“Romantic visions of glaciers tumbling into fjords, jagged windswept peaks, gauchos and condors.” (Patagonia, 2011) We have admired the enormous mountains, marveled at the never-ending glaciers, gazed up at the star filled skies and been stunned by avalanches. No wonder why the founder of Patagonia Outdoor Clothing, Yvon Chouinard, chose this special place as the name for his company.
We left the comforts of our home in Bariloche and took a 30 hour (yes 30!) bus ride down south into the heart of Patagonia. I have to say that the bus ride, as terrible as it sounds, wasn´t too bad and they even served us meals. Our first stop was El Calafate, a small town originally for wool traders, now exists because of the Los Glaciares National Park and the Perito Moreno Glacier visited by an abundance of tourists each year. Fortunately we went in the low season and almost had the place to ourselves. However we were happy that our hostel, America del Sur, had a good vibe and was full of fellow backpackers coming and going with eventful stories. We took a tour to go and see the glacier which is considered the eighth wonder of the world spanning five km wide and 35km long. The size of this thing is incomprehensible and spans for as far as the eye can see. We met a friendly ozzie bloke (Ash) on the tour and spent the day walking the maze of balconies they have built in front of the glacier and trying to catch a glimpse of a piece of the glacier breaking off. If you didn´t see a piece break off, you definitely heard the thundering noise. It was stunning. That night we met up with Ash, had a couple very large beers and shared notes about our trips.
After touching the surface of Patagonia, it was time to get deeper into the wilderness so we headed to El Chalten, an even smaller town literally in the middle of nowhere. This pueblo was mainly built for climbers and hikers to explore Cerro Torre, Cerro Fitz Roy and the numerous glaciers. Or if you´re crazy, like one guy we met on the bus, you can do back country skiing and ice climbing. He ventured out there on his own and we found out later that he nearly got stuck in an avalanche! The area and especially Cerro Fitz Roy is so formidable that only two climbing trips actually summit the mountain each year. Fortunately for us we arrived on a picture perfect day (many others at the hostel in El Calafate had returned from El Chalten without even a peek at these majestic mountains) without a cloud in the sky and were welcomed with more glaciers, fresh air and the beautiful mountains. The town however, was like arriving into a ghost town, hardly anything was open because of the time of year and hardly a soul around. Perfect for us…we would have the trails to ourselves! We checked into our lovely little cabana atAnita´s Place, grabbed some grub at a very tasty rotiseria (so good we even went back for dinner) and headed for the Lago Torre trail. This was our favorite hike so far, winding by the river, up hills, through little groves and finally to the magnificent finish. Iced over Lago Torre, Cerro Torre standing tall and Glaciar Grande. It was a sight we will never forget and literally took my breath away. The next day was pretty cloudy so we hiked to a waterfall and then ventured to Lago Capri to get the tourist photo of Fitz Roy, however it was too cloudy so we headed back down to try to find some lunch. When we reached the bottom everything was closed except for the main hostel. We went in with our hungry stomachs but after watching the waitresses continue to clean glasses and talk to each other for about 15 minutes without even bringing our water we left and headed further down the street and found a gem of a place called La Lucinda´s, a grandma, mum and daughter outfit serving the most delicious food. The sandwiches were delicious and when we had dessert it came with two different liquors. With our stomachs full, feeling very satisfied with our trip to El Chalten, we headed for the bus station. Next stop Puerto Natales.
Puerto Natales is again another small town on the Chilean Border that serves as a base for tourists heading to Torres Del Paine National Park. Our original thought was to just do day trips into the park, however after our experience in El Chalten and speaking to other travelers we decided to be a little adventurous and do the famous ´W´ hike. The hike is meant to take 4 days in the best weather, leading you by glaciers, lakes, mountains and vast lands. Along the way you can either stay at refugios or camp. We opted to camp since we weren´t sure if the refugios would be open and it costs $40 per bed in the refugios. Daylight robbery! We met another guy in the hostel, George from Brazil, who decided to join us…perfect someone else to help carry the bloody food. Our journey started bright and early with a two hour bus journey to the park. Well it was meant to be two hours but the drivers kept stopping to have breakfast or sip mate with the park rangers. Our plan was to start on the east side of the park and head west as we were told that none of the boats taking you to the start of the trail were operating. Fortunately we met some Germans who told us that one of the boats was working and so we could probably get that back otherwise we would have to walk for an extra day to even get out of the park. We checked times at the ranger station and they didn´t even know what was going on. This seemed to be the theme of the employees working within the park; we would get one answer from one employee and then get the complete opposite from the next. Always a reassuring feeling when you´re going into the wilderness. We decided to just follow the Germans and continued with them along the windy road to the visitor center. This took about an hour and within that time we saw about 3 other people. The land was covered in a fresh blanket of snow and the sky was thick with clouds, not exactly welcoming. When we were finally dropped off at the visitor center I think we were all feeling like we had been abandoned in the freezing cold. It was an exciting but weird feeling…that feeling would get worse. We took a transfer to the hotel where we could get the boat giving us a chance to warm up once more until finally it was time. We hiked out to a small dingy which then took us across to a larger boat. The views on the journey were beautiful with a glacier in the distance and icebergs floating all around. When we arrived at our destination we were dropped off on the side of the lake and had to clamber up rocks to get onto shore. Then they left us and this was the weirdest feeling ever. I don´t think I have ever been in that situation before where if you can´t hike out you are pretty much screwed. It seriously felt like we were the only people in the park, well we kind of were. Waving the boat good-bye and realizing our situation we decided to get a bit of food in us before heading for the trail; a lovely lunch of salami and cheese sandwiches. The trail was covered in snow so our feet were pretty cold and wet straight away. Along the way we could see the glacier and small lakes that were almost black. We made it to the first refugio just after dark and what a relief it was to see ¨civilization¨ in front of us. We were welcomed with a lovely fire and a huge kitchen to cook in. We put up our tents, made some tasty cheese quesadillas, and joined the 4 others warming their feet by the fire. We met another German who has been travelling for the past 5 years and has 4 years to go with the aim of visiting every country in the world. Sounds interesting but he was quite defensive in everything he said so he just became annoying. Loved Justin´s line of ‘So you´re just doing this just to say you´ve been to every country then’. After a while he left and we decided to make the most of a golden opportunity and camp in the dining room by the fire rather than head out to -7 degree temperatures!
The next day was beautiful without a cloud in the sky and I think we were all feeling a little more motivated. We headed for the middle of the ´W’ called Valle Frances. We set up camp at Chileno had an interesting lunch of tuna, wraps, mustard and raisins (it wasn´t too bad). George decided to stay behind as Justin and I headed up the valley. It was hard to see the trail as it was covered in snow and we had to climb over huge boulders. Looking across the valley we noticed that the snow was piled very high above the cliffs and we both even mentioned that it looked like it would avalanche. Right on cue, well five minutes later we heard a loud crack, then a thunder and then the snow started pouring down. A few seconds later an even bigger avalanche started pouring down the mountain. (See the photos above.) It literally took my breath away, and my hiking spirit. A little freaked out we decided to head back down to camp, pack up the tent and move on to the next refugio. So glad we did as we were welcomed by another toasty fire and showers. This night we camped and it wasn´t so bad, except when I had to pee.
Our third and what turned out to be our final day, was a day of morals and ethics. It started off well. We got up early and Justin even saw a fox. Our aim was to try to make it up to the needles or at least a camp site just below them, however George, the guy from Brazil, was walking slower and just couldn´t keep up. We tried helping him out by carrying his tent but his legs were two tired. After about an hour we had to confront him and decided to leave him behind. We felt like crap and for the next hour and half kept trying to reason as to why it was OK and that he should be fine on his own. Further down the trail we ran into some other Germans (so many German´s in this park) who said the trail up to the needles was extremely difficult to finish with the time we had. So, along with the fact that we had left George and the news from the Germans made us realize we shouldn´t be rushing to do the needles and we should finish this thing as a team. George caught up to us after a little and then we carried on the trail, although this time funnily enough he had picked up the pace a little. We amazingly reached the last refugio 2 minutes before the shuttle and then headed home with a stunning view of the needles standing tall. That night Justin and I toasted our experience with the ‘W’ pizza at Mesita Grande. We never really saw George again. I guess we deserved that.
P.S. We decided against going to Ushuaia since we were ready for summer.