We are now officially at one of the ends-of-the-Earth; at least Punta Arenas on the Magellan Straights is as close to the South end as we are going this time around the world. Being a bit behind on logistic arrangements, we arrived at the Punta Arenas airport without a car reserved. Luckily there was a man at the little Hertz booth in the airport, and he happen to have a car for us to rent. We had read that the roads could be a little rough in this part of the world, so we considered a 4-wheel drive, but the price step-up from a small 4-door sedan to a small 4-wheel drive was $50/day. Since we intended to have the car for a while, we opted for the smaller car and hoped for the best. As the family piled into the car it started to rain and Patrick commented that the desolate countryside and wet weather reminded him of his first impressions of Iceland when we landed there way back in July. That seems so long ago….
Fortunately the rain only lasted for a day, and then we had awesome sunny weather for the remainder of our time in Patagonia.
The Hertz guy helped us by calling the cabana we reserved in town and asked for directions. When he instructed us to head into town, turn right on a road, continue until the pavement ends, then go up a hill, then another 200 meters, then viola! we would be there. Hmmm, I hoped the small car was going to be OK.
After months on the road we have become pretty good at cruising through a an unfamiliar grocery store and picking up provisions. Cereal, long-life boxed milk, butter, cheese, bread, sugar (smallest pack is a usually a kilogram), coffee (instant), eggs (unrefrigerated and need to be washed), fresh bread, drinks (bottled water, soda, wine, beer), cold cuts, etc. We have come to appreciate fresh vegetables that are so abundant in our stores in Northern California. Most of the vegetables we have found around the world have not been too appetizing. This was especially the case in Patagonia – fresh vegetables are scarce, expensive, and wilted. We opted for frozen green beans this time. Suzanne finds it difficult to do much meal planning since we are never sure what we will find at a new place, so we end up searching through the stores and trying to develop our meals in real-time. It is kind of like a slow-motion version of the Food Channel show Chopped. In any event, we provisioned enough for a couple of days and settled into our comfy cabana at the end of a dirt road.
The next day was all about logistics, Suzanne did her best to communicate what we wanted a the SKY airline office, we dropped by the Hertz office to have them fix a few minor issues with the car, and we found a nice restaurant in town called Jekus – which we thought sounded more like “Jerkus” and where Patrick felt quite at home. At the table next to us an older couple and their grand-daughters from from Mexico City started up a conversation with us. They were in town with a cruise ship and had come ashore to enjoy a local lunch. We had a very nice conversation and I gave them one of our cards so they could check in on the blog when they got home. The business cards have come in handy many times when we make connections with people who may be interested in knowing a little more about our trip – it has saved me having to write out the blog address hundreds of times.
Fortunately the next day our host from Santiago, JD, had business in Punta Arenas and brought Alex’s Kindle with him. I met him in the morning at his hotel and retrieved it for Alex. It was really good luck that this worked out, otherwise I’m sure Alex would have appropriated my Kindle so she could continue to her ravenous consumption of books. Her current pace is over 300 pages a week! With our logistics for the next couple weeks arranged, we pointed our little car North toward the town of Natales, and then on to Torres del Paine National Park. The drive north is uneventful, because there is nothing there but a road. We drove for four hours without seeing a gas station. This lack of fueling places became a bit of an issue for us as the week progressed.
Google Maps was not helping us find the cabana that Suzanne booked in Natales and we wandered around for a while. The phone number we had didn’t work, and we were concerned that we might have been scammed out of our deposit money. Natales is a comfortable town that is set up for active Patagonian tourism with lots of stores selling all manner of camping, trekking, skiing, and cold weather gear. So we drove around the center of town awhile until we found an internet cafe so we could do more cyber research and try to find our cabana. We tried Google Earth – using satellite pictures from space – we did more searches on the name of the place – we even tried asking the bored guy collecting $1/hr for use of the computer in the cafe. We did manage to narrow our search a little more, so we paid our fee at the cafe, climbed back into the car and resumed to search the old-fashioned way – by personally going there. Finally we stopped in front of what looked like someone’s house, no sign or advertisement of any kind was displayed, but Suzanne mustered the courage to ring the bell and ask in halting Spanish if we could spend the night there. Luckily it was the right place, and it turned out to be a very clean, comfortable, and hospitable cabana. I never found out why there were no signs or other indications from the street, but I suspect it might have something to do with taxes….
Natales is a nice little town that could be fun to hang out in for a day or two, but we wanted to get out to the National Park. So in the morning I filled the car with petrol, and we set off on the 2 hour drive to the entrance to Torres del Paine. Five miles out of town we started on a gravel road that continued for most of the next week. Within 10 minutes we had a thick coat of powdery dust all over the inside and outside of the car. We were also listening to audible books on these long drives – Suzanne had to turn up the volume on the narration of Watership Down to be able to hear it over the rumble of the tires over the washboard road. After awhile the striking view of the mountains of the national park started to come into view. The weather had cleared up and the peaks were crisp and clear against the bright blue sky.
Once we arrived at the gate of the park we discovered two key pieces of information: (1) Our cabana was located on the other end of the park, which was another two-hour drive on a gravel road, (2) The nearest gas station was back in Natales! Luckily we were in a small car that was getting good mileage, but we would need to be careful to not run out of gas. I started noticing that many of the local trucks and cars had extra gas cans strapped to their bumpers – not a bad idea. We ended up driving across the park several times during our time there, keeping a close eye on the fuel gauge, and later that week we rolled to a one-pump gas station in Argentina with our low-fuel-light shining brightly on the dash. The guy running the gas station went out back to start the generator to operate the pumps, and with a sigh of relief we filled the tank. It is amazing how a full tank of gas can reduce my stress level these days.
Torres del Paine National park has spectacular natural beauty. We stopped on the way through the park and had a picnic and then continued down the path where the sun created bright rainbows that caused Alex to dream of unicorns and Patrick to dream of Leprechaun gold. The mountains create a dramatic backdrop to every scene in the park. And even from the front porch of our cabana the sheer pinnacles create slow-motion, high-definition panorama of contrasting colors.
The longer day-hike we attempted started at Hotel Las Torres and wound its way up the slope of a mountain, into a river canyon. This portion of the trail is the last section of the famous W-trail; which is for serious back-packers on a multi-day camping trip. We made pretty good progress up the mountain and completed the first leg of the trail (estimated at 2 hours on the map) in about 3 hours. We (briefly) considered continuing to the base of de la Torres for the awesome photo opportunity, but after examining the map and seeing how much steeper the trail becomes, we decided to head back down before our legs became too wobbly.
On the way back down we crossed paths with a group of German bird watchers hustling up and down the trail taking pictures of birds I couldn’t even see. They were so excited to spot the different birds they didn’t seem to notice the steep inclines, and sheer cliffs. One kind of bird I was able to spot were the condors that circled over us as we made our way down the trail. I assume the giant birds were closing in on some sort of carrion near the trail, and not waiting for one of us to drop from exhaustion or slip and fall into the ravine. Either way, it was awesome to see the famous birds so close up. During the hike I heard consistent “feedback” from Alex about what a bad idea it was to make our kids do such a horrible, dusty, hard thing as hike up this stupid mountain. She complained about everything hurting. So I asked her, “Do your ears hurt too?” She mumbled “No” Then I said “Well mine do, from all your complaining!” That drew a reluctant smirk from her, and a laugh from Suzanne. By the time we arrived at the river she seemed to have recovered and started running ahead and posing on rocks so I could take her picture.
The next day during our two-hour drive out of the park, Alex and Patrick collaborated on creating a persuasive essay as a road-school assignment. The audience is the Miller family, who is planning a trip to this part of the world next summer. The assignment was, “give the persuasive case for (and against) taking the hike to the base of de la Torres”. It took them about an hour to build a case for both options. I was impressed that they were able to create a case to recommend the hike considering the “feedback” during the hike itself. We will see how persuasive the essay is the next time we see the Millers in a month or so.