My friend Jon and I had talked about going to a coveted country in the Caribbean, so we flew to Cancun with hopes of spontaneity. Unfortunately, getting last minute flights proved impossible, so we immediately hopped on a bus south to the city of Chetumal on the Mexico/Belize border. We spent an uninspiring night by the bus station with two Norweigian guys who were in their early twenties and doing their first major backpacking trip. Daniel, one of the guys, told us he brought 6 t-shirts and planned on wearing 1 shirt per week. I think he was befuddled when we told him that he could do laundry while abroad. Shortly after that conversation, he was sporting a new shirt.
After Mt. Fitzroy, we headed south to El Calafate to view the famous Perito Moreno Glacier, one of the view stable glaciers in the world. Though I’ve seen other glaciers on this trip, I was really eager to see this behemoth ice field and I’m so glad we did! We had wanted to book a trek while in El Calafate a few days ago, but our hostel assured us we could book the day before and be fine. Well, our bus arrived at 9:45pm and by the time we actually got to the hostel to inquire, the agency was closed and we were told their were no more trips.
The next day, we woke early and found that if we got our own transportation to the park, we could join the boat ride, as there is more room on the boat than the bus. After a busy morning of errands, we rented a car and headed towards the glacier. Along the way, we picked up two hitchikers looking to see the glacier as well. We got to the park, dropped our European friends off and had lunch by the boat. The next thing we notice is a boat full of people pulling away from the dock, with us still on shore. After running and waving arms wildly, the boat turned around for us and we were off! We put on crampons and walked on the glacier, taking joy in drinking straight from the glacier, being amazed at the beautiful blue-hued ice, and enjoying the enormity of the glacier.
We then went to the main viewpoint and were greeted with empty viewpoints and a stunning display of light on the massive glacier field. It was really impressive and I’m glad to have seen it. Unfortunately, we didn’t experience a big chunk of ice falling off and crashing into the water, but we did hear one piece, but missed the visual part as we were walking in the woods.
We’re now in transit back to Buenos Aires for the last part of my trip – New Years Eve in Buenos Aires, some really good steak and wine shopping! Happy New Year!
Niki and I eventually met up with Jason and Mary Kay. We spent a day running errands in El Chalten. El Chalten is a really cute, but touristy mountain frontier town. From what I understand, the town has only really been around for 16 years, as Chile and Argentina have on-going disputes for the land here in Patagonia. Argentina simply beat Chile to the race to lay claim to Mt. Fitzroy and quickly built up El Chalten. We ate good food and prepped for our camping trip. The plan was to hike 3 hours each day, making our second day very relaxing. We started hiking late (7:40pm) our first day and intended to arrive to our first campsite while it was still daylight, before 11pm. Well, we meant to do a loop, in the shape of a triangle. Instead of going along the “hypotenuse” of our trek’s triangle, we walked the wrong way out of town. By 11:20pm, we had our headlamps on and couldn’t figure out why we were walking along two lakes, so decided to just turn around and camp for the night by the lake, despite the park ranger telling us to only camp in designated campgrounds. It turns out we had a beautiful setting for our first night and I’m glad we went off course!
The next day, we back-tracked and went to a viewpoint of Cerro Torre, even though the needle tops were enshrouded in clouds. Then, we retraced our steps to our campsite, had lunch and went to our next proper campsite, which was our intended location for our first night. I had wanted to get up at 3:30am to view the alpenglow on Mt. Fitzroy, but had a cold, which unfortunately encouraged me to ignore my wake up call and sleep a few more hours. At 9, we hiked up to the Mt. Fitzroy viewpoint, which, if lacking in early morning light, was made up for by a crisply blue sky that provided a stricking contrast to the rocky spire of Mt. Fitzroy. It was stunningly beautiful.
The only thing that detracted from the experience was the constant slew of horseflies that buzzed incessantly in our ears. And so it was that hiking the Fitzroy range turned me into a villainous murderer. I felt like a 7 year old boy, taking pleasure in killing fly after fly, if only for reciprocity for the extreme annoyance that they provided all the hikers.
I arrived in Punta Arenas Chile very early in the morning and waited for my friend, Niki to arrive. Once she arrived, we took the bus to Puerto Natales, which is the base for trekking in the nearby Torres del Paine National Park. Niki had suggested that we do this hike shortly after we completed the Annapurna Circuit a few years ago and I’m glad she recommended it! We spent the day renting gear, figuring out logistics and buying food.
We had wanted to hike the full circuit, but due to time constraints, we opted just to do the more crowded, and more popular ‘W’ trek. We hiked west to east. Our first day, we took a catamaran across a beautiful turquoise lake, which we later learned would be dotted throughout the park. It was somewhat of a contrast – riding on a boat on waters that reminded me of the ocean around Indonesian islands, and yet, there were massive, glacier- covered peaks looming in the background. We met up with a really sweet Dutch girl, Moniek, and after lunch, hiked up to Glacier Grey. The hike was beautiful and the moment I enjoyed most was coming to the crest of a hill, looking out, seeing a beautiful turquoise lake with a massive glacier field at the far end of it. I’ve never seen anything quite like it before and I thought it to be quite stunning.
Winds were intense. In fact, the wind is quite brutal in all of Patagonia. Trees grow looking wind-blown, that is how fierce the wind can be. At one mirador (viewpoint), we stopped to take pictures of the glacier and each other. I was wearing a backpack and probably all-in, weighed maybe 165 or so pounds. At one point, I jumped straight up and landed about 6 inches in front of where I had lifted off. That is how intense and strong the wind was. Our hike continued until we reached a nice viewpoint where we were able to see the glacier even closer. We hiked back and returned to camp at 9:20pm. The cool thing is that this is the further south I have ever been during the month of December and the sky is still a bit light at midnight. So, returning to camp at 9:20pm meant that the sun was still up, which is a little trippy.
The next day, we hiked up the middle section of the ‘W’ into an area called the French Valley. It was a cloudier day, but the coolest part of this day’s hike was that we saw a peak with large glaciers on it. You could hear the glacier moving and cracking. We were lucky enough to watch a section of the glacier crack and fall off the mountain. I was able to catch part of this quasi-avalanche on video. This glacier fed into a river that we walked along. Oh, that’s the other really neat thing. Water around here is pure as glacier melt – literally. I haven’t bought water in well over a week, as when I’m low on water, I just dip my Nalgene in the river. I love being able to do that!
The third day was the most difficult day of hiking for me, as I woke up in intense pain during the night. I have had a pinched nerve somewhere in the upper left quadrant of my back for months now. Months ago the doctor told me that it resulted from sitting (and let’s be honest, slouching) all day (yay office jobs!). Carrying 2 backpacks for the past two weeks has probably somewhat
exasperated the problem and hiking the ‘W’ was just the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. I woke up in the night in the most intense, piecing pain I have ever felt. I felt paralyzed because I literally couldn’t move. I wanted water and would try to lift my head 3 inches and I would collapse back on my mat in pain. I was really nervous and scared because I really felt paralyzed in that the pain was so intense, I literally couldn’t move. I wanted water and couldn’t drink it ’til the morning when Niki woke and could get it for me. I also was really afraid of my ability to leave and hike. I managed to fall back asleep and when I woke, Niki helped massage my back, which helped enough for me to be able to move. Standing up was better and I was able to walk, gaining mobility as time went on. We packed up and hiked on. On the way, we passed a Korean tour group and stopped them asking if anyone had a painkiller stronger than Ibuprofen. There was a doctor who was able to tell me that my back wasn’t broken (I knew this) and then lifted my bag and said, “too heavy”. Then, EVERY single person in the group lifted my bag and said “ohhh!!”. One man gave me some orange painkillers. I have no clue what they were but definitely needed something strong. They must have helped, as we were able to finish hiking without an issue.
The next night, I was afraid to go to bed, thinking I’d wake up in severe pain again, but all was well. We did the last section of the ‘W’. Niki’s knee was inflamed from an earlier injury, so she ended up having to rest halfway and I continued up to see the towers. It was a stunning backdrop and a beautiful setting. All-in-all, the ‘W’ is a beautiful hike; it’s short, not too difficult. We did hike between 10 and 15 miles each day, but it’s manageable. There were refugios along the way, where people could opt to stay in private rooms or dorm rooms and hot showers and meals were available. We camped (it was MUCH cheaper), but did have 2 meals at the refugios, which made this the most flash-pack-y of a backpacking trip I have ever done.
Then, we made it back to Puerto Natales where we began to realize just how difficult it is traveling in Patagonia around Christmas. We were supposed to meet up with two friends on Christmas Eve, but due to transportation limitations, we had to move on to El Calafate today and will have our friends meet us here in a few days. We were lucky to get on a bus. Buses fill up days in advance here and we were only able to buy bus tickets for both us and our friends because of cancellations. We got lucky in that regard. So, we’ll see what is available to us on Christmas Day, but I think I’ve learned my lesson about traveling on a tight schedule around Christmas in a Catholic country….
Oh, and it is really cool to be so far south and have it be light so late. It’s still somewhat light ’til midnight (barely though), so I took this photo one night before bed when it was still plenty light out. I hope everyone back home is having a good time celebrating Christmas with your families! I am thinking of home and miss my family dearly. Feliz Navidad!
Ahh, Punta del Diablo. Everything that La Paloma wasn’t. Sandy roads, a handful of small cafes and restaurants, beautiful beaches with waves for surfing, occupied hostels. I read somewhere that this town is akin to a Thailand beach town from a 1970s Lonely Planet. I wouldn’t know, but it was a great place to relax for a couple of days. Shortly after I arrived, a foursome arrived at the hostel and I started chatting with them and asked the typical traveler questions – “where are you from?” Much to my pleasant surprise, they were from Denver!
The next few days were pleasant – spent with various groups of travelers and consisted of laying on the beach, eating seaside empanadas, drinks in the bar at night. I haven’t exercised on this entire trip, so my 2nd day in Punta del Diablo, I tried renting a surf board with a Canadian that I met. All boards were rented (it’s a small town), so in lieu of surfing, she and I and a British guy did some circuit training on the beach. My time here was mostly uneventful, although two Brits nearly drowned my first day. They were messing around in the water and got caught in a riptide, started panicking and from both their versions of the story, they thought they were nearly on their last breath. Fortunately for them, a surfer swam over to them and was able to rescue them. Then, my last night, one of the servers tripped just outside a glass door and crashed through the glass door and cut herself up.
That night, the Denverites initiated a beach bonfire. 11 bundles of wood, some really, really awful wine (I don’t recommend the “Tannat” variety of grape…), we had a party. A few Uruguaians joined us with a 4 string guitar and we sang the typical songs everyone in the world seems to know – I’m Yours, Hotel California, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, Wonderwall, etc.
The next day, I headed to a small place called Cabo Polonio, recommended to me initially by a college classmate. The way others described this place made it seem so unique it couldn’t be missed. To get to Cabo Polonio, we took a bus, which dropped us off on the side of the road, where these large 4×4 trucks were waiting. After a 20 minute ride through sand dunes and along the beach, we arrived in Cabo Polonio. It was pretty cold, the sky was gray and the wind was blowing and it reminded me of a sparsely populated area of Maine or Maritime Canada. We arrived (I was with the 4 Denverites) and decided to rent a shack rather than stay in one of the 3 hostels. The entire town is without electricity and the main attraction is candle-lit dinners, decent surfing and Uruguay’s second largest sea lion colony.
We ambled around town – there are no property lines – houses are seemingly randomly built anywhere. We walked along the shore and spent a long time watching the sea lions, which I found to be incredibly entertaining. Just off the coast of this small seaside village is an island, completely full of sea lions and while walking around town, it sounds like there’s a great party going on – just around the corner, but it’s the sea lions barking up a storm on their own exclusive island. It’s almost hard to describe this place, so I hope the pictures do it justice.
The tricky part was finding our cute rustic little cabin at night. We paid attention to the landmarks that we could on our way into town, but in the darkness of night, we got lost. There are no roads, no street lights, no house lights. After stumbling around for a bit, we eventually found our house.
I had arranged for a 6:45am bus from the road outside of Cabo Polonio to eventually get me back to Montevideo so I could catch the ferry back to Buenos Aires. I was told to simply show up in the sandy “plaza” at about 6am and a dune-buggy truck would arrive. Well, that didn’t happen until 7:30 and I was worried that I would miss my bus to Montevideo. However, I got lucky and my connecting bus was late, so I made it to Montevideo without further ado. I did however, get to watch a stunning sunrise, which was well worth it.
Next up is a couple of days in Iguazu Falls on both the Argentinian and Brazilian side!
Punta del Diablo (the dark clouds are from a nearby fire)