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.
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.
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.
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