Sunday, April 1, 2012

Torres de Paine

The Plan

The plan is to fly from Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas and then take a bus the three hours to Puerto Natales, the town that is the “gateway” to Torres del Paine national park.  The plan is to stay in the Erratic Rock Hostel in Puerto Natales, which is known for bringing hikers together at its daily talk about the park.  The plan is to meet other travelers at this talk, travelers who want to trek the complete seven-day circuit and who don’t already have a group to hike with.

On the bus from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales, the plan starts to feel unrealistic.  The plane and the bus and the hostel part are easy, but how am I supposed to find people to hike with, people who want to do the same trek and in the same time frame?  And if I do find such a group, are they going to be people that I want to spend seven days with? 

The man in the seat next to me is asleep, the couple sitting behind is talking quietly in Danish, and the two men in the seats in front of me are conversing energetically in Hebrew with their friends across the aisle.  Out the window, there is an expanse of emptiness: flat land that stretches on and on and on, until finally the golden grasses collide with the horizon.  There, I imagine, is the end of the world.  I feel very, very alone.

Puerto Natales

The next morning I wake up to Bill, the owner of the Erratic Rock Hostel*, bellowing “Last call for breakfast!”  I tumble out of the top bunk and stumble downstairs to the kitchen, where Bill makes me an omelet and I drink real (non-Nescafe) coffee.  Sitting across the table from me is Jannis, a German who has been traveling South America for the last three months, and he tells me about his adventures trekking in Argentina while we drink cup after cup of coffee.  He is also, it turns out, traveling alone, also planning on hiking the circuit in Torres del Paine, and also hoping to start the trek within the next few days.  He met two other travelers in Argentina, he tells me, two Britts also planning to trek in the Park, and they’re all meeting up at the three o’clock talk the hostel talk.  Why don’t I meet them there? 

Everything, I realize a few hours later while I wander around Puerto Natales looking for a fleece and a camping knife and other necessities, is pretty much going according to plan. 

At the three o’clock “Talk at the Rock” Jannis introduces me to Ben and Kate, and after hearing about the different options we decide that we want to do the complete circuit in seven days (although Kate will have to leave on the third day to catch a flight to Buenos Aires) following a counter-clockwise route.  We spend the next day, Sunday, buying supplies and food, packing and re-packing our bags, and enjoying our last real meal—Patagonian lamb—before a week of hiking food (oatmeal, crackers, instant soup and polenta… can you say delicious?).  Early Monday morning, we leave for the park.

At the Parilla Don Jorge in Puerto Natales

Day One: Puerto Natales – Guardería Pudeto – Lago Pehoé – Los Cuernos (24.1 km)

A bus takes us from Puerto Natales to the park, where we pay the entrance fee and then wait for another bus, which takes us to Lake Pehoé where we board a ferry that takes us to the trailhead.  It is 1pm by the time we finally start the trek.

For the first hour of the trek we can see the effects of the massive fire that swept through the park in December, burning over 70,000 hectars and turning swaths of what had been trees and brush into charred skeletons, strokes of black against the landscape.  The wind is strong, and I am unsteady on my feet as I try to get used to the weight of my backpack.

After two hours we reach the French Valley, where we drop our packs at the ranger’s house and hike the two hours up to the end of the valley.  It’s hard to decide where to look—a snow-covered mountain rises at the end of the valley, it’s peak obscured by the clouds, and every so often a cracking sound tumbles down the valley as chucks of ice fall from the side of the mountain, sending small avalanches sliding down the face.  Looking down the valley in the other direction, we see a wide, turquoise lake, and even from so high above it we can see the wind whipping the water up into small cyclones that spin across the surface of the lake. 

By the time we reach the end of the valley, two hours later, the wind has grown stronger and the clouds thicker, and I am freezing despite the fact that I am wearing a long-sleeved underarmor t-shirt, a fleece, and my rain jacket.  Kate is wearing only a t-shirt and seems to be quite warm. 

I’m tired by the time we get back to the ranger’s house, but we have another two hours of trekking before we reach Los Cuernos, where we will be camping for the night.  We pick up our packs and trudge onwards.

These are by far the longest two hours of the day: it’s getting late and the wind is strong, so strong I almost fall over a few times as it grabs at my pack and I struggle to find my footing.  It isn’t raining at first, but when the trail curves down by the edge of the lake the wind is so fierce that it picks the water up off the lake and tosses it onto us.  I start to think that maybe I won’t survive these seven days in Torres del Paine, that if the wind doesn’t knock me over or the lake swallow me whole, the cold very well might kill me.  It’s here, when buckets of freezing water from the lake are being thrown into my face, that I start to wonder if Laura is right, if I need to reconsider my idea of “fun.”

By the time we arrive at the campsite it’s raining—standard, miserable, vertical rain—and the campsite is packed and muddy.  It’s high season for tourists in Torres del Paine, and this is one of the easiest campsites to get to, meaning that there are tents pitched every few feet and you have to step nimbly around guy lines while at the same time avoiding patches of mud.

We have two tents for the four of us, but we huddle in one to create more heat, cooking dinner—polenta and instant soup—by lighting the stoves just outside the door of the tent, leaning out the door to stir so that we don’t have to sit in the rain.  We are all slightly miserable and delirious, and we can’t stop laughing. 

Fire damage along Lake Pehoé

Looking down the French Valley

View up the French Valley

Day Two: Los Cuernos – Campamento Torres (14.9 km)

The campsite seems to be caught under a constant drizzle, so we leave as quickly as we can in the morning, rolling up wet tents and trying to keep our packs as dry as possible.  As we set off on the trail Kate and Jannis race ahead, hiking at a speed that I would have before thought impossible. 

Ben and I stick to a reasonable pace, marveling at the way the landscape and the weather changes over the course of the day: we see snow covered mountains, wide smooth lakes, rivers that curve through valleys.  It rains for a while, the sun shines for a glorious half hour, it rains again and then the rain turns to sleet, the wind comes and goes, there is sun for another few moments and then, as we climb closer to Campamento Torres it begins to snow. 

When Ben and I make it to the campsite Jannis and Kate are huddled in the cooking shelter, a three-walled wooden structure that is no warmer than being outside but a huge improvement over trying to cook from inside a tent.  They have just gotten the water to a boil, and we make hot chocolates spiked with whiskey and warm our hands over the tiny cooking stove fire. 

About an hour later, we are still in the shelter when the sky clears, letting sunlight filter through the trees into the campsite.  After a quick discussion, we decide we have to hike up to the Torres, the most famous part of the park, while the sky is clear.  The weather is always unpredictable in Torres del Paine, and if we wait until the next day to hike to the Towers we might not be able to see them.

Despite the fact that we have already hiked for eight hours that day, I am surprised to find that I’m excited to get going again, looking forward to moving and warming my body and feeling the ground beneath my feet.  Halfway up the trail, the clouds roll in again, and we almost turn back.  We decide to go all the way up anyway, just in case, and just as we reach the end of the trail the clouds begin to clear, revealing the Towers of Paine, three huge columns of granite that push up into the sky.  The towers are solid, heavy granite, but they are constantly changing: as the clouds drift overhead the sunlight skimming the stone dims and then grows bright again, shadows grow and shift and the rock seems almost alive.  We stay at the rocks at the base of the towers, watching, until it becomes too cold.

The group!

Los Torres

Day Three: Campamento Torres – Hosteria Las Torres – Campamento Serón (13.9 km)

We hike down from Campamento Torres to Hotel Las Torres a huge, beautiful old hotel that sits on the open plains below the mountains.  Here we have a picnic in the sun while we wait for the bus that will take Kate away, taking off our hiking boots and laying in the grass in front of the hotel.

Later, as we leave the hotel and start off towards the Campamento Serón, a pack of horses run across the field in front of us, unbridled and free, tossing their heads and letting the sun shimmer over their manes.  We stand and watch, too stunned to even pull out our cameras.

As we leave sight of the hotel, the trail widens and takes us uphill gently, and we walk at a good pace for a few hours, debating political theories and the benefits of the word cookie verses biscuit, pants verses trousers. 

We take a snack break before we begin the descent into a wide, flat valley where a river meanders from one side to the other and the wind is warm.  As we start up again, Jannis’ leg seizes up and all of a sudden, despite the fact that he had been perfectly fine only moments before, he can hardly walk.  He tries stretching his leg, and resting it, but nothing seems to make a difference and it is getting late.  Finally, we decide that Ben and I will take Jannis’ pack and walk ahead of him, so that we can get to the campsite and set up the tents before it gets dark.  Without his pack, Jannis can at least walk slowly, and the campsite, we figure, can’t be very far away.

The valley is beautiful.  The grasses on either side of the trail are tall and slender, and they wave and bend in the wind.  Scattered throughout are bright yellow flowers, shining like wishes.

The valley is also impossibly long.  Ben and I expect to see the campsite behind every cluster of trees, but instead all we see is another expanse of open grasses, another bend in the river to pick our way over, another patch of trees that this time must be right in front of the campsite.  We go slowly, trading Jannis’ pack (although Ben carries it much longer than I do), resting frequently.  Finally, just when we are at the point of despair, we reach the campsite. 

Jannis, it turns out, was not very far behind us, and he arrives just after we have set up the tents.  Soon after, the sun begins to set, and we watch it slide while we make dinner.  The clouds in the valley are incredible, shapes that have been stretched out long and then folded over each other, layered in yellow and peach.  That night, for the first time, I am warm.

View along the trail

View from the Hosteria Las Torres

Jannis and Ben asleep while we wait for our absurdly expensive coffees

Incredible clouds above Campamento Serón

Day Four: Campamento Serón – Refugio Dixon (19 km)

We have a slow, lazy morning, knowing that the hike that day will be mostly flat and easier than what we’ve experienced before. 

Easy, of course, has a different meaning in Patagonia than in most of the world, and midway through the day the trail turns, bringing us into a new valley, and we are suddenly hit by the most ferocious winds I have ever experienced.  The trail is high in the valley, a narrow stretch of flat ground between the hill that climbs sharply to our left and the land that slopes quickly to our right, land covered by a scattering of bushes that tumble down towards the lake at the valley bottom.  Jannis is only a few feet in front of me, yelling into the wind, loving its force, but I don’t know what he’s saying, I don’t even know if he’s yelling in English or in German because I can’t hear him, can’t hear a single thing over the sound of the wind screaming past my ears.

It’s exhilarating, the wind, the way it pounds against my skin, beating it back to life, but it’s also terrifying.  With every step, every time I lift one foot of the ground, I fear that it’s going to take hold of me and throw me into the blue water at the bottom of the valley.  It does push me around, enough so that for a good few minutes I’m not even walking on the trail at all, but am planting my feet, one after the other, on the slanted rock face to my left, somehow held up by my hiking poles and the wind.  I almost laugh at the absurdity of it until a sudden, stronger gust flings itself up the trail, catching me and tearing my feet from the ground, sending me spinning into back into Ben and knocking us both into the rock face on the side of the trail.  We sit for a minute, a little shocked, tallying ripped shirts and skin.  For a few moments I think that I won’t be able to stand up, that the wind will keep me pinned against the rock forever, but in a moment of almost-calm I pull myself and my pack up off the ground and we continue, step by step towards the campsite at Refugio Dixon.

Just before we turned into the windy valley


The best view in the world--the campsite! (Dixon)

Day 5: Refugio Dixon – Campamento Los Perros (9 km)

Today is the day we have been looking forward to, the short day, and we wake up late to sun in the campsite, a view of mountains sparkling with snow, a glimpse of a glacier.  When we start hiking we get, as promised, a pleasant, easy hike that begins with a hot sun-drenched ascent but then leads us down a flat, shady trail through the last of the ancient forests in the park.  The trees are tall but slender, covered in green mosses, and through their branches we catch glimpses of the mountains, of waterfalls cascading from unbelievable heights. 

When the trail breaks out of the forest we climb to the viewpoint that looks out over the hanging glacier.  There, leaning casually against a rock, our Israeli friend Asaf has set up his stove and is making coffee.  He offers us a cup and we accept, it’s deep smell too good to resist (they would never, he tells me, drink Nescafe in Israel.  It sounds like a wonderful country).  

When the coffee cup has been finished and we have grown tired of watching the glacier melt, ancient drop by ancient drop, we walk the last half a kilometer to the campsite.  It is still sunny and there are hours left in the day; we celebrate with cold beers bought from the campsite kiosk, Cerveza Austral that we enjoy in the sun.  I rinse my clothes in the pristine water and hang them from the trees to dry, take a nap in the warm rocks that have been baking all day in the sun, and I am completely, blissfully, happy.

Refugio Dixon in the morning

View from the trail

The hanging glacier near Los Perros

Only half a kilometer until the campsite!

Day 6: Campamento Los Perros – Refugio Grey (22 km)

This is the day I have been dreading, the day that we have been warned will be very, very difficult, the day that we have to hike up over the John Garner pass (which can’t be done if it’s snowing or raining too hard) and then descend two thousand meters. 

We start early, knowing we have a long day ahead of us, and although the trail shows the effects of recent rain (huge puddles of mud that have to be avoided by stepping from tree root to tree root, one of which I slip into and find not just my boot, but my entire calf submerged in mud) and the sky threatens a downpour, the air is mostly dry as we start our way up the pass.

The trail—at time distinguished only by rocks splattered with orange paint—is hard, but not impossible as we climb higher and higher, watching as the valley below us shrinks.  The map tells us the ascent will take four hours, but two hours after we left camp we are pulling up over the top of the pass, the huge glacier below us breaking into view, and we run and yell and throw our hiking poles into the air.  I can hardly believe that we have already made it, that we have conquered the pass, that we are standing at the highest point in the park and I don’t feel exhausted, I don’t feel okay, I feel amazing

The descent is tough, steep, and long—at times I feel like I’m jumping from tree to tree, grabbing hold of skinny trunks, rather than walking downhill.  We have to keep stopping, time and time again, to take photos of Glacier Grey.

I have seen many glaciers at this point, glaciers hanging and melting and growing, speckled by sun and shrouded by clouds, but I have never seen anything like this glacier.  It is huge, filling the entire valley and pushing it’s way out towards the mountains as far as I can see.  It is blue and white and gray all at once, changing where it catches the light, holding the sun somewhere deep below it’s surface.  We hike and we hike and we hike, the kilometers falling beneath our feet, and somehow we are still alongside the glacier. 

We camp that night at Refugio Grey and here once again the campsite is packed.  We are back to the crowded side of the park, the part that can be easily reached by a day hike from the ferry, and it is strange to be around so many people again.  I feel accomplished, too, as we talk to hikers who are just starting or who are turning back after only a day or two—it’s our sixth day hiking, yeah, we just came over the pass—what do you mean you don’t have time?  You have to make time for the circuit!  We try to convince everyone that the circuit is the way to go, that the shorter “W” trail isn’t worth it, but of course everyone smiles and no one changes their plans.  We drink whiskey and hot chocolate in the Refugio with our Israeli friends, and then, for the last time, fall into an exhausted sleep in our tents.

At the top of the pass!

View of Glacier Grey from the top of the pass

It just keeps going

I have a thousand pictures of this glacier

Ben and Asaf

I love you, hiking poles!

Day Seven: Refugio Grey – Lago Pehoé (11 km)

Our last day brings a short, fairly easy hike, but there’s a pressure we haven’t experienced before, a deadline.  We have to get to the end of the trail before 2:00 in order to catch the ferry that takes us to the bus to Puerto Natales. 

There is not much to say about this hike.  It was beautiful, of course, but the day was gray, the clouds still heavy with rain from the night before, and we put our heads down and hike and hike, merely wanting to get there.  The last two hours we hike through fire damage again, glad that the rain has left the ashes moist and that the wind isn’t strong enough to pull them from the ground. 

And then, we are at the end of the trail, at the ferry port, and we eat our last trail lunch in view of the turquoise water and the Horns of Paine, and then the ferry comes.  I am giddy on the ride back across the lake, loving the cold wind, the smell of the water, the not-quite realization that we did it, we completed the circuit, I am still alive—more alive then I’ve ever been, in fact, aware of the life in every inch of my skin and every breath of air that moves through my lungs. 

I watch behind the ferry as the end of the trail falls out of sight and I am exhilarated, amazed that we finished, craving a real meal, and terribly, terribly sad that it’s over.  You just have to let it go, Jannis will tell me later when I ask him how he does it, how he travels and meets so many people and sees so many places and then leaves them all, each and every one, no matter how incredible.  You have to learn how to let go, he says, but I don’t know how.

The ferry

We made it!

Los Cuernos de Paine - Cerveza Austral, anyone?

* To anyone who is traveling to Puerto Natales, I strongly and wholeheartedly recommend the Erratic Rock Hostel.  It is exactly the kind of place you want to stay in before and after a visit to the park; it’s cozy—warm and busy and full of movies and blankets and books—the breakfast is delicious, the coffee is real, and the staff will tell you everything you need to know about trekking in the park.  Bill, the owner, is an Oregonian who is loud and friendly and will remind you of all the things you love about America.  

Monday, March 5, 2012


I'm back in Santiago now and already back to work, but there are still a lot of summer travels that need to be written about--starting with Chiloé, my first stop after the Carretera Austral.


Chiloé is a small island off the coast of Chile known for penguins, rain, and tradition.  The ferry from the mainland to Chiloé takes less than an hour, but if you step off the bus in anywhere except the main city of Castro, you’ll feel like you’ve traveled years instead of kilometers.  They say that on the island, life is as it used to be—abuelas knit woolen socks, their husbands call goats in from the field, and they say that there is a legend hidden in every cave, explaining every curve of the coastline.

Life is slow, certain.  Even the rain seems to adhere to some ancient schedule, falling in mists and then in sheets and then slipping away, moving back out into the ocean to let the sun shimmer on the damp ground.  Moments before you really feel dry, the mist envelops you again.

After spending the first night in Castro, Laura and I take a bus to Cucao, a town on the western coast of the island, because a guidebook said is was the “center of mythical Chiloé,” the man sitting next to me on the bus said it couldn’t be missed, and the map shows it lying right on the edge of the national park. 

The bus driver asks us where in Cucao we are going, and we tell him the center.

“El centro?” he asks, a strange look on his face.

“Si, si, el centro,” we confirm, not understanding his confusion.  Don’t most of the passengers get off in the center of town, at the bus terminal or the main square?

As the bus pulls out of Castro, he asks us if we know where we’re staying.  We don’t, and he offers to call ahead and book us a room in a hospedaje, saying he knows a good place.  We shrug and agree, figuring he’s trying to help out an uncle or a cousin, but thinking that since we’ll be getting in after dark it will be good to have a reservation. 

Two hours later, the bus pulls to a stop in the middle of a narrow bridge.  Laura and I are the only passengers left, and the rain is pouring so heavily that even after I wipe the fog from my window I can hardly see a thing.  The bus driver catches my eye in the rearview mirror and tells me that we’re here.

“Aca?” I ask, not believing him.


“El centro?”

“Si,” he says, and I understand the puzzled look he gave us earlier: there is one street extending straight from the bridge, boasting six or seven houses, and to the right there is another small street of homes.  There is a river, a bay, and a soccer field with sagging goals nestled at the intersection of the two.  There is a Coca-Cola flag drooping above one of the houses along the river, suggesting that it doubles as a general store.  Mostly, there is rain. 

The bus driver points us towards the hospedaje he has reserved for us, a house at the end of the street.  We thank him, pull up our hoods, and step out into the rain.

We have already seen half of the town by the time we reach the hospedaje, and despite our raincoats we’re soaked.  The señora is waiting for us when we arrive, and she opens the door and ushers us inside, where a wooden stove warms the kitchen/dining/TV room.  We hang our wet clothes up above the stove and she shows us our room—wooden floor, a small window, the ceiling sloping down over the bed.  We sit there for a minute, listening to the rain battering against the small window, and then we head back down to the kitchen and the warmth of the stove. 

It is a strange, slow night.  Not boring, just slow—no one rushes to do anything, there is never any need to hurry.  The señora watches TV, the rain lets up.  Laura and I walk to the house with the Coca-Cola flag, which is in fact a store, and then we walk back, having officially explored all of Cucao.  We watch the señora make break, kneading it with her knuckles, rolling it back and fourth over the table, beating it into circular disks.  Her husband and son, who had been setting fishing nets in the river, come back and hang their wet clothes above the stove next to ours.  It starts to rain.  They watch TV, a Chilean game show in which the participants have to do nonsensical tasks such as move ping pong balls from one table to another with their hands tied behind their backs.  We make small talk with the family, but they seemed more interested in the ping pong balls scattering across the floor on TV.  We open a box of wine and sit closer to the stove.  The rain comes down harder, and the volume of the TV is turned up.  We slip into English, falling into our own little world on one side of the kitchen, and we stay there until it’s time to go to bed.

With my feet tucked up underneath me, avoiding the chill of the wooden floor, I watch the family watch TV and wondered what they think us, the tourists who roll in and out of their home, fascinated by the constantly shifting weather and the homemade bread.  I wondered if they think about us at all, or if our English words slicing through the kitchen are just as constant and unremarkable as the rain; something that comes and goes, grows louder and then softer—sometimes you have to turn up the volume in order to hear the TV  over it, and sometimes you don’t. 

The next morning we wake up early to walk down to the river with the men and watch them pull in their fishing nets.  To be honest, the whole process seems almost too easy: they row out into the river in their little yellow boat, the son keeps the boat steady while his father pulls in the nets, and then they row back to shore, where we watch them pull fish out of the net and put them in a large plastic bag.  That’s it.  I can’t think of a polite way to ask what else they do with their time, if putting in the nets takes twenty minutes in the evening and pulling out the fish a half hour every morning, and so I don’t.  Instead, we all walk back to the house and eat freshly baked bread for breakfast and watch church on TV.

Later that morning Laura and I go for a hike in the national park (first discovering that on the other side of the bridge there is a whole other row of houses, two hostels, and a restaurant—Cucao is huge!) and then stand on the side of road with our thumbs out, hoping to catch a ride across the island back to Castro or onto Achao.  It’s only a few minutes before a pickup truck pulls over and we jump in the back, bouncing over the dirt road and loving the feeling of the wind on our faces, sitting on top of our bags when the truck slows again and three locals join us in the back.  It’s only after the drivers reach their destination, a small shack along the water, that we realize we’ve gone four kilometers in the wrong direction.  We shrug, walk to the other side of the road, and stick our thumbs out again. 

It doesn’t take us long to get a ride back in the other direction, and when the driver drops us off he points us in the direction we need to go to get back to Castro.  Now a whole five minute walk from where we originally started, we throw our bags back onto the ground and wave away the bus that stops to pick us up, determined to hitchhike.  After about twenty minutes it starts to rain again, and then it starts to pour, and we huddle behind the roadside kiosk selling Kuchen and Super Ocho candy bars.  The few cars that drive past us are full, and the rain begins to come down harder, and so when the next bus to Castro turns onto the road we wave it down.  We have no reason to hurry, no idea of where we’re going next, but it’s nice, at least for the moment, to be dry. 

The palafitos, famous houses on stilts in Castro.

Watching the fishing

Laura happy to be hitchhiking!
(this is before we know we're going in the wrong direction)

Beautiful sunny moment in Chiloé

We spent the next to nights in Achao, and mid-sized town on a smaller island off of Chiloé

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Patagonia! Road Trip Carretera Austral

Disclaimer: I've included a few pictures, but will add more as soon as I get them uploaded.  They're nice, but they don't do Patagonia justice.  Also, my laptop is far away in Santiago, and so I am writing this from an internet cafe in Puerto Varas.  This computer believes that every non-Spanish word I type is spelled incorrectly, and so every word is underlined by that red squiggle we all know too well while at the same time the ñ key hovers near my pinky finger, begging to be touched.  You'll have to excuse the spelling errors that I imagined are littered all throughout this post, beacuse until this very moment I have never had to imagine a world without spellchecker, much less live it!

La Carretera Austral

First things first: this is going to be a long post.  I want to tell you about everything, about every beautiful kilometer we covered over twelve long days, but of course I can´t.  Still, it´s going to be long, so make your cup of Nescafé before you keep reading, take the time to heat up the milk. When you're ready, sit down, relax, and let me tell you about paraidse.

Day 1: Santiago to Puerto Montt

The eight of us meet in the Unimark parking lot near Tobalaba in the early hours of the morning, when the light is still gray.  As we pack and repack the bags into the two cars, I wonder what this trip is going to be like--we are a strange mix, two Chileans, one Brit, a Scot, and four Americans; we are a range of ages, and we don´t know each other.  We all brought hiking boots and backpacks, and Carlos, who planned the entire trip, brought enough gear to see us through any kind of situation: stackable pots and pans, a tiny hiking stove, enough hiking poles for an army, an emergency flood light, a GPS tracker to record all of our hikes, a GPS for the car, a watch with a GPS function, an ipad, a  headlamp, extra tents and straw matts for rolling sushi.  If we can only fit everything into the cars, we will never be unprepared.

When the cars are packed we set off, driving south to Puerto Montt.  We drive, and we sleep, and when we stop for lunch at a waterfall (if only we knew how unimpressive this small, crowded, beautiful waterfall would later seem) the smog of Santiago is nothing more than a memory.  We drive, we sleep, and I lose an earring somewhere in the car.  In Puerto Montt, we eat at a restaurant and laugh the way people who are getting to know each other laugh.  I am starting to feel at home.

 The first of many, many waterfalls.

Day 2: Puerto Montt to Parque Pumalin

We take three different ferries, two short ones and one long, four hour trip.  The air smells of salt and the tips of the waves are white, but we are not on open ocean; instead, we sail through a passageway between dark green forrested mountains, the land climbing up steeply from the water.  The clouds hang low, at times obscuring the mountain peaks, and I can´t help but wonder if those forests climb up towards the sky forever.  It´s chilly in the wind from the ferry, but the sun feels good against my skin.  After 100 degree weather in Mendoza and the sticky heat of the metro in Santiago, chilly feels good.

That night, we camp in Cascadas Escondidas, a campsite in the gigantic Parque Pumalin.  Brandon makes chicken curry, balancing the wok on the delicate fingers of the cooking stove, while Carlos tries to shove his queen-sized inflatable mattress into his one-man tent.  By the end of this trip, I am going to be a true camper!  He tells us, and we laugh while he bends and folds the mattress until he somehow makes it fit, although the sides of his tent now push upwards towards the sky, begging to float away.

After dinner we open wine, a bottle and a box, and Laura and I teach the group how to play Cheers Governor, a counting and drinking game that Barbara cannot grasp, a fact that keeps the rest of us laughing and drinking and yelling at Carlos for cheating.  Once!

View from the ferry

 The ferry was sold out! Luckily, Carlos had bought our tickets weeks in advance.

 Laura is happy to be on the ferry!

Day 3: Parque Pumalin to Quelat

In the morning we hike Cascadas Escondidas, a trail we rename Escaleras Escondidas because although the path winds around waterfalls that spill out from the rocks and into deep pools, the trail is a mesmerizing tangle of ladders and stairs, the wood moist and shining from the spray of the waterfalls.  I have been on very few trails that are so well maintained--wooden bridges skirted over muddy patches or narrow drops, the ladders were sturdy and the stairs never missed a step.

Parque Pumalin is a pretty incredible place: 3,250 square kilometers (according to Wikipedia) of land, rivers and lakes and temperate rainforest, privately owned but permitting public access.  The park is owned by Douglas Tompkins, an American who started and owns both The North Face and ESPIRIT.  It´s strange to think that an American owns so much land so far south, so far from home, and that he has the goodwill to own it only to preserve it and keep it open to the public.  It's one of those facts that gives you a nice feeling when you learn it, that makes me appreciate even more the carefully placed ladders and walkways.

After the hike we pack up camp and head to Parque Nacional Queulat, to a campground where we can see the Ventisquero Colgante, the Hanging Glacier.  Carlos is ecstatic that we have arrived in time--and with the luck--to see the glaicer in the sun.  And it is something to see, the glacier hanging between the peaks of two montains, shining in the last of the day´s light.

That night after dinner Barbara gets up to wash  dishes and trip over the rocks of the fire pit, twisting her ankle as she falls.  We don´t know it then, but it will be the last night that we are 8: later, after she sees a doctor in Coihaique and gets an x-ray in Santiago, we learn that she has fractured her ankle in four places and will have to take it easy for a long time.  We miss her, and I walk more carefully for the rest of the trip, lacing my boots tightly and prodding rocks with my toes, testing their stability before I jump.

 Una cascada escondida

Day Four: Queulat to Mañihuales 

Ximena and Anthea take Barbara to the doctor (and later to the airport) in Coihauque, the largest town in the area, and the remaining five of us hike to a closer view of the hangining glacier.  It´s beautiful, the white-blue ice melting into a waterfall and trickling down the flat face of the rock into wide, still lake with water that´s an incredible soft green.

Even better than the hike is when we walk to the lake itself and dive from the wooden dock into water that is colder and fresher and sweeter than anything I had ever felt, water that makes my breath short and shocks my skin.  The water is brand new, just melted, but ancient at the same time--I can see the glacier it has melted from as I swim, the glacier where it has been waiting, frozen, for longer than I can understand.  Only now is it finally free, escaping into a waterfall and then into a frantic river, flowing into this green lake where I swim and swim, where I dive under the water and kick back up to the surface, where I gasp for air and for warmth and feel so alive.

Somehow, the day continues getting better.  We drive further south and hike El Bosque Encantado, the Enchanted Forest.  The forest is dense, the trees covered in soft moss, and the light that filters down through their leaves is golden.  It feels truly enchanted as I wind uphill, ducking under low branches and stepping over streams.  I lose the group when I follow a bird that hops though the undergrowth, calling me, but I only catch a glimpse of orange before it´s gone.  I find a patch of honeysuckle growing around a cluster of trees, the flowers intertwined with the moss.  The petals are an unbelievable color of red, the inner bud fuscia, and it releases into my fingers easily.  The honey is sweet on my tongue, the same delicate taste as the yellow honeysuckles we though were our secret, growing at the base of a palm tree on Victoria.  I wonder if this forrest really is enchanted, if the ferries will hold me here forever for that stolen drop of honey.  I pull another flower from the vine, just to be sure.

The path winds further upwards, the forest continues, and I start to wonder if I am lost when the trail breaks out of the trees into a valley.  The mountains at the far end are covered in snow, snow that is melting into waterfalls and flying into the sun flooded valley.  There are waterfalls on either side of the valley, cascading into the sunlight and gathering into the river that slides through the base of the valley, slipping around rocks and jumping from shallow patches to deep pools.  The rocks are warm, baking in the sun, and I plunge into the freezing water all over again, loving the way my skin tingles.  There will be no falling asleep on this adventure, I tell my stunned and shaking body, there will be no forgetting.  The water feels delicious.

The hanging glacier--seen in the sun!

View of the hanging glacier from the lake we swam in.  Here, the water looks milky, but there it was purely green.

Enchanted honeysuckle.

Day Five: Mañihuales to Cerro Castillo

We drive for a long time, covering fewer kilometers as the pavement falls away into dirt road.  The cars leave a trail of dust floating in the air, as if to remind us of the way home, but I only want to look forward.  The view out the windows is incredible, snow-capped mountains pushing up into the blue sky, wide swaths of green grass and yellow flowers, and when we roll down the windows the air is fresh, so fresh.  Cerro Castillo finally comes into view, a mountain that really does resemble a castle in the way its peaks come to a point, towers trying to puncture the sky.  Although we drive with it in sight for a distance, arching around it as if we are caught in its orbit, we can't find the hiking trail we are looking for, the one that is supposed to bring us closer to those towers, and it is getting late.  Finally, after driving through two streams and passing a campsite with a sign demanding that we "DOES NOT INSIST" (do not insist? doesn't exist?), the drivers (and car owners) balk at a third water crossing, where the water looks deeper and the rocks bigger.

We park the cars on the side of the road and trek down a trail headed by one of the least informative maps I have ever seen, a line carved into a wooden sign, squiggling around other markings with no key.  We climb upwards with Cerro Castillo in sight, but we don't get much closer.  I could describe the hike to you, the view of the mountains, the shade of the forrest, the open fields of yellow flowers in the sun, but you're going to get bored of me soon.  When I talk about swimming again, about the cold clear water tugging at my skin, you're going to tell me that you've heard it all before, that it sounds exactly the same.  All I can tell you is that it wasn't--it was beautiful, and what we saw the days before was beautiful, too, but somehow all of it was different, incredibly distinct.  I stood on the edge of the hill, taking in the view, asking myself what is this life I am living?  I  could see the world spread out before me, but it seemed like it couldn't be real.  It does not insist.

That night we camp with a view of Cerro Castillo and the Chilean word of the day is festin, feast, because we grill an asado of meat and vegetables and potatoes and we eat it as the sun sets, as soft gray clouds fold onto the horizon.  When the stars come out, their light is brighte enough to guide me back to my tent.

View near Cerro Castillo

Cerro Castillo!

Loving the freezing water (the view's not bad either).

Day Six: Cerro Castillo to Puerto Tranquilo, and a Glacial Exploration!

In the morning, I brush my teeth while a lamb sniffs my foot.  I think that it's going to lick the exposed part of my foot, the pale slice of skin between my jeans and my shoes, but it doesn't.  My feet, it seems, don't smell lickable.

This is the day Carlos has been waiting for, the day that we drive into the Valle Exploradores and take a guided hike onto the glacier.  His excitement may be due to the fact that at the base camp they give us more gear--waterproof  gaiters and spikes that will be secured to our hiking boots when we get out onto the actual glacier.

The first part of the hike is my favorite kind of hiking, where we hop and jump from rock to rock, first alongside a lagoon and then through a sea of rocks they call the morrena, rocks that become smaller and harder to walk on the further we get, until below my feet there aren't rocks anymore but pebbles encased in ice, and then we have to stop to eat our sandwiches and strap the spikes onto our boots, because the glacier has cast the rocks aside and reigns supreme, huge and white, rising in hills and falling into valleys, as though the water was frozen in an instant, frozen in waves.

Hiking on the glacier is unlike any other kind of hiking I've ever done: you have to pull your feet a little higher when you walk, free your spikes from the ice, and to climb a steep hill you kick your toes into the ice face, trusting the spikes to hold your weight, trusting the ice to support you as you pull the other foot out from the ground and kick it into the ice futher up.  To descend you have to lean back, relaxing your arms and sinking almost into a sitting position, and I can't stop myself from laughing while I pound my heels into the ice.

That night estamos raja, exhausted, and we sit in the living room of the cabaña (hot showers!!!) while Carlos does magic tricks, promising to find the five of clubs that has been drawn from the deck.  I'm tired but happy, and looking around me I realize that somewhere between the Unimark parking lot and here, Puerto Tranquillo, a small town on the edge of a huge lake, we've become a family.  I never find out if the five of clubs is found (although I'd put money on yes) because I fall asleep right there in the living room, curled up in a chair.

The Group!
Me, Anthea, Carlos, Brandon, Laura, Ximena, Brendan

I like my red wine chilled.

Climbing down, learning how to use the spikes under my boots.

Day Seven: Puerto Tranquillo

No driving today! We are staying in the same cabaña for another night, and instead of hiking we take a boat out into the lake, Lago General Carrera, a lake so huge it extends into Argentina, changing its name as it crosses the border.  The boat slices accross the water, its motor humming, until we reach the Catedrales de Marmol, the Marble Cathedral.  The guide steers our boat carefully into the caves, caves carved from the huge blocks of marble that stretch alongside the water, masquerading as normal rocks.  It doesn't look quite like the marble you're thinking of, the marble used for pillars in old churches and countertops in fancy kitchens, because its not polished, but the stone is still incredible--a beautiful dark gray, cut by lines of black and swaths of white.  If it wasn't already beautiful enough, the stone catches the incredible blue-green color of the water, that delicate torquoise that seems to shimmer with the understanding of its own beauty.  I can't decide what I want to look at, the cuve of the stone or the shine of the water.

Brendan jumps into the water and swims over to another set of caves, while Anthea and I wait for the other boats of tourists to leave, aching to do the same.  When we realize that we're never really going to be alone we give up, peeling off our clothes and jumping into the cold water in our underwear.  Ximena and Laura follow us, despite the fact that the tourists in the other boats are taking photos of us, but we ignore them and climb into the caves, feeling the smooth stone under our feet, the curve of the walls under our palms.

View of Lago General Carrera

Close up of the Marble

Marble Cathedral

Day Eight: Puerto Tranquillo to Cochrane

The color blue was born in Chile.  I know I have written more than enough about the color of the water here, about the way it shines and sparkles, but the water in the river Cochrane must have been blue before there was such a thing as torquise, before color could be copied or mimiced.  It is a blue so deep Crayola hasn't found a way to put it into a crayon, a blue so pure that the sky itself must be copying the color, sending it out to the world so that every river and lake and ocean can only dream of reaching back to this original shade.

It´s so blue that I can barely wait a mnute before diving in, even though it shocks my lungs and sends my heart racing.  Anthea and Brendan and I swim to the other side of the river and lay on the large rocks there, resting until the sun begins to burn at our skin.  We swim back to have an impromptu picnic in the grass outside the car, and then later, while most of the group sleeps and tries to avoid the fierce glare of the sun, Ximena and I follow the trail that climbs up the hills above the river, keeping the water in its sight until it dips down to a small dock shaded by a grove of tall trees.  We swim again and then lie on the dock and listen to the wind in the leaves and watch as tiny silver fish jump up from the water only a few feet away from the dock, shining for just a moment in the sun before they splash back into the water.

We hike back in the perfect hour of the day, when the sun begins to grow tired and starts to tip towards the horizon.  When the wind blows warm and the birds come out, chirping and whistling and darting in and out of sight.  This is the time of day, Ximena tells me, when everything that lives and grows stops to amanecer el mundo.  This is the hour to worship the world.  We pull dandelions from the side of the trail and close our eyes, blowing wishes into the wind.

One lone fisherman in the middle of the river.

Day Nine: Cochrane to Caleta Tortel to Puerto Tranquillo

We don't like Caleta Tortel.  The town is built where two rivers meet the ocean, and there are no cars because the streets are built of wood, perched above the water on stilts.  It seems like it would be a cool place to visit, but it is a long dusty drive from Cochrane and when we finally get to Tortel there is nothing to do.  We want to eat lunch, but there is no food: the kiosk that sells empanadas only has five papas rellenos left.  No one else is selling empanadas (which makes me start to wonder if we are really in Chile at all), the man who hides behind the sign promising helados doesn't know if he has any ice creams left and doesn't seem to know how to check, and the only grocery store, a small shadowy market, ran out of beer on Wednesday.  It was hot this week, they explain, and when I ask what kind of cheese they have the woman behind the counter looks at me as though I have asked her to name the capitals of each US state.  En lamina, she tells me finally.  Sliced.

There is no turkey or bread to be found (again, definitely not Chile), and so we eat cheese and crackers while we walk back to the car, wanting to get out of that strange town as soon as we can, away from the stares of the men who all wear the same black berets, from the women who seem to look right past you when you smile at them.

We stop at Cochrane only to pack up our campsite and jump once more into the water before pushing further north.  It´s a hard day, a long day, and it feels like we´ve lost something as we turn back north, as the trip begins to end.  We camp in Puerto Tranquillo, on the shores of Lago General Carrera.

 This picture was taken before we realized that there were no empanadas, ice cream, or joy in Caleta Tortel.

Day Ten: Puerto Tranquillo to Coihaique

Coihaique is proving to be a very dangerous town: we lose Anthea to the same airport that took Barbara as she catches a plane back to Santiago so she can make a conference at the end of the week.  It feels strange being only six when we set up camp near Laguna Verde, setting up only the one big tent beside Carlos' one-man tent, which is now staked on top of his queen sized mattress to save time and hassle.  Camping, Carlos reminds me, is a state of mind.

Trees on the hike.

 Laura and I keeping warm by the fire, listening to Brendan play the guitar.

Day Eleven: Coihaique to Termas El Amarillo

Today we drive, and drive, and drive some more.  Most of the day is great: we are driving through incredible scenery, past lakes that haven't lost their sparkle and mountains that haven't shrunk just because we've seen them before, and we listen to Laura's ipod, spending at least 2 hours singing along to the best 90s playlist ever made.  Ximena makes certain that we pick up only the cute hitchhikers, shooting Laura looks as we pull over to the side of the road to let a Brittish guy with an impossibly tiny backpack into the car (it turns out his stuff was stored in Puyuhuapi, where we drop him off).  Later, after too many hours of dirt roads I almost kill Carlos and Brandon when they escape with the GPS and drive fifty kilometers further than planned, leaving the four of us in the second car to wonder where they are, to check to make sure our cell phones still don't have signal and listen to the empty static of the walky-talky.

We camp at the termas, the natural hot springs, but I can't bear the thought of sitting for another second and so I go for a run, following a road thick with white volcano dust.  I run for an hour, listening to reggeaton and winding up through the thick woods, and only see one car.  The dust from the volcano is so deep that when I turn around and run back I can follow my own footprints, the pattern on the bottom of shoes reflected down to the smallest detail.  When I get back, I shower outside under the fountain that releases the water from the hot springs back into the ground.  I must have stood there for half an hour, watching my skin grow red, unable to leave its warmth for the chill of the night air.  I don't want this trip to end.

Field near the termas.  Not sure why that airplane was there, but it looked cool.

Day Twelve: Termas el Amarillo to Puerto Varas

Somehow we are already back here, back to the day of three ferries, only now instead of taking photos from every side of the boat, instead of trying to capture the mountains and the sky and water all at once, I look at the impossible size of it all and think, hmm, that's nice.  We're jaded, Laura says, we've seen too many incredible things and I have to agree with her, I'm in some ways worried that this trip has ruined me forever.  That I'll find myself peering over the rim of the Grand Canyon and thinking, hmm, that's nice.  

We play cards and drink rum and cokes on the long ferry, and sometime after the third hour I run up along the high walkway of the ferry barefoot, and before I can skip back down the steps the wind catches my hair and the light on the water catches my eyes and I am filled again with that sense of wonder, with that full feeling in my chest.  I want to laugh and cry and sing and smile all at once, but instead I just breathe.  I have forgotten what smog smells like, and that is wonderful.  I am jaded, but I am not ruined.

Always time for one more photo, even if we´ve seen it before.

Day Thirteen: Puerto Varas and Lago Todos de Los Santos

When I come back from my run in the morning Brandon, Brendan, and Ximena are packing up the car, dividing up the leftover food and checking to make sure they have all of their shoes.  We stand in a circle looking at each other, the six of us, talking about our favorite parts of the trip and trying not to say goodbye.  I think I'm going to cry.

And then just like that they leave, driving away as if it´s just another day, and now we are three: Laura, Carlos, and I.  Laura and Carlos go to do laundry and I stand alone, barefoot in the grass in the sun and I really do think I'm going to cry.  I hate endings, I hate goodbyes, and what I hate most of all is when you don't know how to do them right.  When you knew it was coming but you never really believed it.

But then Laura and Carlos come back, and I remeber that we still have things to see today, and that tomorrow Laura and I are going to Chiloe, and that after that I'm going all the way down to Punta Arenas to see Torres del Paine, and that really the adventure isn't ending at all, it's just picking up speed, starting up all over again.

And so we hike alongside Lago Todos Los Santos, I swim in the warmest water I´ve felt yet, and we eat seafood in Angelmo (dinner is, to use Laura's words, divine).  While we eat Carlos, who introduces us to everyone as his neices and who we tell the waitress is our tio, gives us advice on life and love and white wine.  I love, I love my life!  he tells us, and I believe him.