A Travellerspoint blog

Tearing up in Torres Del Paine

Torres del Paine National Park is a protected area of over 200,000 hectares in the South Patagonian Ice Field and one of the main attractions I wanted to visit on my return to South America, but even I couldn't have been prepared for just how epic it was going to be. Heading back into Chile and Puerto Natales to prepare for 3 nights of camping, this pretty little city is on the shore of the Última Esperanza Sound and definitely worth a look in for its picturesque sunsets and chilled out vibe.

The following day we drove into the national park itself and set up camp at Rio Serrano, before heading on our first hike to Glaciar Grey, on Lago Grey. Another spectacular sight, the lake also contains huge icebergs that had calved off from the glaciar, and we managed to scoop a small block of ice out of the lake to take home for campfire gin and tonics later that evening. Yes, really - our cocktails now come with 700 year old glacial ice cubes!

Next morning was an early start for the 20km trek to the famous three towers or 'torres' of Torres del Paine. This is a gruelling hike, with an hour of very steep up, followed by two hours of undulating up and down (still very tough going), followed by another hour of scrambling even steeper up. And then the same in reverse! However, the immense effort was worth it because the feeling when the 2,500m high Torres finally come into view at the very top is absolutely incredible. One by one we climbed over the ridge to see this unforgettable sight, and one by one we let out a different expletive. We were blessed with beautiful weather so we could see the three towers in all their glory and basked by the side of the emerald green laguna, with a tear in the eye and a lump in the throat.

I opted to go horse riding the following day to ease my weary legs, but after five hours in the saddle, navigating craggy ravines and traversing fast flowing rivers, I don't actually think I chose the easier option. With spectacular views of Cordillera del Paine, we hacked all along the shore of Lago del Toro, through dense forests with low hanging branches that our much shorter gaucho managed to avoid, but nearly did me a cropper on several occasions! We even had a canter across the plains and another unforgettable day was well spent in my new favourite place in South America.








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Christmas in El Chalten and El Calafate

Moving on from Bariloche, the next two days were basically spent on board the truck, travelling the 1386km south into Patagonia proper. The scenery changed dramatically from the verdant lake district to the flat and barren terrain lining the infamous Ruta 40 (part of the Pan American Highway running all the way from Alaska to Ushuaia) so, without much to look at, these long bus journeys consisted of a rotation of napping, toilet stops, twenty questions and good old fashioned singalongs, interspersed by an incessant argument over whether the windows should be open or closed. As you can imagine, a truck carrying 26 passengers (we'd picked up some more people on route) is bound to become fraught at times but luckily we generally rubbed along well together, with the unfortunate exception of window-gate.

Surviving 48 hours of driving, we arrived in El Chalten, a small town at the foot of the Fitz Roy massif, in time for Christmas Eve. Here we hiked 18km along the base of this apparently spectacular mountain, named after Robert FitzRoy (Captain of the HMS Beagle, who charted large parts of the Patagonian coast) but it's jagged peaks eluded us due to some low hanging clouds which give El Chalten its name of 'smoking mountain'. After rewarding ourselves with some well deserved beers in the local microbrewery, we had dinner altogether before heading to a little wine bar to see in Christmas Day. A very small town, I'm not sure the locals knew what had hit them as we crammed into the tiny space, brimming with festive cheer. Some of this overflowed into a nearby grocery store, where we ended up dancing up and down the aisles much to the shopkeeper's delight (still waiting to find fame on YouTube over this incident, somebody definitely caught it all on camera!).

Our tour leader organised Secret Santa for us the following morning and after a quick exchange of gifts we were back on the road again. Christmas lunch consisted of empañadas at a service station before we reached the town of El Calafate, situated on the shore of Lago Argentino (the largest lake in Argentina) and on the boundaries of Parque Nacional los Glaciares (the second largest national park in the country). It's obviously difficult being away from loved ones at Christmas but it's very easy to forget what day of the year it is when you're not surrounded by all the furore you get at home. Nonetheless we donned Santa hats and had a late Christmas dinner, without any of the usual trimmings but with plenty of good will to all men.

Boxing Day, however, more than made up for the slight anticlimax of the big day itself with a visit to the Perito Moreno glacier. This is one of the few glaciers in the world that is not receding, despite climate change, and is over 5km wide, 30km long and 60m high. Six inches of snow had fallen overnight and getting to the site was treacherous, with many of the vehicles ahead of us having to put ice grips on their tyres. We then had to descend a series of wooden platforms, also covered with snow, but when finally the glacier came into view, it was quite possibly one of the most breath-taking things I've ever seen. Words or photos can't do it justice and taking a boat onto the lake to get up close to this ancient, creaking, bright blue block of ice was one of the best Christmas presents I could have received.

Returning to El Calafate later that day we experienced the Patagonian extremes of weather we had been warned about for the first time - if you ask a local what the weather forecast is going to be like, they will answer "It's ok... For now". This is because it is SO changeable and only six hours after we'd trudged through ankle deep snow, dressed in thermals, hats and gloves, we were back to glorious sunshine and flip flops, with all traces of the day's earlier freeze gone. Continuing our journey ever more south, who knows what will be in store for us next...







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Beef in Bariloche

Leaving the conquered volcán Villarrica feeling victorious, we headed south from Pucón to the border crossing at Paso Tromen. This involves getting your passport stamped out of Chile then driving for a kilometre or so to get stamped into Argentina at the other end. A relatively straightforward procedure, however some of our American companions had neglected to pay the reciprocity fee required for entry and so we were stuck, quite literally, in the middle of NOWHERE. After this minor delay in no man's land, we entered the Argentine Lake District - a series of great lakes strung along the foot of the Andes stretching for 339km. A long bus day, we appeared to have gotten into a rhythm as a group and wiled away the 12 hours quite merrily, flanked by majestic mountains on one side and crystal blue lakes on the other.
On arrival in Bariloche that evening things took a somewhat less agreeable turn, however, as the political situation in the country has caused the Argentine Peso to go into freefall. This actually means we, the turistas, get a better exchange rate but consequently meant it took an absolute age to find an ATM that would actually let us take any money out. There also seemed to be a marked hostility from the locals and my poquito español - hitherto comprehendible in Chile - no longer appeared to be understood. Plus the weather had turned cold and overcast with a ridiculously strong wind. But what Bariloche lacked in immediate charm, it made up for in steak! It was a somewhat hangry and tired group who went for dinner that evening but half a kilo of bife de ojo later, and everyone perked up considerably. So much so that we braved the local bars until the early hours of the next morning and Bariloche was definitely starting to look more favourable.

Situated on the shore of Lago Nahuel Huapi and at the foot of Cerro Otto, Bariloche is another Alpine-esque town boasting chalet style wooden buildings lining the slopes of the mountains above. It is also a renowned hot spot for outdoor activities like cycling and rafting but we only had a day here so we decided to take it easy (nothing to do with the hangover, honest!) and catch up on some chores. I think the danger of a trip like this is that you feel the pressure to be doing something incredible every day without taking the time to just be somewhere. One of the greatest achievements I've felt as a traveller is being able to do something normal, like getting your clothes washed, in a foreign country. And boy did we pick the right place to get that done! Manuel the Lavandería was one of the most bonkers people I've ever met and I don't think I've ever laughed so much over dirty laundry, and it didn't surprise me on collection of my clean clothes that I had gained an extra pair of walking trousers in the process.

We decided on a more civilised evening that night and I can highly recommend Alto del Fuego for yet more steak and amazing Argentinian red (I have been converted!). I don't think I've had a better meal for £15 and I can't tell you how much I'm enjoying the company of my fellow travel companions. Next stop Patagonia...




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Petrified in Pucón

After saying a fond farewell to Tumuñan Lodge, I made my way back to Santiago and the hotel where I was to meet my tour group. I know people can be somewhat snooty about organised tours but Patagonia is so vast and remote that attempting to cover the distance I wanted in the little time I had, meant that this was really my only viable option. Never knowing who you could end up sharing a room with, I knocked on my hotel room door with some trepidation. But I was met by Caroline, a thirty year old from London, who jumped at the suggestion of a quick drink before meeting the rest of the group, and I knew we'd get on just fine.

The following day 17 of us, plus my newly returned rucksack, boarded our truck 'Peggy' - basically a yellow box on wheels kitted out with fridge and music system, and not a lot else. It was a full day's drive to our first destination of Pucón, stopping off for lunch at the side of the road by the waterfalls of Salto del Laja, where we also tried the local delicacy of Charqui - a kind of jerky made from horse meat, which was not actually as unpleasant as you'd think! Arriving in Pucón later that day, we were greeted by the beautiful lake Lago Villarrica, surrounded by mountains and presided over by the active, snow-capped volcano of the same name. Full of alpine lodges, chocolate shops and bavarian beer houses, you'd think you'd arrived in the Swiss Alps, not Southern Chile. And so obviously the first thing we did was try a beer. Or two. And some pisco sours. And maybe some more beer. Which inevitably resulted in a few of us doing ludicrous karaoke in the quietest of local bars at three o'clock in the morning...

Moving on from the excellent hospitality, the main attraction in Pucón is climbing Volcán Villarrica. Standing at 2847m and having briefly erupted in March this year, this is one of Chile's most active volcanoes. Kitted out with crampons and ice picks, we set off at 6am to conquer the summit (after a day's recovery obviously, I'm not totally insane). Now traditionally you are supposed to start the ascent from the top of the ski lift but this wasn't working so we had 1800m of gruelling uphill before we even reached the snow. And then I had a panic attack.

It turns out that what I had prior to assumed was a minor dislike of heights is actually a very real and physically debilitating terror. I looked down and all I could see was impending death. Frustrated and petrified in equal measure, I burst into tears halfway up a bloody volcano, not able to go up or down. Our mountain guide, however, was extraordinarily patient with me and managed to coax me up to 2200m. Each icy step was an intense internal struggle, convinced I was going to slide all the way to my doom at any moment. Which is kind of ironic, because the only way to get off the mountain is to do just that. You are given what I can only describe as a giant plastic spoon to use as a sledge and it's you versus the volcano! After my first slide ended with me face first in the snow under another bloody rucksack (3-0), I realised I wasn't actually going to die on this volcano and began to enjoy myself. Four hours of sweat and tears up, one hour of eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee down! Although I didn't make it to the summit, I am damn proud of how far I did get, considering how ridiculously scared I was.

Back on horizontal ground, we treated ourselves to a celebratory beer before a relaxing evening in the local hot springs of Los Pozones, ready for another day's drive across the border to Bariloche...






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The first 24 hours...

So here beginneth my South American adventures... part two! With a remarkably light rucksack and even lighter heart at the thought of returning to this amazing continent, I set off to pick up the trail I started almost four years ago. A month trekking Patagonia from Santiago to the ends of the earth at Ushuaia - surely this calls for a new blog to recount epic tales of wonder and excitement, no? The drama started much sooner than expected, however, when I managed to trip over my own shoelaces three minutes from home and land face first on the pavement with what no longer felt that light a rucksack pinning me to the ground. A kind soul rescued me from looking like an awkward turtle trying to right itself, however this was not the glorious start I had imagined!

Reaching Heathrow without any further mishaps, my first flight to São Paulo consisted of being stuck for 12 hours next to a small child who seemed to want to snuggle up to me instead of his mother, meaning I got very little sleep as I kept having to remove an unwanted head from my lap. It was also severely delayed which meant I only just managed to catch my connecting flight by a whisker, but which meant my bag (henceforth to be known as my nemesis) did not. Then ensued much wrangling on arrival at Santiago airport in my exceedingly rusty Spanish over the contents of my bag (how do you explain Bananagrams in any language?!) but I managed to get a promise of delivery to my hotel for the following day. Rucksack 2 - Christina 0.

Undeterred, I hopped on a bus to central Santiago, somewhat pleased with myself that I hadn't lost all my wherewithal when it comes to international travelling. I also managed to get on the next one to San Fernando with relative ease and was already congratulating myself on my skills navigating South American public transport when I realised that said transport would arrive in San Fernando too late to catch the last bus of the day to Las Peñas. Now normally, when on South American time, this wouldn't be a problem (mañana mañana and all that) but I had only one day free before my grand tour of Patagonia began in which to get to Tumuñan Lodge.

Tumuñan Lodge is where I was working as the world's worst gaucha before Dad got ill. It is a beautiful place set against the verdant backdrop of the central Chilean Andes and I had promised myself if I was ever back in the area, I would go and visit the wonderful hosts there who made me feel so much like family when I was the other side of the world from mine. I'll just get a taxi from San Fernando, I thought, how hard can that be? Exceptionally, it appears. Asking for a taxi to take you to Las Peñas is apparently the Chilean equivalent of asking a London cabbie to take you south of the river. From Watford. But the kindness of strangers will never cease to amaze me when a lovely shopowner saw my distress (I was quite frankly about to lose my shit after hours of travelling and very Little sleep) and not only rang a taxi company on my behalf, but insisted on waiting with me to make sure I got in the right one, but also negiotiated my fare so I didn't get ripped off! I can't thank this woman enough, so if you ever come across a hapless foreigner struggling to get somewhere, I hope you do the same - it might just be the most important thing you could do for them in that moment.

So 24 hours, two flights, one lost bag, two buses and one miraculous taxi later I made it to my destination with a strange feeling of familiarity and sadness. When I left here, I honestly thought I might never return and it was a stark reminder of the circumstances under which I left. But I was overwhelmed to be treated as Will and Caolina's guest of honour, even though I had only worked there for a month or so. I had my own personal tour of the new vineyard by their seven year old daughter Lara - now ever so grown up and completely unimpressed by my inability to converse in her native tongue. I remember you being better at Spanish, she said. You were four, I said, it probably just seemed better. I spent the rest of my short time with her parents - walking in the mountains, drinking copious amounts of local wine, and chewing the fat - everything we did when I was here previously, as if the intervening four years hadn't passed. And so begins what looks as though its going to be a pretty emotional trip, finishing the journey I promised my Dad I would make.




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