Various Flavors of Ecuador

Our jaunt through Ecuador got off to a suspect start with a couple of days in Quito. While an interesting setting consisting of a sprawling city of various colored buildings across very green mountains, our primary focus soon became our safety. I won’t use this as an exercise in suspense – we are fine and had no bad experiences, but it seemed the first thing that everyone wanted to share with us. Having traveled through a handful of countries in South America thus far, I understand I must be careful and smart, but for some reason, Quito seemed to be more extreme. It’s still unclear whether it is indeed true, or whether the people are just more insistent on communicating it. Having the message pretty much pounding into our heads, we played it extra safe and took taxis (which are cheap) when going very far or going anywhere at night. As a result, we don’t have so many adventures or interesting experiences to report, but we can also say we experienced no harm nor theft. To sum it up, we wandered the historical part of town, visited a cathedral, ate dinner on the cute and lively Rotunda street, and experienced the horrid Mariscal district with house music pouring out of every bar we walked by started around 4pm. Our hostel was a nice exception to the general experience – Hostal Quito Cultural – housed in a quaint old building in the historical part of town with very friendly owners and an above average breakfast.

Things smoothed out from here as we made our way to Baños, a small touristed town known for its hot springs. We ventured out on a few day hikes, both times seeming to come to the end just in time for the rain to start. We also enjoyed a couple of meals at Stray Dog Brewpub, a rare find in Ecuador with different microbrews. I happily sampled their sour brown ale and IPA, while dad stuck to the stout and mom, of course, red wine.

From Baños we left for Canelos and our trek into the jungle to stay at Huella Verde, a couple cabañas owned by a Swiss guy and his Ecuadorian wife (who have the cutest son, Tiago). For me, the highlights were the hike through the jungle, relaxing in the hammocks, swimming in the river, and the impressive food prepared by the owners. I would never have expected to eat so well during a stay in the jungle.

We squeezed a few more adventures into the last few days of my parents’ trip, including a stay in an old, slightly run down hacienda, a visit to Quilatoa Lake, and a trip into an abyss for our last night in Papallacta. No joke, we drove for what seemed like an eternity (aka an hour) through windy roads in between mountains and enveloped in mist until we arrived at a rather impressive resort with hot springs outside of each room. I’ll say it was a nice way to end their stay. I was tempted to stay on by myself for another night but couldn’t quite justify the cost for just me.

Overall, it was a blast to be able to spend this time in Ecuador with my parents. I was continually impressed with their ability and willingness to “rough it” with me and travel closer to my style. On our last day I was inspired to ask them for a little contribution, so below is bit on the journey from their perspective.

Courtesy of Mom & Dad:

From the moment that Michele decided to quit her job and travel extensively with a backpack in South America, she encouraged us to join her for some part of it. As it worked out for us, the best timing was when she would be in Peru and Ecuador and it just so happened, we would also be there for her birthday. So, we booked our tickets and headed off for our adventure. An adventure it was! Although we took suitcases, not backpacks, our plan from the beginning was to experience this in much the same way that Michele was. So, we stayed in hostels or guesthouses and except for our flight from Peru to Ecuador, mostly took buses. A few nights, we shared a room with Colin and Michele and many nights, we shared with Michele. Most places had no heat (and it was cold!), but they all had warm blankets. We did always have our own bathroom and for the most part, hot water was available when we took showers. Eating too, was at times an adventure, but we were game for most of it, drawing the line at Cuy (guinea pig), an Andean specialty.

In Peru, we visited Cusco, Pisac, Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu. We spent longer in Ecuador and visited Quito, Baños, the jungle near Canelos, the Quilatoa crater lake, and lastly, Papallacta, a hot springs resort in the hills east of Quito. Many of the places were at altitudes of 9000+. Our favorites were the visit to the Ollantaytambo town and archaeological site where we had a terrific local guide, and our drive to the Quilatoa crater lake which had gorgeous scenery along the way. Our favorite lodging was probably in Baños where we stayed at a rather stunning guest house built and run by an Australian/Kiwi expat couple. The most adventurous has to be the trip to the jungle. We were going to take 2 different buses to get there, but our taxi driver in Baños offered us a deal we couldn’t refuse for our first hop, so it was only one bus. Once we were there, we were picked up by our jungle lodge owner (Swiss expat) in his pick-up truck for a short ride to a clearing near the river (his parking lot). Then he gave us knee-high rubber boots and we tromped another 20 minutes into the jungle to reach the small lodge (only 2 cabanas and a main building for eating). Although we heard much about crime ahead of time and from locals, our scariest moments were probably in Ecuadorean cabs. Stop signs are suggestions and passing on mountainous highways, commonplace. Sort of an “E” ticket ride Ecuadorian style.

Most of all, this trip was about spending time with Michele. She is now 28 years old and has been on her own for several years. She is a capable, independent young woman. In fact, because of her Spanish language skills and her travel experience, she was our “leader”, a significant switch in the family dynamic from our travels as a family when she was younger. Safe travels Michele, we look forward to your return to SF.

 

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Cuzco & Ollantaytambo

Over the course of two weeks, a couple definitions of “we” enjoyed Cuzco as our home base for our various adventures. Colin and I walked around and up to do some acclimating prior to our trek. We chilled for a few days recovering from the trek at the lovely Hostel Kurumi. We shamelessly savored a couple of meals at Jack’s, an allure for gringos of the American sort looking for tastes of home. On our first visit, I was rather exalted to find homemade hummus, while Colin channeled his inner 12-year-old indulging in french toast and a milkshake…for dinner.

After our return from Chinchero, we greeted our parents at Kurumi. Colin unfortunately was knocked out for a couple of days with a stomach bug, so he laid low while I introduced the ‘rents to both my empanada habit and my wandering style (“hey, that street looks nice, let’s go there”). After missing out on the cooking class I had tried for in Arequipa, we signed up for an evening one in Cuzco. Peruvian Cooking Classes took us on our a tour of San Pedro market and explained the way local people shop. Then we returned to the kitchen to prepare crema de choclo (corn soup), lomo saltado (traditional meat stir fry), arroz con leche (rice pudding), and chicha morada (beverage made from purple corn). The class was intimate and well done. It was all very hands on unlike how some cooking classes end up. Once we finished cooking, we enjoyed the meal together upstairs. While the dishes didn’t knock our sneakers off (as my mom likes to say), they were enjoyable and we had a fun time.

The main family adventure was going to the Sacred Valley for a few days. We rented a car and drove through Pisac and on to Ollantaytambo. In Pisac, we explored the market in town, had a quick lunch, then went off to see the Inca ruins. I, of course, wanted to walk and decided to meet the fam at the ruins. I didn’t quite realize what I got myself into and walked primarily uphill (a seemingly recurring theme), to reach the ruins that are more expansive than I’d imagined. I made guesses at a few forks on which direction to head and eventually found the parking lot, our rental car, and the fam shortly thereafter.

Ollantaytambo was well worth the visit. The town itself is over 700 years old, and not much has changed during that time. The streets are very narrow and not so prepared for cars, though we managed just fine. We visited the ruins where we opted to hire a local guide. Often hit or miss, our guide proved to be very knowledgeable and friendly. The whole experience felt much more personal as his pride and passion for his hometown was made evident by his energy and eagerness to teach us. At the end, he even gifted each of us a necklace with the Inca cross. That night we went for a somewhat celebratory dinner as it happened to be my birthday. We found what looked like a lively restaurant though we ended up being the only patrons. We had a few extra pisco sours and the waiter even brought me my own party-sized one in honor of the occasion. I don’t think I’ll ever have another birthday like it and was very lucky to have the whole family present in the Sacred Valley. The celebration was pretty wild as I only made it to bed by 9:30.

The next morning, mom and dad left bright and early for their day trip to Machu Picchu, while Colin and I drove the car back to Cuzco. Quite appropriately, Colin and I went for a final meal at Jack’s before Colin was on his way to the airport to head home. The parents and I followed suit the next morning but instead heading to Quito. More on our Ecuadorian adventures to come!

Salkantay Trek, Machu Picchu, & Chinchero

Colin and I lucked out with our Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu. The weather forecast had threatened rain the entire time, but we had only a little the first day as we summited the Salkantay pass (4800m) between glacier peaks. From there it was all downhill. Literally. The first two days were by far the longest and most strenuous with 7-8 hours of walking each. We were rewarded at the end of day two with a visit to some nearby hot springs. The third day was short and flat with just 3 hours of walking to the town of Aguas Calientes, the launching point for Machu Picchu, where we’d have the most of the afternoon and evening to rest.

During the first 2 days, I had persuaded our guide, Herbert, of my tireless spirit and legs, and elicited from him information about a bonus hike that’s free and possible from town. He promised it to be difficult with ladders covering parts of the mountain that are too steep for trails, but I’d be rewarded with a unique view of Machu Picchu. After a quick stop at the hostel, I set off on my own for a couple of hours. I was a little nervous about the ladder being not so fond of heights, but Herbert assured me it wasn’t very long. I soon learned that there wasn’t just one ladder but five, and the longest one was around 100 feet. Once I was on my way, I certainly wasn’t turning back. In just under an hour, up I went to the top of Putucusi (Quechua for “Happy Mountain” according to Herbert and “Squash Mountain” according to an elderly man in town. We agreed on a compromise of “Happy Squash.”), climbing endless stairs and willing myself not to think about the trip down with each ladder I climbed up. The workout was great and I think I actually yelped aloud with glee as I came to the top and saw Machu Picchu for the first time. I enjoyed the view for a bit and made a fairly quick descent, making an effort to look down as little as possible. It was definitely worth it, especially having only seen a handful of people during the whole trip.

The next morning was an especially early wakeup at 4am to hike up the stairs to Machu Picchu. Turns out the site doesn’t open until 6 anyway, so it wasn’t entirely worth it (though another good workout). Once inside we enjoyed a tour of the site from Herbert and then were set loose to explore on our own. Having not signed up early enough to get tickets for Huayna Picchu, Colin and I hiked up to the Sun Gate for that view and then over to the Inca Bridge. After getting our fill, we went for a leisurely lunch back in Agua Calientes and learned how terrible we both are at chess. A few modes of transport later that evening, and we were back in Cuzco for a couple days of relaxation (and just in time for the rain!).

Our next mini adventure was to the town of Chinchero in the Sacred Valley, which was fairly uneventful. The town is small with not a whole lot going on. We stayed at a nice hostel called La Casa de Borro Lodge and Restaurant (where the cutest puppy, Maracino, also lived), visited ruins, ate empanadas, saw traditional weaving, explored a market, ate more empanadas, and bought some alpaca goods.

We made a quick trip of it and were back in Cuzco the next day, this time to greet our next visitors: mom & dad!

Highs and Lows from Bolivia to Peru

From Uyuni, I took a bus to La Paz and continued directly on to Copacabana. As I passed through the city, I was thinking perhaps I should have stayed there for a bit. I’d heard mixed reviews, but to me it looked like a nice place with lots of interesting culture. I could see the naturaleza of which I’d been told – far more “rustic” than my experience in Argentina and Chile. Plus everything in Bolivia is CHEAP. Seriously cheap.

But on I went to Copacabana, a small town on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca, where I caught a ferry to Isla Del Sol in the middle of the lake. Lake Titicaca is the highest elevation navigable lake in the world. Once on the island, I paid my tariff (the first of many) and hiked directly and literally uphill and found a hostel for the night. I was pretty eager for a shower after traveling for 17 hours straight from Uyuni where I’d only had one shower during the tour that was not exactly hot and lacked much water pressure. Sadly, I soon learned I’d have to wait a bit longer for a hot shower and suffered through another cold one. After settling in, I wandered further uphill to explore and find a place for dinner. I decided on a small restaurant facing the other side of the island where I could watch the sunset, then it was early to bed.

I woke early the next morning in time to see the last of the sunrise just outside of my door. I set off early to do the hike around the island starting along the trail on the western shore. I’m not sure if I was up way too early or if there just aren’t that many people doing the hike in a single day, but I hardly saw anyone along the way until I got nearer the northern end. The silence and sense of isolation was very peaceful and welcome for my morning hike. That is until I approached a little building that appeared deserted, paused to take a picture, heard some dogs barking, then realized the barking dogs were running for me. Caught off guard and unsure what to do, I turned to walk on my way thinking they might just leave me alone until I felt something on my calf. I looked down and realized these dogs weren’t kidding. One had actually bit me. Still not knowing what to do I scrambled up a pile of rocks out or reach until the dogs seemed to lose interest and walked away. I climbed down and started to run a bit along the trail only to hear more barking and see the dogs chasing after me again. This time I did not turn my back on them and walked backward, kicking dirt at them until I was far enough from the house that I guess they felt they’d extricated the threat for good. Now I wish I had a picture of the dogs, because mind you, they were not large. I can only imagine what would have happened if they were. I checked my calf and was happy to see that the dog had only torn a whole in my leggings and not drawn any blood. No rabies shots for me!

Just as I had been thinking I wished I had more time in Bolivia, I now suddenly couldn’t wait to leave. After completing the circle of the island, I picked up my stuff and took the ferry back to Copacabana. I had already purchased a bus ticket from there to Puno, the city on the Peru side of Lake Titicaca, though now was hoping to change it and go straight to Arequipa. I arrived at the office with exactly 0 Bolivianos, having spent my last 12 on a banana smoothie on the island. The woman informed me I could change the ticket, so I off I went to the ATM to withdraw some more money. Unfortunately the luck I’d had in La Paz continued and none of my cards worked. Panic ensued, I ran around a lot, and finally she said I could go to Puno and withdraw money there (I figured maybe Bolivian ATMs didn’t like me). Of course that was not the problem and I still could not get money at the Puno bus station. Luckily I ran into the nicest woman who offered to pay my taxi fare to get to her hostel where I could then sort things out. Normally I would not have done this, but it turned out to be quite a nice hostel. The woman even gave me some food and tea that night and let me use the phone to call my bank. Finally, it seemed things were resolved and the next day when I saw cash dispensed from the happy mouth of the ATM I was fully relieved.

Things in Peru were looking up! I was excited to arrive in Arequipa next, having heard several great things about it. I went to a hostel that was recommended and was happy to hear they had space. The owner of the hostel, Jose, truly makes you feel at home. He recommended several things to do in the city and advised me of areas to stay away from. He also spoke to me in Spanish though he knew I spoke English (many people who speak English seem to answer that way, even though I ask in Spanish and am hoping to practice). Arequipa is the first city I’ve visited that I’ve read is known for its food. Obviously, I was pretty excited about that and my days there consisted of eating, visiting markets, and taking pictures around the city.

Goodness, I hardly did anything this week, yet it seems so full of activity, or maybe just anxiety. I’m in Cusco now and very excited to have my first visitor: my brother!!! Tomorrow we set off on a 4-day trek along the Salkantay trail to Machu Picchu!

Desert, Lakes, & Salt Flats

I know the suspense must be killing you. The answer is yes, Chile was nice to me this time. After yet another lengthy bus ride, I arrived in San Pedro de Atacama. My fellow bus riders and I looked around in uncertainty when we pulled up to the bus terminal, all quietly wondering “Is this really it?” All I could see was a few buildings and a lot of dirt. But yes, I was in the right place: welcome to San Pedro de Atacama, a town in the Atacama Desert where it rains only twice a year.

I didn’t know much about the town prior to my arrival other than that the tours to Salar de Uyuni started there. After finding a hostel, I learned from the very friendly and helpful owners how much there is to do in the surrounding area. I also learned that for the moment there were no tours to Uyuni due to a petrol strike in Bolivia – a little foreshadowing of the change I’d experience after crossing the border into Bolivia. As I was told, “todo en Bolivia es naturaleza.” Both of these reasons gave me a day to spend exploring the area (and acclimating). I opted for renting a bike in the morning to go visit El Valle de la Luna, named for its resemblance to the surface of the moon and considered one of the driest places on Earth. Due to its extremely dry and unique terrain, it has been used by scientists as a testing place for Mars rover prototypes.

After my roughly 4-hour morning adventure, I returned to the hostel to join an organized tour visiting a few more of the surrounding areas, including Cejar Lagoon and Salar de Atacama. Cejar Lagoon is a lake in the middle of the desert with around a 25% salt content in which visitors are permitted to swim, or float rather. While it wasn’t terribly warm out and the water was quite cold, I forced myself to jump in and experience this perhaps once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The sensation was so strange – not only did I float, but I could hardly keep my legs underwater when I tried. Seems like it would be pretty convenient for a pool party. Once I got out of the water and dried, I was covered with a white salty crust. For once, I had something else to blame my paleness on.

After the Cejar Lagoon, we made our way to the Salar de Atacama – the largest salt flat in Chile. I didn’t particularly care about this visit since I was still planning to visit Uyuni (the largest salt flat in the world), but I was told the Atacama one currently had water on it and was reflecting while Uyuni was not. I couldn’t pass that up. The tour arrived shortly before sunset in time for some really spectacular sights and unworthy photos.

I had found out earlier in the day that the strike in Bolivia was over and the tours were on again, so I booked one leaving the next day. I was picked up at the hostel and taken to the border crossing, where I paid for my visa, met my driver (Edgar), loaded into a 4×4 with backpacks strapped to the top, and set off on the 3-day journey. I won’t go into excruciating detail, but the first day consisted of several stops: Laguna Blanca and Laguna Verde (both colored by the different minerals they contain), views of the volcano Licancabur, hot springs, geysers, and Laguna Colorada, which is inhabited by pink flamingos. During the day, we reached an altitude of 4930 meters before reaching our refugio (hostel) at just 4500 meters, also making for terribly cold nights at around 0°C.

My head had started to hurt progressively throughout the day and it was becoming apparent I hadn’t been drinking enough water. At the refugio, Edgar brought me coca leaves to have in a tea that is supposed to help with the altitude. I drank that and plenty more water, though my headache did not improve. Once dinner was served, I forced down a little bit of food, and quickly learned both that my stomach wasn’t fond of that idea and I truly had altitude sickness. A doctor at the refugio gave me a couple of pills and I immediately went to bed. Not a great first night.

Thankfully, the second day I felt much better and was able to enjoy the rest of the trip. Day 2 was a lot of driving with visits to el Arbol de Piedra and several lakes. We descended quite a bit in altitude and ended the day at Hotel de Sal, a building that is actually made from the salt and has salt floors. There I was happy to have a semi-warm shower and a hot meal that agreed with me.

The third and final day had an early start at 4:30am in order to go see the sunrise on the Salar de Uyuni, the pinnacle of the trip. The Atacama salt flat pales in comparison to Uyuni. The expanse of Salar de Uyuni is literally awesome, stretching 12000 square kilometers and going 7-8 meters deep. The primary lesson I learned that day was I should have practiced taking pictures. There is a lot to play with given the lack of perspective, but I found it surprisingly tough to figure out. Also, not so easy without friends with whom to get into it.

Up next: making my way north through Bolivia and into Peru!

Mendoza & Salta

After another night bus, I was excited to arrive in Mendoza despite catching a cold my last day in Bariloche. I opted to get my own space and splurge a little on an apartment instead of staying in a hostel. I arrived a bit before the apartment was ready, so I headed in the general direction I needed to go and stumbled upon a pedestrian street with tons of cafes and outdoor seating. I set up camp for a bit until the apartment was ready. When I got up to go, I was delighted to see I was actually on the same street as the apartment and soon discovered it was right across from the cafe in the heart of downtown. The apartment was exactly what I needed – my own space, a kitchen, close to everything, and surprisingly quiet given its location.

My first couple of days were primarily spent resting, recouping, and trying to find a pharmacy that was open on a Sunday. Once I was feeling a bit better, I managed the one outing I had been looking forward to – visiting the bodegas (wineries) in the Maipu region just outside of the city. I took the local bus to the starting point where I rented a bike from Mr. Hugo’s. I have to say the outing was not as fabulous as I’d anticipated. I think I’ve been a bit spoiled having ridden my bike through both Napa and Sonoma. The main road was fairly busy and did not have a bike lane for the full stretch. Giant trucks screaming by me did not give me the biggest sense of comfort nor safety. The scenery and traffic improved once I got onto the sides roads, which is where most of the bodegas are. I stopped by a few, though my visits were fairly quick considering I was just taking pictures and not tasting wine due to my lingering congestion. On my final stop I was happy to enjoy a tasting of various oils, vinegars, tapenades, jams, and chocolates. There I also met an interesting family of four from Australia. They were a couple months in to a year-long trip around the world. Mind you, the two kids were about 9 and 11. Apparently Australia has flexible homeschooling laws, so that’s what they’re doing while traveling South America, Europe, and Asia. I was pretty astounded – they by far have the most interesting back story of any of the travelers I’ve met.

A couple other highlights of my in Mendoza: I went for 2 runs in a nice park they have and I managed to cook all of my meals for 4 days with just about $30 in groceries.

From Mendoza, I planned to cross back into Chile and visit Santiago and Valparaiso. I arrived at the bus station in the afternoon in search of a night bus only to learn that the route to Santiago over the Andes was closed due to snow and might not reopen for 4-5 days. You might recall my first bout with Mother Nature was on my first visit to Chile in TdP. This time, She had decided to not even let me enter the country. Going with the flow has pretty much been the theme of my trip and Argentina had been pretty good to me, so I decided to head north to Salta – just a quick 18 hour bus ride away.

Salta is a small town in the northwest region of Argentina and a good stepping stone for my next sure destination – Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. Salta is a unique city in Argentina, having preserved a good bit of its colonial culture and architecture. The people of Salta are very proud of their home and make a point of identifying themselves as Salteños rather than Argentinians. I stayed in the room of an apartment belonging to an older woman, Josefina, from the area. Josefina was very hospitable and loved to tell me about the culture and politics of both Salta and Argentina as a whole. I stayed only a few days, during which I explored the town and tried the local cuisine – more empanadas, tamales, humitas, and locro, a corn-based stew with white beans, vegetables, and meat. I could have stayed a while longer in Salta and would definitely go back to visit the surrounding areas, which include smaller towns, hiking, beautiful scenery, and wine country.

From Salta, I figured out my next step on the way to Bolivia: San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. I hoped this time Chile might actually cooperate :).

(I’m playing catch-up here, so there will be another post soon!)

Relaxing in Bariloche

The last week has not been quite as adventurous as the first portion. After a day and a half of traveling, it was nice to arrive in Bariloche and stay in one place for nearly 5 days. Bariloche is a decent sized city located on the shores of  Nahuel Huapi Lake and within a national park. The downtown area is laden with chocolate shops, clothing stores, restaurants, and bars. The surrounding area offers mountains with beautiful viewpoints to visit. Side note on the abundance of chocolate stores: I didn’t understand why chocolate when the area is not a big producer, let alone a producer at all, of cocoa beans. So, I looked it up. When the city center was redesigned in the 1930s by European settlers, it was modeled after an alpine town and referred to as “Little Switzerland.” I didn’t find anything that directly states it, but being Swiss inspired is my best guess as to how chocolate became a main attraction.

Anywho, I stayed at a really cool hostel called Penthouse 1004, which essentially was an apartment on the top floor of the tallest apartment building in the city center area turned into a hostel. The staff was super friendly, the atmosphere was very relaxed and welcoming, and it offered panoramic views of the area.

Some of the highlights of my time in Bariloche: running, biking around a lake, visiting a brewery, and walking around town. Pretty much exactly what I do at home :).

The final day was a bit more adventurous. I was talking to a French woman in the hostel the night before (in Spanish since her English isn’t great and my French is non-existent), and we decided to recruit some others to join us in renting a car the next day to go see some of the 7 lakes. There are bus tours offered, but those obviously lack the freedom of your own rental. We succeeded in finding 3 other people with whom to split the cost. The interesting part was the countries represented and languages spoken:

France – French, Spanish
France – French, English
Switzerland – German, English, Spanish
Denmark – Danish, English, Spanish
USA – English, Spanish

You’ll notice that there was no single common language and the overlaps were hardly in the primary languages spoken, so it was pretty amusing and educational at times.  Overall the trip was good, and it was nice to be on our own, though I was the lone driver, which made for an extra long day.

After my first long bus ride (about 18 hours), I’m at my next stop: Mendoza. My first impression: LOVE it. More to come after some days here!

TdP 1, sfmiga 0

Let me start out by saying my visit to Torres del Paine to hike the “W” was incredible and challenging. Let me next say that as much effort as I put into it, TdP definitely got the best of me.

I set out for my 5 day, 4 night trek early Tuesday morning. The bus ride to the park showed a clear, sunny day, but as we approached the park, clouds loomed over the mountains. A few hours later I started on my way to see the first destination: las torres (the towers) with my Australian hiking buddy, whom I met on the bus. The rain started about 20 minutes in and we were thoroughly soaked and ready for a break once we reached Refugio El Chileno 5.5 km in. In spite of the weather, we were in good spirits after some food and coffee and decided to continue on. We got a little reprieve from the rain as we walked through forested areas with trees providing shelter, until we came to the final hour of completely exposed trail that was pretty much a scramble up boulders. At this point it was now snowing. We at last made it to the top only to see the lake and a sheet of fog hovering over it. No sign of las torres. Our patience ran short as did our body warmth from the climb, so we started our descent accepting that las torres were not going to make an appearance for us. At the end of our 18 km day, I opted to swap my reservations for 2 nights camping at Las Torres Central for 1 night in a bed. I realized I had no need for the extra day, and the thought of sleeping outside in the cold and wet was less than appealing.

Day 2 I was on my own for a short 11 km hike to Los Cuernos – my next camping location. But when I approached the same junction as the day before with the weather looking more promising and being my typical stubborn self, I went right again thinking I’d at least go as far El Chileno and see if I could talk to anyone returning from the hike. I arrived after a short hour and found a guy who’d just returned from the top. He said he’d seen las torres and taken a few good photos. Excitedly, I hurried on in anticipation of a better reward than the day before. I hiked at a faster pace than the day before and reached the top in another 2 hours, going through the foot and a half of snow that had fallen since my last visit. As you might have guessed, I arrived at the lake greeted by the same blanket of fog. According to another hiker already there, I’d missed las torres by 15 minutes. I stuck around hoping they’d come back out, but no. Disappointed yet again, I started my way back. I still had to make it the 11 km extra to Los Cuernos, bringing my total distance for the day to about 27 km.

Day 3 was another long day of 24 km to see the French Valley and get to my next camping site, Paine Grande. This was the portion I was most looking forward to. Continuing my good luck, I reached the fork for the French Valley only to find out it was closed due to weather. They permitted people to hike about 10 minutes up to see parts of a glacier, but we could not go any further. So, day 3 had another bit of disappointment and turned into a pretty short day. That night was the first night I’d actually have to camp in a tent (the night before they put me in this outside dome that was a bit more insulated than a tent). Remind me in the future when I’m trying to save money that I’d rather be hungry than cold. Or at least that’s how I felt at the time. It was so cold I hardly slept despite wearing as many clothes as possible. I survived at least and was eager to get up the next morning.

My last day I had to take the ferry at 12:30, so I left as quickly as possible for the final leg of the W to see Glacier Gray. Despite my efforts, this did not leave me enough time to get all the way up to the viewpoint. I went as far as I could and was able to at least see the glacier; I just didn’t get up as close as I could have.

Some nice lighting on my earlyish morning hike to see Glacier Gray.

Some nice lighting on my earlyish morning hike to see Glacier Gray.

In summary, I pretty much failed on each leg of the W (wah, wah). However, I prefer the perspective that a German girl I met offered, that I got the true Patagonia experience. Plus, I stayed in good spirits the whole time and hopefully still got a few good photos.

Now for what’s next: after lots of back and forth, I’ve opted to head north to Bariloche, instead of south to Ushuaia in hopes of finding warmer rather than colder weather.

El Chalten & El Calafate

The start of my trip in Argentinian Patagonia has been as good or better than I’d hoped. I spent 2 full days in El Chalten. I woke up late the first day after my travel marathon, went for some coffee and food, and set off on a hike to Lago Torre. The journey there was gorgeous. I felt like every turn I took the scenery got even more beautiful. I was a little uncertain about coming to Patagonia so late in the season, but I’m so glad I did. The fall colors are incredible. If only my pictures could do them justice.

Arriving at the lake itself it was a bit cold from the mist of the mountains and the sun hidden behind them. The route was out and back, which typically aren’t my favorite, but I’ve realized have their own appeal. The views on the return trip are nearly brand new since I don’t spend a lot of time walking backwards on the way out :). The brisk air and trees along part of the hike reminded me of my trail runs in the forests of Ballerup (Denmark), so I couldn’t help but run for parts of it (day pack and all). The few people I passed likely thought I was a little crazy, but I didn’t particularly care.

On day 2, I did the hike to Lago De Los Tres. There was a fresh layer of snow on the ground after a bit of a storm the night before. It had mostly melted along the trails by the time I was out there, so I wasn’t really affected by it. Only at the very end as I reached the top where the lake sits right under Fitz Roy was there snow that I had to hike through. Fun fact: Mount Fitz Roy is what the Patagonia clothing company logo was based on after the founder climbed it in the 60s. The last 45 minutes or so was pretty steep and challenging, up rocky traverses, but coming over the crest to see the lake was beyond worth it. I immediately spotted a rock down next to the lake that would be my lunch spot and made a beeline for it.

After lunch, I made my way back. The descent of the steep portion was worse than the trip up with the snow making it a little slippery. I went a slightly different route on the way back and passed a beautiful, tranquil lake with nobody around. That is until I got up to leave. I was followed most of the way back to El Chalten by a couple people, one of which was hiccuping the entire way. I tried to walk quickly and escape the noise, but every time I stopped to take a photo they caught right back up. I just laughed and shook my head.

The next day I took a bus from El Chalten to El Calafate, where the main attraction is the Perito Moreno glacier. I immediately signed up for a tour the following day regretfully without asking many questions. Turns out there are multiple kinds of tours, and I did not sign up for the mini-trek I was hoping for where you actually get to walk on the glacier. Instead I took a bus to a few viewpoints, fell for paying extra to go on an hour boat ride to get a closer look, then went to some walkways on the hillside adjacent to the glacier. The last bit was my favorite as I was able to get some exercise as well as separation from the big group of people who were there :). The glacier itself is quite amazing. It is 5 km wide and 30 km long and is one of few glaciers that is actually growing.

The hostel I stayed at had a very social atmosphere with lots of young people hanging out in the common spaces. I found myself in an unfamiliar situation being one of the oldest in the group of mostly students and recent grads. So with some new found friends, I cheerfully joined in a game of king’s cup and then went out to a casino in town. A truly classy evening. Somehow I managed to nearly double my money playing blackjack, leaving me with a grand total of 370 Argentinian pesos (about $46). A few hours of sleep later and I was up and on a bus for Puerto Natales, Chile.

Tomorrow I start out on the 5 day, 4 night trek of the “W” trail in Torres del Paine. I’m camping along the way and am a little nervous I’ll freeze to death at night, but hopefully I won’t. Ciao para ahora!

En route to Patagonia

I’m writing this en route to El Chalten via Buenos Aires and El Calafate – only about 26 hours of traveling to get there. I’m sitting next to a lovely older Argentinian man (yes, apropo being an old soul that my first travel “friend” is 70+). We’ve chatted a bit about a variety of topics, but one thing he noted after some thought and break in the conversation is some surprise that I’m traveling alone…”you mean you don’t know anyone along the way?” That seems to be a common reaction, but yes, I’m really doing this, and I’m really doing this on my own (for the most part). I managed to fit all of my stuff into a 48L backpack, so that’s a good start, at least.

my life for the next 4 months

my life for the next 4 months

Prior to leaving, that was my biggest concern – my packing list. It pretty much gave me an excuse to buy a bunch of things I “needed”. I even caved and made my first Apple purchase in some number of years – an iPod shuffle. They included an Apple sticker, which I promptly placed on my new Lenovo laptop. Now I’ll nearly fit in when I patron Coffee Bar again once I return. Alas, I digress. I’ve included the customary picture of all the possessions, which I successfully packed (I proudly can say I did not cram) into my backpack. We’ll see how just how successful said packing was after a few weeks on the go.

 

packing

More to come after my Patagonia hiking adventures begin!