Torres del Paine

5 03 2008

choc-fondue.jpgWe have just had lunch. A little more civilised than a sandwich. Chocolate Fondue. Maybe a bit rich. Actually, hideously rich: I have a headache and don’t think I can eat tonight. But I’ll try. The joys of being in a city 🙂

pampa.jpgBut back to the trip: Southern Patagonia. In general it’s flat, windy, and pretty dull around here. (And it never seems to rain. Or is that Southern California?) For those that might disagree, on the bus you miss the greatest area of Patagonia, by blasting through it. But trust me, the majority is pretty dull. Unless you happen to like flat, featureless expanses of land – like the people I’m travelling with seem to do. If you do like that, come to Australia. You can also see sheep there.

But (and this is a big but) there are some parts that are simply stunning. Unfortunately, this is also where the buses tend to stop and hordes of tourists (yes, like me) jump out and tramp around. The Carretera Austral, Fitz Roy, Perito Moreno, and further south Torres del Paine. There are other parts I’m sure, but the cyclist trail hits these highlights. A few times we’ve come out of the Andes, and onto the pampa because that’s the way the road goes (and there are not so many options when it comes to roads around here). I suspect there is not too much coming up further south, but Tierra del Fuego is supposed to be interesting. In a flat kind of way.

siesta.jpgFrom El Calafate the group – still Michiel (Holland), Stefan and Sabine (Germany) and I (stupid Australian who only speaks English) – rode west and south for a couple of days. The first day was a little windy, we were scooting along at up to 50km/h on the flat (ok, when we were racing). Fully loaded. That’s much more like it. I think on a road bike, unloaded, with fresh legs, you could keep up that speed all day. Seriously windy, and from the correct direction (behind). We felt sorry for the two French, Mitch and Virginie who were battling into the same wind to visit the glacier. We managed to make a few more kilometers than we’d planned, despite the road turning more or less into the wind at the end of the day and the lunch stop (pictured). So we made it back into Chile in only two days, despite fearing it could take longer – many cyclists skip this section of road because it is just too windy (especially going north) and there is nothing to buy along the way. Even getting water is difficult.

We spent the night in a ditch by the side of the road just outside Cerro Castillo (Chile). It was a pleasant ditch, deep enough that our tents didn’t get ripped to pieces by the wind. This is also the first and last townvillage in Chile before the Torres del Paine National Park. Most hikers stop in Puerto Natales, buy food and then get a bus to the park. We didn’t want to have to go there and then back, so we made do with the provisions we could buy. Which wasn’t much, but we’re getting used to pasta and red sauce every night. It keeps us alive. Just.

Based on the distance we’d made the last few days I thought getting to the park the next day would be no drama at all. Until we got out of the tent and were almost knocked down by the wind. Luckily, we didn’t need to ride directly into the wind (often) so we could manage an almost respectable 50km in 4 hours of riding before we were exhausted (a lot of that distance came in the last hour!). There may have been a few occasions when it was simply too windy to ride. It is a little disconcerting to feel a strong gust of wind, suddenly be in the ditch on the other side of the road and then covered in dust as a bus passes by. Most of the traffic was very understanding as we weaved our way down the dirt road, and gave us plenty of room. We stopped at Laguna Amarga – right before the entrance to the national park. We voted the water undrinkable – even after filtering there was a milky precipitate when we boiled it. God knows what chemical is in there. We got a pretty good view of the Torres from there, except with cloud. But we thought it was pretty good.

The next day we cycled even slower than the day before through the park. The cause this time was not the wind, but the mountains and the view. We took quite a few photos. We thought that we’d probably seen all we needed of the park until we arrived at the only car camp ground. While considering going a bit further, out of nowhere two Swiss cyclists that Sabine and Stefan had met on and off since Bolivia (but never ridden with) got out of a car. So, of course, we had to stay. Petra and Reto had just finished walking “the circuit”, a lap around the Torres del Paine and adjoining mountains. As cyclists they knew what we’d already seen and offered the advice that going to visit the glacier Grey and cycling the way we had just come was probably all we needed to do. So we adjusted our plans accordingly. The plans changed again though.

condor.jpgMany condor photos later, and a sunset and sunrise (I’m over sunrise photos) we said a final goodbye to “The Swiss” as they’ve been described to me. They’ve run out of money and are going home via the Galapagos Islands (possibly the most expensive thing a cycle tourist can do in South America – go figure). Now we have My Swiss (Jörg and Rahel), My Other Swiss (Brandley-Fisch) and The Swiss (Petra and Reto). And a few other The Swiss that require further explanation when brought up in conversation.

Everything is outrageously expensive in the national park (for Chile), but we had no choice – things are definitely set up for bus tourists arriving from Peurto Natales. We also hadn’t seen a Chilean bank since part way down the Carretera Austral, so supplies of Chilean Pesos were running low. We stretched the remaining lot pretty thin and just made it. Changing US$ cash was possible, but at an even more crazy price. So we stocked up on food and piles of biscuits, basically what we could get our hands on and afford. They ran out of bread. A minor disaster.

We left our bikes at the park administration, loaded all we would need for a few days, and were about to leave when a youngish park employee stopped us. It turned out he was a tourism student doing his practical experience before finishing his degree. Antonio took a look at Michiel and I stuffing all our gear into my two day packs, and ran off to get us a rucksack we could borrow. What luck! A good rucksack! It was bigger, and hence heavier (after we put more of the group gear in there), but Michiel decided that he far preferred the harness and would take the heavier pack from the second day onward. What more luck! Perfect for me! “You want to carry the heavy pack? Be my guest.”

So we hiked out of the administration area, on the long walk in (to avoid an expensive ferry shortcut). Stefan with a crazily heavy pack (cans on a hike – what was he thinking?) with no waist strap and Sabine with a similar style pack, just less crazily heavy. Michiel and I with basically a day pack each, I think I only had a bit more than 12kg for most of the trip. Pretty good.

Torres Walk inThe walk in was in almost perfect weather. We seem to be getting more than our fair share of good weather down here. Of course, I’m not complaining. Good views of the (relatively small, but dramatic) mountain range of the Torres del Paine. Apparently it is not a part of the main Andean range. Different muscles being used. We’re reasonably fit by now, so it wasn’t a big drama, and we didn’t go very far each day. The campground surprised me. I didn’t realise I would be sharing the trail with quite so many gringos. But there you are. Possibly the most popular park in the region, so of course there will be plenty of people there. I should have expected this. What I wasn’t expecting was the hotel and store at each of the big campsites. This is hiking? Come on. But it makes it easier. We even had a hot shower twice in the week. Luxury.

Softies hiding from rain… in Patagonia!We had some rain on day two, so we sheltered in the camp kitchen like softies until it had passed. And then headed up the first valley to see this Glaciar Grey. There are two main walks in the park. One is the circuit (7-9 days), the other is the ‘W trek’ (about 5 days) that visits the three main valleys, and all the highlights. We started to just visit the glacier, but decided to do an extended W after three days. The weather was pretty good, and we were enjoying the hike.

glacier-grey.jpgWe camped in a free campsite (the downside of serviced campsites is, of course, the cost). One of the few in the park – we found and used two more, later. The camp was right above the glacier. This one was far less active on the leading edge than the others had been, but we had a completely different perspective. We were about 100m above the glacier and could see all the way back to where it began. It’s strange really. I’m still a bit surprised that we spent two nights there. But it is a pretty special place, and we walked up to a lookout (the biggest pass on the circuit walk). Wrapped in cloud and blown about, we came back and watched as the sun came out from out lookout near the camp (Campamento Los Guardas if you’re interested). Yep, I like glaciers.

stevo.jpg <- “The Strange Australian Animal” glacier watching. Keep your eyes peeled folks, it might race away any century now.

The sun was shining, Sabine wasn’t whole hearted in her wishes to go back to the bikes, we’d met Marinka (Dutch) on the track who was going on… We couldn’t stop now! We had some food left (ok just pasta, some oats and chocolate biscuits), stocked up at the main store on the track, and headed on to Valle Frances. tdp-sunrise.jpgAnother glacier, hanging, with frequent avalanches to a secondary glacier below. The first few startle you a bit – it’s a big noise! On the way up we met Mitch and Virginie again. They had arrived and were hiking the same way as us, but had got slightly in front because of our obsession with the big glacier. We camped at the top of the valley (another free campsite, Campamento Británico – partially because the cash reserves were now extremely tight and partially because we thought we’d get another good sunrise from there). The sunrise was rubbish, all cloudy, but worth the risk, and the campsite was almost empty because of the extra effort required to reach here – a bonus for us. So we went back to sleep after sunrise, and didn’t manage to leave until 3 in the arvo. I’m not sure where that day went, but I wasn’t tired for a change. The rest of the day back down the valley, and one more around to the camp below the Torres. An early start to view sunrise on the main attraction of the park. We had pretty good luck (again), with nice colours on the rock for sunrise, and a completely clear sky just after (a bit annoying though – we saw the sunrise from a distance the next day, and it was cloudless, oh well). The towers are quite impressive, and well worth a walk to go and see them. However, I rather liked Fitz Roy in Argentina, for several reasons. Ahh, what am I saying, they’re all different, and all spectacular.

tpd-steve.jpgThe towers came out to play, just after sunrise! Cheeky buggers!

.who’s that?We walked out of the park, slightly smelly (ok, so we stank, but that’s not abnormal :)). Caught a bus back to our bikes. I think this may be the first bus or car since Santiago. A few weeks months at least. Jumped on, and rode less than a kilometer before realising we were actually pretty tired, camped behind the ranger station.

One more day on the bike to reach Puerto Natales and the dreamed of food and bed. There were few complaints at the time, but apparently I was riding too fast. Yeah? Well, I was tired and hungry and over cycling for a few days. So I may have jumped in front of the group and just headed for town.
Sabine: “Would you have stopped for lunch if we hadn’t?”
The Strange Australian Animal: “Nope”
Can you believe the names I’m being called?

And now we are here, only 700km to Ushuaia. Well fed, rested, and apparently not leaving until Friday. Why so long? Because Stefan and Sabine want to rest. So why don’t I leave them and go on alone? Don’t ask stupid questions. They came up with the idea for a chocolate fondue. Why would I leave people like that? And secretly I don’t mind stalling a bit longer. When I get to the end of the road I have to turn around and come up with a new target.

Now. The chocolate has worn off. Where do they keep the seafood and chicas around here…



4 responses

6 03 2008

Those pictures look really good. Still going ”bok” I see…
Good luck on your last part.

8 03 2008

Yes. Now the “bok” or “bock” also know the U finger sign for Ushuaia.

You are where? Made it to NZ yet? How was the trip back north?

22 03 2008

This is great!! Thanks for sharing all these details about your trip. This past February, I was one of those silly people who went by bus from Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine (and stayed in a shockingly overpriced refugio, eating the amazingly expensive food). I had been planning to visit the park for just one day and then move on but met a really nice Chilean tour guide on the bus from El Calafate to Puerto Natales who persuaded me to spend a few days in the park. That wind in Torres was just ridiculous! Anyway, just wanted to let you know I’m enjoying reading about your trip, which I guess is just about over. I hope it was wonderful and unforgettable.

take care,
Gaby (in Washington, DC)

22 03 2008

Well, thankyou, I don’t get too many comments from the US. But I guess there must be some readers there. Torres del Paine is pretty expensive, but the place is amazing. Actually lots of places in Patagonia are great.
You should try cycling against that wind!

The trip is over?? No-one told me 🙂 The cycling south has ended (I’m in Buenos Aires already!), and I’m not exactly sure whats coming next… but I’ll try to write about it!

Anything unmissable, that I may miss, in Buenos Aires… while I’m here?

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