A Travellerspoint blog

Marvellous Torres del Paine

The W-trek was awesome.

semi-overcast 16 °C
View Argentina, Antarctica and Chile on Caro369's travel map.

I am still in Patagonia, but I have crossed to the Chilean side. I was sad to leave Argentina, but curious to see what would change when I crossed the border. The first noticeable difference is that Chile is more modern than Argentina. The grocery store is nicer than at home, and they have a lot of the same products. Another welcome difference, is that the prices printed in my travel book are similar to what I they actually are. In Argentina, the inflation was crazy! My Lonely Planet was published 18 months ago and prices have doubled since then. I am actually finding that the hotels and restos are nicer in Chile than in Argentina, and they cost 10-20% less! I had heard Chile was the most expensive country in South America, but clearly the world is changing.

My adventure in "civilized" Patagonia continues. Puerto Natales is the gateway to the spectacular Parque Nacional Torres del Paine. Unlike Chalten, day hikes from town are not possible. The park is enormous. To see the main highlights, the standard route (the famous W-trek) involves 4-5 days of hiking. If you are really ambitious, you can embark on the 0-trek, which includes the W route as well as a trip around the backside of the mountain ranges. It takes 9-10 days. I didn't think I was up to the 0 and opted for the W. I was a bit nervous about this part of the trip. I like day trips. I was not interested in carrying 40 pounds of gear on my back (i.e., tent, sleeping bag, portable stove and 5-days of food) while hiking 20 km a day. If my back hurts, I am not enjoying the scenery. I had originally hoped to go with an organized tour (i.e., have porters and a guide), but that did not work out. This turned out to be for the best. For whatever reason, a couple of private companies own a swath of private land through the centre of the park. They have built a series of what are called "refugios" (simple but comfortable accomodations) at strategic points in the W-trek. Wannabe trekkers therefore have the option of taking a day hike, then spending the night in a dormitory with showers and meal service, including a box lunch for the next day's trek. March is shoulder season and I was able to choose a route and reserve spots in the appropriate refugios with only a few days notice!! The trails were well marked and it was no problem hiking on my own, I met a lot of other trekkers at the refugios following the same route, or coming the opposite way. Because of the placement of the refugios, on some of the day hikes I had to carry my extra gear (clean clothes, flip flops and my toiletries), but it was totally manageable.

Despite a few hiccups that added more colour than hardship, I am grateful to report that the weather has continued to defy Patagonia's reputation for being nasty. There was one night of pouring rain which stopped shortly after dawn and another of howling, gusting wind (80km/hr plus) that contined through the day. On the windy day, I had a short section by the lake that was crazy. I thought the wind was going to pick me up by the backpack and carry me away! I would try make progress on the trail when nature was winding up and then grab a rock, or crouch down, during the bursts. The gusts were also picking up water off the surface of the lake so sometimes their arrival included a built in shower. Fortunately, my hike that day was mostly in a valley which provided significant shelter, but others were not so lucky. I heard someone fell down a hill and another person fell into a river (there are a lot of streams to cross as numerous glaciers melt, and the run off drains into the lakes below). Other than this, I had great hiking weather and reasonably clear views at the lookout points. I was pleased.

I tackled the W from right to left, hiking for 4 days. Everyday included amazing scenery and views, but the variety of terrains and different levels of effort required kept it interesting. My first day was the hike to the Torres del Paine lookout point. The last section was a long, steep climb, but you were rewarded with views of a glacier, a lovely lake and (if you were lucky), the 3 towers as a back drop. The second day was a flat stroll through meadows with gorgeous Lake Nordenskold and a mountain range to your back. The third day was the hike into the famous French Valley. It was a highlight, but at 26-km return, a very demanding day. Reaching the first look out point involved a 1-hour scramble uphill through a very nasty field of boulders. However, the upclose dramatic view of the blue and white rippled French glacier with its mini-waterfalls dulled the pain. The second lookout point was a particular treat. The trail went through the forest so it wasn't clear that you were hiking into the valley-version of a cul-de-sac. When the trees cleared and you arrived at the dead end, voilà -- you were surrounded on all sides by a panarama of mountain peaks close enough to touch. Some were pointy, some were flat, some were grey, some were tan. Extraordinary!

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French glacier

French glacier

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My fourth day of hiking was another flat stroll along a lake, but with a difference. There was a huge forest fire in the park in January and 14,000 hectares or 7% of the park was destroyed. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/jan/04/chile-fire-national-park-reopen) The story of the fire is that a tourist decided to burn his toilet paper instead of hauling it out with his other garbage, and it got away from him. I walked through a piece of the affected zone. It was very sad, but not what I expected. One part looked like the wind had whipped the fire through the meadow at rapid speed. Trees were singed on the outside but the leaves, withered and orange, were still attached to the tree. It was like they hadn't been burned at all, but rather dehydrated by the heat. The first part of the valley next to Grey Lake was a different story. The valley is small and walls are close to the trail. The ground was black with singed rocks and ash. There were black stumps sticking out of the ground and the occasional log of charred wood. You could still smell the burn. It was creepy. It will take some time, but the park will recover, some grass was already sprouting in places. On a nicer note, my hike ended with a beautiful view of the enormous Grey glacier. Icebergs had broken off and were floating down Gray Lake.

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So ends the hiking portion of my holiday. I am kind of relieved, my hiking boots are getting really stinky. I am off to Santiago next week!

Posted by Caro369 15:04 Archived in Chile Comments (2)

Patagonia

Glacier Perito Moreno puts on quite a show!

sunny 12 °C

I have spent this week in a cute town called El Calafate. It`s claim to fame is as gateway to Patagonia's Glacier National Park, in particular, the the stunning Perito Moreno glacier (about 80km away). The glacier is impressive: about 60m high, 5km wide and 30km long. It is definitely not the biggest in the world, but what sets it apart is that the bus drops you off at a set of lookout points directly across from the front of the glacier. We're talking up close and personal. During some parts of the year, the glacier actually advances enough to attach itself to the peninsula where the look out points are located! From this series of well designed walkways, you can view the 5 km expanse of the glacier from various angles: high above, above and directly across. At this proximity, the vastness of the thing is jaw dropping. The glacier is slowing inching forward. As it does, the ice cracks forming enormous enormous fields of crevices, which from the front of the glacier appear to be precarious, leaning towers of ice and snow. There are hints of blue in the spaces between the towers and various shades of blue smudge the front. It is summer now, the melt is on and so is the action!

Once you actually start to believe what your eyes are seeing, the next set of fun is glacier-watching. It starts with the sounds. Sometimes what sounds like a gunshot echos through the canyon, other times a growl like thunder rolls through the air, or even a slow-building rumble like a jumbo jet taking off. We wait with baited breath, scanning the glacier to see what will happen next. Sometimes nothing happens. Other times, after a milli-second delay, a big boulder of ice falls of the face of the glacier, bouncing off of the surface of the water. Sometimes, there is a mini avalanche and a wash of snow and ice chunks slides into the water below. If you are really lucky, there is a reverberating crack and then one of those precarious towers disintegrates before your eyes. In slow motion, what looks like an entire cliff splits off and tumbles into the water, submerging with a resounding splash, then popping up again to create a massive vibration of turquois blue water. These waves rock the little bergs floating in the lake, building momentum before violently washing up against the shore of the peninsula. Wow!!

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Yesterday, to make the glacier experience complete, I paid the exorbitant price and signed up for something called the Big Ice Trek. Yes, I donned crampons (oddly, the technique is a lot like snow showing) and went for a 4-hour trek on top of the Perito Moreno glacier!! It was amazing. I kind of felt like I was walking on top of a giant cake with white creamy icing scuplted into scallops, peaks and ridges. When the glacier moves over uneven ground, the ice above cracks, creating a crack that can widen into a crevice. We saw baby crevices, luminescent with blue water (when the crack is big enough, the water drains away), little rivers carving their way across the surface of the glacier, waterfalls, sink holes and even little lakes! I filled my water bottle from one of the puddles and I had to laugh. The water was refreshing, but it tasted a little bit like dirt. Probably had something to do with the smudges of brown dust in places across the top of the snow and settled at the bottom of some of the water pools.

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Surprisingly, Patagonia isn't just mountains and glaciers. A couple of days ago, I ventured into the desert. There is an area of badlands (loose sedimentary soil that gets eroded by wind and rain creating hills) near to Calafate where you can find fossils from the Cretaceous period (about 80-90 million years ago). We walked around and saw petrified tree trucks and pieces of "wood" lying all over the ground. They looked so realistic, you could even see the rings of the tree trunks. I had to keep touching and picking up the pieces of tree-rock (they were heavy!) to convince myself they were not just normal pieces of wood. There were also dinosaur bones some were actually in tact. We saw a femur, it was about 4 feet long. It was very cool!!

I head head to the Chilean side of Patagonia (and Torres del Paine) tomorrow. The W-trek awaits!

Posted by Caro369 14:04 Archived in Argentina Comments (2)

Patagonia

Wonderful hiking in Chalten, despite the congestion

semi-overcast 8 °C

Patagonia -- the hiking mecca, the legend of bristly weather, pristine glaciers and rugged mountains. Think remote, wild and untouched. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but things have been changing over the last 2-5 years. Where there used to be a dirt road from Calafate to Chalten, there is now a paved highway. Where the village of Chalten used to be comprised of a couple of shacks, there is now a bustling town filled with homey restaurants, hotels for every price range and artesanal shops. There is even internet access and a bank machine (though no cell phone service). Despite warnings about never seeing a vegetable during my entire stay, the restaurants seem to be well stocked (even if the grocery store was a joke). Yesterday for dinner, I had a crepe stuffed with pumpkin, tomato and cheese accompanied by a green salad.

Thus far, Patagonia has been extremely kind. Even the legendary bad weather has taken a break. No howling winds (the trees grow stunted and crooked in these parts) or dust storms (despite the huge glacier-fed lakes, Patagonia is clearly a scrubby desert). I have even had a couple of clear days when I was able to snap decent photos of the jagged peaks of Fitzroy and Torre! This is very rare. Apparently people can sit in Chalten for weeks and never catch even a glimpse of these elusive mountain ranges. Sometimes even glaciers and turqoise lakes below the mountains are are obscured by cloud. Despite the uncharacteristically pleasant weather, it was not been exactly warm, maybe 5 to 10 degrees Celcius, with a light, crisp wind and occasional sun. I was constantly putting on (and taking off) different permutations and combinations of clothing. At one point, I was walking uphill and still had to put on every piece of clothing in my day pack (about 5 layers). I wondered if I would have finished any of the hikes if the weather had been normal.

The hikes were wonderful!! There are 2 main trails one that takes you towards the Fitzroy mountain range and the other to see Cerro Torre. These are mammoth day hikes -- Laguna de los Tres is 25km (with a big section straight up) and Laguna Torre is about 28km round trip (many people break it up by camping). I completed them both. Yeah me!! In my experience, a hike is uphill through trees with perhaps a stream and one look out point as a reward. Not Patagonia, on the Fitzroy trail, the journey was part of the fun. The scenery changed about 6 times - there was a beautiful river valley, then thick trees, a lookout point to see the glacier and maybe the mountain (if it was clear), followed by a plain with a swamp or bog, then there was a pebbly river bed with a clear stream and section that seemed to contain sand dunes (like the beach). I wasn`t even at the major lookout point/ highlight yet! After hiking straight up for an hour, then I got to see the incredible blue, blue lake at the foot of the glacier. Sadly, I didn`t get a mountain view that day, but it was still worth the climb.

View from trail

View from trail

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Cerro Torre and Lago Torre

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I think Patagonia is becoming a victim of its own popularity. One complaint I have about the Chalten trails is (of all things) congestion. So much for remote and untouched!! There were only 2 major trails and everyone in town was on one or the other. The late afternoon was particularly bad, there was practically a line up to get back to town. You were either stepping on someone's heels or pulling over to let a faster hiker pass you. It was sometimes challenging to find a spot to tie your shoe or take off a layer! It was not like that all day, but it was annoying. As well, there seemed to be a lot of people on the trails not up to the physical demands of a 10km hike, or were not prepared to camp in the great outdoors. A couple that had been camping told me about meeting 20yr old girl one night who was eyeing their dinner. Apparently the only provisions that she and her friends had brought were bread and chocolate.

I arrived in Calafate today and will check out the famous Perito Moreno glacier tomorrow.

Posted by Caro369 15:52 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

Ushuaia

The end of the earth, part 2‏

all seasons in one day 5 °C

Ushuaia is a place where a lot of things don't make a lot of sense at first blush. It sits on the southern tip of the island of Tierra del Fuego (land of fire), but if you were to got to BA by bus, you would have to pass through Chile. Why? Because the island is split between Chile and Argentina. Ushuaia is the southernmost city, but Chile possesses the islands between Tierra del Fuego and Antarctica, so Cape Horn (the island closest to Antarctica) belongs to Chile. The beauty of politics. To bolster its claims to the Falkland Islands (British) and Antarctica, Argentina has been trying to boost the population and promote industrial development in Tierra de Fuego and Ushuaia by offering significant tax incentives to investors. It seems to be working as Nokia has a cell phone factory in town and other factories for electronics (e.g., televisions) have also set up shop. I wondered why the small port was filled with barges and shipping containers.

The town itself is also a bit strange. It clearly caters to the well-healed foreign tourist. In addition to being the main departure point for voyages to Antarctica, mammoth cruise ship running the BA to Santiago route (or vica versa) periodically drop anchor for a few hours flooding the streets with souvenir-hungry tourists. The bustling main street is lined with upscale outdoor gear stores, several casinos, gourmet chocolate shops, souvenir stores and (despite the cool temperatures) trendy clothing stores featuring bathing suits, skimpy tops and shorts. I don't get the obsession with summber clothes. It is summer now and since I arrived, I haven't left the hotel wearing less than 4 layers.

I have also been scratching my head about the island´s name. Why Tierra del Fuega (land of fire)? The place isn't warm, the soil is not red and there are no active volcanoes. It turns out that when Magellan sailed through the area in the 16th century, he saw the smoke from fires of the local indigenous people (the Yamana), and dubbed the place Tierra del Fuego. Interestingly enough, the Europeans left the Yamana and Tierra del Fuego pretty much untouched until the 19th century, probably because the Yamana (hunter/gather nomads) had no gold or silver to covet. Apparently, they sailed around in their canoes naked (yes, naked), tending a fire in the middle of the canoe to keep them warm and with seal oil smeared on their skin to repel the rain. The Europeans showed up to hunt whales and seals in late 19th century, decimating the Yamana's food supply and then finally finishing them off with European diseases.

Oh yeah. There`s more. Did I mention the beavers? Ushuaia sits between the sea (the Beagle Channel) and the gorgeous Martial moutain range extends behind the town and along the coast of the island. Driving through this area and hiking in the various mountain valleys, following hiking trails through the forest, I have been baffled/stunned to come across landscapes pulled from a Group of Seven painting -- beaver ponds and dams, eerily framed by dead tree trunks. Apparently, in the 1940s, one idea for industrial development was to import beavers from Canada so that Argentina could have its own fur industy. It backfired, badly. It is not as cold in Tierra del Fuego (0 Celcius in winter) as in Canada so the pelts aren`t as soft and thick so there is no market. More importantly, there is no local predator for the beaver (no wolves or coyotes) and the population has exploded. In recent years, the beaver has invaded every river in Tierra del Fuego and to everyone's chagrin, has permanently transforming the landscape. The Argentinians are at a loss about what to do. It's a bit sad. Who thought our industrious beaver would become a menace?

I am going to go on another rant about the weather. I went up to the Martial mountain today to see what is left of the glacier. One of the trails at the top was advertised to be a lookout point for Ushuaia and the Beagle Channel. So I follow the 2 kilometre trail in the hail (the walk down from glacier featured snow then rain). Along the trail, all I see is white haze. At the end, I am tired and stop for a snack. While I am sitting there, the wind picks, it blows away the clouds revealing a spectacular 180 degree view of the town, the port and the islands in the bay. There was a rainbow. The sun came out, the wind died down and I sat in awe for about 15 minutes. After which a haze rolled in and the snow started, again. Calgary has changeable/unpredictable weather, but this place takes the cake!!!

Patagonia here I come! I fly to El Calafate tomorrow.

Posted by Caro369 14:55 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

South of 60

Ice bergs, penguins and killer whales

all seasons in one day 0 °C

On Friday morning, I reluctantly waved good-bye to the Polar Pioneer and my Antarctic adventure. A bit of background ...

The Antarctic continent is the southernmost land mass. Summer (November to March) is the main season for visits as the warmer weather has ensured the sea ice, which can extend 30-50 kilometre offshore in the winter, has receeded to the land, releasing endless fields of ice floes (floating platforms), hunks of ice (bobbing ice cubes) and ice bergs. Antarctica can be accessed from New Zealand or Australia with a journey of about 5 days. Alternatively, the trip from Ushuaia, Argentina is much preferred as it takes the eager traveller to the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula in about 2 days. My little 11-day journey allowed us to visit islands on both sides of the southern-most tip of the Peninsula (a map should be posted in the header - the little green line from Ushuaia to Antarctica exaggerates the territory covered as the software didn't seem to recognize the names of the islands we visited). Looking at the map, and seeing the sheer size of the Antarctic continent is humbling. The ship was constantly moving and we barely covered a thumbnail's worth of territory!

My boat, the Polar Pioneer is an ice-strengthened vessel (one step below an icebreaker) with berths for 55 passengers. It took us 2 days to cross the Drake Passage, and it lived up to its reputation for a rough ride. The continuous rocking of the boat did a number on my head and my stomach. I had to resort to drugs.

As a basic plan, our expedition leaders trip to organize 2-3 outings off of the ship each day. This was always weather-permitting. If the seas were too rough or the pack ice was too thick, planned landings were aborted, and when the weather was nicer, extra landings were added. I was quite astounded how the expedition organizers non-challantly and seemlessly reworked the schedule as the weather mercurially shifted from calm seas and sunshine to 30 nott winds and driving snow. The Polar Pioneer was to big to take us shore, so we would break into groups of 10-15 and load into smaller zodiacs (a kind of motorized rubber raft with a metal bottom). The zodiacs were used for boat cruises closer to shore, or to transport us to a beach for a landing. When the seas were restless, the transfer from boat to zodiac was 'exciting' in all of the wrong ways. The crew did all they could to keep us safe and no one was hurt during this process, but I recall a passeng
er doing the splits (one foot on the zodiac, the other on the gangplank) as a wave suddenly pulled the zodiac away from the boat, another falling to his or her knees inside the zodiac as the sudden jolt of a wave buffeted the boat and someone leaping back onto the gangplank as the nadir of a wave temorarily plunged the zodiac 1-2 meters below the last stair on the gangplank. Fortunately, not all of our landings were so Indiana Jones-esque!

A couple of highlights...

1) Icebergs -- When I say the word, I think of something omnious, foreboding and dangerous (remember the Titanic?). This trip has forged a new definition. The Weddell Sea (the east side of the peninsula) is an iceberg factory. Icebergs form at the toe of a glacier, essentially, a big hunk of accumulated snow and ice breaks off and heads to sea. These hunks of ice can be hundreds of thousands of years old and are sometimes enormous. The newest icebergs are tabular, greyish and imposing, think of 4-storey floating snow bank. Then the summer sun and the sea water go to work, sculpting this raw marble into intriguing shapes and patterns in creamy white, shaded with a beautiful sea blue. The colour is due to the age of the ice, the more pressure it was under, the less air it contains, and bluer the colour. The patterns are fantastic - vertical striations, pebbled surfaces, repeating ovals and of course, the smooth gleam we associate with licked popsicles. Every permutation of size and shape was possible (e.g., pointy, rounded, jagged across the top, an arch in the middle, or a crevice across the top).

The iceberg fields were everywhere! We saw a constant stream them from the deck of ship, but the most impressive collections were in the coves and harbours close to land. We took a number of zodiac cruises through these fields, trolling close enough to touch, and it was always impressive regardless of the weather, or the time of day. In the grey, the blue of the bergs took on a muted ethereal glow and the blue of the berg underneath the water was clearly visible. In the sun, old ice sparkled and flashed (dripping) and the blue became more intense. Sometimes, we stumbled on ice flows occupied by small groups of sea birds, penguins or seals. The close up views were a particular treat. The seals - leopard, krabeaters and fur seals - seemed unperturbed by our presence and would stretch out in the sun, lazily stretching a flipper, or opening an eye to watch us in our hovering zodiac with cameras clicking.

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2) Penguins -- We saw 3 types of penguins on this trip: gentoos, adelies and chinstraps. The adults are small, maybe 50 cm high. In the spring the penguins go to shore to lay their eggs and raise their young. By mid-February, the babies are teenagers that are almost ready to head to sea. Penguin colonies are easy to spot as it looks like the black cliffs and beaches next to the water are soaked in salmon pink paint. BTW, it is not paint. Penguins eat a shrimp-like creature called krill, and the pink spray is what comes out the other end. As the zodiac gets closer to shore, and the countless groupings of penguin families come into focus, the ripe stench of fermenting fish smacks the nostrils like cold sea water (yuck and double yuck!!). On shore, if you move slowly and give the penguins a wide berth, they pretty much ignore you, going about their daily business. There was a lot squawking, wing flapping and running in circles. Pudgy baby penguins with with tufts of down sticking out awkwardly waddle after their parents, determined to get a free meal of regurgitated krill (they literally put their heads down their parents throats in this process). The penguins do not feel the need to set up shop close to the water, the nests stretched up and up into the cliffs. It was particularly humorous to watch them skipping, sliding and jumping from rock to rock to climb up or descend to the sea. Some birds seemed to glide like skiiers, while others teetered awkwardly, falling over but quickly rebounding upright like humpty dumpty and continuing on their way. This was a sharp contrast to penguins at sea. They were fast -- leaping out of the water in graceful arcs, moving through the water effortless, changing directions on a dime.

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3) Killer Whales -- During the first week of the trip, in the open sea, from the deck of the ship, we could sometimes see signs of whales swimming in the distance (e.g., a vertical spout of water, the flash of a tail). It was nice, but far from exciting. Sometimes, sometimes you get lucky. After our last landing in Antarctica, with the boat towards the Drake Passage to take us back to Ushuaia, something unexpected happened. A pod of 6-7 orca whales in hot pursuit of what we think was a whale passed by the boat. It was unbelievable, for almost an hour, we saw ominous groupings of single, double, triple orcas surface in the water in hunting formations, patterns and sequences circling a submerged prey to the soundtrack of excited sea birds (e.g., petrels and other scavengers). The clouds of birds appeared out of no where hovering, squacking and diving into the hunt site to get their share of the kill. I felt sad for the poor unseen whale ripped to shreads by hungry orcas, but what a show!! There was even a little baby orca!

Orcas on the hunt

Orcas on the hunt

4) Rugged landscapes -- The beautiful landscapes in during our trip were constantly changing. On the Weddell Sea side (eastern part of the peninsula) the snow had retreated, leaving rocky beaches, mud and barren cliffs, what you would expect at spring. On the west side of the Antarctic peninsula, it was a winter wonderland of domed snow, rugged mountains with snow capped peaks and glaciers right up to the water. I had to laugh. This is summer? The weather was not warm, but at 0 to 5 degrees Celcius it wasn't exactly cold either. The wind was not our friend and things would get very cold, very fast when it blew in.

John Ross Island

John Ross Island

It was a memorable trip. This description does not do the place and the experience justice, but so is life. See my photo gallery for a few photos.

Posted by Caro369 13:17 Archived in Antarctica Comments (3)

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