La magia del sur
My ten-day adventure hiking through the Patagonia mountains in the extreme south of Chile and Argentina was without a doubt the most physically-challenging, but also the most amazing thing I’ve ever done. We started with the W trail of Torres del Paine national park outside of Puerto Natales, Chile with three nights and four days of hiking through every type of terrain imaginable and camping in freezing temperatures. Due to poor planning, we ended up embarking on our trip at the end of high season, and going into the low season, which starts on May 1st. In the end of April and beginning of May begins the transition into the winter months in the Patagonia and, for this season, the park has much stricter rules and regulations for hikers because of the added danger (and liability) of the more volatile weather. Although this made things significantly more difficult from a planning perspective, it was totally worth it to be able to experience the trail during the fall season with the colors of the changing leaves. The combination of the white snowy peaks of the mountains against the black rock of their bases, the translucent blue of glacial ice in the distance and the blazing oranges and reds of the trees left me feeling dizzy and drunk on the incomprehensible beauty around me.
I went into the trip with the intention of writing in the tent every night so that I could capture every memory, every feeling at it’s very freshest point of expression. But after we set up camp and made dinner at the end of each day, I could barely keep my eyes open long enough to zip up my sleeping bag, much less express my thoughts in a coherent and appealing manner. Conversations amongst ourselves and the other backpackers that we met in the communal cooking areas of the campsites were an amusing jumble of obvious statements and delirious, winding stories tumbling from exhaustion-clouded brains. Luckily, the basic introductions usually carried us over until we could get food in our stomachs, which helped immensely with the amount of brain power available to donate to conversation. Most of the people we met on the trail were around our age, many of them also students, and within our interactions existed a kind of raw, childish excitement, like we were all just a bunch of overgrown kids running around splashing in creeks and looking for adventure. The adrenaline high we rode through the trees formed bonds of shared incredulity, bonds I won’t soon forget.
We were extremely lucky with the weather, up until the last day. On our last day, we had to wake up at 6 a.m. in the dark (being that far south the sun rises around 8:30 a.m.) and hike six hours out of the park to catch the only bus of the day going back to Puerto Natales at 1 p.m. The hike would have been fairly easy and seemed very scenic, but unfortunately the conditions made it impossible to enjoy. For the first two hours, we walked in the dark, the first hour of which was on a disconcertingly narrow path alongside a jagged cliff that lead to what I assumed to be inevitable doom. When the sun finally rose and the trail leveled out, the light morning drizzle turned into icy driving winds and pelting rain.
At that point in the trip, my body had already been pushed to its limits. Allow me to paint you a little picture of my physical state at the time. Pardon my tendency for the dramatic but, in this instance, it’s necessary. My whole body was sore and stiff from sleeping on the ground, my bad knee was letting me know it was done trekking in a not-so-subtle way and I had acquired some seriously gnarly blisters on my ankles. I hadn’t given myself enough time to properly break in my hiking boots before we left, so they had made quick work of ripping away all of the skin on the backs of my ankles, leaving two large bleeding, oozing sores and various other, smaller blisters all over my feet. Every part of me was sore, from my calves to my shoulders, from my hips to my fingertips. I swear to you, my eyelashes hurt. On top of all of that, I had burnt the literal crap out of my left hand (as well as a few fingers on my right) the night before in the refuge by our camp site. I had gone inside to put my boots by the building’s old fashioned stove to try to dry them, when I tripped over another pair of boots, falling hands first into the steaming hot metal of the stove.
All of this combined had left me hoping that the last day’s hike would go by quickly and without incident so that we could get back to Puerto Natales and rest before heading to Argentina. But, unfortunately, that was not in the forecast. Group morale was at an all-time low as the winds picked up to nearly unmanageable speeds and, for a while, everyone reverted inside of themselves to find their own personal drive to finish the hike. And when personal drive began to run out, we started singing every song that we could think of as loud as we could to get our minds off of how cold and tired and wet we were (for some reason Irreplaceable by Beyoncé was a recurring theme that weekend). When we finally arrived at the administration building where the bus was coming to pick us up, I was so happy I almost cried.
We immediately went into the building and took over an entire section of the front room, throwing our wet gear on the floor. I’m sure we looked like complete animals to the warm, dry, well-rested people in the building but I couldn’t even think to care at the time. In the administration building there is also a museum about the park where people that don’t feel like going out into the wild can come and learn about nature and rock formations and all that good stuff. When our group barreled in and started stripping off soaking layers, a well-dressed elderly British couple was perusing the museum – the woman literally wearing heels. They both looked at us like we were absolutely crazy, especially when we got out our bags of food right there on the floor and started making lunch wraps out of peanut butter and jelly that we spread with our fingers. But what can I say, we had barely eaten at all that day and there was something so deliriously delicious about going through that hellish six-hour trek and finally being able to sit and eat and be warm. I couldn’t have cared in the slightest who was looking at us or how. Peanut butter and jelly on a tortilla had never, and probably will never, taste as good as it did that day. We got on the bus when it arrived about a half hour later and all immediately fell asleep.
But all of that to say that it was completely worth the physical toll that the hike took on my body in every way. I cannot count the amount of moments while hiking in Torres del Paine and Los Glaciares national park in El Chalten, Argentina when I was overcome with emotion by what I was seeing around me. Being immersed in that kind of nature, almost completely untouched by civilization, was deliciously invigorating. And all of the work that we put in to get to each new part of the trail, each new lookout point, only made the views even more breathtaking (pun definitely intended). It would take me at least a thousand blog posts to explain the tranquility and majesty of the mountain ranges and glacial lakes that we visited and even then, I’m sure I wouldn’t do it justice. All I can say is that these are two bucket list destinations that simply cannot be missed.