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Published: January 3rd 2008
Christmas in Fireland
After returning from Antarctica we spent six days in Ushuaia, including Christmas Day. These six days were probably the laziest of the trip so far - we managed a grand total of two hikes and visited only one museum. Most people from our cruise had immediately left Ushuaia, though Valery, our Zodiac driver, was still around, as he had another trip on December 26th, so we met up with him on two consecutive nights in The Galway or "The World's most Southern Irish Bar" as it liked to call itself. Such a claim makes you think it's a long was to the next Irish bar, but there was another one, The Dublin, only half a block north! The only Irish thing about The Galway was the prices, but in a town short of bars, it was the best place to go out. It did have fantastic views over the Beagle Channel so you could see the ships coming and going and enjoy the late sunsets as you drank your pints.
On Christmas Eve we had quite a surprise when Joshua & Melanie, whom we had previously met in Buenos Aires and Montevideo, showed up in Hostel Yakush.
Penguins on Isla Magdalena
The colony on Isla Magdalena contains over 120,000 Magellanic penguins.
We decided to cook Christmas dinner together, though the only problem was Yakush had no oven so turkey was out! Melanie, who I suspect is a cook in her spare time, planned and cooked an excellent dinner for us. Though I did contribute a little by chopping the onions! Punta Arenas
On Dec 26th we left Ushuaia and said our goodbyes to Argentina. We will be back in a few months to see Mendoza and Aconcagua but for the next few weeks we'll be concentrating on Chile. Our first stop in Chile was Punta Arenas, the main city in Chilean Patagonia. It took 12 hours to get here from Ushuaia, and the trip included a ferry across from Tierra del Fuego to the Chilean mainland. Border crossings to Chile are notoriously slow and this one was no exception as it took us a good hour to clear customs.
Punta Arenas means Sandy Point in Spanish, but I think Windy Point would have been a more appropriate name. It's an immediately likeable city with a good number of museums, an attractive main square and an impressive church. Our main reason for visiting Arenas was to see the nearby penguin
Magellanic Penguin Family
We were lucky enough to see penguin chicks during our visit.
colony on Isla Magdalena. We had missed seeing Magallenic Penguins in Punta Tomba in Argentina when our tour was cancelled, so this was another opportunity. Isla Magdalena
Isla Magdalena is located in the Magellan Strait, a narrow passage connecting the Atlanctic and Pacific Oceans. It took two hours to get there on the ferry and we had one hour on the island - nowhere near enough time - to see the penguins. There are over 60,000 pairs on the island, which is looked after by Conaf, who maintain paths and walkways to allow you to see the wildlife without trampling over the nests or disturbing the birds. The chicks are usually born in November, and most Magallenic penguins raise two chicks so we had plenty of opportunity to see the young ones. We had seen many penguins in Antarctica but not quite this amount in just one place so it was a great experience. We've now seen six species of penguins on our trip and hopefully there'll be opportunities to see more before we finish. Puerto Natales - Gateway to Torres del Paine
From Arenas we went north to Puerto Natales, the gateway town to Chile's most visited
It looks like they're embracing but in fact they're fighting over food.
place and our next destination, Torres del Paine National Park. Natales is in a lovely location on the evocatively named Seno Ultima Esperamnza (Last Hope Sound), though there is not too much to see in the town, and were it not for the park there'd be few visitors. Natales is well set up for receiving visitors, and within 30 minutes of arriving we had booked into a hostel, hired a tent & sleeping mats, planned our hiking trail and booked our bus for the next morning. We spent the rest of the day buying food and other supplies for our hike. We planned to hike the "W" trail, so-called because it sort of resembles a letter W (with 3 vertical arms and two horizontal lines). The arms are the valleys while the horizontal lines connect the valleys. The W takes 5 days and you can stay in very expensive refugios all the way but we were determined to save money by camping for the entire length of the trail and carrying all our own food. The W - Day 1: Refugio Paine Grande to Refugio Grey
We set off from Natales at 7 am, feeling very tired, having been
Boat Ride in Torres del Paine
Boarding the catamaran in Torres del Paine. We crossed Lago Pehoe from Pudeto to Refugio Paine Grande where our hike started.
up till 2 am the night before trying to pack. We left most of our stuff behind in the hostel, though our bags still felt very heavy. We were a little worried that we wouldn't be able to carry these over long distances though to our relief others on the bus had even bigger packs. If they could do it....
We arrived in the park, paid our 15,000 pesos entry fee (about 20 Euro), and then caught the ferry from Pudeto across Lago Pehoe to Refugio Paine Grande, the starting point of our hike. You can start the W on either side, we felt that left to right made the most sense. Lago Pehoe was very beautiful and we had great views of the Cuernos mountains in the background. We had eaten lunch on the ferry so once we landed we headed off up the valley. We expected our first day would be relatively easy, as we'd only be covering 11km, up to Refugio Gray, at the base of Glacier Grey. But walking with 5 days of food, clothes, etc, plus your tent and bags, is not easy for even a kilometre. We could manage fine on the flat
Salto Grande Rio Paine
We didn't have time to hike to the Salto Grande Rio Paine waterfall but we did see it from the catamaran.
ground but when we had to climb or descend it became much more difficult. We left Lago Pehoe behind and climbed up through the valley reaching Lago Grey after about an hour. The highlight was catching our first glimpse of Glacier Grey, one of the finest sights in the park. We knew the end was now in sight though the last section was tough, especially as we kept thinking we were there, only to find we'd have to climb over another hill or make a steep descent.
After 4 hours we arrived at our destination, Refugio Gray. Had we had enough energy left we'd have kissed the ground, but all we could do is drop the bags and sit down to recover. It was a great feeling to arrive there, though tempered somewhat when we realised we'd have to do the exact same hike back tomorrow...plus an additional 2.5 hours on to Italiano!
Refugio Gray is one of the many refugios in the park. In these refugios you have a choice between dormitory accommodation for an exorbitant price or camping for a better price. We found a nice sheltered spot within a stone's throw of the lake, put
Turquoise coloured Lago Pehoe is one of the highlights of Torres del Paine
the tent up and set about making dinner. The camping area had a small sheltered cooking area where we prepared spaghetti with tomato sauce, cheese and crackers. We used water from the lake to cook our meal - it was ice-cool and very tasty! We had brought some wine for New Year's Eve, but ended up drinking it that night - all in the interest of reducing the amount we were carrying of course😊 Day 2: Refugio Grey to Campamento Italiano
By 8 am when we woke the next morning some feeling had returned to my shoulders and we were actually looking forward to more hiking. For breakfast we had porridge in hot water, certainly not a breakfast I'd usually get excited about, but on a cold morning beside a glacier, hot porridge does have its charms. It took us much longer to pack up and eat breakfast than we had planned and we didn't set off until 10.15. We even made a mini diversion at the start to a mirador above the glacier. The return hike to Paine Grande had more ascent that the previous day but, rather to my surprise, we completed it quicker. Maybe we
Typical meal on the W
Our first meal of spaghetti & tomato sauce. By day 4, after our fifth such meal, we were no longer smiling!
were getting fitter, or maybe it was the reduced load with the wine and cheese now gone! I think the real reason was we didn't stop as much to look at the views.
We took a long break at Paine Grande, cooked lunch in the sheltered quincho and even had a quick shower. Paine Grande is well set up for campers and we were half tempted to stay there. But the pasta and the rest had given us renewed energy so we set off for Campamento Italiano. It was a lovely hike past the turquoise Lago Pehoe, and then past a smaller lake until we reached the Rio Frances at the base of the Valle des Frances. Just before we reached the campsite we had to cross a very unstable bridge. It can only take two people (or one with a heavy backpack) and as I was crossing the wind whipped up suddenly and I had to hold on tight. Despite the high visitor numbers Torres del Paine is no walk in the park (pardon the pun) and there are certain sections where you need to be very careful. We had noticed the posters all over the park about
Views of Lago Grey during our first day of hiking
the missing Irish trekker, Ronan Lawlor, who had disappeared in the park at the end of November. It's still not known what exactly happened to him, but it was a warning that the park can be an inhospitable place.
Campamento Italiano is a free campsite, with no facilities. No toilets, no running water. All your water has to be collected from the river below. It was very sheltered however, and we had a good night's sleep here. We chatted with a group of Israelis who were hiking the W in the opposite direction and they whetted our appetites for the sights to come with their descriptions of Valle des Frances and the Torres. Day 3- New Year's Eve: Campamento Italiano to Albergue los Cuernos
Our third day on the trail found us awaking to blue skies and sunshine. We found a new recipe for the porridge to make it taste more appetising - by adding such a quantity of nuts and raisins that the porridge taste disappeared! We were becoming accustomed to hiking by now, and the real world seemed very far away. When you're camping or trekking you completely lose track of everyday things like, for
Quite a load
Hmm, perhaps we packed too much!
example, what day it is. All you concentrate on is your next meal and getting to your destination (or pit-stop). Occasionally you forget to look at the beautiful scenery, impossible to believe in a place as beautiful as Torres del Paine. That day I forgot t was New Year's Eve until we arrived in Los Cuernos and saw the signs about that evening's party.
Before all that, however, we had an 11 km round-trip up the Valle des Frances, before the final 6km to Cuernos. The great thing about staying in Italiano was that we could leave all our stuff there while we went up and down the valley. It was still hard going but not having the backpack was like having a weight removed from your shoulder, haha!
The Valle des Frances was absolutely stunning, my favourite place on the W this far. After leaving Italiano we were treated to fine views of Cerro Paine Grande, the highest peak in the park, at 3500 metres altitude. More climbing brought us to a mirador where we had a close up view of the glaciers descending from this peak. I'm not sure how many glaciers were here but it
Glacier Grey is a highlight of the park. Our camp for the first night was close to the edge of the glacier.
looked like a combination of valley glaciers and hanging glaciers. We were lucky enough to witness a calving of the glacier, with incredible noise and fantastic smoke like snow rising. It took 2 hours to reach the head of the valley, where we found a small campsite and a nice spot to relax by the river. One final climb brought us to a mirador with spectacular views in all directions. The beautiful Cuernos peaks to the east were visible as was all of the Valley Frances and, far off in the distance, Lago Toro. I could have stayed here all day, it was so beautiful,.
But we had to push on there's never enough time for everything on the W. We returned to Italiano, ate a quick lunch, packed up and started hiking again, this time with all our gear. The scenery during the next two hours as we travelled to Albergue Cuernos was almost as good as Valle Frances. We had the Cuernos beaks to our left, and the stunning Lago Nordenskjold to the right. The hike went down to the lakeshore, where the wind was so strong that we had trouble staying on our feet. We saw
a couple of condors soaring overhead, and noticed beautiful rainbows on the lake. This Torres del Paine is such a magical place, you see one great sight, then seconds later another comes along.
Albergue Cuernos was in a very windy spot, meaning it took us forever to put up our tent. I must have sounded like Jack from Father Ted with the amount of obscenities and expletives I uttered as we struggled with the tent! Cuernos had scheduled a special New Year's Eve party for that evening, though the steep price put us off. The people running this hostel were the unfriendliest and most unhelpful we'd encountered in the park, and wouldn't even let us take water from the kitchen for our stove. There was no sheltered spot for cooking so we had to sit outside the door of the refugio and attempt to cook in the middle of the swirling winds. We bought a bottle of wine for 10,000 pesos (rather a lot) and sat down to our yet another soup followed by pasta meal.
I've celebrated New Year's Even in some wonderful places, but here on the shore of Lago Nordenskjold, with the mountains in view,
Lago Pehoe from the W
On Day 2, returning to Paine Grande, we had nice views of Lago Pehoe once again.
even as we approached midnight, was very special. We had plenty of company too as other campers had decided to cook in the same spot, while the smokers from the party congregated around us and assured us we were missing little inside. Day 4 - New Year's Day: The End of the W
The winds from the night before were a distant memory when we awoke to heavy rains, surely every camper's worst enemy. Our tent got soaked as did we when it was being taken down, leading to more Fr. Jack mutterings, and a change of plan for the evening, with us now intending to stay in Refugio Chileno instead of pushing on to Torres campsite. It looked like the rains would be with us for the day so we waterproofed up ourselves and our bags before setting off. We faced a 5 hour hike to Chileno and we made great time reaching the halfway point 30 minutes ahead of schedule. I think it was a combination of our muscles becoming accustomed to the hiking and the reduction in pack weights as we ate the food.
As we approached the Chileno turn off we could see nothing
Camping in Italiano
We found a lovely sheltered spot at Italiano on our second night. Note the hanging food bag. Mice and rats are occasionally a problem in TDP, hence it's a good idea to keep food out of their reach.
but dark skies and clouds ahead so we knew it was unlikely we'd see the Torres, probably the biggest attraction in the park. There and then we made the decision to turn right and walk towards the end point rather than left to Chileno. This meant we didn't complete the whole W, but we saw little point in hiking for another day to attempt to see something that would certainly be invisible behind the clouds. So after 4 days and just over 60km we ended our W! It did feel a little deflating not to complete the full 76km but we were still very proud of our efforts.
Before taking the bus back to Natales we had lunch at Refugio Torres near the end of the hike. For the sixth time in four days we had spaghetti and a bland tomato sauce. I hadn't made any New Year's resolutions so far but if you asked me then what I'd give up it would be spaghetti, porridge and instant soup. Back in Natales we treated ourselves to a generous amount of beer and a slap up meal. I think we deserved it!
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