To Patagonia or not to Patagonia

23 April – 11 May 2011

What could possibly peak the views of being a yard away from a blue footed boobie on the Galapagos Islands, the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu, snow peaked volcano’s reflecting in one of the many colouful lagoons on the Salt Flats tour or the immense rock formations of the Quebrada? My next three weeks, that’s what. For me, travelling is about being immersed into different cultures, meeting amazing people to share your experiences with, eating rice and chicken every day, treating every night like it’s Saturday night and witnessing sites that get your pulse racing. When the hairs on the back of my neck are stood up, I forget about the horrific border crossing/New Year camping/pervert putting my hand on his willy/attempted robbery combo and my travels all become worthwhile.

Because I’d spent nearly two months in Bolivia, by which time I was due a bit of a rest, (travelling like a maniac and spending a couple of day in each place is no fun), I’d gone slightly over my time schedule of a month in each country. I contemplated for so long about whether to miss out Patagonia and do it another time ‘properly’ in the warmer months but then decided that I really needed to get down there. I’m from Yorkshire, I’m used to the cold, wind and rain. The pace of moving in Patagonia is very sloooooow so you have to allow an extra week here and there. There’s nothing like leaving the W Trek to the very last minute before all the Refugio’s would be closed too. It was going to be tight.

The W Trek (the more popular section of The Circuit in the shape of a W) can take anything from four days onwards with The Circuit taking at least nine days to complete. The prize, Torres del Paine (Towers of Blue, Paine is an indigenous word meaning blue, though the towers are not blue). I set off with a day to spare in case I broke a limb and it would take longer than the advised five days.

I’d met numerous people who had ‘done the W’ and had generally had good weather and was told at a free talk about the hike that generally the winter months have the most consistent weather of clear blue skies though very cold and fresh. I was hopeful. And pleased that I wasn’t the only loon who wanted to do the trek right at the end of the season. It turned out that Claire, also English but living in Aus with her partner Tom, an English couple Ben and Emma and a Belgium called Issac would also be setting off in the morning so at least I wouldn’t be doing the hike on my own.

At the start there was the option of taking the ‘rip off catamaran’ or walk from Administration ‘an easy flat 5 hour walk with amazing views of Cuernos del Paine, if the weather is good’. The weather was horrific but the majority of us, (bar the Belgium) decided to save ourselves a few pennies and do the walk anyway, each of us carrying around 17-20 kilos. We picked up Lee from Korea who was waiting for the weather to ease at Administration. He would have been waiting there at least two days.

This was by far the worst way to start the walk. The 43km/h lashing winds from the Pacific and Atlantic literally knocked us over as we walked heavy footed across flat unsheltered land, the force of the rain whipped us so hard in the face that it felt like hail, we couldn’t even lift our heads though there was no view anyway so we just stared at out monotonous steps. Our faces were so numb that no-one knew if they had snot dribbling down their chins. After doing several hikes with sticks I’d hired them again (I don’t care if people call me an old lady – they’ve been my saving grace more than once), and I’m so glad I had them as they prevented me from falling over many times as I dug them in the ground often whilst screaming. It barely stopped raining in those painstaking five hours.

We reached Paine Grande, the Refugio where I was due to spend the second night. I still had another four hours of hiking to do as I’d booked to stay nearer to Glacier Grey but I’d already walked 18km, it was getting dark and I would have been walking on my own. I wisely paid the difference for the Refugio, the price of the rip off catamaran, and stayed with the others. I was literally soaked to the bone but at least my backpack got a bit of a clean and although it got drenched, it dried off with the strong winds. As miniature Claire could barely keep her feet on the ground, the Aussie’s arrived with about five minutes of daylight to spare, just enough time to erect their tent.

Paine Grande views, W Trek, Chile

The lake at Paine Grande, W Trek, Chile

All the refugios are in stunning locations. I went to take a look at the lake and nearly got dragged in from the winds. I’ve literally never known anything like it. Then I went to sit by the fire. Later we warmed our cockles with wine, rum and whisky though at least I had a bed to sleep in, the others were camping.

Day two and my soaking wet hiking gear got put back on. The worst thing is having to put on wet hiking boots but there is just no way that these were going to dry overnight. No pain, no game. It’s much the same as wearing high heels. Doing anything feels like more of an achievement in appalling conditions. As we were staying at the same Refugio for the second night, at least I didn’t have to cart 18 kilos with me on the 22km round trip to Glacier Grey.

Route towards Glacier Grey, Day two, W Trek, Argentina

Glacier Grey, W Trek, Chile

Although it pissed it down for most of the morning a tiny bit of sun peaked out when we reached the glacier though it was so windy that we could only stay at the view point for about 10 minutes, whilst trying to eat our lunch with frozen hands. I’m so glad I didn’t do the walk the previous night as it took over four hours and wouldn’t have been safe in the dark. On the way back Korea’s leg seized up, ‘When I go on long hikes I can’t walk for about a week after’, he tells me, ‘Errm, maybe you should have thought twice about doing a five day hike at the end of the season, in the middle of nowhere, with no guides patrolling the park and hardly any other tourists around too’. We head back painstakingly slowly but I can’t leave the cripple and end up giving him my sticks.

Day three and my soaking wet hiking gear got put back on again, boots seemed wetter. The cripple is still in bed. ‘Go, I’ll hold you back’, he whimpers. ‘OK, bye’. Today is the longest day of hiking but on the plus side we can leave our backpacks at Campsite Italiano and head up the middle section of the W, Valle Frances. There is no sign of the Aussies so I head out with the English. It’s raining again.

7.5km and a couple of hours later we reach Campsite Italiano, a free campsite but you can see why it was free. There were no working bathrooms or facilities, one shelter, merely a hut strewn in crap and abandoned sorry looking collapsed tents on the ground. We hung up our bags of food in the trees so the starving mice wouldn’t gnaw there way through our backpacks and set off to Valle Frances.

Snow up Ville Frances, W Trek, Chile

The blizzard starting to kick in on the way up Valle Frances, W Trek, Chile

It had finally stopped raining but as we climbed higher it started snowing, then it got heavier, then it turned into a blizzard. For some reason we were still eager to carry on but when we bumped into the Belgium with a guy from the Cayman Islands they told us that they’d turned back due to an open bit of land and a heavy blizzard making trekking almost impossible. We carried on for a bit longer then decided we should head back especially as it would be a few hours before we reached the viewpoint but then the chances of seeing anything would be very slim.

Views from Refugio Cuernos, day three, W Trek, Chile

Views from Refugio Cuernos, night three, W Trek, Chile

The weather finally picked up a bit and it was a pleasant stroll to Refugio Los Cuernos again set in an amazing location. ‘We have a problem’, the guy working at the Refugio tells me, ‘…we have not tents so I’m afraid you’ll have to sleep in a bed for the same price.’ ‘That’s outrageous’, I moan.

I hear screaming and a loud bang whilst in the shower and upon asking ‘Que paso’, (what’s happened/going on?), the guy working there picks up a dead mouse by it’s tail and dangles it above his gaping mouth. The chef lets out another screech. Other than that it’s a pleasant night in the cosy Refugio where we polish off most of the rum and whisky as we sit by the fire. There is no sign of the Aussies, (the other’s seem to be dropping like flies) but we figure they probably stopped at Campsite Italiano for the night, poor buggers. We also decide that we might try and get to Torres del Paine in one day and back down to the final Refugio which would save me from getting up at about 3am and walking in the dark on my own for four hours just to see sunrise there. (Because I’m not carrying my own tent, I can’t stay at the campsite nearest to the towers meaning the only option is to do the hike in the morning/middle of the night). We work out that it’s about 30km, yeah easy, especially as we’d only hiked 18 hours on day three.

Sunrise day four, W Trek, Chile

Sunrise day four overlooking lake, W Trek, Chile

I get up and I leg it with the English. The sunrise it awesome and finally it’s a really clear warm(ish) day; it’s such a joy to walk today, good job as we have 29.5km to go. We barely even have time to stop to take photos. A few hours later we reach Refugio Chileno, the nearest Refugio to the towers though annoyingly closed already, but at least we can dump our bags. We stop for lunch and a cup of tea to warm us up and the Belgium pops up about five minutes after we’ve sat down. He’d like some tea too but doesn’t have a cup but it’s OK because he’s nearly finished eating a jar of jam with a spoon. I offer him a teabag as we watch remnants of jam floating about in his jar of hot water. He happily accepts.

It feels like the last hurdle and I’m really excited even if darker clouds are starting to loom but I can see some blue sky trying to poke through. We pass a couple (day trippers) as we cross a bridge and attempt to find the trail which isn’t so easy. It’s really marshy and wet and we have to scramble up some parts with loose gravel. So glad I’m not doing this in the dark on my own, I’m thinking. We finally see orange paint on the barks of trees and get back on track. A few minutes later we same the same couple casually walking over a bridge ahead of us. ‘Why did you take the horse path?’ they ask us.

We get nearer, just an hour to go with the last 45 minutes being a ‘scramble’ though it’s not so bad at all, and then we reach the ‘scramble’. It’s steep and rocky and so windy that we’re clinging to the loose rock for dear life. There doesn’t seem to be an actual path and we can’t scramble up one behind the other as rocks tumble down the side of the mountain after we’ve stepped on them. Again the safety precautions in South America are top class.

Torres del Paine, Day four, W Trek, Chile

We peer over the ridge and see the most spectacular sight. I get goose pimples though mainly because it’s freezing. Torres del Paine in it’s full glory with a turquoise lake below, still cloudy but it’ll do. We stay there for less than five minutes as it’s so windy there is every chance that we’ll get blown off and there is no shelter. My woolly hat actually flies off my head but I managed to grab it while it’s airborne.

Torres del Paine from Refugio Chileno, day four, W Trek, Chile

Then the skies clear while back at Refugio Chileno. After a sugar hit we set off for the final hurdle, around 6km but the longest 6km ever after already walking 25km. I can barely lift my feet towards the end but feel elated that I don’t have to get up in the middle of the night and do the grueling walk to see Torres del Paine, especially as it might rain too. It’s dark by the time we reach Refugio Las Torres and the others have to put up their tent in the dark, I’ve hired a tent so luckily it’s already set up for me. The guy who shows me the tent has kindly bought along a beer for me but then invites me for a beer in the bar, ‘errrm later, after a shower.’ ‘They’re not working’. ‘Well after food.’ ‘There’s food in the bar.’ ‘I have food, goodbye.’

We cook dinner. Belgium is eating a huge pot of undercooked white rice. ‘Do you want some herbs and spices to put in that?’ I ask him. ‘It’s not about the quality Claire, it’s about quantity. I’ve seen that you have been eating none stop.’ ‘Whaaaaa, piss off Belgium, that was energy to get me through this’. I’d been really anal and packed up snack bags of bits of cereal bars, fruit, nuts, seeds, chocolate and sugary sweets in zip lock bags and rationed daily for the hike. I can’t believe Belgium was judging me though he was right, I was eating constantly but it’s the one time I don’t feel guilty for eating chocolate. Later we congratulate ourselves on completing the W with a couple of tetra packs of red wine, not actually too bad, so long as you don’t start on the good bottled stuff.

Not a bad view while waiting for the bus, day five, W Trek, Chile

I almost freeze to death in the tent and keep waking up to add an extra layer, and then there are no more layers to add. The amazing views make up for this though.

Glacier Perito Moreno, Argentina

Glacier Perito Moreno, spot the boat! Argentina

Next stop was a bus across the border to El Calafate, Argentina, the gateway to see one of the only glaciers in the world, Perito Moreno, that’s growing at a rate of two metres per day. Huge blocks of ice fall off the face daily with thunderous crashes; the sight and sound is immense. We’re at the National Park for almost six hours but I could watch if for hours and hours. The only downside of El Calafate is the stinky Greek guy in our hostel who just reeks. It smells as though he’s been festering in the same bed for weeks though he’s only been there for a few days.

I work my way back up towards Northern Patagonia and the Lakes District in Argentina breaking up the 22 hour bus journey to Bariloche with an uneventful day in El Bolson where we went hiking to some uneventful sights, then to an uneventful Artesania market, then to an uneventful beach in the National Park. ‘Bohemian and arty’ is the description the Lonely Planet gives El Bolson. The only boho thing about it is the crispy Argentine selling crap at the overpriced Artesania market. ‘You won’t want to leave’, continues the Lonely Planet. We left within 24 hours even though I was booked into the hostel for two nights but then I was a bit scared of staying in the dorm on my own with a creepy Argentine who after chatting with for five minutes wanted to marry me and move to London.

My first impression of Bariloche wasn’t that great, though probably due to the fact that I was staying at an unwelcoming hostel. I got in late, everyone was already in the tiny bar downstairs, had something to eat, felt a bit scared and went to bed after I managed to step over the exploded contents of a backpack including giant bras and what appeared to be size 8 Converse. I quite like trying to second guess who my room mates are from their ‘stuff’. Some messy bitch with big tits. Turns out Irish Niamh is a right good laugh. We meet over breakfast and she apologises for the chaos.

Niamh has already met Louise, who’s birthday it was that day and Tori who Louise was sat next to on a loooooong bus journey from Buenos Aires. Got that one to look forward to. We end up hanging out for a week or so and turns out very eventful, though only after I move hostels after my second night and end up staying at a really good welcoming social hostel, 41 Below, which funnily enough, everyone moved to after starting off at Pudu. The staff at Pudu were almost crying when I left, the owner stating, ‘Winter is finally kicking in’. ‘Nah, your hostels just shit’.

OK view I guess, Cerro Campanario, Bariloche, Lakes District, Argentina

Cupcakes and tea for Louise's birthday, Bariloche, Argentina

Louise's birthday dinner at The Hobbit, Bariloche, Argentina

How to make a normal night ace, add foam, Bariloche, Argentina

Sunrise at the Civic Centre, Bariloche, Argentina

The National Geographic claims that the view from Cerro Campanario in Bariloche is one of the top ten in the world. I figured this was like one of the million ‘Seventh wonder of the world’ claims. Whatever Schmeographic. Schmeographic, I eat my hat. We were literally blown away with the beauty of the 360 degree view over the Lakes District surrounded by snow capped peaks. It was truely incredible and the perfect weather helped. (The picture above doesn’t do it justice). We stayed there for about two hours having a very long lunch. Back in Bariloche we treated ourselves to cupcakes and a proper cup of tea. (My first cup of tea that tasted the equivalent of Yorkshire Tea for six months). It’s nice to hang out with just girls sometimes as there is no way that you’d ever see a group of guys oooing and ahhing over cupcakes. For Louise’s birthday meal we went to a really cute restaurant called The Hobbit for meat. I couldn’t decide so got the trio of meats. Such a bloke thing to do. (I am actually turning into a man. I looked at myself in the mirror the other day and I’ve got such fat cheeks that my jaw looks like David Coulthard’s). We sank red wine at the hostel then a few of us went out and what was a mediocre night turned out to be hilarious thanks to a few cans of foam. We even got a bottle of champers bought for us which we sipped in the VIP section but I should have known better than taking it. Of course accepting champagne = groping allowed. Still it was a hilarious day. As I stumbled into the hostel at 6am my nightmares began of how I would manage the killer bike ride with Niamh at 10am.

I didn’t get up until 10am, and was still pissed from the night before. I still had to check out and move hostel and by the time I got there Niamh had only just got up and was feeling a bit worse for wear too so we went for an easy hike to the beach, in the rain. We cook a roast dinner and I make an apple crumble much to the disgust of fellow travellers in the hostel. Yum.

Glacier Negro, Bariloche, Argentina

Pretty autumn colours on the hike to Glacier Negro, Bariloche, Argentina

The next day we hired a car to see Ventisquero negro (black glacier), black because the glacier picks up dirt and sediment from it’s surroundings, basically a dirty glacier. The drive was amazing in itself but when we got to the National Park we got lost and attempted to hike up a closed path. We figured we’d gone too far so headed back, past a view point which we thought about stopping at but it looked a bit crap so carried on. The next thing we know all these white mini buses are passing us going where we’d come from and realised that what we thought looked a bit crap was actually the glacier. We decided to walk as the petrol was running low and there was no where to fill up on the way back until we got back to Bariloche by which time it would be too late. After the 6km hike passing autumnal trees, we reached the Glacier just as a million other tour groups arrived. This is the beauty of having a car, so you can prevent arriving at the same time as the tour groups. We sat bemused. At least we got a bit of exercise. I drove back, really badly. I think Louise was pretending to be asleep as she couldn’t bare to watch.

Refugio Frey, Bariloche, Argentina

I wanted to get a long hike in before I left and my god I got just that. We were told that the walk to Refugio Frey was a good one with amazing views at the end. Three lads from Ireland also came along though nearly missed the bus as they were so laid back. Us girls were there about 30 minutes before the bus arrived eagerly waiting, the lads were buying their tickets in the office as the bus pulled up. Us girls were arguing over who would use what tupperware the night before, the lads hadn’t bought their lunch and all the shops were shut from where the hike started. Us girls would at out salads, the lads would just eat whatever carbs were on offer at the Refugio when they arrived. Us girls gassed for most of the way up, the lads had a ghetto blaster perched on one of their shoulders, actually they were mini speakers but it sounded like a ghetto blaster.

We raced up like the clappers. Some parts were tough but it was good to get a sweat on and the view at the top was pretty spectacular.

There was an option to walk via the lake on the way back so we decided on that as it’s always more interesting to do a loop. And what should have been a four hour hike up only took us two hours 20mins so we knew we could get down in about an hour and a half, besides, going via the lake would only add a few kms to the journey. Myself and Niamh set off first, leaving the lads who are still eating their three courses of carbs. We start running down, and then I sprained my ankle. I hobbled on. We were no where near the lakes for ages and turned out to quite a boring walk and even more boring because we missed the turning off and ended up going completely off track and walking through marshy land. The path and footsteps had disappeared and were replaced by the odd horses hooves. The only option was to trace our steps back along the boring walk with my sprained ankle. We’d completely missed the turning and were relieved to get back on track only to end up getting lost again as the signs weren’t clear. We ended up adding about 10km onto the walk, not ideal with a sprained ankle and all the while it was starting to get dark. We decide to give hitch hiking a go and stop to ask locals with vehicles where the bus stop was. ‘We’re so tired, we’ve already walked 17km today.’ I whimper. ‘Well if you’ve managed 17km, I’m sure you can manage the other 2km to the bus stop.’ And then the bastard drives past us later and has the cheek to wave. We don’t end up waiting that long for the bus but we do miss our stop when in town and end up heading out of town. It’s now dark and my ankle has seized up and I can barely walk so we decide to get a taxi that almost crashes. ‘What the hell happened to you girls’, the lads ask us. Turns out they’d walked via the lake, done a tricky scale down a mountain to the beach and still managed to get back before any of the girls. Well they’d picked up lost Louise who was happy to hear the ghetto blaster on the way.

The whole hostel are bleary eyed over breakfast the next morning thanks to a couple shagging in one of the dorms and a party on the landing, about a metre away from all the dorms. I give myself a day off to rest my ankle and go for more cup cakes.

Later Emma and Ben from the W are in town so come round to the hostel where we get through tetro pack after tetro pack of red wine and the night fades into oblivion.

I feel like death the next day but being hungover on 22 hour bus journeys is a good thing as at least you sleep for most of the way, even if you’re tight and go for a semi cama. However I have to get the match sticks out as for the first two hours as the scenery is amazing and there is a kitchen on the bus which gets me rather excited. Then I fall to sleep and hope that the next time I wake up I’ll be in Buenos Aires………….Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

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