Ee! U R Post-Natal (Hi Ali!)
The 8:30 Cootra bus to Puerto Natales took 5 hours, the bulk of which was on a rutted and dusty dirt track - part of the famous Ruta 40 which runs the length of Argentina - before cutting across to the Chilean border, where they are very strict about fruits. Despite the lack of tarmac, the driver sped along quite merrily, while we desperately tried to fix our gaze on the horizon. The (slow) border crossing into Chile was at Dorotea, named after the elder daughter of the first local governor, who also named a mountain after her. His second daughter had to make do with just the one lake.
Our first impressions of Puerto Natales were of an unkempt congregation of low-rise corrugated tin houses painted in multiple colours like scattered packets of opal fruits.
With hostel accomodation and travel tickets sorted, we had a proper chance to look around the town - hikers, climbers, masseurs and herbal tea-ists, blended with yoga classes, gear-hirers, dried fruit shops and friendly locals to create a come-for-a-day-stay-for-a-year kind of place. It is the Wanaka to El Calafate´s Queenstown.
The town overlooks Seno Ultima Esperanza (Last Hope Sound), so named because the Spanish explorer Ladrilleros had been sent by the King of Spain to find a way through from the Pacific to the Atlantic - Heavily losing men and food by 1557, the Sound was his last-chance saloon. Obviously the attempt was a failure - there is no route through until you get as far South as the Straits of Magellan.
Torres del Paine - Day 1
Decanting half our stuff at the hostel and headed for the bus to the park, only to return red-faced when we discovered everything was still closed - we hadn´t noticed that Chile is an hour behind Argentina on our first day in town. Good job it´s not an hour ahead!
The Torres Del Paine National Park offers two main choices for trekkers - the full circuit, lasting 9 to 10 days or the "W", which takes you up each of the 3 spectacular valleys (imagine a shape like !_!_! where each exclamation point dot is the foot of a valley). Despite the doubling back on yourself this entails, it only takes 4 to 5 days and provides the best views.
So we did the W, starting from Albergo Las Torres at the eastmost of the 3 dots, which as the name suggests has views of the park´s poster boys. The heat was searing due to the hole in the ozone layer being pretty much overhead. Even though the temperatrue can be quite pleasant in the shade, as soon as you are out of it, the sun feels like a laser ("Do you expect me to talk? No, Mr Bond. I expect you to get a rather nasty sunburn"). To prove the point, the park´s fire warning system rated the chance of an outbreak as "Extreme" - hardly reassuring - and, indeed, there was a large forest fire in the park only a couple of days after we left. The park is still recovering from a major fire in 2005 caused by a stray spark from a rough camping Czech. The restoration is being carried out with assistance from the Czech government.
Other dangers were flagged by posters in the albergo warning of pumas and black widow spiders. If you see the former with ears laid back flat and tail zig-zagging, you are advised to make yourself as big and scary as you can (D first thing in the morning would do the job) and to fight as hard as you can (D defending her last Rolo would do the job). Do not, under any circumstances, play dead. If bitten by the latter, playing dead pretty convincingly may be your only option.
We slept at the hostel in a six bunk room...with a snorer. Middle-aged and in bed by nine o´clock (what kind of jessie is she?), she was like a walrus having a heart attack while hooked up to a ventilator - repeated every 3 seconds. Mind, she had just completed the trail going other way, so was pretty tired. She wasn´t even woken by the group of American pensioners in the next dorm detailing their full medical histories and medication to each other in stage-whispers-to-the-gallery: Have you taken your pills? I SAID, HAVE YOU TAKEN YOUR PILLS?
Torres del Paine - Day 2
So heading up our first spike of the W, with the air already warm at 8:30, we spent the morning following the well-worn trail below Monte Almirante Nieto - steep hot and dusty but not as windy as the symbol of a blowing face indicated on the map. This is the section of the park usually visited by day-trippers. We climbed through southern beech forest past Refugio Chileno towards the Mirador Las Torres. As the path thinned, through the gnarled and uprooted trees blanched by the sun and twisted into sculptrues by the wind, it threaded its way through landslides of monstrous rock and scree. Finally, the path turned directly uphill through a steep boulder field - moraine left by a long receded glacier - containing rocks the size of apartment blocks. What we saw when reached the top was well worth the effort. Soaring another 2000m above where we stood were Torres Sur, Centro and Norte, capped by black granite, all suspended above the turquoise lake into which glacial melt-waterfalls spilled. The Dude and Walter from California kindly took our photos - the view behind ranks alongside El Capitan, Milford Sound and the Red Crater on the Tongariro Crossing and even Grangemouth on a rainy day. A Spaniard with whom we´d got chatting told us the towers only see 20 days per year of clear sky. We were amongst the lucky few.
Torres del Paine - Day 3
A short day of trekking of only 11km saw us enter the shadow of Los Cuernos (The Horns), following the edge of Lago Nordenskjold, along a path that cuts through calf-deep foliage of bright green hardy plants interspersed with the flaming orange firebush bursting its flowers open to the sky. A lone condor hunted overhead - its impressive image undercut slightly by our knowledge that it tends to hunt easy prey, specifically dead ones. It is a relative of the vulture and dines on carrion.
The trail was reasonably easy going until we reached a 3-lane motorway of gushing glacial meltwater which we crossed barefoot under our fully-laden packs, trousers rolled to our elbows, as others prowled the bank like aquaphobic felines looking for stepping stones. In the near distance black storm clouds gathered and it turned into a race to the next refugio. The wind picked up and D was picked off her feet - we should have given her the heavier pack! In the end we beat the storm, making it to shelter not a moment too soon with Los Cuernos looming through a veil of cloud, like Mount Doom on toast...
As we nursed hot tea and the wind hammered rain against the windows, a caballero leading a horse trek came in to dry out - dressed only in short white sleeves, a brown beret, trousers and leather boots, he stood by the wood-burning stove with 2 knives tucked into his hand-stitched patterned sash while boiling his metal kettle on the stove for mate.
Torres Del Paine - Day 4
The sun returned today as we continued along the length of the impossibly blue Lago Nord... Dumped the big sack to head up the track through the coigue forest of the middle spike of the W. On one side was the hulking mass of Cerro Paine Grande with its Cumbre Principal (3050m) which has only been climbed twice (1957 and 2001) due to its technical difficulty. With regular avalanches caused by the high wind, you can see why. On our right, the Cuernos del Paine (Principal 2600m, Norte, Mascara, Hoja and Espada) flanked us as we trekked through a graveyard of contorted trees. We stopped for lunch below Cumbre Principal and there, beneath a felled tree, two yellow ladys slippers grew.
Doubling back down to the bottom left point of the W, we reached Lago Pehoe, colouring-book-blue in the evening sun, with hips cracking and knees aching. The hostel appeared below us - we were done and done in.
Torres Del Paine - Day 5
Our last full day in the park saw us complete the final spike of the W, up beside Lago Grey to the glacier at its head. The lake is full of blue icebergs carved by the wind into incredible shapes - one in particular like a giant Crown paint splash of cornflower blue. The glaciar itself is 3 tongues of ice flowing from the Southern Ice Field and the lookout point has icebergs washed onto the beach you can reach out and touch. The tempatation to leap aboard was offset by the certainty of sinking and ancient chill of the lake!
After another long day´s trekking we slept at the hostel in a two bunk room...with a mystery snorer, like a walrus having a heart attack while hooked up to a ventilator. (Not yet) middle-aged and in bed by nine o´clock - what kind of jessies are we?
Total distance walked - 45 miles. Pumas spotted - 0.
Back to Puerto Natales - where the kind lady in the gear hire shop gave us a 10% discount just because we´d enjoyed our stay in the park! R treated himself to a massage - described as "muy fuerte". They weren´t joking, administered as it was by the knuckles, elbows and fingernails of a none-too diminutive lady, it ranked alongside a Turkish haircut for eye-watering discomfort.
The other main attraction near PN is the cave of the (pre)historic Mylodon 30km away from the town. We hired mountan bikes from a Saint Bernard puppy on the Plaza de Armas and, fully kitted out, we headed back along the T de P road against a headwind strong enough to fell a horse - but we are made of sterner stuff and so we "beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past".
After 90 minutes of painstaking progress (8kmph downhill!), we turned off the main road onto the dirt track taking us to the cave for another 5 miles, past the Silla Del Diable (Devil´s Chair), with eagles swooping overhead. The cave, a huge yawning maw of lunar landscape, was used 2000 years ago by settlers to trap sloths, and in 1969 to film the moon landings. The cave was also home to the now-extinct Mylodon, a herbivorous giant sloth, which looked a bit like a grizzly with a kangaroo´s tail. On the path back, we shared a moment with a grey fox - standing in our path, it sized us up before anthropomorphically deciding we were friends...and left.
Needless to say, the trip back was much easier - 59kmph with the wind at our saddle-sore tails. We soared along under floating eagles and swooped back into town in a fraction of the time of our outward journey. Happy days.