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

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

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