An experience like no other
After working on a beast of a paper all weekend and most the week prior to flying out for Patagonia, I welcomed the transition in scenery with open arms (but not literally because I was carrying a huge backpack). A person can only sit at a dining room table learning about 1800s export-import growth in South America for so long before you start to question your sanity.
I spent the Wednesday morning before I left at the Valparaiso Sporting Club, the racetrack in Viña del Mar, touring the backside and watching morning workouts. Safe to say I was pretty high on life and horses by the time I charged out the door with my pack that evening. Freedom never tastes quite as sweet as it does when you’re escaping the busy city life and a 10-page paper.
Although I originally wanted to plan my trip to Patagonia myself, I decided to book through a tour group called the Valparaiso Exchange Network. The company offers organized and practically all-inclusive trips to students of Chilean universities, providing a more affordable trip experience. I highly recommend this option to my fellow amateur campers out there. Although I’ve camped before, I didn’t know enough about the gear I would need to go it alone, and this would give me the chance to observe camping pros in action so I’m prepared for the next trip.
Three of my friends from my university had booked the same trip, so the four of us lugged our bags to the bus station to catch an 8:30 p.m. bus to Santiago. Still wound up from my morning at the track, I must have been quite the sight as I galloped and skipped across streets and into the bus terminal carrying a pack almost as big as me. At least by now my exchange student pals are well-accustomed to my frequent horse chatter.
The hour and a half ride flew by as we joked and napped. From the Universidad de Santiago bus station we rode a double-decker shuttle bus to the airport. I’m not quite sure I can properly express the joy that sitting in the top front seat of a double-decker brings. Or maybe it was just late and I was tired, but our “gringo-ness” definitely showed as we whipped out a Go-Pro to take videos.
A Dunkin’ Donuts stop was in order when we reached the airport just a little before midnight. The place must be a gringo magnet, because by 12:30 am, our entire group of 16 students had filled up their tables. We shifted our herd to the check-in area to meet our guide and hand off our bags. The LAN flight departed at 2:30 a.m., and with bellies full of sugary goodness, we all contentedly drifted off to dream land . The three hour flight landed in Punta Arenas around 5:30 a.m., and we settled in for a two hour nap as we waited for the bus that would deliver us to Puerto Natales (lots of two-word cities that start with ‘P’).
I must say that there is a significant amount of travel involved in getting to Patagonia, but it’s well worth it. The bus ride to Puerto Natales was another two hours. We checked into the Casa Lili hostel and set out to acquire last-minute necessities and get one final solid night of sleep.
The following morning we took cars to the terminal to hop yet another bus, which drove us an hour or so to Torres del Paine National Park. We paid our entry, filled out paperwork and switched busses (bus count: 5) in order to arrive at our campsite, where we pitched tents and set off on our first hike – the longest and most strenuous, which took us to the peaks that the park is named for: Las Torres.
One of my friends and I made a mistake right from the beginning. We were able to leave our large backpacks at camp and take a day pack on the hike. I hadn’t brought a day pack because my school backpack is simply too huge, so I shared a backpack – a smallish black and friendly looking thing – with my friend Courtney. I’m always cold, so of course I wore a gazillion layers of clothes that I shed as we walked. We each brought water bottles, our DSLR cameras, my large camera lens, two sandwiches and at least 5 lbs. of snacks between the two of us (you can’t leave food in the tents because mice will find them). The backpack quickly became known as the “Black Beast.”
I absolutely kid you not, it weighed around 25 pounds. The weight, combined with its cumbersome-ness and climbing steep trails made for a long, sweaty and tiresome day. I hauled it for 65 percent of the day, simply because once I got started carrying it, it was easier to just keep going. So that, combined with the 16-some mile hike meant that I got one heck of a workout!
But even the Black Beast couldn’t detract from my view of rivers, cliffs, mountains and finally a lagoon at the bottom of the towering gray peaks. I shed my load at the top and we all ate chocolate while enjoying the view that couldn’t have been created by anything less than God.
The nights were cold.
I like to think I’m well-adjusted to freezing temperatures, having driven in more than one blizzard and taken care of horses on below-zero days. But sleeping in a tent when it’s below freezing is still a little rough. The first night my tent buddies and I crammed five people into a three-person tent, which I thought was great considering I was in the middle. However the guys on the outside of our human sandwich weren’t as comfy as me, and promptly informed us the next morning that they would not accompany us in the future. Bummer.
I did a great job of ruining my eyebrows each night from rolling up in a fetal position and sleeping on my face. I woke up on the first morning and pulled off my winter hat that I had slept in to discover it had rubbed off a large chunk of one eyebrow. Another bummer. Thankfully they grow back.
The third bummer from day two (literally the only three bummers of the entire trip) was awaking to the pattering of rain on the roof of the tent. Rain could make for a long, soggy day, which involved taking a bus (#6) to another campsite, hopping a catamaran and setting up camp at another site before hike number two. Soon after arriving at the new campsite, the clouds cleared away to reveal a brilliant sun glimmering over the mountains. God had answered our prayers.
We set out on the second hike, approximately six hours there and back, to Glacier Grey. The sun seemed to shine brighter with each mile that passed, and the dampness coating the trees and ground intensified the fall colors – yes it’s fall here. I literally went from fall to winter, then back to fall and soon-to-be winter again.
The reds, yellows and oranges created a stunning contrast against the grey, tan and snowy white of the mountains. Place a blue sky above it all and you literally have the most perfectly beautiful scenery the eyes will ever set themselves upon.
Dallying behind with my camera (everything was so beautiful, it became an addiction to try and capture it in photos) I caught up to the group sitting on a lookout point over the glacier and the frigid Grey Lake that spread out before us. We took five minutes of silence to savor the splendor and roll our thoughts around in our brains – or maybe not even think at all. As I said little prayers, thanking God for this masterpiece, I couldn’t help but wonder what everyone else was thinking about.
Every now and then our guide, Omar, would fall back and gather up the stragglers like me. He reminded me of a mother hen gathering her chicks. He smoked like a chimney, barely ate or drank anything on our treks and was skinny as a rail. But Omar made the rest of us look bad as we huffed and puffed, struggling to climb rocks and navigate mountain trails. He didn’t even break a sweat. But I guess that’s to be expected, considering he’s hiked every trail in Torres Del Paine National Park.
One thing about spending extended amounts of time walking with a particular group of people is that eventually someone is going to have to poop. And because you become so comfortable with one another, you’re probably going to hear about it — especially from one of the guys.
I hope the subject of the tiny story I’m about to tell won’t mind, but I can’t finish this blog without recounting it. Just to be safe I’ll change his name to “Jason.”
On our way back from Glacier Grey, Jason told everyone he had to take a crap. Before long, the rest of our group disappeared from sight as my friend Courtney and I lagged behind to take photos, per usual. Almost an hour had passed since we had seen the others. As we walked and chatted, we reached a point in the trail with the distinct stench of human excrement.
“It smells like [insert swear word for poop],” Courtney said.
“Yeah, someone definitely just dropped a load,” I responded.
“Jason,” said Courtney.
To both of our surprise, a voice called out from the woods, “Hey, what’s up guys?!” We both lost it laughing, having not thought that Jason might still be in the process of dumping his load.
Our third day was the longest hike through Valle del Francés. I dawdled far behind the rest of the group, taking photos like my life depended on it, unable to get enough of the scenery.
My senses were bombarded – the prick of chilly air on my skin, the purest of scents in my nostrils, my eyes absorbing the vibrant colors and shapes and hearing the sound of perfect silence – my soul was fulfilled. Lining the trail were tiny red berries and plants with small jagged leaves, softly layered in frost. Towering mountains touching the blue sky, the sun illuminating their peaks.
That night we celebrated, downing chocolate and a hot wine beverage with a hint of orange called Navegado. We had put nearly 46 miles of hiking behind us, but I’d trek every mile again in an instant.
On our final morning before the long journey home (which consisted of a catamaran, a bus ride, another stay in Puerto Natales, another bus ride, a plane ride and yes, another bus ride) we took a short jaunt over a few hills along the edge of a lake. While the group skipped stones, I sat on a massive rock a ways down the shore and stared at the distant mountains.
If I get nothing else from my four months spent in Chile, I’ll still be perfectly satisfied.