Wandering in America del Sur

Chile-Travelogue  |  Travel time: July 2005 - March 2006  |  by Allison Webb

A Very Patagonian Xmas

Puerto Natales, home to 20,000 Chileans, but on Thursday am, descended upon by hoards and hoards of travellers, 98 percent bound for Torres del Paine National Park. And so by its very nature, transitory, being used for its grocery stores, internet (painfully slow as it was), and the last bed and hot shower for some before starting the trek at Torres. And we were lemmings as much as anyone else, after provisioning, sorting our stuff into Torres and non-Torres piles and storing our excess, trying to be ruthless against weight, packed our backpacks with all our camping gear and headed out for a final dinner of good food with our fellow Navimagers, Curtis, Billie, Greg, Bessie and Mike. Slept restfully in our soft beds, dreams of icebergs dancing in our heads.

Torres del Paine is the most famous national park in Chile and also one of the busiest in all of South America, particularly in the high season of Dec - Feb. While in the 1990s there were only about 50,000 visitors per year, it is now firmly on the Gringo trail with over 200,000 tourists and it shows with the high degree of infrastructure and travellers services. Declared a national park in 1959, it protects 181,000 ha of land and hordes of guanacos, but its most famous icon is the Torres del Paine also known as the Towers of Paine or by many hikers as the Towers of Pain for the steep hike to the top. At 2800m, their granite spires act as a beacon throughout the park to guide you.

In the morning bright and early caught the bus to the park and started to go our separate ways on the trail. Of course, trying to learn from previous mistakes having been there in 2002, we decided to do something completely different from everyone else which would have been fantastic had our bus not broken down about five times. And while our bus driver was breaking a sweat about trying to get the little foreigners (yes, we were the only people on the bus!) to the Administration Centre for our shuttle, we sat helplessly while the wind was fierce and plaintive in its cries across the Patagonian tarn.

Finally on a wing and a prayer, made it to the Administration Centre after a harrowing drive while trying to gain speed on the downhill and trying to keep momentum uphill because the bus would stall. It would have been fine on a straight stretch, but on a windy, narrow road it was slightly challenging! Fortunately the scenery distracted us with guanacos (cousins to llamas) running freely everywhere, the towers of Paine rimmed with snow in the distance and most spectacular, the turquoise rivers and lake of Pehoe!

Because of our late arrival we had missed our shuttle so had to wait while the Park Rangers radioed to them to come and fetch us while we sat in the sun and scarfed down lunch. Soon we arrived in Gringoland, in another experience of the National Park, the Hosteria Grey, a five star hotel complete with full table service and all the amenities one could ask for! Felt seriously out of place in our backpackers best, huge packs instead of sleek suitcases, but sat in the diningroom looking our from the floor to ceiling windows on a huge beach on Lake Grey filled with gigantic icebergs washed upon the shore!

But our real adventure would begin shortly. Never really taking the path of least resistance, we had decided to take the boat up Lago Grey to avoid hiking 4 hours in a very serious head wind - or so it was reported at this time of year. Book after book and posting after posting had warned of the unrelenting Patagonian winds and I had experienced them on that section of the hike before. So a nice 40 minute boat trip up the lake was the ticket, standing out on the observation deck, watching the icebergs float by, snapping pics or so that was the plan!

Mother nature had another plan for us though. Biting winds, and our first foray in a small zodiak like boat across the main boat left us, as well as our backpacks fully drenched! Laughing with the only other backpackers, Eileen and Kris, we boarded the bus for our little cruise up the lake while our guide mentioned that it was "quite windy"! Ya, that was how I would describe it as the waves washed completely over the boat the entire time, waves like being on a rollercoaster pitching the boat back and forth and back and forth while the noise level went to zero and there were many green faces!

Fortunately not prone to seasickness I was ok, but for some, the 40 minute, turning to 50 minute trip was probably worse than the 4 hour walk in the wind. Another quick trip in the zodiak and we were on land! Finding a campsite was a bit of a challenge as Lago Grey on Xmas eve was a popular time to be camping, but we all found a great spot with Kris and Eileen right beside us. Also found fellow Navimagers, Eddie and Lisa on site and spent our evening talking to Ina and Gunnar from Germany who we would end up hiking with for the rest of our time in Torres.

And for our Xmas eve we hiked past the campsite up to a viewpoint to overlook the gigantic glacier which left me in awe and wonder. Hung out our stockings, and were in good company with the family next to us and their little Xmas tree complete with presents for their 4 year old son! And somehow Santa found us on Xmas morning.

There is nothing quite like waking up to presents, and the sight of fresh blue icebergs floating outside your tent door! Incredible! A must do for everyone - sometime! But the trekking must go on, so we packed up our gear and started in earnest to trek the W, the most famous 5 day hike in the park.

And trek we did, along with the masses, all campsites and refugios being nearly full. We kept pace with Ina and Gunnar, shared stories, wine and so-so camping food and we visited by Eddie and Lisa and Greg and Bessie along the way. The weather was very untypically Patagonian, sunny, hot and without wind even though we kept tempting the gods, but wishing for it. Instead we got sunburns and found ourselves wishing for more rivers and trees while we marvelled in awe at the stunning scenery, different everyday from the Lago Grey glacier and its icebergs to the turquoise of Lago Pehoe, to the broken and windblown trees, to the Hanging glacier at the Valle Frances to the rock beach at Cuernos emerging like a mirage.

But it was the Torres of Paine (Towers of Paine) that kept us all going - our eventual destination or not as the case would be. Walking ´til our feet and backs hurt, camping and sometimes appreciating the services of showers and hotwater more than we should we plodded on. Being Chile´s most popular National Park, the place is rapidly changing with travellers´ services aplenty. From 2002 until 2006, I could see tremendous change as the Chileans are cashing in on its popularity and there is a debate among purists that it is too commercial, for others that it is accessible. And there is no end in site it would seem and while with its crowded campgrounds full to capacity, daily limits on people should be a consideration, but I doubt if the Chileans will take such a drastic measure.

But despite its well trodden trails, it remains one of the most stunning areas in which I have ever hiked. Scenery so gorgeous that you almost don´t know which way to look because it is all so incredible. The sound of glaciers calving and the falling of ice in the air. Trails challenging, but do-able for the beginner to the most advanced hiker and at the end of it all, a camaraderie forged with dirt, sweat, shared stories, meals, blisters and various sores. And as we all left together chattering at the bus watching the Torres recede in the distance I hoped that it would remain for others as it was for me - the land of guanacos running free, blue, blue icebergs floating, the majestic glaciers, turquoise lakes of a colour unfathomable and the best, cold water ever on a thirsty day!

The Nauti Navimag Crew reunion - real food pre Torres del Paine hiking (me, Curtis, Billie, Mike, Greg, Bessie and Kurt)

The Nauti Navimag Crew reunion - real food pre Torres del Paine hiking (me, Curtis, Billie, Mike, Greg, Bessie and Kurt)

And the stockings were hung by the tent with care in hopes that St Nick would soon be there

And the stockings were hung by the tent with care in hopes that St Nick would soon be there

The pre departure ritual - separating the essentials from the non-essentials. Gotta love that dehydrated food all the way from MEC!

The pre departure ritual - separating the essentials from the non-essentials. Gotta love that dehydrated food all the way from MEC!

The magnificent Grey Glacier - not a bad view for Xmas morning!

The magnificent Grey Glacier - not a bad view for Xmas morning!

Enroute and now the fun and sore feet begins! On to Pehoe and Italiano

Enroute and now the fun and sore feet begins! On to Pehoe and Italiano

Xmas tree Patagonian style

Xmas tree Patagonian style

Ah victory, post Torres del Paine glow, Greg, Bessie, Eddie, Lisa and Kurt - the Navimagers reunited again

Ah victory, post Torres del Paine glow, Greg, Bessie, Eddie, Lisa and Kurt - the Navimagers reunited again

The first of the bridge crossings - this one easy compared to the later ones

The first of the bridge crossings - this one easy compared to the later ones

Icebergs on the beach at the Hosteria Lago Grey

Icebergs on the beach at the Hosteria Lago Grey

Campers in action at Los Cuenos Campground - Kurt with our friends, Ina and Gunnar and dinner in preparation

Campers in action at Los Cuenos Campground - Kurt with our friends, Ina and Gunnar and dinner in preparation

The famous Torres of Paine at 2800m

© Allison Webb, 2005
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The trip
 
Description:
My trip through Peru before heading to Chile to work for 6 months and then travels afterward in South America
Details:
Start of journey: Jul 05, 2005
Duration: 8 months
End of journey: Mar 02, 2006
Travelled countries: Peru
Chile
Argentina
Uruguay
Ecuador
The Author
 
Allison Webb is an active author on break-fresh-ground. since 15 years.