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Published: December 2nd 2009
Leaving Valparaiso we took a long bus journey south to another port, Puerto Montt. From here we had a ferry booked, heading even further south, leaving in a few days time. Whilst there was nothing particularly wrong with Puerto Montt, it didn’t strike us as the sort of place worthy of several days of our time. Therefore, we took a short ferry journey across to the island of Chiloe. Chiloe is reputedly the home of windswept landscapes, wooden churches and penguins. For us it will be memorable for rain and unidentifiable seafood.
Generally speaking on this trip we have been lucky with the weather and although we’ve certainly been cold on a number of occasions, we have rarely been wet. In Chiloe we saw more rain than we have for a long time. Not just any rain though, but the sort of persistent heavy drizzle that we thought the UK had a monopoly on. Sadly, the weather rendered a trip to visit the nearby penguin colony impossible. Nor for that matter did we feel much like traipsing around looking at wooden churches. As alluded to before, Chiloe is home to some weird and not particularly wonderful seafood. Both of us
have something of a love hate relationship with seafood and after a couple of stomach wrenching experiences we resolved not to order any more non-specific seafood, in a country where anything that dares live in the sea is considered fair game.
We arrived back in Puerto Montt in time to board the boat heading south to Puerto Natales. Which, at getting on for a thousand miles, is the longest ferry journey in the world. The ferry winds its way though the channels, fjords and islands of the Patagonian coast. Consequently, in these sheltered waters the sea is fairly calm and seasickness isn’t an issue. That is with the exception of the crossing of one gulf, where Sarah aptly demonstrated her lack of sealegs. Apart from a few relaxing days and some beautiful scenery, the highlight of the trip was a detour we took to the Pio XI glacier. Our previous experience of glaciers has been limited to distant views of icy patches clinging to mountainsides. This however, being the largest in South America, was in a completely different league and occupies an entire valley.
Other than being the terminus of the ferry, our primary reason for visiting Puerto
Natales was it being the gateway to Torres del Paine National Park, which reputedly has some of the best trekking in South America. To their credit the park has better infrastructure than any that we have visited, with a decent network of roads, places to stay and even wheelchair access to viewpoints. It being this well developed made us concerned that it would be far from an authentic wilderness experience.
Although the gateway to the park, Puerto Natales lies some 150km from the entrance. Therefore, a number of dedicated buses are used to ferry tourists on the two hour journey. Another option we learnt of, was arriving by boat. Although a little expensive, this seemed an appealing alternative. Therefore, we left Puerto Natales in an extremely comfortable boat and travelled towards the park, stopping at a few sights along the way. We left the boat and other passengers at Glacier Serrano. We then transferred to far less luxurious craft to continue up the Serrano River to the park. Our second boat was a Zodiac
, i.e. a glorified dinghy with several hundred horsepower of outboard motor attached. Fortunately we were provided with suits to protect us from the cold and
One of the most popular options for trekking in the park is the “W”, so called as the trail consists of three spurs and therefore roughly resembles the letter “W”. Before undertaking this trek, we took a couple of days to explore a less visited area of the park and escape the crowds, on what we expected would be very busy trails. Unlike other treks we have undertaken, we had no guide, porters or mules. Therefore, it was up to us to carry everything we needed for the six days we planned to spend in the park. Although this added an element of difficulty to which we are unaccustomed, we were pleased to find that the terrain wasn’t overly challenging and low enough for altitude not to be an issue. However, the one thing that proved not to be in our favour was the weather.
We both clearly remember the excitement of waking up as children, to find that it had snowed overnight. However, although a novelty, we didn’t share the excitement of our younger selves, when we awoke after our first night in the park to find our tent covered in snow. This was especially so
considering that we had eleven hours of hiking to look forward to that day. The couple of days we spent prior to the “W”, were dominated by the weather and although the immediate landscape looked beautiful dusted in white, the frequent cloud cover certainly interrupted our views.
Once on the beaten track we were pleased to find that, being early in the tourist season, our fears of overcrowding were unfounded. The first spur of the “W” took us close to Glacier Grey. Despite sounding more like something from a Dulux
colour chart, than a tourist attraction, it was certainly beautiful and provided us with one of the highlights of the trek. Soon after arriving, we were sat in the sun enjoying our sandwiches and views of the glacier, when we heard someone shouting to us, “Hey amigo! You want whisky?” It was a coupe of guys we had spoken to the previous night. Fortuitously they had had the presence of mind to bring whisky with them and we were lucky enough to enjoy a drop or two, served over thousands of year old chunks of ice that had recently crumbled from the glacier.
For our time on the
second spur of the “W” we had the best weather of the trek and enjoyed spectacular views of the rugged scenery. Conversely, when on the third and final spur, heavy cloud obscured our views. This was something of a disappointment as this should have provided us with vistas of the three spectacular, jagged towers that park is named after. Our trek complete, we were pleased to return to the relative warmth of Puerto Natales and enjoyed eating food that hadn’t been recently re-hydrated, of course accompanied by some excellent Chilean wine.
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