A WALK THROUGH PATAGONIA
Two weeks alone in one of the most incredible corners of the world. Trekking through glaciers, hitchhiking across borders, and meeting some of the most fascinating people every step of the way.
A NIGHT IN BUENOS AIRES
I decided on Patagonia for Thanksgiving break three weeks before my flight. For a variety of reasons, now was the perfect time to go. The highlight of the trip would be hiking the "O" trail of Torres del Paine National Park in 7 days. I was moderately fit and had some hiking experience, but I hadn't ever done anything close to this. My longest camping trip was for just a night at a time. I've never hiked in unpredictable weather, and hadn't ever used a camp stove to cook for myself. Despite all that, I didn't think twice about my decision to go alone. Whatever I lacked in experience I tried to make up for in preparedness and research.
Before I could start my trek in Patagonia, I first needed to spend a night in Buenos Aires. My flight was uneventful, and I was already looking forward to the next flight the following day.
At the airport, I called for an Uber to my hostel. After some difficulty finding my driver, I learned that Uber was apparently illegal in Buenos Aires and we needed to be secretive about the pickup. My Spanish wasn't conversational, but it was apparently good enough for my driver to tell me about what he thought of Donald Trump. He even missed two turns because of how animated he became.
After checking into my hostel, I stepped out for a long walk to explore the city. If I was going to be in Buenos Aires, I might as well check it out.
I needed a quick lunch, so I headed to Pizzería Güerrin. From everything I read, it was a great example of Argentinian pizza. I unfortunately arrived at what seemed to be a wild lunch rush. In a panic, I ordered what I thought was a single slice and ended up with a personal pizza. I didn't mind. It was a sloppy, overflowing, cheesy mess, but just what I needed.
Springtime was in full bloom, but that didn't change how ugly I found the city. The architecture and fashion were unattractive (not pictured) and the poor state of the economy was easy to read from the graffiti scrawled throughout the streets. After about 5 hours of wandering, I decided I had enough and made my way back to the hostel.
I arrived to my hostel room and found three guys lounging on the floor. After saying hello, I left and returned with a round of cold Stellas. DeNilson, Pablo, and Jefson introduced themselves to me and said they were visiting from Brazil. They only spoke some Spanish and very little English. Unsurprisingly, it became easier to communicate the more beers we had in us. The running joke of the night was actually pointing at each other and making fart sounds, followed by uncontrollable laughter. Some emotions are just beyond words. After starting a ping pong tournament, we rallied a group of six others from the hostel to go drinking with us. I slipped back into the hostel at 2AM, many hours after I had hoped to be fast asleep.
TO EL CALAFATE
I woke up to a hangover and a chorus of deep snoring. I quietly packed and said goodbye to the guys, promising to take them up on their offer to visit for the annual Carnival of Brazil. I got to the airport and noticed lots more hiking boots and trekking gear. We were all headed to Patagonia. The flight to El Calafate made me wish I had a window seat. The Patagonian landscape of mountain peaks, blue lakes and flat desert areas opened up below us as we got closer to the airport.
The hostel I booked had a rare view overlooking the lake from its common area. Before I left to take a walk, I signed myself up for for their all-you-can-eat grilled meats dinner. I figured it would be an easy way to meet some of the people staying in the hostel.
El Calafate is pretty small, so I wasn't walking for long. I settled for lunch at a cafe by the lake and watched some kids play soccer. I was also surprised at how many healthy-looking, clean, friendly stray dogs the city had. I'd later learn that this was common in nearly every city I'd visit in Patagonia.
Dinner at the hostel was a series of one delicious meat after another. Two German guys, Sven and Julian, sat by me and we talked about their month-long travels through Patagonia. They even did the Torres del Paine trek, but only the southern half (known as the "W" trek) of the entire trail I planned on doing. They tried to convince me to limit my hiking to just the "W" but fortunately I ignored their advice.
We were later joined by Adi, and older Israeli lawyer. He told us about how after his military service in the 80s, he never travelled the world (which he said was common after completing service) and now he was taking his chance. He added that he didn't expect mixed dorms in the hostel, and how uncomfortable he was with two girls who were walking around the dorm room topless. We had a good chat and he invited me to visit him in Tel Aviv some day, but I had to promise not to tell his wife about the mixed dorms.
I found Sven and Julian out on the deck watching the sunset slowly disappear. We sat down with some local beers and chatted until it got too cold.
PERITO MORENO GLACIER
I slept poorly again, this time kept awake by the sound of half a dozen dogs barking outside. After a quick breakfast I hastily packed for the first of my three hikes. Although Torres del Paine would be the highlight, I planned to start with a trek on the Perito Moreno Glacier not far from El Calafate. There were two possible treks on the glacier, both requiring a guide: Mini-trekking and Big Ice. The latter involved going to the center of the glacier, whereas the Mini-trekking only skirted the edge.
Although Sven and Julian also booked the Big Ice tour, I spent most of my time hanging out with Daan, a Belgian guy sitting next to me on the 2hr bus ride. Daan was on a one-month tour of South America, and had just been to the Atacama Desert. I started to realize how many possible itineraries there could be and already knew I needed to return to Patagonia.
Perito Moreno Glacier is one of the most popular attractions in Argentinian Patagonia. The glacier is easily to get to from El Calafate, and there's a balcony that overlooks the glacier from close up. It's also one of the few glaciers in the world that is advancing, rather than retreating.
The bus dropped us off at the balcony for about an hour. Daan and I hoped to get lucky and see a large piece of ice falling into Argentino Lake. The sound of ice cracking was common every few minutes, deeply rumbling from the face of the glacier. There were several boats in the lake carrying tours, keeping a safe distance from the ice wall in case of falling chunks (or broken pieces floating up from underwater).
The bus took us to a ferry which crossed the lake. The guides mentioned how lucky we were with the weather. Apparently it had been the first sunny day after two weeks of rain and snow. Tours still go on in poor weather; it's just not as fun for anyone.
We hiked for an hour and a half through the forest until we arrived at a clearing, steps from where the ice of the glacier touched the land. We were outfitted with crampons and harnesses (just in case we fell into a crevasse) and took our first steps on the ice. After a brief tutorial on how to properly walk with crampons uphill, downhill, and along traverses, we were split into smaller groups and assigned our guides.
Daan and I were paired in a group led by Tato, an Argentinian who had remarkably perfect English. He introduced us to Seferino ("Sefe"), the second guide who cooly said very little throughout the tour.
Tato quickly decided our group was fit enough for a more interesting and challenging route, one he recently found when scouting. There wasn't a specific trail we needed to follow, and it was up to the discretion of our guide whether we were capable enough to make it to the center of the glacier. Sefe periodically ran ahead to check for any interesting (or dangerous) features to look out for.
The closer we made it to the center, the more interesting the glacial features on the surface became. Some stretches were rife with deep crevasses that we needed to make long steps over, or avoid entirely. Along the edges of the glacier, we saw deep sinkholes, collecting water from higher parts of the glacier and forming into gushing streams and mini waterfalls. Tato warned us that if we were to fall in there would be no chance of rescue. He also told us not to worry about stepping on the blue ice, which most of us assumed we'd fall into. The blue color was a result of air bubbles being squeezed out of compact, densely packed ice.
We found a spot to have lunch alongside a lazy stream which we could drink from. I thought about how only two days ago I was at my desk finishing up some work, and I was now having lunch at the heart of a beautiful, massive glacier thousands of miles away.
We were treated to a shot of whiskey and chocolate on the return ferry ride. I got to know Daan a little better on the bus ride back to El Calafate. He was a social worker and also toured Europe with his metal band. We made plans that evening to meet for dinner after changing clothes. I also needed to do some shopping for snacks and lunches for the big week ahead. Starting tomorrow I'd be doing the "O" trek in Torres del Paine. After sending messages to folks back home that I wouldn't have internet for a while, I set off to buy my food. I was late to meet Daan for dinner and didn't see him. I regretted not having exchanged contact information. Instead, I opted for another round of the all-you-can-eat meats dinner at the hostel, where I met Shwetha and Anil. They were two young doctors from NYC and were convinced to do the Big Ice trek as well after hearing about my day.
THE ROAD TO TORRES
I left my bed at 6AM to reorganize my pack in the common room, repositioning my food and clothes for the upcoming big hike. Somehow, as it always happens, my pack was harder to close than before. The first bus I needed was heading to Puerto Natales in Chile, a town known for shuttling hikers to Torres del Paine.
To my great surprise, not only did I find Daan on my bus, he also was assigned a seat next to mine. We both joked that we should exchange contact info now before we forgot.
Daan was approaching the end of his trip and he offered me some items from his pack. My fingernails were growing long so I accepted his clippers. When we arrived at the border to enter Chile, everyone was asked to leave the bus and enter the customs building with their packs. Every backpack and bag was required to be checked and scanned, and we were all asked to appear in front of a customs officer to declare anything they considered potentially hazardous to the Chilean environment. I nervously decided not to declare the cured meats I bought for my lunches. After about an hour, we all re-boarded the bus and headed to Puerto Natales. Because of the unexpected delay, I missed my connecting bus by about 20 minutes. Busses only left in the early morning bus and in the afternoon, so I was out of luck. Before I got too sad, I noticed then that there was one final bus departing in 5 minutes. I immediately bought a ticket and excitedly said goodbye to Daan, and that I'd see him in another corner of the world again.
I napped on the bus, and thought about a few things. I was getting used to the smell of my own body odor. I thought about how I was only minutes away from jeopardizing the entire trek, since I had campsite reservations for specific dates. It felt like I had been gone for such a long time, even though this was really only the start. I also compared this trip to my trip to Bali last year, where I never stayed in a city long enough to make real friends.
I woke up from my nap when the bus arrived to the Ranger Station, where we were required to watch a video explaining the park rules, mostly warning us to not start a fire and only camp in official campsites. Forest fires started by visitors burned over 50,000 acres of land in the last decade or so. I'd apparently get a chance to hike through some of the burned parts.
The hike to the first campground, Camp Serón, would be the first time my legs felt a taste of the upcoming week. I was full of curiosity and my legs were fresh. I powered through any uphill segments and was riding a wave of self-confidence.
The air began to cool as the sky changed from a light blue to a faint lavender. The sun was no longer in sight and obscured by the mountains to my left. I checked the time and noted that I needed to pick up the pace if I wanted to make it to camp by sunset. Fortunately for me, it was springtime and the sun set late in Patagonia at 9:30pm.
Still, I wasn't sure what to expect on my first night and I hadn't seen anyone for miles, so I moved quickly. I passed by a pack of horses grazing out in the field the trail cut through, not staying long enough to appreciate them.
At one point, I came across a stream cutting across the trail. I checked to make sure that I was still the right path, and sure enough could see trail markings directly on the other side. After stalling for too long, I took off my boots and dipped my feet into a section of the stream that was a lot further down, and shallower. My legs were soaked cold up to my knees and the late evening air wasn't ideal for drying myself off. I put on my boots and pushed forward.
I arrived to camp at exactly sunset, setting up my tent quickly after checking in. I saw a group of English-speakers having dinner over camp stoves and under a cloud of mosquitos. They kindly asked that I help them finish their boxed wine, of which they had two liters. I was more than happy to pair it with my freeze-dried meal of mac & cheese in a bag. I met Terry, a rowdy Australian guy who was showing us his new ear piercing, done by a stranger at a hostel while they were drunk and high. We all agreed it looked infected and someone agreed to help him clean it up in the morning.
From within my tent, I could hear a loud couple who arrived close to midnight. Not only did they have trouble setting up their tent in the dark, they mentioned to the assisting ranger that they hadn't ever set up a tent before. I took a few swigs of whiskey to help myself fall asleep and not focus on how annoyed I was.
TO LOS PERROS
I rationalized my decision not to shower in the morning. I'd be unbelievably gross by the end of today's hike. I was also short on time, sleeping longer than I should have and I also underestimated how long it would take to prepare breakfast and re-pack my things.
Today would be my first big day, nearly 17 miles with lots of elevation gained and lost throughout the day. I planned to drink water every 20 minutes, whether I wanted to or not. Yesterday I felt my calves cramp up towards the end of the day, and I planned to prevent that today.
Not long after I set out on the trail did I feel a drizzle of rain misting in the air. The clouds to the west looked menacing, but the rain was light and never lingered for more than 10 minutes at a time. I wasn't sure what to make of it so I made frequent stops to add and remove my raincoat, as well as protect my pack with a rain cover.
There was a point on the map marked as extremely windy, and it was immediately apparent I had arrived to that spot. Within a matter of feet, the wind went from completely nonexistent to forcing me to carefully place every step. I did get a little bit of dirt blown into my eyes despite my sunglasses. It had been less than three weeks since my Lasik surgery, so I did my best to try and be more careful.
I got to Camp Dickson later than I hoped. It was quite a beautiful campsite, right on the late with a view of snowcapped mountain peaks to the north. I scarfed down my lunch while bundled from head to toe to protect myself from the aggressive mosquitos. Some other hikers from the Serón camp were stopping here, setting up tents. I had more trekking on today's agenda for myself.
I started on the trail to the Los Perros camp, where I'd be camping for the night. I couldn't believe that I still had a few more hours of hiking to do. I pressed forward, but I had a few hiccups along the way. At one point along the trail I stopped for a stretch, and left walking my walking stick (named "Harry") behind. I ran back to get it. At another point I decided I needed to reorganize my entire pack to reposition the bottle of Jack Daniels that was pressing hard into my lower back for the last six hours. It was at this point that I first met Mary Alice (M.A.) and Emily, two girls also hiking the "O" trek from Austin, Texas. We were all headed to Los Perros and I would see them for the next few hours, when I'd sprint ahead, stop to remove gravel from my shoe, or slow down to a crawl on the rough uphill stretches. At one point I took a long rest to lay down on a large, fallen tree in the forest, staring up at the sky thinking about how my motivation was at an all-time low.
I trudged on and eventually Mary Alice (M.A) and Emily caught up to me. This time I stuck with them, hoping they didn't mind my company since I needed them. Emily told me about how she was repurposing a small school bus to a house back in Austin, which she could use to travel the country. After one final uphill push, we finally made it to the Los Perros Glacier viewpoint. We weren't far from the camp, so we took our time to enjoy the view.
When we settled in to the Los Perros camp, it was raining lightly. It had been 12 hours since I started on the trail. There was an issue with my tent, where an important section of fabric supporting the frame ripped cleanly off. While hiking, I thought of a plan to use my knife and some zip ties to "sew" it back together. Fortunately for me, it worked and I felt like a genius. The Los Perros campsite was extremely primitive, and I forced myself into a dark shower stall with extremely cold water. It's surprising how clean you can get if you move fast.
Over dinner, I shared some of my whiskey with Alexi, a friendly Frenchman with dreads that I met on the trail today. I picked up on his French accent and decided to practice a bit. He was on a year-long journey throughout South America with his girlfriend, Marine. They told me about their travel blog (link), and I went to sleep that night thinking about whether I would want to ever travel for that long.
OVER THE JOHN GARDNER PASS
I was the first one to wake up at the camp, at 5AM. Today's hurdle was the John Gardner Pass. Everyone camping at Los Perros had the same plan: hike over the pass before mid-day, when the weather would start to become unstable. I even packed an extra day's worth of food in case the snow and winds were too strong to make the journey across. About a week ago hikers at Los Perros were advised to turn around and backtrack because of snow limiting the visibility of the trail for days. A few years ago, a solo hiker died on this part of the trail because he ignored a ranger's advice and tried to cross in terrible weather.
The first hour of the trail was carefully wading through mud, almost half a foot deep at points. I relied heavily on my walking stick to guide me. The blisters on my toes and heels were ripe and each step was still painful. I tried not to think too much about the nasty rash I had on my hips from the pack rubbing against it.
When the trail opened up, I could see the pass ahead of me without a cloud in sight above. There would be about 4,000 feet of elevation to cover, and I was quite slow at uphill stretches. I kept getting passed by hikers from the campsite who woke up far later than I had, but I didn't let that discourage me. I prepared for my slow crawl up the pass by waking earliest, so I had something to be proud of.
I ended up taking frequent breaks, soaking in the incredible views on both sides of the pass. There was a moment where my Camelbak valve burst and began spraying water all over my camera. I panicked for a moment, but somehow it was still working.
After several hours of slow progress, and some uphill shuffling through snow, I made it to the top. I was rewarded with a view of the Grey Glacier. The winds were absolutely intense, so much so that it was almost necessary to crouch to stay in place. Soon after I arrived, Emily and M.A. showed up. I was thrilled to see them.
The trail took a steep downhill turn for the next hour, and we'd be hiking along the Grey Glacier to our right side the entire time. The downhill was brutal on my knees, so I moved even slower than I did on the uphill. I took a long rest with M.A, Emily, and a few girls who we met on the trail. They were Americans who happened to be part of an internationally ranked Ultimate Frisbee team. I took a rest for far longer than I should have, but I didn't care. I was tired.
When I arrived to Camp Paso, I was late by a few hours from my initial planned time. I hoped for a quick lunch, but ended up chatting with Ryan, a guy from England who had been travelling for a year throughout South America alone. I ended up asking him some questions that had been on my mind. I asked about his dating life while he was on the road. He also told me about how frustrating it gets when trying to explain to friends at home how incredible a certain experience was. He said he often ended up keeping a lot of memories to himself as a result.
I said goodbye and set out on the trail again. At this rate, I would make it by sunset. Emily and M.A were camping at Paso for the night, so I was on my own. I took a caffeine pill out of my first aid kit for extra support. Within an hour of hitting the trail, I arrived at a rushing gorge that I needed to cross by foot. I saw a couple on the other side, who motioned for me to hike further up in order to cross safely. Every step up through the soft sand sunk me backwards half a step. My shoes were collecting gravel and sand and I couldn't find an easy point for crossing the water, which was in full force from ice melting from the mountaintop throughout the day. After stalling for a while, I found some rocks protruding from the water and took careful steps, nervous about slipping in. A few steps in, I did end up dunking my foot twice, soaking my boot entirely. After a few more quick, careful steps with my heart racing, I made it across. I cursed the park for not having a better trail to cross this part. When I got to a safe point, I tried to dry off my boot and change my wet sock.
My body was pumped with adrenaline and I had spent a half hour to cross a distance of 30 meters. For the remainder of the trail, I decided to run. This happened to be one of the most scenic segments of the trail, with the glacier over my right shoulder, but I only took brief glances at it. I was determined to make it in time, and I had momentum. There were two incredible rope bridges that I crossed that I did make sure to appreciate, although I wish I had stayed longer.
I made it to camp twice as fast as I expected to, and I had a triumphant grin when checking in. Camp Grey was the first campsite that had hikers who were doing the shorter "W" trek. The camp was also far less primitive, with a fancy restaurant and a full bar that was supplied by a ferry that arrived several times a day. When I met some of my fellow "O" trail hikers, we talked about what a culture shock it was for us to be here. There were a lot more grey-haired people in tour groups, and young hikers in cute, brand new hiking outfits. I took my first warm shower in a few days also. I didn't have high expectations from the dinner I reserved, but it ended up being a three-course meal. I wasn't sure whether to be delighted or disgusted with all of this.
I found two guys from the trail camping nearby, and invited them to help make a dent in the remaining Jack Daniels. The sound of mice scampering around my tent kept me awake for a bit, but I slept deeply that night.
PARTY IN PAINE GRANDE
Today would be my first easy day since I started the trek. I took my time in the morning, and saw M.A. and Emily show up around lunchtime from Camp Paso. I called over another American guy nearby, Mark, to join us.
Mark was at the start of a year-long adventure through South America after quitting a well-paying corporate job. He was stretching every dollar he had to extend his trip for as long as possible. While eating, I teased Mark about how he (mistakenly) thought packing only oats and ramen noodles for 7 days was a good idea.
We set off on the trail together as a group, taking frequent breaks since we were in no rush.
A few hours later we arrived at a gorgeous campsite, Camp Paine Grande. It was at the head of a lake, with a fantastic view of several jagged mountains. I had another dinner booked, and I found out from the others that they had nicknamed me "The Prince" because of how fancy my dining situations had been so far.
I was in a great mood, and we all had reason to celebrate. There was even a family of small foxes playing around in the field near the tents. The hardest part of the trail was behind us. I decided this would be the night I'd finish off the Jack Daniels, and take a load off my pack by disposing of the glass bottle.
Everyone seemed to be in a celebratory mood. We cleaned off several bottles of wine, beer, and of course, my whiskey. I almost felt like the trek was over, which probably wasn't the best mindset to be in.
Mark, Emily, M.A. and I agreed to take a long string of thread and drunkenly make friendship bracelets that we'd wear for at least a year.
I stumbled out of my tent at 2:30am to pee, almost tripping over my own feet a handful of times. The wind was quite strong that night and threatened to blow my tent over. I looked up and saw a spread of stars and rushed to get my camera.
After about 20 minutes, of trying to take a decent picture, I realized that the manual focusing of my camera was broken. I wasn't upset. I was surprised that it had taken this long for something to break given everywhere I've been with that camera.
TO CAMP FRANCES
I wasn't happy with my alarm this morning, and threw my phone to the far side of my tent after the alarm had gone off. My body was both sore and hungover, a somewhat new feeling for me. I gave myself another hour or so before I decided I should really pack up and leave.
After breakfast, I set out on the trail alone. I don't remember seeing the others at the campsite in the morning. My feet dragged on for hours. Part of my low morale may have been a result of seeing the catamaran ferrying people back to the park entrance, and I thought about how nice it would be to take the easy way out. The thought was demoralizing.
It was Thanksgiving, and I was getting better at spotting who the Americans were on the trail. To force myself out of a negative mood, I tried to be extra cheerful about greeting them appropriately.
The first goal today would be Camp Italiano, a few hours of a hike away. After trudging through a burned forest, I arrived at Camp Italiano. It was located at the base of the "W" trek's middle prong. Many hikers left their large packs at this campsite to trek up the trail to view the French Valley, before returning back to pick up their gear.
I saw Mark was at Italiano, and heard he had been idle for a few hours. We chatted over lunch were joined by Chris and Nick. We agreed that the uphill trail to the French Valley looked cloudy, and there was a good chance of more rain the higher we went. It was obvious to all of us we were making excuses to not do the 5 hour hike up and back. We got a tip that there was a viewpoint only an hour up the trail that was close enough to the full trail. We decided to go for that, and left our packs in the campsite and started the ascent.
Without my pack, I felt like I was flying up the hill. It was still a tough hike, because my legs had been beaten down from multiple days of intense use. Still, it felt odd and pleasant to not have 40lbs pulling me down. We got didn't stay for long at the top. No one else we saw was going further up the trail either. There was a thick fog above us, and we were all privately relieved to have been spared the chance to hike further.
I slowly made my way to Camp Frances, a short hike from Italiano. It was the newest campsite of the park and we had to hammer nails into platforms to hold our tents in place. The site also had what were the best showers in the entire park. They seemed bizarrely out of place, and looked like they belonged at an Equinox gym.
Mark and I celebrated Thanksgiving dinner together. I had extra freeze-dried meals in my pack, in case I was held back due to poor weather crossing the John Gardner Pass. I was happy to lighten my load, and Mark was thrilled to be spared another night of ramen, especially on Thanksgiving.
We regrouped with the others, huddling together on the side of a tent. I was quietly proud of the Americans I saw for using their holiday to explore the world, rather than spend it with family.
TO CAMP TORRES
I had my first great sleep in a while. The platform I pitched my tent on was flat and level, which felt almost like a luxury.
I woke up at 5:30AM and was remarkably efficient with my routine. It was apparen that I was getting good at this.
Over breakfast I chatted Sarah, a woman from Washington D.C., who was staying at one of the nice (and pricey) domes instead of a tent. We exchanged thoughts on what it was like to travel solo, and that we were never really alone. There were so many great people around. She did admit regret about having rented a dome instead of bringing a tent. Apparently there wasn't much of a social atmosphere with those staying in the domes, and she spent Thanksgiving on her own.
I set out for the trail headed for Camp Torres. It was a free site, but reservations were hard to come by and strictly enforced. This site was the closest one to the Torres del Paine viewpoint, and I had managed to snag a highly coveted spot for myself online two weeks earlier. It would be a big hike day for me. The others were camping at a mid-way point, and would instead make the trek up to the viewpoint tomorrow.
I was feeling motivated, but I took a caffeine pill anyway. I ripped through the trail without stopping for breaks or even checking the time for my pacing. I was even snacking while hiking, and also layering up and down clothing as the weather changed without taking my pack off. I didn't think about much at all either. I was motivated purely by the thought that I was so close to the end. In fact, when I passed other hikers I'd give myself a point and made a little mental game of it to push myself faster.
At one point I passed by a beach along a lake and remembered what Julian and Sven had told me almost a week ago. They apparently went skinny dipping here and were joined by several other hikers. It was cold but worth it they said. I thought about it but didn't want to lose the momentum I had been coasting on.
I made it to Camp Chileno, which was en route to my final stop. While stopping for a brief lunch of snack bars, I met a Swiss guy who was livid about being turned away from the Dickson campsite because he didn't have a single reservation. He had hiked over 30 miles and was cursing the park for taking advantage of nature and profiting off of it. He said that Switzerland allowed all campsites anywhere to be free for all people. I didn't argue with his absurd argument. Chile was certainly not Switzerland, and a significant draw of the "O" trek was that it was limited to only 80 people per day.
I had just a little further to go before I made it to Camp Torres. I paced myself with a ranger who had no pack on at all. I beat him to the campsite and measured my time. I was hiking at 3x the normal speed and I felt fantastic. I arrived triumphant and chatted with the rangers in Spanish with a gigantic grin on my face. Eventually they asked if I had a reservation. I proudly nodded and told them my name. They asked for the printout, or a screenshot on my phone for proof. I had neither, and what followed was a very awkward standoff where no one was sure what to do next. I desperately didn't want to be turned away. He broke the silence in the air and let me set up my tent.
It was still mid-day. There was no reason for me to have hiked so fast. I took a long nap for several hours, and woke up in the late afternoon extremely sore and in dire need of some stretching. I made myself an early dinner and chatted with some of the other campers. All of them had gone up to see the Torres which was an hour further along. I decided to quickly get my things together and set off for the trail before it got too dark.
Again, I felt felt the relief of to not having to carry my entire pack. After scrambling up some large boulders, I finally arrived at the viewpoint.
The Torres del Paine (towers of blue) were stunningly beautiful to see in person. I had the dumb luck of no one else being there at all for the next hour until sunset. It was somewhat surreal, sitting there in complete silence and stillness, staring up at thin clouds wisp around the edges of the granite spires. I stayed for as long as I thought I should, and then a few minutes longer.
I hurried down, and recklessly departed far from the trail because I missed a trail marker. I got back on track and flipped on my headlamp. While hopping my way down, I came across three inexperienced-looking hikers heading up in full gear. I warned them that it was getting dark and they wouldn't have much time at the viewpoint. They dismissed my concern and didn't say much.
The trail was getting darker and I was grateful for my headlamp, even if it was only illuminated a fraction of the trail. It soon hit me that the three hikers I saw were camping at the viewpoint. I spent the next half hour debating whether or not to tell the rangers, since it was forbidden to camp outside the official sites. I eventually did. Two very angry rangers made their way out into the dark night with bright flashlights, returning hours later with the three rule-breakers.
COMPLETING THE 'O'
I made a decision not to hike up to Torres for sunrise like everyone else did. There was no way the sunrise view could compare to the rare, solitary experience I had yesterday evening. It was also quite cold.
Over breakfast, I met Shane, an Australian guy biking solo from Alaska all the way to the tip of South America. He was on his last month, after being on the road for over a year. He was on track to complete the "O" trek in just four days, which amazed me. I questioned him about his worst experience on the journey so far and he told me about two weeks of nonstop rain in Ecuador. He would wake up to torrential rain, pack his tent in the rain, bike in the rain, have his meals in the rain and eventually set up a tent on the side of the road in the rain.
I packed up my gear and started to hike back down. I saw my friends hiking up to see the Torres and high-fived them as they passed. My pack was at its lightest and I hadn't been this well-rested since I was in New York. I was practically skipping down the trail.
I quickly made it to my final stop, Hotel Las Torres, a 4-star hotel where I planned to hang out for a few hours before my bus departed.
I was asked to keep my backpack outside, and as a courtesy, I switched out my sweaty t-shirt for something drier. I was quite happy, and had a nice lunch with beers and cocktails. I sat with a 60+ year old couple who I saw several times throughout the "O" trek. They were also on a South America bike tour and had been traveling for 7 years. I found found so much fascinating about them and told them they were quite an inspiration to me.
By the time my bus arrived, I was five drinks in. I napped on the drive to Puerto Natales. I planned ahead to have a private room to myself at the hostel as a reward. It was a simple bed that occupied most of the room, but Diego, the guy managing the place, referred to it as the presidential suite. I lay in bed for almost an hour, messaging people back home that I was alright after disconnecting for a week. I was also thrilled to have my clothes sent to the laundromat.
Mark happened to have booked the same hostel, and showed up with bad news. All of the buses leaving out of Puerto Natales were sold out for the next few days. This wasn't good. I had a connection to another bus in the city of El Calafate the next day. Diego overheard and suggested I hitchhike, and left to tear a piece of cardboard off of a box. He gave me a marker and told me where I'd need to stand in the morning if I was seriously considering it. I didn't think too much of it. I was happy to be done with the trail and tonight everyone I met on the "O" trek would be celebrating the end.
Several of us met up at a small restaurant in town and had a great time being the loud, obnoxious Americans (at one point someone fell backwards in their chair). We switched over to a brewery in town where even more people from the trail happened to be. I invited a German girl, Henrike, from our hostel to join us. She was heading to Torres del Paine to start a trek in a few days.
The mood at the bar was fun, but it was a bit sad to say goodbye to everyone. We'd all be separating and going our own way. I told M.A. and Emily that I'd see them next year (it helps that they live in Austin, a city I love). The rest of us switched to a local dive bar and I learned Chris and Nick were looking for a discotheque. Henrike and I found that funny, but there actually was a nightclub in this small town. In any case, it was 3AM and I was beat, so we headed back to the hostel.
HITCHHIKING TO EL CHALTEN
I had grand plans to wake up at 6AM and be waiting on the side of the road by 8AM, but I was exhausted from the long night. After packing my things once again, this time with freshly laundered clothes, I said goodbye to Henrike and Mark. I told Mark that I would try seeing him again, hopefully in some other country at the end of his one-year adventure.
I got to the side of the road where Diego suggested, beside a highway leading out of the city. I prepared for a long wait, and was glad it wasn't raining.
I saw four American guys with musical equipment further ahead, also heading to El Calafate. I wasn't worried. There was no way they could be picked before I would.
Within 5 minutes a car slowed down and pulled over. The guy behind the wheel told me to hop in. He introduced himself as Javier, and after some fumbling in Spanish, I realized he spoke very good English. Javier was an anthropologist studying native Patagonian languages of the past. We didn't speak much and listened to Ukranian jazz music. Javier mentioned that he could only take me as far as the border office on the Chilean side, but that I should have no trouble finding someone who would cross the border into Argentina.
After thanking Javier for the ride, I walked into the border control office to get my passport stamped and "check out" of Chile. The guards asked whether I was part of the tour bus outside, and I told them I planned to walk across the border. They groaned and wished me luck.
The area I needed to cross was a 5-mile un-maintained, barren expanse that was traversed via a thin gravel road. I could see cars and trucks occasionally barreling down, kicking up a cloud of dust which would be swept away by the strong breeze. I hiked for over 80 miles already, so I didn't dread the thought of five more.
As soon as I set foot to start, I heard shouting, which was almost caught by the wind. A Chilean border guard found someone willing to help me. I was overjoyed and ran over to a man standing next to an empty shuttle bus. I showed him my sign to confirm the destination, but he ignored it. He was in a rush and I later found out he didn't speak much English.
We soon got off on the Argentinian border office, for both of us to "check in" to Argentina. We later got back into the bus and we didn't speak much. In addition to my Spanish not being good enough to make small-talk, I was still tired from the night before. I felt bad for taking a nap, but there was nearly 5 hours of road ahead of us. When I woke up, we had stopped at a gas station. He returned with a bag of lunch and a cold soda, which I gladly accepted. His name was Fernando and he worked at the El Claafate airport, shuttling passengers around Patagonia. When we arrived to the airport, I gave him a generous tip in Chilean pesos, mostly because I wouldn't need them anymore, but also to pay forward for future hitchhikers who may not be able to pay for their ride.
I arrived to El Calafate in the afternoon, when most restaurants were closed. I was in the mood for a second lunch so I headed over to an open restaurant. There were two men in front of me waiting for a table, both Americans. The hostess told me that the wait would be 40 minutes for me. The two guys overheard and insisted that I sit with at their table so I wouldn't have to wait. The younger man was John, a luxury travel consultant from Denver who had been a travel journalist for over a decade. The older man was Miguel. He was retired and was now a world-traveler who seemed to be in a different country every week. They had both traveled the world several times over, and were heading over to Antarctica the following week. I had a fantastic conversation with them, and wanted to pay for their meal, but they forcibly held my card down and insisted on paying for me. (I became friends with Miguel on Facebook and have been keeping up with his incredible adventures. He's pretty awesome).
I got on my bus and headed over to El Chalten along the famous Route 40, arriving just before it got dark in the small town. From the road leading into the city it was possible to see Mount Fitz Roy jutting into they clouds in the backdrop. I had plans to hike the trail tomorrow to see it from close up. I checked into my hostel and met some of the other guests who kindly shared their beer with me. I went out for dinner alone, since everyone had eaten already. I used the poor wifi of the restaurant to send messages to folks back home, telling them about my hitchhiking adventure and that I'd be starting my last trek tomorrow.
THE TRAIL TO FITZ ROY
I woke up feeling quite strong. It was either that my body was adjusting to the new routine, or I was mentally more comfortable with the mild aching and soreness. I circled the small town a few times until I came across a place that seemed promising. Along the side of the main street, there was a tiny shack selling empanadas. They were pretty phenomenal and I made a mental note to return another time.
The trailhead began exactly at where the town ended. It started off with an uphill hike, which took some time for my body to warm up to.
I thought about how each day I took a caffeine pill resulted in me flying through the trail. I took another pill, and sure enough, I was ripping through the rest of the trail.
I got to the campsite quite early. I started realizing that the one downside to hiking so fast was I'd end up with a bunch of excess time. I set up my tent and chatted with the guy setting up next to me. He was a fit American with dreads, and I noticed his climbing shoes and started by asking where he'd been climbing around here. He introduced himself as Chris, and we decided to pair up and "beast up" the rest of the trail to the viewpoint.
Chris was a good hiking buddy, since I forced myself to push harder rather than take it easy. From the campsite, it was a vertical hike without any switchbacks for a little over an hour.
I also got along well with him. He had been working on a farm in Patagonia for six months, learning all sorts of cool skills and dramatically improving his Spanish. He told me he preferred to have a job where you showered after working, rather than before.
We got to the top and a magnificently blue lake opened up in front of us. It's hard to show how large the lake was, but in the photograph above, you can see small people along the edge of it. Fortunately for us, Fitz Roy, the tallest of the peaks, had only a few thin clouds lingering around the top.
I learned a bit more about Chris, and how he worked on trails at one point. Something he started doing since those days was taking a "naked shot" from a spectacular viewpoint. After scoping out the area for the best vantage point, he settled a panorama that would show another lake nearby, which was not only a different color but also at a different elevation. I helped him with the photo (not pictured here), and also chased after his things when the strong winds were blowing items from his pack away.
We sat along a small peninsula jutting into the lake, watching the water glitter against the sunlight. We chatted about how many more places like this view existed in the universe beyond Earth. I told Chris that I made a promise to myself as soon as I first saw Fitz Roy that I would climb it in six years. I guess I'll be back in 2022.
It was three hours since we arrived to the site and the mountains started to get obscured by more clouds. It was four more hours til sunset and both Chris and I decided that we wouldn't get much of a view anyway if the clouds continued to block the view.
We arrived back to the campsite and sat together for dinner, trading seasonings and spices to improve our meals. Chris and I were eager to see the view of Fitz Roy for sunrise, and that meant waking up at 3AM. Both of us called it a night early and set our alarms.
SUNRISE ON FITZ ROY
I woke up well-rested and ready. For good measure, I took a caffeine pill. Chris and I set off on the trail, carefully taking our steps in the darkness. Our headlamps provided some guidance, but we at one point almost took the wrong trail.
The rain started hitting us as we were making our way uphill, and Chris told me about his hike in Kilimanjaro a few years ago. I tried to ask as many questions as possible, hoping to distract from thinking about how I wanted to take a break.
The wind was even more brutal at the top than earlier. Not only was it faster and colder, it was carrying rain. We managed to find a massive boulder to shelter ourselves against while we waited for the sun to illuminate the spires. In the dark we could see distant headlamps up above that seemed to be traversing a portion of the mountains. I couldn't imagine how much worse the weather must have been up there.
Two hours passed by fairly quickly, and we did our best to distract ourselves by talking about anything, including philosophical empiricism of all things. For most of it, I was shivering, and thinking about any small change I could do to retain warmth, including lacing my boots up even tighter around my ankles. After a half hour more, we made the call that the clouds weren't going to give us a shred of visibility. I wasn't disappointed. I was too relieved that we were leaving the cold, and was thrilled to be moving again so I could warm up. We were rewarded with a magnificent view of the valley on the way down though.
When we arrived to camp, I started packing my things and setting aside whatever I could pass along to Chris. This was my last hike of the trip, and I had no use for my paprika seasoning, wet naps, granola bars, and hard candies. I took some trash from Chris as well, since my next destination would be to head back into El Chalten. I even found someone in the campsite who took my fuel canister in exchange for their nearly empty one.
I said goodbye to Chris and took a slightly different route back, along Laguna Capri. When I arrived to the lake, I was convinced I needed to strip down and walk in. This would be the last glacial lake I'd see in a while. I waited for an elderly couple to finish eating their lunch before I decided to go for it. The water was cold, but I dried off fairly quickly in the wind. I happened to be in there when some American girls were passing by joking about joining in. I was sure I made it onto someone's Facebook album.
I got back to the hostel after a stop for more empanadas. I chatted with Mathias, another guest. He was moving to Prague for work after his vacation in Patagonia and invited me to visit him there some day. I was disappointed though that everyone in the hostel was too tired to join me on my last night. I was determined to have fun, so I left to wander. I saw a girl hitchhiking to El Calafate and walked over. We ended up chatting while she was waiting (for a long time) for any car to stop.
I moved on to a microbrewery nearby and settled in with a few pints. Soon after I sat down, a girl sat in the table next to me and was working on an impressively realistic drawing of a dinosaur. I asked her about it and she told me she was working on an art exhibit in Paris a few months later. Until then, she was travelling Patagonia solo. Claire added that the dinosaur drawings were actually erotic, and pointed out the subtle penis symbols on the plants they were eating. We ended up hanging out for dinner and several rounds of drinks, and even ran into Mark who finally made it out of Puerto Natales.
I woke up early early the next day and packed my things. This time, it was really the lightest my pack had ever been, and also the strongest my legs had ever been. After the bus dropped me off in El Calafate, where I'd fly out of, I spent most of my time finally buying gifts for folks back home. With a wifi connection in a cafe, I started to transition back to normal life, reading hundreds of emails and Slack messages that had been accumulating. I was even thinking through the meetings I'd have tomorrow. Unlike most people I met on the trail who quit their jobs without thinking twice, I really enjoyed mine. I also had doubts about whether I could travel for an extended period of time, since I liked the idea of a home base to return to.
I knew that what I would miss the most was going to be the people I met, as well as how easy it was to make friends here. I would rather lose every photograph I took than a single day of memories from meeting people. I'd also miss being able to dress like a bum everywhere. An undershirt, dirty hiking pants, flip flops and not showering regularly had its charm.
For me, this felt like the first time that I actually took a trip. It had everything I could want and more: incredibly rare nature, pushing my physical and mental limits every day, and constantly meeting fascinating people. It certainly has changed the way I think about how I'll be spending my free time and any future travel I do.
There were so many stories I didn't have the space to share. This was really only the tip of the iceberg. However, I'll make room to thank a few people who helped me out with supplies: Ben (base layer, camp pot, carabiners), Katie (hot sauce, leftover hiking gear), Daan (nail clippers), and many others who gave me tips or linked me to their friends.
I hope reading this encourages you to go as well. It was a post like this that motivated me years ago to travel. In addition to writing for my future self to remember small (but meaningful) moments, I also write in the hope that someone will book an adventure for themselves and see a different part of the world.
If you do plan on visiting anywhere I've been, message me directly and I'd be happy to walk you through my gear list, as well as some practical advice on what to do and not do.
Thanks for reading!