Tuesday, February 26, 2013


The scenery: this picture was taken at sunset, not altered at all!

How low can you go?  This last week I was down in Southern Patagonia hiking and exploring some towns near the beautiful National Park Torres del Paine.  I went with a Chilean guy, who's a friend of a friend.  The other two in the group were his friends: another Chilean guy from Santiago and a Swiss girl.  We didn't all know each other before the trip, but it worked out great!  We spoke Spanish the whole time, the two Chileans being sure to correct us most of the time.  

We spent most of the 9 day trip in Torres del Paine, a large park near the Argentinian border, north of Tierra del Fuego.  Torres del Paine is a gem in the otherwise chilly and bare Pampa of Patagonia.  It has 17 different ecosystems, glaciers, clear and clean lakes, snow-capped mountains, misty valleys, and the famous "torres" - 3 rock towers that hover over the park.  As Chile's top hiking destination, it is quite busy with tourists - national and international.  Entrance and camping is highly regulated since there were some serious fires a few years ago.  There are well-maintained and marked paths, and you have to camp and cook at the designated camp sites.  Also, no campfires at all.

On the trail with Felipe and Tin

Yierba mate breaks

We did the "W" hike, a 5 night trek that looks like a "W" from a bird's eye view.  The first day, we hiked to a glacier called Glaciar Grey!  To get there, we hiked along the lake that the glacier feeds into, so I could see the large blocks of blue glacial ice that had fallen off and floated down.  It was SO WINDY that day with winds at 86 km/hr.  For a little person on a small mountain path, it was tough to stay upright.  If the hike didn't physically tire me out, the wind definitely did.  

The Windy Day

At Glacier Grey! (the actual glacial mass is in the background.)

The rest of the days we went east, completing the curves of the "W."  We passed by lots of lakes - the water was my favorite!  In some places it was minty-green and looked like clear Caribbean waters in the sunlight.  In other places it was a striking navy blue, splattered with spotless white foamy waves made by the strong breezes.  In other places, it was a light turquoise creek running down the lowest point of the valley, or a thin waterfall off the steep cliff of a mountain glacier.  The best part about the water was that we could drink it straight from the steams and springs.  It was the sweetest, most refreshing water I've ever had - straight from the glaciers above us. 

The variety of the natural scenery was one of the most impressive and amazing parts of the hike.  In a day, we would walk through several environments - swampy areas with lily pads lining the trails, thinly wooded groves of trees, the pebbly beaches of the lakes, sprawling grassland full of shrubs, or the rocky face of a slope above choppy water.  

More of the scenery:

Glacier looming...

The last day: We made it the Torres!

I met lots of people on the trail!  On the way into the park, our group met a Chilean/French couple from Santiago, Oscar and Carole.  We did most of our hike with them - playing cards and word games, or drinking Swiss Rum in the evenings.  Like our group, the population of the trail was very international.  I met people from Germany, Israel, Argentina, Switzerland, France, The Netherlands, Middlebury College in Vermont, Hungary, Brazil, and California. 

My hiking buddies!
Felipe (Chilean), Carole (French), Oscar (Chilean), Nicole (Swiss), Agustin (Chilean)

Getting to Torres del Paine is a bit of an effort!  We flew from Santiago to a city called Punta Arenas (near Tierra del Fuego).  We stayed there a night, then took a 3 hour bus ride north to Puerto Natales, a small town that is little more than the tourist entrance to the park and other Patagonia activities.  From Puerto Natales, it was a 2 hour bus ride to the park, then we took a catamaran to the trail head! Since we had to spend some time at each of the stops, I got to know a bit more about Patagonian history and culture.  

On the catamaran with Nicole, from Switzerland, and Felipe, from Santiago

In Puerto Natales, we went to a peña called La Chingana one night.  It was a traditional peña with folk music - on guitar and harp!  The Chileans I was with didn't know what Chingana meant, but when we looked it up we found that a Chingana is one of the traditional rural bars where Cueca, the Chilean national dance, and other signature parts of Chilean culture were formed around the time of independence. 

After the hike, we had an extra day in Puerto Natales and decided to go to La Cueva del Milodón - The Cave of the Mylodon.  This Natural Monument has several prehistoric caves, in which archaeologists have found a myriad of clues about human and animal life 10,000 years ago.  In 1896, a German explorer found the cave and recovered a thick, hairy pelt.  These were the remains of the Mylodon, an ancestor of the sloth that lived up until about 5,000 years ago.  There were also patagonian panthers, ancestors of the horse, and an ancestor of the guanaco (like a llama).  It is believed that climate change and human hunters lead to their extinction.  We learned about how the massive cave was formed by the movement of glaciers throughout the last ice age.  There was a paleolake that lapped up at the rock, eroding away the sediment, but leaving the rock on the hill above the water.  As the water receded and more of Patagonia's land mass emerged, the gap in the rock was above water and is now a cave.  Nomadic tribes lived there as well, sheltered from the elements. 

El Milodón

Lastly, I had to post this picture of the Alfajor I ate after the hike in Punta Arenas.  It was from a bakery and surpassed any prior baked-good experience that I can remember.  This is the traditional Argentinian version: the cookies are made of a corn flour, the manjar, or dulce de leche, is minimal but delicious, and the whole thing is coated in a hard chocolate shell! I have to go back!

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