Published: February 10th 2006
January 19th 2006
View from on day 2 of the Torres Del Paine Trek
We took a very early morning flight from Santiago to Punte Arenas and a three-hour bus ride later we arrived bleary-eyed in the town of Puerto Natales. Disembarking from the bus we had to face the onslaught of accommodation touts waving their flyers in our faces and all shouting at once. Nicola found one offering a double room with an ensuite bathroom for 6,000 Pesos (12 US$) and we caught a ride in her very smart Pajero (must be a good business) to the hostel. When we inspected the room it was adequate and very clean but there was noisy building work on the go and a musty odour in the passageway. As we had planned a rest day for the next day we turned down the room and decided to find something a little quieter and more relaxing. Little did we know that this was by far as good as it gets in Puerto Natales on our budget and two hours later we returned, totally drained, very irritable and having been offered every form of accommodation including a room with no heating or lights.
The next day despite being our wedding anniversary was not much of a relaxation day
Crossing an icy stream
Nicola crossing one of the many glacial streams with the Paine mountains in the background.
as we spent it provisioning ourselves for a hike in Torres Del Paine, the chief attraction to bring us this far south. It turned out that our hostel (Jose Maria) was one of the best places from which to base yourself for a visit to the park as the main guy Xavier was a really nice guy and had been a park ranger and was very keen to advise us on the best and cheapest routes. We also asked him for recommendation of a good restaurant to celebrate our wedding anniversary hoping for somewhere with good food. We took his first recommendation and ended up at a place called the Azul Ventana (“Blue Window”) where the chef was another ex park ranger and friend of Xavier’s. The restaurant was very funky with blue and black stemmed wine glasses on the tables. The starters were fantastic and the wine was good, and the mains were of a high standard compared to the rest of Chile but did not compare to the starters.
Torres del Paine
We were up and ready for our seven am departure in a bus driven by a guy who was a splitting image of
Carl admiring the famous Torres of the Torres del Paine National Park.
an aged Otto (the School bus Driver) from the Simpsons and headed north to the park. When we arrived there was a lot of low cloud cover however, for a brief moment we could see the famous Torres peaks and we banked a few photos just in case it was our only viewing. The road further into the park cannot take a bus so we caught a minibus to the start of the trail. During the ten minute ride we chatted to a very nice French Canadian girl expecting, as is so common during travel, that at the end of the journey we would say our farewells and never meet again as they were on a two day route and us a five day.
Having disposed of Nicola’s camelback, which had burst on route, we loaded up packs and started trekking. Almost immediately the weather improved and we found ourselves removing layers and enjoying some welcome sunshine. The first part of the trek was flat but it soon steepened and we began to really feel the strain of our heavy packs. Once we had reached the first campsite (not the one we were going to stay at) we had
Cuernos del Paine
The distinctive 2 toned mountains of the Paine Massif
a little more energy as the route went through beautiful forested areas next to a gushing river, but lots of ups and downs with the heavy packs started to take the toll and the renewed energy began to wear off. We expected this first day’s hiking to take three and a half hours but it took us significantly longer and we finally arrived at our campsite late in the afternoon thinking of nothing but sleep. Exhausted, we decided to have a little nap before heading up to the lookout to see the Torres. We pitched our tent and curled in our sleeping bags up for a good few hours of much needed rest. Feeling a bit more energetic and not having the heavy packs we started the big climb up to the Torres (it took me 45 minutes but Carl sped up relishing the lack of pack) The path which became more and more boulderous as we got closer to the look-out was ran next to a beautiful mountain stream with incredibly fresh water that I guzzled frequently as we had not taken our water bottles.
Unfortunately for us the sun had not stayed around for very long and
Taking a break
A well earned rest on the long day 2 hike in Torres del Paine with one of the glacial lakes in the background.
it was overcast by the time we got to the top. The mountains however were very impressive and I sat for a long time just admiring the view while Carl went a walk to get the best photo (with our very mangled tripod). A combination of snow and overcast sky convinced us to go down and not to wait for the sunset (which is supposed to be spectacular). When we got back to camp, there were 2 New Zealanders and an Aussie and a group of gregarious Israelis who had been on our bus camped on either side of us. The antipodeans had had a very hard day and were really taking strain, they had decided to get up really early in the morning and visit the lookout instead of going that afternoon/evening. We decided to sleep in as we had already seen it, we found out later that maybe it would have been better to gone in morning as it was clear and windless. We later saw photos one of the Israelis who had got up for sunrise (at4:00am) had taken. They were really spectacular with the sun’s rays just catching the tops of the peaks turning them golden
Crossing one of the bitterly cold streams in Torres Del Paine
and the glacial lake was a flat mirror.
The next day was TOUGH!! We walked for a little over 10 hours with fully laden packs over pretty rugged terrain. The scenery however made the going worthwhile and we crossed a number of crystal clear streams cascading down from the snow-capped peaks on our one side to the aquamarine lakes on our other. One of the streams was too high to cross without getting our feet wet so we had to take our shoes off and wade across, BRRRRRRRR! When we arrived we set up camp as quickly as possible and set about cooking as all we could think about was curling in our tent and going to sleep.
On my way back from the nearby stream where I had gone to collect water for tooth brushing I saw some familiar faces. It was Aline, the Canadian girl from the bus, and her partner Jean-Francois; this was unexpected as they were meant to have left the park already. I walked over to say hi and find out why they were still in the park. Initially this drew a complete blank as she did not recognise me but Jean Francois
Time for a recharge
The lake shore was covered with an even distribution of black and white stones, very zen and the perfect place for a rest.
did (Good to keep an eye on any guys who talks to your girl). It turned out that they had been on their way out the park when one of the rangers had found out that they were French and had not visited Valle Del Los Frances. This was an omission they could not let go uncorrected and they guides had persuaded them to stay for an additional day to go see it. The guides had even gone as far as organising them a tent and for them to cook their food in one of the guardhouses. The guides however were nowhere to be seen so I offered them the use of our equipment as we had already eaten.
Nicola was having a lot of trouble with her knee, probably brought on by the rough terrain and additional weight she was carrying. So after some discussion we decided that we would probably cut the walk short and try to catch the next days ferry out of the park. This meant that we would need to reach the ferry terminal by 5pm so if we wanted to see the Valle Del Los Frances we would need to be up particularly
There were large groves of these red flowers in Torres Del Paine
early so that we did not have to rush and put more pressure on Nicola's knee.
It took some persuading but with a hot cup of coffee I managed to persuade Nicola out of her sleeping bag to face the morning chill and prepare herself for another hard day of trekking. The trip up the valley would not require us to take our packs, as we had to return via the same route. There had been some rain that night so the walk was a little treacherous but we did see some pretty cool things. First up was a forest of Bonsai which made us feel particularly tall, Gulliver’s Travels in Lilliput came to mind, this was followed by a spectacular avalanche down the slopes of Paine Grande, the tallest mountain in the park, and some large ice falls from the glaciers running down the valley slopes. Nicola’s knee was playing up and it became too difficult for her to continue so she turned decided to spend some time watching the glaciers while I continued to the top of the valley.
Once Nicola turned back the clouds started to really build and by the time I reach the
Bonzai like trees covered the slopes of the French Valley and made us feel like we had discovered Lilliput.
viewpoint there was almost nothing left to see. The viewpoint was not very clearly marked and I ended up hiking way past until I met a two Germans coming down the mountain. I did not know where they were from so I started talking to them in Spanish until they used the only Spanish phrase they knew, “Habla Ingles?” and we continued in English. They had climbed right up to the snowline before finally becoming convinced that they had gone to far as the path they were following was pretty close to impossible. When we turned back we found a very small sign near the proper viewpoint. We all took a photo of the minuscule sign before continuing down hill discussing the great wine in Argentina all the way to the overnight campsite.
At the campsite I found Nicola curled up in her sleeping bag not at all keen to continue as it had started raining now. We had a short nap before having a lunch of pot noodles, packing up and heading on. We had not left ourselves a huge margin for error so as much as the packs sapped our energy we had to push on. We
We witnessed an enourmous avalanche rushing down the slopes of Paine Grande.
kept on but I could feel the accumulation of all the hiking and the past months travelling in my legs and I began to struggle with my balance. It was only Nicola’s determination to catch the ferry back to civilisation that kept me going as all I wanted to do was sit down, rest and eat chocolate. By the time we arrived I was without doubt the most physically tired I have ever been and really glad that we were cutting the hike short, what a wimp! Maybe I just don’t run on instant noodles.
We met up with the French Canadians before the ferry arrived and we all enjoyed sitting back and drinking the hot chocolate provided on board. I was secretly satisfied to see that the Israelis had also bailed out and were also on board.
The Ferry dropped us at the other side of the lake where the buses were waiting. On the journey back through the park we spotted many Guanacos (Llama like animals) and got the driver to stop so that we could take some photos. We also saw something that looked like polecat, which we later discovered it was called a Zorrito
Nicola prepares another delicious meal of Pasta and Sauce.
meaning little fox.
Outside the park was serious sheep country and we saw the biggest concentration of I have ever seen in my life stretching for what seemed like miles and miles. In amongst the sheep we also saw a few Nandus also known as the American Ostrich and I was lucky enough to spot a skunk foraging in a lush green meadow speckled with white and yellow flowers (unfortunately Carl missed the skunk spotting).
Back in Puerto Natales and on to El Calafate
We spent the night at Xavier’s place knowing it was pretty much the best option and the next morning caught a bus to El Calafate in Argentina. At the borders I ensured that both officials placed their exit and entry stamps in the correct spots so I could make up for the very badly placed stamp of from the last Chilean border crossing. When we arrived in El Calafate we were confronted by the normal plethora of hostel touts and were shocked at how much rooms cost, Argentina is meant to be cheap. After considerably less deliberation than usual, we had learnt our lessons, we checked into a brand new and quite expensive
hotel with very comfortable rooms, feeling we had earned a little luxury.
Having skipped the preceding dinner and breakfast lunch was very much our top priority and we found a trendy looking pizza place called Casablanca. I ordered an orange juice but when after some time when it had not arrived I asked the waiter what the problem was. “No hay luz”, (there is no light) he informed me, I had no clue as to what this had to do with the arrival of my orange juice, but finally it arrived. When I asked for another one he informed me that it was not possible as there was no light, so I asked for my coffee and this again, invoked the response “No hay Luz”. Ah ha it finally twigged with some assistance from Carl, No light = No Electricity.
Coffeeless we decided to try the Internet to see if we could get hold of the French-Canadian Couple as they had also been on route to El Calafate but the lack of electricity had struck them down as well so we decided on a short wander round town before going back for a snooze. While staring at the
Consulting the Map
Checking our route in Torres Del Paine
amazing range of flavours on offer we were surprised by a tap on the shoulder, it was Aline and Jean-François, the very people we were trying to track down. We organised to meet up for dinner that evening and then went off to book a glacier cruise for the next day.
After finding the best deal for our cruise I went to the ATM to draw money while Carl finalised the details. The first ATM I went to did not have any money, as with the second, and the third and the fourth and the fifth and final ATM. Everywhere there were people trying to get money but as it was a Sunday the ATMs were not filled up. Unable to pay by credit card we were forced to raid our secret US Dollar stash and scraped though with little to spare.
Dinner Aline and Jean-François was restricted to places that accepted credit cards so we ended up at an “eat as much as you like” place. It was okay, we got a lot of meat but it was not the best quality. We were filled with meat long before we had run out of conversation so moved
With Aline and Jean-Francois
Having a coffee and chocolate in El Calafate with our French Canadian friends.
on to a chocolate shop for an after dinner coffee and chocolate.
Glacier Cruise on Lago Argentina
We were up early for our Glacier cruise which involved visiting the biggest and tallest glaciers in the National park. Carl really wanted to see the big blue icebergs and we certainly got to see many of them as we cruised along the lake. First up was the Spegazzini glacier; the tallest in the park followed by Upsala glacier by far the biggest with a width of 7km. The icebergs breaking off Upsala were simply enormous as the channel in front of the face is more than 600m deep and the intense pressure caused by all that weight gave the ice a very deep blue colour.
The last stop on our tour was Lago Onelli, a small glacial lake fed by three medium sized glaciers. This was the only stop where we were allowed off the boat and was where we were expected to have lunch. Just before we got off the guide informed us that there was to be absolutely no smoking in on land as there was a very high risk of fire. This was of some worry to
One of the monster icebergs claved from Upsala
us as we had brought pasta and sauce, which needed to be cooked. We debated whether to ask the guide if cooking was permitted but we were too hungry to have him say no so we decided to not say anything. The lake was packed full of icebergs and surrounded by beautiful forests and we explored for some time before getting down to the matter of lunch.
We walked as far away from the rest of the group as possible and found a spot that was more than 50m from any vegetation sheltered by a large boulder and set about cooking. Each time someone walked near us we would shield our little stove and pot from view and look like we were having a very private moment. It took really long to cook the food and I was so tense that Nicola sent me on a walk to go look around the lake. The food must have been very nearly ready as when I returned she had already eaten and declared that it was not a very nice flavour. I was relieved that nothing had gone wrong and was simply glad not to have to eat it uncooked.
Trying not to be seen while we cooked our pasta and sauce at Lago Onelli
It had not come up on our radar while we had been planning our trip but everywhere we went in Patagonia people were talking about Mt Fitzroy and the nearby town of El Chalten 200km from El Calafate. Although Nicola wanted more rest days I thought it would be a mistake to be so close and not see this beautiful mountain everyone was describing with such reverence so we organised a rental car and headed north along some very rough roads.
Mount Fitzroy is known for being particularly shy and we met a number of people who had made the journey and seen nothing but clouds. So when it came into view we stopped and took a whole lot of pictures in case it was our only chance. It really is a beautiful mountain rising 3000m above the surrounding plains with an almost vertical granite peak revered amongst climbers for its reluctance to be summated.
The town of El Chalten at the foot of Fitzroy is equally interesting being one of the newest settlements in Argentina. It was founded in the early 80’s to add credence to Argentine claims over the surrounding areas and
initially populated solely with government employees. Climbers and hikers have since taken over and the town has since experienced very rapid growth.
Its growth however has not matched its growing popularity and we found it very difficult to find any available accommodation. After some search we blew our budget and chose a very cute little cabana near to the start of the majority of the trekking routes. We had received a message from our Canadian friends that they had found a room in one of the backpacker places so I went round to invite them round to our nifty little place for dinner that evening. They weren’t in so I left a message that I would come round to pick them up around 7 that evening. Getting food for dinner however was no easy job as the majority of stores sold food dedicated to hiking and there was no way I was going to serve our guests a pre-packaged pasta and sauce or instant noodles. After visiting a number of shops I managed to piece together enough to make a pasta and steak combination before returning to the cabana to assemble it.
At 7pm I went round to
On route to El Chalten in our rental car with Lago Argentina in the background.
see if the Canadians had returned but they had not so I left another message with a revised time. After returning four times I decided that they must have gone straight out to dinner so I revised the message to say I had popped by and then Nicola and I had some very large helpings of pasta. Just as we had finished cleaning up after the meal there was a knock on the front door and we opened to find the Aline and Jean-Francois standing there. Fortunately they had not yet eaten and we still had a huge amount of pasta left over so we had a second sitting and found out all about the wonderful hiking they had done that day.
The next day we were up very late and decided that rather than exert ourselves it would better to hire horses and let them do all the work. Our cabana was right next to a riding stable so I went across and organised a ride up to one of the main viewpoints for Fitzroy.
We got assigned our horses and our guide whose name was Carlos. Carl had a mother horse named Sandy who
Horse riding on the lower slopes of Cerro Fitzroy.
had a little foal that was too young to accompany us on the ride. The foal had to be tied up to prevent him from following us. There was a lot of whinnying and other horse noises from both Sandy and her foal as we headed off down the road. My Horse’s name was Chile and the saddles were extremely comfortable. The ride up the mountain was spectacular as the weather was perfect providing us with clear views of Fitzroy. On route we got Carlos our guide to take some photos, it was very tricky getting the horses into position but we managed. We reached our final destination of the lake far too quickly and we left the horses tied to a tree while we had time to walk around and take photos.
After visiting a toilet with a view and a little wood cabin we returned to untie our horses and head back down the mountain. Again I was marvelling at the comfort of the ride and how wonderfully behaved the horses were, even if Sandy was picking the pace up a little, obviously keen to get back home to her little one and dinner. Carl was first
Nicola with Mt Fitzroy behind.
into the stables and had jumped off Sandy and was just saying goodbye to her when her little foal came running up and kicked him the knee in the attempt to get to his mother or maybe he was angry with Carl for taking her away. I arrived back to see Carl crouched over holding his knee in pain. Until then, the ride had been perfect and I had hoped that this would convince him that horse riding was a great thing to do. I was happy to find out that despite the pain of the kick Carl had enjoyed his day and maybe would be convinced back onto a horse in the future.
Our Last afternoon/night in El Chaten
After our ride we discovered a note from Aline and Jean-Francois to say that they had popped by to say Goodbye and would be at a restaurant in town until their bus left at 5pm. We decided to go and say our final goodbye and relate our horsy stories. They had climbed up to the viewpoint for the other peak (El Torre) and said it was a beautiful and fairly easy walk. We finally parted ways at the bus
Chile gets a hug.
Nicola giving her horse Chile a big hug. She really liked it and came asking for more.
station but will hopefully remain in touch.
Carl decided that as he had saved some energy from the horse ride he would take a walk up to the first view point of El Torre. I was still exhausted and wanted to send some email and get a Guanaco decorated mug I had seen earlier for my mother in law, so I dropped him off at the end of the road. At the Internet café I found out that my Walrus photo from our first blog was to be published in an American magazine called Seakayaker.
A couple of hours later Carl returned having enjoyed his hike and we went out to find dinner. Carl ordered the Lamb and I went with my standard Milanese (“Give me Milanese ah ha ah ha”). Carl ordered beer but the waiter / proprietor told him he could not have lamb without red wine and Carl said he would think about it when he had finished his beer. Without a word from Carl a small carafe of wine appeared on the table with his lamb. When it came to pay the man said to us that the wine was a gift from him
Sandy and her little *******
Carl rode Sandy and her foal had to stay behind. When we returned the little ******* ran up and kicked him in the knee as punishment for taking his mom away.
and was not on the bill. Just another example of why we love Argentina.
As we left El Chaten the next morning we saw a condor flying right next to the road and stopped to watch it when another condor appeared. We sat mesmerised by their flying skills as they flew off into the distance before turning round and doing a high-speed fly by. Some other condors joined our original two and soon there were 6 condors gliding on the thermals above us.
Further down the road we stopped to investigate one of the dead Guanacos we had seen caught in a fence on the way in. It seems to be a common cause of death for these creatures and we saw about seven of them on the route to El Calafate. On the route up we had seen how clumsy they are when they clear the fences and it would be very easy for them to trip and break their necks. It is very sad result of the human need to fence in the land.
Perito Marino Glacier
That afternoon the plan was to go to Perito Marino Glacier. We had stopped for lunch in El
Calafate and ended up having ice cream instead as we could not agree on a restaurant and because the ice cream is so good. We also had an unfulfilled quest for a duck photo on the long drive to the Glacier. The previous time we had been along that road there were many ducks swimming in the pools at the side of the road but as we were in a bus we had been unable to stop, having the car would make it possible. No such luck, the ducks were hiding.
As soon as we set off down the path to the Glacier we heard a huge roar as big chunk of ice calved into the lake and we found a group of French chanting, “Perito, Perito, Perito”. Unfortunately we had been behind some trees and did not see anything but it must have been pretty big to get them that excited. The glacier is really good for viewing as it flows right across Lago Argentina and up against the opposite bank. This blockage creates a dam across the lake resulting in a difference in the levels of the two sides of the lake. When the difference creates a
sufficiently huge force this dam bursts with a spectacular release of energy and flying ice. Unfortunately this only happens every 4 years and the last time was the previous year so we did not get to witness it. We were determined however to see a big block calving. We saw quite a few small ones, which are always accompanied by a disproportionate amount of noise but the big ones were holding back. We set ourselves up in a good position and waited and waited and waited. After every 15 minutes we decided to stay an additional 15, but eventually we decided that the conditions must not be right and we headed back to the car park. As soon as our view was obscured (by the same group of trees as earlier) we heard a gigantic roar as the ice came splaying down. It just wasn’t our day.
Punta Arenas, Penguins and Goodbye to South America
The next day we travelled via Puerto Natales to Punta Arenas where we had our most traumatic accommodation search. We were tired and nobody seemed to have any availability. I was at my most unhappy of the entire trip until Nicola finally found
The endangered gaunaco is not designed for clearing fences and we saw at least 6 that had died trying to.
us a room in a little backpackers. Once our bags were off our backs we immediately perked up and began to focus on the need to feed. The girl running the backpackers recommended a place very nearby called Marmita and it was here that we had our first really good meal in Chile. It was also where we discovered that congrio which we had been avoiding because we thought it was conger eel was in fact kingklip a very popular and delicious fish in South Africa.
Through our hostel we organised a trip to a penguin colony, home to 120,000 Magellanic penguins. The trip out to the island was about 2 hours and on route a guide told us all about the history of the Magellan channel and the life of penguins.
The island was fairly unremarkable, a small windswept piece of lands with a sparse covering of grass but the penguins were everywhere. They seemed to move in little bands marching awkwardly from the sea to their burrows. We took a huge number of photos and could easily have stayed for longer when the guide called us back to the ship. The trip back was against the
Some wild horse on route from El Chalten to EL Calafate
current and took much longer than the journey out so we only got back just before ten. After dumping our stuff we returned to the restaurant of the previous night, as we wanted our last meal in South America to be a good one.
During our excellent meal we looked back to all the things we had seen on our trip, from our starting point in the high artic to the very bottom of mainland South America. We decided that if we make a scrapbook of our travels we would call it “From Polar Bears to Penguins”.
There are more photos below