Riding North

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An illustrious half week in Futaleufu filled with camping, rafting, and lots of outdoors led to some pangs of desire for urban life.  I had been in the lesser populated and incredibly beautiful nature I so desperately craved coming from the graveled earth of the NYC metro area.  But now, I wanted that city experience again.  In a small way, a taste of home.  It was a big secret, but I was just weeks away from home at this point.  Another 10 days in Chile and a long week in Haiti before my unforeseen return.

To get there, it took some more long bus rides and a few detours.  First, there was no bus connecting Chaiten and Puerto Montt, two of the connecting cities to get to the capital, Santiago.  I stayed in one of the only places open in the entire town in Chaiten, a lonely, dusty hostel.  It took some time to even find the place, but luckily it didn’t stop me from catching a group rate taxi to nearby celebrity, Chaiten Volcano.  This friendly peak was smoking ominously after a raucous eruption in 2008 evacuated the nearby town that I now inhabited.

Thankfully, there was no eruption on this day.  Instead, I had a crystal clear sunny day climbing to the outer rim of a bluff adjacent to the volcano.  It was a great experience and a beautiful day to be up close to a volcano that was still steaming at the top.

The next day, I rode a long set of buses and ferries along the Carretera Austral.  A famed country road stretching from the northern end of Patagonia up to Puerto Montt, where more traditional highways carried traffic up to Santiago and riding north to the furthest end of the Atacama desert.  It took nearly 12 hours, but I finally made it.  Well, sort of.  I had another 20 hour bus to Santiago.  But thankfully I could sleep on this bus as there were no transfers or ferries to wake me up along the way.

And so, I had finally made it to Santiago!  But I wasn’t finished.  I decided to take a stop in Pichilemu.  It was a famous surfing town in Chile and promised of relaxing days and vivid nights.  The vivid nights weren’t on display, however, as it was offseason.  It was a bit of a ghost town.  Making the most of my time there with lots of reading and writing and long walks on the beach, I spent three nights before making my way to Valparaiso.

I was particularly excited about Valparaiso.  Since I hadn’t really stopped in Santiago for more than a connecting bus, this was my first legitimate city in South America since Buenos Aires.  With the confluence of rising hills, deep blue water, pearl white sand, and color-blasted streets, this city had a character like no other city I’d ever seen.  Taking walking tours to view the sights and sounds of this quirky place, I fell in love immediately.  It quickly became my favorite city in all of South America.

Accompanying me in this city were a few adjusted locals originally hailing from Germany.  Along with some other fun people, we took the walking tour together and explored the beaches and nightlife deep into the morning.  Once again, people made the experience better.  No big surprise.

One of my favorite parts of the city was the famed home of historic poet and Chile’s proud Nobel Prize winner, Pablo Neruda.  It was such a unique home, taking the quirky qualities of the city surrounding it into its very architecture.  The top floor, just one room occupying the space, was a marvel for me.  I always imagined being able to write in a room at the top of a house overlooking the sea.  With this room it was a reality.  While I won’t be able to write like Neruda did in his esteemed life, it felt like a privilege just to be there.

It was a nice surprise to meet a few guys at Neruda’s home who ended up being from my very own hostel without even realizing.  We all shared a delicious lunch before making our own ways out of the city.  And it was from there that I took my final bus back to Santiago.  In a trip full of bus rides and endless hours of jumbling in public transportation seats, it was a nice feeling.

I won’t lie, I wasn’t sure how this trip would end.  I was worried something bad would happen (lost wallet or passport, canceled flights, just feeling lonely, etc), but I realize I never should have been so concerned.  After a quiet night arriving in the capital, I took a walking tour the next morning.  I almost didn’t go as I was running late, but making it in the final minute before it started, I joined the English speaking group.  We meandered through the markets and streets of a city full of life and stories to tell.

Meeting several people throughout the group, it seemed that we all had a friendly connection and got along very well.  We enjoyed the rest of the tour including a particularly riveting speech by the young tour guide in the city cemetery as we basked in the shadow of former Chilean President Allende’s grave.  The sight of this tour’s conclusion was a foreshadowing of the colorful opinions and insights of a man living in the remnants of a terrifying time in Chile’s history.  Hearing his story was touching and worth mentioning.

After this, we all sprang from the somber topics discussed to come together for a favorite party drink in a nearby bar before enjoying lunch with some of the people I would spend my final few days with.  And oh what a lunch that was!  Our waiter was as charismatic as they come.  He gave us a few belly laughs in between gulps of delicious seafood stew and shellfish and soups.  Some pisco sours and a particularly minty drink on the house to round off the lunch left us all pretty happy.

After visiting an interesting Chilean cafe and going our own ways, I paid for what was a very long overdue haircut.  Feeling refreshed, I met the friendly mother-daughter duo traveling together and their newfound friend for dinner.  We joked and laughed for the long dinner about nearly everything that we could imagine.  After one too many pisco sours, we scrambled back to our respective “homes” and turned in another memorable night.

On this, my final full day in South America, I spent most of the day with a group of three friends from the US as we explored a somber museum detailing the rugged history of Chile and visited a fancy wine restaurant.  Picking up my last load of laundry on the road, I met up again with those girls and then with the mother-daughter combo as we ascended the view-laden peak of San Cristobal.  It’s a large greenery filled hill right in the center of the city.  The sights from atop that hillside were only outdone by the company I had.  And the sights were unbeatable.

Well, that’s it!  South America in a few words!  Ok, so maybe more than a few.  But thankfully there’s more.  Learn about the final chapter of this saga in the next post!

The Road to Futaleufu

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It was back to two backpacks now.  The nice part about hiking for 8 days is that you only need to bring one.  I left the other in the hotel.  Clamoring to the bus station, I rode to Punta Arenas.  Another coastal town about 4 hours further south.  It was here, the following morning, that I met again with the same couple from Torres del Paine as we were scheduled to go on the same penguin tour on Magdalena Island.

Oh, those penguins.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see them on the Galapagos Islands, but I couldn’t miss them entirely!  At the peak of mating season, there are apparently 60,000 couples.  I’m no math nerd (I AM an accounting nerd), but that means 120,000 penguins roaming on a small island no larger than one square mile.  Lots of penguins.  I only managed to see a fraction of that but they were just as cuddly and small as any number of penguins might be.

It was terribly windy and cold, but we mustered through the trail and snapped some pictures before returning to the boat.  We couldn’t make the second leg of the trip to the sea lions island nearby due to weather, but I’d seen those before anyway.  So we roughly zipped back to land and rode back to town.  That night, we shared a last meal before a small choking incident led to a quick goodbye.  And with that, it was on to the next chapter!

At this point, it was all transport.  I needed to get back to Esquel where I had been roughly one month earlier and I needed to get there quick.  My time was running down on this trip and I wanted to fit as much as possible into my final weeks!  Of course, all the while I was starting to set things up for surprises back home as I planned to return earlier than advertised…

So I started by taking a bus back to Puerto Natales, the base of Torres del Paine.  The next day I took a bus to Calafate.  From there, I took a long bus the following afternoon to Esquel.  It took 30 hours of buses over the 4 day period but I reached Esquel!  Unfortunately, the bus to the next destination, Futaleufu, was not until the following morning.  So I sat tight for the night and took off the next morning.

It was a vigorous process crossing the border from Argentina to Chile once again but after a 5-hour ride to cross 50 miles, I’d arrived!

Futaleufu is not a busy town.  It’s a basic place and it was shoulder season.  That meant that restaurants only sold a few dishes, sometimes just one dish.  But it was a very cozy town with beautiful green mountains and rushing rivers surrounding it.  And those rivers were the reason I was here.  The Futaleufu River is one of the best for rafting in the entire world.  Apparently, the world rafting championships were hosted here 5 years ago.  I was excited for my first stint riding class 5 rapids here!

I decided at the last moment to go camping.  For both financial and nostalgic reasons, I wanted to be out in the middle of nowhere.  I was reminiscent of the experiences in Torres del Paine and wanted a piece of that action again.  It was perfect.  Being shoulder season, there were no more than 2 other tents so I had the place to myself.

The following morning, I signed up for a rafting tour that went through the entire route of the famed river passing rapids with timid names like The Terminator and The Rock House.  It was incredible.  The deep blue water that was as clear as glass.  We rumbled through the rapids that included a class 2 rapid which we swam through rather than rafted through.  We were splashed and kicked and turned different directions but we paddled to our guide’s desire through each section.  We even took a quick break to jump off a rock ledge 12 feet high.  Unfortunately, the video of this heroic feat was never taken, so of course it never happened.

I remember feeling that the trip was short by the time we finished.  I was still ready for more, but after a few hours rafting on this incredible river we were done.  Just as climbing a mountain feels incredible once you’ve peaked it, finishing a rumble down the river feels much the same.  It was a beautiful day and I celebrated it by getting dinner at a restaurant rather than cooking it myself.  Pasta, either with pesto or tomato sauce was my choice.  I decided to live a little and get pesto.

A Final Ride in Patagonia 

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We woke up in our last night of Torres del Paine national park feeling refreshed and a bit excited to be back in puerto natales that night. But there was plenty left to do before that!  We got up and had breakfast quickly before Ann and I walked down to the kayaking area. We walked in on the wrong house first but then found the right one with our doctor friends surprisingly sitting inside!

Apparently, for the second straight day the ice trekking excursion wasn’t possible because of icebergs built up near the area of embarking. So they decided to do he kayaking too!  We waited for a few others before getting ready.  Kayaking was amazing, we got within 50 meters of the enormous glacier that dominated our view.  

We skated across the icy waters with double kayaks and the best company. We were much more free to drift around during this kayaking trip than the last one in Argentina. It was a unique trip from the first and worthwhile to pay for it again for that exact reason. 

We paced back to the camp area, stuffed down some tuna sandwiches laced with balsamic (actually quite tasty), and swung our packs on our backs to make the final hike. It was a perfect day. I swung up and down our line of the group talking with different friends from the past few days.  I ended up catching up with the doctors who sped ahead and lasted the rest of the hike with them. We navigated some pretty wet conditions but were able to stay dry as we hopped around the trail. 

5 hours later, we made it. After 70+ miles over 8 days, we had finally reached the end of the line. It was an incredible experience with amazing people. We were all so relieved after being wet and cold and hungry for many long hours during the hikes. But that’s the best part, being rewarded at the end. In this case, I shared a cold beer with my weeklong adoptive parents as well as the world traveling group we befriended. I couldn’t have imagined the hike ending any better. But it did get better. 

After saying a bittersweet goodbye to those world travelers, we sat in line for the boat back to the bus stop that would take us back to town. It was here that, after 2 months of being in or near Argentina, I finally had my first sip of mate, a bitter herbal tea. For those unaware, it is a signature experience to drink mate and a significant piece of the social fabric. To be included in a round of mate is honorable and a sign of inclusion in a group. Or so I’ve been told. I received this gourd of mate from our porter who’d been carrying our tents and food all week. The smile I wore when he held it out for me to drink must’ve made the joker look sad.

And it didn’t go away, I must’ve been smiling the entire 2-3 hour ride home. When we got back to puerto natales, our group of the couple from Pennsylvania and Connecticut and the doctors all decided to meet for a late dinner. We met at a delicious seafood restaurant where we savored the seafood meals and recollected the memorable moments from our hikes. With lots of smiles and laughs, we said goodbye with hopes that we’d see each other again another day. And with those same thoughts I slept like a newborn fed with great memories. 

Hiking with New Friends

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So for this post, I’d like to focus on about 2 weeks of time.  These two weeks were one of my most highly anticipated ones, right next to spending time in Colombia for what I think to be obvious reasons.  But was the time I’d be spending in and around Torres del Paine national park.  This was one of the biggest, if not the biggest reason I wanted to come to South America.  The stories and pictures I had heard of this magical scene were just that, magical.  It captivated me and I was enthralled by the thought that I had the opportunity to spend time there.

So to start, I took a very early morning bus (6am) from my cushy hostel in El Calafate for Puerto Natales and my last new country in South America, Chile.  It was a difficult ride, spending about 3 hours on a bus, 1 hour unloading all my bags to be checked for customs (they are very strict about any sorts of produce being transported), reloading my bags, and continuing by shuttle for another hour or two.  But we finally arrived and I filtered my way through the town by foot until I reached the hostel.  It was a good enough place, I’d only be there for one night so I spent that day walking around town a bit and feeding my panging stomach.  After eating my fill, I went to bed early that night and awoke to meet a lovely Dutch couple with whom I’d spend most of the day.  After having breakfast at a cafe, moving hostels, and listening to an extremely informative park info session, I prepared myself for the next day, the day I’d be going to Torres del Paine!

I met my cohort which included just two others, a crazily kind couple from Pennsylvania and Connecticut.  They would be my trusted companions throughout this adventurous week and I couldn’t have been more thankful!  We rode through the entrance of the park and suddenly found ourselves at the foot of incredible peaks and spires swirling above the clouds, topped with snow and mystique.  We weaved among the foothills to a ferry that would carry us to our first resting place in the park, an easy first day lacking the challenge of any hiking.  We would be camping that night, and we had a great dinner that had me rolling out of the cafeteria.  Me and the kind couple shared a few drinks in the bar upstairs, eyes all twinkling with the anticipation of the hiking coming in the following week.

It rained that night, a fair warning of what was to come.  We rose early for a hearty breakfast and slugged our “rain proofed” packs onto our still blissful shoulders.  To reiterate, it was wet.  It continued raining steadily all day.  We started at about 10:30am and made lunch at a campsite along our trail.  It was a misfortuned site with poor bathrooms and a gloomy look with the cold, hard rain slipping from the tree leaves and sky.  So we finished quickly and made headway for the day’s destination.  Slipping and even falling once or twice through the afternoon, we all made it to the refugio and campsite beneath the Cuernos towers.  Unfortunately, the poor weather throughout the day prevented us from having any opportunity to see the French Valley, one of the two main attractions of the park.  However, we compromised as the clouds cleared just shortly before sunset and we had spectacular views of the Cuernos towers and the edge of Paine Grande peak, poking out just behind the towers from our view.

It was a surprise to me, having “enjoyed” boxed wine on several occasions, that when we tried the boxed wine (Clos) in the park it was some of the best wine I think I’ve ever had.  This isn’t saying much as I’m no connoisseur, but believe me, this stuff was a gold mine.  We enjoyed luscious cups of the drink each night as we recollected the events and sights we’d seen.

The next day was more challenging that the first, which was actually the easiest day of the entire trek.  A light appetizer sampler to prepare us for a heavy steak for each day that followed.  On this day, we were tricked by our sense of direction into thinking that we’d finished some of the difficult climbs of the day already.  In fact, we were only about halfway at that point.  We trudged up the hill, appreciating more greatly with each step the difficulty of the trek.  Thankfully on this more difficult hike, the sky was clear and cooperative to see more views of the Cuernos towers and other equally beautiful views.

We finally arrived at the next refugio and camping area, the one from which we’d climb the namesake peaks of the park, and the main attraction.  The Torres del Paine.  But before we did that, we enjoyed a delicious dinner that included salmon and several courses.  I was very impressed with the meals in each of the refugios that we were provided, both by the taste and by the presentation.  Hiking for a week in a remote national park didn’t bring me thoughts of delicate meals served on ceramic plates.  But that’s what we had.  We shared this meal with some amazing people, as would be the case all throughout the park.  As it always is, it’s about the people.  The views of the park were in this sense just a glorified medium to meet these people and I’m thankful for both of these benefits!

The next morning, rising at 5am we took a hike in the dark with headlamps lined in a row as we all climbed to the base of the tower with the iconic views.  After about 2 and a half hours of hiking and climbing up some technical trails, we finally made it!  And just in time.  Clouds hovered over the torres and quickly descended within 20 minutes of arriving, but we got our pictures and our time with these incredible toothy ridges ascending from a clear blue glacial lake, fed from endless sheets of ice just aside the torres.  It was incredibly cold once you stop moving at the viewpoint, so after less than 30 minutes we climbed down the equally difficult trail back down to our resting place the night before.

It was a fulfilling and amazing adventure for our first few days.  This piece of the circuit was called the W, the trail being a rough outline of a W if done in entirety.  It ended with us returning down to the next refugio and campground which was a luxurious one by standards of the last few days.  It was also here that we met some amazing doctors at our preassigned dinner table.  What started out as friendly conversation quickly turned to additional boxes of wine and a dreamy night of sleep.  Once again, people prevailed as the highlight of the park.  We knew we’d see more of them as we were lined up to meet our last night in the park, but more on that later.

So this concluded the final stretch of the W as the next morning we’d start the even more remote and certainly more tranquil portion of the park trails.  We would also be accompanied by a guide, caring for us and showing us some of the lesser known beauty of the park.  More on that in the next post!