Not Bad for a Couple of Old Farts

Trip Start Jan 15, 2006
Trip End Sep 05, 2006

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Flag of Chile  ,
Saturday, February 18, 2006

We made it through 6 days of backpacking and one aggressive day hike. Kia's ankle held up as did my various weak joints. As I get older, however, I realize that it is not always peak performance that declines. The big change is the recovery required from the peak performance. Based on that realization, we have been holed up in a luxury hotel for the past 2 days, nursing our wounds and enjoying red wine and Argentine steaks.

The park is truly outstanding and (relative to US parks) pretty uncrowded. If you have any interest in spectacular outdoor experiences, this should be on your list. The infrastructure is such that one can get to most of the important sites with day hikes while staying at lodges. On the other hand, the backcountry experience still seems removed from hordes of chubby tourists with large cameras. (Unfortunately, the guidebooks available in the states are pretty poor. As you might imagine, I have developed a number of strong opinions on how to do this trip. I'll put a few comments at the bottom of this entry. If anyone reading this would like more thoughts, please drop me an email via the travelpod site.)

The highlight of the park is the Torres (towers) del Paine, which can be reached via a dayhike. In the photos, we are standing at a lake at the base of the towers. The top of the tower is 4500 feet above the lake. (For comparison, the Empire State Building is 1250 feet tall.)

The sharp peaks create a massive rainshadow and the climate changes dramatically as one circles the park. One begins in dry scrubland and eventually enters dense woods. Another highlight is Glacier Grey, which stretches for 30 km before it reaches the edge of our map. We hiked beside it for about 10km before it ended in a lake.

Our photos don't do justice to the scenery. Unfortunately, glacier formation tends to be highly correlated with limited sunshine and lots of precipitation. The light was usually pretty flat. I guess you'll just have to go there yourself.

Backpacking is a little different in Chile. One is expected to stay at group campsites that are spaced about a day's hike apart. This tends to distract from the feeling of solitude that I look for while backpacking. One group of 19-year old Chilean students brought a small portable stereo with them and enough batteries to listen to their tunes 24x7. (There may have been a time when I had an equal commitment to rock and roll. Sadly, that time has likely passed. Interestingly, the Chileans students' musical taste closely matched my preference for classic US/British rock. What does that say about the recycling of culture?) The upside is that these campsites were stocked with some provisions and, occasionally, a hot shower. They were large enough that, after the first night, we were able to set up our tent at a comfortable distance from the crowds.

We are sad to be leaving Chile. It is a varied, beautiful country with warm people. On to Argentina.


Before we entered the park, I had a somewhat troubling exchange with a young woman recently graduated from UC Berkeley. She told me she was spending a year in Chile working on a 'human rights project', the prosecution of Pinochet. I certainly agree that the man, at some level, deserves punishment for his crimes. (3,000+ killed and rampant torture. His support from right wing Chileans, however, didn't start to erode until it was recently revealed that he also stole about $200mm. I guess that says something about how some folks perceive the relative value of various crimes.)

Pinochet's punishment, however, is a very complex issue. When he committed to peacefully give up power, it was agreed that he (and his cronies) would not face future prosecution. Peaceful regime change is very difficult. While I am somewhat fuzzy on the facts, my understanding is that Mandela largely forgave the Afrikaaners for their actions in South Africa. I believe, that that decision has led to a relatively peaceful coexistence.

Chile clearly has a fully functioning democracy at this point. The opposition party to Pinochet has been in power for 16 years and, Bachelet, the current president is one of Pinochet's victims. (She was tortured and her father was murdered.) Pinochet is 90 years old and in frail health. The best result would likely be for him to die from natural causes. If this government is not interested in aggressively pursuing Pinochet, why does the young woman from Cal think she knows better? I also suspect that her actions will likely be counterproductive to her cause. Imagine if Bush did something truly heinous and a bunch of young Frenchmen came over to lead the charge to prosecute him. Bush's poll numbers would jump 10 points the day after the Frenchmen hit the ground.

Additionally, it seems critical to me that the world keeps its deals with deposed despots. Almost all brutal dictators will do anything to hold onto power because they expect the world will turn on them as soon as they lay down their arms. If we can offer a tottering dictator $10mm and a retirement villa, it may be a win-win incentive for a peaceful transition. this is certainly not 'fair', but a lot better than the alternative. I believe this type of deal was offered to Saddam Hussein in early 2003 but he declined. Was he concerned that we would not keep our word?

I differentiate between Pinochetīs prosecution and that of the ex-nazis. Pinochetīs crimes were almost entirely in Chile. If the democratically elected opposition government does not choose to aggressively prosecute, then I think we should accept that decision. The nazisīcrimes, however, were international and I think that are a lot of countries that might claim jurisdiction.

Why Pinochet? I recently finished a biography of Stalin and just started the new book on Mao. One could spend a lot of time debating the relative degrees of evil between these guys and Hitler. Pinochet was clearly not at this level of evil. Why does a young bleeding heart go after Pinochet and not some of the ex leaders of the Soviet or Chinese regimes? Along these lines, why do so many people revere someone like Che Guevera? There was a fascinating article in The New Republic (a political magazine for centrist Democrats, i.e. the Joe Lieberman crowd) last year that talked about Che. Evidently, he headed Castroīs death squads that went after property owners, intellectuals, homosexuals and anyone who might be hostile to the new regime. His standing orders were to make sure they got a few too many rather than a few too few. He impoverished and, effectively, enslaved a nation. (Any state that wonīt let its citizens depart is, in my mind, a failed state and is bordering on slavery.) Yet, Che, not only gets a free pass, he is idolized on film and tee-shirts. I believe that the difference for our young friend from Berkeley rests on the fact that Pinochet was very friendly to the US while the others have always been hostile.

I would welcome thoughts from any of you on this topic.


Logistics for Torres del Paine. If you can afford it, rent a car. Most of the key sites are accessible by bus, but some aren't and you may appreciate the freedom. If you are backpacking, there is a lot of talk about the 'W' route (no, it is not named after our president) vs the 'Circuit' route. The W has better scenery, but is a lot more crowded. We did the circuit and picked off a few key points on the W via dayhikes. The Hosteria los Torres is very convenient, but expensive. Somebody there took a US course in revenue maximization and the restaurant, phones etc are through the roof. You'll probably want to stay there for a night or two, but we didn't linger. The Hosteria Mirador del Payne (yes, they spell it differently) is very nice, but out of the way. I would stay for a night on the way in or way out.

Advance reservations in Chile are very painful to make. They have websites but don't respond to email. Many don't have phones. The good news is that Chile seems to have overcapacity in hotels. We have usually been just showing up and asking if a room is available. We have a tent and a car so we have flexibility. If you fly/drive through Punta Arenas, most of the hotels have offices there and you can arrange while you are on the ground. You will be in a better negotiating position that way and may be able to avoid the dreaded gringo tax. Always ask for a discount.

Drop me an email if you would like more details.
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