Our next stop was to be one of the highlights of our journey. This National Park is in Chile so we had once again to cross the border from Argentina. We'd booked our bus in Bariloche because we were uncertain just how easy it would be to make the trip and on the actual day we needed to travel. But with hindsight it seems as if some accommodation - hostels mainly - are willing and able to arrange transport. We were initially advised we'd be picked up at 5am but when M popped into the office in El Calafate was told it would be 5:30. However, waiting outside our accommodation in the light morning (we're so far south now that nights are short) we started to worry when after 6am the bus hadn't arrived. We were relieved when it did eventually come and we settled into our seats but were surprised when we had to move to another larger bus at the police post on the edge of town. It took about 2 hours to reach the Argentinean border when we had simple and swift formalities. Journeying on into even more beautiful scenery we reached the Chilean border where formalities were again stringent - a thorough check of everyone's documentation and a cursory check of the baggage (for plants or animal products that are not allowed over the Andes). We had to change buses yet again and with our bags tucked away in the boot we went for a coffee. Far too much time was taken up afterwards while everyone was reassembled, exchanged money, had drinks and snacks, etc especially as the boredr post was not what we or they had paid good money to see. Getting somewhat impatient, we headed outside to see the bus had gone. Where was everyone and more importantly where was our bus - "Help, the bus had gone" we cried helplessly! From being expert travellers, in an instant we'd turned into hopeless tourists. After all, surely our guide could have told us that the bus would be going to fill up with fuel. All aboard we were off and very soon saw herds of guanaco roaming the hills, raptors galore and as we came around a corner at the amazingly blue Lago Sarmiento, saw before us the glorious and majestic sight of the towers (torres) of Torres del Paine. It was clearly the breeding season for guanacos because there were hundreds and hundreds of them grazing away in the lush pastures while males stood proudly on hillocks looking out over their harems and youngsters. We left the tour at Laguna Amarga and were soon picked up by the Hosteria Las Torres coach for the short drive to the hotel which sits nestled below the 3 torres. More on the hotel later but after settling in we were out to sample the fresh air and find out what we would be doing the next couple of days. We'd decided we'd probably do one organised tour and another walk ourselves and were pleased that this would be possible. Tour guides give a brief talk each evening so that guests can decide what they want to do the following day. It was certainly very helpful and we chose the tour which allowed us to see the other side of the park and the cuernos (horns) from Lago Pehoe which we would cross on a boat, and do the return long walk up French Valley. Fed, watered and a good night's sleep would help ensure we would be up for it.Next morning we were introduced to Pedro, our guide for the day and Ingebor from near Amsterdam, and Spenser, Erika, Ann and Aaron all from Atlanta. The scenery was amazing (we saw a small fox ahead of us) as we made our way to Lago Pehoe in time to catch the boat. As we left the jetty the cuernos came into view - this is probably the most famous photograph of Torres del Paine. Cameras clicked away like mad as we enjoyed a cold crisp morning but with clear views across the Lake to the mountains in the background (see Parque Nacional Torres del Paine photo album). Conscious that we did not want to hold up the fit and eager Pedro, nor our relatively young companions, we (E fuelled with pain killers) remained at the back of the group as we set off at great place along a fairly easy and gently climbing track. We held our own all the way and Pedro was pleased that our turn around point was as far as he had made it with any other group. We reached and went past the French Glacier and saw snow avalanches up in the mountains ahead of us. At the point of our return we had walked 16 kilometres so had only 16 to go. We were with a very nice group of people and had thoroughly enjoyed our walk and our day. How would we feel the following morning, only time, a few beers, and bed would tell!We awoke a little later than planned on another glorious sunny day. Our US companions from yesterday were to be taking a horse and walk outing up to the base of the towers behind the hotel. This was an 8 - 10 hour walk with a steep and long initial climb and a final long stretch up a rough rocky moraine field to the end of the track. We set off to do the same - on our own and therefore without the horses - but much later at 11:15. Our objective was to reach Chileno where there is a small campsite and cafe. The initial climb was hard especially after the previous day's efforts but we made it and were refreshed by the sight of Chileno ahead in the green and steep river valley. After a stop for a Coke, we decided to head on and saw a pair of huge condors wheeling an circling overhead, so decided to keep on going. This was a delightful stretch of the walk through southern beech forest and were pleased that we'd decided to carry on. Soon we were at the foot of the moraine. There must be no stopping us now but we must admit it was hard going on two pairs of weary and aging legs. Nearly one third of the way up, we met Pedro and our friends from yesterday making their way down (their horses had been left at Chileno) and, encouraged by their comments, fought our way to the top. What a view - wonderful and words cannot properly describe it (see photo album). It was tough going on the return but we felt exhilarated that we had done 2 fantastic and difficult walks in two successive days. E's arthritic hip aside, perhaps we aren't yet over the hill! Footnote: We should add something about our hotel, Hosteria Las Torres. It is owned by a Chilean family who also own a very large part of the Torres del Paine National Park surrounding the hotel. It is in a wonderful setting and is low level so does not impose on the surroundings. In keeping with other tourist services in Patagonia, it is very expensive - we paid UD$321 per night for bed & breakfast (other hotels in the area are as, or more, expensive and the only alternative accommodation options are camping or bunkhouses - no middle range B&Bs to be had). For the price the hotel does not provide the standard of accommodation and services we would expect and which we received at much cheaper hotels in other parts of South America. For example at Las Torres there were no safe deposit boxes in rooms, no hairdryers (there was one - yes one for the whole hotel - at reception), and no soft seats in rooms, etc. We encountered inconsistent towel changes, laundry was very expensive and on one occasion was returned late and another was returned wet, we had to wait precisely until 2pm to get into our room (unlike other hotels that let us in early - sometimes very early), reception staff provided us with incorrect and incomplete information, the initial booking system was complex and we had to pay the full cost of our room and breakfast several months in advance, and checking out was difficult: our final account for food, drinks, our trip, etc was in several parts and in Chilean pesos for amounts we didn't recognise because tax had been deducted (rightly) which then had to be converted into US $. On the plus side the food was good and not expensive, the general ambience was pleasant, and the beds were large and comfortable. If it got the other things right it would be a much, much better place.
E & M xxxx