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Saturday, August 16, 2014

Last Post Patagonia

Every good adventure ends with a battle of wits against nature.

This is why we left our comfortable, smoggy existence in Santiago for the frontier lands of Patagonia.  Our itinerary? The classic journey to Torres del Paine, a national park comprised of glacially sculpted peaks, wind-swept valleys, and the distilled essence of Patagonia.  

We began our journey in Punta Arenas.  Closer to Antarctica than Santiago, Punta Arenas is situated on the Strait of Magellan, serving as the main port city for the region.  It was a winter wonderland of sorts, dusted with snow and lit up with Victorian mansions, churches, panaderías, and a giant, ornate cemetery with unusually cut trees.  The fanciness of the city harkens back to the wool boom of the 1800s. 

We hopscotched from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales, viewing an alien landscape through the condensed windows of our bus.  Little green trees gnarled into each other and melded with the snow, giving way to hilly pastures and an expansive fjord.  Sheep roamed free and so did we.

We lucked out with lodging in Puerto Natales at Yaganhouse, a little cottage for backpackers. In town we grabbed a cheap, hardy meal and organized transport to the park.  During the winter, there is no public transportation to the park, so all rides have to be contracted through local tour companies. 

Awesome things we saw on the way to the park included:
- A big cave where Milodon fossils are found
- Flamingos in lagoons
- Lots of Andean Condors, the heaviest birds in the world (up to 50 lbs)
- Lots of guanaco
- A pack of ñandú, birds that resemble emu
- An elusive armadillo, rare in Patagonia but common roadkill in FL/TX
- waterfalls, lakes, and a red skunk

Ingratiated into nature, we reached the park entrance and got dropped off at a ranger station. We were on the wrong side of the park. All of the hiking that we had planned for had relied on starting at the other end of the park, and our plans were now moot  The rangers eyed us suspiciously. Who were these gringos trying to backpack through the park in winter? 

With a rough new plan, we ambled out of the office into the great unknown.
First up, hike to the abandoned lodge.  In summertime, a big lodge sports awesome views of the mountain for those who can afford it.  It is empty and locked in the wintertime, cemented as an eery testament to civilization amidst the howling wind and snow in the valley.  A few construction workers linger to upkeep facilities. 

We reached the lodge and set-up camp nearby, trying and failing to refill our water at one of the hotel's many closed facilities.  Making the most of limited daylight, we immediately set off on a 6 hr hike above the valley toward the rock towers, leaving our camp behind in the valley. Little did we know that we wouldn't be returning for two days. 

The hike was steep but rewarding,  climbing into a misty canyon of the mountain range toward the Torres.  We planned to walk to Refugio Chileno, another abandoned building, and then turn around and go back.  (Refugios are wood cabins staffed in the summer which hikers can stay in for a fee dorm-style) 

Several hours passed and we finally saw the refugio below us, lo and behold, with smoke rising from its chimney! There were others. 

We descended to the refugio with intentions of refilling our water bottles.  Two American backpackers greeted us, Andy and Josh.  They had huge packs and lots of ice/rock climbing gear. Beside them was a short, tough-looking Patagonian named Victor.  Victor was the lone employee of the Refugio Chileno during the winter.  He had the simultaneous roles of upkeep, repair, sherpa and rescue.  He sheltered marooned hikers out of the kindness of his heart in the closed refugio and was, as Josh put it, a man's man. He remarked (in Spanish) that we were unwise to be hiking at such a late hours in such bad weather, and offered us a night's stay in the closed refugio, free of charge. 

Andy and Josh had tried getting an up close view of the Torres earlier that day, but were stopped by waste-deep snow, low visibility, and snow tornadoes.  They had tried camping near the refugio, until Victor found them and brought them to the refugio.  Victor chuckled at the few crazy hikers who end up at the refugio every winter -- "todos locos," he said.  

It was very lucky that the refugio was "open," because as the weather worsened, so did our health.  I had been sick previously and Patience was getting hit by the worst of it.  Things would have been very bad hiking and camping in the snow.  Victor made some pasta and we ate, one big happy family in the middle of nowhere.

The next morning saw a hike further up and into the mountains.  Snow dappled pines gave way to monstrous rock faces battered by wind.  No matter how far we went, we couldn't see the Torres, the shear cliffs that make the park famous.  They were literally right in front of us, but it was cloudy and snowy and visibility was low.

We returned to the refugio and decided to hightail it out of the park with Andy and Josh.  They had organized a ride out at 4 pm.  We descended to the valley and packed our tent, which hadn't been blown away!


Then we waited to get picked up. 4 pm came and went... and then 5... and then 6, and no van came to pick us up.  Wind howled past the porch of the hotel that sheltered us and we sighed. Darkness descended.

Eventually Patience went over to talk to a construction worker parked in his truck off in the distance.  She explained our situation to him. Turns out he was very friendly, and a big fan of Florida. He let us heat up food in the same place where the construction workers eat, which was the cafeteria of the lodge itself! After breaking into the shutdown lodge, life was better.  We saw some wild foxes and devoured ramen.

Later we were herded to a random cabin where some construction workers lived.  There was a vacated room with two bunk beds where we slept.  Patagonians are very hospitable people.

The next day we walked to the nearest ranger station about 6 km away - during the walk the clouds cleared for the first time and we actually saw the Torres!

At the administration building, we found a guy with sunglass-goggles returning to Puerto Natales at noon.  Back to the real world! We went to a momma-style Chilean diner in Puerto Natales, where we found a not so friendly old man who we suspect was a Texan.  He was there for what he described as "mucho dinero" in the oil biz.  The scene was something out of an old Western:

The old Texan asked the waitress, who spoke no English, "Honey, could you give me a cerveza?"
She looked confused, and he yelled, "A CERVEZA!"
Still confused, she reached for the menu to have him to identify the item. He yelled, "does she have a problema" to everyone else in the restaurant, and screamed "Una CERVEZA" a final time.
 "I can't even get a goddamn beer in this place," he muttered as he slammed the door and walked into the rainy night.

We tipped well, had a good last stay in Puerto Natales, and traveled to Punta Arenas the next day.  We explored the chilly beach, cemetery, churches and mansions and were off, just like that, to sunny Texas and Florida.

Patagonia was as intriguing as expected.  We witnessed the raw power of nature and some breathtaking landscapes.  We were amazed and grateful for the hospitality in such an inhospitable land, and have really enjoyed Chile.


We'd like to thank everyone for reading our rambling stories.  Thank you, and good bye.

Chile Con Queso

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