Torres del Paine
Puerto Natales, Natales, Última Esperanza Province, Chile
Vern: I was stressing my boots off on the bus trip to Puerto Natales. I had a small bag of contraband in my backpack and I didn't know whether the Chilean border was three minutes away or three hours away. I knew that if discovered, the fine for each unit was at least 10 000 pesos (CH$). But I'd broken the whole into several parts for ease of consumption. Could I be fined CH$10 000 for each part?! Maybe I could slip the bag into Andrea's backpack. But she wasn't sleeping yet. Andrea was watching the Argentinian steppe race by and there was lots to see: gauchos herding cattle, wild pink flamingos in a black coal factory waste water lake, and every 30 miles or so, three drums for sorting trash into paper, glass and metal (Why?! If you're 30 miles from town in the great wide open with something that you'd bother to pull over to dispose of, it's probably a dead body. And there wasn't a bin for organic waste).
Official looking buildings were coming up! This is it - the border! "We're consuming these now! Yes, all of them!" So we gobbled down our carrot sticks at record speed. The foreign-produce-banning Chilean Officials weren't getting their ticket-book out for my stash.
An hour later at the actual border, with orange stains on our faces and mild indigestion, I was at least party vindicated when the uniformed men scanned all our bags with an x-ray machine took away a German woman's lunch. Sucker!
Puerto Natales is a quiet town guarded by a statue of a big black polar bear - a 'miladon'. I assume this type of bear is extinct because only prehistoric beasts have cool names like that.
The purpose of this crossing into Chile, actually a diversion from the original plan, was to see the Torres del Paine at sunrise. These two 2800m mountain towers were the 'main event' at the Torres del Paine national park (said to be one of South America's best) and the highlight of some backpackers' trips to Patagonia so we headed out to see what the fuss was about.
We enjoyed a quiet rest day, mostly backing up photos, drinking hot chocolate in the lovely hostel - Lili Patagonico's - and making sandwiches for the camping/hiking trip. The supermarket in this town finally had some fruit and veg of the quality we're used to in London.
The next morning an early bus took us out to the park. Unfortunately as we arrived at the Torres del Paine national park, we were informed that the Mirador Torres (towers viewpoint) was closed because of heavy snow. But apparently there was still a decent view from the previous view point so we continued. We found the 'refugio' (base camp) where we had planned to rent camping equipment. That too was closed and we were getting progressively more irritated, but with little help from lots of clueless staff we finally found a groundsman willing to rent us a tent, two sleeping bags and two mats. Conveniently however he never returned to collect rent (and we didn't try very hard to find him) so we we were gifted a free night's stay.
The tent was a small two-man tent, which reminded us of our Glastonbury days, but was filled with a colony of ants which had been cross-bread with stun guns and had a nasty set of stingers fused onto their abdomens. Inconveniently they were entering the tent through a hole in the roof so all night we could hear them dropping quietly onto our lush sleeping bags, like paratroopers behind enemy lines.
We went to sleep early and woke up at 4:00 before dawn even started creaking. Headlamps strapped on. Laces pulled tight. We set off into the darkness for the 11km climb. We had to get to the towers before daylight (and before the tent guy came to collect his fee).
A few hundred feet in, and glowing marbles bounded in pairs across our path. Rabbit eyes reflecting the beam from our headlamps. We hoped they were running because we had startled them and not from pumas. We didn't want to be the first victims on Chile's new prime time show; Fast Animals, Slow Humans.
The first few kilometres were a steady up hill climb and it didn't take long to exhaust our water supply. The soundtrack was the wind, trickling streams, anonymous buglife and our panting. The stars were burning far away and there was no moonlight, but the headlamps Lloyd and Andrea's colleagues got us shone brilliantly.
Finally the path levelled off, and the rock and gravel turned into to dense forest. We found some cold trickling streams to replenish our water supply. The orange route markers were becoming harder and harder to find and we breathed a heavy sigh of relief every time we came across a man made bridge or stairs confirming we were on an actual path.
We reached the halfway point, another closed refugio, in good time and pushed on into the spooky forest. We crossed bridges over invisible streams, descended roughly crafted staircases into the abyss and cheered every time we reached another marker. Forty-five minutes later, we could see what we thought was the last checkpoint and the sun still wasn't up, but our hearts sank as we got closer. The closed refugio. A misleading 'Private Property' sign had pointed us away from our destination and we had looped back on ourselves.
What a cliché, hikers getting lost in the dark. We were gutted and the sun was just breaching the horizon.
We set off again, as quick as possible and this time chose the correct path at the fork. Every second we could see slightly more. The more vivid the crystal streams and hundred-year-old trees became, the more aware we were that the sand was falling through the hourglass.
We tore out of the forest into a spectacular canyon. The rising sun lit up the rock faces with a soft orange glow. Like peach sorbet, or the embers in a fire transitioning between red hot and white hot. It was amazing to have covered this much ground, to be breathing this crisp mountain air and to be all alone in the sun-kissed canyon all by 7:30am, but we knew that we'd missed the postcard shot of the Torres lit up.
Oh well, that's what Google Images is for. We shrugged it off and found the checkpoint a few feet later. We could see the towers standing proud, and since no one had roped off the closed pathway to the viewpoint we decided to continue anyway.
The next 40 minutes took us up a treacherous ice climb (no wonder they had closed it). The previous day's snow had frozen so with every step we took, we slipped back a few inches. We scrambled from branch to rock to anything we could use to pull us up this bobsled track. Eventually, about three-quarters of the way up, we gave up. We got as far as we could go without having to fill out a travel insurance medical claim. We beamed with pride with the towers lurking over us and despite the setbacks we were content with our morning's achievement.
The way down the ice was even worse, but gravity got us there in the end and we descended the rest of the mountain in a fraction of the time it took to get us up.
We slept very soundly that night back in Puerto Natales and the next day took the bus back to Argentina, and onto the lakes district.