Me Faltan Palabras
Umm.. I really meant to write about my trip to Patagonia a rather long time ago, but I’ve ended up neglecting this lovely blog for far too long… and as such almost a month has passed. Good job self. Anyway, even though my trip to Patagonia was more than a month ago, so much of it remains clear to me. It was honestly one of the most incredible experiences of my life. It was the best holiday I’ve ever had (sorry, parents), and I was happy for five days straight (if you know me, you’ll realize this literally never happens). Me faltan palabras, I don’t have the words to describe the incredulity of the scenery there, nor do the many pictures that I took even remotely do justice to the ridiculous beauty of Chilean Patagonia.
Having said all of that, I’ll still do my best to detail what happened that week. I left my house in Viña early in the morning on Sunday, March 30, met up with the four other girls – Kirsten, Kendall, Holly, and Jennie – at the Valparaíso bus station, and arrived at Santiago airport two buses later and two hours early. Our journey got off to a pretty great start when we got some doughnuts at the airport and Holly, who had ordered three, somehow ended up with five doughnuts in her bag. More food for us! After waiting for a decent amount of time in the airport, we could finally board and be on our way. It rather surprised me that there was a large group of elderly French people, all also making their way to Torres del Paine. This led to a rather interesting conversation between the stewardess, who spoke Spanish and a little English, and a Frenchman sitting in the emergency exit seat who only spoke French, where the stewardess was trying to ascertain whether he was comfortable being in the emergency exit seat and whether he was capable of helping should anything happen. After a minute of rather futile conversation, the stewardess gave up and said to herself “vale, en caso de emergencia, vamos a explotar todos”. Kind of high on the list of things you don’t really want to hear from the airplane personnel…
Anyway, we fortunately didn’t experience any problems, and, about half an hour out of Punta Arenas, we got our first view of Patagonia.
From the airport at Punta Arenas, we had to take a bus to Puerto Natales, where we stayed the night at a local hostel (it’s kind of impressive how cheap those things are.. we paid about $15 for the night and that included a free shower and breakfast), and took another bus at 7:30 the next morning that went to Torres del Paine. This bus was, amusingly, filled with the same French people that were on our flight to Punta Arenas. After another 2 hours, we finally got to the Parque Nacional las Torres and got our first actual view of our surroundings for the next few days.
I’m pretty sure it was about 3 degrees and cold and windy… but hey, we were super excited to be there nevertheless.
After checking in to the park, paying the entrance free, and receiving our map and pass, we took another bus to our hostel, Hostería Las Torres (here’s a map: http://www.fsexpeditions.com/booking_hiker/torres_del_paine_map.html – Hostería Las Torres is at the right-most point of the red W. Our plan for the next few days was as follows: stay at Las Torres Monday night, hike up to the Mirador de Las Torres and back on Tuesday, stay at Las Torres Tuesday night, hike to Campamento Los Cuernos on Wednesday and stay the night there, hike up the Valle Frances for a bit on Thursday before heading back down and going all the way to Refugio Paine Grande, stay there Thursday night, then take the catamaran from there across Pehoé Lake on Friday and get picked up on the opposite side by the bus Friday afternoon to start the long trek back).
We dumped our stuff at the hostel, ate lunch, and then, seeing as we had the entire afternoon free, started to walk towards Campamento Serón, in order to test how we felt about hiking/whether our shoes were good/whether we would die of cold/just to have a general test run before the actual hiking would start. I knew that day that the other days would be incredible because, whilst hiking, I just didn’t know where to look. Everything was so extraordinarily beautiful. So stunning. The pictures I tried to take (whilst you should definitely check them out on facebook (https://www.facebook.com/vincent.sterel/media_set?set=a.10153234500394294.1073741831.795774293&type=3) if you haven’t) didn’t really capture what it was like. I just felt so.. free. I was walking around in this magical world, without any responsibilities, without really having to worry about anything apart from planting one foot in front of the other and enjoying the fact that I was actually living this. I was actually in Patagonia, having this experience.
Dinner in the hostels was also always a very fun occasion. Everybody would get together in this main room and people would end up sitting wherever and having conversations with other random people, which creates this very friendly atmosphere (“gezellig” would be the Dutch word, but sadly there isn’t an English equivalent) where you get to know people from all over the world and with completely different kinds of experiences. Our group got to know these two French guys (I think they were in their late twenties) with whom we became friends over the next few days, I chatted with this British couple about something or other, and every night we would meet different people from different countries who were all incredibly friendly.
The next day, Tuesday, we (minus Kendall who had contracted food poisoning during the night) started our hike up to the Mirador de las Torres in rather cold and windy weather. In the beginning of our hike it became rather apparent that Kirsten and I preferred to walk at a somewhat faster pace than the other two, so we decided after a few hours that we would split up in groups of two, and that way none of us would be annoyed that the others were going too fast/slowing the rest down. In any case, on our hike, we all got a little separated, and I ended up walking next to this very kind English lady and getting to know her whilst climbing up this pretty damn steep mountain.
When we arrived at Camping Chileno, about halfway to the Mirador de las Torres, we heard from some people that the Mirador – the place where you get the best view of the impressive granite towers/peaks/columns after which the place is named – was actually closed because of the rather crappy weather conditions. Whoop. After warming up a little inside the Camping, and eating some of the packed lunch that the hostel gave us every day, Kirsten and I decided we wanted to head on regardless of the weather conditions, because we still wanted to see as much as possible, whereas Jennie and Holly chose to head back as the weather was looking a lot better in that direction (side note: the weather changed pretty much every 20 minutes, from super windy to mildly rainy to peacefully quiet to random flurries of snow. This also ensured that the scenery and the view of the lakes and the mountains constantly changed, and I kept wanting to take more pictures of everything because it was all slightly different from how it looked before and it was just so incredibly magical). Anyway, on our hike up to the Mirador de las Torres I met this very nice Dutch lady with whom I chatted for a bit, and after passing her Kirsten and I ended up in this winter wonderland; it was snowing very softly, there was no wind, and it was all so incredibly and so peacefully quiet.
When we got to the base of the final climb to the Mirador, there was no one there to tell us that it was closed or that we couldn’t go up. We had already pretty much made up our minds to keep going on when two other hikers, who had just come from the Mirador, told us that everything was open and we could go on, even though the weather was pretty horrible up there. As such, we kept on going, and at first the path was perfectly walkable, if a little bit slippery (seeing as we were basically walking upstream). However, after about 25 minutes of that, the last 20 minutes of the climb were rather more difficult; at times the path was simply a whole load of slippery, snow-covered rocks that we had to traverse carefully for fear of slipping and quite possibly breaking something/falling down the entire mountainside. This is more or less what that part looked like:
The weather was getting worse and worse and the visibility was also not exactly superb, but still we kept on going, with encouragement from other hikers who were coming back down from the Mirador, and eventually we got to the top, where we really didn’t see anything of the granite towers, but there was still this rather stunning, green-coloured lake casually located at the already impressive vantage point.
We had the rather silly idea of eating some of our lunch up there, but the wind was so cold that after 15 minutes we were both utterly freezing that we realized we really needed to get moving. The weather had gotten so bad that we ended up climbing down the mountain in a snowstorm, which was honestly quite scary, but we had met two very friendly Czech individuals and a host of other people who were also making the descent, so at least we didn’t feel as though we were alone in our battle against the elements.
It took us another four hours or so to get all the way back to our hostel, and by that time both of us were exhausted, but that journey up to the Mirador de las Torres will stay with me forever; even if the view there wasn’t the picture you see on the postcards, the very fact that we climbed all the way up there, IN A SNOWSTORM (we later found out that they closed the Mirador again right after we left because the weather was so bad that it was unsafe to go up there), actually made me ridiculously proud of myself and made me feel as though I had achieved something.
The following day was our first day of hiking with all of our stuff (as we were staying at a different hostel that night), but we had a relatively short (only 11km) walk to the Refugio. It was very rainy that day, which meant the start of our group’s love affair with trash bags:
This was a very cheap yet very effective way of making sure that neither us nor our bags got wet, and I also we also looked very stylish. Especially me:
In any case, the walk to the Refugio took us around this beautiful lake – with some really beautiful flora – and Kirsten, Kendall and I made good time and got there quite early, at about 2:30pm (we started our walks around 8:30, 8:45 in the morning most days).
The hostel itself was freezing – it was probably just a little bit warmer inside than outside – but despite that we spent the day relaxing inside, seeing people come in whom we had met on our hikes, playing cards, and just generally taking a well-deserved break from strenuous activity. At dinner, Kendall, Kirsten and I ended up swapping more life stories and getting to know each other even better, whilst Holly and Jennie talked to these two very amicable Dutch guys who turned out to be couple (whom I ended up talking to for a bit during breakfast the next day and when we ran into them whilst hiking). All in all, it was a somewhat more relaxing day than most.
The last full day, Thursday, ended up being our longest day of hiking, where we walked about 19km in total from the Refugio los Cuernos, up the Valle del Francés, and then all the way down to Refugio Paine Grande. The walk leading up to the Valle del Francés also offered us some pretty stunning views of the mountains:
When we got to the Campamento Italiano, we talked with the park ranger there who told us that most of the way up to the Valle del Francés was closed because of the extreme wind and snow and general danger that both of those things pose. However, we could still walk up for about 30-40 minutes, up to the first Mirador, and get some pretty good views of the glacier, so after stopping to eat lunch, Kendall, Kirsten and I made the trek up whilst Holly and Jennie took some more time to eat lunch and would follow us shortly. The climb itself up to the first Mirador was also pretty damn steep and quite harsh on my poor knees, though all of that was mitigated by the fact that we ended up trundling through another winter wonderland.
I also got this pretty cool view of the glacier after crossing this spectacular waterfall that was sadly too obscured by branches for me to take a good picture:
After walking back and taking another break at the Campamento Italiano for some more food (the packed lunches always consisted of a large sandwich, a large bag of nuts, water, a chocolate bar, a cereal bar, and either and apple or an orange), we started on the last two hours of our walk to the Refugio. Most of this walk was rather flat (as much as anything can be “flat” in Patagonia), though this one part, which was a good 100 metres, was pretty much swampland where the mud engulfed by hiking boots no matter where I tried to step. That part wasn’t fun.
In any case, at around 5pm Kirsten and I arrived at the Refugio (the other three arrived about 40 minutes afterwards), and when we were checking in we were told there would be this other couple staying in the room as well for the night. When we walked in to the room, the room appeared empty, so we started chatting and dumping our stuff and in general making a reasonable amount of noise, until some movement occurred from under the blankets of one of the other beds and two groggy heads appeared from under the mound of warmth and told us that they had been napping. Awkward. However, they actually turned out to be incredibly friendly people, and during dinner they ended up telling us about how they met and how they got engaged and when the wedding was going to be and it was just in general a very happy dinner.
The last day, we took our time eating breakfast and relaxed in the Refugio for a bit, before Kirsten, Holly and I decided to take an hour-long walk in the area as our final steps in Patagonia. That day ended up being the first sunny day that we had had, which made me rather want to stay there for another few days and hike when the weather wasn’t grey and miserable. However, we ended up taking the catamaran at around noon, which gave us some pretty stunning final views of Torres del Paine, including this one:
Two buses, a 10-hour stay at the airport, a flight, and another 3 buses later, I got back to my house in Viña exhausted, but it had all been more than worth it. Just being surrounded by nature, without access to internet, without really having to worry about materialistic/real-world concerns, was just so. Incredibly. Amazing. I got to know some really great people and got to know the people in my program a lot better too, and also learnt quite a bit about myself hiking up and down all those mountains. I was proud of myself, and proud of my body for walking more than 60km in those four days, and I honestly wanted to stay there and hike for another few days, even another few weeks. I loved it there, and I hope one day I can go back and stay there for longer.
Goodbye, Torres del Paine. You will be missed.