It was never meant to happen, but here we were, in the very south of Patagonia, on the border of Argentina and Chile. An extra 2 weeks added on to our travels (thanks, boss!) and we were set to do some trekking through national parks known for their beautiful glaciers, lakes, rivers and mountains.
From Lima we had flown to Buenos Aires, spending a night staying in the eclectic neighbourhood of San Telmo (yummy steaks!), then another flight to El Calafate, a small lakeside town set admidst snow-capped mountains of the southern Los Glaciares National Park. From there we took a bus to Puerto Natales, a tiny backwater Patagonian town just across the border in Chile and on the edge of Torres del Paine National Park, where we planned to do our first trek.
The long path ahead
Strong icy winds greeted us when we stepped off the bus - very typical this far south. Luckily our hostel was well-heated and we quickly found out all we needed to know about doing the 'W' trek - so named for the shape of the trails on the trek.
Map of Torres del Paine
We had 2 main questions about the trek - 1. Is it too cold, and 2. are we crazy? Yes, it's very cold, but not too cold, and yes, perhaps we are a bit crazy but there would be at least a few other crazy people out on the trail with us. And so we got ourselves ready for 5 days of trekking. Over an hour later we emerged from the supermarket with oats, rice, pasta, soup, spices, sausage, powered milk, tea, hot chocolate, chocolate and loads of scroggum. Add to that new socks, polar fleece gloves, vests and ear warmers, and the essential trekking gear - tent, backpacks, sleeping mats, gas stove, cups and bowls which we hired from our hostel - and we were ready!
The next morning we set off - with only 9 hours of daylight, we would have early starts ahead of us on most days, but not too early due to the late sunrise. Apart from the luxurious Inca Trail, we were real 'rookie' trekkers, being only 'soft core' campers, but we figured, how hard could it be!
Horses on the plains
The first day was a gentle intro 5 hour trek through mainly flat grassland along a track surrounded by mountains and lakes and occasional herds of grazing horses. However, we quickly discovered that this trip would be full of minor disasters. Firstly we discovered that the zoom on our lens was stuck meaning that we would be taking wide angle photos for the entire trek. Secondly, Travis losing his water bottle meaning we needed to share for the entire trip.
Nice and Fresh on our first day
Despite this we arrived at our campsite, Paine Grande, before dark and had our tent up and warm soup in our bellies within an hour. The campsite, normally chokkers in the high season, also had a hostel with a camp kitchen and toilets. While we opted for tent and ground over roof and bed, we did make use of the indoor camp kitchen, a welcome refuge from the freezing cold night, to cook up our pasta with chorizo and mushroom in a white sauce, with hot chocolate for dessert.
Also doing the same trek were 2 other crazy couples, one from Chile and one from France. The Chilean couple were on a 9 month trip walking their way around Patagonia, and the French couple were medical interns from Lyon.
In the morning after a bowl of hot oats and a cup of tea, we set off on our day hike along a scenic trail to see Glacier Grey. Along the way we passed through a beautiful valley with many lagoons and varied landscapes. We passed Lago Grey, a large, beuatiful lake, all the time surrounded by high jagged mountains capped with ice daggers.
Ali at Lago Grey
Reflections in a Lagoon
We sat atop massive boulders for a close-up view of the impressive glacier and large icebergs while we ate our lunch. Only our second day, and already what we had seen was simply magical.
Glacial Ice in front of Glacier Grey
Our return hike back to camp hit a low note when Trav's knee started playing up. Luckily our fellow med student-trekkers had a well-stocked first aid kit, and with the help of some codeine Trav made the descent , though all the way questioning whether we'd be able to continue with the trek the next day.
Ali crossing a river
A hot dinner that night of curry risotto with meat and mushroom, and of course hot chocolate, some anti-inflamatories for Trav, and we were ready for bed.
We woke early (a good 2 hours before the sun) the next morning, packed up our gear and pondered our next move over breakfast. With Trav's knee feeling okay, and with spare codeine and voltaren at the ready, we continued on the trek at a slightly slower speed.
Travis Trekking in the early morning
Lakes and Mountains
A rickety bridge
Two hours later we came to a campsite where we left our packs to then make the hike up 'Valle de Frances,' for a view of the Glacier de Frances, a massive glacier high up on the mountainside.
Ali and a Waterfall in Valle de Frances
After climbing up the valley, on a windy flat top we sheltered behind a rock to eat lunch and watch and listen to the ice walls cracking loudly inside the glacier. There was light snow falling as we sat amidst wind blown leaf-less trees - this truly wa a wintry Patagonian moment!
Hunkering down for lunch
Mountains towering above Valle de Frances
View down Valle de Frances
Picking up our packs, we walked on, heading for the next campsite 2 and 1/2 hours away. The trail rose and fell with the rocky terrain, taking us down small river beds (which in places incoveniently doubled as the path) and steep rock faces with knife-sharp edges. This was challenging enough even without a dodgy knee, and finally the torturous path opened out onto a pebbly beach on the shore of a large jade-coloured lake, Lago Nordenskjold, which then led us to our campsite, 'Cuernos'.
Torres del Paine Mountains
Totally exhausted to the bone, with daylight almost gone and with Trav's knee protesting any more walking, we were dreading the idea of setting up camp in the cold, when a fellow trekker appeared and offered to "let us into" one of the cabins for the night. The campsite's cabins, locked up for the winter, had locks that were easily persuaded to open with an improvised 'key' - and to our elation we found ourselves inside a cosy mountain cabin with real, soft mattresses, a sky light window to view the mountains and stars, and all to ourselves! Heaven.
Travis outside our cabin
That night we cooked pasta inside our cabin and with no sign of our French and Chilean companions got chatting to an Alaskan guy doing the same trail. We slept long, warm and soundly that night, disturbed only once by a hungry mouse who we scared out of the cabin with a lot of noise and then secured our remaining food with a rope hanging from the beams.
A sleep-in the next morning til 8am, we awoke to watch a sensational sunrise over the lake from our cabin balcony. We were soon ready to leave for our next destination, a simple 5 hour trek to a campsite on higher ground, the shortest of all days.
With sun smiling down on us, we hiked through open grassy plains, climbed gently for sweeping views of the lake, surrounded always by stunning mountains. We took it fairly easy, arriving at campsite 'Chileno' with plenty of daylight left to set up our tent and prepare for a chilly night, being higher up in the mountains than we'd camped until now.
With perfect still conditions, we decided (despite regulations) to have a campfire. And with a fireplace already set up by chilly campers before us, all we had to do was gather our wood and kindling. The lighting of the fire proved a challenge even for fire-pro Trav, thanks to cold and damp wood. Eventually the fire was crackling, warming our cold feet and drying out our muddy shoes. Then a dinner of curry risotto, we hung our food in the trees to keep it safe from the hungry mice and then bed in anticipation of our very early start the next day.
This was a big one. Ali was now sporting a bruised and slightly swollen foot, so after a 4.45am rise and staple porridge and tea breakfast, the go was slow. The hike to the look out point of Torres del Paine (3 Towers) was in darkness, aided only by headtorches. We ran into our French, Chilean and Alaskan amigos at a higher campsite and then commenced the steep, dark and icy climb to the lookout in time for an amazing sunrise over the stunningly beautiful Los Torres mountain peaks. It was windy and absolutely freezing cold at the top, but wow, witnessing the sunrise here was truly special.
Sunrise from Mirrador Los Torres
The rising crimson light slowly illuminated the rock faces with a warm glow. The sky opposite the rock towers turned from layer upon layer of pastel colour over the snow-capped mountains. This made for some intimate, long-exposure tripod photography, compounded by a locked-up zoom lens.
Torres del Paine Illuminated at Sunrise
Sunrise from Mirrador Los Torres
Conquering Los Torres
Sunrise lasted about an hour due to our southerly position and afterwatching this awesome visual show, we climbed back down the mountain (far easier in daylight) and hiked back to our camp to pack up and then hike the final stretch of the trek. Another 3 and 1/2 hours to to go, which was excruciating by this time with not only Trav's knee but now his ankle in a lot of pain, and the codeine Ali took that morning for her foot wearing off .
Last sight of the Mountains
We finally limped into Lake Armaga, where we were met by our bus, which drove us weary and dirty yet happy trekkers back to our warm hostel in Puerto Natales. Back in town, and feeling re-born after hot showers, we feasted on dinner of delicious, hot thin-crust pizza baked in a wood oven and an oozing warm chocolate brownie for dessert; all washed down with a celebratory local micro-brew. Perfecto.
Asleep within minutes that night, with much effort we rose early the next day to cacth the return bus to El Calafate, back into Argentina.