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Patagonia is a Vast Land in a Small World

We had two days left on the rental car and decided that it was time to head back to Chile and Torres del Paine National Park. We wanted to drive through the park while we still had a car and we also wanted to day hike the Torres the following day. That was the one segment we were unable to secure a reservation for when we do our “O” hike.

After we filled up with gas again, we could see all of the young hikers lined up across the street trying to catch a ride. We decided to pick up the first two girls we saw, but as we slowly approached them a scruffy guy jumped out of hiding. That didn’t seem ethical, so we drove up to the next couple and they were heading north but we were going south. The third time was the charm, we picked up a young couple headed in the same direction we were going. We would be able to give them a ride to the border.

The couple were in their early 20’s, she was French Canadian and he was French. They were cute, and happy to have a ride. We enjoyed hearing about their travels. The conversation made the long drive fly by much more quickly.

I was surprised that they loved all of my music from the 70’s and 80’s. They were even able to sing along to Simon and Garfunkle and Cat Stevens! Unlike our children of the same age!

We decided to skip the old Ruta 40, the scenic dirt road that we had taken on the drive into Argentina, and opted for the new paved road. We didn’t set the GPS thinking that the border would be clearly marked. We were wrong. We had to guess at various dirt roads that vaguely looked like it might be a border crossing. After a few attempts we eventually guessed right and we were able to stamp our passports for departure from Argentina in less than five minutes.

Our crossing back into Chile took a bit longer. Apparently, the fruit and vegetable police in Chile take their job seriously. We had to carry our bags inside for inspection for rogue plant materials. We declared the apples and oranges that we bought in Chile before we went to Argentina and they were confiscated. It was probably a good thing that they didn’t search us or our vehicle as we had an entire box of food in the car and breakfast bars in Ol’s pockets.

We said goodbye to our hitchhikers and left them at the border. We were happy to see that the border guard allowed them to eat all of our contraband. The young hitchhikers eagerly devoured the forbidden fruit. Apparently it is okay to eat everything at the border before crossing. Had we known that they we that hungry we would have offered it a lot sooner!

We still had a two hour drive to get to the park. The roads were great and we were now much faster as we didn’t stop at every turquoise river, lake, or iceberg. Also, we were getting used to the abundant wildlife of guanaco and nandus.

Despite there being no speed limits, it still took us 2 hours to get to the park. It was getting a little late 9:30 p.m., but it was still daylight out. A light rain started to fall.

We were in the car but we could feel the strong Patagonia winds that this area is known for. The air currents over the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans come together and mix with the frigid air of Antarctica. These winds meet the land over Patagonia and run into a formidable barrier in the form of the Andes mountains. The winds can reach hurricane force, but are cold and damp. These winds transform the landscape and the creatures that occupy it in strange and wonderful ways. One such landscape is the Torres del Paine National Park.

We pulled in to what we thought was the south entrance of the park. When we pulled up to the park administration visitor offices, no one was in sight. The offices were closed. We needed to find our campground, but what few signs there were did not help us. We decided to just drive around until we could find someone.

We drove over a bridge and up a small hill and could see a small lodge in the distance. We found a guard, but he couldn’t understand us and we couldn’t understand him (I could do an entire post on Chilean Spanish. It is rapid, full of slang, and difficult to understand even for people who speak fluent Spanish). He pointed to the map and in the direction we had just come from. We attempted to get him to show us on the map where we were. It was all to no avail. So, we pulled out and headed back down the road.

We could see glimpses of the famous Torre peaks, which we would hike to in the morning. I was starting to get tired. It had been a long day. We started our day at El Chalten in Argentina with a long hike and then a long drive. Thankfully, Ol was determined to find our campsite. All we needed were some signs.

We decided to take the only other road we hadn’t driven down as the park only has two main roads. The park was beautiful but it was now close to 11:00 p.m. and we were losing daylight. We came to another road which appeared to have some signs but it was closed. We had been driving for about thirty minutes and hadn’t seen a car, a ranger, or a sign. We were getting frustrated with Chile’s number one tourist attraction, but it was also neat that we had the park to ourselves.

When we finally found a sign, it looked like we were at a park exit. Puerto Natales was the same distance as Glacier Grey, a stop on our “O” hike. We decided to turn around.

When we pulled back in front of the Administration building it was 12:30 a.m. and we were exhausted. If we were going to hike in the morning, we needed to get some rest. The weather was also not cooperating. It was now steadily raining. Ol crawled back and opened our backpacks. We got out our sleeping bags and eye masks. We pushed back our car seats and reclined them. It had been years since I spent the night sleeping in a car, but here we were in Chile’s premier national park unable to find a campsite or information. My body didn’t seem to mind. As soon as I slipped into my sleeping bag, I was asleep.

The storm and the sound of a bus woke us the next morning. We found two other camper vans next to us and a few vehicles waiting to enter the park. We made our way to the restrooms and cleaned up. We then went to administration building to buy our park passes. The pass is good for three days and will allow visitors to enter and leave the park during that time. Our big hike began in two days so we timed it so that we only needed one pass.

We purchased our passes and visited with a ranger. Apparently, we did not enter the park at the entrance we thought we did. We were at the other end of the park. This explained why our maps didn’t make sense. The roads that were closed had prevented us from entering where we wanted.

We decided to head over to the Torre lodge for breakfast. It is the trailhead for our hike and hopefully the weather would have a chance to clear. The Torre hike is rated difficult and that is without a wind and rain storm. We also want to be able to see the mountain and as long as it was raining we would not have a view.

The lodge was nice, and was designed to give people willing to pay for it, an experience that is normally reserved for serious hikers. Rooms at the lodge start at $400 and go up to $2,000. There is a restaurant, lounge, and entertainment area just off the lobby. It offered massages and all of the other extras that the wealthy faux hikers would shell out money for ( I was seriously tempted!).

We had a buffet breakfast and then headed into the lounge to watch the weather. The cushy surroundings were making it tough for us to go back outside. I had to get Ol off of the soft leather couch. He was still pouting about the Saint’s playoff loss. I made the executive decision that we would not hike in this weather and instead save the Torres hike for the first day of our circuit hike two days from now. Instead, we would spend the day driving through the park on a sightseeing tour in our rental car.

We spent the next several hours driving the park’s main roads. Thankfully the weather began to clear and the sun began to shine. However, the winds seemed to be more intense than before and we could feel the car being blown as we drove.

We pulled over to watch the herds of guanacos roaming the grasslands. We also saw a beautiful grey fox and lots of nandus. The birds were plentiful and we spotted geese, ducks, hawks, condors, woodpeckers, and numerous colorful little song birds.

At Torres del Paine, the mountains are not at a high elevation, but they look fierce. The glaciers and volcanoes there, combined with the wind and water, carve some of the most beautiful mountains in the world.

Late in the afternoon we pulled back to the administration building’s parking lot and it was teeming with hikers getting on and off buses and shuttles. We slowly inched our way forward. A hiker was right in front of the car and I recognized the backpack.

“Ol, isn’t that Medi from our Machu Picchu trek?” I asked. Medi was from California and on his own world travel adventure. He had been touring the world for about two years and was now an amateur photographer documenting his experiences.

“I don’t know, how can you tell?” Ol asked.

I had walked behind that backpack for four days on the Inca Trail and I just knew that it was him. Ol rolled down the window and called out Medi’s name just as he was about to board a bus. The guy turned around and we immediately recognized each other.

After a warm greeting, we invited Medi to ride with us to Puerto Natales instead of taking the bus. We wanted to catch up on each others adventures. Medi gave away his bus ticket to a young hiker who now would not have to shell out cash for a ticket to town. I’m certain the young hiker will use the extra cash for a much needed and greatly appreciated pizza or beer.

Medi hopped into our car and we spent the next few hours catching up. We were especially eager to hear about his eleven day “O” hike, the same hike that we would do two days from now. He told us to expect high winds and bad weather. He also warned us about a few water crossings and vertigo from some swinging suspension bridges that didn’t seem very sturdy in the strong Patagonian winds.

After a while, Medi told us that he was exhausted and hadn’t slept in 24 hours. He stayed awake the prior night in order to hike the Torres before the sun came up. Unfortunately, he had the same bad weather that we experienced and did not get to see the famed glowing mountains at sunrise. We told him to get some rest and he immediately fell asleep in the back seat. He didn’t wake up despite the many potholes on the dirt road leading back to Puerto Natales.

We dropped Medi off at his hostel and then got settled into our hostel. We had some preparations to do if we were going to be ready for our own Torres del Paine adventure. But, thanks to fate, good karma, or the traveling gods smiling upon us, we now had some additional information to help us from our kindred traveling friend, Medi.

Once again, either through luck or happenstance, we have found that the world is indeed a small place, and that we are all connected to each other and to the environment that we share on this tiny blue planet.

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