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Published: April 6th 2014
Oh, I was so ready for great trekking in Torres del Paine National Park, a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, and named the 5th most beautiful place in the world by National Geographic. I arrived in its gateway, Puerto Natales, and was charmed by the little village with its vernacular architecture and small town vibe. I spent a couple of pleasant, sunny days exploring the area and getting ready. Soon, I'd be trekking solo for six glorious days in the wilderness park of towering, snowy granite peaks, glaciers, waterfalls, rushing rivers, wild guanacos and other fauna. I was stoked! However, I was awakened that night by bed-shaking thunder and a downpour of biblical proportions. I pulled my coat on over my two sets of thermal underwear to freak out with the rest of the potential trekkers. The hostel owner assured us that we could get a refund on our bus to the park if it were raining like that in the morning. It was, and it continued to storm like that for a week. It was April, 2011, months after the Patagonian trekking summer, and autumn had arrived. Already, some of the trekking refuges
were closing and some of the mountain passes were deep in snow--though we trekkers were prepared for this (more or less). While April is one of the rainiest months, residents kept remarking about how unusual it was to have continuous storms so early in the season, but I wondered if it could be the new normal of climate change. Would I be able to visit Torres del Paine? There are always trade-offs in life: I generally choose off-season bad weather and fewer tourists over fair weather and crowds, and I linger as long as I like, not keeping to any schedule but my fancy. However, this time, my leisurely ways could prove fatal to my trekking plans in Torres del Paine Park!
Chile's Customs and Contradictions I'd come from touristy El Califate, Argentina, the premier Patagonian spot on the gringo trail due to its proximity to fabulous glaciers. A three-hour bus ride through the flat, Patagonian steppe brought me to my first of many crossings into Chile. One of Chile's principal exports is produce, so it's extremely strict about keeping out foreign produce with their
potentially harmful insects. There were lots of scary warning signs, uniformed custom's agents, x-rays for bags and dogs sniffing around--they were serious! Thus, on my custom's form, I dutifully listed my potential contraband--coffee, tea, spices, oats, raisins, nuts, and seeds. No problem--ok, I'll no longer bother to list those and have to stand in a separate, bad person's line. However, in my purse was a cut-up apple I'd intended, but forgotten, to eat which was undetected by both the x-rays and adorable, yellow Labradors. After that, I was no longer so intimidated by the formidable-seeming Chilean customs. Chile is certainly a land of contrasts. Traditionally conservative and dominated by the Catholic Church, it now has a second-term woman president, Michelle Bachelet, who is a Socialist, single mother of three and an agnostic. It ruthlessly exploits its natural resources and indeed, my first glimpse of the country was a hill that had been stripped of its trees and a mine shaft dug into its side. Not a welcoming sight!
Puerto Natales, Sweet Traditional Town Yet as we pulled in to Puerto Natales, we were greeted by
a mural declaring Women's Sexual and Reproductive Rights (this in a country that allowed divorce only in 2004). We then passed a Cultural and Ethnic Center with colorful depictions of indigenous people and their artistic designs. Perhaps because Patagonia was so far from the capital, it was freer--already, I liked this town! My bus from El Califate stopped at the side of the road, and I was clueless about where to stay. Fortunately, a bossy woman, Melinda, was there to try to herd trekkers to her home/hostel. Due to a lovely misunderstanding between her and her husband, I got a private room rather than being crammed in a dorm/converted bedroom. Her house was in major disarray, the breakfast was inedible, and there was no wifi, but hey, it was under $10--perfect! People who came just for a bus tour through the park stayed in more upscale, beachfront digs. Like everyone in the hostel, I'd come to hike Torres del Paine. Melinda was a whirlwind of activity and had us all booked on buses for the park. Since the sun was shining and I was in no hurry, I decided to
spend that day and the next exploring the town, leisurely getting ready and then heading to the park. I love sincere little towns that, even though they might be a bit funky, proudly share what heritage and beauty they have. Puerto Natales was so sweet with historical buildings with explanatory signs, parks and bits of kitschy public art, benches for picnics and reading, and pleasant waterside walks. The town also had lots of original, early 20c wooden buildings, some charmingly restored with colorful side shingles, tin-roof tops, and decorations from the original Croatian immigrants' homeland. In this off-season, I was often the only tourist strolling the waterfront of the Last Hope Sound (Seno de Ultima Esperanza), watching the fishing and excursion boats and backed by the snow-covered Andes. I'd sit on the benches along the shore, reading and watching fishermen repairing their boats and nets and then easily walked to the edge of town and up the sheep-dotted hills. Just the kind of place I love!
Trekking Impossibilities The next day, I attended a trekking safety lecture by a guide from Colorado at an agency
that guided tours and rented equipment. I was shocked at the astronomical prices for a bed in a refuge dorm--$60/night (2011 prices). Even worse, they wouldn't let you use the kitchen, wanting trekkers to buy their hugely overpriced meals. Although I could have rented camping equipment, even that was expensive, as were many of the campsites. Yikes--what's a frugal trekker to do? I got a free map, decided to bite the bullet and stay in the refuges, but cook my own food. I bought lots of disgusting dehydrated food (warning--don't read instant soup labels), a pot and a camp stove and was ready to roll. Then came the deluge... I waited and waited and waited a week in the cramped, noisy, little hostel, though I must admit, I love any excuse to lie in bed and read or chat with friends. For storm news, I made daily forays out in the rain to the tour agency. Finally, they said there would be a one-day break in the weather, so I booked a tour.
Torres del Paine National Park In the dark the next morning, bundled
in two layers of thermals, two turtlenecks, two jackets of fleece and a faux down, 2 pairs of gloves and socks, and 2 hats (my uniform for the past and next month), I boarded a small tour van for a day trip with a fine group of otherwise-trekkers through the park. The sunrise and drive were gorgeous, and all around us were tall, snow-capped peaks. Herds of wild guanacos, the largest of the South American camelids, grazed on the low-lying grasses that covered the Patagonian steppe areas of the park. Unfortunately, there were clouds all day, so my photos don't show the incredible beauty, but we certainly felt it as well as the peace of the wide open spaces. Our first stop was the Cueva del Milodon (Cave of the Mylodon), an enormous, 30 meter-high cave surrounded by slabs of granite that sheltered early indigenous families, and where the bones of a 4 m/12 ft high mylodon, a giant sloth, was found. Along the way, we stopped at/passed various glacier-fed rivers and lakes, milky-turquoise from glacial deposits. At the first lake, we were supposed to
be able to see, reflected in the lake, the famous granite towers, Los Torres, that give the park its name. However, they were shrouded in clouds; this didn't stop me from taking massive numbers of hopeful/hopeless photos (the fourth of the panoramas). All of us were dying for a hike, especially since I knew and proposed a good one, but we only got two short ones, which is my problem with tours. One walk was at a fine waterfall which had great views at its top. We were willing to eat our lunch in the van, but the driver wanted to hang out with his friends, so we stopped for a too-long time next to Lake Pehoe with no walks. We did, though, have fine views of an upscale resort and the famous Horns or Cuernos del Paine formation of sedimentary rock. While we couldn't see the tops of the horns, the mountains were wrapped in mist and looked otherworldly. Our last stop was at Grey Lake where we got to walk over a fun swinging bridge, through a native southern beech forest, to a black, volcanic sand beach with
tortured driftwood and views of Grey Glacier and its icebergs. As we drove the many hours back to town, the rain began again. I gave up my hopes for a trek and left for further south the next day even though the weather reports said unremitting rain for the rest of eternity. While I had hoped for the more intimate knowledge of the park that you can only get through hiking, I was happy that at least I had this one-day glimpse. It wasn't perfect, but for now, it was good enough. I would return to Puerto Natales in a month for an annoyingly sunny day to catch the Navimag ferry through the fiords of Chile's Aisen and Magellanes provinces where roads don't exist. That would prove to be a real adventure!
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