Sunday, December 26, 2010

Torres del Paine

With a first round of photo editing complete, I can now share a little bit about my time in Torres del Paine. It's always a little disappointing to look at photos after having been in a place like this, where there's little hope of fully capturing the feeling of being part of such a spectacular landscape. Conveying a sense of scale and grandeur is a challenge. But a few of the photos are decent, and I hope to be back someday to have another shot at it.

A couple hundred thousand people visit Torres del Paine each year, and the majority of those who have come to hike end up doing a route called "the W," due to its shape (see the map below).

Most people do the W in four nights. A common route involves, first, taking a catamaran across Lago Pehoe (not shown on the map above) to Paine Grande at the bottom left. From there, you hike up the left side, alongside Lago Grey, and spend the first night at Refugio Grey, Campamento Los Guardas, or Campamento Paso. On the second day, you come back down the left side and camp at Campamento Italiano, which sets you up to spend the third day exploring Valle de Francés without a pack and then moving on to Campamento Los Cuernos, You then go along the bottom of the W and up the right side to spend your final night at Campamento Torres, and then exit back down by Hosteria Las Torrres on the right side of the map on your final day.

I had originally planned for five nights in the park, which would have given me an extra day to camp outside of the W with views of the full massif, but my itinerary was reduced to three nights due to the previously mentioned passport disaster. Fortunately, that still left me with enough time to do an abbreviated W, combining the first two days into 1 with a few small adjustments.

Day 1:

After a bus ride from Puerto Natales to the park and a catamaran ride across Lago Pehoe, I started up the left side of the W toward Refugio Grey. About half way to the refugio, the trail reaches a mirador (viewpoint) from which you can see the glacier, which periodically calves small, bright teal icebergs into Lago Grey. That day, though, clouds were covering most of the glacier and the wind was whipping along the lake, so I didn't stay long. I snapped a few pictures at the mirador and turned around. Given the weather, I wasn't too disappointed to have missed my originally-planned night at Campamento Los Guardas.

I returned to where I had started and then worked my way along the bottom of the W to Campamento Italiano, where I turned up into Valle Francés. The trail became steeper here, and I was feeling pretty exhausted near the end of a 14-mile day with a full pack, but I made it up to Campamento Británico at the top of the middle leg of the W. Valle Francés ends in a cirque, and a short walk from the camp gets you to a mirador where you can see about 270 degrees of granite peaks, but it was cloudy and cold, so I elected to save it for the morning. However, even with the clouds and from just outside of the camp, I was treated to a spectacular sunset as the clouds intermittently opened to reveal peaks and pieces of the sky were illuminated with magenta light.

Sunset in Valle Francés from Campamento Britanica

Day 2:

Normally camping is a great time to catch up on sleep, as there's not much to do once the sun sets. But Torres del Paine is so far south that the sun doesn't set until about 10:15 pm and rises again at 5:15 am. If you're trying to catch both sunrise and sunset, that doesn't leave a whole lot of time for sleep. I started day two by waking up early to light snow, but hiked up to the mirador for sunrise anyways. I walked, as I later discovered, right past the mirador on a trail that got more and more faint until it disappeared altogether high above the camp. Even with lots of clouds and a limited sunrise, the view from up high was impressive, and I found a nice spot to make oatmeal and coffee while I enjoyed the scenery. It was cold up there, though, and water froze at the bottom of my bowl after finishing with breakfast. So much for summer.

After getting down and breaking camp, I headed back down Valle Francés and the along the bottom of the W to Campamento Los Cuernos. The route passes right below the Cuernos (horns), one of the two most photographed parts of the park. About 12.5 million years ago, magma entered a horizontal zone of weakness in the mudstone, lifting the formation and then cooling to form granite. The result of this granitic intrusion, light granite walls with dark mudstone tips, is quite distinctive, even on a cloudy day.

I arrived at Campamento Los Cuernos in the early afternoon, and promptly set up my tent and took a nap. It's a good thing it was a short day of hiking, because the previous day left me exhausted.

Sunrise in Valle Francés

Glacier in in Valle Francés

The Cuernos from Lago Pehoe (taken on day 1)

Walking along Lago Nordenskjold

Sunset over Lago Nordenskjold

Day 3:

Again, I woke up early for the sunrise, and this time was rewarded with a few breaks in the clouds, which let some light through to illuminate the Cuernos in yellow light. After packing up camp, I headed along the side of Lago Nordenskjold and then cut up the right side of the W, gaining some elevation up into Valle Ascensio. I had left early, so I ended up at Campamento Torres in the early afternoon with plenty of time for a nap. Afterwards, I walked up to Campamento Japonés, the climbing camp, which was abandoned. I wanted to continue up to Valle del Silencio, but figured it wouldn't be a good idea, as it's likely that nobody else would be there for a while if anything were to go wrong. Something to save for next time.

Campamento Torres is below the famous Torres that give the park its name. You can see the top of these granite spires from down below, but there's a half-hour walk up to a mirador that gives a full view. This is the other view, besides the Cuernos, that you're likely to see in pictures from the park. I headed up for sunset, but as before, the clouds got in the way. However, I was the only person up in front of the huge granite walls coming in and out of swirling clouds, and it was a special experience to just sit there and watch.

Sunrise on the Cuernos

Cuernos in the clouds


Day 4:

If you're really lucky, and you get up early enough, you might get a chance to see the rising sun catching the east-facing Torres, turning them a glowing red for about ten minutes. I wasn't that lucky, but it's another reason to go back someday. I had set my alarm for 4 am, to give me ample time to get up to the mirador for sunrise, but the wind picked up overnight and drowned out the noise of my watch alarm. I did wake up on my own half an hour later, and managed to make it up to the mirador in time, but the weather didn't cooperate. I made oatmeal and coffee up there, and laid out my sleeping pad and bag to sit and watch for a bit as snow fell and clouds swirled.

I headed back down, packed up camp, and hiked out to Hosteria Las Torres, from which I walked out a road to meet the bus that would take me back to Puerto Natales.

The Torres

All in all, it was an excellent trip, and I don't feel that I missed a whole lot with my abbreviated W. Even though I would have liked some perfect sunrises or sunsets, I think I was pretty lucky with weather overall, as apparently some people come to the park and get a week of rain. Hopefully someday I'll be back, maybe next time to do the Circuit, a week-long loop that is the other popular route in the park.

Friday, December 24, 2010

How Chile Almost Stole Christmas

I'm sitting in the Miami airport, waiting for the last part of my trip back to Boston after a roller coaster of a final week or so in Chile. The fact that I'm actually back in the US might not seem like a big deal, but there were times in the past week and a half that it was far from certain. My exercise in zen in Melimoyu, it turns out, was only a warmup.

After returning from Melimoyu, I had a couple of days in Coyhaique to finish up my project with Patagonia Sur before heading down to southern Patagonia for a week of hiking in Parque Nacional Torres del Paine. There are no roads that cut through the southern part of Chile, as the full width of some stretches of the country is comprised of fjords and ice sheets. The only options for getting to Torres del Paine, then, are to drive 20 hours through Argentina or to fly to Punta Arenas and take a series of buses eventually leading to the park. I chose the latter.

Punta Arenas, according to the selection of souvenirs in the windows of its shops, is known as the "Fin del Mundo" due to its location on the Strait of Magellan at the southern tip of Chile. I had a few hours to kill after arriving, as the next available bus up to Puerto Natales, gateway to the park, wasn't for a few hours, so I walked down to the promenade along the coast. From there, you look south towards the Antarctic Peninsula, across the southern ocean that, at times, experiences some of the world's worst weather, but on that day looked flat, gray, and barren.

I walked for a while, then turned to head back to the bus station. Instinctively, I checked my camera case for the pouch with my passport, which I had put inside because it would stay with me and be readily available while traveling. It wasn't there. My heart dropped. I furiously checked my pockets, realizing that I must have removed the passport when I stopped to take a picture along the coast. In a panic, I ran, backpack and all, back to my photo spot. Nothing there either. And nobody had turned anything in to the neighboring hotel.

What to do? Fortunately, the PDI (Policia de Investigaciones) office was right across the street, and I found someone who spoke English pretty well. My Spanish was ok for a lot of common situations, but explaining a lost passport was outside of my capabilities, especially in my panicked state. I'd need to call the Embassy in Santiago to get the full scoop on replacing a passport, but PDI called in someone else who could at least get me the paperwork that I'd need to travel within Chile. This person didn't speak any English, but through a somewhat difficult exchange we were able to fill out the forms in Spanish and I was on my way.

So with that, my carefully planned 5 days in Torres del Paine were thrown into uncertainty. There was nothing else I could do that evening, though, and I couldn't stand to stay in bleak Punta Arenas any longer, so I got the next bus up to Puerto Natales and found a hostel for the night. Despite my best attempts to remain calm, sleep was not easy.

As usually happens, things seemed better in the morning as I started the long process of figuring out what I'd need to do to get back to the US. I only had a little over a week before my flight, which was originally scheduled to depart from Coyhaique and stop for about 5 hours in Santiago. Clearly, this wouldn't be enough time to get a replacement passport. What I really needed to know was whether I'd have to go to Santiago immediately, or whether I could stay in Puerto Natales and then go a few days before my international flight. The person on the phone at the embassy just referred me to the website, which didn't give any indication of the time required for a replacement passport. The State Department website said that people in these situations needed to contact Citizen Services at their local embassy to figure out what would need to be done, but I was then told that Citizen Services in Chile didn't take phone calls, only emails. Not the kind of reassurance that a panicked traveler needs to hear.

Finally, after some pleading, I was put through to someone who told me that a couple of days would probably be enough time for an emergency passport. And Patagonia Sur's CEO had a contact at the embassy who corroborated this, so it seemed that I could stay in Puerto Natales for the rest of the week as long as I could return to Santiago in time to get to the embassy the following Monday morning. I then called LAN to see if it would be possible change my ticket, and found that I could depart from Punta Arenas and then have a few days in Santiago before heading back to the US. The only missing piece was my bags that I had left in Coyhaique. These could be shipped up to Santiago with some help from coworkers at Patagonia Sur.

So by the end of the day all of the pieces seemed to be in place, and I called LAN again to make the ticket change. Unfortunately, what seemed like it should be the easiest part of the process ended up being the most difficult. Though flying on LAN is a very pleasant experience and the people on the phone are very friendly, the process of actually making a change was absolutely miserable. Their back office processes are disastrously inefficient, such that I had to call back probably 10-15 times in order to finally make the change. First they had to check on the difference in fare, which didn't end up happening until the next morning. When they finally told me what it would cost, I gave my payment information, but had to call back a few hours later because I had not received a confirmation. At that point, they claimed that the back office was STILL working on a quote, and they had no record of receiving any payment information from me. Then there were several more hours before they returned with a new quote, which was higher than the original one. Finally, a full day after starting the process, I got a confirmation that my credit card had been processed, though final flight information wouldn't come for another 24+ hours.

Through all of this, the people at the hostel were very kind and supportive, including one guy who gave me his old cell phone charger, because I had left mine in Coyhaique. If anyone is heading to Puerto Natales, check out Hostel Shakana on Miraflores just north of Erratic Rock - great people, good breakfast, and very cheap too.

I wasn't about to wait around for another day, so I decided that things were about as much under control as they could be, and I headed out to the park. I had lost two of my six planned days, so I had to rearrange my itinerary, but I was still able to do most of "the W," the park's most popular trekking route. It was wonderful to finally get out there after a few days of uncertainty and worrying, and I was able to put the remaining uncertainty out of my mind for much of the time on the trail.

I haven't yet had a chance to edit my pictures from Torres del Paine, so I'll wait to give more details on the hike when those are done. The park was beautiful, even if the pictures don't necessarily fully capture it.

There was a bit more uncertainty at the end of the trip, when LAN told me that there was an 80% chance that I'd be able to board my domestic flight, the other 20% apparently up to the whims of the person at the counter issuing the boarding pass, but I showed up to the airport with plenty of extra time and there ended up being no problems.

So it was off to Santiago for a few days. The passport replacement process was relatively straight-forward, and I received a temporary version within a day. That left a lot of time for exploring the city, which I ended up liking quite a bit more than I had expected. Santiago is a big city, with maybe 6 million people in the full metropolitan region. It's also quite a wealthy city due to the surge in the price of copper in the past decade. The best way I can describe it is as having the energy and commercial / residential mix of New York City, the geography and weather of Los Angeles, and the grand administrative buildings and international feel of Paris. There is an abundance of modern glass and metal towers, and more under construction, including what will be the tallest building in South America. The new downtown area feels a lot like midtown New York, with banks on every corner, expensive shops, and luxury cars. And, being summer in the Southern Hemisphere, temperatures were right around 90° all three days, without a cloud in the sky if you don't count Santiago's infamous smog.

I stayed in an area called Providencia, which is between the historic downtown and the new downtown and apparently was the place to be in the 70s and 80s, and I did quite a bit of walking around the rest of the city. My favorite area was a neighborhood called Bellavista, the historic artsy section of the city tucked up against Cerro Santo Cristobal and filled with older, multi-colored houses and quiet, tree-lined streets. I'm very tempted to find a language school in Santiago and go back to try to live there for a few months. The location of the city as a whole is pretty incredible too, as it's only a few hours from 12,000-15,000 ft peaks in one direction and ocean in the other direction. I was a bit smitten.

So that brings us up to the present, sitting in the airport in Miami, about to get on a flight to Boston. The whole passport experience was a bit of a nightmare, but there's a silver (or maybe shiny aluminum?) lining in the fact that it taught me a lot and and made me more confident in my admittedly still rudimentary Spanish. I'm now quite practiced at saying "Perdí mi pasaporte." It also further reinforced the need for flexibility and the fact that worrying never helps. And finally, without the mishap, I never would have had a chance to explore Santiago. So all is well that ends well.

There's still a significant gap in my description of Torres del Paine, and the whole Chile experience probably deserves some sort of recap, but those will have to come later. For now, happy holidays, or feliz navidad!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Melimoyu in pictures

My worrying was for naught, and I made it back to Coyhaique last night without any problems. The bay was actually pretty windy and choppy yesterday morning, but I stayed the previous night in the nearby "town" (15 houses, maybe), and the little boat from the ferry, which is much more intrepid than the small motorboat, was able to come to the dock to pick me up.

I feel that I should reflect a little on my time in Melimoyu, but I don't exactly know where to begin or what to say, other than it's an absolutely beautiful and soulful place. So rather than waiting for words to appear, which might be a while, I'm going to just go with the pictures. Enjoy!

Towards Melimoyu Bay on a clear day

The little boat at high tide. The incline of shore is very gradual, so at low tide the boat would be stranded far from the water line.

The guest house. I stayed in the staff house close by, which was much more modern-looking in design and also very comfortable.

The boardwalk leading to the quincho, the requisite Chilean barbeque pit for cordero. Note the dense vegetation - it was nearly impossible to go anywhere without a trail. We referred to this trail as the carretera (highway) because of the boardwalk.

Moss growing on an arrayan tree. These trees have smooth, cinnamon-colored bark, and give an unusual feeling of lightness to the otherwise dense forest when they appear in groves.

An unfurling fern of some sort. I don't remember the name, but this one has a very strong and stiff stalk, which Sebástian claims can be very useful to hold onto when climbing a steep slope.

Almost architectural lines in the forest


I think this is what's referred to as Old Man's Beard, but it might be something different. In any case, it's hanging from everywhere.

Sunset on incoming clouds up the valley

Most trees in this temperate rain forest, with a relatively dense canopy that blocks much of the sunlight in places, have a tendency towards "up." Here, fledgling trunks - either new seedlings that have taken root in an old tree or shoots from the old tree - race towards the light.

Not sure what kind of flower, but it grows throughout the clear, marshy area along the coast.

Everything was green. Mucho verde.

Weathering #1

This forest type is called Siempreverde (always green) for good reason

Weathering #2

Fuchsia magellenica, presumably named for the Magellenic temperate rainforest, the forest zone along the southern part of the Chonos Archipelago. Melimoyu is in the Valdivian temperate rainforest, but it appears that there's significant overlap of plant species with its neighboring zone to the south.

Weathering #3

Cross-section of a tree stump

Green everywhere. It seems that the entirety of the forest's surface are is used for photosynthesis.

Melimoyu Volcano, at the end of the valley. The smooth white of the glacier creates quite a contrast with the surrounding forest. Melimoyu means something like "four teats" in a native language - you can see two at the top and one on the right flank, with the other hidden on the back side. The peak is quite close, but without a trail, it could take more than a week to get there.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Made it to Melimoyu

It’s raining here in Melimoyu, but the weather does little to diminish the beauty of this landscape. Rather, the coast of Chile is one of those places where the soft light of a cloudy day creates beauty not in contrast but in finer shades of blue, green, and grey.

I arrived with Sebástian, the manager of the Melimoyu property, yesterday on the ferry. We departed Puerto Chacabuco in the morning and traveled through the network of channels that characterizes the coast of southern Chile, passing through sun, clouds, and rain on our 15-hour journey north. At 1 am we entered Melimoyu bay, where a small boat with an outboard motor greeted us to take us to land, as the bay is too shallow for the ferry to come any closer to shore. It was a surreal experience, stepping out of a door in the hull of the ferry at water level and into a small motorboat, then taking off into darkness and watching the lights of the ferry shrink in the distance.

The town of Melimoyu is tiny, with maybe 15 houses. Patagonia Sur’s property is a short boat ride away, with guest and staff houses overlooking the bay and several thousand acres of lush temperate rain forest inland, bordering a glacier and a volcano at the far end. I did a little exploring today with Sebástian and look forward to doing more over the next few days.

Pictures from the ferry, and one from the property, are below.

Leaving Puerto Chacabuco

Spots of sun in the mountains

Dramatic clouds

A small island

Shades of blue (I think this might be one of my favorite pictures so far)


Evening light on a strip of land

So intense!

Melimoyu Bay on a cloudy, damp day

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Melimoyu and an exercise in Zen

I'm off tomorrow morning for Melimoyu attempt number two. This time we're catching the barcaza from nearby Puerto Chacabuco and taking the 16-hour trip up along the coast. With some good luck with the weather, it could be a beautiful trip.

The plan is to spend 5 days in Melimoyu and then catch the barcaza back to Puerto Chacabuco next Wednesday, but all depends on the weather, which has a way of not cooperating around here. Under other circumstances it wouldn't be so bad to be stuck in a place like Melimoyu, but I have a flight the next Sunday to go to Torres del Paine, and I really don't want to miss that. Apparently I have three chances to make it out next week: my scheduled one on Wednesday, one on Tuesday, and one on Thursday. The Tuesday and Thursday options, however, go north to Raul Marin Balmaceda, which apparently would require me to convince the police chief to drive me to La Junta where I could get an 8-hour bus back to Coyhaique.

So that's the deal: three shots to get back in time for my flight, and a lot of time to worry about the weather and run through all of the potential outcomes in my head. It's going to be an exercise in Zen to enjoy my time in Melimoyu and leave the logistics on the other end to work out as they may.