek. It was going from all that glacier lakes further up. Yet it didn’t prevent some small bird from diving in and out of that cold fast water. I guess it was trying to catch some fish or some other food. I didn’t even know there was any fish in these rivers.
After lunch the environment started changing a bit. We left the forest, somewhat, and started passing the Los Perros glacier on the right and round lake below it. The glacier was actually hanging high above on the rocks slowly sliding down to the lake below. It was interesting to see different rock formations – light grey granite and black sedimentary basalt. After a bit of a open valley we entered the forest again. The Los Perros campground was very close or so it seemed. We just slogged through the valley and then some forest and were done.
The campground was slightly different from the previous one, just slightly. Well, the setting was different, in the middle of the forest, but he philosophy was the same, except they didn’t provide the food. And they also charged the same. The campground had a tiny food store. It actually had enough calories to sustain some organisms – M&M’s, cookies, tuna, ramen, etc. You just needed to provide some source of heat. The small building where the store resided also housed the rangers and toilets. There were also cold showers there. Interestingly there were these green spheres. They looked like some large fancy tents. I was really curious to see what was inside. From what I’ve heard later on people can actually reserve the tents on these campgrounds. The tents would be already setup for them. They just had to bring personal items and food, maybe. Kind of like a portable lodge. It would still suck – what sort of national park was it?
Anyway, we still had some time in the day to sit around and talk. Mosquitoes and other flying things were not so bad there. But there was some work to do. Girish’s fancy relatively new backpack decided to break in the most important place. Its heap belt was connected to the main body with a piece of flat plastic. After many bends back and forth the plastic just broke off. As a result one half of the hip belt was completely out and the second half was going the same way. So much for Gregory’s quality. Well, on the other thought – nothing lasts forever. My pack is the same age as his so I should watch its performance carefully. Girish somehow managed to reattach his broken hipbelt to the pack with some rope. It would probably be enough for this trip, but he wouldn’t be able to carry a lot of weight.
It had gotten a bit cold in the evening, but in general it was good weather. We had our dinner in this green common storm shelter. Other hikes going either way on the circle were there so it was a rather busy place. The shelter had a small wood burning stove that did provide some heat. I believe the ranger gave us some wood for it. Loredana and Rima were trying to dance for him to get some of their baked bread.
Tuesday, December 18
Finally the bad weather arrived. It started raining in the middle of the night. I also wisely completely forgot that it could happen and left my backpack without rain cover. I got used to California summer weather with no rains. As a result of that most of the equipment was wet and dirty. We picked nice place to camp also. It did look like some dried up paddles. And so we got soaked once it started raining.
The bigger issue was with the pass. Allegedly it can close, or can be closed, thought I doubt these guards really care or able to do that. But V wanted to be cautious (and we didn’t want to repeat what some group did there before us). So we waited. Perhaps the fog would clear up (then we would be able to see the Gray glacier from the pass). It was still drizzling so the pass could have been covered with a fresh snow. Well, it is the usual summit contemplation – we are here, should we try for the summit? While doing all this we were doing our morning chores, especially difficult one of folding the wet and dirty tent.
I don’t remember when it was exactly, bu we decided to go for it. I was carrying my wet tent and medical kit in my wet backpack. It was not pleasant. The rumors on the trail were that it would be muddy and it was. Puddles of sometimes deep mud and water all over. Saury was still trying to preserve her clean boots. Not sure if she succeeded. Someone gave us a good advice to stay to the left. I wasn’t exactly sure what it was, but it turned out that it was possible to avoid crossing that mountain raging river. The trail was not well maintained and at some point disappeared entirely. There were patches of snow here and there interspersed by scree fields. It was slow difficult slog up. Michael seemed to have been enjoying it. But I didn’t really. I was wet all over. Outside from the rain and then fog. Inside from sweat. I could have removed the jacket, but then it was getting cold. But we proceeded without leaving anyone behind. It was actually a lot easier to hike on a snow field than on rocks – just do small steps one after another. It was interesting to see all that snow and horrible weather just at 4000 feet. Had a lunch behind some rocks and made it to the Paso John Garner right after that.
The view of the Glacier Gray was … foggy. None of those gorgeous sunny views of this enormous glacier. I believe we waited there a bit in a futile hope that the wind may pick up and started heading down.
The mood have certainly improved. People were joking, fooling around, tried glissade down some snow fields. The fog lifted for a short period of time to give us a glimpse of the glacier. The fun started a little later, or lower. We went back to the Magellanic subpolar forest. But this side of the mountain was much steeper and wetter, and thus muddier. Apparently the park didn’t want to spend the fees on improving the trails. Right after the pass the trail was quite horrible – lots of slippery roots and logs, mud, some very high steps. Perfect place to get your ankles messed up really well or worse. I consider myself to have a good sense of balance. But with that heavy pack I had to be very careful going down (going? It was mole like climbing down). Besides, what was the rush? We were done with the hard part.
Now was the time to enjoy the trip, to some extent. We went low enough to be low the clouds so we could see this immense piece of ice. As with any large glacier you can actually feel it much better. It was like standing next to an open freezer. People say that one way to get a feel for Grand Canyon whether in summer is to stick your head into an oven. I suppose one way to feel a glacier is to stick your head into a freezer.
After several hours of this mud acrobatics we reached campamento Paso. This was the first truly back-country campground in this trip. It was free, but the guard person was very diligent and actually punctured a whole in my back-country permit. I guess they were all supposed to do it, but didn’t. The camp was quite small and cramped. It was in the middle of forest on a slope. Finding a relatively flat spot was a challenge. I wonder what would happen in a case when it ran out of room. There were some limited facilities. Water source was the little creek running down the mountain. But it had water that tasted better than what we get in stores. There was a storm shelter where people could hang out, cook, perhaps dry their wet closes. It was a bit tight in it, but we managed. There weren’t that many people anyway (unlike the campgrounds further down). Some folks were trying to clean up. I think I tried to wash and dry my gaiters. The rest was no use – the weather was cold and humid so it would take a very long time to dry anything.
Wednesday, December 19
It was a bit of a recovery. Not sure if it was more mental than physical – the trickiest, most questionable part was over, now would be the time to enjoy the trip (well, the backpacking part). The weather was still more on a humid side. Things were dump and dirty. Now we were backpacking! It was the 5th day. By this time individuals usually transform into the backpacking mode (or they were beaten up so much that they don’t care).
We left the camp at regular time – after all other groups. The trail was excellent. Once we came out of the forest and bit it was going on the edge of the slope with a nice open view of the Glacier Gray. The clouds lifted a bit showing some amount of deep blue sky. Great weather.
Walking was easy if a bit slow due to all those pictures were making. All this wast expanse of the glacier, crossed by the darker colored crevasses. Too bad the Chileans didn’t let us walk on the glacier itself. That would have been fun.
The slope we were walking on was covered in that local bushes that produced red berries that we just found were edible. They weren’t terribly sweet, but it was still good to add some vitamins to the diet (at least they were better than Darwin’s fungus). In a couple of places there these, I could say, vista points. They allowed for good opportunity to take pictures or simply enjoy the view of that magnificent nature that was in front of us.
The mountains covered in snow even is summer create a lot of water. That water washes deep galleys of scree and boulders that are generally difficult (read fun) to cross. If it was Alaska we would have been on that trail for weeks. But since it was a very popular spot, the park installed these metal ladders. Perhaps they would also reduce erosion that people cause. The ladders were a bit fun to use. But, personally, I would have been fine without them. I was also not sure if relying on these ladders actually presented more hazard than it solved. They were at places really just tied with ropes. But we managed.
We started meeting more and more people on the trail. Mostly because it was getting close to the civilization connected through Refugio Grey. We even saw some Chilean tourists. That was a good change from all those foreigners.
On the way we passed an old campground that was closed for the time. I believe it was campamento Guardas. Nothing really special about that site. Except, it had a path going to a one more Glacier Grey vista point. The crowds already appeared so the place felt like Yosemite valley, perhaps not in the peak of Summer, but close. The view from the point was fine, considering that we saw it for the last two days. But, the biggest attraction of the moment was the film crew shooting some drama on the slope with the glacier as the background. There were people carrying all sorts of equipment all over (even though the sign said not to go there). Two actors – one older wearing a city jacket and a younger one with a backpack – were having some very strong conversation and waving guns. Well, technically only the old guy was talking. They movie crew did several takes each time they yelled ‘cilencio’ at people because they were actually recording the sound. It would be interesting to know what on earth these two characters were doing in the park and how this scene fit in the story. Another thing I was wondering about was where these people, and especially the actors, were staying. They certainly wouldn’t do the uphill hike from Refugio Grey. Besides, there weren’t that much room there. They probably gotten to their shooting spot by boat.
After the movie view the hike was easy. Just follow the trail and mind the crowds. There were good opportunities to take interesting pictures. People were going back and forth. I had this same feeling as after coming out of the Grand Canyon when you reach the rim crowds. You are talking about seeing Grand Canyon? You haven’t seen the Grand Canyon. You didn’t feel it in your bones. It was interesting to see from our distance a tiny ship navigating its way before the tongue of the glacier. It gives you a good perspective of the size of that chunk of ice.
Refugio Grey and the campground next to it were busy. We first saw the campground. It was basically a field of glass on the side of the trail stretching towards the rising mountains. It was already quite populated but had quite a bit of empty space (nice contrast with campamento Paso). Personally, while backpacking I don’t care much for the spot my tent is on, as long as it is safe, dry, and reasonably secluded. We were not there to stay at 5-star resorts after all. But some people could be very picky. The good thing was that the weather had a couple of hours window of sun so that we were able to dry out all that wet equipment. After that it was all easy. The place had the lodge with rooms of different luxury, lounge, and restaurant. The second building was for the backpackers. It had a small store, a room to cook and eat if you don’t have money to go dine, and toilets with showers. Our folks hit the showers right after unpacking. Well, I did too, but after my gear was dry.
Then I met … my wife. It turned out that they changed the agreed upon schedule and made their trip only cabin walking with no camping. I didn’t really like it, but what could I do. Someone decided that this trip was above her comfort level. There was no need to get upset and mess up your own vacation. So we proceeded to the main eating hall.
I wasn’t entirely sure how the arrangements were since I got there late. It seemed that the kitchen didn’t have much capacity to feed a lot of people. So everyone got the same food at the same time. We occupied a large wooden table that we shared with some strange couple (the man was from Portland and his girlfriend was from German. He also managed to really mess up his ankle walking on the Grey Glacier). Actually, while we were waiting for food Rita was helping people with their ailments. Good thing there weren’t anything life threatening But there were many people with discomforts after all that physical activities. It turned out that Rita was doing acupuncture while staying at her hostel too. Chilean government for some reason wants to know your occupation. Thus people in Singing Lamb knew what she was doing and asked for help.
Dinner was fine. A bit better than the one in Dickson. The meat was not ground but a stake and better desert. That was about it. We had food, too much vine, and called it a day.
Thursday, December 20
Breakfast was at that glorified storm shelter in the second building. Well, it had running water and was closed and warm. Some German couple offloaded their packets of dried milk on us (me mostly). They had extra and they were pretty much done with their trip – just had to catch the ferry at Lago Pehoe. The dried milk was great. It actually had slightly yellowish color indicating the presence of all that tasty fats. The real stuff, not like a ground chalk they sell in US. Interestingly there was a No Smoking sign there (as all over the park). But people were running stoves like mad cooking water. I’m not really sure what they expected when they put this sign. However, it would have been nice to have some ventilation because these stoves do make some carbon monoxide. Still, that was the best “storm shelter” during the entire trip.
The crowds were coming in. People were hiking from Lago Pehoé to see the big glacier up close. The weather started to change slightly. It was still sunny, but then we would get these wind gusts for a while. Then the wind started bringing first rain, then snow. It would blow very hard, then it would rain, then it would snow, then pause for a couple of minutes then repeat. It wasn’t too bad, just had to put on and off waterproof covering all the time. On the plus side this wind made for some very spectacular scenery. This time I really wished I had a camera with video. We were passing by some very formidable mountains. The wind was blowing clouds and maybe snow around them. You can see the clouds being pushed towards the sharp peaks and then slowly rolling over them with everything lit by the bright sun. Beautiful. I could just stand there and watch the this show.
We reached Camp Pehoé at the regular lunch time. It was blowing big time. Camp Pehoé sits at the Southern tip of a land mass surrounded by lakes. Beautiful lakes and a good location for a catamaran dock, but it was also completely open for that Antarctic winds. And this day they were pounding like there was no tomorrow. Generally people camp next to the main lodge. However, this time there were no tents at all. I wasn’t sure if mine would stand up to this kind of assault. Based on our plan we would just have lunch and continue to Campamento Italiano. Hopefully the weather there would be better.
The lunch was fine. At least we were inside. Well, technically we weren’t supposed to sit at that fancy indoor dining hall. Though we were with a guest, they still reprimanded at us. Whatever, they could kiss it. Their rich guests won’t suffer that much. Besides, the hall was empty anyway. There was also a little store, and (!) access to The Internet. Couldn’t get away from it. So I suppose the nature was great, but it wasn’t real backpacking.
I wasn’t looking forward to the second half of this day’s walking. It looked really cold and windy outside. But, what else could I do? So I sucked it up and continued. Heavy pack had certainly helped with balance in the wind. In reality, other than it was freezing cold and I had to make sure that nothing gets blown off me (or I get blown off), it was very beautiful. Someone said that bad weather makes for best pictures. Well, we have had plenty of that on this trip and especially this day.
The lakes around Pehoé had slightly different color. Lago Grey was more grey due to all the sediments from the glacier. Lago Pehoé was azure. I suppose the water there was cleaner. The wind was so hard that it would pick up water dust from the surface. We could see small water droplet devils dancing in the lake Pehoé.
The trail was going through the burned up forest. It was interesting, though a sad sight. I could understand how it would burn like that. With this wind, any fire would spread so fast no one would be able to stop it. Another sad sign was that with the vegetation gone the wind was blowing off the soil. This would reduce the possibility of the plants growing again. There were some rumors about some sloppy tourist from Israel who started this fire. I doubt he did it on purpose. Probably he was just stupid. Since we reached the ‘W’ section of the trail, which was more accessible, there were more and more people who shouldn’t really be doing backpacking in the first place. Perhaps that was the reason for Chilean authorities to start requiring guides for tourists (or so were the rumors).
Reached the crowded Campamento Italiano. Another site that was free. The facilities there, let’s just say, needed maintenance. For some unknown reason CONAF installed flush toilets there. One building in the trees had 4 of them. However, only one was open. Thus, with so many people, it was not in working order. Why did they have to necessarily install flush ones as opposed to what NPS usually does escapes me. But the situation was such that it would have been nicer to do it in the woods. I suspect many people did.
The camp also had a storm shelter similar to Campamento Paso. But with so many people it was way too crowded. Since our group was so large we slowly edged them out and almost occupied its entirety. The sky was clear, most of the time, but the wind was just going incessantly. It would also sometimes blow in this fine dry snow. Perhaps that water it picked up from the lakes. Trees and the shelter provided some cover for the cold, but not that much. So after dinner we just called it the day.
Friday, December 21
The night was eventful. The wind was just going on and on and on. Sometimes I was afraid the tent would fall apart. I wasn’t really sure how much sleep I’ve gotten. However, by dawn the wind had subsided. In fact we were surprised by a very pleasant weather in the morning. All I could think was “damn it, but we earned it!”. All that suffering the day before really payed off. It seemed that the wind had blown off the bad weather, at least for a while.
The plan of the day was to, after the morning procedures, hike up the valley – the middle part of the ‘W’ trail – and the continue to the next site. I could feel the energy at our large campground. It seemed that people were quite happy to have a good weather day. So we consumed our food, packed the stuff, except the large tent, piled the packs, and started. Rita, who was staying in a warm refugio, was suppose to get to our campground by 10AM. I waited for her a bit and started going to the valley too. I told her to go that direction, so she should be fine.
It was really a fine day – sunny with some clouds. It is always nice to have some clouds in the sky, I think. Makes to more interesting view. The wind was still there, still pushing clouds around the sharp peaks. But it either wasn’t that hard or it was higher that it wasn’t so bad. The mountains had fresh snow on them from the previous day. The first mountain (shown of the photo on the left) – Cumbre Principal – right at the entrance of the Macizo del Paine, standing there like the guardian of the valley, had Glacier Frances on its chest. The glacier was cracking with very loud thunderous sounds. You could see ice falling down. People were making predictions on what part may fall next. The fact was that all this ice would fall, eventually. Whether we wold still be alive was another story.
The trail was busy with people. I guess we were not the only ones enjoying this rare beautiful day. It was definitely not made for simple walking – the trail involved a lot of boulder and tree hopping. I enjoyed it; but I guess I was in a better shape with better balance than many people. The rocks around where prime climbing real estate. That is assuming one can live through all that horrible weather. There was granite that looked younger and sharper than Yosemite. There there were some black sedimentary rocks in the mix. Some granite faces had these black lines. They didn’t look like the black plant growths from water. Those are usually vertical. However, we couldn’t figure out what they were.
The final officially allowed point was about in the middle of the valley – Valle Francés. It had great panoramic views. There used to be a campground there, but it was closed. Well, I wasn’t sure if the rangers could actually prevent some determined individuals from staying there. In reality, one can bushwhack cross-country there fine – it wouldn’t be too difficult. But we didn’t go any further – had lunch there, took lots of photos, did yoga poses on the strategically located rock, and headed back.
Going back on that trail have proven to be rather slow and tedious. It would have been very sad to twist something critical right at end of the trip, especially while not carrying anything and at such a nice day. So we made it to the camp at around 3PM with some waiting for the rest of the team. Picked up our gear and headed to the next one – Los Cuernos. The between-camp trail was pretty much as the day before – just path between bushes going up and down. On the way we stopped at the bi-colored beach of the Lake Nordenskjöld. For some reason there was an equal mixture of white and black boulders. It might have been artificial. But didn’t think so – there is no way Chileans would spend so much money making this beach for some foreign tourists. So it must have been natural, we just couldn’t figure out the process. But they day was still young and, especially, warm. At least the air was warm enough to dry out after swimming in this lake that was fed by the snowmelt. Pretty much most of the group went swimming, except for the skittish and the leader, of course. One can’t really call it swimming – more like dunking in and out, because the water was freezing cold. But it was still very refreshing. Even one of our The Circle companions did that, succumbing to the group mentality.
Los Cuernos camp was not far from our swimming place. It was a busy affair situated on a mountain slope in the bushes of the same Magellanic subpolar forest. It looked exactly like on the advertisement. There was a large lodge with amenities and platforms for tents. The amenities included a store, restaurant, toilet, showers, and a a tiny shed in the back. Well, I suppose it wasn’t much larger than the others we saw in this park. At least it was fully shielded and had transparent roof that made it very light.
The platforms were somewhat necessary because of the sloped terrain. But they made it very difficult to actually stake the tents.
If I remember correctly I was planning to lavish the hot dinner being sold there for some obscene amount of money. But by this day I was pretty much broke (together with several other people). So I was stretching my 2 person freeze dried dinners. Good thing Rita brought some extra tasty Chilean salami. However, smelling all that food our neighbors were cooking was rather difficult. On top of it this campground, which was actually privately run, decided to fully use their monopoly and change double for their platforms and hot showers. So we enjoyed a lovely cozy dinner of some leftovers, donated dried milk, and Michael’s vine. In the mean time people were taking showers while hot water was running.
Saturday, December 22
It was raining during the night and was still drizzling in the morning. I guess the nice weather doesn’t last long in this place (‘nice’ here may be relative). So we did the morning chores sharing that tiny shed behind the lodge. Sort of like some reach man’s poor relatives who were crashing at his back yard. But, what sort of backpacking trip is it if you are staying in a lodge with full amenities.
The weather seemed sad, or unhappy about something. There were low gray clouds covering the sky, sometimes drizzling. Wind was blowing a bit and the temperature was about 10C or so. Just low enough to wear a jacket, but high enough to generate a lot of sweat. At some point I gave up to keep clean and dry. This particular trail was well maintained. It can be seen by the brand new bridge installed across one of the creeks. I suppose it was also easier trail to maintain. There weren’t steep mountains or dense forests. The trail did go up and down, but very gradually. The views of the Lake Nordenskjöld were spectacular. Yes, the weather wasn’t sunny, but it made for a very interesting mood – it felt like a storm was coming. We saw some strange sedimentary rock formations across Lake Nordenskjöld – it looked as if a layered cake was pressed in the middle.
But the same trail had an abundance of large ripe Red Crowberries. It seemed that the common ‘W’ tourists didn’t know they were edible and thus left a lot for us. They made that meager backpacking lunch quite tasty.
We took some sort of shortcut to the Valle Ascencio leading to our final stop of the trip – camp Torres. That shortcut seemed new. The trail was cut at the West side of the valley in the scree slope. It required an initial climb, but then rewarded us with a beautiful views of the valley, especially the sight of the Ascencio river that looked like a white snake slithering through the terrain. That nice trail led to just refugio El Chileno, of course. The refugio had a large house with a store and dining hall and several smaller structures that seem to house bank beds. There were also horse stables. The store was a bit low on supplies – all they had were vine and condoms, at least what I could see. Either the people didn’t care about that and bought out all the other stuff or the management really knew what to stack up on.
I thought we were done, more or less. The refugio was at about the same altitude as our camp and it wasn’t that far distance-wise. Boy, was I wrong! The trail, now running through some serious forest was like roller-coaster. It was going up and down steep. There wasn’t a lot of altitude change, but it was adding up. It also had some mud and lots of wet slippery roots and trees. Plus my expectation of easy finish didn’t make it for happy hiking, though I tried very hard to slow down and enjoy the process.
Campamento Torres was hiding in a way under the forest canopy. It comprised of the same tiny shelter, a little house for the rangers and spots for the tents. Water source was the little stream going through it. Actually, the water in the park was exceptional – clean and tasty. And it can be drank right from the streams. It wasn’t yet polluted, at least there was no way to tell. This camp was free. It had a very responsible host who took his job seriously. He actually greeted people coming in, asked them to sigh the register, and explained the same leave no trace rules. Then just pointed to some empty flat spot for possible tent locations. That was all. We found an ok place. I wasn’t really picky about the incline and flatness of the place, as long as it was not too far away from flat. My sleeping pad, when it was inflated, could smooth out small irregularities.
After settling in (and the futile attempt to dry some closes that was prevented by light drizzle), Girish, Andreas, and I went to check out the place to see The Torres. Generally, the view of the Torres is better from a little lake a short hike up. All that photos on the web were actually made from there. But I was to lazy to go there. Instead it was possible to take a glimpse of them, or not, if the visibility was bad. So that what we did. The visibility was low and we went back. We could use the same spot the next day early morning to catch the sunrise, if the weather was good.
Dinner was the regular affair. I was cooking water and people were discussing that Patagonian lamb they would eat the next day. That dry milk was very popular and was pretty much finished. I gave hot tea to some Italian dude who bushwhacked from the Valley Frances. He was carrying quite a bit pf photo gear, but not much food and good closes.
Sunday, December 23
We were there, at the most interesting spot in the park. Well, I suppose if you are an average Joe-tourist doing the ‘W’ this would have need the climax point of your trip. However for us, after 8 days, there was a bit of a sensory overload. But since we were at the spot already might as well see them. There was a talk about some famous Patagonia Lamb, but to get it we had to make it to the first bus back which required perhaps not seeing them. There was no way we would have left this place without it. After all that was the view of this park. On the other hand the weather could have other opinions, like it did on the pass a couple of days ago.
The rain came during the night. Well, it was kind of drizzling and foggy the day before, but it really came down during the night. I was too lazy to get up and see if The Torres were at all visible, didn’t see the point with the rain. (Laziness again might have robbed me of a good shot). The mood was low in the camp – fog clouded the view we were all waiting for and we didn’t have an extra day to stay and wait for the view to open up. Some people said that it opened up for about 15 min early in the morning. Oh, well, it was still a good trip. So we did our morning chores, packed, and … decided to take a look. Perhaps the fortunes would be on our side.
The camp Torres was located right at the edge of the forest. This forest started after a fairly deep ravine. The trail going to the main Torres viewpoint turned right before the ravine. It was nice because all that day-hiking traffic wasn’t passing through the campground. So we left our packs in the bushes at the trail junction and headed to see the view. The Torres were up in the mountains, they had a glacier below them and a lake. And the whole thing was on a rather steep ledge above the camp. The trail there was rather treacherous but mostly constituted of boulder hopping. In the end you had a view of grey glacier lake below the ridge and some rock formations in the fog.
There were some people mingling there, hoping to see what we all came there for. Nope the fog wasn’t lifting. We were just standing there, for a while. People came and gone, some stayed. Sayuli and Michael left to catch the first bus back. But we decided to stay till the end. There was some progress in the sky – the wind was blowing a bit and it slowly was moving all that low hanging clouds. Eventually, we could see those rock spires. One at a time mostly, but it was still spectacular. It actually became quite sunny and warm. Our group just occupied the rocks sitting there watching this movie of the mountains dancing withe the clouds. Perhaps if it was just plane boring blue sky it wouldn’t be so interesting. But that day it was all that activity.
But we had to go too. We still had a long hike down to the Hosteria Las Torres. This time it was really downhill, with no surprises. The weather was excellent – warm and sunny. I even had enough time to dry all my beaten gear. On this trail with nice weather we made good progress going down. I saw some tourists slugging it up to the main viewing point for the park. They didn’t really know how much they had still to go. So? The view of The Torres doesn’t come free – you have to earn it.
After coming out of the valley Ascencio there was a brief view of the surrounding area. I was already out of the mountains, but not yet low enough not to see the valley. It looked as if the main mountain complex just sprang up from some relatively flat area. Usually volcanoes have this type of formation, not the granite rocks with glaciers. There were fluffy clouds floating in the sky. The visibility was so good that I could see that it was raining in one section. It was just incredible view. I could just sit there for hours, probably, and watch it. See those shadows from the clouds move on the ground.
We made it to the Hosteria Las Torres on time. There was still a couple of hours before that us. We were sitting on the ground next to some old boiler and intimidating passing tourists with our beards and all that gear laying around to dry. There was enough time to visit the hotel to check out their fancy model of the park, large vestibule, and expensive gift shop. I kept wondering about their source of electricity, water, and sewage facilities. I hope they didn’t just dump this stuff to the lakes. It was getting progressively colder towards the evening so I was quite happy to see the bus come.
There were actually more people that spaces in the bus so they had to call another one. The good thing was that all the buses at ??(entrance) actually waited for people to come. After we loaded to the return buses to Punta Arenas that area was completely deserted. The drive back was not so bad. We actually had a better view of the Torres than in the park itself.
Arrived to town a bit late. Since V was in a different place I just picked one advertised place that had the local specialty – Patagonia Lamb. Obviously, since it was advertised in Lago Pehoe, it was more touristy than good. Somehow Michael found a much better local place right next to or hostel. However, since our genius driver brought us to the other end of town instead of to our hostel, we only made it to Singing Lamb by the time we were supposed to meet. Then I had to herd the cats around to get to the eating place. People were looking for places, setting up, thinking of shower, talking , etc. But not focusing on the main objective – Patagonian Lamb.
We got to the place Michael recommended – La Picada de Caritos – a bit late. Had to get V from the other spot where he already started drinking. I’m not sure what Michael did to get him to come. The only problem was – our place ran out of lamb. That was sad. But we still had some good food and enough wine to get Rita drunk. Came back to Singing Lamb way after midnight. Adreas kicked me out of the outside tent that they assigned to me and I was actually looking forward to. But I was too tired to argue. Eventually this big anthill settled down for the night.
Monday, December 24
After that alcohol loaded late dinner people were rolling out slowly. I, on the other hand, got up like an idiot early. Perhaps the sleep wasn’t that good. I got used to sleeping in a wet and cold tent with Girish. Sleeping in a warm clean bed was unusual. I was wondering the hostel doing chores, shower, tried to shave my 10 days old beard with some cheap razor, collected all that dirty closes. In reality all I had to do this day was to get laundry done. That was the main goal. And get to Puerto Varas, of course.
Singing Lamb actually made breakfast for the guests. Very nice of them. This was actually the only hostel in Chile we stayed in that did that. On the way to the park there was just one man cooking. Now, on the way back, there were two women. They actually came to ‘work’ in this hostel over the summer. They actually owned some part of it, if I remember right. So this time we got a very English breakfast – porridge, in addition to the home made bread, eggs, and coffee. Very nice. After that I was just wondering around, checking e-mail, or rather using the free WiFi, and trying to find a laundry place. For some reason the local woman who was at the front desk didn’t know anything about it.
The Argentinian fraction of our group was trying to find a bus ride out of Punta Arenas. They were having problems. Christmas in Chile presented a bit of a problem with buses. No one really knew if they were working or not. We could also get stuck in Puerto Varas for tomorrow if we can’t get bus tickets to Pucon. Perhaps the buses were not working. But it wasn’t as critical for us.
Eventually we managed to get info on the laundry place. It was a small place walking distance from our hostel. The woman there could wash stuff for you, but there were also washers and driers ‘for rent’. Funny the machines were the same as in US and they had those payment systems operated by quarters! You pay the owner of the shop and she would give you the appropriate number of quarters to start the machine. In the end we did the laundry, ran some errands and even had time to visit the La Picada de Caritos for the famous Patagonia Lamb, which they did have this time. There we found that the Argentine crew found some bus and were leaving within an hour.
Punta Arenas airport was tiny, I mean really tiny. There was one small see-through building in the middle of a flat area. When we arrived people just congregated there, no boarding was yet to start. Not a lot of people either. After initial morning fog the day really cleared up. It was a bit windy, but the views of the sky and mountain were spectacular, right from the airport. Eventually the plane came and we had the normal boarding procedure. At least the flights were working fine despite Christmas. They even put us through the metal detector. However, none of that no shoes or X-ray nonsense. But we had to walk to our plane. The flight was uneventful except for the views. There were some very sharp looking mountains right North of Torres Del Paine. Why didn’t we go there instead of that zoo we went to?
We made it to the Puerto Montt airport fine. Found some dude with a taxi service, it seems. Not sure if he was legal or not. There was also one Australian family going with us to Puerto Varas. The guy was driving like it was race or something. It would have been fine it wasn’t pouring rain, the road was simple two lane country road, and we also passed several accidents. So we had a rather adrenaline filled ride. However, rain made everything cleaner. It washed away all that dust in the air (well, if there was any) and after it was gone we were greeted by a very lovely small town.
Puerto Varas town looked interesting, more like a European town somewhere in Germany or Benelux. Clearly it had quite a bit of influence from all that immigrants from Europe. Our hostel – Melmac Patagonia (no idea why they named it this way, it was quite a long way from actual Patagonia) – was basically someone’s house converted to a hostel. It provided some hospitality, but nothing on the scale of the Singing Lamb. It seemed the people there were too involved with their own trips, or maybe it was due to Christmas. The town looked rather deserted. I didn’t know how it usually looked, but I would expected more people. We went for a walk around. Found one rate open place by the lakefront, had some very good hot chocolate, and went back to the hostel.
Got the tickets for Pucon on jac bus. I was worried about these tickets. It was Christmas day after all and the rumors were that the buses were not working. Girish and I went out early morning to see what was available. The town was dead, quite completely. But the bus station was working and we got decent tickets at good time. We quickly packed and went to the station. The day before I downloaded another Spanish dictionary to my phone in order to improve somewhat the communication, but it was even worse than the previous one. We bought some empanadas at the bus station and coffee for breakfast. Man, that was the coffee – it was not acidic and not sweet, just as it should be. None of those sugar loaded contraptions they sell in US.
The bus was comfortable, good seats. It had some old TVs at the ceiling, but they were not working. There was a steward who would check tickets, cleanup the bus, wipe the windows from all that condensation. It was a fairly efficient operation. There was an indicator screen about the current speed, which never exceeded 100 kmh. Perhaps there was a law against bus drivers driving too fast. We took the local bus. What it meant was that it would stop at many places and wouldn’t take the most direct route. The bus was a bit modified from the standard (or old) design – there was the divider from the driver compartment to the main passenger compartment with the door. When you get in to the bus you have to pass through this first driver area, say ‘ola’ to the conductor, and proceed to the main compartment. It was almost like in an airplane.
It was raining quite a bit in the morning, but then it cleared out. We were going North. The nature looked more and more like my homeland in the middle of summer. Well, it was the middle of summer after all. After the rain it was very beautiful. There were lush green hills with picturesque small houses and organic grass-fed cattle. The bus wasn’t going on some functional but ugly multilane interstate, but on a winding two lane country road. Yet the road was well maintained. Since it was a local bus it wasn’t talking the most direct route and was stopping all the time. People were getting on and coming off.
We got into Pucon on the scheduled time. That bus ride, though interesting, was by the end getting tiresome. The hostel in question – Hostal el Refugio – was right across the street from the bus station, which was convenient. The hostel was a single family house in a yard with a bamboo lined fence around it. Perhaps it was mostly to separate the hostel from all the activity of the several bus stations around it. The people there were busy preparing for the Christmas party. It felt rather weird with all that lovely summer weather. They had some meat BBQ outside and lots of unfamiliar dishes. They had to do it being periodically interrupted by pouring rain. However, we were a but hungry so went to the town’s main street to get some food and also research about the activities (and they also wanted about $22 per person. Yes, perhaps it wasn’t very nice of us, but we didn’t really care).
Pucon wasn’t a large town, at least from a tourist’ perspective. Everything revolved around a couple block stretch of the central boulevard. It had a couple of eating places, some hostels, stores of all sorts, and many outfitters advertising the local activities. Even the hostel we stayed in had a list of all sorts of stuff that can be done around. Initially I was excited, but then, on the close examination, the only interesting things were the climb of Mt Villarica volcano and hot springs. They both could be done in one day.
There was a national park with some hiking trails, but either the hassle getting to it or just the notion that we were done with hiking for this trip prevented us from doing it. And I was too lazy to push it. So we found one relatively cheap outfitter that provided the Mt Villarica volcano climb and hot springs in one day package. A very long day I must admit. The start time was around 6AM with hot spring experience going till midnight. Oh, well, we can sleep on the bus the next day.
Ah, the bus. My original plan was to take the day bus from Pucon to Santiago with the purpose to see the country. Girish told me that from the bus window is not the way to see any country, that I needed to mingle with people to do that, which I generally don’t do. But hey, I’m not a people’s person, so I observe from a distance. Anyway, in the interest of saving time it was decided to take the night bus to Santiago. In this case we would arrive early morning with enough time to do lots of activities around town. For the overnight transportation Chile has this option called salon cama – basically very close to the first class airline seats on a Double-decker bus. Well, since we were there might as well have the experience. Plus the tickets weren’t that expensive.
After that we went walking around the town trying to fight the rain that would come periodically, had some beer and food in the beach cafe and went back to the hostel where the Christmas party was in almost full swing. Almost because most of the people in the hostel were going to climb the same volcano as well, just with a different outfitter. So they had to get up early too.
Since there weren’t three of us any longer we have gotten a roommate in our small two double-bank room on the first floor. We, at least I was, trying to tuck all the dirty smelly equipment somewhere. Our roommate turned out to be a nice German dude on vacation to Chile to reconnect with his long lost relatives.
Get up way early to make it to the tour. The hostel was somewhat abuzz with people wondering around not sure if they were awake or not. It wasn’t clear if they just got up or never actually went to sleep. But, being a hostel, you just smile, ignore people, and proceed with your won busyness. So we made it to the meeting point on the main road on time.
It was then becoming apparent the reason why this guys had lower prices – their gear really sucked. They provides backpacks, pants of some sorts and jackets, helmets, gaiters ice axes, crampons, boots, and some weird stuff the use of which will be apparent later. All the gear, it seems, came from the groovy 70s. The jackets had interesting designs and faded pastel colors from all the use and washing. The boots were those horrible high altitude plastic climbing boots. They are probably ok if you are the only person who broke them in. But those rentals were just killing the feet. We could be fine in our own gear, but then what were we paying the outfitter for? Could just rent a taxi and climb the mountain ourselves. What we didn’t get was a mountain of paperwork. I wondered a bit about it, but then I forgot.
After a tight mini-bus ride to the starting point it was clear that it would be a busy volcano. The rumors were that this trip was canceled due to bad weather for a couple of days. The bad thing about it was that the mountain was like a ride in an amusement park during a summer holiday weekend – long line. The good thing about it was that it was covered by this beautiful fresh white snow. We parked along some small parking lot next to a tiny ski resort building. Geared up and started the painful ascend. Most of the pain was from the horrible boots. Our two guides, who spoke English some of the time, were basically slave-driving us up that hill.
First there was black volcanic scree. Same stuff that made the beach in Pucon. Then fresh snow started. Then we reached this area of clouds obscuring the view for some time. Then, once we went above them, it was nice and sunny with great views of the surrounding volcanoes. We were making good progress up the mountain, along with all the other groups. Once the snow area started it was just as simple (or as hard) as climbing stairs.
We were making good progress with all the other groups spread on the slope. Sun was shining, way shining. I did put put some sun screen on my skin. I thought my beard would protect me which was a mistake that I discovered too late, as usual. We did stop periodically to take a break. At one point the snow was steep and a bit iced. It was hard to actually kick to make steps. I thought that it was time to wield the crampons. I forgot how and when the guides figured that out also. At this point it was rather clear that they don’t know much more than Girish and I in this area. They just had better equipment. So we were sitting there on a iced slope trying to put on some old half-working crampons when one man in some other group just started crying like mad. It seemed that he seriously twisted or broke something. He couldn’t move. The guides sort of started to do something, assess the situation. Sort of would be the right word. It became clear that they were way under-trained for this activity. They started securing him, cover with emergency blankets. One guide actually asked the people if there was any doctor. Sure, I appreciate the concern, but shouldn’t he know this himself? I tried not to look, put on my messed up crampons and proceeded to the top leaving Rita behind who decided to give up. She wasn’t actually the only one. The mountain was just 9,341 ft, not enough to get serious altitude problems. But I guess different people are different.
The top was uneventful. The volcano, I guess, was sleeping. Well, if it was eventful I wouldn’t be writing this. The central volcanic part was producing some smoke, but it was covered by a significant skirt of overhanging snow. It was not possible to see the vent itself and coming too close was not wise. We had our lunch, watched the views for a while, and headed down.
Going down was a bit more difficult than I expected. The outfitter gave us this small plastic ass cover to slide on and some old clip on semi-fabric thing to cover behind on order not to glissade down on that old crappy pants. Mine was broken and eventually I lost it. Oh, well, that mountain had a lot of trash like that. Glissading on the plastic thingy would be too fast, the semi-fabric one really made it slow. Plus I was a bit concerned about the speed and was using my ice axe all the time. Rita, on the other hand, got special personal treatment from the guide. She was really scared, as usual, to go down so he held her right behind. In the end I was rather happy to get this trip over with.
After we got into town Rita and I headed to the local supermarket to get some food and swimsuits. The town was definitely more lively than the day before. I didn’t really want to take a shower because we were going to a hot-springs place. For some unknown reason I wanted to cook a good breakfast the next day. Breakfast of omelet with sausages and avocados and tomatoes. Now I look back at it and I can’t understand the reasons why I wanted it. We were on vacation. The Chilean food was great. Why did I have to cook? There was a nice coffee house right next to our hostel, could have just went there. Anyway, we loaded on supplies, went back to hostel, changed, and headed to wash away that volcanic dust in the local hot spring.
Los Pozones hot springs were quite a bit away from the town, as it turned out. They picked us up in a small van from the main outfitter’s office. Then we had to share the about an hour long drive with a group of Israeli, pretty much, kids. These people really travel a lot. For such a small country Israelis make quite a bit of presence in all the party places in the world (I’m yet to see them in places like Yellowstone or Denali. But I guess I also was as much of a moron at the same age.) But the ride was pleasant – winding country road among lush green hills.
The hot springs place was a bunch of pools on the shore of the mountain river tucked away in a forest. It had several pools with increasing temperature and a couple of structures with unknown purpose. I couldn’t figure out where they got the hot water, but the pools were warm enough. The only thing missing was the strong sulfurous smells. We hanged around there till about 11PM moving from one pool to the next. I don’t remember the ride back at all. I probably passed out on the way back. It had been a very long day.
I didn’t really have a plan of what to do for this day. Well, initially, after reading all those posts on TripAdvisor I thought there would be tons of activities. But after seeing what was available, I ran out of ideas, and I couldn’t convince my companions to do another hike (not that I tried very hard). So I got up early morning, as usual, cooked the food I bought the day before. It wasn’t much, but Girish liked it for some reason. I may have taken a shower also. This hostel didn’t provide towels for the guests like The Singing Lamb. While waiting for my friends to pack I even tried to repair the ever flaky WiFi network in the hostel. I wasn’t successful. From what I could see the problem was with the uplink. Good thing that the bus station right across the street had free WiFi that was much more reliable. There was a Chilean woman caretaker there who was interested quite a bit in my water resistant Motorola Defy phone.
So we were wandering semi aimlessly around town basically waiting for the evening to come. There was a back alley close to our hostel that had a lot of shop selling local crafts. Good place to procure unique local souvenirs. Rita finally made up her mind to get a small mate drinking cup. We just had to buy a bag of yerba mate tea in the supermarket. We send some time sitting in that little cafe on the shore of lake Villarrica just enjoying the nice weather.
Eventually the evening came. We attempted to get one last lamb meal which was way too much (and not even close to the one we had in Punta Arenas). And slowly rolled into our five star bus for the ride to Santiago.
The bus was interesting. The driver and his help were finely isolated in their cabin on the first floor. The rest looked like an airliner – toilet, small TV showing Transformers 3 in Spanish. Initially I tried watching the road ahead, but then got tired too and tried to sleep. From the second floor seat it was sometimes scary to see this enormous bus navigating narrow highway. It was moving so close that sometimes it seemed that it would hit something (that would have been exciting). The seats were luxurious leather first class. The only problem with that leather was that I kept sliding down.
We arrived at Santiago bus station at 7AM as set by the schedule. I did get some sleep, so it wasn’t too bad. They even provided some snacks in the morning. Once we were done with the bus transport we had to get to the booked hostel. Negotiating Santiago’s subway system at rush hour proven to be a challenge. Especially with the backpacks. I almost got left behind on a station because I was too shy to ask people to pass me. The station guard helped us. He basically pull me and Rita from the train. I tell you, people in Santiago have to manners (or I forgot how to behave in a crowded metropolis).
Our hostel – Casa Mosaico Hostel – was across the river a bit from Chilean National Museum of Fine Arts. It was a two story house shared with (or combined) with some bar/restaurant. It even had some Chinese food place across the street. The street wasn’t some major artery so it could be quiet at night, or so I thought. The hostel was nice. It had this dark and scary entrance that then opened up into a very light vestibule. All the assortment of rooms were on the second floor with a couple of bathrooms and a kitchen. The place felt like some old school or hospital or communal apartment converted into a hostel (our room had some old door in one wall). It wasn’t busy at all. Girish and I got a large 6 people room all to ourselves. So we somehow explained the front desk dude that we just want to leave the luggage for a day and not want to take the rooms right away and went to explore the city.
The first item on the agenda was the free walking tour. I discovered that many cities have groups of dedicated individuals that offer such non-commercial tours. Usually these people are either volunteers or work for tips. These tours generally offer much more interesting information about a city. This free walking tour was rather heavily advertised – there were fliers in our hostel. But, there wasn’t much choice.
We made good timing with the bus and hostel – enough time to get to the central square in Santiago – Plaza de Armas, which was the meeting place for the tour.
The plaza was active, not very busy, but considerably this early in the morning. There were also all these dogs browsing for food, or whatever they were doing. It seem to be central point in the city. People were passing through in a couple of major directions, there were some food sources, a large tent. The plaza was adjacent to a whole neighborhood of walking streets, but we didn’t know about it at the time.
Eventually some people were assembling at the designated corner of the plaza. They were wondering around asking the same question – Are you the guide for free walking tour? The guide came on time and he looked distinctly different from us tourists. It was quite a large group. He did a good job of describing the history of the city, briefly of course. The cathedral right at the plaza which was in need of major repairs and which suffered a lot from continues earthquakes. It was interesting to know that Mapuche Indians actually wiped out Spanish several times. That Chileans generally stay home on September the 11th because many transitional and sometime violent evens throughout Chilean history happened on that day. He talked about the economy and wealth disparity throughout the history of Chile. I’ve asked him about the notion that Pinochet actually brought stability and prosperity to Chile, along with the other goodies of dictatorship. He said that prosperity to Chile actually came after Pinochet, after the economic reforms in the mid 90s.
The guide, whose name I forgot, managed to somehow control the rather large crowd of people who came for the tour. Add to that that we were walking in a busy city. In general we got a reasonable view of Santiago that can be done in a couple of hours. We walked through some government places, the walking district next to the main Plaza, an artsy neighborhood, University of Santiago party neighborhood, and eventually ended up by the Pablo Neruda museum. He gave good pointers on what else can be visited or tried.
It was getting increasingly hot. I kind of started to miss all the cold in Patagonia. We still had more than half a day and I was eager to get going though my companions seemed a bit tired, or perhaps it was the heat. We bought tickets for another tour – this time it was English speaking tour in the Pablo Neruda museum, and headed back to the hostel, which was very close to this party area of town. People really like to enjoy their life in this city. We had small lunch on one of the busy streets in the University area, sitting outside. You can see a guy just sitting at a table drinking this 1L bottle of some light beer and smoking, or a group of women doing the same thing. Perhaps it was normal in some parts of the world, I just wasn’t used to it.
The tour of the Pablo Neruda museum was interesting. Except I always had to remind the guide to speak English. There was a family from Brasil. The mother there was actually from Chile and remembered actually meeting Neruda. He was a very welcoming dude. Kids could come to his house to get help with homework. So she was asking the guide and talking to him in Portuguese. Fine, but this was guided tour in English. It wasn’t polite to exclude other people, but we were a minority. There were all sorts of weird stuff in that museum, which was actually Neruda’s house (or what left of it). I liked it. Too bad that a large portion of the house and collection was destroyed during the coup.
After the museum it as free rein. We wanted to try some of the weird dishes and drinks the guide on the walking tour mentioned, but it was a bit too early to eat. So we decided to just wander around. Perhaps see some other places.
There was a small shopping center next to University of Santiago. It had two rather strange statues. They looked like figures that were created from rocks enforced with steal that were laying at the ocean floor for a couple of centuries. I doubt that what really happen; however, the work looked really interesting, unusual. The mall had an assortment of different restaurants and shops. A nice place to hang out, more up the scale comparing to the drinking hubs next to the university. It was also a good place to get some souvenirs.
Plaza de Armas was busy. The weather was nice. It started to get cooler in the evening. It was Friday, so people were enjoying themselves. There were some weird religious groups advocating as usual, there was a whole bunch of people playing chess in a round pavilion. There was a large white tent. People were selling mapuche souvenirs there. It was nice to just sit on a bench and watch all this activity. We were on vacation after all.
We wondered around that walking streets that connect to Plaza de Armas. Some shops were already closing, but there was still plenty of activity. It was almost like a much larger version of 3rd street promenade in Santa Monica. We wondered into one local invention – “Café con piernas” – coffee with legs. Good coffee, the legs weren’t bad either. A lot more tasteful than Hooters. We even asked the lady that served us coffee to take her picture. She seemed more than happy to pose.
It was time to head back to the food area of town. Well, there were some places around Plaza de Armas, but nothing really interesting. The couple of streets next to U of Santiago were teaming with crowds of people. It was getting late (10PM or so) but the party seem to just start. There were a lot of noisy joints selling food and drinks, some band of … I couldn’t really understand what was going on the street making noise. We got into one place. It was selling this horrible contraption of french fries topped with sausages that were topped with 4 eggs. With this you can but a ‘rocket’ – tall cylinder of beer with pieces of lemon. I was against it – the food quality didn’t seem good. That place was for drinking – food came extra so that people won’t get drunk so fast. We moved a bit further from the University (the guide on the tour said that the closer to the school the cheaper the food). Found one packed place on the corner. It was around 11PM. Santiago was definitely not Sunnyvale. We ordered some more meat, some local baked contraption with corn, and 2L of beer. All this food and drinks were a bit too much.
Upon returning the hostel was rather active. Well, it would probably be fair to say that the city was active and thus the hostel felt like it. It was hot so we kept the windows open and could hear all the party crowds. We still didn’t try the earthquake drink that the guide was advertising. The bar in the same building as the hostel didn’t have it either. The dude there sent us to walk some long way. I was too tired to go anywhere. For some reason it reminded me of The Hangover – we would go somewhere to drink some stuff that potentially can be very potent … then wake up in some unknown place at unknown time.
Our last day in Chile started rather late and slow. I woke up early as usual, but my comrades were taking it slow. It wasn’t a holiday any more. But perhaps after all that wild night of partying people the businesses were starting up slowly. The noises on the street died out at around 4AM. In addition to that the hostel manager put some noisy couple into our room at some late hour. These people had no manners – not only did they make noise, but they also left light on. So I wasn’t sure what force made me get up that early.
I was trying to find a good razor, but everything was closed. The person at the front desk sent me to the Shell gas station, but it didn’t have it. The local convenience store didn’t open yet. So I wondered around, checked my e-mail, ate that meager food they provided, watched TV. It was very nice and cool in the morning before all that heat came. Eventually the convenience store opened, I shaved the remains of wilderness from my face; my teammates got it together, and we went out. It was around 10AM.
The only thing we could do really was just visit some museums. Perhaps browse the city and maybe try some more food. We headed towards the same Plaza de Armas. Stopped on the way in the Chilean National Museum of Fine Arts. It wasn’t a large museum. Just about the right size not to overwhelm with all sorts of art. Next stop was the Chilean National history museum. I thought I’ve read somewhere that it had English guides or something. The museum was nice, also not Louvre size. It was located in some old military fort right at the Plaza de Armas. However, it was all in Spanish. It showed the history of Chilean republic from some old times up to the start of Pinochet rule (nothing controversial). It was interesting to learn how this lovely little country developed over the years. It didn’t have any major blood events like Europe (or the museum didn’t show). Too bad the museum didn’t have any English speaking guide who could explain things.
After the museum we split – Girish went back to hostel since his plane was earlier. We could still wander around for a while. We visited another church, then headed to the San Cristóbal Hill park in the middle of the city. Santiago is generally flattish place surrounded by mountains. This hill was a bit strange. I wonder if it was just left there as a park and not leveled out. The park was lovely. It had some Renaissance inspired European fountain and stairs. There were just pavilions to walk around and feel pretty, but they didn’t cover the entire hill. At the top there was a viewing area from which you can see most of the Santiago and the surrounding mountains. After this park we headed to the U of Santiago area, again, to get some simple dinner and went back to our hostel.
I didn’t want to deal with the Santiago metropolitan subway this time, so we just flagged a taxi. There was an airport bus station somewhere in the city. Rita just had to ask some people to point to it because I’ve missed it. After that we got to the airport without any events. I just noticed that we only saw a small part of Santiago – the central touristy part. We didn’t really see the rest of it. Oh well, we can only so much in the time we had.
We got to our flight fine. It was a pity that none of the airport shops had any Santiago magnets. By the time our flight was going to start most of the shops were closed so we had to change pesos back to dollars at some rather unfair rate. But, the vacation was over so even a couple of hours or a couple more Chilean drinks won’t make a difference.
This trip worked out better than expected. I was quite a bit worried about the horrible Antarctic weather, but it turned out not so bad. The food could have been handled better too. However, I’ve never done a backpacking trip like that so it was new experience. Other than that Chile was a lovely country, well run, organized. It had just the right amount of order but not yet the legal madness and prices of the developed world. Perhaps I’ll visit it again. But since I have no idea when that will happen it will probably change by that time.
Special thanks to this post for the information about backpacking in Torres del Paine and numerous posts in Lonely Planet and TripAdvisor. And of course our leader to conduced us to go there. A couple of points about the park:
- Bring cash, lots of local cash. This park seem to siphon money out of you all the time. There were only two free campgrounds on the circle. Most of the rest sell some food, which can be nice addition to all the backpacking food.
- Chile allows bringing food on the plane, as long as it is in its original sealed factory packaging with labels and declared.
- Be prepared for all sorts of weather from sun to snow and heavy wind.
All my photos on Flickr.