Blog Archive

Saturday, April 6, 2024

The Farthest South (#1/6)

 3 March 2024 

I have stepped into a world of zip-off hiking pants and wind. Puerto Natales, on the southern tip of Chile, is a wind blasted little town that shuttles people to one of the most popular hikes in the world. Perched on the edge of a white capped bay, the town feels both modern and worn at the same time. The harbor is full of fishing boats, ferries, barges, and tankers. The industrial port is a stark contrast to the shops full of tour companies and gear shops. 

With time to kill before my ferry, which only runs once per week, I rode my bike 20 miles north to the Milodon Caves where remnants of a giant sloth, including the hairy pelt, were found in 1845. The sloth is features throughout Puerto Natales so seeing the caves felt like a must. The caves were huge and the views stunning. People have been using them for 11,000 years, back when saber tooth tigers roamed the land. 

Hiking up to the view point, I ate sweet little ground berries and listened to wild parakeets jabbering in the trees. Through the misty skies, the peaks surrounding Torres del Paine national Park gave me tantalizing glimpses into what's to come. 

I ate some lunch, climbed on some rocks, biked all the trails in the park, watched the drizzly rain settle in for the day, and decided it was time to return to town. I took the back way which was good because I saw pink flamingos floating in the bay and was able to test my new rain coat out, but bad because I got plastered in mud. 

At my hostel I was able to hose down my bike (and my pants) then hop into a steamy shower. I didn't know how lucky I was until the front desk told me that the city had a main line break and all water would be shut down until late tonight. 

Feels like a good start.

Friday, April 5, 2024

Day Hikes and Cruises (#2/6)

 10 March 2024

With one more day to kill before my ferry to Puerto Yungay, I hopped on a bus that whisked me and hundreds of nylon clad hikers to Torres del Paine. 

With high clouds and clear skies, the park was stunning and I started up the most popular trail to the three towers. Despite having to dodge around tours, their guides cheer and encouraging them onwards and upwards, the trail was beautiful and the lake more stunning than any picture could do justice. I decided to forgo the almost obligatory yoga pose in front of the lake and instead sat on a rock and ate my empanadas. 

Knowing I should get my feet used to miles, I took the long way back along lakes and rivers and felt like I had the place to myself. This was a welcome treat with how popular the park is. Later I found all the people drinking beer at one of the refugios so I felt I had to join my fellow hikers in a pint while I waited for the bus. 

A quick rainstorm followed by rainbows and the sun bursting out of the clouds, I settled into my bus seat and hoped the weather would be as cooperative when I visited the park again later in my trip.

The next day my ferry didn't board until 8pm so I biked, I sat in the sun, and ended up drinking gin at a distillery, it did not help the seats on the boat feel any more comfortable. 

My ferry was 48 hours a long the fjords of western Chile with seats that reclined just farther back than an airplane. The scenery was stunning; orcas, seals, and sea birds galore. It made me forget that I was stuck on a boat with the passenger area slightly wider than a school bus. 

One of the highlights, other than spilling hot tea on my crotch as I was settling in for the night, was when the captain took the ferry 360 degrees ridiculously close around an old shipwreck while blasting the music from the Titanic.

Finally making it to Rio Bravo at 4am, I decided not to waste a windy, rainy day so I decided to start biking and another couple joined me. Fortunately most of the wind was pushing me forward and I made the 60 miles to Villa O'Higgins in good time. 

The last town on the Caratera Austral is a quirky little place with businesses open a few hours here and there. I found out I needed an exit visa so I went to the police station where a very nice officer told me I needed to apply online. My hotel has no wifi, so with a sigh the officer did it on his phone, then sent me across town to buy a ferry ticket, then back to the gas station so I could check my email using their wifi so I could get my confirmation. It takes a village. 

The ferry leaves Mondays and Thursdays... If the weather is ok... which it wasn't. I quickly booked a second room at my hotel and waited for a break in the rain to hike up the the viewpoint above town. In between snowflakes the view was pretty stunning.
After visiting the ferry office 3 times, I was told to come back at 11 tomorrow, hopefully I will be continuing onwards! 

Thursday, April 4, 2024

Crossing borders by boat, singletrack, and grueling hike a bike (#3/6)

 15 March

After waiting 2 days for the next boat to leave Villa O'Higgins, all the hikers and bikers were anxious to get moving; what better time to head off into the unknown than 6pm.

 A wild hour and a half later, we were all dumped on the opposite shore to spend the night until passport control opened the next morning to allow us to leave Chile. Even though I wanted to get moving, the sunrise over the lake was well worth the camp out. 

A dirt road turned into 5km of super fun single track down to the lake to get my stamp into Argentina. I had the option to wait 5 hours for another boat or attempt the infamously difficult 12 km trail. No debate needed, I took the trail. 

5 hours and 2 very tired arms later, I popped out on the other side of the lake to be greeted with 40 kms of dirt road in the pouring rain. Knowing a warm shower was somewhere at the end, I pedaled on. 

El Chaltén is a funny little mountain town, with some of the most famous climbing peaks in Argentina mere steps away from town. I really wanted to see Cerre Torre and Mt Fitz Roy (the mountain skyline is the Patagonia company's label) but the weather forecast was dismal. I spent 2 days washing out my smelly clothes, drinking coffee, and sampling all the dolce de leches pastries I could find. Finally, after so much rain (0.86 inches!) I had my window. A hostel room full of stinky feet and farting boys was all the motivation I needed to get out the door at 4 am to hopefully catch the sunrise at Cerro Torre. 

I hiked too fast and had to huddle against the wind and snow until the sun came up, another hour in, and still no break in the grey. Finally, unable to keep warm, I headed back down the trail and across to Fitz Roy hoping the clouds might not be caught up on those peaks since they were just slightly farther east. 

What amazing trails, no wonder El Chaltén calls itself the trekking capital of the nation. Everywhere you look, glaciers, lakes, alpine meadows, and birds. I could have spent another week exploring the area.

With the faint outlines of the famous peak barely visible, I counted it as a success. Down the trail I descended into warmer, drier weather and my feet took me directly towards beer and empanadas.

Now I go to Calafate, this time by bus to help me make up a few miles. It should be drier and warmer there, but there are no guarantees with the weather in Patagonia.

Wednesday, April 3, 2024

A headwind, a heater, and a hitchhike (#4/6)

 18 March

I left El Calafate with a rippin' tail wind. The landscape changed dramatically from mountains and glaciers to dry, open plains dotted with guanacos.

My easy riding came to an abrupt halt when I had to turn right. Suddenly, slammed with 35 mph head and crosswinds, my forward progress slowed to a drunkard's weave as the wind pushed me across the road and I heaved my way back. With the sun getting low and a large ditch providing a welcome windbreak, I called it a day. 

I pitched my tent close to a pool of water surrounded by hoof prints. In the morning I woke up to... Snow! I was really hoping for guanacos. The wind was still howling and I had to be in Torres del Paine, 130 miles away by next day. I scraped the ice off my tent and pushed my bike back up onto the road. 
Thankfully the day was sunny and the sky was full of dozens of Chilean Condors riding the heavy winds

The wind was so strong I found it easier to push my bike instead of ride it. Even so, the wind would send my back tire skittering sideways and if have to yank it back upright. After 28 miles in 7 hours, I finally came to the only windbreak, a combination police and road maintenance station. I sat in the dirt eating peanuts until a road crew worker asked if I wanted to come inside. He offered me coffee and a private room in the bunkhouse (it was a converted semi trailer) for $4. It had a heater. Sold. 
So many people had been asking me if I had been warm enough at night. Always trying to practice my Spanish, I thought I had been telling them, not to worry, my sleeping bag was very warm, but instead I'd been saying my sleeping bag is very ready for some sexy time. Fortunately the weather has been such that phrase has never been applicable to myself. 

The next morning was so calm. I left just before sunrise to try and make it across the border and hopefully hitchhike to the park. It was my favorite morning of riding, not a car on the road and the most glorious sunrise all to myself.

I pedaled into Cerre Castillo around noon needing 5 days worth of food for my upcoming hike and a 60 mile ride up a dirt road to get me there. Luckily, an empty van pulled up in front of the grocery store. I asked the driver if he could take me and my bike to Torres del Paine and if he could wait 5 minutes for me to buy groceries. He agreed and I frantically ran around the store throwing food into the counter while his passenger was yelling, "Muchatcha! Hurry!! We have to get to work!!!!" Ack! Hopefully it was enough.
The workers were driving the company van so they apologized, but couldn't take me all the way to the front gate. Instead they dropped me off 1km before the entrance on the side of the road and told me not to tell. Feeling giddy that I had made it there at all, I pedaled to my campsite to change into backpacker mode. 

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

O My The O Trek! (#5/6)

 22 March- The O Circuit of Torres del Paine

Day 1- 20.5 miles: camp is tightly packed cluster of tents where you can hear your neighbors talking, snoring, farting, breathing. Thank goodness I never do any of those things. It does make it easy to wake up early once you hear all the zippers zipping and the air mattresses deflating. The day was supposed to be drizzly and grey, but the trail was fast and easy. Passing lakes and small herds of horses, I made it to Dickson camp in the afternoon giving me a chance to really see what kind of food I hastily bought. With 2 pound cakes and a handful of empanadas, I think I'll make it. 

Day 2 - 5.4 miles: Crystal clear morning and a tent covered in I've. The mountains are stunning and I'm surrounded by snowy peaks. A mandatory short day today gave me a lazy morning with extra cups of tea. The hike climbed up to a glacier moraine overlooking the lake I camped by last night.

Ahead was the high point in the trail, the pass was supposedly thigh deep, but that was tomorrow's adventure. Today was for gawking at more glaciers.

Day 3 - 20.5 miles: Everyone was up before dawn for a mandatory 7am start. It wasn't my plan, but I was the first one out on the trail. The pass was rocky, wet, snowy, and above treeline, the wind picked up considerably. Every now and then I would posthole up to my knee in a snow drift, but mainly I walked on rocks. 

Kicking steps and trudging upwards into the driving snow/rain, the pass went quickly and on the other side, the massive Grey Glacier stretched as far as I could see. 

Quickly down to warmer and drier climates, this was my favorite section of the whole trail. Walking along the side of the glacier the trail climbed and dropped and best of all, crossed 3 giant, swinging suspension bridges. For hours I had the whole trail to myself.

I knew I was getting closer to Grey camp when a few people passed smelling like perfume and fresh laundry. On this hike you can shower every night and drink a beer. I did one of those things. 
The day kept getting nicer and almost warm. I felt like every mile took me through a completely different landscape. 
I stumbled into the Paine Grande camp, set in a grassy field next to a lake and kicked my feet up while I watched the light play across the towering peaks. 
Opting for a hot shower, a stranger left me her towel to use. I had been using my scarf as a towel so far on this trip, who knew that a slightly damp used towel would feel like such a luxury. With dry shoes and fresh socks, I felt ready for one more long day.

Day 4 - 20 miles:
Hanging glaciers and two toned rocks dominated this section. The trail was packed with people since I had joined the shorter more popular W Trek. Repeatedly I asked if I could pass hikers on the narrow trail and ate my last pound cake. The day was as beautiful and calm as it could be. I felt almost naked as I stripped down to my long sleeved shirt. 

Then finally, back to my starting point. I gave myself a pat on the back as I repacked my bike and stopped at the cafeteria to celebrate with a brownie and a bag of potato chips. 
I had the option to take the bus back to Puerto Natales, but the day was so beautiful I decided to bike the 35 miles out of the park and camp one last night. The body kept cooperating so off I pedaled.