Hiking in Patagonia

Trip Start Jan 03, 2004
Trip End Dec 2004

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Saturday, November 13, 2004

November marks the beginning of the high tourist season in Patagonia. Good weather is anything but guaranteed, but we left Bariloche on October 31 with high hopes and fingers crossed.

Good karma stayed on our side, and we had beautiful weather during our two-week trip to Patagonia. The sunny weather amidst melting glaciers did worry us a wee bit having just seen ¨The Day After Tomorrow.¨ While we still worry the movie was more premonition than fiction, global warming did provide us with ideal trekking weather and good photo opportunities.

Before leaving Bariloche, our friend Randy, a studly man from Iowa, took us on a day hike near the mighty Tronador Mountain. The hike reminded our legs, which had been happily dormant on buses and in restaurants for the past few months, that long walks were part of the adventure. We also saw our first glacier, piled high above a sheer mountain cliff. Occasionally, we would hear a loud rumble and see chunks of ice and snow fall to the valley below. They say (OK, only we say) that you never forget your first glacier, and for us that´s certainly been the case. While we´d see plenty more and bigger icy landscapes, the glacier at Tronador remains one of our favorites.

We flew from Bariloche to Calafate so we could spend more time hiking rather than going overland on hundreds of miles of bumpy gravel roads. Andy had been cooped up for too long studying Lonely Planet guidebooks (one of his favorite pastimes) because within an hour of arriving, he had already made arrangements for a whirlwind tour of the region´s major attractions. Jill didn't mind the 5-hour bus ride that night as much as finding out that the next morning´s ice trekking tour would cover 30km (18 miles) over 12 hours. We went to bed wondering what we had gotten ourselves into.

As penance, he carried our backpack, crampons and all, during the trek. The long, arduous trek made us feel as though we´d earned the privilege of seeing the jagged Cerro Torre up close and the glaciers that wrap around it and blanket the mountain´s base. On the way there, we had to cross an icy river not via a bridge but a rope pulley attached to a harness around our waists. Two hours were spent trekking on the glacier. Ice trekking gave us a surreal feeling knowing only ice and not land was underfoot. In some of the crevices, the light turned the ice a brilliant blue. Jill tried ice climbing for the photo opportunity, but she won´t be taking it up as a weekend hobby.

The next day, we took it easy and only did a short trek to see Fitz Roy, another peak like Cerro Torre in Patagonia famous for its shar edges and almost out-of-place appearance in the mountain range. Although we kept physical exercise to a minimum that day, Andy´s heart was still beating a mile a minute because this sunny day in Patagonia was also election day in the States. We pinned a Kerry for President pin to our daypack and hoped our fellow countrymen would elect a new president. We leaped off the bus when it arrived in Calafate to find a TV with CNN. We stayed up past 3 a.m. watching Americans vote for the wrong guy and fit it only a few hours of sleep before awaking at 6:30 a.m. for our tour of Perito Moreno Glacier.

The glacier was huge and tall, but arriving there in a tour bus and not after a long hike seemed lackluster compared to our previous glacier experiences. A wooden walkway allowed tourists to safely meander close, but not too close, to the icy behemoth. The most enjoyable part was listening to the thunderous cracks and crashes as pieces of the glacier tumbled into the water. A boat tour brought us even closer, but the motor drowned out the auditory thrill of the seeing a glacier so close.

The next day, we crossed the Argentina-Chile border, sadly saying goodbye to steaks and Mamuschka chocolate and a jolly hello to centolla, the king crab famous in this southern Chilean region.

Our first Chilean adventure was hiking in Torres del Paine. We hiked the popular "W" Circuit, which meant following the same people from refugio to refugio each day. (Refugios are the bare-minimum lodges in the park that provide a bunk bed, a roof over your head and the opportunity to buy an outrageously expensive hot meal.) Luckily, our fellow hikers were friendly and harmless, although Jill on occasion wanted to inflict pain on some unnaturally loud snorers.

This was the first time we´d had to carry our backpacks fully loaded for an extended period, four to seven hours each day. It took awhile to get used to the extra weight, and Jill rejoiced everytime we ate a meal we brought along because it made her pack a few ounces lighter.

We lack the writing ability to describe the beauty of Torres del Paine. We just hope that our photos will do it some justice. The best would be for you to see it for yourself, as everyone should see the milky blue-green color of a glacier lake, scramble over a mountain of rocks to get a view of the Towers ablaze in morning light, feel bowled over by the strong winds high in the French Valley, and drink the purest water you´ll ever taste from a glacier stream (even Jill, the hypochondriac, couldn´t resist). The trek rivaled Nepal in its beauty and was definitely a highlight in our 10-months of traveling so far.

After the trek, we went to Punto Arenas, which is even further south in this skinny country. Andy was looking forward to ordering a platter piled high with crab legs he´d have to crack open with a nutcracker and be able to suck the juices out of the crab claws. He was disappointed to discover Chileans prefer to do the hard work for you and serve the crab legs already shelled and neatly arranged on a bed of cool lettuce. We ate centolla two nights in a row, and we filled our guts both times.

Between crab feedings, we went to see Punto Arenas´main attraction -- Magellan penguins. About an hour from the city is a Penguinera, where tourists can walk along a path close to the shore and see the penguins in their natural habitat. At sunset, they´re out in force. Jill counted 60 penguins hanging out in one section of the beach. We enjoyed watching them waddle about, bark to each other and pose for photos. Like the gorillas, the penguins seemed unbothered by our presence.

We´ve now put our sweaters, hats and thick socks in the very bottom of our backpacks as we´ve traveled to a warmer climate. We spent one rainy day in Santiago, Chile´s capital city, and we are now wearing shorts and sandals on the beaches in Rio de Janeiro.
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