As always, check out my pictures up at my PICASA WEB ALBUMS (newly edited and processed)

 

One of the most talked about and well known travel opportunities in Chile (and South America as a whole) is an excursion to the most southern area of the continent: Patagonia.  This area is unique for a number of reasons, most of which result from its unique geography.  Firstly, it is very isolated from the rest of South America because travel to and within the region is made difficult by the erratic distribution of land and water that make large road routes almost non-existent.  This isolation helped to foster the development of a unique indigenous culture, the Tehuelche; a group of larger than life natives that averaged 6 feet 3 inches in height.  Their size was a big surprise to the shorter European explorers sailing through the region, but however, is not the basis for the name Patagonia.  A common myth is that the word Patagonia comes from “big feet” referring the native’s large foot size, but the name comes from an old Medieval tale called the Knight of Patagonia. 

Additionally, another manifestation of the region’s isolation is a general attitude of independence and separation from the rest of Chile.  In fact, the region has its own flag that is often flown side by side with the ubiquitous Chilean flag.  The flag is “La Bandera de Magallanes” or the Magellan Flag, named after the Magellan Strait which was a useful trade route in the 18th and 19th centuries before the opening of the Panama Canal.  Here’s what the flag looks like:

The yellow is the taiga land that is found throughout most of Patagonia, the triangles represent the various mountains that rise up in the area, the white border on the mountains is the ever present snow caps on the peaks, and the blue sky is the unpolluted, clear night skies, and the five stars form the very visible Southern Cross star constellation.

Our trip consisted of two main destinations – Parque Nacional Torres del Paine (Blue Towers National Park) outside of Puerto Natales, Chile and Parque Nacional Los Glaciares across the border in Argentina.  Los Glaciares is about 3 times the size of Torres and consists of some of the largest ice fields in the world.

After a flight from the Santiago airport down to Punta Arenas, we made our way by bus to Puerto Natales where we spent a night in a hostel that was friendly enough to let us in at nearly midnight.  The next morning we headed to the park via a beautiful bus ride to the entrance, along the way there were at least 300 Guanacos near the road.  Check out what a Guanaco is here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guanaco.  The entrance fee for those with Chilean Cedulas (equivalent to a driver’s license) is about $25 per person, and those with proper Chilean ID pay about $6.50.  So that was nice for us, we saved about $60 as a group just on entrance fees.

Our group of three, Ben, Nick, and I were set on doing the “W” which is about a 4 day hike that is done in the shape of the letter ‘W’.  We decided to do the hike counter clockwise, meaning that we would start on the right side, work our way left and then take the necessary fairy ride at the end of the W.  The first day of hiking was a half day where we hiked after our noon arrival into the park until sun down, which was about at 6ish.  We had 6 hours of rain – ugh, right?  So, we all got pretty much soaked down to the skin, especially yours truly because none of my clothes even remotely pretended to be waterproof.  We didn’t have good luck as we hiked our way up towards the Torres look out because the rain and clouds turned into blinding white snow clouds and the trails turned into rivers of mud and silt flowing down the mountain side.  We camped for our first night at a “paid” campsite, although no one ever came by to collect any money, so that was sweet, another $20 saved for the trip.

Our second day turned out to be the only “full” day of hiking that we did, getting out on the trail by 8:30 AM after packing up all of our wet stuff.  Thankfully, once we got out of the wet microclimate of the mountains, we entered into the open plains and lakes area of the park which turned out to be wonderfully gorgeous and sunny.  All of our once soaked possessions were suddenly dry, making all of our packs about 4 lbs lighter and our moods also significantly better.

 

As I said, this second day was one “full day” of hiking, which ended up being about 8 hours in total including a walk through a forest that reminded all of us of the Lord of The Rings movies, as well as a rocky hike up the valley of a glacier fed river called the Rio de Frances.  After this, we had a pretty grueling hike to our campsite, the isolated Campamiento Britanico which is at the top of the river valley and surrounded by 3000 + foot tall mountain peaks on either side.  Check out the video for some of the views, although it was still snowing when we passed through this area.

=The only two other campers brave (or foolhardy) enough to camp up at Britanico were two German guys our age that were obviously more experienced trekkers than us, considering the degree of pure awesomeness possessed by their tent (it seriously felt like a warm living room with a fireplace inside of their tent, where as ours felt like a cold, green cave.)  Anywho, this was one of the more character building nights of the trip, especially for Ben who was equipped with the thinnest sleeping bag I had ever seen and no sleeping mat.  Needless to say, he was pretty dang cold for the whole night as the wind threatened to blow our tent right off the ground.

The third day was another long day of about 9 hours and 28 km of hiking as we made our way down the valley from Britanico to the base of the mountain (now we’re at the bottom middle of the W shape).  From here we made our way west to Glacier Gray and Lago Gray (the glacier feeds the lake and the nearby lakes so icebergs can be seen).  This was one of the more exhausting days of hiking and by the end of it we were all experiencing some degree of fatigue and aching.  Luckily, the campsite was right on the side of a tranquil lake and was enveloped with trees and good windblocking terrain so we had a pretty good night of rest.

Our fourth day was a half day as we made our way back from Glacier Gray to the Lake Pehoé Refugio where we waited for the ferry.  Here we had a very chance encounter with a group of 4 students from a myriad of different countries that had actually been over to my house twice before for parties.  We had seen them on the trail more than once, and I had a feeling that they looked familiar but I couldn’t put my finger on it.  Turned out that my suspicions were correct and we chatted away over some lunches that consisted of just about every food that we had left (peanut butter and tortillas?  Sounded delicious at the time!)

I’m going to cut this entry into two because it’s getting to be pretty lengthy.  Part two will feature our adventure across the border into Argentinean territory and the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares.

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