Thursday, December 28, 2017

Patagonia 2017: Intro to Torres del Paine National Park - Día Siete

Patagonia 2017:   Intro to Torres del Paine National Park - Día Siete – 2/14/17

[The central focus of our Patagonia adventure is hiking the “W” route in Torres del Paine National Park.  The name is a combination of Spanish Torres del (Towers of) and the native Tehuelche Paine (Blue.)  Paine is pronounced PIE-nay.  The Torres del Paine are three granite peaks of the mountain range or Paine Massif, reaching to 8,200 feet.  The primary hiking trail circumnavigates the Massif and is called the “O”.  If you include the out-and-back route up the middle of the “O,” that is called the “Q”.  If you look at the “O” as a clock face, the most popular section goes from 9 o’clock to about 4 o’clock and includes the middle in-and-out to the French Valley and the out-and-back hike to the base of the Towers. This is called the “W.”]

Finding breakfast in Puerto Natales in the actual morning time – why is this so hard? Clearly we did not yet have the lay of the land and no time to learn it.  Several (closed) places looked great; we finally landed in a café with good coffee and yummy food. Back to the apartment to clear out our gear.  Each of us had stuffed a bag (or two) of extras for storage in the building’s laundry room.  Placing the bags out of the way (hopefully) on a top shelf, we crossed our fingers that the housekeeper understood we would return in a few days 

Our bus to Torres del Paine was scheduled for the afternoon. We had some hours yet, so we walked a meandering scenic route to the bus station, beginning at the end of our street: Father Pedro María Rossa Cemetery. We intended to take a quick look but couldn’t resist wandering up and down rows, absorbing the lovingly crafted displays for the deceased.

There were elaborate crypts with barred openings - some featured altars with candles and photographs, some had chairs for visitors to sit.  There were above-ground graves of marble and stone, some subdued but many very colorful.  Most interesting to me were the walls of above-ground slots fronted with “shadow boxes” filled with photographs and mementos of the departed.  Each one told a story of a young person gone too soon or an old person loved and missed.  Some of the walls were eight rows high!

Outside the cemetery, more local art

Doggie caption contest?

We circled around through town again – now bustling and lively – looking for food for our trek.  Even though we’d be staying in lodges with supper and breakfast included (similar to the Mont Blanc trek Jim and I went on the previous summer) we had that perpetual backpacker fear of running out of food.  We found a small shop with a wide array of dried fruits and nuts and went a little overboard creating trail mix combinations.

In a larger grocery store across the street we took turns shopping, leaving one person with our backpacks that were not allowed inside.  We stocked up on crackers and cheese and corn dogs and empanadas for lunch.

Early arrival, lunch at the bus station

I found myself in the front seat of the bus for the ride to Torres del Paine NP, rolling with the constant pitch to and fro on narrow roads.  The expansive views were enhanced by animals and the occasional glimpse of a sombrero-wearing sheep herder on horseback.  The guanacos here seemed less fearful of cars and noise.  

The Torres del Paine “Towers of Blue”

At the park entrance ranger station we disembarked from the big bus and threw our gear onto a smaller bus, then went inside to pay the fee ($33) and present our passports. We got a ranger presentation of the rules, more stringent than those in the U.S., i.e. no fires anywhere, any time. In 2004 a fire started by a camper raged for over a month and consumed over 150 km. A second significant burn in 2011 sealed the deal for the no fires rule and it is strictly enforced.

Every seat was filled on the shuttle bus, fingers crossed not to hit any big bumps and be crushed by a gear slide.

So where is the shuttle bus going?  To Refugio Las Torres on the eastern side of the “W.” Our adventure is a cushy one, no camping, just bunk beds and electricity and hot running water (most of the time) in lodges on the circuit. Some are critical of the luxury accommodations in Torres del Paine (there are none in Los Glaciares NP) but it’s similar to U.S. parks like Yellowstone attempting to control the human impact.  By comparison, Torres del Paine sees 250,000 visitors per year while Yellowstone has 3,500,000.

Our best view of Torres del Paine

L/R: In the foreground is Almirante Nieto (Grand Admiral) – the South Tower is hidden behind it here -  Torre Central (Center Tower), Torre Norte (North Tower), Cerro Peineta (The Comb) and Nido de Condor (Condor’s Nest)

Refugio Las Torres

Our six-bed bunk room (sharing with Victoria and Corey, a young couple from Washington D.C.)

Winding down from the day

Next door to the refugio:  Ecocamp Patagonia.  Green technology, fully sustainable, certainly fun to look at, but also certainly out of our price range.  I don’t think I’d ever be able to stay in a place like this with a straight face.

After claiming our space in the refugio, we took adult beverages outside and sat on the ground, practicing yoga poses and toasting to our great good fortune once again for health and wealth to be at this awesome patch of the planet. 

Serving meals in two shifts, the dining room was large and raucous, too noisy for good conversation.  Supper started with onion soup, then salmon and potatoes, salad (iceberg lettuce).  Dessert was a custard with raspberry sauce.  Rick isn’t a fan of salmon, and unfortunately for him it featured in nearly every supper on the route.  BUT pisco sours are also featured and we continued the celebration with another round after supper, chatting with some of the other guests. 

Nightly ritual of paring down for tomorrow’s dayhike, made more challenging by the pisco sours.  Tomorrow we step out onto the “W” hiking to the Mirador Las Torres and the towers.

 “No matter how sophisticated you may be, a large granite mountain cannot be denied - it speaks in silence to the very core of your being.”  ~Ansel Adams

Monday, December 11, 2017

Patagonia 2017: ¡Hola Chile! - Día Seis

Patagonia 2017:   Crossing The Border - Día Seis – 2/13/17

Our prearranged taxi showed up on time in the early morning.  We crammed four people and all our worldly possessions in for the short trip to the El Calafate bus station.  Today we’re changing up countries, but we’ll still be in Patagonia, hiking its most famous trail, the “W” circuit in Torres del Paine National Park. 
Double decker comfort with assigned seats for the five-hour ride to Puerto Natales, Chile.  The distance is 60 kilometers as the crow flies, but 300 kilometers via roads for us. 

Do these backpacks make my butt look big?

Adios Argentina

The pavement ran out and a gravel road continued to the border crossing.  Everyone was required to disembark to get approval to cross into Chile.  We filled out customs forms (no food of any kind, no trail mix or power bars or dried fruit are allowed) and waited in slow-moving blurred lines to present our passports and pay the fee to enter the country. Border patrol agents with dogs inspected the bus.  We had to release our passports as our carry-on bags went through x-ray machines, and it was a bit unnerving waiting for them to be returned.  The stop at the border took over an hour. It was a sobering experience.

The bus rolled on through the Chilean countryside, leaving the dry desert behind for a while, for a greener and gentler landscape.  Guanacos wandered on the rolling hills. 

Puerto Natales is the gateway town closest to Torres del Paine National Park, a port city on the Señoret Channel. It’s the port for boats touring the Patagonian fjords and the starting point for most travelers to Torres del Paine NP.  It is smaller than El Calafate, has fewer amenities for tourists, which makes it more authentic for the adventurous traveler. We left the bus station with a rough idea of where our Airbnb apartment was, walking through neighborhoods, feeling our way past houses and schools that were not in session.  Some interesting artwork, though. 

Our apartment building - Departments Emisoca - was not obvious. We rang a couple of doorbells and communicated our confusion with hand gestures until we found the gate access on a side street.  The language barrier rose again with the housekeeper, but eventually Cathy used Google translate to get us in touch with the rental guy to say we were legit.  We were shown to our apartment: 2 bedrooms, one with a double bed, one with two bunkbeds, a kitchen, a dining nook and a sofa/TV area. The cost was about $25 per person per night (remember your Chilean pesos, those Argentinian ones are worthless now).  I was in charge of the key (I think this was true of nearly every place we went.)

Still without a map, we walked toward the water but soon realized we were off the mark for the town center. Carol practiced her rudimentary Spanglish with every person we met, each one helping us get a few blocks closer to the business district.  We found a bank and everyone retrieved cash except me (do you know how frustrating it is for your ATM card to be denied in a foreign country? But I was successful at the second bank.)  Wandering a while longer with no clear plan but taking note of the little markets and souvenir shops, we found a little something to make us feel better – ice cream.

Dogs are part of the scenery here too

We stopped in at a hostel called Wild, where the staff spoke English, gave us a street map and recommended a restaurant for dinner.  With the map we were able to triangulate between the town center, the bus station and our apartment.  For me at least, such a feeling of relief to know where I am in the world!   

We made a quick run back to our apartment to shower, change, and use wifi to check in with the folks back home.  The heater in the bunk room would not turn off, and we hadn’t paid up for our room yet, so Cathy worked on getting the rental guy on-site to take care of business.  [Pause here again to thank Cathy for her phenomenal work making accommodations and handling all that stuff for us.]  All issues resolved, we set out confidently, map in hand, to have a fine Chilean meal at La Picada de Carlitos, toasting with delicious Chilean white wine.

We enjoyed dinner so much that we stopped by Wild again to thank the staff for the recommendation.  Hostel guests were gathering at the bar and common room – would we like to join them?  Why yes, we would.  We met a young Australian couple spending a few days in Puerto Natales, hoping to score reservations to hike the “W” circuit.  (This is the most popular time of year for hiking in Patagonia and we’ve had our reservations for months.)  Knowing what I know now and giving advice to those who follow after us, I would recommend Wild as a great place to stay in Puerto Natales.  The location was perfect and the people there, both staff and guests, had a great vibe for trekkers and other travelers. 

Pisco sours all around, shaken by the Wild bartender and served in tin mugs.  Salud!

Tomorrow our "W" adventure begins – but first I’ve got to sort this all out…We are leaving all but the essentials at the apartments until we return. 

“To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.” ~Aldous Huxley