In planning our trip, we did a little exercise to help us narrow down all the cool places to see in this big world. We each (privately) made a list of our travel dreams, in priority order, and then shared with the other person to see which destinations overlapped. Chris's #1 was to trek in Patagonia. Well, we have just accomplished this goal, completing the renowned W Trek in Chilean Patagonia. We are feeling proud, wowed, exhausted, wind-chapped, sun-burned, and sore!
It was an incredible 5-day journey by foot. We trekked 80 kilometers of some of the most beautiful and challenging terrain in the world. It's so rare that a long-anticipated dream exceeds one's expectations, but in this case, Chilean Patagonia truly did for us. For five days, we weaved among the towering, jagged Andean peaks and were dwarfed in their presence. We saw the massive glaciers, and their raging glacial rivers and waterfalls, and powder-blue glacial lakes. We caught so many gorgeous rainbows that we lost count. And some of the most amazing moments – we witnessed several avalanches, feeling their thunderous rumbles in our chests. We spotted condors and eagles and ibis, and the tracks (and poop) of many other animals such as gray fox and puma. We hiked through rain and sleet and snow, sun-showers and sun-flurries (yes!), and winds so strong that we had to hang on to each other so we didn't get knocked down. And we covered all sorts of terrain over these five days: grassy hills, dusty trails, rocky ledges, scree slopes, rock scrambles, stream crossings, and vertical climbs. We saw all sorts of interesting botanical life, from the Magellanic subpolar forest to the Patagonian steppes covered in blooming wildflowers like Chilean Firebush (that name is real, but I made up my own names for many flowers, like the Yellow Patagonia Purses). The landscape really IS this dramatic. Every day felt like we were walking through the Lord of the Rings. Patagonia is a place that commands respect both in the journey and the privilege of simply being there.
It was not easy to get here, either! It took us three days of travel. We took two planes and two longgg bus rides to get to Torres del Paine Nacional Parque in Chile, where these natural wonders reside. But it was well worth it, achy muscles and all, to have experienced this special and remote place.
Trek Prep Day
Prep day was hectic and a little intimidating. On our third solid day of travel, we took a 8 hour bus ride from El Calafate, Argentina to Puerto Natales, Chile. It was an arduous trip, as the bus was only supposed to be 5-6 hours, but our border crossing alone took three hours. Upon our late arrival, we had to rush to the intro seminar with our trek company Erratic Rock, and then scramble to rent our necessary gear. Unfortunately, we had trouble sourcing the proper gear due to a run on rentals in town that day. It culminated with a sidewalk meltdown (mine) upon realizing all the rental stores in town were closing. Finally, we threw some money at the problem and just bought the damn gear outright rather than rent. Frustrating, but necessary.
In addition, we had two little issues that put a damper on our moods. Out of nowhere, Chris chipped his tooth! One minute, it was fine. The next, I look over and he's missing part of his front tooth! (not a big part, but still upsetting...) Then, immediately following this, I had an wee accident (pun intended). Natales has a huge stray/wild dog problem... and it finally happened. Yep, I stepped in dog shit. Somehow I managed to plow my white sneakers through not one, but two massive piles, and so both of my shoes were soiled in that special Thomas' nooks and crannies kind of way. Nothing like cleaning animal feces out of of the treads of your only pair of sneakers, with hand soap and a stolen fork, in a communal hostel bathroom sink, at midnight, with a 6am wake up call the next day, right? Henceforth, any and all bad days like this will be named “Double Dog Shit Days”.
After a few hours rest, we woke up excited and met our group at 7:45am and boarded a 2 hour bus to the National Park, with huge backpacks full of tents, sleeping bags, pots, stoves, fuel and food. Since we spent the next 5 days solid with these folks, here is a little rundown on our dynamic group:
Roos from Holland, a sports journalist on 6 week holiday through South America. It was her longtime dream to come and see Argentina, and, boy, she is really doing it. It was also her first multi-day hiking trip and she did so great!
Katie from Brisbane, an awesome-Aussie with a great sense of adventure, also traveling solo on a 4 week holiday through Argentina and Chile.
Emily from Perth, Australia, an adorable and young(er) solo traveler traversing South America for several months. She just came from volunteering at an animal refuge, how cool is that?
“Nat” & “Talulah” from San Fran, an early-20's couple, dating for 2 months and on their first vacation together. Note: Their names have been changed for privacy and etiquette purposes. (Spoiler alert: because they were wet blankets.)
Our Guide & Porters
The incredible Cote was our guide. She's originally from Santiago, Chile, but has been guiding in Natales for 12 years, both for trekking and kayaking. She is a wealth of information about Patagonia... from geology to history to botany and more. She was our leader, schedule-keeper, medic, chef, and teacher during our 5 days on the trail. Oh, and she's gorgeous and does yoga, too. Just your average, run-of-the-mill woman.
Our three awesome porters, Oscar, Gary, and Pikacchu were our saviors... organizing camp, transporting the largest packs I've ever seen, playing reggae-tone for us in the mornings and beating us to camp by a mile every time!
Together, we arrived at Lago Pehoe, a giant turquoise glacial lake. We stepped off the bus to be met with the gale-force whipping winds. It felt like being in a hurricane without rain. It was hard to walk. Giant backpacks could get picked up by the force of these winds, so we lashed them together in a pile. Within 5 minutes, Nat lost his prescription sunglasses, because they blew right off his face and into the abyss! There was a wind danger alarm, triggered by gusts (so you know to brace yourself), and it was sounding off non-stop, at which point I seriously wondered what the bleep Chris had signed me up for. This was unreal.
We boarded a catamaran for the other side of the lake. Somehow, this little boat navigated the huge crests of wind-waves, smashing against them with impressive force. We arrived on the other side and made our way to a round-house shelter for lunch, which was a much-needed refuge from the unrelenting wind coming off the lake. Many folks were scared to even take their cameras out to take photos.
After lunch, we set off for 6 hours of trekking to our camp for the night. The terrain wasn't challenging, but the conditions were. The deafening wind continued all afternoon, peppered with bouts of chilly rain. Hiking against this wind was daunting. With the forceful air rushing past your ears, there is no point in talking to someone even a few feet away from you, because you can't hear a damn thing. We hiked in silent silos. There were excellent views, but I barely enjoyed because I was focused on not getting blown over.
The day ended at the nice Grey campsite, thankfully. There was a shelter for us to have dinner, and we convened there as Cote cooked a delicious meal of campsite jambalaya that was superb! I was so grateful for this warm and comforting end. I asked Cote if today's wind force was normal, and she hedged a little. She said yes, it was “on the windy side today” but also couched it by saying that you never know what will happen in Patagonia and yes, sometimes it's even stronger than it was today. And she cautiously reminded me that the weather can change in an instant, or can be very harsh for days. Well, shiiit.
After dinner, the majority of the group headed to a lookout point over another lake. This is where I saw my first-ever glacier! From this viewpoint, you could see the head of the Grey Glacier and several floating “glacier bones” in the lake itself. What a sight this was, I felt like I should see a polar bear pop up from among the ice floes (even though that would be impossible, these are freshwater lakes). We walked back to camp, and settled in for the night. The sun sets very late here, at 10pm, so we were all in bed and asleep before the sun. But overnight, I had to get out of the tent thanks to the gallons of water I drank that day. I was the only one awake at the campsite. I looked up and saw the sky was clear as a bell; the Patagonian stars were a blanket of twinkle lights and I had a private show.
The day started off with a surprising hiccup. Nat & Talulah were missing at breakfast. They just didn't turn up at the agreed-to meeting time, and we had no idea where they were. Lateness is a cardinal sin of group trekking, since the day's schedule is carefully planned and everyone needs to keep to the guide's times. Our porter, Oscar attempted to find them, but couldn't locate their tent. Finally, 90 minutes late, Talulah appears: unpacked, unready, and unapologetic. She offers no explanation for their lateness, helps herself to breakfast, and makes no mention of where the hell Nat is. He eventually turns up grumpy to have missed breakfast, and finally the group begins the hike. Usually on the first day or so, everyone is on best behavior, so this was an odd start!
We hiked back down the same trail we did the day before. Usually I don't like out & back trails, but it was an unexpected blessing to retrace our steps, because the weather was much better, the sun even came out! We got to enjoy many views that we missed due to conditions the day before. Though now without wind, we could chat as a group. And it was here that we realized just how completely annoying Nat was. He never shut up. Never. For hours and hours, he spouted off about his “knowledge” on everything from technology to biology to wine to why the city of Chicago is just the worst city in America. He was quite the expert on everything! He works for Apple, you know, so he's basically a genius.
I'm kidding a little, but it actually did impact everyone's enjoyment. You spend more hours with a trekking group than you do with most of your friends in any given year, so the people can really make or break the experience! Luckily the rest of our group was awesome and we all got along swimmingly.
Day 2 ended at a more primitive campsite (no shelters) called the Italiano campsite, and the weather held for us and we enjoyed a lovely al fresco dinner. The talented Cote set out a splendid picnic for us of olives, Pringles and red wine while she prepared a delicious dinner of vegetarian chili. She even brought fresh cilantro for the dish. She was officially our fairy trailmother extraordinaire! And the rest of our little group was bonding fabulously and we had a great time socializing and resting after a long 8 hour day of trekking.
Thanksgiving Day, and we awoke to great weather! Nat & Talulah were again late to breakfast, but slightly less late than the day before. Our group was feeling good, and we were ready to go. This day, we hiked into the French Valley, one of the most beautiful sights of the trek. This may have been our favorite day. The French Valley is lush and green with jagged peaks rising up from deep green forests. We also saw the avalanches this day, and covered some very beautiful and challenging terrain.an
In the morning, we did a 5 hour hike up to the high point of the French Valley, and marveled in the stunning views. Our little group gathered on the rocks and enjoyed some communal snacks, snapped photos, and took a much-needed leg rest. In the afternoon, we set off another 4 hours to the next camp. This was a long day overall, and a tough day for Chris, who was battling a cold the entire time, but he handled it like the champ he is... never complaining once.
Side note: Sadly, huge swaths of the National Park were destroyed by a forest fire in 2011. Some dummy tourist didn't follow the “no open fire” rule, and destroyed thousands of acres of national parkland. The fire started on Christmas Day. It had been a dry year, and the Patagonian winds picked up embers and the fire spread like uncontrollably, torching 68 square miles of native forest. About 90% of the forest we'd seen on Days 1 & 2 were burned, so I think this made the French Valley even more special, because we finally got to see the Patagonian landscape as nature intended with a thick brim of lush forest.
Day 3 ended at popular campsite called Cuernos. We enjoyed the best weather we'd had during some pre-dinner chill time. Cote made a lentils & chorizo stew over cous-cous. Another superb meal! It was here that Nat & Talulah announced that they were considering leaving the trek early, and hiking out the next day. They were worried they wouldn't have enough time to finish the hike on Day 5 and make it to their airport in time for their flight (they actually had cut it very close). We were all very supportive of their plan to leave early, and encouraged them to “play it safe” and “not risk missing their flight.” We were all a little giddy at the thought of getting rid of Nat a day early. But I think we all felt kind of guilty for our feelings, because Talulah really is a sweet, interesting, intelligent woman. On her own, she's surely a lovely addition to any group. However, the boyfriend is an anchor around her neck, and we were relieved to throw him overboard.
This was the longest day, so we needed to leave early. We met for breakfast at 6:30am, and once again, Nat & Talulah were very late. Talulah turned up just about 20 minutes late, and announced that Nat wouldn't be coming to breakfast. He'd “had a bad night”. Apparently, they had set up their tent on a rocky slope and his sleeping mat slid around as he slept, and then popped. This, combined with their travel issues, meant that they were definitely going to leave that day. Nat turned up just as we were leaving in a very cranky state, and we started off without them. They eventually caught up.
Unfortunately, I woke up sore and hurting that day, so Day 4 was a tough struggle for me. It was almost entirely uphill, on an exposed mountain with no tree protection. The strong sun sapped me of energy, at the same time the chilly winds cut through. So it was a constant battle with my layered clothing... on, off, on, off. At one point, I seriously considered stopping at the next way-point and not continuing on with the group. But after a much-needed snack break and a little encouragement from Chris, I pressed on.
We hiked a short bit with Nat & Talulah before they needed to peel off from the group and hike out, around 10:30am. We bid them a swift farewell and continued on. It was a much more peaceful and quiet hike after that.
The afternoon was easier and faster than we expected, and despite the fact that it was getting very, very cold and windy out, we all ended Day 4 in great spirits. We enjoyed another fabulous Cote creation of a pasta duo: mushroom stroganoff AND a creamy tomato sauce. Totally hit the spot. How Cote prepared these gourmet meals from just two stoves, two pots, and mostly dehydrated food, I do not know! We headed to bed wayyy early at 7:30pm to ready ourselves for our pre-dawn wake up call.
We got up at 4am and hit the trail to greet the sun a the famous Cerro Torres, an icon of Patagonia (it's even featured on Chilean paper money, on the 5000-peso note!) It was bone-chillingly cold that night and morning, but we warmed up quickly since the hike was one hour of up climbing and rock scrambles. It was the toughest hour of the entire 5-day trek, and making one's body perform that rigorously at 4:30am felt like a gunning a frozen engine into fifth gear. But the views on the ascent were stunning, and we lucked out with an ethereal sunrise as we climbed. The big visual “payoff” is that the Cerro towers will glow red at sunrise under the right conditions, but it's a fickle and fleeting circumstance and few hikers gets to see it. We got lucky with a red glow on the top half before the clouds shrouded our view. Chris and I named it the “just the tip, just for a minute” effect. (It wasn't too early for dirty humor.) The light was positively effervescent, and we drank in the views, along with some hot tea with our little group of fellow climbers. These early morning moments under the towers are a memory we will always remember.
After this climactic dawn, the rest of the day was spend descending alllll the wayyy downnnnn. We descended as a group with Cote at the helm, and we all really tried to drink in the surroundings as we knew we had to leave this beautiful and faraway landscape (sniff!)
After the long descent and two bus rides, we arrived back in Puerto Natales by dinner time. We celebrated back at Erratic Rock's bar, aptly called Base Camp, with beers, homemade pizza, and a slideshow of everyone's photos. It was a perfect end to the challenging and rewarding W-Trek. And, after 5 day of sleeping on the ground and no bathing, a soft bed and a hot shower wasn't too tough to take, either!
Local lore is that Patagonia is like a woman: very beautiful, but temperamental. It may be true, but it's hard not to fall in love.