Snapshot of the Week(s) – A Wet and Chile Adventure

It’s been an interesting fortnight since we last posted a blog. We left Argentina and headed to Chile, where we were to take on the W – a 5-day hike in the Patagonian wilderness, so named because the trail forms a 70km W-shape around the mountains of the Torres del Paine National Park. You can see our Lego hombres in the picture enjoying the scenery.

We maybe should have known what was awaiting us in Patagonia from our first few days in Chile. In a small, picturesque town called Puerto Varas, we were battered with torrential rain for two days before getting an absolute scorcher. We made the most of said weather by heading out to a volcano and some waterfalls, being treated to Chile’s ludicrously pretty scenery. If only such weather could be guaranteed. However, we left Varas full of excitement, and a little trepidation, at what was to come down at the Southern tip of the world.

The Torres del Paine National Park is located a few hours’ flight south of Varas, taking us to the fifth-most southern settlement in the world. Essentially we were more southern than David Cameron, an achievement in itself. A couple of days to acclimatise, sort our kit out and mentally prepare ourselves later, and we found ourselves on a bus to the National Park, and once we saw the famous Torres things started to get seriously real. As we checked in to our refugio, a kind of hostel meets hotel meets hiking shelter, we saw the weather forecast on the board – wet. Google had reliably informed me that we were due some showers, so I could make my peace with this, and we went to bed with a bit of a Christmas Eve feeling.

20170306_193003.jpg
Dinner with a view, night one.

We awoke the next morning, and the famous Torres had disappeared behind a veil of low cloud and a thick mist lay over our refugio. It’d clear later, I was sure. However, as we headed up the mountain it became clear that my certainty was somewhat misplaced. The fog thickened, and the rain began to fall, and fall hard. A 6 hour hike up to the base of the Torres and a spectacular viewpoint (or mirador as the Hispanophones romantically call them) revealed precisely nothing – we couldn’t see 20 feet into the pea soup. Slightly devastated, but a little sated in the knowledge that we had 3 more days to see some cool stuff, we headed back down the mountain as the rain kept pouring. I vowed that if the rain stopped overnight, I would head back up to the towers at sunrise with our new Aussie friend Tim, a man whose preparation for the hike didn’t include buying boots, trousers or gloves.

Photo Mar 07, 1 49 04 PM
The stunning Base Las Torres viewpoint.

5am came around, but I didn’t need my alarm to rouse us. Instead, the pounding rain on the roof of the refugio a few feet above my head in my third-tier bunk bed (these are scary) did that for me, and it was clear that dragging ourselves up a mountain in the pitch black and rain would be both pointless and dangerous. Instead, we had a late start, assured that day two was easy, a 5-hour hop, skip and a jump along the “shortcut” to Los Cuernos refugio. What hadn’t been accounted for was the effect of the previous few days’ rain. Within 200m of setting off, we got to a point where, the previous day, there had been a path. Now it was just a landslide, maybe 30m wide, of shale, mud and water falling down into the ravine below. Today was going to be fun. The path on the W frequently crosses little streams and rivers, but they pose no problem to hikers. Unfortunately today, these streams were anything from small rivers to raging torrents, all of which had to be negotiated on foot, or clambered across on bridging trees. We saw multiple people fall in and be washed downstream, soaked and battered. This wasn’t just hard going, it was downright dangerous. And still the rain fell. We arrived at Los Cuernos refugio damp both in person and in spirit, as not only is hiking in the rain a little depressing, but in two (very expensive) days we had seen precisely none of Torres del Paine’s famously stunning scenery. We played Jenga in our hostel with our new amigos, two Quebecois Canadians and a Californian named Josh, and it got intense, pretty quickly. We all resolved that tomorrow would be a better day.

Honestly, if there were one thing we should have learned from our experience on the trail, it’s that such aspirations were beyond misguided. Dragging on our still-soggy boots the next morning, we were greeted once again by our now all-too-familiar foggy companion. Unlike yesterday’s “moderate” walk of 6 hours, today included similar terrain and distance, but with the added 4-hour excursion up into the heart of Valley Frances – one of the park’s highlights and a notoriously difficult walk which has been closed the previous day. We left, worried that this walk would be closed and nervous that we would miss our last chance to see the famed Torres. This fear was compounded by a local guide, who claimed that in all her ten years hiking the park, she had never seen anything like the rain from the previous two days. That, in fact, the paths we had walked just the previous day should have been closed, were it not that the rainfall was so very unprecedented the park staff simply hadn’t reacted quickly enough. I asked her what she thought about Valley Frances, and with a shrug, she said “If there’s no view, there is no point.”

IMG_20170314_103011_389.jpg
There is a colossal mountain behind these clouds, I am told.

As we manoeuvred our way uphill it became quickly apparent the extent of the rain’s damage. The path has been replaced almost entirely with a stream, surrounded by a muddy terrain which could rival even Glastonbury’s finest fields. Hopscotching my way across the “path” I was plagued by two rivalling emotions. While I prayed that the path would remain open and we could chance a peek at Patagonia’s most famous valley, I was exhausted from the previous day’s antics and concerned that we’d be hiking up a potentially dangerous and certainly arduous terrain, to only, once again, be greeted by a wall of cloud. I don’t walk because I enjoy walking for the sake of it – I walk to actually see things, and I was becoming more jaded by the minute. Interesting then, that upon seeing that the path was indeed very closed, I felt a wave of anger. That we couldn’t even attempt to see what we had came all this way for, felt somehow worse.

As we trudged (what a wonderful word) our way on to the next refugio, the cloud began to lift a little, and actual rays of sunshine started to peek through. Bathed in glorious vitamin D, we managed to catch a glimpse of one the W’s amazing snow-capped peaks and the turquoise lake practically glowed in the sunlight. The weather continued to clear, and after settling into our fourth refugio, we comforted ourselves with the thought that our final day, which included a visit to the famous Grey Glacier, would redeem all our past misfortunes. On our very first night some fellow walkers, who had just completed their trek, heralded this day as their personal highlight (though, admittedly they had more to choose from) and the weather was most definitely on the up.

IMG_20170311_120446_241
This is what we came for.

This time, our hopes weren’t entirely in vain. While the sky turned a shade of grey-blue, the clouds began to lift and the Grey Glacier revealed itself in (almost) its full glory. Sadly, we couldn’t spare more than an hour at the mirador, and as we walked away the sky above the glacier cleared and we saw the full, magnificent extent of this almighty ice cube. Somewhat sated, we boarded our boat/bus combo home and were greeted with, what I can honestly say, is one of the the most bittersweet moments in my life.

17308704_10154566249179075_6086363667024516477_n
The beautifully blue Grey Glacier.

As we drove out of the park, the sky turned a brilliant shade of blue and the park revealed all the wonders it had hidden from us. It was almost absurd, looking at the snow capped peaks which framed every step we had taken the past 4 days, but simply could not see. The Torres reared their peaks like a cruel mirage. The mutterings on the bus were all the same: It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair at all…but at least, finally, we had seen what we came all this way for. The park truly did live up to every reputation which preceded it. It was worth the money. It was worth the effort.

IMG_20170312_211526_971
What it’s supposed to look like.

…But fuck the people arriving that glorious evening.

Advertisements

Valparaiso: A Brief Guide

Valpo, as it’s known on the street, is a port city of around 300,000 people, covered in graffiti. Sounds bloody horrible, right? Wrong. Surprisingly, it’s street art and brightly coloured buildings have earned the place the right to call itself a UNESCO world heritage site, and its quirky mix of cobbled streets, death-defyingly steep hills and stunning views make this place a popular stop off on most people’s tours of Chile. We only stayed for a couple of days, so we can’t claim to know the place well, but here are a few hints.

  • Getting to Valpo is a piece of cake. It’s connected from Santiago by very frequent buses – we’re talking every 5-10 minutes or so from early morning to late night. From Santiago airport the easiest way is to go to Pajaritos terminal, a 15-20 minute, CHP$1700 bus, then a 1-and-a-half-hour bus on to Valpo for around CHP$3000. It is easier than you think it will be.
  • In Valpo itself, there is an extensive but somewhat confusing bus network. The buses are very small and don’t really appear to interconnect all that well, although that is probably just touristic ignorance. Your accommodation will be able to explain them to you better than I can. There is also the train, which runs along the front to Vina del Mar, which is frequent and reasonable, although you have to purchase a travel card for around CLP$1000 before you can use it. Multiple people can share one card. Lastly, taxis and collectivos are everywhere and pretty reasonable – a private cab from the bus station to the old town will set you back CLP$5000-6000, and Uber is similarly priced.
  • Also on the getting around front, as the hills are quite fearsome in places, you can take the fun little ascensores. The funicular style elevators cost virtually nothing, around CLP$100-200, and save your legs the pain of another colossal staircase. Unfortunately, quite a few have fallen into disrepair so prepare for the disappointment of getting to one only to find it closed.
  • There is street art everywhere in Valpo. Literally, every street is covered in paint, whether good or bad. Most walls, staircases, squares, benches, lampposts – everything – are brightly coloured and interesting. As a result, Valpo is one of the most photogenic cities I have ever been to. Some of the best art is found in the Florida area, down to the open air museum.
  • Vina del Mar, a picturesque but touristy seaside town, is 20 minutes away by train. It’s worth a trip for a beach day if you have had your cultural fill.
  • As with many artistic cities, Valpo has a very bohemian feel to it, especially in the old town. Although this comes with many pluses, great food, bars, coffee, art – it also brings its downsides. Public drinking is common, there is litter and broken glass all over the place, especially in the narrow streets and stairwells, and petty crime is quite common. Use your common sense, especially with valuables after dark, and avoid the Puerto area at night.
  • The food choices are pretty endless, but we highly recommend cosy Gente Feliz for very reasonable Chilean food (approx. CLP$6000-7000 for a main). They normally have a traditional Flamengo show every Saturday night, which requires a small contribution. If you want a table on a weekend, get there no later than 10pm as the place fills up fast. Another great lunch spot is Café Plaza Moro, just down the road from La Sebatiana in Florida. Their empanadas are amazing (CLP1500-2000, two will do nicely) and the staff are insanely friendly.

 

 

 

Torres Del Paine – The W: A Guide

So you’ve decided to go to the ends of the earth, literally, to visit the Torres del Paine and hike the world-famous “W” trail. Five days in Patagonia, snow-capped peaks, glaciers, aquamarine lakes and soaring condors flying overhead. Sounds perfect. First though, there are a few things you need to consider.

Getting There
TDP, as I shall now be calling it, is a long way South. A long way. Getting there usually involves a flight, either to El Calafate in Argentina or more commonly to Punta Arenas in Chile. From either of these you take a bus to Puerto Natales, the closest settlement to the park. I would recommend going to Punta Arenas, as it’s nearer and you don’t have to worry about border crossing with all your gear. To get to Puerto Natales is straightforward too, there’s about 10 direct buses a day. It is important to book your bus from the airport to Natales online before you get there, or the buses won’t pick you up. With bussur.com it costs CHP$7000 (about US$10) one way, or $13000 for a return if you know when you need to head back. If you don’t have a bus reservation, you may have to go into Punta Arenas town, a scandalous CHP$5000 per person taxi ride away – only to get a bus which goes right past the airport anyway.

Accommodation
In the park you have a few options, which dictate lots of other details about your trip. You can camp, either in your own tent or a pre-made one, or stay in the refugios, which we did. Camping is obviously the cheaper and slightly more authentic option, although you are only allowed to camp in designated spots, so you don’t really get any more of a wilderness experience than those staying in the refugios. Additionally, you have to carry a sleeping bag, a mat, a stove, food, and if you elect to, your own tent, which adds considerable weight to your back on the 80km or so trek. Thirdly, if you don’t already own all this gear, renting it gets very expensive very quickly.

The refugio option is the “softer” option. Every night you get a bed, and all your meals are provided, some of which are very good. Refugios are part hostel, part hotel, part shelter, and in the high season (September-March) are usually booked up months in advance. They are packed to the rafters in the rain too. They are not cheap, at all. We booked ours through Fantasico Sur. The company was helpful but it cost over $800 per person, all transport, accommodation and food inclusive.

The Hike
The classic W option is to go from East to West over 4-6 days. You enter the Park at the main entrance and work your way West, finishing at the Grey Glacier, before you take the catamaran back to the bus. This is the option we did, although there are countless other choices depending on your time limits. In some ways I think it would be preferable to start at the West point and work eastwards, as you would finish with the nicest refugio and the shorter day hikes.

17264336_10154566249439075_4275663636058857161_n

The days range from 6-12 hours, and about 12-25km in length. All of them involve hills, great views and Patagonia’s interesting version of the weather. I will say at this point that we were unlucky with the weather, we did not get the “4 seasons in a day” as advised. We got one season – the wet one. According to a guide we met in one of the refugios, it was the worst rainfall in the high season in a decade. Paths turned to streams, streams turned to rivers and rivers turned to raging torrents. Paths washed away, landslides were frequent and previously grassy passages turned to impassable bog. Sturdy, waterproof shoes are an absolute imperative, unless you want trenchfoot.

Hints and Tips

  • Be prepared for godawful weather. You may be lucky – we weren’t. Have waterproof everything, keep your clothes in dry bags, get a decent rain cover, the works.
  • The refugios, although nice enough, are basic. You have a dorm bed, so take ear plugs if you are a light sleeper. They are also a little boring, so I’d advise bringing a book or kindle with you. Charging your devices can be a bit of a pain too, as the dorms don’t have plug sockets, so bring a battery pack if you have one.
  • The refugios are also pretty expensive. When you’ve finished a hike, it’s tempting to have a coffee or tea, or something a little stronger. These will set you back a fair amount. It’s a good idea to take teabags or instant coffee with you as hot water is free, and if you have the weight for it you could take a bottle of something strong and warming. I certainly would have liked a wee dram at the end of the day instead of a CHP$7000 beer.
  • Pack enough socks. The drying facilities are somewhat lacking in the refugios and there is nothing worse than putting on wet socks. Trust me.
  • Get some hiking poles. There is an awful lot of up and down, as you would expect in the mountains. Your knees take a pounding, especially with added weight on your back. Poles apparently take 30% of the strain from your knees, and they’re really handy for crossing rivers when you need to test the depth.
  • If your phone is your camera, put it on flight mode. You don’t need data and wifi in the wilderness (plus, where there is wifi in the refugios it is obscenely expensive). Instagram can live without you for five days. This hugely conserves the battery – mine still had 30% by the time I got on the bus back to Puerto Natales.
  • Take a backup camera. You will be furious if yours breaks or gets wet and you miss the scenery of your life. It’s also not a bad idea to make friends with some fellow hikers and set up a photo-sharing arrangement.
  • Take snacks. The all-inclusive food is enough, even for someone like me who eats a lot. However, it is always nice to have a few treats of your own. Cereal bars and sweets are my personal favourites.
  • Use a water bladder. So much easier than getting a bottle out every time you fancy a sip, and if it’s freezing you don’t have to take your gloves off. This also leaves room for a thermos flask, which again is the best thing ever when you’re freezing your balls of at a lookout point.
  • If you have dietary restrictions, don’t rely on the facilities at the refugios. The tour companies do try to accommodate restricted diets, but if they don’t have the right stuff in they can’t just nip to the shops and pick something up for you. Bring a few extra snacks if this applies to you.

17190649_10154566249209075_3325045937248416146_n

 

 

Bariloche: Travel Guide

San Carlos de Bariloche, or just Bariloche as its friends call it, is an alpine town in the Argentine Lake District. The word “alpine” is very carefully chosen in this instance, as the town itself bears almost a startling resemblance to Austrian/Swiss/German towns of that part of Europe, complete with wooden buildings, chocolate shops and St Bernard dogs. Charming though it may be, Bariloche owes its Germanic appearance, at least in part, to the large number of Nazi war criminals who fled to this corner of Patagonia to escape justice at Nuremburg after the Second World War. But I digress. The reason people come to Bariloche now, in their droves, is the stunningly beautiful scenery surrounding the town. It’s a hikers’ paradise, no doubt about it, and it’s a must-see on any trip to Argentina. Here’s how we did it.

16997834_10154538446229075_6726994182459889743_n

Getting There
Bariloche does have an airport, but Argentina itself lacks a budget airline so it’s not really a great option. This is especially true for foreigners, who pay double what Argentinians do for the privilege of getting on a plane. Seems unfair really. The most common way to get to Bariloche is on Argentina’s well-established bus network. It’s about 12 hours from Buenos Aires, which for Argentina isn’t actually that bad.

A note on Argentine buses – there are a few classes of seat you can take: Cama, Salon Cama, Cama Executivo, Semi-Cama… it’s confusing as hell because the standards vary from company to company. Essentially Cama, Executivo and Salon are all varying degrees of first class. You have a wider, more reclining seat and often it comes “con servicio,” meaning you get food and drink included. Semi-cama is a reclining seat, and in our experience in Argentina they don’t recline very far at all. They aren’t advised for overnight journeys if you plan on sleeping, or at least sleeping without the aid of drugs and/or alcohol.

Getting Around
As the vast majority of Bariloche’s attractions lie in the surrounding countryside, you are going to need to get out and about. You can rent a car, which is pricey, or you can take the bus, which is cheap. No prizes for guessing which one we chose. The buses are frequent and, for once in Latin America, fairly straightforward. The tourist maps, which are in every hostel and hotel, explain the routes clearly. You can also use your SUBE card from Buenos Aires, so don’t throw it away or you’ll have to fork out for another one.

Accommodation
Bariloche is a ludicrously popular destination, both with Argentinians and foreigners. Consequently, there are literally hundreds of hotels, hostels, Airbnbs, campsites and any other way you can think to spell out somewhere to rest your hike-weary head. We stayed in Hostel Achelay, where the staff were great and the unlimited breakfast of freshly baked bread and homemade jam was just what the doctor ordered (until the inevitable post-jam sugar crash). If you do stay there, try not to be given the Bob Marley room, it’s really small and the bed squeaks like holy hell. (Also, on that note, hostels really need to give it a rest with reggae. Five months on the road and every time I hear No Woman No Cry I want to strangle somebody. Change it up, seriously.)

Activities
Ok, so you’ve come to Bariloche to hike, but where do you start? Well, http://www.trekbariloche.com is a pretty much definitive resource on the topic, so I won’t repeat it here. It’s a great guide for every level of trek, from a multi-day escapade to a half hour jaunt up a hill.

17022020_10154523271924075_2903588983146911748_n.jpg

From a personal perspective, we loved Lago Gutierrez, where you can swim (if you’re brave, it’s cold), kayak, and just generally lounge about, as well as do the short trek up to the viewpoint which is bloody lovely. From there you can also do the more substantial trek up to Refugio Frey if you so wish. We also loved the walk up Cerro Llao Llao (pronounced jao-jao with a soft ‘j’ like the French jardin since you asked), a short but sharp hill climb with absolutely staggering views from the top.

Food and Drink
Thanks to it’s aforementioned Swiss influence, Bariloche is very, very famous for its chocolate. It isn’t cheap and it’s mega touristy, but you at least have to check out one or two of the chocolate shops on Mitre – Papa Nui was pretty damn special. Like the rest of Argentina, you can also get excellent steak here, and for the best you must go to Alto El Fuego. Head up either the night before or at lunchtime to book in advance for your evening meal, because the place books out every night. Then simply order the sirloin (bife de chorizo) and thank me later. It’s quite simply the best steak I’ve ever had, and as an added bonus it’s absolutely massive.