Friday, May 11, 2012

The Patagonia Adventure

The Adventurers:
Me and Colin, obvi. Also, Hilary Gibson, who goes to OU, Katie Fialko, from Colorado, and Charlene Melindo and Sara Lebowitz, who are from New York.

Hilary, Sara, Charlene, Katie, Colin, and me!

The Plan:
1) Have a blast.
2) Go with the flow. Things will not go as planned. Guaranteed.
3) Overestimate. Unexpected costs will pop up, and the trip will probably cost more than anticipated.
4) Have a blast.

The Adventure: 
After a day of frantic packing and buying last-minute necessities (like toilet paper, which we almost forgot), the six of us met up at the bus station in Viña to start our trip. First, we had to take a bus to Santiago, where we would get off at the bus terminal at Pajaritos and catch another to the airport. Unplanned event number one happened when, as we were getting on the bus, the conductor told us he only stopped at Las Rejas, not Pajaritos. It's ok, breathe... It's Santiago, there's bound to be public transportation. At Las Rejas, we went into the metro station and after looking a lot like lost tourists with giant backpacks on, a metro guard let us ride free to Pajaritos. Lucky break number one.

Unplanned event number two: It turns out when you show up at a bus terminal at 11:45pm, you should probably expect it to be closed. Fortunately, there was a taxi waiting on the curb who was willing to fit all of us and our backpacks in his car for $4 apiece. After that, the arrival went smoothly. We checked in, checked our bags, and headed to Dunkin' Donuts to kill a few hours while we waited for our 1:50am flight.

Colin and Katie at Dunkin' Donuts in the airport
Hilary and Charlene

Sadly, this is probably the best sleep we got all night.
The lines between days get a little blurry when you don't sleep until 6am, but I suppose the flight was technically Thursday morning. It was uneventful, and also unrestful. We arrived in Punta Arenas at 5:15, gathered our bags, and promptly fell asleep. On benches in the airport lobby. Katie (by far the MVP of the adventure) called a bus company at 7am to ensure we would indeed be able to get to Puerto Natales, the town nearest Torres del Paine. At 8:00 we woke everyone from their oh-so-comfortable naps and all piled into our second bus in 12 hours. Three hours later, we emerged into a drizzly, cloudy Puerto Natales and began the search for transportation to the park. After walking mostly aimlessly up and down several streets worth of hostels and travel agencies, we ended up outside the carabinero station. This was our first experience with the famed Southern Hospitality (which, interestingly, exists in Chile as well). Two very kind carabineros came out and told us that the only buses to Torres del Paine leave at 8am, but they directed us to a cheap hostel that also rented the equipment we'd be needing. Lucky break number two.

When we arrived at Lili Patagonico's, a man named Ivan was there to welcome us in out of the drizzle. He was super buena onda (Chilean for "he was a really great guy.") When we had settled into our warm, cozy rooms, we headed back out to the grocery store for lunch, dinner, and camping provisions. After little to no sleep followed by wandering around in the rain, crema de pollo soup,, and sandwiches make a pretty delicious lunch.

The amount of steam coming off the bowls is directly
representative of how delicious crema de pollo soup is.

This face means: What in the world are we going to do?
After lunch, we went to the informational meeting that Ivan gave about hiking in Torres del Paine. I find it noteworthy that there were two groups at the meeting, us and some Australians, so Ivan gave one version in English and one version in Spanish. Guess who the Spanish was for! That's right, we speak Spanish! Anyway, he was super helpful and called the bus company for us to see if he could arrange something that would fit our time schedule better. We spent what felt like hours deliberating how best to spend our short time while avoiding freezing to death at night, but we finally (with Ivan's help) came up with a plan. That settled, we finally had time to nap, and nap we did.

Sarah and Hilary working the sandwich assembly line.
As our final preparations, we made and packed thirty ham and cheese sandwiches, twelve apples, four pears, six sleeves of crackers, and two boxes of cereal for our excursion in the morning. For dinner we made spaghetti, sauce, and green beans. The taste of hot food plus the sound of pouring rain on the roof can only be made better by the thought that we had planned to be in a tent, but were instead in a warm, cozy hostel. Lucky break number three.

Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and... still really tired. But SO MUCH EXCITEMENT! Needless to say, after chowing down on a delicious free breakfast provided by the hostel, we all fell back asleep on our early morning, two hour bus ride. Maybe all the people in the south really are nicer, because our bus driver was awesome. After stopping for a bathroom break at the normal spot, he took advantage of the lovely weather and stopped again just so all his passengers could take pictures with the Torres in the distance. Awesome bus driver = lucky break number four.

We were so excited!

Katie and Colin, trekking toward our
campsite... and Las Torres!
When we arrived at the park, we got to use our Chilean ID cards to pay as Chileans instead of foreigners, so it only cost us $6.00 to get into the park. Then we commenced the two hour walk to our campsite. The views just kept getting more and more beautiful as we got closer to the mountains, so we took lots of pictures along the way. It's a good thing we had decided to make camp at the bottom of the mountain, because I don't know if the six of us plus our hiking backpacks plus our camping gear would have made it very far otherwise. As we unloaded and made camp in the warm sun on the absolutely most perfect day for hiking, it was hard to imagine the below freezing temperatures predicted for the night. Perfect    weather = lucky break number five. We ate lunch at our campsite and then set off wonderfully backpack-less to hike the mountain.

The setting up of the tents!

"Let's sit down for a second, guys... again."
And it's a good thing, too. That hike was HARD. The worst part may have been that the farther you went, the steeper it got. Thankfully, most of us had approximately the same level of ability to climb mountains, so our frequent rest stops were welcomed by all. At one point it was so steep that even Katie, our most experienced hiker, yelled to the mountain, "Why didn't they make switchbacks?!" Our sentiments exactly. On top of that, we all dressed for below-freezing, snowy conditions with several layers of clothes each. Don't get me wrong, I will never complain about the absolutely perfect weather,
Filling the water bottle... practically straight from
the glacier!
but it did make for a very different experience than what we were prepared for. Speaking of being prepared, we each had one water bottle with us. And what do you do when you run out of water hiking up a mountain in a national park? That's right.... drink glacier water! Straight from the stream running down the mountain. Don't worry, we're not completely irresponsible, Katie (MVP, like I said) brought iodine tablets, but three different park people told us that all the water was drinkable, and not to worry about it. Let me tell you, there's a reason bottled water tries to sell itself as glacier water. It may have been the best water I've ever had. You can practically taste the purity.

The highest point on our hike! Definitely worth the effort.
We didn't make it all the way to the mirador (lookout place), but that was in the plan, so no one was terribly disappointed. We turned around in time to make it back to camp before it was too dark, and started heading down the mountain. On the way down, we ran into a group of Mexican exchange students who are also studying in Viña with us, so we hiked down with them and heard all about their week-long trip through Chile.

When we got back to camp, we had about enough light to find our food, so we ate dinner in the almost-dark and then... went to bed. When it's pretty much too dark to see and fire's not allowed (poor Colin) and the temperature is rapidly approaching zero degrees Celsius, that's really all there is to do. Even if it's only 7:30pm. While at some point during the night I must have reached warm-enough-to-sleep, it sure did seem to take a while.

(Sidenote from Colin: This was my first camping experience ever where I was actually "roughing it." 
I slept terribly. 
It was so cold, and the ground was terribly hard. 
I hope to never have to camp again. Nature, you're cruel, but beautiful.)

When you wake up from the cold and the hard ground at 5am, getting up at 6:45 doesn't seem too bad after all. We had to wake up, eat breakfast, and tear down camp by 8 in order to make the two hour trek back to where the bus would pick us up. In case you've never been hiking, I want to let you know right now that two hours feels a LOT longer after a hike than it does beforehand. Miraculously, about 30 minutes into our walk, a nice man in a pickup truck asked us if we wanted a ride! As difficult as it is to fit six people and six backpacks into the bed of a small pickup, the time and effort he saved us was deeply appreciated. Lucky break number six.

This was the best I could do with one free hand on a
bumpy road. That's Sarah, Katie, and Hilary, and you
can see Charlene's hair on the right and my hand and
Colin's arm on the left. No one could move.

Having saved so much time in the pickup, we had time to relax and chow down on some more cereal while waiting for the bus. Meanwhile, walking right toward us as if they didn't even know we were there, came a herd of guanacos! My understanding is that this is the Chilean version of a llama. They're pretty cute.

Llamas in the north, guanacos in the south. Furry creatures runnin' around all over the place!

When the bus showed up, it was none other than our favorite bus driver from the day before! And he was kind enough to take us from Hosteria Las Torres to the Salto Grande, another part of the park, even though it was out of his way and not really part of the ride we had paid for. (All arranged by Ivan, of course.) He even let us leave our bags on the bus so we wouldn't have to hike with them. Lucky break number seven. We were more than happy to use the rest of our time in the park making a short trek to the mirador for Los Cuernos and the Glaciar del Frances. Comparatively, this was an easy, one-hour hike, and it was well worth the effort. The view from the mirador was beautiful and it made the perfect place to eat our lunch. Even though Saturday was chilly and much cloudier than Friday, it somehow still managed to be the perfect weather for glacier-viewing, since the clouds made the colors of the snow and ice more visible. Lucky break number eight.

Los Cuernos- the horns. Incredible, albeit a little crooked.

Glaciar del Frances- No really! There's frozen water on top of that mountain!

Good food, Great company, Grandeur of a view

On the way back to catch the same bus, we stopped at the Salto Grande, a waterfall that I can only assume comes directly from the surrounding glaciers. Pretty awesome.


On the bus ride back to the hostel, we ran into some of our other gringo friends who had showed up a few days before us. We had a few hours of story-swapping on the bus ride, and they ended up at the same hostel we were staying at, but only long enough to shower and eat and leave to catch their flight. We spent our evening enjoying the hot showers and cooking more spaghetti. This time we treated ourselves to real meat sauce, french bread, and wine. Our warm, fluffy beds were even more welcome than they had been Thursday night.

We finally got to sleep in Sunday morning, which is to say, we woke up at 7:30. We enjoyed a much more leisurely breakfast and loaded up in yet another bus, this time back to Punta Arenas. We arrived at about lunchtime, so we pulled out our tourist guide book and looked for something relatively cheap. I hate to admit that we ate hamburgers in Chile, but they sure were delicious. And when they come with mayo and palta, I feel like they still count as Chilean.

After lunch, we hung around the central plaza for a while and looked at souvenirs. Then I called Loli, Mama Lorena's daughter who lives in Punta Arenas, because Mama Lorena gave me a birthday gift to give her. When she heard we were in the plaza, she asked us if we wanted to go to the shopping center in Punta Arenas because it's cheaper, and she and her family drove us there. We spent a little while in what amounted to a mall, and we bought some delicious chocolates. We got bored pretty quickly because nearly everything was closed, so we decided to head back to the center of town.

If anyone makes it this far south on a rickety
boat, they deserve a statue.

Me and my "host sister" Loli

Punta Arenas really does have better chocolate than the rest of Chile!

Then comes one of my favorite parts of the whole trip: we walked from the plaza down to the water and put our feet in THE STRAIT OF MAGELLAN. And it was freezing. Very close to literally. Then, since we had nothing else to do, we sat on the beach, watched the sun set and drank the leftover wine from Saturday night. After the sun went down, the temperature dropped quickly, so we walked around til we found a cute Colombian cafe, where we warmed up with hot chocolate and tea.

It was cold, pero vale la pena

The sunset over Punta Arenas

Hot chocolate in a Colombian cafe

We called Loli again because we had nothing else to do and nowhere to go, and she invited us to her house for once and offered us a ride to the airport. She fed us a delicious once and then we sat around talking until they came up with the idea to take us out to a lookout where you can see the city and the Strait. When we got back to her house, she took pity on the poor hungry gringos and basically gave us another once. Her precious kids, Sofia and Benjamin, played with play-doh with us as we talked until late. At 12:30am, Loli's husband Pablo drove us to the airport for another night of sleeping on benches while we waited for our 6:20am flight. He even walked us in to make sure we could all check in before he left.

I'm teaching them to make play-dough turtles

A tiger!

Again, I guess this is technically Monday now. We spent the night trying to sleep, but since we weren't quite as exhausted, it was much more difficult this time. I spent most of our time in the airport wishing I was already on the plane, and most of the time in the plane wishing I was already on the bus, and most of the time I was on the bus wishing I was already in my bed. But that's how it goes, I suppose. All legs of travel went smoothly, and we made it back no worse for the wear. The most difficult decision I had to make Monday was whether to shower, eat, or nap first.

In short, our adventure was better than I could have possibly imagined. Thank you to everyone for your thoughts and prayers while were gone.


  1. Que lugar mas espectacular! Saludos!

  2. Rachel. I just don't even know what to say. That looks absolutely incredible! You and Colin have basically convinced me to study in Chile with this blog. And when I read the bit about glacial water, I may have started yelling a little... I love fresh tasty water! I wish you could bring me some. Mmmm. I'm so happy you survived and had a wonderful time!

    1. Best decision you've ever made, amiga.

    2. Oh Kristen, you most definitely should study here!
      Let me tell you how much I don't really like water. And how much I LOVED that water. I could have lived there forever just to drink the water straight from the streams and lakes!

  3. Oh my! I'm so glad you guys went to Patagonia. That was my favorite trip that I made last semester. And I totally agree, there is some real hospitality in the south! The pictures are fantastic! Keep having so much fun :-)

    1. :D Thanks doll. I'm glad you aprove.

  4. What an incredible adventure! I loved all of your photos! Isn't it so amazing how God provides during all of the twists and turns of the journey? And in the end, it turns out to be even greater than you imagined. :)

  5. Wow! What an adventure!! Thanks for the great photos...I felt like I was on the trip with you (minus the fatigue and chilly temperatures, of course)! I wish there was a way to comment under individual photos. I love the photo with you all caught in mid-air! Did you capture that on the first try? The one of Colin and Katy trekking toward Las Torres is amazing too. And so is Good food, Great company, Grandeur of a view. They both seem to put the viewer right in the context of the photo. How wonderful to get so close to the life keeps us so far removed from wildlife to our detriment at times. Your love of children screams from the photo of you with Sophia and Benjamin...precious. I loved the play-doh tiger too : ) From your blog, I can tell you accomplished your trip goals to be flexible and to go on a shoe-string budget but anticipate unexpected costs. I love how you bookended those goals with have a blast. It looks and sounds like you had a double blast!! I'm so happy for you and your gringo friends!

    P.S. My lucky break number one: having you!