San Pedro de Atacama: a favourite desert

Day 1: July 8, 2010
We enjoyed the views on the way to the small Chilean town of San Pedro de Atacama. I can’t describe it. It was beautiful. We had an aerial view of the rocky, pinky desert punctuated with unspeakable rock shapes. If you squint at it you would see vast open spaces colored in pink and white and covered in mist.
Our first stop was Chilean immigration (again!). Fill in the immigration form, fill in the customs form, have you passport stamped, get your bags out and scanned. Same thing, different day. The bus dropped us off in the middle of town after giving us some useful information. Very nice of them.
I tout for a hostel advertised a good price for what looked like a nice, new hostel and I agreed to give it a try. As we walked I realized it was rather far away from the center and I kinda regretted my choice. But later when I thought about it I decided it was kinda cool, being in a slum outside of town.
I got registered, got all the information I needed, and headed for the shower. I hadn’t bathed in a couple of days, I was dusty and cold and I was looking forward to a refreshing hot shower. Not today. The water was cold. I was so frustrated, to the point of tears. ‘Tears?’ you would say. Yes, tears. Just before I left for Bolivia I got a cold from our bikes and wines day. My nose was either blocked or runny and I had to deal with the extremely dry climate of the desert. Breathing was tricky. Then I had also got my period on the first day of the trip, having to fight cramps and the lack of decent bathroom facilities. And finally I hadn’t been able to sleep due to that headache. It has piled up as you can see and that cold shower was the final drop.
Still, I quickly washed up and went out in search of some lunch, money, and maps of the area. Mario had suggested I bike the desert, this being one of the best ways to explore it. I had also got some extra info from others and I had a general idea what and how I wanted to do it. Still I wanted to see what else was there, get a better idea of what exactly I wanted to visit, and then figure out the best way to do it.
I have decided to bike the closer attractions tomorrow, and then book a tour to a distant lagoon and a few other spots. See how tomorrow goes; I might decide to bike to the lagoon as well since it is only 24km away. That way have all the time in the world to float in the salty waters.
I walked to the center, got some cash out (not too much since this is my last visit to Chile), found a nice place to eat lunch and had a carrot/pumpkin soup, followed by steak in mushroom/pepper sauce and grilled potatoes, and even desert (that I took to go, since I couldn’t swallow another bite). All that accompanied by a huge freshly squeezed orange juice.
I then walked around town and enjoyed the pretty main street. It has no pavement, meaning it gets muddy when it rains but today wasn’t one of those days which only added to the general charm of the place. There is the muddy street, lined with low, adobe houses, painted white. Most of them were restaurants or hand crafts shops, which added color to the earthy tones of the houses and the street. All the signs were kept in the same manner (carved wood planks or chalk boards for the menus) which suggests some building planning. There were also very pretty, old-looking street lights – rustic, wood poles, with ancient lanternas hanging from them. All in all, very pleasant and lovely. That of course is just the main street. The rest of it is unpleasant dusty street and ‘buildings’ that really shouldn’t be called that because they are not more than a few brick or wooden planks thrown together with a tin sheet for a roof.
I paid attention to all the tour agency, and especially the photos of their trips, trying to decide what looked pretty and was therefore worth visiting. Once I knew What there was to see and had made my selection I researched the bike rental prices and checked with the tourist office for a map of the area. It looks like I will be able to bike it all. Nice. I better get a hat though. My face is rather red as it is. I also checked ticket prices and departure days to Salta, Argentina where I am meeting Mario again before coming back to Bolivia.
I was done with work and it was time to relax. I sat on a sunny bench in the lovely main plaza and read a National Geographic magazine I had picked up way back in Ushuaia, Argentina just before we had left sailing. I was told to stock up with books and I did. I barely touched them. Once I picked up ‘War and Peace’ there was no time for anything else.
I have been wanting to read an article about the Mexican Tarahumara people living in Barranca del Cobre which I had visited in the very beginning of my trip. It was late afternoon yet the sun was still shining strong. It got pretty hot at some point and I felt I was burning when I decided to move to a shadier bench. That was too cold though and I got up for another walk in town before I headed back to the hostel. I didn’t really feel like doing much and thought I would just read a bit more and have a relaxed evening before I got approached by the girl working here asking whether I wanted to go out later tonight with her and a Brazilian guy who was also staying at the hostel. I agreed, we arranged a time and I just sat catching up on writing while I was waiting. It is almost that time though so I better get going. I am just going to have a light dinner and a drink before I crash (we went to a lovely bar situated in a backyard under the stars with a looming fire in the middle of the patio; it turned out that we had a lot more in common than I thought and we ended up having a great evening with lots of stories and laughter). I need my rest before I go cycling all day tomorrow.

Day 2: July 9, 2010
I got up and had a breakfast of leftover goat cheese sandwich (from previous night’s dinner at the bar) and a leftover peach desert from the previous day’s set lunch. I then walked into town and rented a bike for the day. The owner also gave me a map and let me know the possible day routes. I decided to cycle through the Moon and Death Valleys. I left town and headed up the paved road and deep into the valley. I stopped at the entrance, paid my fees, got a map and a few pointers and was back on my way through the rocky valley. It was beautiful. My first stop was a small canyon and a bunch of caves. I did the caves first although I didn’t have a light. I reached the dark part, made a couple of steps into it and decided I wasn’t going a step further. It was too dark and too quiet. I nearly turned back when I saw a path above the dark section. I climbed up the rocks and walked the dark section on top of the rocks before I reached the light parts again and continued my walk until I reached the end. By looking at the map I thought the canyon should start where the caves ended, at least it looked like it on the little map I carried. I walked around, looking for clues, signs, paths but there were simply too many of them going in hundreds of different directions. At some point I decided I couldn’t find it and went back. That’s when I bumped into something that looked like a sign and decided to follow it. Soon enough there was a second one and I was then convinced I was on the right path. I walked down the rocks, waving ‘Hi’ to a couple that was also exploring the area (nice to see another living soul, comforting) and eventually made it to the very beginning of the walk which was also the beginning of the canyon. I walked through there too, marveling at the rocky shapes. Fun and pretty. I left the canyon behind, walked back to my bike and continued my trip but not before I made use of the bathroom. I was fascinated by it. It was one of the best bathrooms I have ever seen, and what made it so more special was its location – middle of nowhere, dusty, dry, rocky desert – and yet there was this small, fully tiled, clean bathroom, with ceramic seat and a sink, running water, toilet paper, soap and even air freshener! Amazing. Such a pleasure after an exhausting bike ride.

Back on the road, my next stop was a massive dune overlooking a colorful (red) rock formation called the Amphitheater. I saw one side of the dune, and followed the indicated path to what turned out to be the top of the dune. It was marvelous. The best view in the valley. In front of me there was the ridge of the dune, spreading a few hundred meters ahead of me. To my right there was the reddish Amphitheater, and to my left there were more mountains, more rocks in white, pink, beige, brown, red and any other color imaginable.
An added bonus to my visit to the top of the dune (like the views wasn’t enough!) was a Chilean team of photographers and Brazilian models working on a photo shoot for a local magazine. The theme was 20’s-2010 fashion and the doll like model was seated in the sand sporting a lovely 50’s black satin dress and a pearl necklace. There was also a matching black ribbon holding her pony tail high up, thus revealing her fragile, porcelain colored neckline. Her face was the first thing I saw when I reached the top of the dune and I was blown away. She was probably the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. Absolutely stunning.
The shoot was soon over and the model and two members of the team made their way down the hill towards the fancy black caravan. The photographer and his assistant stayed behind and we got chatting. We spent the next 30-40mins chatting about the modeling industry in Chile, travelling, and extreme sports. It turned out that there weren’t that many pretty models in Chile and they had to import them from other countries, in this case Brazil. The pretty Chilean model, who was once a Miss Something would appear on every cover thus tiring the audience with her looks. In order to mix things up they had to resort to foreign girls. This time they had contracted two Brazilian girls at the age of 19-20. One was frail and delicate, while the other had a lot more of everything, thus exuding a sexy, animalistic vibe. They both had their roles to play. The two guys also told me the models were almost at the end of their career at the age of 20. The average age for a model apparently is 13-14.
– 13-14? – I exclaimed. But there is nothing to them – I said. Their bodies are not even developed yet.
– Their bodies are not developed, they are still girls. They are flat back and front but they have the height and they can walk. When they go on the catwalk they look like queens – the photographer said. ‘Interesting’ I thought.
– So what do they do when their career is over at such a young age? – I asked.
– Most of them study – they guys responded. We often have two models and one of them will be reading while we are working with the other one- they added. Furthermore, they get paid very well and they put money aside – the photographer added.
I guess I don’t have to worry about them. I asked the photographer to take a photo of me on top of the dune with my modest, barely functioning pocket Sony camera. He did and then he took his super-duper camera and took some more photos of me. I told them I got nervous in front of such big camera stuck so closely into your face. They comforted me though saying the imperfections of the face didn’t matter and that nobody could take away my happiness. I sure have a lot of that!
After a while it was time for me to leave and we took our goodbyes. We hugged and kissed, wished each other all the best and I walked down the path again munching on a delicious baked empanada I had bought for lunch in the morning.
I continued my bike journey until I reached a Place called ‘Las Tres Marias’ – three rock formation perched on a natural rock platform resembling women in prayer. I also visited a salt cave. It was very small, but its walls were covered in salt crystals. I even licked it to make sure. It was salt.
I was almost at the end of the valley but not before I went down a very steep hill just before the exit. Once I reached that I had to make my way onto the main road and look out for the road to the Death Valley. It was late afternoon but I still had some time left.
Back on the main road I cycled for a few kilometers when I saw a winding dirt road to my left and decided it was the one to take. There were no signs but it looked more or less right on the little handmade map I carried. I got on the dirt road and very slowly made progress. First keeping to the winding road, later getting off of it and hitting the rocky field surrounding it as it was easier to pedal on the hard surface compared to the soft sands of the road. I reached a half moon shaped opening in the mountain that I thought was the valley. I cycled through the narrow canyon, worried that it was a dead end every time I saw a big rock blocking the road. I got out of it and into this wide valley that went right and left. Which one was I to take? Which led back to the main road? I went right. I cycled slowly through a red, rocky valley boasting round shapes. I hoped it led back to the road. It was getting dark, the sun was slowly setting and I didn’t have any time to lose. I cycled, getting deeper and deeper into the valley until I hit the dead end. The road was blocked by 50m high rock walls. There was no getting out of there.
I turned back and quickly pedaled back. It was getting dark and I was getting worried. Luckily, the trip back was all downhill and I got out of the canyon much faster than I had entered it. I moved so fast that I almost flipped the bike when I reached this rocky area. Out of the canyon there was a whole lot of field between me and the canyon. Again, it was mainly downhill until I reached a clearly defined road that connected me to the main road. It was all uphill though. I tried cycling up the dirt road for a while but by then I as exhausted and I didn’t last too long. The soft sand under the tires wasn’t of much help either. I pushed the bike for the remainder of the road.
By the time I reached the main road it as already dark. It as pitch black and I was a little, dark dot on the highway. I had no lights or anything indicating my presence on the road. I put on my jacket not only because I as super cold but also because I was hoping it would reflect the light. I as hoping it ill make my presence on the rod known. I waited for a couple of cars to pass by before I crossed the road and slowly started making my way up the road. Again, it was all uphill and I was tired very quickly. I could see cars going downhill a couple of kilometers away from me but first I had to make it there. I thought things would be much easier and quicker once I got to the downhill part. I couldn’t be further from the truth.
Once I reached the downhill part I realized going fast downhill on a 120km/h highway in complete darkness wasn’t a good idea. All I could see (and even then barely!) as the white line on the road separating me from the cars. Cars were flying by on my left and a precipice as on my right. Joy. On top of that there were rocks on the road making my descent very tricky. I let the bike go relatively fast until I hit a large rock. The bike jumped up in the air; meanwhile I pressed the breaks real hard resulting in a screeching back tire, partial loss of control and a dislocated chain. I managed to stay on the bike however, and I thanked God for the lack of cars on the road at that moment. My chain was dislocated though. I wondered what it would be like to change tires in the dark but luckily I didn’t have to find out. Fixing the chain wouldn’t be less tricky though. I stepped aside and tried feeling the chain. It seemed to be stuck. I turned the bike upside down, ready for some serious repairing. I thought having the chain closer to me (instead of having to double over it as a better, more convenient idea. Luckily, a car passed right at this moment, illuminating the bike parts and I managed to get it unstuck. From there I managed to get it back onto the wheel by feel. Luckily it wasn’t damaged and it worked just fine. The incident got me worried though. I decided to take it very slow from then onward regardless of how long it would take me to get back to the village.
Back on the road I was cold. I had no idea how far I as but I calculated it much be at least 10km. I wasn’t having fun. I just wanted to go back to safety. It was freezing cold, and the road as getting worse (more rocks, sand and wholes). I was worried. I saw lights in the distance at some point but nothing immediate. Imagine my relief when I finally saw the welcoming sign for the town and its warm lights in the nearby distance. I was on the verge of crying. That’s how happy and grateful I as at that moment. I was pretty shaken up by the whole night cycling experience and just wanted to get back home and go to bed. By the way, the area here I got lost as called ‘Valle de la Muerte’ or ‘Death Valley’ (at least I thought so at the time) – some place to get stuck at!
I took the bike back, told the guys I got a bit lost and that the bike has proven solid and he asked me what did I mean by that comment. I thought I’d spare him the chain accident and just told him it had handled the off road sandy bits very well.
On my way back home I stopped at an Inet café and related the day’s story to Mario. I felt like I needed to share with someone. Back in the hostel, there was no hot water again. I just undressed and went to sleep. What a day!
Day 3: July 10, 2010
I woke up and there was no hot water again. Oh well! I headed back to the bike office for my second day of cycling the Atacama Desert. This time the guy behind the desk was a lot more friendly and even gave me a kiss ‘Hello!’ upon seeing me. I was going to some nearby ruins and possibly to some further rocks. But first some chores needed doing. I had to take some money out and buy my bus ticket for the following morning. I was going back to Argentina, meeting Mario in Salta. And I also wanted to book a tour for the afternoon (Laguna Cejar). I was going floating in some extra salty lagoons. A nice present to my sore body and a nice way to end my visit.
I as sore from the day before and I really took my time cycling. When I made it to the ruins, I first decided to climb up to a viewpoint and was pleasantly surprised by the views it revealed. I could see the town from the top, a reddish rock valley as well as what I think as the actual Death Valley. I was so happy to get a panoramic view of it afterall. I still don’t know whether it was the valley but I’d like to think so. I hung out on top of the hill for a while and then made my way back down. I still had the actual ruins to explore.
That consisted of another hike up the hill in between the ancient walls. The view from the top revealed what I already had seen from higher up and therefore wasn’t worth it. I made my way down and had a relaxed lunch (meat empanadas) before I headed back to town. I had taken my time and there was no time left to go cycling anywhere else. I dropped off the bike and went to the tour agency where we were being picked up.
For my surprise I met Amilkar, a buddy from the hostel and his dad waiting to leave as well. I as happy we would be doing the trip together. Soon after I arrived we got onto the minibus and headed to the lagoon. There were three lagoons and most people floated in the one with the rocky bottom (one could cut his feet). Our guide thought it better to float in the one without a bottom or at least one that was very deep down under the water (50m). The third lagoon’s bottom was muddy and unsuitable. We undressed and after a short explanation we went in in search of the hot spots. The water was freezing cold on the surface but pleasantly warm near the salty bottom. I let myself float and quickly swam to the center of it looking for a hot spot as indicated by our guide. I found one and floated there for the next 10-15mins only occasionally adjusting my position in search of the hot water. Once we were out our guide rinsed us all with fresh water, we took some more photos and got back onto the truck for our second stop.
We reached the so cold Eyes of the Desert (Ojitos del desierto) – a couple of fresh water lagoons. It was fun taking reflection photos there but we were soon rushed back to the bus as it was time to head to our final destination where we would watch the sunset over some Pisco Sour and snacks. Yum! We reached the Mirror Lagoon (my name for it) just in time. The light was perfect and the reflection of the mountains and people – impeccable. The light, hence the scenery changed three time before the sun set completely. We just munched on cheese, olives and chips, drank Pisco and enjoyed the view. First thing we did when we got there though was to take our shoes off and walk into the water over the shallow salty bottom.
– How much further does the shallow extend? – I asked the guide.
– Nobody knows – he answered. But at some point it just breaks into an underwater precipice – he added. That was when I abruptly turned around and went back. I was not going to fall through the salt into God knows what.
Soon, the sun was completely gone and e headed back. Amilkar was very excited about his day and kept talking. Not just to me but to everybody that as in the car. Brazilians for you!
Back at the hostel we had a BBQ waiting for us. We had agreed on it in the morning and we found Cintia (a Chilean girl living at the hostel) making hot, spicy salsa for the churripan (sausage in bread). We quickly bathed; there was hot water and great water pressure this time.
By the time I came out of the shower, the fire had been started and people had gathered around. We sat around, drinking, chatting, and most importantly eating. The sausages didn’t take too long to cook and before I knew it I had downed three of them, a glass of Pisco Sour and some red wine. We also had some grilled chicken. Everything was absolutely delicious. It was a great night. After dinner, we all sat around, chatting, enjoying the warmth of the fire.
Close to 12am I got pretty sleepy and thought I would go to bed. Just before I did I had to settle the bill. I walked into the kitchen and as I was paying Cintia approached me asking whether I wanted to go to a party.
– What kind of party is it? – I asked.
– A party – she said. My friends are sitting in a truck, around the corner waiting for me. Come on lets go – she urged.
– No, I think I am just going to bed – I said. I am pretty tired.
I went inside and brushed my teeth and then it dawned on me. ‘What if it is one of those desert parties I have heard people talk about? That’s pretty cool. I am tired but I don’t want to miss such a party.’ I thought to myself. That’s when Amilkar came in and asked me what as that party Cintia was talking about. I told him I didn’t know and also shared my concerns. What if it WAS a desert party? Cintia also came in shedding more light on the issue. It turned out that the party was someone’s birthday in some house. I thought it wasn’t worth it and tried to get myself out of it but Cintia was really persuasive and convinced me to go. I just couldn’t say ‘No’. I told her I was only going to stay a couple of hours before I came back and she assured me she would get her friend to give me a lift back. Luckily, Amilkar was coming too.
We left the hostel and packed into an old pickup truck with Cintia’s friend Alex and his 40-year-old drunk buddy. We drove through town, soon leaving the well lit streets for the dark, dirt roads of the surroundings. I sat on Amilkar’s lap (there were four of us on seats for three) and wondered where we were going and whether these people could be trusted. On top of that Alex kept messing up the directions and we had to rely on the drunk’s directions. If that wasn’t enough the truck’s engine wasn’t working properly and kept switching off. I have to admit it was funny and we spent the whole way to the house doubled with laughter.
We finally saw the light of the house and heard the music spilling onto the dark street. It turned out to be a bit more than a barn with a few tables covered with leftover grilled meat, empty bottles and plastic cups. In the center of the dirt courtyard was a rusting metal container that doubled as a fireplace. We met the birthday person, who turned out to be a 40-year-old and paid respects to what appeared to be his wife. We then huddled by the fire and spoke between ourselves. I feeling slightly uncomfortable and thinking we didn’t belong there and were so out of place. The 40-year-old drunk we had come with kept hitting on me and I kept trying to get rid of him. Things didn’t get any better when another mature gentleman approached me asking to dance. I danced, it was fun for a while but then he kept insisting and I had to make up a whole lot of excuses. I told him I was tired and I needed a rest.
– If you dance with me, you will be the most popular girl here! – he said. ‘Tempting, but no.’ I thought.
I talked to Amilkar, to Alex, to one of the locals, we talked about family and children, about racial problems in Chile, and we danced a bit. It was soon 2am, the promised two hours were gone and it was time to go home. Alex got into the truck, and so did four of the girls that were at the party. To sat in the front seat, another two at the back, and there was barely any space left for me and Amilkar. Again I ended up sitting on his lap. Alex tried to back the truck through the narrow gate but instead got stuck in the ditch that was right in front of it. He tried to maneuvers it out but every time the truck’s engine would switch off. After a while the drunken birthday man took charge and got the truck out. That wasn’t enough though; he decided to give us all a ride back to town. Some of the girls sitting in the truck were his relatives and urged him not to drive, but he wouldn’t listen. I was worried and so was Amilkar. We exchanged looks and held tight to the front seat. Luckily, the driver wasn’t as drunk as we thought and managed to take us back to the hostel in one piece.
Throughout the night, Cintia had jokes about how I am never going to forget that night and she sure was right. I don’t know if it was good or bad but it was certainly unforgettable.
I went to bed and woke up in the early morning in time to catch the bus that was taking me back to Argentina. On the way to the terminal I bumped into Cintia and her French buddy Victor who were just coming back from the party. It was 9.30am. I wondered where Victor had slept since Cintia and Alex were dating and probably had spent the night together…
We took our goodbyes, hugged and kissed and I left Chile for the last time.
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Puerto Varas: a night of gambling

We broke up the long journey to Bariloche, Argentina with a brief stop at Puerto Varas, a small, pretty town in Chile and a Mario favourite. Quite rightly! We arrived in the late afternoon and went around looking for a place to stay. The hostel that Mario had in mind had been closed at the end of the season and we went up and down the streets looking for another place to stay. We asked around and some people pointed us to a local hospedaje in what looked like a rather fancy house. We rang the bell, the lady came out, looked at us with untrusting, grumpy eyes and confirmed that she was accepting guests. It was a bit pricey but we were not really into a position to bargain. We settled in, took a quick shower, got into some fancy clothes (as fancy as it gets when you are traveling) and went out. Mario was taking me out for ‘the best burgers in the world’ and a night of gambling at the local casino. And what a casino it was! Rather fancy for a small town like Puerto Varas. By far the best attraction in town.
Mario had visited the city with friend some time ago and had fallen in love with the burgers at the casino. We entered the casino from a back hotel door and avoided paying an entrance fee at the official gate. Sweet. We then picked a nice table at the restaurant and eagerly waited for our fantastic burgers. Mario was right, they were amazingly delicious. This is what happens when French cooking meets fast food. Everything was great and we enjoyed every bit of it. Mario had a beer and I sipped a mango pisco sour. Great stuff!
It was then time to hit the tables. We had had a quick walk around upon entering the casino and had seen that the craps table wasn’t yet available. It was in full swing when we got there after dinner. Mario bought chips for a $100 and the fun began. We spent a lot of time by the table, Mario gambling and making decent progress, while I was cheering and learning the game. After a while I couldn’t stand still anymore and bought chips for $20. It was ooo-oo-oo-n! I lost them as quickly as I bought them though. At first I won some $4 but then I quickly lost that and the rest of my money. ‘Casinos are not made for you to make money…’ Mario kept saying. I guess not.
After Mario got tired of the craps table we moved to the roulette. Mario bet a lot of money on red and won. Then he bet all of that on red again and we lost. It was time to go home. It was 1-2am when we left the casino and headed back home. We were catching an early morning bus to Argentina and we needed some sleep.
We had such a great time that night. I had a blast! I will be going to a casino again…Vegas maybe…

Castro: last days in Chiloe (acclimatizing to solid ground)

After we left the boat we spent a few days in Chiloe’s capital – Castro. We needed some time to get our heads around the flat reality and decide on our next move. Unfortunately it was raining a lot and we spent a lot of time inside, only going out from time to time to eat.
Mario spent a lot of time watching the World Cup and I busied myself with short walks around town (there was this area of town where many houses typical of Chiloe could be seen, all perched on tilts over the water, boasting splendid bright colors). We went out for lunch a couple of times including on the day of the Chile vs. Spain game. Mario insisted I saw it with him at a local bar where many chilotes (name for the local inhabitants) were gathered. I am glad I did. It was an experience.
I got at the bar shortly before Mario and with difficulty managed to get us a small table in the corner of the smokers’ area. I ordered lunch and waited for Mario to show up and the lunch crowds to leave. The waitress assured me there will be space once everybody’s had their meal. Mario came, didn’t like the table I had managed to get (no surprise there) and kept an eye on a better spot. Luckily, some guys were leaving and we snatched the table from them.
The game began and so did the madness. The shouts started with the national anthem and pretty much didn’t cease until the end, despite the Chilean loss. Chile scored the first goal and people went mad, shouting, whistling, singing, jumping, laughing, and cheering. All that in a small restaurant. They did not let their spirits down even when Spain had scored two goals and it was clear that had won the game. They supported their team until the last minute, cheering and encouraging them as if they could hear them all the way in South Africa. It didn’t matter that Chile had lost the game, they had won the battle. They had qualified for the next round.
Just before the game began Ian entered the restaurant and stood a few steps away from us trying to get a seat. ‘Ian! Ian! Ian!’ I shouted trying to get his attention. Finally, he turned around and saw us. He came to sit with us and we all had lunch together while marveling at the madness that was going on around us. It was funny to see him again. We sure were happy and excited as if we hadn’t seen him in ages. It had only been a couple of days. He had come to town to get his hair cut.
It was funny to see him again. That intimacy, the feel that all is known and told on the boat had disappeared on solid ground. We were back to small talk and ‘civilized’ behavior, following the norms of the world out there. Curious…
After the game we all parted. Ian went looking for a hair dresser and Mario and I rushed back to the hostal, since we had a bus to catch. We were going to Puerto Varas on our way to Bariloche.

Torres del Paine: the longest trek in the world

(written in Tierra del Fuego National Park and Ushuaia, Argentina. April 2010)

80km, 4 days, two girls.

Intro:
Our adventure began with a 7h bus ride from El Calafate, Argentina to Puerto Natales, Chile, the gateway to Parque Nacional Torres del Paine. After the border control officers confiscated the pear I didn’t declare we were back on our way and no sooner than 15mins later we had reached our final destination. We rushed to a nearby hostel where a daily chat about the ‘W’ hike was held at 3pm. We arrived early so we had time to have a cup of tea and take a breath. The talk lasted 1.5h and covered everything from logistics to protection against mice invasions. We knew how to get there, how many days it would take, each day’s itinerary, how to pack, what to get, what to expect from the weather.

We then settled at a cosy hostel recommended by a friend and spent the rest of the afternoon running around, taking care of errands, sorting out bus tickets to our next destination and shopping for food. The trip to the supermarket was exhausting. I don’t remember ever being so tired after shopping. We put a lot of effort into planning our menu as to avoid any unnecessary weight. We bought ready-made pasta, rice and soup for dinner, oatmeal for breakfast, cheese, salami, and bread for lunch. We also added some fresh tomatoes, pears, apples, and boiled eggs which held most of the weight. They did however made all the difference to our meals to the point where fellow hikers were saying that we ate best during the hike.
Back at the hostel we rented our camping gear including a -30º gore-tex glacier sleeping bag for me that considerably added to the weight. I didn’t however want to risk it with the -10º one. Better heavy than cold. It was a good decision at the end, it kept me warm.
Packing all our stuff into our backpacks presented another challenge. I sat in front of the pile of stuff, exhausted and not knowing where to start. By 1am we had wrapped and double wrapped everything in plastic rubbish bags and managed to stuff it into the packs. Sandra took my sleeping bag (and I hers) as it wouldn’t fit in my backpack. It was too big and took 2/3 of the space. I in exchange took more of the heavy fruit balancing the weight that way.
While packing, showering and generally just running around I also had to go to a nearby hostel in a desperate attempt to get waterproof trousers. Our hostel didn’t have any and this other place didn’t have them either. ‘Ooops!’ I thought. The guy there assured me I would be just fine with my quick dry trousers and a pair of pajamas for the evening.
-You will get wet anyway – he said. Is that supposed to be reassuring?! For his information we didn’t get wet but more about that later.
I went to bed that night mainly exhausted but also excited and a bit anxious.
Day 1: Glacier Gray (hiking time-8h)
We got up at 6am, had a quick breakfast and last minute preparations and the bus picked us up at 7.30am. We slept through the 2h drive to the entrance of the park. When we got there we dropped off our bags at the ferry dock and went for a short hike to a nearby waterfall as advised by the guys at the presentation. Better walk, see something and stay warm than freeze while waiting for the ferry to leave.
As we hiked up the path the wind was whiplashing us in the face and we thought this is what it will be like for the next four days. We reached the waterfall that had that beautiful glacier water color (a mix between green, blue, and grey) and a pretty rainbow to complete the picture. We also got our first glimpse of the mountains. By that time we’ve already met Tice – a Danish guy Sandra had previously met in Colombia.
We boarded the catamaran for our 30min ride to the first camping spot. We thought we’d need 5 days/4 nights to complete the ‘W’ circuit but then Tice shared his idea with us and we realized we could do it in 3 nights. It only took a change of camping spot for the first night. Instead of camping up the trail near the glacier, we would stay at that first camp, making the hiking distance to the second camp (night 2) much shorter. When a worker at the camp offered to set up our tent for us while we were hiking we couldn’t pass it up. So that first day we went up to the glacier and then walked back to camp for the night.
We spent the day chatting and laughing which was the most memorable part of the day besides the views of a couple of snow peaks that looked unreal.
We went back when it was already dark (we got so carried away that we forgot about the time. Hiking in the dark was a first time experience and an interesting on. It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t too difficult either as we had already walked the path. If I were alone I would probably be a bit nervous surrounded by all that wilderness but since we were in a group it was just a lot of fun), prepared dinner in the kitchen area (I also cooked our lunch for the following day – a lovely vegetable risotto mixed with some cheap sausages. It was originally planned as an evening meal but we soon realized we had too many dinner meals and not enough lunch ones) , secured our food in plastic boxes against mice (one walked unbothered in my feet while I was washing the dishes) and went to bed. We arranged to meet up at 7.30am for a long day of hiking.

That night I didn’t sleep very well. We left some plastic bottles of water just outside the tent and as soon as we went quiet I could hear the mice running around and chewing up the bottles. I was worried that they’d chew through the tent (it has happened before) and bite us. I didn’t want to imagine these mice crawling in our sleeping bags. I tried to shoo them away but couldn’t make too much noise because Sandra was sleeping (seemingly unaware of the mice). After a while nothing happened and I relaxed. They seemed to the quite satisfied with the plastic bottles and didn’t seem to have any other intentions. Go figure!

Sandra didn’t believe me about the nightly mice invasion when I told her in the morning. But I soon got my revenge. Her trousers got all soaked from the dripping bottle as we walked to the kitchen area. Do you believe me now!?
Day 2: Valle del France (hiking time-10.5h)
We got up while it was still dark, quickly put the tent down and met up with Tice. We were looking forward to hiking with him again but he surprised us by saying he was thinking about taking the boat back. Apparently, he’d had a terrible night. He’d been cold all night and barely got one hour of sleep. He was on the verge of becoming ill. He thought hard about his decision during breakfast and finally decided to go back. He didn’t look well. We were disappointed as we’d had so much fun together the day before. We wished him well and went our separate ways.
We walked 2.5h to Campamento Italiano (a dark, dirty and generally unattractive camping area) where we dropped off our bags, packed a day pack and headed to Valle del Frances. For me this was the highlight of the trip together with the Torres. We climbed up on rocks along the river at first and then carried on through the woods. We knew we could see avalanches from a certain point and we were so excited when we heard the first thunder. WE ran up the hill in order to get a better view of the mountain and then we saw it! A small, puffy cloud of snow making its way down. Just like the glacier it made such noise but looked so small and fluffy.
We walked further up and saw more, bigger avalanches. Absolutely amazing! Both me and Sandra stood there, mesmerized, all exclamations and smiles. I have never seen one before and was very excited. ‘Did you see it?! Oh, my God! This is amazing! Wow! Oh!’ I would exclaim. I love those ‘interactive’ hikes where something is happening or you spot wildlife. Makes the trip so much more exciting and memorable.
We reached the first mirador where we saw the peak in all its icy glory. It looked so close as if we could almost touch it. Again it was unreal. It you see the photos you’d think we’d Photoshopped ourselves onto a poster. This was my favourite spot of the whole hike, not even the Torres could top up its beauty. It looked like someone has sprayed the still fluff, unsettled snow onto its peaks; it looked like something taken out of a mystical fairytale. So mysterious and enchanting.
We then walked further up to the second lookout point where we had a 360º view of the mountains as well as one of the lakes. Nothing we could not have seen from further down. It was nice but not as impressive as Avalanche Mountain (I made that up). We had a quick lunch No.2 for the day and headed back. Speaking of food, let me just say how much we ate during those 4 days. We would start with a big, nutritious breakfast, then have a mid-morning snack, then lunch, then an afternoon snack, and dinner. We would also munch on fruit and snacks on the way. We were hungry every two hours.
We didn’t have any time to waste as we still had to pick up our bags and walk to the second night camp. Another brief stop at the stunning peak, a few more photos and we were back at the campamento (5h in total). We hoped to make it to the next camp during day light hours. We weren’t sure we would but we would try. Another 2.5h with packs.
We made it to camp a little before dark. Sandra says nothing memorable happened on the way there. We were just happy to arrive. I agree. We walked through the woods most of the time and it only got a bit more exciting when we reached the lake and walked on the black and white pebbles along the shore.
We picked up a soft spot under some thick trees and set up the tent for the first time ourselves. While doing this we also boiled water for our meal trying to make the most of the day light we had left. The night soon caught up and we set up most of the tent in the dark with flashlights in hand. My headlamp was almost dead and wasn’t of much help. Good thing the tent was one of those super-duper advanced engineering miracles and easy to set up. We didn’t have any trouble at all.
Before it got completely dark and before all of the above mentioned action took place, Sandra sent me to the ‘nearby’ river to get water. We could hear it and assumed it was close. Soon after I got tangled in some vegetation and lost my way through the small paths I realized it was not close at all. I saw the waterfall making all the misleading noise but there was still some way to go to the river. Anyhow, I finally made it and got my water. I saw a path leading to the back of the refugio and took it. A few steps later I came to a fallen branch blocking the way and as I was trying to walk over it I lost my balance and landed on my ass. I sat there trying to get up while balancing the bottles of water and eventually made it after a few pathetic attempts. Guess what I found on the way back – a sink with running water! Yes, it didn’t offer the adventure of getting all messed up on the way but who cares! I figured my way around the camp and as I was walking around the refugio I could see other campers having dinner in what looked like a very warm and cozy dining area. We walked there a few times that night but decided not to go inside in case they made us pay for the camp spot. Yes, I know. Very cheap of us! 🙂
We had the tent up, the cheese pasta was ready and we finally sat down and relaxed (if you call eating in the dark, cold night relaxing). The pasta wasn’t great, a bit tasteless but all the rest of our meals were great. We warmed up with some hot cinnamon tea once again secured our food in a plastic rubbish bag and hung it from a tree branch. This time we left the plastic bottles far away from the tent but it didn’t help much. Again, we went quiet and the animals started rummaging. This time it sounded like a bigger animal but it might have just been a really big rat. In the morning we found the cap of one of the bottles all chewed up. We washed it and kept using it. Our resources were tightly calculated and we couldn’t throw away our precious water bottles.
Day 3: the long walk to Campamento Torres
This was going to be somewhat of a relaxed day. We had to walk along the lake with our backpacks but only for about 7h. For the first time since we started we would actually arrive at the camp during daylight hours. We were happy to be able to relax properly and set up camp while it was still light.
The night before I’d slept like a baby. I was very warm and comfortable. We also had somewhat of a lie in and got up at about 8am. We had a delicious, relaxed breakfast of oatmeal with apples and canela, tea and fresh fruit. We then packed up, happy to find all our food intact and hit the road. We were so lucky with the weather that day. The sun was shining since the early morning hours and it stayed that way for most of the day. We were so hot, we hiked in shorts and T-shirts. This reminds me of a traditional Austrian saying Sandra shared with me – ‘When angels are traveling, the sun is shining’.
We walked until we found the sign to the shortcut, estimated the time we had left, chose a nice lookout point overlooking the lake with the mountains behind our backs and settled for lunch. Another delicious lunch of bread, cheese, salami, boiled eggs, fresh tomatoes and fruit. We even had some motivational chocolate-chip cookies.
We soon found out that the shortcut might have saved us 2h but it surely didn’t save us any effort. Almost all of it was uphill. We walked through Patagonian steppe under the scorching sun. We hardly spoke focusing all our energy on the hike. Our surroundings were so quiet and for the first time we felt like we were the only people there. We stopped for short water breaks here and there but we were too tired to talk. We mostly just started in front of us, trying to enjoy the view. We were so happy to see the sign indicating the end of the two-hour shortcut and the beginning of the downhill. A few steps further down the path revealed and amazing view of a deep valley. Imagine this – a ‘V’ – shaped valley stretching for a few kilometers in front of you, losing itself at the foot of the mountains, edged snow peaks towering over in the far distance, glacial colored river running at the bottom of it, red, yellow, and green vegetation covering both sides. It was the second most memorable view of the trip.
We walked through the valley to our final camp destination. First thing we did as soon as we arrived is make ourselves a hot cup of tea, sit down and do nothing. We then set up the tent and cooked dinner. We were in bed before 9.30pm. I am glad we walked long hours he days before as we realized there is nothing to do in the evening. As soon as you stop walking you start feeling the cold and it is just not pleasant to sit around. That night I felt a bit cold and kept twisting and turning.
Day 4: the Torres!
On the last day of the hike we got up as early as 5.30am. It was the great finale of our adventure – we were hiking up to Torres del Paine to see the sunrise. It was supposed to be spectacular as the towers turn red with the rising sun. So it is 5.30 am, it is dark and cold. We crawled out of the tent and could see the light from headlamps pierce the dark throughout the camp. Everyone was getting ready. We quickly packed up our sleeping bags and mats (as previously advised), packed up the breakfast we had put aside the night before, got our water and cooking gear and set off for the 45min, 45º hike up to the towers. 15min later we were sweating and panting, slowly making our way in the dark. We rushed as much as we could trying not to miss the big event. We couldn’t see anybody walking behind us and knew we were the last ones to go up.
We eventually made it, I wrapped myself up in my warm sleeping bag and settled for breakfast – the last of the oatmeal, fresh fruit and tea. Unfortunately, the towers did not turn red as it was a bit cloudy that morning but it was nevertheless spectacular. We sat there enjoying our hot breakfast with nothing less but the Torres del Paine in front of us. Where was the last place you had breakfast at…?
After breakfast we walked a bit, took some amazing photos and it was soon time to pack up and head back to camp We still had a bus to catch and a rather long hike was ahead of us.
For the last time we packed everything up and left. Surprisingly we got down amazingly quickly, much faster than we thought.
On the way down we picked up a Chilean climber who was too tired to keep up with his friends. It turned out that he’d started a very interesting project some 3 years ago. He was travelling from Canada to the very south of Chile in an eco-car fuelled by used cooking oil (50% less CO2 emission). The idea was to promote environmental protection and awareness at schools, universities and various organizations throughout Latin America using the funky car as a practical example. Anybody could join him on his quest as long as they helped out with the presentations and gathered resources. I am attaching his website as I thought his cause was worth it and because he was one of the most interesting people I have met on this trip: www.rioslibres.org
As the three of us walked up yet another hill we bumped into a fox. At first we thought it was a dog as it just stood on the path very comfortably, munching on something. On closer inspection we realized it was a fox, rather fat one with a beautiful, shiny furry coat. It didn’t move as we approached it. It seemed to be very comfortable with our presence. It probably knew we couldn’t do anything under the weight of our bags and our sore knees. It only decided to move away (but didn’t run away) from the path as we got about a meter away from it. What a wonderful encounter! Now is the time to mention all the other animals we saw on the way – Patagonian geese and birds, guanacos (lama like animal), red-headed woodpeckers, pink flamingos, and…condors of course! In all their glory.
We made it to the hotel where the bus was leaving from and had about 2h to kill. We crashed on the soft couches in the lobby and didn’t move from there until the bus came. I was surprised the hotel let us use them without any consumption. It was a rather nice hotel and we were all stinky backpackers who haven’t showered in 4 days.
The End:
We napped in the bus and before we knew it we were back in town. We were glad to be back, looking forward to a hot shower and a decent meal. But the more time went by the more I liked the hike, it grew on me. I am glad we did it, it was a great experience.