Torres del Paine Part 1: "The Camelid Tragedy", Chilean Patagonia

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April 8th 2007
Published: August 8th 2007
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The road from Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine is usually taken by public transportation by backpackers running "The Gringo Trail". Fresh from Ushuaia by way of Buenos Aires, the Gringo's look forward to the next few stops: Torres del Paine, El Calafate and Perito Moreno. The Lonely Travellers from a far off Planet take the economical and convenient buses out of necessity. For me though, the bus doesn't work- I wouldn't be able to roll the windows down and blast the fresh Chilean air in my face, stop anywhere I choose to take pictures, be free of timetables or wander away from the main road. How exactly is being alone most of the time, driving on international roads and paying exorbitant sums of money for a car an advantage?

It lets me see things most people never see- both locals and gringo travellers alike.

Initial impression of Torres del Paine were mellow. I arrived during rain and clouds, so my views of the massive Torres Massif was gradual and playfull. I got to focus on the side of Torres del Paine I never saw in travelblog- the grassy and volcanic slopes south of the Rio Serrano.

And the Guanacos... hundreds of them! They are either tame of brave, but either way I consider them very handsome. Have you ever noticed camels can be handsome? Guanaco's are the same way! Their fur is luxuriant, their eyes large. They are unafraid and they don't move an inch as your car whizzes 10 feet away from their noses. Guanacos seem to know they belong here, eating the dead grass, showcasing their fur, indifferent to the frigid western winds that incessantly roll across this place. With no views, I pulled over and watched a herd. A calf milking from its mother, the continuous roll of their herbivore jaws masticating the blades of grass- their watchful eyes watching me watching them.

I must admit I felt like I had made new friends. Indeed, staring at these wild beasts gave me a weird feeling, like being at the zoo. But instead of a sanctuary of wild animals in cages for humans to see- I was on display for the wild animals in my own rented cage. I used to consider the fox my animal of power as the frequent sightings I had of the beast seemed to come at the most curious

Aren't they handsome?!
and eventful of times in my life. Here in Torres del Paine, my only sighting of the supposedly prolific Patagonian Fox was a dead one in the middle of the road. I underestimated the magnitude of this event, for my fortune was about to take a turn for the worst.

The guard at the entrance station was rude, even though I tried to make small talk in Spanish to show I was no ordinary gringo.
Me: "Usted sabe si hay una torrento veniendo por este noche o manana?"
Him: "No se"(mumbled and grumbled)

This was not the Chile I knew. I didn't blame him, dealing with the endless stream of gringos on world tour vacations must be a pain in the ass. The weather was shitty and winter was beginning. But still, he was a dick- this was yet another sign pointing to something strange.

I drove up the road to Hosteria Las Torres. It was getting late and as I arrived at the Hosteria I discovered it was actually a really nice hotel. And the price- $150? Charge it. It was already dark, I needed to pack my backpack and I coudn't arrange my belongings in the dark. Dinner was a 40 oz cerveza Austral, bread and pate from the grocery store and then some cookies. In the atrium connecting the single level rooms, several tourists gathered for evening conversation. Guide books were opened on the tables, as was the wine. Having no desire for superficial conversation of where I'd been, where I was going and where I was from I took a walk in the dark. The introduced European Hares were out in droves, all over the lawn! The Southern Sky was half clouds and half stars.

This was true wilderness: 300 miles to the north stretched the Southern Patagonia Ice Field. 100 km to the west was the heavily forested fjords of the Chilean Pacific Ocean. 100 km to the east were the lonely pampas of Argentina, and the largest city nearby was 100 km to the south- 18,000 person Puerto Natales.

I looked forward with excitement to my 4 day backpack to Glacier Grey and Glacier de los Perros. I eagerly met the 9am catamaran. After meeting more rude Chileans who ran the boat, we were soon venturing across the milky turquoise Lago Pehoe.

The hike wasn't that bad, but
El Zorro esta muerto...El Zorro esta muerto...El Zorro esta muerto...

My only sighting of my power animal, and it was deceased? Yes, it was foreshadowing.
my pack was heavy. I struggled with all of my layers I had on to keep me warm. Soon I was wearing summer hiking attire- thin pants and a cotton tshirt. I know cotton kills, but its great for wiping off sweat from my face and water from my camera lens. And water there was, the rain didn't let up for a minute. Soon the easy 4 hour hike was taking a different turn. I was in excellent shape and am a good walker- but for some reason the mountains seemed to be getting the better of me on this hike. When I reached the top of the ridge, the work paid off.

It was then I saw my first alpine lake in Patagonia. Well maybe not truly alpine as it was surrounded by a thick forest of Lenga and Nirre, but the rockbound sub-alpine splendor was more than enough to make me as happy as a pig in the swimming pool with a cold beer.

I stopped at the shores and fought the rain like hell for a picture of this majestic splendor. It made me forget about sweating like a devil then freezing like an icicle, rude people who should be nice and a certain sacred fox that lay dead on the side of a road.

I was beat. Should I camp here at this beautiful lake? Find shelter under a large tree on the far shore where no tourist has ventured in years?

Please, Im only one low impact camper who rarely shits in the wilderness and doesn't build campfires.

Whatever nobody is going to see me here, there's only 20 people who have hiked this trail in the last 2 days.

That's true, I should leave this special place that would heal my aches and rest my body, this place that resonates in my heart and begs me to stay.
--Off for Glacier Grey I went.

The rest of the story has been told a thousand times to a thousand faces in two languages and on two different continents. It goes something like this:

The trail to Glacier grey was mostly downhill from the ridge, but a healthy 6 km away. Three quarters of the way there I had to rest. I fall asleep on a log, and woke up maybe an hour before sunset with who knows how much longer to hike. It was twilight when I got to the refugio that had about 30 campers. Its raining and about 40 degrees F (2 celsius) outside. The host of the small hosteria dorm and store comes over and gets the money for the campsite from me. Seemingly very friendly and genuine he asks, "are you tired?" "are you travelling alone?".. I give him the money for the site and talk a little about the park. So far, I was getting a B+ on my Spanish test! I was exhausted, dirty, wet, hungry and thirsty- so I furiously set up camp, got inside and didn't come back out until tragedy struck in the middle of the night. I cooked in my tent, dried off in my tent, hell I'll be honest- I didn't want to leave the tent so bad I even peed in a gatorade bottle. It was a great evening, and I knew much brighter things were coming the next day.

So here I am in the safest country in South America, Chile. A place I am so comfortable in, a place I know so much about and cherish deeply. Even though I never get the feeling of being somewhere far from home, I still protect my wallet at all times.

I have done hundreds of km of backpacking in my life, and never have I even considered that a tent is potential target for crime. Safety inside my own tent 10 km deep into a National Park on the tip of the earth that sees the same number of visitors per year than Yosemite National Park does in a slow month(125,000) was the last of my concerns. My stuff was strewn about like a tornado rolled through, food, clothes, camera stuff and bottles. I probably did pass out that night instead of fall asleep, but that could have been from the whisky or the exhaustion.

It was about 4am, when I heard a noise. When I turned over, I vaguely saw a human form inside my tent. Yes, I see now, its a hand and arm zipping up my unzipped rain fly.
First struggling to differentiate this situation from the dreams of Alpine lakes, glaciers and strange forests- I yell "what the fuck are you doing?" He ran off very fast.

Now picture this, I was just woken up abruptly in the wilderness- the one place I truly feel at home. It's pitch black dark, I am naked zipped up in my mummy sleeping bag and still mentally separating fact from fiction in my head. I had no idea what just happened, but slowly it dawns on me that what happened was real and it was a thief trying to steal something. Yes, I had to have foiled his attempt because he was zipping the rain fly back UP-I am a light sleeper and surely he could not have unzipped both zippers, stolen something zipped up both again and THEN I caught him. Nevertheless, I find my light(a challenge in and of itself) and take a look around at my stuff.

Immediately I see my camera and passport, right next to me in plain view where I left them. Whew! Wow. Now I feel a bit unsafe, but getting out my knife and getting dressed makes me more comfortable. As I put a shirt on and still scan my tent for important belongings, I notice I cant find my wallet.

My wallet is missing. I cant believe its true, maybe I misplaced it because the last time I used it was in the rain while my bag was packed. I check pockets in shirts and pants. Check again, and then once more. I can't find it, is this really happening?

A thief entered my tent in the middle of the night and stole my wallet at 4am at a wilderness campsite holding maybe 30 people?! Complete shock. A little fright. I get dressed quickly and get out of my tent, knowing the thief is not going to be found short of using nightvision and standing watch the rest of the night over the entire camp. I look around nearby in the direction he ran to see if maybe he threw the wallet away. No Luck. Trashcans? No luck. As I get back to the tent and cant fall asleep, I review my memory for the contents of this precious piece of leather. My drivers license- Say goodbye to renting a car in Santiago. 2 credit cards, my life lines and sources of cash. My SCUBA card, I guess diving near Valparaiso is out of the question. All of my cash was gone as well- about US $400 worth.

The next morning I pack up early. The host is the second person up, and I explain what happened. My Spanish is taken to new levels as I describe the event and the words flow quickly and with passion. He seems very genuine and cant believe the story, although he does believe me. He says he has been there 3 years and this has never happened, and I believe him. A camp host would never jeopardize the reputation of Torres del Paine or Hosteria and Camp Glacier Grey. But would he tell someone else in camp he worked with about an exhausted gringo travelling alone who has a lot of cash in his wallet? I told the host it was unfortunate and I would be making a police report and telling everyone I knew about this, so if he should find out who the thief is he should tell them to stop hurting the camp's name. Other campers I told the story couldn't believe it either, it
seems so ridiculous.

I wondered if I did something wrong. Shouldn't I have shouted "Ladron, LADRON, PINCHE LADRON!!!" a soon as I woke up and saw a stranger in my tent? Shouldn't I have ran after him right away, naked or not? It never crossed my mind. The next morning I thought about walking up to every person in the camp and asking them about it. But where would that get me for so much hassle?

I had no money and no credit cards. The only thing I had going for me was lots of food, a passport and enough gas to get back to Puerto Natales. Knowing I wouldn't be able to relax and continue the trip I had to catch the 1230 ferry back across Lago Pehoe, high tail it to Puerto Natales and get money wired to me. I hauled ass to the boat ramp.

Arriving early, I wondered how the asshole Chilean operators would feel about giving a gringo with a ridiculous story a free ride across the lake.

While waiting in line with all the other backpackers I meet an extremely nice Irish girl named Eva who I start talking with. She's part of a group of 15 travelling by van across South America. Thats a tour I could go for. I decided to share my sob story, and in an act of kindness the likes of which I have never received Eva gives me about $30 US, half of the cash in Chilean pesos and half in US dollars. When we got on the boat and it came to be my turn to pay, the asshole skipper laughs at my story and asks me how I'm going to pay the return ticket. I say that I cant pay it(there's no way Im giving him what little cash I had for a boat trip I already paid for the day before and was already on), doesn't he remember me from the day before? Eva and her friend come to my rescue, giving the man trouble for not believing me. He reluctantly gives me some sort of receipt and I keep my mouth shut from spitting out the few insults I know in Chilean Spanish.

I found out more about the Irish girls, who are special-ed teachers taking a year off. Eva proposed something to me: Could I take her and her friend to Camp Pehoe(2km) in return for more money? I said in the nicest way I could that I would drive them 15 km away for free, but since I really needed money I wasn't going to turn down the offer of cash. They even offer me tea and food at their camp, but I thank them a million times and then drive as fast as I can 2 hours back to Puerto Natales. Luckily I arrive just in time to have 2.5 hours to call home, go to the Chile Express(western Union) and get money. Problem solved, emotions drained.

Back at Casa Cecilia, where I stayed at previously, I gathered my thoughts and organized my wet and muddy things. I went outside to the payphone to call the US and cancel my credit cards. Calling Bank of America takes 2 different pay phones, 30 minutes, 4 different operators and 4 call transfers to cancel a credit card that was stolen. Citibank wasn't much better, they say they have an international number to call, but it doesn't work from any phones including my cell. Cecilia was so empathetic to my situation she was gracious enough to let me dial direct with their fax phone. I asked her how much to give her, and she said 2000 pesos($4). I gave her 5000!

So this was how my first 2 days went in National Park of Torres del Paine. The next day I went back with tons of cash and tons of confidence that no matter what- Things cant possibly get any worse! The gods were pleased with my attitude and blessed me with some great hikes and fantastic pictures- those are the next 2 galleries, stay tuned!!


Additional photos below
Photos: 30, Displayed: 30


Bands of RockBands of Rock
Bands of Rock

The Torres and Cuernos del Paine are intrusive rocks, massive bubbles of granite from within the earth. This much older banded rock is what it intruded through, and some even caps the Torres black at the top- too high to be scraped off by the glaciers of the last Ice Age.

2nd June 2007

Delicious photos!
Great shots Stephen, I like the self portrait the most!
2nd June 2007

Thanks Again!
Thank you Ansty! I heard there's someone else who's getting a little antsy in your family... THOR wants out to start exploring the world!!
2nd June 2007

Brilliant blog!
I got a great education on a part of the world i've never ventured out to - thanks heaps! Guanacos are indeed handsome, their eyes beat the cuteness of sparkly anime characters'. Jolly photos, envying your skills...grr;)
3rd June 2007

Great shots!
Awesome photos Stephen!
4th June 2007

Bad luck
Hi Stephen. Stunning photos as always. That's such a shame about your wallet. Hope you have managed to put it all behind you and enjoy the rest of your trip. Make sure you lock your tent next time!
4th June 2007

Skeleton Key
Thanks Ruth! Im looking forward to your upcoming trip! Yeah, I need to find a deadbolt and latch for my tent... :)
4th June 2007

Hotties from Scotland
.. and I'm sure this whole experience would have been a lot more devastating if you hadn't met those hotties from Scotland back at the hostel .... Hahahaha. Photos are fab... genuis. Hopefully see you in the states soon. Wendy and Stuart x
4th June 2007

Awesome pics!
6th June 2007

mil gracias
Thanks Mrs. Breit!!!
16th June 2007

you are one to be admired Stephen.......
How does this happen? So sorry and interested at the same time. you are so fortunate to see what you do although this was not what you would imagine. Looking away from the bad and focusing on all the beauty...............I can only feel this sense of envy for all that you do and how you express this to all who read your words. Your pictures as well as your journal are most impressive Stephen..................Don't stop!!! L, Susan
7th July 2007

My son STEVE
Isn't my son Steve just amazing !!! I cn't take credit for any of his amazing talents.
2nd December 2009

I have been living in Vina del Mar since September, and i am planning a trip to the south and I would love to camp a lot along the way, especially in Torres del Paine. Im traveling solo as well, and would love some advice. Im not planning to do any major trekking, only two nights in the park. Do you think its safe to go at it alone? And if so, which hike would you recommend? Thanks for the story, the pictures are beautiful. Peace and Love, Rosie

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