Stop 3: Patagonia cont.

Press your ear against the wall and listen to the hum of conversation at any hostel in the region, and you would inevitably hear a barrage of horror stories from survivors who have returned from treks, recommendations exchanged, and photos showed and told; “What did you see?”, “How did you get there?”, “What else should we do in ___?”.

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Press your ear against the wall and listen to the hum of conversation at any hostel in the region, and you would inevitably hear a barrage of horror stories from survivors who have returned from treks, recommendations exchanged, and photos showed and told; “What did you see?”, “How did you get there?”, “What else should we do in ___?”.

The W trek was something we both wanted to check off on our South America bucket list but with it being high season (Nov- Feb), there’s limited space at campsites and refugios (basic guesthouses) which we found out needed booking months in advance. Not to mention all the gear and extreme climate one has to bring and bear… We resigned ourselves to not being able to complete it, however, we were determined to see the sights that Patagonia, and Torres Del Paine had to offer.

In hindsight, we were relieved not to have gone as we had no idea just how much preparation you need for a treacherous trek (or at least treacherous if you haven’t been camping since Scouts, 15 years ago). Neither of us have a clue where to start with a tent and from the chats we’ve had with those returning, they all froze in their tents at night or had to hike through rain in soaked boots for miles. As an alternative, we plumped for a one day bus trip through the park, and a full day hike. The bus trip was good for an overview, including an incredibly windy stop (think leaning into the wind at a 45 degree angle) to snap photos of waterfalls; mountains; a glacier from afar, and a visit to the enormous cave:  Cueva del Milodón. It was good if you enjoy sight seeing from the comfort of a warm chair but without stepping out into the trails ourselves, we didn’t get a sense of the unique landscape which is so celebrated. So the following day, we went on a one day trek to the Mirador of Torres del Paine, the final leg of the W-trek. It’s odd that we both did the same trek but had two drastically different journeys.

Jackie’s take
9:00 “Wow. What a clear day for a hike”
9:15 “That hill looks pretty challenging but I’m sure we can do it!”
10:15 “How am I already sweating buckets and the others are… OH MY G_D gravel in the wind! I’M BLIND!”
10:45 Finally completes climb to the top of the hill only to see the monstrous vertical incline ahead
11:10 Over 2 hours of complete ascent, still no break. Plots multiple ways to kill the guide
11:11 “I can’t wait for tonight’s shower…”
11:30 “Ok only 1km to summit. Great. I can totally do this.
11:33 “Oh holy hell fire. This is why they should call this Torres del fulla PAIN! 1km my ass. I hate Jon, I hate everyone and everything. Don’t talk to me. Why did I go travelling? I could’ve have been sunbathing on a beach in Sri Lanka.”
12:30 MADE IT. Collapses into fetal position, rocks self whilst nibbling on an pathetic home made sandwich
12:45 Guide –“Ok chicos! Back down again! Only 4 hours to get there.”

Jon’s take

I was really worried that I’d be disappointed to not do the W trek – would I really be able to say I’d ‘done’ Torres Del Paine without doing the walk? The previous day’s drive round the park was good, but I didn’t get a sense of why Torres Del Paine was in the top natural wonders of the world.

I needn’t have worried – of course, it’s a huge place, and you’d need at least 10 days to really experience the park, but bearing in mind the limited time, I finished the trek feeling a sense of accomplishment, and a sense of how incredible the park is. Massive tick in the box. Such a fantastic day – fairly challenging (it felt like a ‘proper’ hike), and with incredible views, just a brilliant day all round – despite Jackie wanting to kill me for most of the day, I did my best to put it out of my mind and enjoy the day… A constant vertical climb for 3 hours brings you to a spot for respite, before the guide says ‘and now we start the ascent’ – the last kilometre was incredibly steep, but the view at the top was worth it.

Whilst one of us (no names) might need some time to get over her self-pity, climbing to the base of the Torres del Paine was a proud personal accomplishment and a bucket list item we’re glad to have done; over 350 floors climbed, elevation net gain of 751 meters. The close-up view of the tall piercing granite pillars, the blue lagoon which we drank from, simply being surrounded by huge rocky boulders was rewarding to say the least. Statistics aside, it was all definitely [Jackie: sorta] worth it.

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Limited park permits means long and colorful queues in the morning
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Not captured: the 120kph winds

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Counting ants at Cueva Milodon
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The challenge of the day: Torres del Paine

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Started from the bottom now we’re ‘ere

Puerto Natales, whilst being the most civilised town we’ve seen in the week, is also limited in what you can do if you aren’t hiking or making an excursions. Like Coyhaique, it was a town for travelers to stock up their provisions and rest up. And if we’re really honest, it’s not a pretty town either. The cloudy climate casts a constant grey blanket on the bleak architecture. We’re starting to think that Manchester’s following us around?

A 5hr bus journey through miles of flat arid desert on a comfortable double decker coach from Puerto Natales took us over the border to our second country, Argentina. Just as we crossed the line, it was a nice touch (!) to be greeted with a massive billboard supposedly affirming Argentina’s rights over Las Malvinas, or as the Brits know it, the Falklands. Jon wasn’t too impressed. During the journey we had to hop off the coach to get through Chilean immigration then drive another kilometer before hopping back off to get through Argentinian border control. A bit tedious, it was like playing a game of musical chairs.

When we finally pulled into the bus station at El Calafate, it was noticeably different to anywhere we’d been in the Chilean side; it didn’t help Chile’s case, that on this side of the Andes, the weather is a lot more agreeable; so-bright-you-need-sunglasses cloudless blue skies. Homes were well kept and looked after, lawns manicured. A single busy high street dominates the town, lined with bbq restaurants and dozens of tour agencies, and a scattering of souvenir and outdoor shops. A ‘proper town’ as a Northerner would say.

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Whilst this trip is our sabbatical, it’s also our  honeymoon. So it was only fitting we treat ourselves to accommodation right for the occasion. But, again, because of high season it was much more affordable to stay in dorm rooms. It couldn’t have been more romantic having separate dorms, each of us sharing with a bunch of strangers who switched on lights in the middle of the night to chat and unpack their bags. Although Jon had stayed in dorm rooms over 10 years ago, this was Jackie’s first. A big adjustment, and not how we’re used to holidaying! #firstworldproblems

 

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Similar to Chilean Patagonia, El Calafate offered a number of outdoor excursions to choose from, horse back riding to estancia (ranch) stays, to kayaking beside glaciers. These are the three main activities we choose to do and thoroughly enjoyed:

1. Walking on glaciers
Unlike anything Jackie had done before, this was truly an incredible experience for us. We paid for the ‘Big Ice’ excursion – eye wateringly expensive (£200 each!), but in retrospect, worth every penny. We got an up-close view of Glacier Perito Moreno, the third largest in the region out of thirteen, by way of a visit to a multi-level viewing platform, a ferry ride and a trek across the ice field itself. Armed with crampons and a harness (for emergencies?!), we slavishly followed our guide, who was familiar with the frozen moving terrain and seemed to know which bits to step on or to avoid, and when to use his lethal pick axe to create make shift steps for us to climb. It took some time and effort to get used to wearing crampons, but without even knowing it, suddenly we were two hours into our trek and were about to stop for a picnic lunch in the middle of the ice field.

We enjoyed watching enormous chunks of ice breaking off the face of the glacier and dropping into the lagoon, and the delayed muffled roar it creates. Large chunks break off everyday but on rare occasions, one can catch huge blocks tumbling down, shearing right off the wall. On the return journey of our ferry ride, a massive chunk broke off, causing a big ripple effect, rocking our boat like a fairground pirate ship ride. Someone did not freak out for a second.

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2. Asado (BBQ)
As we write this, we’ve had steak a number of times in Argentina, but the most memorable and delicious meat we’ve had goes to the asado, BBQ, we had at America del Sur Hostel, where we met up with some friends we’d shared the Torres Del Paine trek with. A small but delectable buffet of sides accompanied a series of meats served right off the grill; chunks of beef done just right – mildly burnt edges, crispy crunch and barely cooked in the middle, chorizo, chicken, lamb. Puts Toby Carvery to shame.

3. El Chalten
3hrs bus ride around the turquoise Lake Argentina lies El Chalten, a hiker’s paradise/Argentina’s youngest town, officially created in 1985 as an outpost against Chilean encroachment. History aside, the sheer number of trails varying in difficulty and distance is what attracts tourist to this small, handsome town. Unlike the Torres del Paine trek, our day hike here was infinitely more enjoyable, noted by Jackie’s upbeat spirit and unstoppable singing of every Disney song she knows. [Jon: I preferred it when we were ignoring each other]

Our hike took us to see the menacing-looking spires at Mount Fitz Roy range from Laguna Torre which also passes the widest valley floor we’ve ever seen. The climb up was less ‘if you were a mice and climbing a human-size staircase’ and more like ‘gently ascending a grand staircase have at a posh hotel ‘. We passed some athletic bodies who even ran the dang thing. Impressive stuff.

 

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Now, if you’ve made it this far in the post, you deserve a few more photos.

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