Sunday, December 8, 2013

To the Ends of the Earth

Well, it's safe to say that our trip to Patagonia was the perfect climax to my time here in Chile. I have seen many, many beautiful places, especially since I live in Colorado, but I can safely say that Parque Nacional Torres del Paine is the most breathtaking place I have ever been. 

The beauty made all the effort invested in the trip well worth it! First of all, we had all of our final papers and projects due in the week and a half leading up to the trip, on top of lots of goodbye parties, so I went into the trip pretty worn out. Exhibit A: I submitted my last paper on December 1st at 2:30 am and woke up at 4:30 am to catch our taxi.

Second of all, anyone who knows me, knows that I like to plan... definitely too much. Anyone who has traveled in Latin America also knows that the culture here is much more live-in-the-moment, so it is essentially impossible to plan too far in advance because you will have to change your plans. I wish I could say that I had remained 100% calm, cool, and collected when we had to adjust plans (buying bus tickets down there because the companies overcharge if you use PayPal to buy tickets in advance, shortening the trek to 4 days instead of the original 5 I had planned, etc.), but that wouldn't be the truth. I am so thankful that Rachel, Emily, and Kari were there to talk some sense into me!

Finally, this was my very first backpacking trip, so I had no idea what to expect! I stressed out in Líder (Chilean Walmart) and leaned toward the side of buying too much rather than too little. Most of my purchase mistakes were easy enough to fix because I could simply leave food behind at the hostel, but one stood out among the rest. I asked a store clerk to show me where the jerky was. He did, and then asked if I cared what kind of meat I got, to which I replied that I just wanted the cheapest. Later on I discovered that the jerky I had bought smelled like dog food and had the texture of hay. Then it all clicked- "charquí de equino" definitely meant horse meat jerky. I managed to choke down about half of it, but eventually had to pass it on to a friend because it was probably the most disgusting thing I have ever eaten. I made myself the butt of many jokes. Example: (as we are trekking along) Kari- "Hey guys, I'm so hungry I could eat... wait for it... a horse!"

Now that I have adequately depicted myself as a basket case, I will begin talking about the trip itself! We flew into Punta Arenas, which is the southernmost continental city in the world; there are towns further south, but no more cities. Translation: we traveled (almost) to the end of the earth:

We then took a bus slightly north and spent the night in Puerto Natales, where I unknowingly ordered the biggest burger I've ever seen in my life- it was probably about 9 inches wide. I could barely finish half.

The next morning we got up early to take a bus into Parque Nacional Torres del Paine! We had decided to do the W circuit, named so because it is quite literally shaped like a W. It is a 4 day/3 night trek, although many people will stretch it out into 5 days/4 nights. You can hike it east-to-west, but we chose to hike it west-to-east. There is also a 9-day full circuit of the park, but we felt 4 days was much more manageable. Upon arrival to the park we took a catamaran boat across Lago Pehoé and got our first peek at the beautiful mountains we'd be hiking around all week:

Starting out!
On the other side of the lake we arrived at Refugio Grey. In addition to several free, basic camping spots, there are several refugios along the path, which are hotel/camping site combinations run by private companies. You can pay a ton to stay inside for the night, or you can pay a little bit for a campsite and use of bathroom facilities and a warm-up hut. As college students, we clearly went for the latter. You also have the option to rent camping gear and buy food, which is nice for people who want to do the trek but don't want to carry super heavy packs, or for people who run out of food or have problems with their gear. We discovered along the way that one of the sleeping bags we had rented in town had lost all its down filling, so it was great to have the option to rent better ones along the way! 

After setting up camp and switched to lighter daypacks for a 6+ hours out-and-back hike alongside Lago Grey (22 km/13.7 miles round trip). Kari and Rachel are riddle and logic-game masters, so we stretched our brains a bit to pass the time as we trod along. We got to see the tip of Glaciar Grey from a distance, as well as some chunks of ice that had broken off it:

As we were hiking, a storm came in. Before going to Patagonia, we heard a lot about a) the beauty and b) the unpredictably fierce weather, but we had fully underestimated both of these things. Patagonia felt no regret in spiting us for our ignorance. The winds were so strong that in places we could try our best to fall over and not succeed because the wind held us upright. 

Also, we had to jog in some places because it was too much effort to keep our feet planted while walking. What should have been a three hour hike back to camp ended up being just over two; the wind carried us forward with each step to the point that we were just about flying. 

As the hours passed by, the winds grew fiercer and the rain started to come down. The sun sets around 10 pm this time of year, so we had planned to arrive back in camp around 9 and have just enough time to cook before dark. We were therefore the last people to come in for the night. As we rounded the bend and came into camp, at this point soaking wet and freezing, every single person in the lodge could see us coming in through the oversized glass windows. There is nothing quite like receiving pity stares from 40+ people all at the same time, some of whom even came outside just to verify that yes, we were indeed miserably cold. We then went to check up on the tents, only to discover that Rachel's and mine was being blown almost completely flat to the ground and that Emily's and Kari's had flooded. After I let loose a few choice words, we moved our tent, tried to mop out the other girl's tent, ate a sullen dinner, and laid our clothes out to dry in the warming hut overnight while we went to sleep. It's safe to say this was a low point of the trip for everyone.

The next morning we got moving again. It was still windy, but the gusts were less fierce and it was only drizzling. We hiked 2.5 hours (5.5 km, 3.4 miles) on a rolling trail surrounded by scrubby hills to a rest spot. After a quick lunch, we dropped our packs and headed up through la Valle del Francés. This section had many types of beauty juxtaposed together. To the left we had a bare mountain covered by snow and glaciers:

To the right we had the stark tower-like mountains and rock formations:

And along the trail were some really nice waterfalls, most of which were clean enough to drink from without purification. It was the most delicious water I have ever tasted!

Unfortunately, the wind was still strong enough that day that we could only hike about 1 hour up through the covered part of the valley. Once we emerged from the tree- and hill-cover it was clear that it would be nearly impossible to continue, so we turned around and headed back to grab our packs (probably about 5.5 km/3.4 miles round trip). We then hiked another 2.5 hours to our next camping spot (5.5 km/3.4 miles, bringing the day's total to 16.5 km/10.2 miles). We passed through beautiful forests with some really funky fungus growing on the trees:

And directly along some Mediterranean-looking lakes with electric blue water and cool rock formations behind them:

Photo credit: Kari Ayoob
The next morning the sun finally came out, and boy was the view amazing! In this picture you can also see the ciruelillo, or the bright orange flowered bushes that absolutely cover the hillside during springtime in Patagonia. 

My mood was improving even more exponentially than the weather. Just as it always does, God's creation allowed me to let go of the stress of life and be present in His beauty, move my body, enjoy the companionship of some amazing friends, and let my mind wander. Our third day contained more uphill and steep sections than the other days as we approached the main attraction: the Torres del Paine. I actually get some perverse enjoyment out of hiking uphill- I can get into a better pace and the exertion clears my mind more. I think it's the cross country runner coming out in me.

The first part of the third day was passing through grasslands with view of the same mountains and lakes as the day before- During the second part of the day we turned into a valley and crisscrossed our way over rivers and streams. 

We hiked about 3.5 lazily-paced hours to our lunch spot. We had anticipated hiking a lot longer, but we were able to take a shortcut that everyone knows about but isn't on the map (thus mileage unknown). We ran into a ton of people we knew as we were hiking, not only this day, but really throughout the trip. Many of the other students at our university decided to take off right after finals as well, so we saw lots of them and some of their parents who had come to travel with them. We also ran into a few other DU students who are studying in Latin America, which was unexpected and really awesome! In addition to the friends we already had made, we met tons of new people from all around the world on the trail and in the camping spots. There is a special sort of bond that forms when everyone is trekking and experiencing nature together.

DU Reunion!
From our lunch spot we hiked about 1.5 hours more through the forest to our camping spot for the night (4.9 km, 3 miles). The views on the way in weren't too shabby:

Once reaching Campamento Torres, I decided to wander off in the woods alone, listen to my iPod for the first time in a few days, and just soak in the beauty. I found a rock field with this view and proceeded to a) sing along to some praise music and give God some cred for His amazing handiwork and b) jam out to some alternative music (Black Keys waddup!) while stretching out my tired muscles.

When I got back into camp, my friends had talked to the park ranger and determined that because it was a relatively low-clouds day we should hike up to see the Torres del Paine immediately rather than waiting until the morning. So we did. Something about my private jam sesh had given me a second wind and I flew up the 45 minute hike up steep hills and over rock fields in about 30 minutes. What I saw at the top will forever stand as one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. It quite literally stole the breath out of my lungs:

Emily in front of the Torres, to give you a bit of perspective on just how much they tower into the sky
I would have stayed forever if I could, but it was starting to get dark so eventually we had to head back down to camp. We were so high on life! We were laughing and joking around more than we had in a while, and one of our German friends whom we had met on the trail came up and asked "How do you all have so much energy? That's the first laughter I've heard in days! Or, at least, we're so exhausted that not much laughter is going on in our tent." It was cool to finally be the cheerful ones, especially because I had been so grumpy at points earlier in the trip (see: planning the trip and first night).

We went to bed and got up again around 4 with intentions of hiking up to the Torres again for sunrise. On clear days the rising sun shines upon the Torres and turns them bright red. Unfortunately we didn't get a clear day, but it was still amazing to snuggle up in a sleeping bag and spend a few more precious moments drinking in the view in the early morning light.

Eventually we made the hike back down, with trembling legs and soaring hearts, to pack up the tents and start our descent out of the park. Added bonus- the whole week I was thinking, Man, I would love to do some trail running here, and I finally got my opportunity on the last day. Why, you may ask? Well, because about 15-20 minutes outside of camp I felt a little internal nudge (thanks God) and asked my friends who happened to be carrying the camp stove that day. After a few "Not me"'s and some panicked stares, we realized that we had not only left it in camp, but that we had probably left it still burning with the little bit of hot water that we hadn't used that morning at breakfast. So I jogged on back to camp, confirmed that the stove was indeed still burning but that it hadn't exploded (whew), tried to fold it up while it was still flaming hot, and then jogged back. All's well that ends well, as they say. 

With that, we put our tired legs to the test to haul up a few final ascents and down many more steep declines, which if you've hiked before you know is actually harder than the uphill on your thighs. About 3.5 hours later we reached the finish: sweaty, smelly, exhausted, and triumphant!

Photo credit: Kari Ayoob's camera/our German friend
Not only did we survive trekking in Patagonia, we did it as a girls-only group! There are relatively few ladies who are willing to go without showers, do tough physical activity, and sleep in the cold for such a long time, and I couldn't have picked a better group to go with. So much love for these girls!

That afternoon we took a bus back to Puerto Natales. At dinner we each ate an entire pizza by ourselves and split a dessert pizza. I then proceed to sleep for over 14 hours. Let's just say that 4 days of intense physical activity changes a person.

Finally, since we had booked our plane tickets with the intention of spending 5 days trekking, we had an extra day to hang out and rest in Puerto Natales! After seeing statues of this weird horse-bear looking creature around town, we finally figured out that it is a mylodon, an extinct species of giant ground sloth. One was found perfectly preserved in a cave just outside of town, so it has become a mascot of sorts.

Photo credit: Kari Ayoob
We also walked along the shore for a little bit and did some Karate-Kid inspired picture taking.

Photo credit: Kari Ayoob
Finally, at the end of our last night in the hostel, the hostel owners sent us off in the Patagonian tradition of offering guests a drink. We got to try calafate liquor. The calafate is a type of berry native to the region, and they distill it into a very sweet liquor that tastes a little bit like blackberry. It was delicious!

Photo credit: Kari Ayoob's camera/Hostel owner
And with that, I will also say "Cheers/Salud" to this blog post! Now I am off to enjoy my final week here in Chile.