Lila had an awesome job a few years back. Well.. she didn’t think so, but it gave me the excuse to go to Chile so from my perspective, it was awesome! For about 6 months, she would alternate either being in Chile or in Ottawa. Two weeks here, two weeks there. Since Chile is in the Southern Hemisphere, their seasons are inverted from ours. So in November of that year, we decided to do a trip. November is apparently one of the best times to go down – their summer is just starting off, but schools not out yet so you get the weather without the crowds. It’s not the middle of summer, so the surfing is still decent as well.
Our plan was typical me – scheduled to the second and packed to the gills. If anything had gone slightly off in terms of logistics, we would have been completely screwed. Incredibly, since Latin America has a somewhat more relaxed approach to most things than we do, the logistics went without a hitch. Despite this good fortune, I still almost managed to kill both of us.
The plan – 25,000km, 6 locations, 4 intra-continental flights, camping plus 6 different guesthouses or hotels and hiking, camping, climbing, sightseeing, tango, wineries, surfing and fly fishing in the course of 2 weeks. Easy.
My flight to Santiago was awesome. I fell asleep minutes after takeoff and didn’t wake up until landing. A 13 hour flight, over in the blink of an eye. We met up at the airport and boarded the flight south. Lila had allowed me to book on a small airline for the trip south called Aerolinas Del Sur. I understand that, shortly after our trip, they went bankrupt. This is not entirely surprising. Flying with them reminded me of flying in the 80’s. The plane was incredibly old (737-200) and very very noisy. But that wasn’t the most striking thing. This wasn’t just flying on 80’s era planes, it was like the experience reconstructed. They still had operational ashtrays in every seat and there was no prohibition on smoking onboard. They stayed true to the 80’s flying experience by serving us a meal – for free, and alcohol. But the most incredible thing was what that meal consisted of. They were little sandwiches in bright pinks and blues. Not just the filling but the bread too. We took a really good look at them and decided that it was probably not in our best interest to eat them. I have little doubt that they were actually made in the 80’s.
After landing and catching the bus, and about 24 hours of solid travel for me, we arrived in Puerto Natales and checked in to the excellent Erratic Rock Hostel. The folks here are great. I had been extremely concerned prior to going down that we would be arriving late and leaving early and, of course, with all the flying, we couldn’t bring down fuel for the stove. So we had cajoled them into buying fuel for us. It turns out that just about nothing ever closes in Puerto Natales including the outdoors shops so we really had no problem. Puerto Natales is a great little town – entirely geared around people headed into Torres Del Paine. It’s pretty much all guest houses, hostels, outdoor stores and restaurants. And the restaurants know how to serve a portion. We stopped in for a late dinner when we arrived at a place recommended by Erratic Rock and were shocked – I ordered egg and chips and was served up a platter that I was sure should have been for about 7 people. I could barely wrap my arms around the giant oval plate which was piled about a half foot high with fries. The rest of the meal was layered on top. When I was full to bursting, it barely looked like I had started.
The next morning, we got up bright and early and hopped on the shuttle to get into the park. When we got there, we were shocked at the beauty of the place. It’s truly something to see. Unfortunately we don’t have any pictures of our own… but I’m getting ahead of myself. The “W” path itself is exactly what it sounds like – you take a boat across a glacial lake so bright and blue that you have a hard time believing that it’s real. From there, you walk up a valley to camp next to an enormous glacier. The next day, you walk back down the way you came, along a bit and then up another valley. Then you walk back down that one, along a bit and then up the final valley and back. The hike follows an approximate “W” pattern. All of it has absolutely amazing scenery, but the final attraction, the “Torres” themselves, take the cake. If you’ve ever seen a photo of Chile, there’s about a 70% chance that it’s of the Torres.
In order to get to the Torres, you follow a path beside a river up a valley. At the start of the path, you’re walking about ten feet above the river but as you climb, the path quickly diverges. Pretty soon, that rushing river, while still pretty much right beside you, is so far below that it looks like a little ribbon of blue and white. The trail also changes – from a wide track on the crest of the hill into a single-file path cut into the side of the mountain. All in all, it can be a little harrowing if you’re afraid of heights.
Lila is very much afraid of heights. Being acutely aware of this fact, I was getting a little nervous that we might not make it to the top and might miss out on the centerpiece of the entire trip. So I was doing everything I could to project my confidence on her. I set a good pace and we set out.
As we crested the first major rise, we found ourselves in the middle of a giant group of people. The Torres hike is the most popular route and it can be done as a long day hike. We had just run into the glut of people from the morning’s tour groups. I was concerned – keeping pace was going to be critical if we wanted to get through this hike. We sidestepped the groups on the river side and took one of the paths that had less people on it.
In other circumstances, I probably would have started questioning our route when it got really narrow and started to feel dangerous. In particular when the path turned from gravel into sand and started shifting under our feet like we were walking along the side of a steep sanddune. With each step, the sand moved and grains slid down into the river hundreds of feet below. I really should have been concerned. But I was so focused on not slowing down, and on not showing my nervousness to keep Lila going, that I ignored all the warning signs. When path literally dropped off in front of us, leaving us to step over a one foot gap of clean air and a deep drop into a ravine onto shifty sand on the other side, to I told myself “100,000 people walk this trail every year, it’s fine”, took a deep breath, stepped over and kept walking. Lila, not having much of an alternative followed and we continued on our way. It wasn’t until the walk back that we realized how much danger we had been in.
The rest of the walk was largely uneventful. We continued up to the campsite where we met Mariëtte and Timme, the Dutch couple who we had been keeping pace with throughout the hike. Our plan was to camp at the last campsite and then to get up early and hike to the “mirador” (lookout) to see the Torres up close and personal at sunrise. Upon arriving at the campsite, however, and having a bit of a rest, they convinced us to go up that night and see the sunset. It’s not supposed to be as impressive at sunset as at sunrise, but they argued that it might be cloudy in the morning and that we may as well see it twice, having made the effort to get so close. It turned out to have been the best possible idea because, in the end, there was no way we could have made it up there the next day.
The climb from the last campsite to the mirador is just that, a climb. There is no longer any pretence of a trail and you basically have to scramble up the wall of bare boulders to get there. The tough climb is totally worth it when you are rewarded by the view of the Torres. They are absolutely magnificent.
Timme and Mariëtte are awesome people – world travellers and adventurers, probably far bolder than we. We, on the other hand are somewhat more conservative and tightly strung Canadian folks. We had been carefully filling our water bottles at the designated drinking water spots along the way. The adventurous Dutch pooh poohed our caution, telling us that the water was molten glacier nectar – nothing could be purer. They weren’t even carrying water bottles and simply dipped a cup in every glacial stream along the way. That night, on the hike with them, we threw caution to the wind and followed their lead. We drank deeply from the streams coming down from the mountain and revelled in its purity. We thought about what fools we had been, carrying water bottles up and down mountains for the past 4 days. Unfortunately, it turned out that our caution was actually well placed – as Lila remarked later, it’s only pure if no one is hiking (and relieving themselves) upstream.
That night, once we had returned from the lookout, Lila started to feel queasy. Not long after that she was violently ill. We stayed up most of the night with her head either in the toilet or in a plastic bag outside the tent.
The next morning Lila was able to walk without actually throwing up, but could not eat was not in any great shape. The worst thing was that she was incredibly dizzy. We were really not looking forward to walking the narrow trail. Having her in this condition made it downright dangerous. We were especially nervous about getting over the gap in the sandy trail. There was no helping it though, we had to get back down.
We packed up and headed back down through the forest. We took a breather at the last refugio and then started down the trail. We took it carefully and slowly, letting people pass frequently and stopping to rest as we needed to. We were getting more and more apprehensive as we climbed the rise to where we had stepped over air on the way up. We really weren’t sure we were going to be able to make it over.
We kept a diligent watch for the spot – it had been at the highest point in relation to the river. We climbed up to the rise in the trail ever so carefully… and crested over the top. No gap. In fact, the trail was in quite good repair. Wide, a little ways away from the edge, and really quite nice. We kept on going, looking out for the gap. It never came.
When we got to the end of the trail and were waiting for the bus, it struck me what had happened and how dangerous it had been. We had taken a wrong turn on the way up and had followed a little side trail out over the river. In my single mindedness at getting through and not letting fear slow us down, I had taken us over a trail that was really really dangerous. Not one that had been walked safely by 100,000 people per year, but one that had probably been walked unsafely by about 10 people a year and that, based on the gap, someone had probably died on. My mind constructed a scenario where an adventurous hiker had created the trail to get a better photo of the river valley. The gap in the trail was where the loose sand had given out under his feet and he had slid, clutching desperately at moving sand, to his death far below. I learned a powerful lesson that day – to keep my eyes open and pay attention to the world around me, regardless of what’s going on in my head.
When we got back to town, we were exhausted and Lila was still really in no mood to eat. I insisted on going back to the same restaurant and getting a giant platter of steak and eggs, which I completely devoured. It turns out that the restaurant really does know its clientele and has a good reason for its portion sizes. They should mark the menu items as Pre-Torres and Post-Torres and size them appropriately. Of course I regretted my gluttony later that evening when I fell ill with the same bug that had afflicted Lila.
The next day we headed out to Punta Arenas to visit the penguins, and, from there, on through Santiago to Buenos Aires. Lila, being acutely afraid of flying and having some knowledge about such things, had refused to let me book on Aerolinas del Sur for the turbulent flight over the Andes (and coincidentally over the crash site that inspired the movie Alive) so we had a bit more of a comfortable and modern trip (although without the provided meal and alcohol).
We arrived, in good time, at the hostel in Buenos Aires. We checked in, and after a little confusion that we attributed to our lack of Spanish skill, they went to bring us to our room. Which still had someone else’s stuff in it. Back to the desk for more confusion. After they checked and checked their lists, they found the problem. We were booked in for 2 nights starting the next day. I checked the booking I had very carefully made over a month earlier. Crap. And they were completely full.
We hit the phones. After a fair bit of calling around we found a nearby chain hotel that had a room available that night at nearly 3 times the rate we were paying at the hostel. Beggars can’t be choosers I suppose. We decided that that night we would live large. We checked in, got the concierge to book us two tickets to dinner and Tango on the river at an insane price and spent the evening drinking red wine and eating Argentinian steak.
The next day, we went back and checked in to the hotel and then went out and did everything that you should do in Buenos Aires – we had charcoal grilled steak with, due to a miscommunication with the Spanish waiter, every single one of the 15 sauces they had available. We went to a design show. We toured the Palacio Barolo. We bought sweaters and fancy dresses. We sat in a cafe and watched the world go by. We went and saw the oldest, still running all-wooden subway. We went to see the famous window that Evita addressed the city from.
Beunos Aires was one of my favorite cities. The best way to describe it would be to take Paris, insulate it a bit from the rest of the world, change the language and let everything decay in place for a few decades. Everything about it says “faded elegance” – the architecture, the faded velvet chairs, everything. Except for the people, which are anything but faded. They’re friendly, joyful, industrious and warm. There was only one other major setback in Buenos Aires.
Shortly after we arrived, but not so soon after that we hadn’t already seen the majority of the major sites and taken a ton more photos, the brand new memory card on Lila’s brand new camera failed. Irretrievably. It was heart breaking. Every single one of the hundreds of photos we had taken of the brilliant blue waters and soaring peaks of Patagonia were gone. My incredulous and then ravenous photos of the portions in Puerto Natales. The stunning architecture of the Palacio Barolo. All gone. Despite almost dying in the park, this was the biggest let down of the trip. A second lesson: don’t buy the cheapest card you can find online, it’s not worth it!
The rest of our trip was just straight up awesome. We rented a standard transmission car in Santiago and, after a few lessons from Lila, I got us lurching our way south. We stopped at a great winery called the Viu Manet and had some excellent steak and some of the best red wine that I have ever had in my life.
We spent a few days staying at one of our favorite places, and one of the only places in Chile to get a decent cup of coffee, the Cabanas Buena Vista in Pichilemu. The Cabanas are owned and run by Chris and Val who are a couple of really cool Chicago ex-pats living the dream down there. They also run the language and yoga school and split their time between teaching Spanish to the tourists and teaching English to the locals. We wiled away the days with great, fresh food including amazing wood-fire baked Chilean empanadas, surfing and tons of cheap but excellent wine.
The last excursion was up into the mountains to stay at Will Evelyn’s fly fishing and equestrian lodge. The place is called Tumunan Lodge and it is incredible. If the Cabanas are awesome in their rustic, self-service glory, the Tumunan Lodge is the opposite. A beautiful outdoor pool, huge fireplace, massive bedrooms with ensuites and king sized beds, and the food. Oh the food!
We met up with Evan, who was working with Lila in Chile at the time, and his mother who happened to be visiting, at the lodge. William greeted us with Pisco Sours when we arrived and then his staff cooked up an incredible mixed grill for us. We went through the pisco, and the wine and had a wonderful time. At the end of our meal, as we sat around the fireplace, William pulled out a prized possession – almost completely unobtainable in Chile – a bottle of single malt Scotch. Talisker if I recall correctly. We promptly drained the bottle that he so generously offered – promising to restock him the next time we came down. Evan made good on that promise with a delivery a couple of months later.
The next morning came far too quickly for my liking. We blearily packed up and heading down to the river for some excellent flyfishing. I ended up catching three beautiful rainbow trout. Unfortunately we couldn’t stick around to enjoy them since I was flying out that day. We bid adieu to Evan and his mother who spent the afternoon lounging around the pool and headed back to the airport for my return to the snowy north.