Sunday, 27 January 2013

Patagonia Roadtrip - Part 2

Continued from Patagonia Roadtrip - Part 1

Our plan was to camp in El Calafate since we'd been spending quite mucho dinero staying at cabañas and the one divey hotel in Perito Moreno. We went first to the campground raved about in our guide book, located alongside a small river adjacent to the main thoroughfare of the town. Tim and I scouted out a decent site but when we went into the office to register we discovered that not only was the price for camping outrageously expensive but they also wanted to charge us for parking The Kangaroo. We weren't impressed with that but the final straw was when Tim noticed the sign advertising the cost for a litre tap water. Tap water! Unimpressed we decided to look for somewhere else to stay.

The tourist information office provided us with a map showing the locations of campgrounds and some cabañas just in case. We had no luck with the campgrounds - one we couldn't find, one looked very sketchy, and one was closed for renovations (seriously?! another one??).

The subsequent hunt for cabañas also got off to a poor start but then we arrived at Cabañas Don Pepe. Tim and I went in to inquire - they had reasonably priced 4-person cabins available so we decided to have a look since they weren't visible from the road. The receptionist took us through a set of double doors where we found ourselves in a delightful greenhouse filled that smelled heavenly. The quaint log cabins housed within the glass enclosure were decorated with colorful flowerbeds and equipped with patio furniture on the terrace. Tim and I made eye contact as the receptionist turned her back to us to unlock one of the cabins. In that momentary glance we communicated our agreement: we didn't even care what the cabins were like inside - we knew we were going to stay at Cabañas Don Pepe. We knew it was a way better deal than the campground. We knew Chris and Kayla would love it. What we didn't know was that Chris and Kayla were scheming in the car, planning to feign dislike for the cabins no matter how good they were. Brats. But boy did they have their work cut out for them! I believe it came down to complaining that the toilet seat was too round or something ridiculous like that because, really, the cabin was perfect and the location in the greenhouse was awesome.

Greenhouse courtyard of Cabanas Don Pepe in El Calafate.

Another great feature of the property was the fogon (fireplace-style bbq). After dropping our stuff in the cabin we went and picked up groceries and the boys set up a fire while I prepared veggies, steaks, and garlic bread. As we'd expected, Kayla had fallen in love with the greenhouse and, although she'd offered to help with dinner, we left her to photograph the magnificent array of flora in peace. A few hours later we sat down at our patio table to feast on an impressive spread with some lovely Argentinean wine. Awesome. And sooooo tasty!!

Spectacular BBQ dinner at Cabanas Don Pepe.
(photo credit: Tim Lutic)

On the agenda for the next day was a visit to the famous Perito Moreno glacier in Parque Nacional Los Glacieres. We booked a mini-trek with a company in town but drove ourselves out to the park so we'd have time to wander around before and after the tour. 

I was totally unprepared for how spectacular the glacier was. And massive! The frosty white and blue crevasse-riddled sheet spanned a vast valley of its own creation, stretching back from the jagged face until it faded from sight into the white abyss of a colossal icefield several kilometers away. Perito Moreno Glacier is one of very few glaciers that is considered to be in equilibrium; it's gaining ice mass in the icefield that feeds it  as quickly as it's losing ice mass at the glacier face. Check it out on Google Earth or Maps. The estimated rate of advancement is about 2 m per day. That means calving is a regular occurrence, making for a pretty exciting show from the platforms looking out at the face. We saw a few decent-sized chunks break free, plunging into the icy waters of the lake.

Perito Moreno Glacier in Parque Nacional Las Glacieres, Argentina.
Tim and I getting wandering the viewing platforms at Perito Moreno Glacier, searching for a good lunch spot.

South-east face of Perito Moreno Glacier.
Getting crampons on my shoes.
Our mini-trek was very cool. We took a boat across the lake and then followed a short trail to a spot near the edge of the glacier. There we were fitted with crampons and divided into smaller groups for the trek. We wandered around the ice for a couple of hours, obediently following the tracks of our guide so as to avoid an accidental close encounter with a crevasse. The guide found a spot where melt water had carved a narrow hole deep into the ice and we refilled our water bottles at a small waterfall. Talk about fresh water! Although it kind of reminded me of how snow tasted when I used to eat it as a child...  We were impressed by the number of features the guide managed to find considering that the glacier changes every day. The tour finished with a stop at the on-glacier "bar" where we were given a few fingers of whiskey on the rocks - glacial ice, of course. After the tour we returned to the viewing platforms for more photos, hoping to see an epic calving event. We did see a small one but eventually had to call it a day as the park was closing.
Mini-trekking on the Perito Moreno Glacier (tiny group of people to the left of center of frame).

Closer view of the Southeast face of Perito Moreno Glacier.

Shore area next to the southeast face where we did our mini trek.

Tim on the glacier.

Filling our water bottles with glacier melt water. So pure!!

Anyone for a dip?

Ice peaks. The dirt is blown onto the glacier from surrounding mountains.

Tim hoping for some calving on the northern part of the glacier's east face.

OMG calving!!

Giant berg produced from the calving event.

Happy glacier visitors after seeing a calving event.

Back at Cabañas Don Pepe that evening Chris and I prepared taco salad for dinner and we all enjoyed some wine in celebration of the wonderful experiences over the past few days. The next morning we set out early, returning to Ruta 40 for a short time and then turning back west in order to cross to Chile and reach Puerto Natales.

Back to the gravel - en route to Puerto Natales, Chile.

Our mid-day arrival in Puerto Natales was followed by a crazy afternoon preparing for "The W", a 5-day trek in nearby Parque Nacional Torres del Paine. I'd planned out a menu for the journey and the others approved it so Tim and I teamed up to gather the supplies.

Unlike in Canada and many other developed countries, there are no shops in Chile that sell dehydrated meals. In fact, even obtaining light-weight ingredients is a major challenge. We managed to track down some dried fruit and nuts but the selection wasn't fantastic. On the other hand, we were thrilled to find quinoa in the grocery store, having searched for it without success ever since Tim and Kayla had arrived. It took a few hours but we eventually felt confident that we'd picked up everything needed and some extra snacks just in case. Exhausted, we returned to the hostel and continued with our preparations, breaking for a quick dinner and showers. Once everyone had figured out what gear they were bringing, I "assigned" food to everyone, trying to distribute the weight as evenly as possible. Who knew multi-day treks required so much logistics!? I got to bed significantly later than I'd hoped but still managed to have a decent sleep before our early wake up to catch a shuttle to the park.

Hotel Las Torres at the eastern trailhead of The W trek.
The bus brought us to the ranger station where we registered and paid our entry fee. We then had to watch an information video before we were granted our "passport" for the park. There was a bit of confusion about what to do next and we almost ended up taking the shuttle to the other end of the trek (we wanted to do it east to west but it is also possible to start from the other side). We got it sorted out and hopped in a shuttle to the Hotel Las Torres and the eastern trailhead of The W. Once there we took a while to get organized because Kayla had discovered her bank card was missing. Luckily she managed to access wifi at the hotel and arrange for it to be cancelled. Meanwhile, Chris made friends with an adorable foal grazing happily with its parents on a grassy area in front of the hotel. We'd been surprised to learn that a huge chunk of the park is actually private property, owned by a couple of Croatians who use it for tourism and livestock.

Beautiful foal at the Hotel Los Torres. 

Los Torres del Paine - our destination for Day 1.

Finally we were ready to set out. Bolstered by adrenaline, we hoisted our heavy packs onto our backs and took our first steps onto the well-trodden gravel track. The day was bright and sunny; strange for the area. It was also calm. We'd heard tales of the crazy Patagonian winds but it seemed they were resting that day. We trekked up and up the right arm of the W, entering a narrow valley that lead to Refugio Chileno and our planned camping spot next to a icy glacier-fed river.

Tim and Kayla making good progress on the first leg of the W trek.

Following the valley to Refugio Chileno and mirador Los Torres.

Tents must be set up on platforms because of the lack of flat ground
and typical muddy conditions due to high levels of precipitation in the park.
After setting up our tents we continued further up the trail to reach the mirador Los Torres. The final bit was quite an uphill slog but the winds had picked up in the late afternoon so we kept nice and cool. The view of the towers was amazing. Below them was a snow-covered lake and a short climb up a boulder-strewn hill to the left gave us incredible views of a spectacular glacier-fed turquoise laguna. In total, we hiked about 17 km that afternoon, enjoying the unparalleled scenery for which this region is famous. In the evening we fought off hundreds of hungry flies while preparing and eating dinner (tragically, we'd forgotten our bug spray), retiring to our tents at an early hour to avoid further harassment from the flies.

Strange cloud formation above the towers (Los Torres) as we began our hike up to the mirador.

Boulder scramble - the final push to get to the mirador (lookout).

Los Torres del Paine

The towers viewed through Kayla's "small things big" lens. (Photo credit: Kayla Dawson)
The epitome of tranquil.
Okay... maybe there were a few ripples. But it was pretty damn peaceful nonetheless!

Ready to set out.
Day 2 began with a backtrack down the right arm of the W and then we continued along the bottom edge, hiking above the beautiful Lago Nordenskjold. Sometime during the day I began to have a bit of knee pain but it wasn't severe so I just kept on going. A few kilometers later the pain had worsened considerably so I wrapped my knee in a tensor bandage that helped a little. I've never had knee pain before and don't really know what was causing it. I managed to keep up a fine pace, trying to just grin and bear it, focusing on the amazing scenery.

Backtrack out of the valley.

New terrain! En route to Campamento Italiano.

Lago Nordenskjold.

The sky was cloudier than it had been the previous day but we didn't get any rain. In the late afternoon we passed by Refugio Los Cuernos and gazed enviously at the fancy cabañas and hot tub. You can definitely do The W in luxury if you so choose. Not us though. We're hardcore!! We trudged onward, turning up the middle arm of the W to the free campground named Italiano. It was already quite full but we found some flat spots in an open area surrounded by towering trees.

Perhaps not the best spot for your tent Tim...
I don't know who started the conversation but we all got nervous watching the fierce winds batter the trees and began to wonder whether we should relocate our tents. Kayla did eventually move hers but the rest of us decided to stay put. We made dinner in the rustic shelter, visiting with other hikers, some of whom we'd met earlier in our travels, and went to bed early again, exhausted from the ~20 km we'd covered that day.

Day 3 required an early start since we planned to hike up the remainder of the middle arm of The W (known as Valle Frances) and then return to the bottom of the arm to continue west along the bottom stretch. The violent winds overnight had pelted Kayla's tent and blown great clouds of silty dust into her shelter. Tim's tent also suffered some bent poles but our yellow mountaineering tent fared fine. We packed up all our gear and left it in our tents, taking only day-packs for the in and out hike through Valle Frances.

Beginning our hike up the Valle Frances. We are bundled up due to the chilly, gale-force winds.

I'd worried my sore knee would prevent me from making the trek but it felt solid enough that morning that I decided to at least start out with everyone. I'm glad I went because it ended up being one of our favorite parts of The W. The surrounding mountains, glaciers, waterfalls, and rivers were captivating. We got our first full-on experience with the infamous Patagonian winds too. Some gusts were so strong I felt I had to plant both feet and wait it out for fear of being knocked over. It never stopped blowing. There were just some stronger gusts mixed in with the incessant wind. One of the most fascinating displays of the wind's power were the waterfalls we saw blowing back up the cliffsides. Crazy! The lookout at the end of the hike gave panoramic views of the valley and the rocky peaks enclosing it. We were the first people up that morning so we had the place to ourselves for about 20 minutes.

Photo credit: Tim Lutic

My knee had started aching a bit on the way up so I decided to start heading back while the guys finished taking photos. Downhill was the problem and most of the way back to Italiano was down. I didn't feel the pain when I put my foot down, just when I would pick it up again to take the next step. Maybe that's normal but it seemed strange to me. Anyway, I struggled big time on the way down. Pretty sure I was wearing a constant grimace and I certainly wasn't enjoying the view anymore, just focusing on getting down.  :(

Kayla caught up with me about 2/3 of the way down and gave me an ibuprofen that pretty much saved the day. By the time I limped into the camping area I was actually feeling quite good again. We took down our tents and had a quick lunch before getting back on the trail for a few more hours. Thankfully (for my knee's sake) the next portion of the trail was fairly flat.

The western portion of The W suffered a huge forest fire a last year and the area is still far from recovering. It was positively eerie making our way past the charred remains of what was once a lush forest. As the day progressed, the winds blew more and more clouds overhead and we thought for sure we were going to get rained on. We'd just come over the last hill to see our destination, Mountain Lodge Paine Grande, in the distance when a light sprinkle began. I say "light sprinkle" but it didn't feel very light when the wind whipped it into our faces. We hoofed as quickly as possible to the shelter of the lodge before the real downpour began. Luckily it was short-lived and we were soon setting up our tents in the sunshine.

Camping at Paine Grande

Feeling pretty pumped that we'd completed more than two thirds of the trek (another 18+ km that day), we each treated ourselves to a beverage in the Lodge's cafeteria. We also treated ourselves to showers - first one in 3 days and let me tell you we needed them! We made dinner in the nice cookhouse that actually had gas ranges and then tucked into our sleeping bags for another windy night. And was it ever windy! Tim's tent suffered more bent poles and Kayla barely slept thanks to her's collapsing onto her face half the night. Our tent was okay but we weren't immune to the cacophony of other tents flapping in the "breeze". So Day 4 began with all of us feeling quite tired.

I'd contemplated forgoing the final arm of the W but my knee seemed alright in the morning and I figured that I could do it if I kept up a steady stream of ibuprofen and took it easy. Much of the forest around this part of the trek was also burned in the recent forest fire. We traced our way above Lago Grey, watching huge icebergs bob in the waves. Soon Glacier Grey itself came into view across the lake. It's smaller than Perito Moreno but still very impressive. We arrived at Refugio Grey by mid-afternoon and found a great sheltered spot to set up our tents. A rather chubby fox made an appearance while we ate our lunch at a picnic table in a clearing. We suspected that he was the culprit in the mysterious disappearance of some of our fellow hikers' food a few days back.

Setting out on the western arm of the W, up to Refugio Lago Grey.

First glimpses of Glacier Grey.
Lunchtime photo shoot.

Cool caterpillar on our picnic table.
Patagonian fox.
Our early arrival afforded us the opportunity to take a short afternoon nap before we hiked further up the arm to the mirador for the glacier. Climbing up onto a rocky peninsula gave us good views of the glacier face and the iceberg-strewn lake below. Not long after we arrived we were fortunate to see a gigantic iceberg calve. The fracture generated a huge wave and we were sure more action would follow as a result of the disturbance. We waited patiently for at least an hour more, chatting with some other hikers who'd been further out on the peninsula to witness the big split. We didn't see any more calving but it was still an amazing spot to sit and watch the sun begin to set. Later, we made our final dinner in the cooking shelter and relaxed for a while before bed.

Kayla, Tim and I looking out over Glacier Grey.

Incredible iceberg splitting that we were lucky to witness (note the person in the foreground for scale)

My shoes had suffered some wounds after the kayaking trip in October...
Chris put them a little too close to the fire to dry and they lost some
rubber due to melting. I filled them with silicon glue to make up for the
lost support but the filler chunks fell out along the W.
Our final day of hiking was a bit gray but we were in good spirits knowing we were almost done. Plus, our packs were much lighter now that we'd eaten all our food! We waved goodbye to Glacier Grey and returned to Mountain Lodge Paine Grade the way we'd come. There we waited for a catamaran that took us across Lago Pehoe to Pudeto where we caught our bus back to Puerto Natales. That night we fought our fatigue and returned to the same restaurant where we'd had our final meal before the trek. We'd been dreaming about that pizza and pasta for the past 5 days! It was so good.

Final day of trekking!
Taking time for the small things.

Area around Paine Grande - still recovering from the forest fire in 2012 but still gorgeous.

After a good night's rest in comfy beds (pillows!!) we left Puerto Natales for Punta Arenas, a surprisingly modern and busy port-city to the south. There we had a bit of a struggle finding budget accommodations - it seemed everywhere was totally full! We finally got the scoop from a nice señora who explained that there was a conference in the city. Apparently all the Red Ladies of Chile were convening in Punta Arenas over the exact dates we wanted to stay. Gah! We did eventually find a nice place that could take us for our desired 3 nights (2 with Tim and Kayla; one more for just Chris and I). We even managed to get all our laundry done on-site (for a premium...). That night we went for a nice dinner where Tim ate guanaco, Chris had salmon, Kayla had a risotto and I had hare stew. It was fun to try some local dishes, especially after eating very basic "one-pot" meals for the days of the trek.

For our final day with Tim and Kayla we drove out to see a Magellanic penguin colony near Punta Arenas. Unfortunately our visit coincided with that of a rowdy elementary school group. Nevertheless, we still managed to see lots of penguins. They were adorable, waddling between their nesting area and the ocean where they hunt. We'd planned to have a picnic lunch at the site but the weather was cold and windy so we returned to Punta Arenas and found a spot overlooking the ocean where we ate in The Kangaroo.

Magellanic penguin (photo credit: Tim Lutic)
Not a penguin.
Photo credit: Tim Lutic

Remnants of a ship on the beach at Punta Arenas.

In the belly of the decomposing ship. 

Finally succumbing to our need for rest, we went back to the hostel and just relaxed for the rest of the afternoon. We went for our final dinner together at a popular local restaurant near our hostel. There was no menu and the staff didn't speak English so I did my best to translate all the dishes for Tim and Kayla. Chris ordered a rack of lamb, Tim got a chicken and ham lasagna  and Kayla and I got cannellonis stuffed with either crab meat or cheese and spinach. Everything was delicious. Oh we also shared garlic butter shrimp and beef carpaccio as starters. Mmmmmm. So fabulous to indulge in some gourmet food as a treat!

Kayla's flight to Rio left early the next morning and Tim was nice enough to get up and drive her to the airport. Tim's flight was in the afternoon so Chris and I dropped him off later. It was tough to say goodbye to our travelling buddies. We'd enjoyed their company and the way they'd rekindled our own enthusiasm through their energy and excitement. But, alas, all good things must come to an end; Chris and I would have to finish the Patagonia roadtrip on our own.

We spent one more night in Punta Arenas before starting the journey south to Tierra del Fuego where we planned to spend a few days in Ushuaia before turning back north to return The Kangaroo to Bariloche. That was the plan.

Things turned out a little differently...

... to be continued.

No comments:

Post a Comment