Patagonia: Torres del Paine and El Calafate
Hola family and friends!
First of all, I must apologize for the length of this blog - I lost my journal on the bus ride to Iguazu Falls so I think I wrote this one more for me... sorry. It is also worth noting that this blog entry may have had a very different tone if written by Thomas. I had to wait a little while to write this in order to let some of the bitterness that arose subside.
As most of you know, one of the things Thomas and I really wanted to do while on this trip was to work on organic farms in Argentina and Chile. It has been... a challenge to hear back from any of the farmers. The only one that we have had a positive response from lives in El Bolson (Rio Negro province of Argentina) but he cannot take us until mid-May so we had some time to kill. As we were sitting in our hostel in Iguazu Falls (one of the northern most parts of Argentina) we decide it would be a brilliant idea to go to the deep south of Patagonia! We wanted to see it, and now was the time before winter hits. So we booked some flights. Our main goal was to go to the Torres del Paine National Park to do some trekking. It took us a total of 2 days to reach our destination of Puerto Natales, Chile. Our flight from Iguazu was grounded due to a storm so we didn't end up flying out until the next morning. This however meant that we got to stay in one of the nicest hotels in Iguazu for free, which included a complementary buffet dinner and breakfast - we were okay with staying an extra night. We ended up missing our connection flight in Buenos Aires but we managed to catch the next one (barely) to Rio Gallegos. We spent the night at a hostel in Rio Gallegos and caught the morning bus to Puerto Natales via Rio Turbio (where we had to kill 5 hours with a nice French couple in service stations because that is all that was open on Sundays).
We had a very rough plan of what we wanted to do in Puerto Natales - hike the 'W trek' of Torres del Paine. We thought we would spend a few days hanging out in the town and getting supplies ready. We were never planning on coming this far south so we were very ill prepared for the Patagonian weather and had no camping gear so we would have to rent everything. We figured out last minute that friends of ours that we met at Spanish school in Bs As were also heading to TDP!
The Plan: As our friends weren't coming for a few days, we would start the large 'O circuit' (see map above) on Wednesday and then meet them at Refugio Grey on Saturday night, giving both parties time to get there. Then we would continue with them on the traditional 'W trek' until Wednesday or Thursday. Then we would all go back to the same hostel and hang out for a day or two.
What Actually Happened:
Day 1: Porteria Laguna Amarga to Campamento Seron (14 km)
We arrived at the park entrance at 10:30am making one bathroom break stop half way to the park. I finally met Southern Alberta's wind match. Getting off that bus, I am suprised I did not fly away. It was honestly terrifying. That was the first of many times when I questioned whether this whole Torres del Paine trek was a good idea. But we arrived at the park to absolutely beautiful weather. A tad windy, a little cloudy but not freezing - perfect hiking weather. We started hiking around 11. The first half of the day was windy and a little cold but overall not bad; the second half however, was raining and cold, which was no fun. We did not come across a single sole in the first half of the day (except some Guanacos) but then when the trail met up with the one from the hotel we bumped into another Canadian couple (Duane and Erin). Figures only Canadians are crazy enough to be on the outer circuit in the low/off season. We were the only ones at camp (which was technically closed). It was nice to have some company over dinner, but by the time we retired to our tent I was one frozen ball of Meredith. It took a long time for my toes to warm up that night (at the expense of Thomas' body heat).
Day 2: Campamento Seron to Refugio Dickson (19 km)
Not a lot of sleep was had that night due to the strong winds and rain. I was worried all night that our cooking set would blow away and Thomas was worried that I wasn't warm enough. That morning before emerging from our tent we had a serious discussion about if we wanted to turn around. We didn't exactly have all the right gear if this rain were to continue. But we are both pretty stubborn and we decided to keep going. We were on the trail by 10:30 and it was a great morning - just a little drizzle. But the big wind gusts made it quite cold after a while and the rain continued to get heavier and heavier throughout the day. We were totally soaked from the waste down and freezing by the 3 hour mark when we ran into a guy who told us we only had about 3 hours left. After about 3 hours we ran into a sign that told us we still have another 3 km to go. I was pretty done at this point... so that was the longest 3 km I have ever walked and probably the grumpiest I have been in a long time. And poor Thomas had to put up with me - but he was such a champ about it and was super encouraging. We had to walk through this swamp area at the end which just had boards (sometimes) to keep you out of the water.. I had absolutely no appreciation for it. But we had to climb a big hill right at the end which gave us a great view - the refugio (with smoke coming out!) and two rivers meeting with some icebergs floating. It was a heavenly sight. We decided to stay at the refugio that night (which cost way way too much) because we were just too wet and cold and we wanted to be able to give our boots a chance to dry out a little bit. We also knew that the next night was going to be the coldest one - high elevation and lots of snow. But it was going to be a short day so we were able to sleep in a bit.
Day 3: Refugio Dickson to Campamento Seron (19 km)
The next morning we came downstairs to snow on the ground. It was a sad sight. There was also talk going around that the pass might be closed. After talking with the other Canadians and the Ranger, we found out that there are 11 people waiting at the next campsite because they weren't allowed to go through the pass. We debated over breakfast about whether we should risk going on or just turn around. Before we could make a decision, we found out that some of the guys were heading on horses to go and close the pass indefinitely for the season. We had no choice but to go back. Honestly though, I was so relieved, I wasn't sure if I could do 7 more days of rain like the day before. But it turned out to be a gorgeous day! There was a little snow but it was sunny and clear. It turned out to be a great thing that we were re-tracing our steps. It gave us a chance to re-do our crappy days. I actually really enjoyed walking through the swamp area and we were actually able to see the tops of all the mountains around us. We arrived just before dark, enough time to set up camp. Then we ate dinner and shared a big chocolate bar with the other Canadians before going to bed.
Day 4: Campamento Seron to Campamento Central (13 km)
Only part of this day ended up being familiar to us (although all of it seemed new because it was clear again and we were able to actually see around us and it didn't feel like we were just walking through fields) because we went towards to hotel to the Campamento Central. There were fantastic views all day long. About 2 hours in though my ankle started giving me a little trouble - I think due to two days of wet boots rubbing against my heel bone - which made the rest of the hike a painful one. This day we almost got ran over by these two wild horses that were getting herded down the mountain. By the time we got to camp I was in a lot of pain that I wasn't sure how I was going to do the next few days. But a hot meal and a hot shower made me feel so much better and I decided to wait until morning to see how I felt.
Day 5: Campamento Central to Campamento Torres (9 km)
It was a slow morning and a painful one... there was a lot of discussion as to whether I should keep going or wait down here for a day to rest the ankle. But because I am stubborn (and with the help of a T3 or two) I decided to give it a try. I just band-aided, cushioned and second skinned the crap out of my feet and used Thomas' buff to wrap around my ankle and was on my way. Thomas gave me a head start so that I didn't feel like I was slowing him down the whole time. But it didn't take him too long to catch up with me... I am glad that I was only in a bit of pain because this was the most beautiful day yet. It was a harder day in terms of elevation gain but the views made it so worth it. We reached the Refugio Chileno where there were a lot of people saying there was too much snow to camp at the next site. But Thomas and I decided to continue on anyways - what's a little snow? We were so glad we did because there was barely any snow, it was just a little wet - which was a little concerning with our rented tent that didn't have a tarp bottom but it did okay. It was a lot colder at this site so we decided to hike back to the main trail to eat our dinner in the sun. We had a really early night as we were planning on hiking up to the Torres mirador in the morning to watch the sunrise. We were both (mostly me) worried about the climb in the morning because we heard that it was brutally icy and not well marked.
Day 6: Campamento Torres to Base de Las Torres to Refugio Las Torres (11 km)
We woke up at 6 am, two hours before the sun in order to make breaky and pack up camp. We left our stuff at the camp site and started the 1 km climb to the mirador. It ended up being worse than we thought. It was tough and my ankle was not liking it. It was just sheer ice so for a lot of it we ended up going off the trail into the snow which seemed a little less dangerous. We left camp a little later than planned so when I started seeing the glimmer of light I got really upset and probably pushed too hard to make it there. Even though it was really painful I am glad we did because we were able to catch just a glimpse of the pink sky casting onto the Torres. It was quite pretty once we got to the top. We were only able to stay up there for about 10 minutes before we had to start heading down in order to catch the bus at the bottom at 2pm. I was pretty determined to get that bus and we ended up making pretty good time. We were able to have a quick snack on the hotel steps before catching our bus. I think it was probably the combination of having two T3s that day and having not a lot of food, but I felt super queezy and ended up getting sick on gravel road back to Puerto Natales. That was fun... But a nice hot shower and a little nap followed up by a feast prepared by Thomas made me feel so much better!
Things learned in the park:
- Do it in the summer, it's just not worth the risk of bad weather and things not being open (camp sites, refugios, trails)
- Start with the 'W trek' - then if you are still feeling keen, continue on to the 'O circuit'
- Eat lots of food with T3s
- Good rain pants are a must, as well as dry socks! There is also no such thing as too many band-aids.
- Thomas is a gem. I obviously knew this before the park, just like I knew that he is naturally a 'protector' but this trip created an opportunity for me to see just how much he cared about me and how he would do anything to make sure I was comfortable and doing okay. He is amazing.
Since we made no attempt to meet up with Matt and Nicky in the park, we thought we should at least wait for them at the hostel (we had nothing better to do anyways). They ended up coming a couple days early, to our surprise, which allowed us to see them for a couple of days before they moved on to Santiago, Chile and we headed back into Argentina.
From Puerto Natales we headed to nearby El Calafate - famous for it's beautifully enourmous glacier, Perito Moreno, located in Parque Nacional los Glaciares (and whenever we mention any sort of national park, you can assume we paid a lofty fee in order to get in!). This glacier is part of a huge icefield that covers hundreds of kilometres.
We arrived in El Calafate in the afternoon on the 24th of April. We are staying in a very Americanized hostel which is good and bad (bad for us learning Spanish). Once we settled we went on a walk to this natural reserve area by the lake. It has a beautiful walkway and we made a couple new doggie friends (never in short supply down here)! Then we went to a local microbrewry pub called Chopen. We were able to sample their blonde, red and lager before deciding which was sweet. After a not-super-amazing beer we went to a highly recommended restaurant called Pura Vida. It was an awesome restaurant with heafty portions. Thomas got a lamb stew that I could have split into 3 meals and my lamb ravioli was so rich that it blew my mind - there were literally only 3 (large) ravioli's... that's it! But so rich that I probably could have (should have) stopped at 2.
The next day Thomas and I went to see the glacier! The bus left at 9am and we arrived just after 10:30. They literally just dropped us off and then picked us up again at 4pm. There were tons of walkways to see different view points of the glacier. It was so big that you couldn't capture it in a single photo. It was so great. It is situated on the edge of Argentina Lake so when the ice falls it crashes into the water. It was so fun to just sit, watch and listen to the glacier. It makes so much constant noise. We got to see a lot of small pieces fall but we were fortunate enough to see a very large piece (about the size of a house) fall from the top, producing a huge explosive splash and such a loud crack when it hit the water. The acoustics were also very amazing - the sound of the ice hitting the water would echo off the glacier, delaying the sound by a second or two. It was pretty sweet.
The guy who worked at our hostel in Puerto Natales gave us a mountain biking voucher for two to see some beautiful sites around the lake so we are planning on doing that tomorrow. After El Calafate, we have a week and a half to kill before heading to El Bolson so we think we are going to head to Puerto Madryn on the coast! Hopefully some of the activities will still be available as it is defenitely the shoulder season down in Patagonia! We are hoping to do some sea kayaking, scuba diving and just chilling in the town.
We miss you all, and being down here in Patagonia really makes us think of home. All the snow and mountains... we escaped the Canadian winter to come to Patagonia... true Canadians.
Love you all,
Meredith and Thomas