We’ve arrived in the much anticipated Patagonia! The land of glaciers, vast mountain ranges, guanacos (alpacas) and vistas for as far as the eye can see. Coming in was more choppier than a gruff lumberjack, but we made it (altho our bags nearly didn’t, being windswept all across the tarmac!).
Our 2h30min flight from Buenos Aires left in the dead of night (6am! – which meant waking up at 3…). But our tired groggy eyes were soon blessed with what looked like the landscape of the moon (or the Karoo). Landing at El Calafate, we jumped onto a bus (which cost us an arm and a leg) and made our way to our backpackers, America del Sur. Upon arriving we were blessed by a lovely wooden chalet like hostel, decked out with a central fireplace, underfloor heating and friendly employees. Forgot to mention it’s piercingly cold down here. Roughly 15 degrees, but factoring in wind chill it drops to about 5.
We could only check in at 3pm and so we decided to check out Parque Nacional los Glaciares (glacier park). Fem had never seen a glacier, so for her this would be an extra special treat. Popping our bags in storage area, we changed into what we thought would be warm enough clothes. It’s 15 degrees, surely tights and a puffy windbreaker would be enough. Ha. The wind took one look at us and turned us into white walkers (Game of Thrones reference – here’s a Wiki guide for more details). Nevertheless, we slogged on looking for a bite to eat and a place to withdraw cash before heading off for glacier Perito Moreno.
A quick hour drive brought us to the start of this beautiful glacier. We couldn’t quite believe what we were seeing. Sheer awesomeness and graduar stood before us, for as far as the eye could see. 70 meters of electric blue ice groaned and cracked, as if Mother Nature were trying to stand up, beckoning us to help. Gobsmacked by the paradox between serenity and rage of the whole scene, we made our way down the walkway, trying to get as close as we could. We stood in awe at the sheer size and power of Mother Nature. Row upon row of ice columns were neatly stacked behind one another all patiently waiting to have a dip in the canal below. Every 30 minutes we would hear whips cracking, rumbling and finally gunshot sounds, as pieces of ice would break off and crash into the water below.
We couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to the south. Gleefully, but weary, we made our way back to our hostel for some warm food, and much needed sleep. For the next day, we would be crossing the border. Onto Puerto Natales, Chile for the start of our W-trek in Torres del Paine national park.
Having settled in at Puerto Natales, we started prepping for the big journey. Four days of hiking required careful logistical planning. Too little and you starve/freeze to death. Too much and your skeleton breaks with the overbearing weight of your pack. Thinking we would only need one change of clothes for the evening (yes – we were told you wear the same socks, pants and t-shirt everyday), we imagined our packs only weighing 5 kilos max. We were met with guffaw when we mentioned this to an employee at the rental agency. Minimum 10-15 kilos, he said. Tent. Sleeping bag. Cooking equipment. Food. All of it would weigh as much as a baby mule. Great. And we had to triple line the contents of our backpacks with black bags, because apparently we were in rainy season and Torres del Paine has five micro climates. Furthermore, we heard tales of 125 km/h winds, hail and storms that would make a Cape Town winter look like a mere summer breeze. We courageously packed our bags and hoisted them onto our backs. This was not gonna be one easy slog.
The next day we woke at 5am all prepped for the first leg of the Torres del Paine. Day 1 would entail a 5km walk, roughly taking us 2 hours (according to the map) to our first stop at Refugio Chileno. Our bus brought us to Guarderia Laguna Amarga. There we bought our entry to the park (21000clp or €28 – quite expensive, we thought!). All saddled up we started our great trek to Chileno. Walking sticks in hand, heavy packs on our backs, we slowly and carefully started meandering up toward the towers. We needed to check in at our Refugio, set up camp and prep our day packs for the final leg of the hike. The infamous Torres peaks. After hearing that the viewpoint closed at 4pm, it meant we had to get to the Refugio by latest 1. Which also unfortunately meant picking up the pace. No easy task when you have a baby mammal on your back and consistently climbing a 20 degrees incline. However, this didn’t detract from the sheer beauty of our surroundings. The vast mountain ranges pricked the skyline like needles through cotton. Their magnificence only magnified by their hues of rich greys, and dark metamorphic black added to the splendour of being with Mother Nature. Our lungs filled with fresh mountain air quickened our pace, and eventually we made it to our camp.
Setting up our cosy little dwelling, we were soon on the trail again. Another 2 hours straight up. These beasts weren’t getting away that easily. We adventured on, eventually getting to the boulder field everyone told us about. The final outcrop before reaching the summit. Traversing this would be no easy task but we made it, 30 minutes before the viewpoint would shut. Nonetheless, we got to awe in the beauty of the three giants towering over use like forgone Gods. Their faces as smooth as butter, you quickly forget they’re made out of granite. Research told me that these igneous rocks had been formed millennials ago, and their sediment has been eroded over the years to create their smoothness. Sadly, we had to eventually return to camp. Bellies full on homemade chicken wraps, we reflected on our experience that day. Exhausted, we retired to our tents. The next day would be a mammoth 8 hour hike covering 25kms. Luckily for us it was flat, but nothing could prepare us to hike that far with such massive loads on our backs.
We have become used to a life being a series of arrivals or departures, of triumphs and failures, with nothing noteworthy in between. Oftentimes we fail to look back and realize how far we’ve come. Take a moment to catch a breath, and bask in the present moment. (The old patagonian express – Paul Theroux). This would become our metaphor for day 2. Our trek would entail hiking from Chileno back up the valley and down to Cuernos Refugio, stopping for lunch, and then finally to Refugio Frances, where we would pitch our tents for the night. Leaving at 10:30, we realised it was a slow start to the day. The map said 6 hours but knowing the amount of weight we were carrying plus the fact that we all were inexperienced hikers, we factored in an extra couple of hours. Probably only arriving at 6pm that night.
Starting out was tough. Having to traverse our way out of the valley, essentially doubling back on our previous days hike, meant we were lugging our packs where we had been already. Eventually we made it to the vast plains that lay before the giants in the backdrop. We marvelled at the rich autumn colours. Deep burnt oranges and sun kissed yellows contrasted against the pale blue skies. Taking a moment to reflect, we pinched ourselves. How lucky we were to be in the grace of this specticule. Its sheer magnitude of beauty you can’t quite comprehend with man made objects. Paths weaved like arteries in the landscape, while the rivers ran with fresh glacial water. The pains on our backs could never replace the awe in which we felt of our surroundings. Nothing quite compares to the Patagonian landscape. South Africa is truly blessed with some of the best scenery in the world, but this was truly something to behold. Onward we hiked and hiked. Stopping here and there for a quick bite, until eventually making it to Cuernos. 4:30 had crept in quickly, and we soon realised we needed to get to our camp before sunset. Other hikers had said the last part was tough, and so we mentally prepared ourselves before hitching up the bags again.
The W-trek consists of private companies, which gives travellers the chance to choose from camping, dorm rooms and luxurious private rooms. Furthermore, you can also select whether you want full board or not. We had booked ourselves a little treat at refugio Frances. A delicious warm hearty meal, specially prepared by the campsite staff. We were told that dinner would be at 7 sharp, and that the showers would shut at 8. We had heard rumor that the showers were the best in the park, and so we were eager for a bit of a scrub.
Arriving at 6:30 meant we had to set up camp, grab our towels, do a little splish splash in the shower and dart over for dinner. For some unknown reason, the campsite owners thought it would be a hilariously fun idea to put the showers on the other end of the campsite, and the dining room up yet another mountain. Out of breath, we made it for dinner 20 minutes later than scheduled. And had to wolf down our notoriously bland cauliflower soup. I was hungrier than a puma in winter so it didn’t matter. That night we tucked ourselves in, and made sure everything was out of site from the English speaking mice that plagued the area (although alarmingly we found a chew mark in Fems bag the next morning. The bastards had chewed through 5 layers of fabric to get to a snickers bar. How the hell they knew they were there was beyond us).
We woke early on day three. Wanting to get an early start as this would be as tough as the last. Throughout the night we heard roaring in the distance, like planes flying overhead. Surely there can’t be planes in this region, we thought. Scoffing down our eggs and cereal bars as quick as possible we started our 45-minute journey to our first stopping point, refugio Italiano. here we dropped our mules and headed upward toward the Mirador Valle del Francés viewpoint. As we entered the valley, we witnessed another one of Mother Nature’s wonders. Almost in slow motion, the mountain began to move. Tonnes of white powder came crashing down before us. Rhythmic and devastating, it moved swiftly toward the base of the mountain. Tingling with excitement we quickly repacked our day packs. Every 30 minutes, another piece of the mountain would break, giving way to more snow. I rushed up to the first viewpoint to get front row seats to the show. Before us lay the musical ensemble. Its conductor – the sun – demanded a show. And a show we got. Cracking, muffling sounds were heard all about the valley as the river roared below. The white hues poetically balanced against the blue of the sky and the granite rock of the mountain, dancing to and fro, like horses galloping toward open fields. I was aghast.
All energised I made my way to Mirador Britanico. Fem had a bit of a knee problem, and decided it was best she didn’t continue to the next viewpoint, another steep hike up the valley. Sas, her friend breathed a sigh of relief. This hike wasn’t for the faint hearted, and the girls had done a bloody good job hoisting those heavy packs and getting this far. Them leaving earlier in the day, I was left to my own devices to do the last part of the trek. Another 2h30 to the final destination, Refugio Paine Grande. Luckily, this part was a gradual downward trek. My pack felt lighter, and my legs strong. I yearned for more adventure. Meeting a german hiker, we decided to walk together. We chatted for hours about our surroundings, how we couldn’t believe the changing landscapes, the glacial blue lakes and the ever present mountain ranges. Finally arriving at the refugio, I was met with a massive grinning face. I saw a cute little Foxie!, Fem exclaimed, relieved I had made it back safely.
The weather was turning for the worst after some amazing days, and our last part of the journey entailed hiking to glacier Grey. Asking at reception, we found out it would be pouring with rain the next day. We were worried about Fem’s knee, and decided it was best we go back a day earlier. Coming home was bittersweet. We had fallen in love with what Torres del Paine had to offer. Its gradiourous mountains, blissful landscapes, thundering waterfalls and snow peaks were going to be missed. Despite the lack of comfy beds, we were cosy in our little tents perched under the trees. Surely more to come, we thought.
Onto Fitz Roy! The next peak of Patagonia.