Condoriri trailhead Bolivia

The ABC’s of Hiking South America

“Mountains are not stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve, they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion.” – Anatoli Boukreev

While North America has the Rockies, South America is blessed with the spectacular Andes Mountain Range. The Andes are an incredible mountain range passing from north to south through seven countries making it the longest continental mountain range in the world. There is something about the Andes that is simply magical. The grandeur, scale and scope of the Andes is mind-boggling. Over 4,300 miles long (7,000 km) and at points up to 430 miles wide (700 km), the Andes are immense and are blessed with some of the highest volcanoes in the world and largest ice fields.

I have been lucky to have set foot on the Andes in Peru, Chile, Argentina and most recently, Bolivia. There is no way I can pick favorites as each place has been unique and special in its own way. Here are the A,B, C’s of the best hikes in Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, some of my most favorite places on earth to hike.

Argentina

Located at the end of the world, in the tiny Patagonian outpost El Chatlen lies Los Glaciares National Park, one of the finest in Argentina. The landscape is serene and the raw beauty of remote Patagonia is sure to inspire. There are several day hikes in the park and instead of camping, you can spend the nights at a local inn indulging in delicious local food and wine. You are also a bus ride away from the famous Perito Moreno Glacier, definitely worth a visit.

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Los Glaciares National Park

My Top Five Wild Hikes

I just finished reading Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” a dark, raw and fiercely humorous book on how one woman finds herself during a three-month long trek through the wild Pacific Crest Trail. The book is powerful, emotional, honest and inspiring, and Strayed uses her brilliant memoir to take a hard look at self-discovery, heeling and change.

Of course when times are tough, we can’t always pick up our bags and leave town. Yet, I often find that there is no better way to escape and reflect upon life than to go on a hike, and the more remote and wild, the better. I have been fortunate to have done many wonderful adventurous hikes over the years.  Although every hike I’ve done has been special and has brought me to a new place, there are a select few that have truly inspired me and are unforgettable.

Here is a list of the top five wild hikes that are bound to get your mind thinking.

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The Magic of Torres del Paine revisited

Lately I’ve been having fun playing around with new iPhone applications like Snapseed and Instagram.  For a novice photographer, these photo processing applications are a ton of fun.  You just snap away and can process the picture into amazingly different styles right at your fingertips.

Since early spring, I’ve been using my iPhone a lot to take pictures, mostly of flowers.  One reason is that it is so easy and portable.  I always have it with me usually in my pocket.  Another reason is that my iPhone actually zooms much better than my small, pocket-sized Canon Elph.  I must admit that I am no professional photographer.  I just love to take pictures during my travels and am actively working on getting better at it.

Besides using Snapseed for photos I’ve taken with my iPhone, I’ve also began using it to revisit older pictures I’ve taken from the past such as these ones I took back in 2003 in Patagonia.  These photos were scanned since I didn’t have a digital camera at the time.   I took these files and imported them into my iPhone into Snapseed and here is what I came up with.  Not bad, huh?

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Farewell Patagonia…until we meet again

The use of traveling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are.  – Samuel Jackson 

We woke up Saturday morning to perhaps one of the most perfect days in Patagonia.  The birds were singing in full glory to welcome the rising sun above the serene Patagonian landscape.  The sky was as blue as the sea and clear except for a few lazy powder puff clouds lingering off in the distance.

We packed our belongings and ate our last meal at the Eco Camp with our friends.  Despite the amazing week we had experienced, I felt a deep sadness and distress at the thought of leaving.  I knew that leaving the park represented a return to reality:  Work, stress, life in the fast lane, and no more “smelling the roses” each day.

As our van pulled out of the park’s main entrance and we looked for one last time at the breathtaking landscape around us, we realized that the view was the exact opposite as when we had pulled into the gates of the park at the start of the week.  When we had arrived, our first sight of the park was completely hidden by clouds.  When we left, it was nearly cloudless and spectacular.

Like my soul, the clouds had lifted and we could see the phenomenal beauty of the park in all its glory.  As I took in my last sight of the park, I made a promise to never stop marveling at the beautiful world we live in and more importantly, to relax more often, enjoy life to its fullest, and most of all, be happy.  Out of everything that I had gained from the trip, these few words of wisdom were the most valuable of all.

Last view of the park.

On the way home, in Punta Arenas, I made sure that I had a chance to stop in the Plaza de Armas and rub the toes of the infamous Ferdinand Magellan monument.  That means I’ll be back.  I certainly hope so!

Stay tuned…next post will be to the Land Downunder!

Adventure Travel Chile TRAVEL BY REGION Trekking/Hiking

The unforgettable hike to the flagship “Torres” del Paine

“To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.” – Bill Bryson 

Today was it.  The final leg of the “W” trek to the infamous, mysterious las torres, the towers, which are the trademark of this incredible park.  It was going to be a long, tiring hike taking over 8 hours of our day.  But I was ready for the challenge as I always am.  We prayed that we would have a clear day so that we would be able to actually see the towers and the Gods must have been watching us from above.  When we woke up in the morning, the sun was shining brilliantly against an azure blue sky.  It was a postcard perfect day, a rarity in Patagonia.

Morning view outside our Eco Tent.  A few fluffy clouds floated graciously against my favorite colored sky:  Blue.

We felt so incredibly lucky.  Cristian told us that a group of Irish travelers had attempted the trek to the towers three times over two days and had never seen a thing. Since the towers are the most famous and unique feature in the park, we really wanted to do the hike and more importantly, have decent enough weather so we could make it to the top and see las torres unhidden by the clouds.  The thought of such dedication, persistence and perseverance of the Irish trekkers intrigued me.  What a pity, I thought reflectively yet secretly hoped we would not be faced with a similar fate.

After another large breakfast of an all-you-can-eat-yet-not-feel-the-slightest-bit-guilty buffet, we headed out for our big hike to las torres.  The first forty-five minutes were relatively tiring, knee-breaking work as we ascended from 0 to 1,500 feet rather quickly.

A few more clouds trespassed into the sky.  Yet so far so good.  The view was still promising. 

The hike was a lot of ups and downs through a huge river valley that afforded spectacular panoramic views of the park.  The pure air was so fresh that my lungs were overjoyed and at ease.  I tried to enjoy each and every step with my eye on the prize.

Here is a picture of the heavenly Valle Ascencio beneath our feet.

I was amazed how well my body was doing given all this hiking.  No major aches or pains.  I felt like I was on top of the world both physically and mentally, nothing like how I felt healing my old battle wounds for six months after completing my first marathon a year before while working a job that required a ton of tedious travel and unwanted stress.   I could feel each part of my body as it worked to move me forward, methodically and purposefully, towards my goal.

There were lots hills in the hike.  At times it felt like hiking over a rollercoaster track. 

The hike was gorgeous.  Our views of the surrounding mountains and the massive glacial valley were phenomenal.  I took it all in as best as I could, knowing that today was our last day in the park.  We also hiked through a beautiful Patagonian rainforest that had patches of snow on the ground leftover from the previous day’s storm.  Thankfully the storm was yesterday and not today as I would have been extremely disappointed to miss this hike.

The blossoming red flowers within the Patagonian snow-covered rainforest.  Somehow, Spring had managed to arrive.

The windswept trail showed years and years of trees that had faced the wild forces of Mother Nature in Patagonia.

Cristian pointed out a tree that was recently damaged by the wind.  There were remnants of snow scattered across the ground from the previous day’s storm.

The last hour of the hike was the most difficult.  We hiked one hour up on terrain peppered with large, slippery rocks left over from the glacial age.

Going up and hitting the glacier Moreno. (No…I’m not falling over with exhaustion or tripping….just bending down to tie my shoe!  Thought this picture demonstrated the difficult trekking conditions.  I’m seriously not that clumsy!).

At this point, the snow was up to our knees so it was quite exhausting work, taking up all our energy and effort to continue up.  We also had to be extremely careful because the rocks had become slippery and we didn’t want an accident to happen hours away from camp.

As we got closer to the top, I had a surge in anticipation.  The sky was still clear and we had an excellent chance at seeing all three towers.  We knew that this was a rare opportunity so we hurried up as fast as we could.  We finally reached a huge boulder, which marked the last ten minutes of the hike to the top.  We still couldn’t see anything and were forced to keep our heads down the remainder of the way due to the treacherously slippery and steep conditions.

Almost there!

We continued up and then all of the sudden they appeared, three stunning blue granite towers soaring majestically up in the sky.  The sight was so extraordinary that we felt like we were on another planet.

And finally….here they are, all three of las torres, in all their glory jetting up to the sky.

We hiked up to a flat plateau with a superb view of the towers and admired their spectacular height.  At almost 10,000 feet high, the towers rose above us in an intimidating manner and it was hard to grasp their true magnitude.

I made it!  Yeah!!!!

Paul and I, thankful that we reached the top, got to see the three towers before they disappeared into the clouds.

Getting windier and colder.  It was time to put on more layers.

After taking several pictures, we found a perfect spot for our last Patagonian picnic lunch with arguably one of the best views Torres del Paine National Park has to offer.  As we admired the view, we felt truly lucky to have seen all three towers uncovered by the clouds, knowing quite well that this rare opportunity was truly a special gift.  We stayed for over an hour despite the strong, cold winds that were penetrating our multiple layers of clothes.  It was hard to leave knowing that this would be our final trek of the journey.

Me marveling at the towers and reflecting on what this week meant to me.  It is amazing how utterly relaxed I felt.  It was if my body, mind and soul became one for a last fleeting moment in time.  Soon, regretfully, I’d have to go home and face reality.

The knee breaking descent…

As we hiked back to the camp, I took in each awe-inspiring view as much as possible, trying to seal it into my memory as best I could.  Despite my fatigue at this point in the trek, I somehow felt a bit lighter with each step as if all the stress in my life had finally been released, up into the sky, chasing after las torres and dissolving  into the heavens.

As we made our final approach to the Eco Camp, I at last understood what utter freedom truly meant.  When the only thing that matters in life is life itself.  I felt so happy and at peace with myself that I didn’t want this trip to end.  I wondered why we need so much in today’s world and why our lives are so stressful.  It didn’t make any sense to me.  In nature, none of that stuff matters.

Almost there…

We arrived at the camp filled with a glorious feeling of accomplishment and deep satisfaction.  We had reached our goal and even surpassed it beyond expectations.

Photo of Paul, me and our wonderful guide, Cristian.

That night, we celebrated the end of our journey with our guide Cristian and all the other members of the fabulous Cascada team.  We indulged in a fantastic send off dinner and this time the three of us split two bottles of wine.  We shared stories of our trip and laughed a lot more freely with our Chilean friends.  It was quite a memorable evening despite my lingering headache the next day.

View of the towers from the Eco Camp.

One last look before we went to sleep.

Stay tuned…next post is my last one of Torres del Paine National Park.

Adventure Travel Chile TRAVEL BY REGION Trekking/Hiking

The calm after the storm: Day 4 Hike in Torres del Paine National Park

“I soon realized that no journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us, it goes an equal distance into the world within.” – Lillian Smith 

We rose leisurely, after being trapped for hours in the snow crusted refugio high nestled beneath los cuernos in Torres del Paine National Park.   My body felt at peace for once after being so cold, tired and distraught over our miserable, long day of trekking in the Patagonian elements.

I pulled back my covers, climbed out of bed and did the thing I do first each and every morning of the day, no matter where I am:  I pulled open the blinds to peer outside.   I took in a huge sigh of relief, smiling and thrilled, to see the sun once again.  The storm had passed and it was clear once again in Torres del Paine.

We had a leisurely breakfast and left the refugio around ten o’clock for a short four-hour hike along the aquamarine Lago Nordenskjold bringing us back to the luxurious Cascada Eco Camp.  Although it was not perfect, it was a gorgeous day in comparison to what we had experienced the day before.   It was cool, partly cloudy and dry.

As we hiked away from the refugio, we could see the imposing Los Cuernos (“the horns”) in the background.  Cristian told us that the refugio at Los Cuernos was his favorite one in the entire park and we could finally understand why.  On a cloudless day, the jagged peaks of Los Cuernos soared majestically in the sky, reaching upwards behind the refugio.  The view was quite stunning and serene.

The peaks of Los Cuernos sticking above our refugio.

We took our time and hiked at a light pace, marveling at the spectacular scenery that was finally uncovered.  I inhaled the fresh, clean air and let my body relax, taking each step at a leisurely pace.

Passing Lago Nordenskjold, it is still quite cold.

While enjoying our picnic lunch in an open valley, we saw two condors soaring gracefully above us, in search of food.  Suddenly I realized that this was what we had come to Patagonia for:  An escape from everyday life and a taste of absolute freedom.  Being outside surrounded by nature and far away from phones, computers and TV’s, was one of the most liberating feelings I’ve ever experienced.  At that moment, I wished we could stay here forever.

Wind blowing fiercely off the mountains….yet the sky was getting bluer and the sun was warming up.

Look at it blow!

Our lunch spot…a little slice of heaven.

We arrived back at the Eco Camp by early afternoon and the weather had done what it is known for in Patagonia—-a complete turnaround.  The birds were singly loudly, the sun was shining brightly and there was not a single cloud in the sky.  It felt like summer in Patagonia.

View of the Torres (towers) behind the clouds and our destination for tomorrow’s hike.

We took it easy fo the rest of the day, enjoying the change in weather and wishing we had shorts.  By late afternoon, our cocktails were awaiting which was followed by a delicious dinner.  At this point, we felt truly spoiled.  The meal was a far cry from the food at the refugio.

Paul and I enjoyed another gourmet meal at the Eco Camp. 

Once again, we had the entire Eco Camp to ourselves and we could only imagine how different our entire experience with Cristian would have been if there were more people on the trip.  A group of two is nothing like a group of twenty.  The intimacy is gone as well as the serene, peaceful moments which are washed away in continual chatter and noise.  How fortunate we were!  It felt like fate.

We drank wine as the sun set behind the torres, excited about tomorrow’s hike to the mysterious, granite towers which name this park.  We prayed for good weather but remembered Cristian’s famous words:  “Never the know” in Patagonia.

Stay tuned….next post will highlight the magical hike to the towers.

Adventure Travel Chile TRAVEL BY REGION Trekking/Hiking

A wet, cold day hiking in the icy Patagonian rain

“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.” – Jawaharial Nehru

After a fitful night sleep with pelting rain against our paper-thin tent and a real fear that our tent would up and wash away in the flooding waters underneath us, we awoke to utter, damp cold.  Throughout the night, I pulled on whatever pieces of extra clothing I had inside my backpack to keep warm.  A wool hat, gloves, a fleece, long underwear and thick, warm socks.  But I was still frozen to the bone.  Worse yet, I was even more fearful about our hike ahead.  Given the terrible weather, I was sure it would not be fun but there was nothing we could do.  Our schedule was tight and we had to go, rain or shine.

Here is me on that cold Thursday morning, freezing in the tent and not wanting to get up to face the long day ahead of hiking in the elements.  Notice my one comfort from home, my “international” pillow, that goes with me where ever I go.  Given everything, I still had a smile on my face!

Paul nudged me sometime around seven am and it was time to get out of my warm, cozy sleeping bag and start the day.  Since I was already dressed
(one benefit of sleeping in your clothes!), I was ready in no time.  I unzipped the tent gingerly, and gazed outside.  The day looked ok, perhaps even better than expected.  It was overcast and there were some dark, heavy clouds.  But it had stopped raining and the wind had died down.  I thought maybe we’d be lucky and it would clear. Today was supposed to be the second leg of the “W” trek, which was another long hike up to the French Valley, a gorgeous flower ladden valley with supposedly spectacular views of the park.

After a quick breakfast, we set out on our hike in uncertain conditions hoping it wouldn’t turn ugly.  We knew that the weather in Patagonia can be absolutely crazy and little did we know, we were about to experience it firsthand.  About twenty minutes into the hike, the clouds drew darker and the wind suddenly picked up.  Cristain said, “Is coming….the rain” and we quickly put on all our rain gear over our clothes.  Then Cristian said more urgently, “Is coming the rain, big rain” and we leaped at high-speed under a large bush for cover.  According to Cristian, no matter what kind of advanced rain gear you have, you would be completely soaked within five minutes thus it was best to take cover and wait it out.  I had never seen such an intense combination of wind and rain before in my life.  It was completely, utterly wild.

After fifteen minutes, the rain let up slightly and Cristian thought it was safe to continue.  We really had no choice anyway.  We couldn’t go back; we had a schedule to keep and had to keep pushing ahead no matter how miserable it was or became.  Unfortunately the rain also meant clouds so we could not see a single thing.  That is by far one of the worst disappointments possible when it comes to trekking:  All that hard work and no reward with a view.  Oh well.  I was briefly dismayed by the weather when I remembered that the group before us had rain for the entire week and saw absolutely nothing.  What a pity!  So I decided to count my blessings and hope for the best.

As we approached the turnoff for the French Valley, it was still raining hard and we were starting to get very cold and wet.  We took a break in the wooded area that was kind of protected by the rain and ate our soggy lunch in silence.  By this point, I was really discouraged because we would not be able to hike the French Valley yet still had another two, long hours to go in the cold, hard rain until we reached the refugio at Los Cuernos.

Here is a photo taken at our cold, miserable lunch.  Yes it is the middle of the day and it is black out!  I’m amazed that I am still smiling…..

The last two hours of the hike were quite miserable.  The wind and rain picked up and the trail was muddy and slippery.  Cristian kept telling us to “use the stick” meaning our hiking poles so we could balance ourselves and not fall into the muddy mess.  The rain fell down hard, in sheets and at one point even sideways!  We were completely soaked and I could feel water swishing between my toes with each and every step.  I couldn’t stop dwelling on the weather and the fact that I was missing out on unseen beautiful views.  But there is nothing you can do about Mother Nature and here she was in all her glory.

When we finally saw the refugio off in the distance, we were extremely relieved.  Fortunately we arrived just in the nick of time.  As soon as we got inside, the wind blew like mad and the rain suddenly turned into sleet and snow.  An unbelievable winter storm had struck outside and the refugio shook and creaked with each powerful gust of wind.  Wow, we couldn’t imagine being stuck outside, hiking in that insane weather.  We hung our wet clothing and gear next to a fireplace to dry and then sat in the main common room watching the storm through twenty-foot glass windows in complete amazement and fascination.  It was winter in Patagonia indeed.

The rest of the afternoon and evening at the refugio was quite an experience in itself.  One by one, wet, soggy trekkers would enter the refugio going through the same routine as we did; first a huge sigh of relief, followed by removing all wet items and hanging clothing to dry by the crowded fireplace, and finally sitting down at our table and telling us about their adventure getting to the refugio.  By the end of the day, there were about twenty of us trapped inside the refugio from all over the world.  SInce there was not much else to do, we hung out and talked for hours.  I couldn’t stop thinking how crazy it was being stuck inside this place sitting at a table filled with people from all over the world in one of the most faraway places I’d ever been.

The wind howled and rocked the refugio all night long yet both Paul and I slept like a baby, warm and dry, with the fire still smoking out in the common area.  Since we had no idea what the weather would be in the morning, we decided to indulge in an extra hour of sleep.  When we got up, I peeked out the window and lone behold there was a blue sky!  We were so happy!

Photo the next day of the Refugio los Cuernos where we spent a unforgetable night.

Photo the next day of Los Cuernos (the horns).

Unfortunately we were not able to get many photos of our day trekking but were thankful for the beautiful days we already had and hopeful that the weather would return to the better.  For anything is possible in Patagonia, even four seasons in a day!

Stay tuned…next post will continue our trek along the famous “W” trail at Torres del Paine National Park.

Adventure Travel Chile TRAVEL BY REGION Trekking/Hiking

The Windy Hike in Search of Grey Glacier

“It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.”      Sir Edmund Hillary

Wednesday we woke up at our usual time of seven o’clock and were the earliest risers in the entire place.  I was surprised that no one else in the jam-packed refugio was up because today’s hike was going to be a big one.  We would start the park’s famous “W” trek with a 17-mile, 8 hour trek to the Grey Glacier.  The “W” trek is the most popular trek in the park because it takes hikers in the form of a “W” to all the park’s major geological features including las torres (the towers), los cuernos (the horns) and the Grey Glacier.

After a filling breakfast of freshly baked breads, jams, cheese and meats, we headed out into the cool, gray day, hoping that it wouldn’t be our first experience hiking hours into the cold, wet Patagonian rain.  The terrain was moderate with lots of small ups and downs, and brought us through the beautiful, lush Patagonian rainforest.  The distinct smell of cinnamon, coming from the fragrant foliage, made me smile.  After awhile, we experienced our first rainfall.  It wasn’t too heavy but enough to require wearing our full rain gear of waterproof coats and pants:  A necessity when hiking anywhere in Patagonia.

Hiking up through the temperate rainforest, dressed in layers for any possible weather.

One thing that continually amazed me about Patagonia is how often the weather changes.  One moment, it is beautiful and sunny and then with a blink of an eye, the clouds roll in, the wind picks up and the rain pelts down and you are freezing cold.  Sometimes you can even experience four seasons in a day.  Whenever we asked Cristian about the weather, he would reply in his broken English, “Never the know“.  That funny, odd sounding phrase became our most cherished remark throughout the trip.  We didn’t bother correcting the grammar since that is what made his remark so special.

A picture of me along the way.  The weather had become cooler and more typical of Patagonia.  We realized how fortunate we were for the previous day’s amazing cloudless sky and continual warm sunshine.  A rare treat in Patagonia.

Four hours later, we arrived at the mouth of the Grey glacier where it thrusts into Lago Grey.  Although we had seen it from afar the day before, up close it was much more astounding and spectacular.  Standing at the edge of Lago Grey, it was amazing to think that the massive glacier is thousands and thousands of years old.  It is a pretty unbelievable sight.

Paul and I, frozen to the bone and braving the fierce, unprotected wind, at the first lookout of the mighty Grey glacier.

Grey Glacier is one of many glacial tongues stemming off the massive South Patagonian Ice Field, located between Argentina and Chile  The Southern Patagonian Ice Field is massive.  It is the second largest ice cap in the world extending for almost 350 kilometres with an area of 16,800 km².  To reach Grey Glacier is considered an awe-inspiring highlight of any visit to the park.

View of the Grey Glacier in the clouds.  I could only imagine what it would have looked like on a clear day.  I’m certain it would have taken my breath away.

As we walked through unbelievable wind and cold, the only comfort was knowing that we were not far from the terminus of the glacier.

We were unbelievably cold yet the clouds begin to slightly lift.  We wondered how many people hiked this trail, only to find the glacier completely hidden in the clouds.  What a disappointment that would have been after all those hours of suffering the elements!

We have one more corner to round, said Cristian encouragingly.  Just a few more steps through the deliciously fragrant Patagonian rainforest.

And then we were there, at the end of the glacier…we made it!  Despite the clouds, it was an unbelievable sight.  Like an enormous ocean of ice floating into the earth and water. Here I am, very very cold, but happy.  What an incredible hike!

Paul and I posing for a shot next to a large boulder for support as well as to illustrate the massive size of the icebergs and glacial tongue.  Incredible.

We had lunch at our spot overlooking the glacier and had the entire view to ourselves.  We felt so lucky to be here and were even honored to catch a glimpse of two condors flying high above us searching for food.  The whole experience felt slightly surreal, like it was all just a pleasant dream during a wonderful, deep slumber.  But this was real.  We could have stayed here all day, admiring the beauty of the view, despite the bone chilling wind that froze us half to death.

One last shot of Grey Glacier and the magnificent icebergs floating gently across the water.

As we headed back, the clouds began to lift giving us an even better view of the glacier off in the distance and surrounding mountains.  We were too tired and cold to take pictures.  All we could think about was getting to a dry, warm place and hopefully having a hot shower.

Along the way, we found plenty of fresh water to fill up our drinking water.  At first I was hesitant in drinking water directly from a stream as being an American, this was completely unheard of.  But Cristian lightly coaxed us, telling us it was the best water on earth, so we dove in, took a sip of heaven and sighed a happy sigh of relief.  It was fresh, cold and delicious, like nothing I’d ever tasted.

When we arrived back at the refugio we noticed that our tents had not yet been set up for the night.  Poor Cristian had to set them up all by himself after an exhausting 17-mile hike!  He finished just in time for cocktails and another delicious dinner was shared together with our newly made friends in the international refugio.  We tried to stay up as late as possible knowing that we were in for a cold, rainy night in our lonely, spartan tent.  Unfortunately the refugio was booked full that night so we would have to rough it in the cold, wet Patagonian elements.

Our unfortunate accommodations that night, faced with all the wild and craziness of the ever-changing and unpredictable Patagonian weather.

Surprisingly, I slept fell asleep quickly and soundly, despite the strong gusts of wind and fierce bursts of rain hitting and shaking our tent with elevating intensity.  All I could think of was “what on earth were we in for tomorrow?”.  It wasn’t so sure it was going to be good.

Stay tuned…next post will cover the third day trekking in Torres del Paine National Park.  What will the weather be like?

Adventure Travel Chile TRAVEL BY REGION Trekking/Hiking

Our first day hiking in Torres del Paine

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.    Mark Twain

We woke up to the morning sunrise, feeling a little tired yet excited for our first day of trekking.  We had come so far and had so many expectations.  We hoped we would not be disappointed. We had both slept pretty well but were awoken a few times throughout the night by the new sounds that surrounded us.  The sun was shining brightly and the birds were singing majestically.  It was spring in Patagonia.

Stepping out of our Eco Tent, we marveled at the sensational view of the sun rising over the towers.  Torres del Paine comes from the Spanish word torres meaning towers and the Tehuelche Indian word paine meaning blue.  The park is named after the three gigantic, spherical granite towers reaching almost 10,000 feet and the surrounding electric blue glacial lakes within the park.  I was continually mesmerized by the towers’ dramatic, captivating beauty, and enjoyed admiring them at different times of the day as they turned from hues of pinks and reds to blues and black as the sun rose and set behind them.

Paul and I on our first morning of trekking

Breakfast was awaiting us as well as a nice, warm fire inside the Eco Dome.  Every morning that we were at the Eco Camp, Marcelo would bake us fresh bread rolls and prepare either eggs or potatoes as the main course.  We also had grainy cereal, fresh fruit and a cheese plate just in case we were feeling extra hungry.  After breakfast, Marcelo would set out all sorts of freshly made ingredients for preparing our lunch, which we would carry and eat outdoors during our trek.  My favorite was Marcelo’s homemade chicken salad sandwich served with perfectly ripe, smooth avocados.  This became our morning ritual.

By 9 am we were ready to start the trek.  Our first day would be a warm-up day meaning fairly easy.  We would do a two-hour trek in the morning, then catch the catamaran across Lake Pehoe and do another three-hour hike in the afternoon.

Our first hike was located in the only area in the whole park where you can see guanacos and possibly the elusive puma.  It was a nice and easy hike on a gentle rolling trail through the pampa region of the park.  The trail was deserted except for a few herds of guanacos.  Despite my half disappointment and half relief, we did not spot a puma.

I was holding on tight to the rail so I wouldn’t be blown away by the amazingly, fierce wind.  Wow, it was like nothing on this earth!

A stop along the way for a much needed photo op.

Walking down with Lake Pehoe in the distance.

Guanacos in the wild would run as we approached, making it hard to get a good picture.

At the end of the morning hike, we met our driver Carlos who drove us to Lake Pehoe where we caught the catamaran across to the Pehoe refugio, which is the main launching off point for many treks within the park.  The catamaran was jammed packed with an international crowd of fellow trekkers, geared in hiking garb and loaded down with enormous backpacks.  After such a solitary hike, if felt strange to instantly be surrounded by other people.  As far as we could tell, we were the only Americans.

We arrived at the Pehoe refugio a little before noon and dropped off our gear.  We would be staying here for the next two nights, the first night inside the refugio’s bunk rooms and the second night at the campground.  We headed out for our afternoon hike and were overjoyed to see that the sky had magically cleared up and it was absolutely breathtaking out.  We realized how incredibly fortunate we were to have such unbelievable, clear weather because we knew that weather in Patagonia is totally unpredictable and one could spend an entire week there seeing nothing except the clouds and rain.  What a huge disappointment that would be!

Cristian chose a wonderful hike that is relatively unknown to other trekkers.  In fact, it was one of Cristian’s best kept secrets because the hike was awesome and we had it all to ourselves to enjoy.

We hiked up above the Pehoe refugio to an overlook of the immense Grey glacier.  The views along the way of the sun hitting the sparkling, turquoise waters of Lake Pehoe and the imposing snow-capped, craggy mountains took my breath away.  Slowly, I felt every muscle in my body relax and break free.

Stunning views of the magical Lake Pehoe and los cuernos (the horns) mountains.

As we hiked, Cristian pointed out the different Patagonian flora, two of my favorites being the calafate and the Antarctic beech, a deliciously fragrant, cinnamon-smelling bush.  Since the park contains over 200 kinds of plants and 105 species of birds, there was never a dull moment.  We ate lunch outdoors watching for the rare sighting of a mighty condor, awestruck by the incredible beauty of our new surroundings.

Pinch me, is this real?  The entrancing beauty of this place captivated my soul.

After lunch, we had a short hike up to the overlook.  As we headed up, we were nearly knocked over by the fierce Patagonian wind racing off the massive glacier.  Adrenaline rushed throughout my veins.  I could hardly contain the excitement and energy I felt as I approached the first sight of the mighty Grey glacier.  When I first saw it, I screamed in delight.  It was absolutely stunning.  The wind was blowing so hard it was wild, but that just seemed to add to the mystical effect of the place.  We took a break, finding shelter behind a large rock and admired the glacier from our little perch high above Grey Lake.  There were gigantic electric blue icebergs floating in the lake that had broken off from the glacier.  Cristian told us that the glacier was slowly retreating each year due to global warming.  It was hard to imagine that one day this glacier as well as the 60 other outlet glaciers that branch off the 223 mile long Southern Patagonian ice field could be gone.

First sight of Grey glacier off in the distance with the winds roaring like never before.

Looking relaxed while battling the wildest winds I’ve ever experienced. 

Icebergs on Lago Grey….hold on to your hat, Paul, if you want to keep it!

After battling the fierce cold wind, photos and a rest, it was time to head back to the refugio.  The walk along the way was probably the most spectacular views of the entire trek.  To not have seen the sun and miss this view would have been a tragedy.   I felt euphoric:  For this is why I take the road less traveled.  Why I trek.

We arrived back at the refugio in time for a hot shower before dinner.  We were surprised to see that Cristian had carried his own stash of supplies for cocktails thus we were spoiled once again with our Pisco Sours and array of snacks to eat.  The refugio was bustling with activity as there was a constant flow of trekkers arriving from a day’s hike.  I just smiled, relaxed and enjoyed my cocktails feeling slightly greedy for not sharing with the strangers.

We had a nice meal and enjoyed lots of laughs talking with an international crowd (which is always fun).  Cristian had even carried along our own private bottle of Chilean wine which we thoroughly enjoyed and didn’t share with the thirsty onlookers (sorry but I love my vino!).  Exhausted, my husband and I retired to our bunk room ready for bed.  Yet we both had a fitful night’s sleep given we were in a tiny room with nine strangers, all in different stages of dress (yep, we had a German guy in his bikini undies!), different smells (no comment) and different kinds of noises (some more unpleasant than others).

But soon, we were out cold dreaming of condors, alpine views and glaciers.  I couldn’t wait for the next day!

Stay tuned….day 2 of trekking in fabulous Torres del Paine National Park is coming up next!  Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed the view.

Adventure Travel Chile TRAVEL TRAVEL BY REGION Trekking/Hiking

Traveling in Patagonian style: Cascada’s Eco Camps

There are few places in the world that stir up such longings and true joy of Mother Nature than Patagonia….

We arrived at the insanely beautiful Torres del Paine National Park around 5:30 PM, completely blown away by its unforgettable beauty.  After taking a few photos near the entrance of the park, we climbed back into our van and drove in utter silence trying to take in the raw splendor of this incredible place.

Not long after entering the park, we pulled into the Cascada Expediciones Eco Camp and were instantly greeted by Cascada’s warm staff.  The team included Marcelo (the head chef), two Assistant chefs and Rodrigo.  Although I had seen pictures of the camp on Cascada’s website, seeing it in person was much better.  It was phenomenal and well beyond our dreams and expectations.

The Eco Camp is a novel alternative lodging created by Cascada to offer an efficient, luxurious, and earth-friendly option for lodging in the park.  It is the first Eco hotel south of the Amazon and the only one in Patagonia.  It’s innovative design uses state of the art environmental technology resulting in a luxurious four-star “camping” experience in harmony with nature.  Although you don’t stay at the tent the entire time while visiting the park (one night was camping outside in a tent in the rain while two other were staying jam-packed in a crowded refugio), the three nights we were at the Eco Camp were heaven.

The Eco Camp was built a few years before our visit by Cascada in an effort to be more ecologically sound by limiting the impact visitors had on the park and the environment.  The Eco Camp is far more than your ordinary campground.  There are 16 Eco Tents dispersed around the camp, which are built with a wooden floor and a canvas top.  Each ten contains one or two real beds making sleeping a much more comfortable experience after a long day’s hike.  There is also a separate hut for the ladies and men’s bathroom, with real live hot showers, a rarity in the trekking world, and efficient toilet systems that create little impact to the environment.

However, in my opinion the highlight by far of the entire Eco Camp is the large Eco Dome which housed the dining and living room for the guests and offers a stunning, panoramic view of the world-famous Torres del Paine (towers) from dusk until dawn.  The Eco Dome also contains a full kitchen where delicious home-cooked Chilean meals are served for a sunrise breakfast and candlelight dinners.

During a typical week, the Eco Camp can accommodate up to 30 guests.  Yet due to our incredible luck, during our week the lodge accommodated just two:  Us.  Thus the three nights we stayed there, we were waited and dined on by the entire staff in the most amazing, spectacular “tent” I’ve ever stayed in.  It was utterly unbelievable.

Here is a photo of me standing outside the Eco Dome where our warm fire awaited, a view of the mountains and delightful hot food made my belly ache.

Since we were the only ones staying at the camp, we got the pick of our Eco Tent and decided on the one furthest away from the Eco Dome and with the best view.  Here it is:

We unpacked a few of our belongings, enjoyed a fresh, hot shower (a pleasure in itself after hours on the road) and then headed to the Eco Dome for the remainder of the night.

When we entered the Eco Dome, Cascada’s “cocktails” were awaiting us as well as a warm fire in an antique wood-burning stove.  Every night before dinner Marcelo or Cristian would prepare our cocktails.  For Cristian, the word cocktails did not mean exactly what one would think.  Cascada’s cocktails would always include a glass of the traditional, yet controversial “Chilean” drink called Pisco Sour (there is a fierce battle going on with the Peruvians who claim it as their national drink) and a large assortment of appetizers ranging from different kinds of cheeses, homemade spreads, crackers and always a bowl of lovely olives.  We didn’t bother to correct Cristian’s use of the word cocktails since we found it quite entertaining.  During the week, cocktails would become a much-awaited tradition after a long day of trekking.

Me thoroughly enjoying my cocktails, even though all I did that day was sat in a van!

Dinner was served around 8 o’clock and we were amazed to see that it was still light out.  In the summer, the sun doesn’t set until well after ten giving trekkers many hours of daylight for exploring. Of course we never hiked that long however it certainly was wonderful watching the sun set while we ate to our hearts’ content.

Photo of Marcelo, our chef, preparing tonight’s meal.

It was just the three of us for dinner:  Me, Paul and our guide Cristian, at our own elegantly decorated table with candles and a magnificent view of the Torres del Paine.  Marcelo had exquisitely prepared a delicious four-course Chilean meal, which was served with our choice of red or white Chilean wine (I took some of both!).  The entire meal was absolutely yummy and well beyond our wildest imagination.

Photo of Paul and I enjoying a wonderful meal of excellent food and conversation.  I decided that I could get really used to this kind of lifestyle!

As the sun began to set over the splendid Torres (towers), it was time to get some sleep for we had a huge day of hiking ahead of us.  I could hardly wait.

View outside the Eco Dome at ten pm.  It was still light, just like Minnesota in the heart of summer. 

It was hard to describe my feelings for this magical place.  I had written a few words down in my journal which when I look back, years later, on this trip to Patagonia, I believe give it justice:  Amazing, spectacular, magical, surreal, special, happiness, peace and most of all, paradise.

Stay tuned…day one of the “W” hike in Torres del Paine National Park. 

Adventure Travel Chile TRAVEL BY REGION Trekking/Hiking

A Drive to the Far End of the World

“A mere glance of the landscape was enough to make me realize how entirely different this was, of all what I had ever seen until then.”

Charles Darwin “The Voyage of the Beagle”.

Our morning in Punta Arenas ended up being quite startling. The wind conditions in town were so abhorrent that there was not a soul in town except us, the two ugly Americans, checking things out. The wind gusts were like nothing I’d ever experienced. You would be in the midst of walking and all the sudden, an enormous gust of powerful, vicious wind would literally strike you and sweep you off your feet. I was shocked at how intense the wind was and finally understood why there were rows and rows of ropes and metal chains lining the sidewalks in Punta Arenas.

As I mentioned in my earlier post, there was not much at all to do or see in tiny Punta Arenas. However, we did learn a bit about this bizarre, windswept place during our stay.  The town of Punta Arenas is about twenty miles from the airport and located right on the Straits of Magellan.  It is a wind-beaten town, once known as the southernmost city in the world, awash with history but not much else.

Per Wikipedia, “Two early Spanish settlements attempted along this coast (on the Straits of Magellan), including the first (1584), called Nombre de Jesús, failed in large part due to the harsh weather and difficulty in obtaining food and water, and the enormous distances from other Spanish ports. A second colony, Rey don Felipe, was attempted at another location some 80 kilometres south of Punta Arenas. This became known later as Puerto Hambre, sometimes translated as Port Starvation or Famine Port. These Spanish settlements had been established with the intent to prevent piracy by English pirates, by controlling the Straits of Magellan. Ironically it was an English pirate captain, Thomas Cavendish who rescued the last surviving member of Puerto Hambre in 1587″.

The main industries of Punta Arenas, or “Sandy Point” are fishing, petroleum, tourism and livestock (namely cattle and sheep).  WIth a population of a little over 150,000 hearty souls, Punta Arenas’ economy is thriving and it is an amazing testament of the will of people to succeed in this extreme climate.

A little after noon, our transfer from Cascada Expedicionnes, Rodrigo, arrived. We were both taken aback when we saw him, as he was much younger than we anticipated. We shook hands and asked the burning question: How many people were coming along on the trek? Rodrigo replied, “None. You two are it for the week”. Shocked, I asked if this was unusual and Rodrigo said that it had never happened. The week before he had a big group of a dozen trekkers and this week there just happened to be only two signed up. We couldn’t believe our luck! For the next seven days, we would have our own private guide, chef and a complete staff graciously attending our uttermost needs. This was unheard of!

We had a five-hour journey to the park, with a few stops along the way. I sat up front so I could take in the view and more importantly, talk with Rodrigo about Patagonia and our trip. Most of the staff at Cascada is from Patagonia. Rodrigo grew up right in Punta Arenas and was extremely knowledgable about the region. His grandmother was a descendant from England so he spoke perfect English, which was a relief given my lack of Spanish.  There are also many descendants of Croatia, Germany and other European countries who came to work the farms.

The route to the park takes you through remote pampa, also known as Patagonian desert land, where you are rewarded at the sight of Patagonia flamingos, horses, guanacos (a type of Patagonian llama) and many species of birds, including large ones. The landscape is dramatic, windswept and wild, yet also stunningly beautiful. It is so incredibly vast and unique that you feel like you are on another planet. In the distance, if you are lucky to have a clear enough day, you can see the snow-capped peaks of the majestic Andean mountains, which reach their terminus in Patagonia.

View of our drive to Puerto Natalas:  The pampas and the glorious snow-capped Andes beckoned us.

The drive was long and tiring so we were thankful that there were stops along the way. Our most important stop was at the Cascada office in the town of Puerto Natalas, a sprawling town of 15,000 residents, mostly known as the main stepping off point for the surrounding parks.

Paul and I outside of Puerto Natalas, where we picked up our guide for the trek.

At Cascada’s small office, we met our guide for the trek, Cristian, and loaded up the van with our backpacks and the supplies for the week.  Like Rodrigo, Cristian is also from Patagonia and is a true outdoorsman.  His love and understanding of nature gave him a certain kind of intensity and zest for life that was infectious.  Although his English was not as perfect as Rodrigo’s, his ungrammatical phrases and use of words seemed to add to his charm and always made us smile.  We got along great over the week and in some ways, his personality had the same kind of mystical feel as the park itself.

Our drive from Puerto Natalas to the park was fascinating.  Cristian had studied birds for the last few years so he pointed out different species along the way.  We saw buzzard eagles, Chilean pink flamingos, nandues (ostrich), black-necked swans and on rare occasion, the magnificent Andean condors.  Throughout our trip, the condors were by far my favorite sight.  These spectacular creatures are one of the largest birds in the world, with a wingspan of up to ten feet and weight up to 33 pounds.  They are not easy to spot since they spend most of their day soaring thousands of feet above the ground thus we considered ourselves lucky every time we caught a glimpse of one or two of them.

As we approached the park, the drive became more spectacular.  There was the typical Patagonian cloud cover so we did not see the full magnitude of where we were headed, but occasionally we would get a glimpse of the majestic snow-capped mountains bursting through the clouds.  It felt like the whole park was hidden, which added to its mystique.


At 5:30 PM, we finally arrived at the entrance to the park.  After so many hours of travel, we were relieved to finally be here and were anxious about the week ahead of us.  As we drove to the Cascada camp, we were greeted by a group of grazing guanacos and we were in awe at the incredible beauty of our surroundings.  At that point, we knew that our research had clearly paid off and that we were in for a trip of a lifetime.

Entering the Parque Nacional Torres del Paine….our first sight.

Paul and I thrilled to finally arrive at the main entrance to the park.

Stay tuned…next post will feature the one and only Cascada EcoCamp…the way to travel in Patagonia!

Adventure Travel Chile TRAVEL BY REGION Trekking/Hiking

Welcome to Punta Arenas! A Day at the End of the World

Patagonia’s utter remoteness and isolation has added to its appeal because it has helped keep the hordes of tourists out and allow only the true adventurers in.  In fact, getting to Patagonia is half the adventure.  It often requires well over 24 hours of travel.  For us, it took three flights totaling 17 hours in the air just to reach Punta Arenas, one of the southernmost commercial airports in the world and our launching off point for Torres del Paine National Park.   Once in Punta Arenas, it takes a minimum of five hours by bumpy car ride to finally reach the park, and then you are finally there in the middle of nowhere.

Here we are loading our first of two flights from Santiago to Punta Arenas:

Landing in Punta Arenas instantly reminds you of where you are.  Located on the blustery shores of the Strait of Magellan with Antarctica’s ice-mass not far away, it is not unusual to land in extremely windy conditions.

Although I had read about Patagonia’s notorious wind, I truly was not prepared for how windy it really was.  As we made our final descent, I could see the gigantic white caps below and the tiny runway awaiting us.  Although I was clutching the armrest of my seat as hard as I could, I still could not contain the excitement and energy I felt about finally arriving in such a wild and remote place.  Our captain informed us that we had landed in over 60 mph winds and unfortunately we would have to wait a few minutes to get off the plane because it was too windy to attach the gate!

Stepping outside the airport, I finally understood what mucho viento meant.  Too much wind.  Incredible amounts of wind, like I’ve never experienced before, anywhere.  Excitement rushed through my veins as a wind gust nearly knocked me over.  The wind was absolutely unbelievable.  All I could think of was “Welcome to Patagonia!”.

We spent the night in Punta Arenas at a quaint hotel located only two blocks from the main square.  Despite the fine comforts of our hotel room, we both had a restless, fitful night’s sleep.  Our minds were not put at ease.  We had no idea what kind of adventure lay ahead.

Photo of our lovely hotel, Hotel Isla Rey Jorge

We woke up the next morning to the buzz of traffic circulating the busy streets.  It was Monday and the town had come to life.  Most people in Punta Arenas travel by taxi so that explained the crazy stop and go whirl of traffic.

Unanswered questions loomed inside our minds.  How big would our group be?  Where would they be from?  What would the weather be like?  And most important of all, would we have fun?  We couldn’t wait to find out.

There was not much of all, if anything, to see in Punta Arenas.  Yet we made the most of our morning walking around the windswept town.  We visited the main city cemetery which proved extremely interesting.

Here is a picture of the crazy trees and Paul standing outside the entrance on that cold and windy morning:

Having never been to a South American cemetery before, I was amazed at how they bury their dead….above ground!

We also passed by the premier hotel in this tiny, uneventful town:  Hotel Jose Nogueira.

By lunch time we had seen everything and had only a little more time until we would meet up with our driver from Cascada who would take us to the park. We found a little pizzeria and enjoyed a delicious lunch as the only foreigners in sight.  We could hardly wait to meet our guide and hit the long ride out to Torres del Paine.  It was sure to be an adventure of a lifetime!

Stay tuned…coming soon is our arrival at the glorious Torres del Paine National Park! 

Adventure Travel Chile TRAVEL BY REGION Trekking/Hiking