The Severe Andean slopes surrounded us from every angle at the Chilean border crossing. Even at 3000m altitude, there was no sign of snow nearby, with only rust-coloured rock was left bare on the mountainsides. The drive from the Argentinian city of Mendoza towards Santiago had been far from tedious with continuous entrancing views, although hours of tedious baggage checks and stamps at the border had taking the shine off the experience.
The city of Santiago sits in a bowl, with the rising Andean foothills forming the walls around. Although capable of scorching temperatures during the summer, I arrived to a comfortable 30 degrees. The day before I left, there was news of a huge landslide causing a water shortage for half of Santiago’s 8 million inhabitants. But as always, the affluent centre would avoid any discomfort, meaning I would be unaffected at my hostel.
When viewed from above, the city can only be described as a metropolis, with stacks of flats scattered across every district. Descent into the city reveals the smaller streets with a patchwork of multi-coloured houses, and noise coming from every street corner in the livelier neighbourhoods. On my first night, the owner of my hostel offered to take myself and two others out for a local meal. In smart dress, the slightly portly Chilean strutted with pride through the bustle towards his favourite local restaurant, handing out cigarettes to parking attendants and waiters like a smooth currency exchange for amicable service. A local dish, which was similar in form to the British Shepherd’s pie (except with a sweet grain topping instead of potato) was served alongside local craft beer. Having not eaten all day due to the bus journey, I can’t really remember what it tasted like, only that it didn’t last very long.
The next day was one I had been looking forward to for a while. I saw my dad for the first time since we parted ways in India 11 months ago. He had flown from the UK to enjoy some South American comforts and adventures during our voyage southwards to Patagonia. Not only was it a pleasure to catch up after so many months apart, I was relishing the prospect of having company for the next three weeks of travel. We became city tourists for a couple of days, and exchanged stories from home and abroad ahead of the flight south.
Landing in Punta Arenas, Chile’s only “major” Patagonian town, was like being transported off the continent. We could have been anywhere. The outskirts appeared similar to a poor North American suburb, with simple wooden houses spaced out along the streets. The humidity and heat was replaced with brisk winds, and the whole town was empty from the business that you could expect further north.
We stayed at a rundown hotel which seemed to be managed and somehow solely staffed by an old smiling Chilean. With shoulder length white hair flowing, he beamed at us upon entry, and a combination of his basic English and our jumbled Spanish got us through a friendly conversation. It was a good example of a standard Patagonian B’n’B with a simple room, stiff bed and most likely a gas heater in the corner. Walls are colourfully painted, although they’re probably either made of tin or thin wood. No doubt this would be a harsh place to live during the colder months of the year.
The road from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales revealed the sort of landscape that covered much of Patagonia and the Tierra del Fuego further south. Flattened by ancient glaciers like giant rolling pins, vacant land extended to the horizon in most directions, except where outlines of the Andes came into view further north. Despite being the doorway to the renowned national park of Torres Del Paine, Puerto Natales was still a poor town, where outside the touristy centre lay a series of shacks and small houses. Peering into the windows revealed bare interiors with just a few chairs and a television if lucky.
Two days were spent in the town, buying supplies and renting equipment for our first real experience of the Patagonian outdoors; a 4 day trek around the Torres Del Paine National Park. Our journey began with a stroke a luck in the form of a free tent and sleeping mat. A couple of hikers with no further need of the equipment dropped it off into a free box at a local rental store, and it was gratefully received by us.
In upkeep with my father’s travel tradition, he brought with himself a bottle of whisky to South America. In upkeep with our family’s tradition, we would probably drink it quickly. I convinced him not to pack the whole bulky bottle for the trek, and so we decanted a sufficient supply for 3 nightcaps (which would end up proving mightily welcome in the coming days).
So with our brimming packs, we set out in the pale morning light to the east side of the park. White cloud watched over us, hugging the steep rock above. We followed the mountains around, with the huge Lake Nordenskjöld sunken beneath us on the other side of the trail. Beyond the turquoise glacial waters were huge layers of rising rock, disrupted and folded like a wave from millennia of tectonic activity.
By early mid-afternoon we had reached our first campsite, Los Cuernos. After spending many nights in run-down mountain huts around the world, I was not ready for the splendour of Chilean refugios. It was a common sight to see walkers grasping a pisco sour in a champagne flute, laughing over a game of Jenga. Although we were not prepared to pay the extortionate prices of staying within the refugio, we enjoyed a cooked meal, and plundered the dispensers of hot water for our own brews of coffee and tea. Although my dad certainly has a daily requirement of tea intake, I could hard complain. Despite my thrifty packing of all hiking equipment, I still made room for my special Rwandan coffee beans and cafetière.
After dinner, we walked down to the Lake’s shores away from the crowds in the refugio. Muffled behind thick layers of white, we saw the sun set over Lake Nordenskjöld, with our daily ration of whisky in hand. The sword-like mountains of Torres Del Paine occasionally flirted their white capped peaks at us between sheets of cloud. And unlike the next day, everything was calm.
We both awoke in the darkness to the patter of raindrops onto the roof of our tent. I slid deeper into my sleeping bag. Maybe it would pass. I did a quick rain test by extending my hand outside before withdrawing a few seconds later to witness my palm smudged by large droplets. It was our longest day of walking ahead, with anywhere upwards of 8 hours expected, and more in bad weather.
My dad and I slowly rose. It wouldn’t take much more than a quick look between our tired eyes to know what we were both feeling. We packed our bags and tent without too many words, but remained perfectly upbeat about the walk ahead. The tent was dismantled quickly, and after a brief breakfast, we started to move.
Although the trail is well-trodden, it is far from a convenient path. Most sections involve jumping from stone-to-stone, and are at either a steady incline or decline. The flat sections were no better; the heavy rain quickly saturated the mud, and unavoidable puddles rose like small lakes.
After a few kilometres, we approached our first river crossing of the day, a guided group was making their way across, and we decided to follow in turn. With no simple ways around, we were forced to plunge our feet into the flow and hope for a solid step. During the second half of the crossing, my dad ran out of luck. A loose step, and he fell backwards into the water. My heart sank. He rose quickly and got out, but the damage was done. His backpack had taken the brunt of the water, which could have been very costly. Best case scenario would involve some damp socks; worse case would be a glacial fed sleeping bag.
Still, nothing could buff away my dad’s continued positivity, and we strode onwards. The rain continued to fall, so we decided not to stop for long until lunchtime, where we dripped into a refugio and unpacked our sandwiches.
A slight misread of the map would make the final leg unexpectedly difficult. Although in hindsight, not knowing about the impending climbs probably kept our spirits higher when entering the valleys below. After climbing to the top of the hill, we were presented with our first amazing view of Glaciar Grey, which seemed to stretch endlessly in its brilliant sheen. From there, we descended into a sloped forest, which stood almost completely bare due to the large forest fire which tore through the park a few years ago. Just the lifeless trees frozen in their dance to keep us company now.
Paths became streams, streams became rivers, and rocky climbs were becoming increasingly arduous with the downpour. After a whole day walking in the cold, our joints stiffened, but our spirits were not yet dampened. We would trudge along, frequently exchanging glances to shows signs of life, sometimes stating in hope “I think it get’s easier from here…”, and occasionally speaking of the luxuries to expect at the end of the day.
The 24km took 9 hours to cover before the welcome sight of our camp ground came into view. If it was possible to believe, the Refugio at camp grey was even more luxurious than the others. A large open space was filled with leather sofas and designer coffee tables. A fully stacked bar greeted you upon arrival to the room, where a bar-lady was busy shaking cocktails to a backdrop of Latin American music. A wood stove sat against one of the walls, although it remained unlit for most of the day. However, it didn’t stop the hopeful hikers from leaving their wet shoes nearby like offerings to the Stove God; hoping their prayers would be answered in the form of dry footwear the following morning. For us, it was just a relief to sit down. We fell into the sofa like a pile of laundry, and quietly gazed at features and characters around.
On a positive note, my dad’s valuables had survived the brief river swim, with only some damp trousers to wince at before stuffing into the bottom of the bag and forget about until another day. We were informed before the trek that there was cooking facilities in the kitchen campsite. Which, if you consider a sink and a table as kitchen facilities, would be true. However, our pasta feast would remain uncooked without a stove. Too late to borrow anyone else’s equipment, we tucked into our peanut butter and tortilla wrap supply. It was a fairly sorry affair. Still, at least we had whisky.
The following day, without plans for a full trek, we were able to enjoy the area without the burden of our full packs. We strolled to a lookout over Glaciar Grey, which made all of the walking worth it. Icebergs floated in the lake in front, which was fed by the blue ice of the glacier. Dark mountains descended into water from the east, but the west side was forested and green. Beyond the glaciar lie the desolate ice fields and white mountain ranges I could only dream of seeing up close one day.
Upon return to the campsite, we were still facing the stove dilema. In our minds, we cooked up a few possibilities utilising cups of hot water from the dispenser in the refugio. Tomato and Onion soup with tortilla wraps to dip… Slow cooked porridge and honey, with a side dish of tinned tuna… the list went on. We ended up being saved when a group of four cancelled their stay at the refugio, and vacated some spaces at the dining table. It was an easy decision – who doesn’t like a bit of luxury now and again anyway?
The final day involved returning along the trail to Paine Grande, where the catamaran would meet us for our journey back to Puerto Natales. Waking up before sunrise, we gathered our pack together and stuffed down some peanuts for energy. Blue light started to pour into the valley, and we finally found ourselves alone on the trail, making the experience increasingly enjoyable. Some streams had gained momentum over the past day, and could no longer be hopped over. Instead, tree trunks would have to be found for crossings. At higher points, we could speed along the refreshed paths towards our final point.
It wasn’t long before we reached the small dock. A queue of backpacks formed in eager anticipation for the voyage back to civilisation. Fresh faced hikers disembarked the catamaran, replacing the tired troopers who were now clearly looking forward to a hot shower. Our final gift from was a sudden clearing of clouds to reveal to the huge range of violent peaks of Torres Del Paine. Each unique in their own way and sculpted by the elements, we admired their stunning beauty in awe.