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

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

The lore of Patagonia

Hidden at the far southern tip of Chile is Punta Arenas, a dramatic, windswept Patagonian town that has managed to survive centuries despite its fierce climate.  In the heart of the town lays the Plaza de Armas, which holds the glorious bronze statue of Ferdinand Magellan, the great explorer who discovered the Strait of Magellan in 1520.   When looking at the statue, your eyes are drawn to the feet where the toes are rather polished instead of worn.  Local legend says that anyone who rubs these toes will return to Puenta Arenas someday. 

Photo taken of the infamous statue in October 2003.

I had always dreamed of going to Patagonia.  After many earlier travels focusing on Europe, I had longed for something different and off the beaten path.  Furthermore, the concept of going to the end of the earth intrigued me immensely.  I was not alone.

Patagonia has captivated and inspired the imagination of explorers and travelers for centuries.  Geographically, Patagonia is one of the most remote places on earth.  Located on the Southern tip of Chile and Argentina, and only 621 miles from Antarctica, Patagonia feels like it is at the end of the world.  Patagonia’s remote and utter isolation combined with its spectacular scenery has added to its mystique.  It is truly a magical place that is relatively untouched by man.

Like other adventurers who visited Patagonia, I had desperately wanted an escape from the hectic pace of modern-day life.  My husband Paul and I longed to go to a faraway place where we could find peace and only have our minds, our bodies and our souls as our guide.  Patagonia seemed like the perfect refuge.

After extensive research, Paul and I found the perfect destination for our Patagonian trip:  The world-renowned Torres del Paine National Park in Chile.  Known as Chile’s prize jewel, Torres del Paine is located about 216 miles northwest of Punta Arenas and is one of the most beautiful national parks in the world.  Many people consider the park to be in a league of its own; few parks are as magnificent as Torres del Paine.  We had found our refuge.   Next we had to figure out what we were going to do.

There are many ways to see the park depending on your level of fitness, adventure and budget.  For us, it was an easy choice.  We wanted to see the park on foot.  Doing a multi-day trek had been a goal of ours for years and we had found the ideal place.  The dramatic scenery of the park—snow-capped mountains, emerald lakes and rivers, awe-inspiring glaciers and Patagonian rainforest—set the perfect location for a weeklong trek.  All we had to do before booking our trip was find our guide.

Finding the perfect adventure travel outfitter for a trek in another country can be a daunting task, especially if you have language barriers and budget concerns.  Luckily for us, we knew exactly what we wanted:  A local company and guide.  When we travel, we like to go with the locals as we both find the experience much more meaningful.  It also is so much more cultural and definitely beats being with a bunch of Americans (no offense but we can find plenty of them at home!).

On the internet, we found a Chilean tour company called Cascada Expedicionnnes that looked very promising.  After reviewing their website, I was hooked.  The guides were almost all from Patagonia, the trek was exactly what we were looking for, and the price was right.  Best of all, the daily hikes looked absolutely breathtaking.  We signed up for the last week in October 2003, which would be the fourth week of the park’s opening for the season, and then we were off.

We left Minneapolis after working a half-day (exhausting in itself, yet we Americans don’t seem to get enough vacation days!) and caught a four o’clock out on American Airlines to Dallas-Forth Worth Airport where we then caught a 10 pm flight to Santiago, Chile.   We didn’t arrive at our hotel in Santiago until 11 am the next morning, tired and stiff from being crammed like a sardine for ten hours straight.  Yet the nice thing is that flying south has no jet lag (unlike going east or west to Europe or Asia) so we were able to adjust quite soon.

We had a light breakfast and then were off on a half-day tour of Santiago with our hired tour guide Alejandro, who ended up being quite a character.  I had read in our Frommer’s guidebook that Santiago is certainly a hodge-podge of different types of architecture.  In some parts of town, you are immersed in modernity and surrounded by skyscrapers while a few streets down you find yourself surrounded by old, historical mansions.  There is definitely a lot of French influence in the architecture of the city and less Spanish influence than I would have imagined.

Our first stop of the tour was to the lovely Metropolitan park where we took a gondola up to the peak and saw the grand, bird’s-eye view of Santiago and unfortunately its smog:

Photo above of my husband Paul on top of the peak overlooking Santiago.

We walked down the nice path back to town, marveling at all the Chilean joggers running up and down the hill for a workout, and then we did a three-hour city tour of the main points of interest in Santiago.  I must have been quite tired (or else just not that impressed) because I only have two photos of our city tour of Santiago.

Photo of Paul and I “somewhere” in Santiago.  I did like Santiago much more than Lima but it paled in comparison to the sensational Buenos Aires which I would visit a few years later. 

Photo above of the Metropolitan Cathedral located in the main square, Plaza de Armas.

After our tour, we were completely wiped out.  I was surprised we had even lasted that long on so little sleep yet somehow or another we managed to catch a second wind and explore the city for hours.   We relaxed at our peaceful boutique hotel, called The Orly Hotel, over a bottle of Chilean Sauvingon Blanc and then proceeded to be the first arrivals at dinner at 7 pm (apparently Chileans eat late like the Europeans thus 9 or 10 pm is considered normal).

It was lights out early because we had another long day ahead of us.  Two flights all the way south to the small town of Puenta Arenas, at the tip of Southern Patagonia.  We couldn’t wait!

Stay tuned…next post will document the start of our Patagonian adventure and I promise to not disappoint…there will be loads more pictures of this magical place!

Adventure Travel Chile TRAVEL BY REGION Trekking/Hiking

The magic of Torres del Paine

Greetings from Patagonia…wish you were here!

Photo taken in November 2003 during a trek in the famous Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia Chile.

Hidden at the far southern tip of Chile is home to Torres del Paine National Park, one of the most insanely beautiful parks in the world.  In this remote, windswept region of nowhereland, you can experience four seasons in a day and winds so powerful that they knock you down.  It is one of the most spectacular settings possible for trekking yet extremely difficult to reach.

As you drive through the barren pampa land without seeing much of any sign of civilization, the park magically appears out of the sky.  When you drive along the long, gravel round entering the park this is the view you see:  Unforgetable.

Stay tuned….my next series will be on Torres del Paine National Park starting with a day visit to Lima, followed by a trip south to Puenta Arenas an unusual town that is extremely windy, followed by a visit and trek through the world-famous park. 

Adventure Travel Chile TRAVEL BY REGION Trekking/Hiking