Puerto Natales and the Torres del Paine
The Torres del Paine National Park is, just like the Fitz Roy, renowned around the world for its spectacular trekking. The park lies at the very end of the Andes mountain range in Chile, a bus ride away from the town of Puerto Natales. The typical hikes are either four days or ten days, depending on the route. The Torres - or Towers - are the main attraction. There are three of them; tall granite towers that stretch into the clouds and have a dark, sinister look about them. On the tourist map they hand you at the gate, the writer implores you to admire the "eye catching granite" of the peaks.
The bus rattled by the street of our Puerto Natales hostel at a brisk 7 a.m. In an effort to avoid the harsh reality of Four Days of Trekking, I slept the entire bus ride into the park. I awoke at the last possible moment, as we were being shepherded off of the bus and into the park's front gates. The mountains, with their eye catching granite, commanded the landscape. At the foot of the last trickle of the Andes was a large icy blue lake, rolling foothills, herds of guanacos (small cameloid related to the llama), and the occasional nandu (ostrich like creature, also called Darwin's Rhea... or as Yuval called them, Darwin's Pigeon). We paid our entrance, a whopping 15000 pesos or 28 US dollars, and went to go take the ferry over to the other side of the lake to begin our trek. While waiting we walked over to see a waterfall. The park felt alive with the forces of nature; you could practically chew on gravity. And, predictably, the tempestuous wind continued to howl and shriek. The waterfall roared and pounded the surroundings rocks and the wind chiseling away at the stoic faces of the mountains.
The ferry came and carried us across the lake, with the rest of the trekkers. We arrived at the base camp for our first trek, the Grey Glacier, and found it to be covered in tents, like fields of nylon mushrooms. There was also a hotel there, but we were roughing it and right away went about pitching Yuval's little orange tent. The park people had constructed a kitchen and eating area, a large circular building that sheltered from the wind and provided stoves and sinks and
tables. It was packed with people. You could hardly move inside, let alone find a flat surface on which to cook/eat. The popularity of the Torres park was quite evident. Hordes of people had shirked warm beds and proper showers; many more than I had expected. I'd thought we would have felt more.... in nature, not in a tourist attraction. Ah, fun times on the Gringo Trail.
Highlights of the four-day trek:eating dinner each night (we became connoisseurs of camp-cooking), going to sleep snuggled in my sleeping bag, drinking out of the fresh water streams, staying behind at base camp and reading while Yuval did the uphill parts, making tea and eating cookies beside a small lake two hours before arriving at the end point, and the shower upon arriving back at the hostel. And of course, the scenery was quite nice. Also, we had been lucky, weather wise – it was nippy but the sun was out most of the time. I heard stories of people having to climb the inclines on all fours because of the wind, or having to ford swollen, icy rivers that washed out the path, or being caught in crazy snow/hail/ice storms. All in all, it wasn't the slog I expected (opting out of the uphill parts had a lot to do with that) and I enjoyed it in spite of myself.
The original plan was to travel all the way to “the end of the world” - or, to the old penal colony/town of Ushuaia, Argentina. There, you can get your passport stamped with: The End of the World. After some discussing, however, we decided that checking something off The List just to say you did it, rather than for any enjoyment purposes, is not a good enough motivation. Frankly, it was cold – I'm Canadian, I get enough cold – and from what we had heard, Ushuaia was not significantly different from the other Patagonian towns we had already visited. I only had about three weeks until my flight home, so I decided that these last three weeks would be better spent somewhere I'd be happier. Like a beach.
It was tricky getting out of Puerto Natales; the buses weren't cooperative. We wound up taking a bus back to El Calafate, and taking a bus from there to Rio Gallegos. We killed time in between buses at a “Libro-bar”: a bar with books and Oscar Wilde quotes lining the walls.
We spent a day in Rio Gallegos, a town on the Eastern side of Patagonia, again killing time between buses (upside to this serial bus taking: saving on paying for hostels). Hanging around, agenda-less, in Rio Gallegos was reminiscent of the delightfully frivolous Bolvia days – before looming flights home required actual trip planning. The town itself is completely flat, just a few low, unassuming buildings on an otherwise flat plain. Even the ocean was still and docile. And touristy it was most definitely not. It didn't have the shiny, cultivated feel of the other Patagonian towns, which seem to have been designed entirely around tourism. A tourist map indicated the location of the town's museum, dedicated to Flora and Fauna, and we went to go and check it out. We came across an asymetrical building that seemed to grow like quartz crystal out of the ground. The museum was closed, it being a week day and all, but looking through the window revealed a small office. At one end was a desk with a potted plant, at the other was a poster with types of flora and fauna, and in the middle was a bookshelf with piles of paper, binders and books on flora and fauna.
Just outside the “museum” was a movie set. A group of people – us included – stood around watching the director make the actors get out of a car over and over and over again. In true Argentinean fashion, those not directly involved were chatting and drinking mate. Mate (pronounce ma-tay) is a strong tea that Argentineans carry around with them everywhere. Drinking mate is a social ritual and being invited to mate is a really sweet gesture. The movie set people invited us to mate and to watch the action with them. After a while we meandered on, continuing to waste time until our bus to Puerto Madryn arrived.
My main “must-see” for Patagonia was the penguins. I was dying to see penguins. And on our last Patagonian stop, I got my wish. Puerto Madryn – the last Patagonian city on the northeastern side of Argentina - is the roughly the halfway point between Rio Gallagos and Buenos Airies: it's about 17 hours in either direction. The city is still hounded by wind, but its significantly warmer. We rented a car for the day, to drive around the pennisula – where all the wildlife is. The beaches on the pennisula are home to sea lions, sea elephants, my beloved penguins, four types of armadillos (which may be my new favorite animal; so ugly its adorable), snakes and screaming lizards, nandus and a whole host of birds. At the right time of year, there is whale and orca spotting, but unfortunately it was not whale or orca season. Apparently, on rare occasions, an orca will leap up onto the beach and snatch a sea lion. We watched a large group of lounging and scrapping sea lions for a while -very entertaining- and tried to decide how best to describe the noises they make. The best we could do: they sound like a child imitating a sheep while being kicked in the stomach.
On that note, we left Patagonia.