Torres del Paine / Patagonia Sur

Trip Start Oct 09, 2008
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Chile  , Patagonia,
Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The part of South America I'd most been looking forward to was Torres del Paine national park at the southern tip of Chile. It entails a fairly strenuous, five-day hike covering nearly 90km of stunning wilderness. To get to the park, one flies into Punta Arenas, which I can now say is the farthest south I have ever been. A short bus ride from there is Ushuaia, Argentina, where tourist boats depart for Antarctica and where the post office will stamp your passport with a message that reads "End of the World".

The park is open from mid-October to mid-March, receiving over 100,000 visitors per year (80% of them are European). The advantage of going so early in the season is much smaller crowds on the trails. The disadvantage is the unpredictable weather. In the nearby town of Puerto Natales, I bought some warm, waterproof clothes, stocked up on snack foods, rented a sleeping bag, and put all but my bare essentials in storage at a hostel in order to keep my backpack as light as possible.

The bus from Puerto Natales dropped us off at the entrance to the park, where twenty-five people clad in bright-colored North Face gear competitively eyed each other's equipment. I suppose there was that inevitable twinge of annoyance that all travelers feel when they arrive at a special location only to find themselves surrounded by lots of other people that look just like them who are there to do the exact same thing. 

But it was all forgotten upon entry into the park. Immediately one is surrounded by a constantly changing panorama of peaks and icebergs, green valleys, and lakes varying in color from turquoise to aquamarine to grey. The weather was sunny and the temperature mild. I didn't realize how rare that would be in the days to come. I had opted to do the "W trek", so named because the path one takes through the park resembles the letter "W". There is an 8 or 9 day trek called "The Circuit" which was temporarily closed due to an avalanche.

The big attraction of the east side of the park is the torres (towers), three jagged peaks that stretch skyward at a completely vertical angle from a greyish green lagoon below. My first view literally left me breathless. The pictures I'd seen on the internet did not prepare me for the phantasmal beauty the scene evoked. Not quite the religious experience one has the first time walking up to the edge of the Grand Canyon, but then again what is? I mean, nothing can prepare you for the Grand Canyon. No matter how many times you've read about it or seen pictures or even flown over it in an airplane. Your mind, unable to deal with anything on that scale, just shuts down and leaves you with an inexpressible awe that anything could be so vast and so beautiful. It is the most awesome sight that exists on earth, and I don't expect to ever replicate that feeling unless I take one of those commercial space flights. 

But I digress. Los Torres may not be the world's most incredible sight, but they are exceedingly fetching none the less. And because I'd forged ahead when everybody else stopped for lunch at the lodge I had the place to myself for a half hour (surely this would never happen in high season). I heard it's fairly common to see pumas in this area at night. Pumas!

In terms of lodging options, one has the choice of the park's many campgrounds (for people much tougher than I am) or the park's four refugios (lodges). Three of the lodges are tiny, one is ten times bigger than the others. Each has a common area with a fireplace, each offers breakfast, a box lunch to take along on the trail, and dinner. Each bedroom fits eight to ten people in bunks that stack three or four beds high. The beds don't come with sheets or blankets so a sleeping bag is necessary (and it's much cheaper to rent one in Puerto Natales for five days than to rent one each night from the different lodges).

I ended up meeting interesting people at dinner each night: the Dutch couple who insisted I drink wine with them, the engineer from Denver who spends five months per year in Antarctica, the middle-aged Irish woman who quit her job as a tax accountant and spent the summer hitchhiking around Alaska, and my favorite: the mischievous French-Canadian who writes speeches for a politician in Quebec. Over Chilean beers we started talking about politics and he launched into a variety of topics: the problem of Haitian immigrants in Quebec; Canadian healthcare (he and his wife had lost their only child a few years ago, she had spent three and a half years deteriorating in intensive care due to a neurological disease, and the Canadian government had paid for all of her medical bills); the fact that 35% of the world's fresh water can be found in Canada and it's only a matter of time before the U.S. has a water crisis and uses its influence to force Canada to divert water from James Bay into the States (called the GRAND Canal plan); and a bill that he periodically sees resurface that would divert arctic waters into the Atlantic Ocean, thereby altering the jet stream, raising the climate in southeast Canada by ten degrees, and wreaking havoc on the climate in northeast Europe (this would surely lead to a war Canada is not equipped to handle, he theorized). I didn't even care all that much whether what he said was true or not; I just found the flow irresistible. He and his wife had just visited Tierra del Fuego national park at the southern tip of Argentina, which they claim has been completely ruined by Canadian beavers that chew up all the trees. Apparently some asshole brought 25 beavers down from Canada in the 1940s, and because there are no natural predators in the area the beavers now number 100,000.

Each day's hike was different and challenging in its own way. There were long, steep uphill climbs. There were stretches were the path would disappear and you'd have to trudge through mud or balance on submerged stones to cross rushing streams. Side note: the ability to dunk your bottle in a stream and fill it up with clean, drinkable water is a true delight that we rarely get to experience at home.

By day three the weather had gotten worse. It would change by the hour, from sun to clouds to rain to hail to snow. But the intense winds were constant. I'd be hiking through the forest and hear a sound like a freight train coming down the side of the mountains. It would get louder and louder until boom: branches and debris would start flying and you'd be knocked sideways if you weren't prepared. The highlights of the middle of the "W" are the cuernos (horns) mountains, the turquoise Lago Skottberg, and the gorgeous view from the bowl-shaped Valley Frances. Day three involved a mostly-uphill, eight hour, 26.5km hike that left my legs feeling like a combination of calf burn and jello.

Fortunately, the night following my longest day hike was spent at the luxurious Refugio Paine Grande which includes a mini-market, a cafeteria, a bar, and hot showers with soap. (The other lodges all had hot water but no soap.) I unwound at the bar with my French-Canadian friend and three Israeli girls, while the Buena Vista Social Club's new covers album played on the stereo. And thankfully, just when I'd burned through the last of the nine books I brought to South America, a couple from San Francisco gave me a book they'd just finished reading.

The end of the trek was centered around the park's second big attraction: Glacier Grey. I'd never seen a glacier before, and for the second time in a few days, I literally had my breath taken away when I came over a mountain crest and first caught sight of it. I was struck by both the magnitude and by its bluish-white color that seems unlikely to even exist in nature. On Halloween afternoon it was raining so hard (raining horizontally thanks to the wind) that it was impossible to take good photos. These same weather conditions supposedly knocked a French girl sideways into a pond a bit farther back on the path. Thankfully, when I woke up the next morning there was a nice, calm window of weather that allowed me to hike fairly close for a few shots.

My cab driver in Punta Arenas had promised me the park would be maravilloso and he was not lying. It had definitely lived up to my expectations. I had the proper clothes so I never felt cold or wet (in my imagination I was super tough and rugged for hiking around in that type of weather, and the wilderness beard I've been growing for two weeks is also indisputable proof of this toughness). And it was nice to spend five-to-eight hours per day hiking in silence with plenty of time to think and very few other people on the trails. I can't remember the last time I spent so many hours without music, books, television, or conversation.

The bus ride back to Puerto Natales was only supposed to take 2 1/2 hours, but as is typical of unpredictable life in South America, the road was closed because of a rally car race. There was nothing to do for three hours but get off the bus and watch one crappy rally car after the next come skidding around a sharp turn then speed off down a straightaway. Once the race was over and our bus was allowed to pass, we saw that each side of the road was littered with wrecked rally cars; some stuck in ditches, one flipped upside down. Not for the last time, I found myself thinking what a weird and wonderful place South America is.

Reading: Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
The Unbearable Lightness Of Being by Milan Kundera
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