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Published: April 15th 2007
Crazy angles, mountain backdrop.
For the last month and a half or so I have been hitchhiking and camping my way through Patagonia. This has been one of the best experiences of my life - the land is incredible, the people so kind and generous. I have found myself saying to myself many times both, "OK, no, that
was the hardest thing I've ever done" and "OK, no, that
was the most beautiful thing I've ever seen." Here is the story, so far:
I crossed out of Bolivia by land south into Argentina, a nightmarishly annoying process that involved waiting with all my things in the baking sun on a bridge for 3 hours, in a huge line of people. At some point, the line I was in began to move forward - as in, everyone sort of began rushing for the front. And it turned out that my line was not supposed to exist at all, was one gigantic mistake. So we all barged into the front and cut into the other line, whose occupants were none too happy. There was much yelling and pushing and squeezing. I was told that this happens every day.
I spent a few days in Salta, in
northern Argentina, which is a lovely, busy city. The main square was redone a few years ago, and is surrounded on all four sides with sidewalk cafes, some of which are open 24 hours a day. I spent my time in this city shopping for camping supplies and drinking liter bottles of beer (hey, that's how they sell it in Argentina!) at these cafes.
From Salta I flew the length of the country, to Ushuaia on Tierra del Fuego, which bills itself as the southernmost city in the world (there is a village across the Beagle Channel, however, so once again, I suppose this title depends on perspective). Arriving in Ushuaia by plane is great - you fly over the Fuegian Alps into a little airport that looks like a ski lodge. The city itself is charming, in a touristy sort of way (lots of shops selling outdoor gear and gourmet chocolates). It is squeezed in between steep snowcapped mountains and the Beagle Channel, and reminded me of how I imagine Alaska to be - I must admit, it really does feel like you're at the end of the world.
I was picked up at the airport by a guy
I love this picture.
from hospitality club, who brought me to the cheapest hostel in town - a super-friendly place called Refugio del Mochilero. Here I ran into the guy I had met in Bolivia who inspired the idea of heading down to Patagonia, who invited me on a hike the next morning.
This was my first multi-day trek, and I think it will probably rank among the hardest I ever do. It went something like this: bog, bog, marsh, boulders, huge snowy pass, slippery scree pass, boulders, tangly forest, bog, tangly forest, scree, scree, bog, bog, steep scree slope down from a high pass, boulders, boulders, forest, snowstorm, hailstorm, forest, forest, bog. Also, this being my first multi-day trek, and this being Tierra del Fuego, I was woefully underprepared: I had no rain/wind-proof coat, only sneakers, and 1 pair of pants. The last day I stumbled for 13 hours through a snowstorm to get back to the city.
Now, the plus side of this is that the country was so remote (please note the absence of any mention of trails in the above description), it was pristinely beautiful and I did feel incredibly special and privileged to be in it. Also, the hikes
I've done since have just gotten progressively easier! (All the photos in this blog are from Ushuaia, because my replacement camera broke after.)
Leaving Ushuaia you quickly leave the mountains: the land changes to the dun-colored plain that will continue for the next 1000 km (or something). After the mad hike I travelled to Puerto Natales, Chile, which is the town used as a base for trekking in Torres del Paine National Park. This park had previously been described to me as "basically one week of the most beautiful hiking you'll ever do." Precisely.
There are many options for hiking in the park. The two most popular are the Full Circuit trek and the "W". Karl (the guy I had hiked in Ushuaia with) and I set out to complete the full circuit. This is a 7-10 day trek, which takes you around the back of the main massifs, over Paso John Gardner (eh, that ain't nothin' - not after Ushuaia!), where you get an incredible view of Glacier Grey, then down to the main route of the W, which sees you past Lago Pehoe (brilliant waters), the Cuernos del Paine, and the Torres themselves. I was in the park
Big Ass Beaver Dam
Beavers are an introduced species, and because they have no natural predators on Tierra del Fuego they are wreaking havoc. Throughout the hike we saw many huge dams.
for 9 days, and I feel I did not see nearly enough.
There are two images from this hike that stay with me above all else: one is the view from the top of the pass: 180 degrees of white, Glacier Grey spread out in front of you, with a mountain backdrop behind. The hours of walking down from the pass, you see just glimpses of the glacier through the trees, like hints of another planet... Then, walking along Lago Grey - the waters are a thick blue. Floating in them icebergs a bright turquoise blue. Mountains line the far side of the lake. And framing the waters, a complete rainbow, its ends dipping down to the water. This looked like a fantasy painting; if I saw a picture of it I would be certain it was digitally manipulated. (Please check back here in future for photos of the park, which should be being mailed to my parents by Graham from Connecticut, who I walked with for a few days.)
After Torres del Paine I spent several days just sitting in the hostel in Puerto Natales, watching movies and recuperating. From there I travelled northeast to El Calafate, Argentina (in
the far south the border between Chile and Argentina becomes way too wacky for its own good, and you have to cross back and forth repeatedly just to travel anywhere. If a Chilean from Puerto Natales wants to go to Santiago by land, he has to travel through a good portion of Argentina. If an Argentine wants to go to Ushuaia by land, he has to cross through Chile. These facts produce very rapid, firey, indignant responses when mentioned to Argentinians.) El Calafate is an extremely expensive tourist-town, the main point of interest being the glacier Perito Moreno, which is one of the few in the world which is actually increasing in size. Tourists pay bunches to watch giant chunks of it collapse into the water of the lake and float off. Of course I did so - one of those things.
So, the next day I ran away from El Carissimo - oh, excuse me, El Calafate - and headed for El ChaltÃ©n. (While El Calafate represents the southern end of the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, El ChaltÃ©n is the northern.) This town, according to a guy I was talking to in the park, was created by the Argentinian
And check out how still the water is!
government some few decades ago to prevent those pesky Chileans from claiming this area as theirs - some people just carted in and plopped down. And this factiod is, to me, very believable, as I thought the town had a strange air about it, like it didn't belong there (my mentioning this perception is what prompted him to produce this story.) El ChaltÃ©n is the base for hiking the Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre massifs. I did so for 4 days, the first time I attempted such a thing on my own, and really enjoyed it. There are incredible views all the way around this small sector of the park.
Next I spent a few boring days in Rio Gallegos, which is the capital of Santa Cruz province. There is nothing of interest there, and the only other backpackers I met (also staying at an expensive campground in the industrial outskirts - charming) were also hitchhikers taking a break.
I moved north from Rio Gallegos, spending a few days in the town of Perito Moreno (not to be confused with the glacier of the same name, nor the park!). Here in my campsite I met a wonderful family (this was
Easter weekend) who took me with them to the Cueva de las Manos. The cave was the reason I was in Perito Moreno - the hands are rock art, designs in astonishingly bright colors sprayed onto the wall of a beautiful canyon by ancient inhabitants.
From Perito Moreno I travelled on Easter Sunday in a pickup that may just have been the same age as the rock drawings to Chile. The uninspiring border town of Chile Chico in fact inspired me to abandon hitchhiking for this stretch and take a boat and micro north to Coyhaique, the city that is the capital of this region of Chile. My purpose in crossing over to Chile was to travel north on the Carreterra Austral, the gravel highway just completed in recent years, linking these isolated towns to the modern north of the country, to the big island of ChiloÃ©. It didn't turn out quite how I expected! After I skipped the southern part, I spent a few days in Coyhaique and did a day hike in the forest reserve there. Then I hitched, far quicker than I had planned (truck carrying 70 calves), north to Chaiten, where I spent a day sitting
in the cab of the truck being blasted by rain carried by the 80 km per hour winds, waiting for the delayed ferry.
The ferry brought me to ChiloÃ©, which is where I am now. Y'all are all caught up! Phew! I can't believe it! Now I must go explore ChiloÃ©...
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