I am usually highly opposed to travel blog posts that are mere play-by-plays of what someone has been doing, but today I have to make an exception.
Last week, on October 16th, my three friends and I left for a backpacking trip in Patagonia and it was the most incredible adventure I’ve ever had.
The planning process for Patagonia was frustrating, complicated, and frustrating all over again. Due to the fact that we only had eight days and nine nights and a huge list of things we wanted to do, many compromises had to be made. In addition, it is not as though busses ran every hour between our desired cities. Rather, some busses may not run on Tuesday afternoons, or on Fridays at all, so many adjustments had to be made to our plans to force them to fit within these windows (some companies didn’t even have websites). We strove to have the most cost-effective trip possible; therefore, we did weeks of online research and cross-referencing were done. We were also entirely unsure of how to plan for the weather, due to the fact that you can get all four season in one day up in the mountains. But, when October 16th came around, we had an itinerary and packed bags and couldn’t be more excited.
El Calafate, Argentina
We flew into El Calafate and arrived at 1am on October 17th (you can imagine that this nightime flight was far less expensive so we, the college students, chose that one). We crashed at a hostel and the next morning took a van to Parque Nacional Los Glaciares to see the Perito Moreno glacier.
The woman giving some commentary and history on our van ride told us that only four or five days out of the entire month were as clear and beautiful as the day we were experiencing, and that we would have an unhindered view of the mountains and glaciers as we drove to the various viewpoints before reaching the park.
After entering the national park, we hopped on the Nautical Safari boat to get closer to the glacier wall. We forced our way to the front of the top deck and were rewarded with stunning views of the glacier that stands as tall as a 20-story building.
After the boat ride we followed a series of walkways to various balcony outlooks to get different views of the glacier and, due to the strong sun that day, saw several huge breaks and ice avalanches. We couldn’t believe our luck and that our trip had just begun.
Puerto Natales, Chile
The next day we hopped on an early bus to Puerto Natales (actually, many of you know of my desire to explore 50 countries before I turn 50, and Chile was country number 25! Halfway there!) We got settled at our hostel where we received an orientation about the Torres del Paine National Park and rented our camping equipment for the W Circuit. Unfortunately, as I mentioned earlier, we didn’t have the time to do the full 4-5 day trek so we compromised by doing two days of hiking and camping to one of the circuit’s highlights: the Mirador del Torres.
We awoke early the next morning and took the bus into the national park. We hiked an hour or so on the Cuerno trail to have lunch overlooking a stunning glacier lake and then turned around and began the hike to the camp ground.
The people who designed these hiking trails have definitely never heard of switchbacks and really love making you climb, but you’re treated every step of the way to 360 degree views that take your breath away. We made excellent time and set up camp before schedule, made a quick dinner, bundled up, and played a few rounds of Hearts while warming up with hot chocolate and a swig each Johnnie Walker Red Label before bed.
The next morning we awoke at 4am. The camp guard had told us the day before that we should begin the sunrise hike around 5am to get to the top in time but that if we woke up and didn’t see any stars, that we wouldn’t be able to see anything when we reached the top due to the cloud cover. We did not, in fact, see a single star when we woke up but decided that we would regret it if we didn’t try. We ate a quick breakfast and set off on the 45-minute grueling climb. I have to say, it helped that it was dark and that my headlamp only illuminated the few feet in front of me: you end up just focusing on getting one foot in front of the other without falling.
We made it up there to the spectacular view just as the sky behind us was turning a deep orange. We poured ourselves some coffee from the thermos we brought up and about ten minutes later, we were speechless.
The sun came up over the mountains from behind us and lit up the torres with this unbelievable red-pink color that came in beams through the clouds and lit up the glacial lake below it. Every 30 seconds, the view changed completely with the light and we didn’t even know which way we should be looking. About ten minutes after that, our slim window had passed. The sun had gone behind a thick wall of clouds and we realized that we had just seen one of the most rare windows of beauty.
We (very carefully) hiked down to the campsite, ate a little something more, packed up camp, and set off down the trail. We got rained on a bit, but that just helped us cope with the fact that we weren’t staying on the mountain to hike the full circuit, so I’d say it was a blessing in disguise (or that’s what I’ll tell myself).
We got back to town, returned our gear, had a quick dinner, then hopped on our next bus.
Punta Arenas, Chile
We arrived in Punta Arenas around 12am and headed over to our hostel. The hostel we stayed at is well known for helping their guests plan excursions and we had planned to go out the next day and see the penguin colonies in the afternoon and kayak in the morning if we could. When we arrived, the woman at the hostel told us that a group had gone out to see the penguin colony a week ago and, where there should have been 10,000-20,000 penguins… there were only nine. Yes. Nine. So they had closed it for visitation. She told us when we awoke the next morning she might be able to book something else but we would have to wait and see. Needless to say, we fell asleep with low spirits but, the next morning, she absolutely came through for us.
We joined up with a kayak guide and drove about an hour away from town with boats in tow. We geared up in full dry suits and kayaked ten miles on the Strait of Magellan right up to Cape Froward, the continental boundary of South America, and saw dolphins as well! It was unbelievable. Also, after some strenuous hiking and pack-carrying from the previous days, it was nice to use some new muscles and we were so pleased that things worked out.
El Chalten, Argentina
We spent the next day traveling. We took a bus to Rio Gallegos, grabbed some food there for a few hours, then got on another bus to El Calafate. We got in around 12:30am then spent the night (arriving at hostels at 12am/1am became a theme, if you couldn’t tell).
We got on the first bus of the morning to El Chalten, our last stop on the trip. We had originally planned to do a day-hike but, when we arrived at our hostel, we saw a rack of mountain bikes stationed outside, clearly for rent. After checking in and having lunch, we rented bikes and set out for the mountain bike circuit pointed out to us by the guy at the front desk.
We had a blast and I was constantly torn between focusing on the narrow mountain trail and enjoying the stellar views (I’ve got a scrape on the face from a sharp branch to prove it). We then biked to a waterfall and proceeded to do what we always do… we went exploring. Leaving our bikes at the bottom, we proceeded to climb the rocks and found something that resembled a trail and followed it up to find another small waterfall. Molly and I compared it to something from Paradise Falls in Up!
That night, we found some incredible local Patagonia craft beers and Jack whipped up some carbonara so that we could carb up for the next day’s hike: Laguna de Los Tres. We were all intent on making the most of our last day in Patagonia, and we had heard that this trail wouldn’t disappoint. The national park says it’s about a ten-hour round-trip hike, but the guy at our hostel said it would be closer to eight hours.
Molly, Jack, Will, and I, however, didn’t see these times as estimates or suggestions. We saw them as challenges. We ended up hiking the full trail in five hours but used our extra time to enjoy glacier lookout, the spectacular view up top (with a glacier-chilled craft beers), and to eat lunch at the beautiful lake on the way down. It was an amazing way to end our trip.
I still find myself speechless and unbelievable thankful that I had the opportunity to take this trip. We had luck on our side every step of the way and still cannot believe any of this actually happened. With so many variables and things that can go wrong on a trip like this, we came away a little smelly with bags full of dirty clothes but dumbstruck with the knowledge of what we had just experienced. Forgive me for the long post of just rambling and gushing, but hopefully you understand a fraction of it now that you’ve seen some of the pictures!