Packing in Patagonia- Part Two Torres del Paine

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Before the sky had even begun to change colors, Barbara and I found ourselves scurrying up the trail.   With just a small load of water , snacks, and extra clothes in my bag, we followed the beginning of the trail by headlamp.  As we climbed up the Valle Frances (French Valley), the stunning mountains ang glaciers above us began to emerge through the trees.  The sky was the darkest blue you have ever seen, with bright stars flickering in the distance past the dark outline of massive peaks.   Getting up this early meant we had the whole valley to ourselves.

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As the sun rose, we were treated to another amazing light show, not unlike the morning before.   Gorgous gold and orange hues bounced off the hanging glaciers and rocky mountains.   We kept pushing up the hill.  We had an ambitious itinerary for the day- up and down the French Valley (about 12km or 7.5 miles), then another   11.5 miles over to Refugio Grand Paine and up to Refugio Grey, for a grand total of 19 miles for the day.   We made fairly good time, especially once we could turn off the headlamps.  The rocky trail was a bit hard to sort out in the dark.
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We arrived at the now closed Campemento Britanico by 8:30 and to the summit of the mirador (lookout) just above the camp within 20 minutes.  The views were amazing.  This massive valley is surrounded with steep, sharp peaks with sheer walls that are reminiscent of California’s Yosemite Valley.  Every which way we looked there was an impressive mountain.  The light of the slowly rising sun kept changing and giving us more and more to smile at.
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After we scraped our jaws off the floor, we headed back down the hill. The campsite is situated in some dense trees, and was still quite cold, even at 1030.  We quickly tore down camp and hightailed it for a sunnier spot a 20 minutes down the trail.  The hike to Refugio Grand Paine was fairly easy, a mellow section of trail with rolling hills.   The views behind us of the Los Cuenos Mountains (the big peak to the East of campsite the night before) were spectacular.
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Tearing into Grand Paine Refugio at just a touch past 1, we made a pit stop for water and calories.  It always seems to be this part of the day that we struggle with.   The last third of the miles- doesn’t seem to matter how long the day is- those are the miles that seem to be the hardest to earn.   That said, this trail didnt dissappoint when it came to views.  After a fairly sustained uphill through some unique forest, we were treated to a beautiful view of Lago (lake) Grey.   In the distance, huge chunks of blue glacier ice floated by.  Around another bend, we were shocked by the massivness of Grey Glacier- 1.5 miles wide by 17 miles long!
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Grey Refugio was the first paid campsite that we stayed at.  The perks that come with paying $16 for a campsite included ´hot´showers.   Barbara didnt care to indulge citing the cold weather, but I figured after 3 days of being in the woods I had to give it a shot.   Barbara was right.   The hot was not so hot, but maybe lukewarm…  but at least I didnt smell quite so bad.
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The next morning we tore out of the camp before the sun had come over the horizon.  Grey clouds loomed overhead.  Our goal was to cover the 19ish miles over John Gardener Pass to Lake Dickson Refugio.   John Gardener Pass is the hardest part of the entire Circuit Route- it´s notoriously steep and windy.   With our 3 day old weather report predicting poor weather on this day, we set out in a race against the clouds.
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Over and through crazy landslide-y ditches we made our way to Paso Campamento.  These ditches had crazy metal ladders to get in and out of them.   Another one had a fun 50 foot high swinging bridge going across it.  The entire time, we had the massive Grey Glacier on our left.   Into Paso Camp for a snack and drink, we were informed by a helpful park ranger that we still had 2200 feet to climb before the pass (we already came up 1000 feet).  He giggled when he said it was steep.   We soon found out why.
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That trail went straight up!   I am not sure I have walked a more sustained climb.  But Barbara and I just kept a steady clip, and put one foot in front (above) the other.
Rainbow
Nearing the tree line, the wind really started to whip and blow, trying to knock us off our feet.  Trudging up the false summits, we had to stop to soak in the view of the glacier below.   I told Barbara to take a look over her shoulder- there was an awesome rainbow blasting across the valley.   It was quite a sight for sore eyes.
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We gained the ridge and rounded the top, finally heading downhill for the first time of the day. We decided to postpone lunch until we hit tree line, as the wind was still lashing us (although a bit less than on the west side of the pass).    We hustled down the hill, trying not to roll our ankles on the baseball-to-melon sized stones that made up the ´trail´.  After our lunch pit stop, we headed into the trees.   The trail in this section was maddenly muddy.   We were able to mostly keep our feet on the logs, but the trail is super braided and poorly maintained through here.
About an hour outside of Dickson Refugio, it started to sprinkle.  Not enough to really get us wet in the beginning, but just enough to be annoying.  We carried on until the plants we wet enough to get us wet.  We pulled out our rain jackets and draped them over our head and packs like a cape.  This was enough to keep us fairly dry for the slog into Dickson.
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We rolled into the refugio hungry and a bit tired.  Long day.  As the rain picked up a bit, we asked the guy running the refugio where the cooking shelter was.  He looked at us with a blank stare.
¨There is no shelter.¨
¨What? Where should we cook?¨
He pointed to a picnic table in the rain.
Every other campsite had a shelter for us to cook in (even the free ones), and of course the one time that we need shelter, they dont have one.   Tired and hungry, we were a bit grumpy about paying $16 for a patch of grass in the rain with no cooking shelter.  We stowed our packs on the covered patio outside the refugio and  took cover inside to make up a cream cheese and tortilla wrap.  The refugio hosts were nice enough not to bother us while we stuffed our faces.
With a bit of food in our bellies, we started to feel a bit more human.  The rain eased off and we set up our tent under just the lightest of drizzle.  The refugio host let us know we could cook on the covered porch.  As we cooked we talked with a couple of Isreali guys who were hiking in the other direction.   They said that the new forcast had rain coming in strong in the morning.  Ugh.
We finished off dinner and hung out inside the refugio for a while, soaking up the warmth of the woodstove and drying out a bit.  I enjoyed a tasty $5 beer in celebration of being almost done with the Circuit.   We chatted up a lovely Irish couple who had hiked all the 18 miles that we planned to do in the morning.  They said we should have no problem.
There are two buses that leave from the trailhead and head back to Puerto Natales each day 230 and 730.  The 230 bus puts you back in town at around 445, the 730 not until nearly 10pm.   You better believe we wanted to catch the 230 bus.
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We set the alarm for 530, and went to sleep hoping for no rain in the morning.
Beep beep…..beep beep.
Thank goodness that was all we heard in the morning.   No rain, and our tent was even dry from all the wind we had overnight.
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We wolfed down our breakfast, packed up and broke down camp in under 30 minutes.   It was still pitch dark.  We had about 18 miles to walk before 230, or we would have to wait until 730 for the bus.  We headed up the trail, once again under the light of our headlamps.   We wandered through grassy fields as the stars faded and the sky got lighter.   We lucked out with another incredible morning.
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The sun rose behind a big mountain, warming the rest of the valley up before us.   We finally got to feel the sunshine on our faces as we came around the top of the last significant climb of our trip, about an hour from Seron Campamento.   The light was amazing and I couldnt put down the camera.   We waved goodbye to the big mountains, and began our walk through the lower grasslands on our way to the Laguna Amarga trailhead.
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According to our map, it appeared we had just 10km (6 miles) to cover to our finish.   However I think that is an evil misprint, as the distance seemed to be more like 13km.  We were getting tired, our feet were barking and we were ready to finish.  This part of the trail, while it had awesome views of the whole mountain range, really seemed to drag on.   We made it to the finish right around 130.    7.5 hours for right around 20 miles.   Whew!
We caught our bus with plenty of time and checked into our hostel. Time In peeling off my socks, i found out why my feet were hurting… just a little blister!
"got a little bit of a hot spot..."
Showers, food, obligatory beer(s).   Patagonia backpacking trip- CHECK!    Life is good.
This post is really about the photos.   Be sure to check them all out.
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Patagonia – Is this real life?

We're a little excited
What good adventure doesn´t start with a bus ride?
You guessed it. It was early and we got on a bus! Shocker…not! (Seems to be the theme of this trip sometimes, doesn´t it?)
Let it begin
Anyways, we had our packs slimmed down to our standard, lightweight backpacking kits. Well, we admit that our standard kits do not typically include two liters of cheap, delicious Chilean box wine, but hey…when in Rome! Either way, we were ready to go! Patagonia here we come!
on the drive to Torres del Paine
In the name of conserving our strength and energy we both slept a good chunk of the 2.5 hour drive into the Torres del Paine National Park. However, during our waking hours, it was clear we were headed somewhere very special as we passed steep mountains, expansive plains, and deep, mysterious lakes all under the shroud of ever-changing clouds. The mood on the bus was absolutely electric with everyone so thrilled to get there and officially be in Patagonia. The bus slowed to a stop in a small, gravel parking lot where the mess of jittery, excited backpackers exited the bus and filed into the tiny administration building for the always stimulating, but necessary paperwork. Park fees paid, we viewed a short flick about the rules of the park and how not to burn it down before we were set free to really explore all that Patagonia had to offer. (In all honesty, I would not be the least bit surprised to find out that the park staff intentionally translates their videos with poor English translations resulting in some pretty humerous sentences to keep the visitors´ interest peaked throughout the whole video. Just saying. I mean, “Don´t garbage”? Come on…)
cant control herself
One more short shuttle bus to the trailhead and it was goodbye to civilization for the next few days. Last chance to turn back! We fueled up with a little lunch and that was that. We had officially begun the long awaited Circuit Route. (There are two different route options. You can either hike the traditional “W” hike that takes you up three different valleys for all of the famous, sweeping views or you can hike the Circuit Route that takes you on the W and then around the backside as well, bringing you full circle around the mountains. The Circuit Route is more difficult and a little longer taking about 8 days on average, although we planned to do it in 5, but we heard that the sweat equity you invest in doing it is well worth it in the end. How could we say no to that?)
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Beyond just the rugged mountains and gorgeous lakes, Patagonia is also known for its unpredictable weather. Most people that live in the area will tell you that the only thing predictable is the unpredictability. One never knows from one hour to the next if it will be windy enough to blow you right off your feet or if you will be graced by steady sunlight. One moment it may rain and then before you know it there is heavy snow falling from the sky. However, to humor the gringos conditioned to dependable weather forecasts, local gear shops and hostal owners continue to print off the forecasts despite the 0% guarantee. Well, we got our hands on one of said forecasts and saw that there looked to be a stretch of calm, clear, sunny weather sticking around for the first three days of our hike and after that clouds, wind, and rain were supposed to be rolling in. (There had recently been a strange weather front carrying with it beautiful, calm, sunny days that had uncharacteristically been hanging around for a bit so we crossed our fingers and hoped that our luck would hold.) With the good weather looking to be on the front end of our hike, we opted to take the untraditional route and start with the W. We would begin with what is normally the end of the W trek and work our way backwards, moving West to East, our hope being that even if and when the weather changed for the worse we would have had clear views of the quintessential towers.
Having made up our mind on the direction we were taking, our first day on the trail was set to be extremely short. Basically, the goal is to see the towers at sunrise. In order to accomplish that you need to camp at the base of the trail up to the towers viewpoint which is just under six miles from the trailhead. In the morning you get up and at it while it is still dark out to hike the short distance to the base of the towers where you get the pleasure of watching the sun come up. Anyways, the moral of the story is that our hike on day one was comically short. We took our time, stopping to turn around and admire the panoramic vistas offered by the trail of the rolling, grassy plains below bordered by the famous Patagonia mountains and snapping plenty of photos, and we still found ourselves at camp and completely set up before 2pm. I don´t think I can ever remember us being at camp for the night that early…ever.
We were pretty puzzled. What do you do when you get to camp so early? It did not take too long for us to remember the extra weight we were toting along with those two liters of wine. Seeking out a sunny perch with an unbeatable view, we grabbed our makeshift wine glass, box of merlot, and books and successfully relaxed away the afternoon. (Ron had used a rusty knife to saw off the bottom of a plastic water bottle to create our crafty, janky wine glass the night before. You see, we figured that there is nothing less classy than drinking straight from the box so we thought this would be a step up from that. In hindsight, I´m not so sure we were right.) After that it was the usual…dinner, brush the teeth (at least the ones you want to keep), and bed before the sun was fully set.
It just kept getting better
Maybe we should always trick ourselves into thinking that we get to see some epic scenery in the morning because it sure seemed to help us hop straight out of our sleeping bag that next morning. No snooze required even with the dark and the frigid cold air. A candy bar or two down the hatch as we hiked the steep mile to the base of the towers with the goal being to beat the sun in getting there and I´m happy to report that we made it with time to spare. Trying not to let our sweat cool too much and beat the chill, we quickly hunkered down into our sleeping bag and whipped on all of our extra layers to stay warm. (It only kind of worked. Brrrrrr…..) Slowly, but surely the light started to rise, revealing the spectacular towers right there in front of us!
 trying to stay warm in the sleeping bag
I am fully aware that this is a blog and that by definition that means it requires words, but there are no words to fully describe the feeling of looking up at those towers as the sun rose that morning. I just could quite come to terms with the thought of where in the world we were at that very moment. Patagonia! We had only been dreaming about this exact spot forever! Here we were looking up at the quintessential Patagonia photo…in real life! There they were, in all their glory. We just stared as the light lifted, constantly changing the appearance of the spectacular towers jutting straight out of the rocky earth. It appeared as if they were simultaneouly growing taller while also melting into the cloudy, teal colored glacial lake below. Just gorgeous! Right as we thought the show was over, it was as if someone turned on a lightswitch and the whole place just exploded with light. The towers were absolutely on fire in front of us, glowing orange in the morning sunlight and further taking our breath away. After this trip, Patagonia had a lot of spectacular sunrises to compete with, but I think it is safe to ay that this was right up there with the best of the best. My goodness. It was beautiful. That statement might sound too simple to capture that mega moment, but it is true to the core. Just stunning.
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When a morning starts off on that foot, it is difficult not to have a terrific day. And boy, did we ever! We hiked down the first leg of the W and made our way towards the middle valley. Along the way we passed so much fantastic scenery. There were massive glaciers (like,real glaciers!) perched on mountain tops, the Andes in the distance, and perfectly blue lakes and babbling brooks absolutely everywhere. When people say that Patagonia is somewhere special, they are not kidding. It is a special kind of beauty in this part of the world. It is unlike anywhere else…and we were only on day two!
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We practically skipped into camp at Italiano that night still riding high from the morning adrenaline rush. What a day! I think we both went to sleep that night with silly grins on our face. Only, I´m not sure if we were smiling from the memory of the morning or if we were already giddy with excitement for the next morning in the French Valley. Maybe both.
FULL MASSIVE GORGEOUS PHOTO GALLERY HERE:

to the bottom of the Earth

The excitement for the big finale in Patagonia was building exponentially everyday. There is no doubt about that! So who better to share our excitement with than a fellow traveller? Cue Maya Groos!

That´s right folks! Yet again, the world amazed us by shrinking just a little more. A good family friend of mine, Maya, is currently spending a semester abroad studing in Santiago, Chile. On our last night before leaving for the bottom of the Earth (also known as the bottom of Chile) we met up with Maya for a scrumptious dinner. Not only was it possibly one of the best meals we had on this entire trip, we had someone to interpret the menu for us! Who knew that ordering at a restaurant could be so simple?! It is amazing what really knowing a language can do! (Good thing too since we would have been more than a little surprised when just a steak and nothing else arrived on the plate.)

We had the best time catching up with Maya and hearing about her travels thus far. She had already been done to Patagonia a few weeks back and had lots of good stories to swap. It is always great to share stories with other people who are travelling and experiencing the same culture as you. So many similar experiences (such as the unexpectedly bland Chilean food…weird) and so many completely different ones as well. Travel is never boring, that much is for sure! After hugging goodbye, I could not stop repeating time and again what a cool experience she was having really living abroad as a part of a family. Absolutely incredible!!

had to put my feet in

Morning came and we went. To Punta Arenas that is. Originally, our flight was routed all the way to Puerto Natales which is ultimately where we needed to get to in order to get to Patagonia. However, we decided to get off in Punta Arenas to see the Straight of Magellan for ourselves. Who knows if we will ever be this far south on the globe ever again? (We certainly hope and plan to be, but who ever really knows?) Plus, Ron had done some reading up on the Punta Arenas Naval Museum and apparently there was a big exhibit on the Shackelton Expedition which sounded pretty cool to us. (For those of you who are not familiar with the Shackelton Expedition, basically an explorer named Shackelton got a crew together to sail down to Antartica and got stranded there. They were there for two years before Shackelton and a few of the crew took a life boat and sailed to get help, eventually resulting in their rescue. The truly amazing part of the story is that not one crew member died!) When we got to the Naval Museum, we realized that “big exhibit” really meant one shabby poster board. Can´t win them all though, right?

Old School Scuba Suit

Although the Naval Museum was a bust more or less, I think it was still worth the stop in Punta Arenas if just for bit of time we were able to spend at the Straight of Magellan. To picture where we were on a map was just nuts! We were so close to Antartica! That thought alone is just wild! To commemorate this one in a lifetime experience, Ron even took off his shoes and braved the freezing water to stick his toes in! I got really crazy and stuck my finger tips in…brrrr!!!! We are not exactly sure which ocean this body of water is a part of, but if it happens to be part of the Artic Ocean, then we have been in all four! Pretty cool!

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From there it was a short, three hour jaunt by bus to Puerto Natales and we were really at the gateway to Patagonia! (Funny how your perspective changes on a trip like this and a three hours bus ride seems silly short!) Puerto Natales is a sleepy, little port town in every sense of the phrase. With only one day until we were leaving for Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia itself, we had quite a bit to accomplish during our time in Puerto Natales. First stop was a local gear shop that puts on a daily informational talk about the treks in the park. We figured it wouldn´t be a bad idea to learn a bit about what we were signing up for now that we were here. 🙂 After the talk and a few other random errands we found ourselves at the grocery store. It is a really strange experience trying to buy food for a backpacking trip in a different country where pretty much everything you normally buy for the trail is no where to be found. Hmmmm….after an excessively long grocery shopping experience we walked out feeling confident that we were all set. (Never in my life have I purchased almost two pounds of salami at one time…and I hope I never have to do it again.)

Now all that was left was packing. Sounds easy enough, right? Wrong! Naturally, as has been the overall trend on this entire trip, we put off packing until the last possible moment. But, like every other time, at some point we have to cave and just get it over with. Unfortunately, that point was not until late, late at night with an incredibly early bus the next morning. Alas, I suppose that if packing and purchasing two pounds of salami are our biggest problems for the time being we are doing alright. Life is good!

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Chilling in Chile- Santiago and Valpariso

Our entry to Chile started off with a bang- at the Cuzco airport, I hear our names called over the intercom, along with a few more lines of Spanish that I couldnt quite keep up with.  The gate attendant handed me 2 new boarding passes, and Barbara and I found ourselves upgraded to first class.   Woohooo!   Nearly 50,000 miles of flying in 7 months, and we finally got to sit in the front of the bus.   Nice big seats for the ride between Cuzco and Lima.

However, our fortunes began to change at the Lima airport.  Barbara´s stomach began to really twist and turn.  About 2 minutes after takeoff, she was scrambling for those little white bags that are so conviently tucked in the seat back pockets.  She tossed her cookies.   Nearly 7 months of international travel, and finally one of us succumbed to the aweful and dreaded travellers bug.
We arent quite sure exactly where she picked it up, although our hunch is maybe it was bad ice (made from bad tap water) in her Pisco Sours that we had enjoyed in Cuzco.  Unfortunately, this bout of sickness laid up Barbara for 2 days straight in Santiago, mostly sleeping and staring at the ceiling.   I wandered around a bit on my own, but travelling just isnt much fun without my wife.
Luckily she slept off the worst of it, and the next day we found ourselves at the bus station heading to Valpariso.   The buses here are incredibly nice!  Way nicer than any Greyhound I have ever taken.  Our 2 hour ride to Valpo costs about $9 each.  Chile in general is a bit more expensive than Peru, but Id say you get a whole lot more for your money.
Valpariso (Valpo)
Bug with a view...
This super eccentric port town is just awesome.  Barbara describes it as a ´San Francisco with grittier, rougher edges´.  The city is dominated by steep hills that run almost right up to the Pacific Ocean.   The hills are covered with colorful houses and buildings.  The entire place is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site.  The city has embraced graffiti as its unique way to decorate the streets.   All over town (quite literally) the walls, steps, embankments, etc are covered with colorful paint.   In fact, as a homeowner, if you would like to stop someone from tagging your place, you have just two options-
1. Every morning, just scrub off the previous nights tag.
2. Find a street artist, invite them over for a BBQ and some beer and have them paint a mural that you approve of.
It seems there is a gentlemans agreement that if a wall is covered by a mural, tagging over the top is not allowed.   There are some truely awesome pieces of work that we stumbled upon.
Strike a pose!
In Valpo, we kind of just wandered about, ducking in and out of shops, looking for art to hang on our walls when we get back home. Home is something we have been talking and dreaming about a lot lately.   We have been on the road now for 264 days and we have just 11 days left until we are done.  We have been so lucky to take a trip like this.   It has been such an incredible journey.
Beautiful Bird street art
We took a walking tour with Tours 4 Tips (www.tours4tips.com), that led us all around town.  Our guide Erica gave us some insight into the history of this quirky city.   We check out the port, and then took an ascensor.  An ascensor is essentially a one car train that climbs up and down a 45 degree track.  You pay about 30 cents to avoid walking up a few hundred steps.  These were built in Valpo´s hay day in the very early 1900´s.
Our ascendor (elevator) to the top of the hill
Mostly we relaxed, drank delicious Chilean wine- which is super cheap here.   $3-5 will buy you a really decent bottle, something that would cost $20-35 at home. We have been doing our best to support the local wine producers here.
Cheeeeeeeesey.
From Valpo, we caught a bus back to Santiago where we have had another day and half of relaxing.   We had intended to do a vineyard tour, but found them way more expensive than we were expecting.  $80 each for 2 vineyards is not a particulary great deal in our minds.   We also intended to do another walking tour, but we got there 15 minutes too late.  Instead we wandered around on our own and then retreated to our hostel to read our books and day drink.
Tomorrow we catch a flight way South- all the way to the Strait of Magellen.  After a day there we head to the crown jewel, the grande finale of trip- the Patagonia!

CAN NOT WAIT!

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