Upon arriving in La Paz for the second time we were seasoned locals. We decided to take the awesome gondola system down into the city from El Alto, where the airport is. It was less than 2 bolivianos each for a ticket, which was nothing compared to the hour long and painfully uncomfortably taxi trip back. The gondolas soar above the city, traversing geography that roads had to go around and offering sights far and wide of La Paz and the daily lives of its people. We kept saying how Los Angeles needed something like this as a solution to all the traffic on the ground. We all did some laundry and packed out trekking backpacks for the Patagonia trip. Once we got to Punta Arenas in southern Chile, we had about a 3 hour wait for a bus. Mia and I took the opportunity to head into the town of Punta Arenas, which resembled something I would imagine a Maine fishing town to look like. We got lunch and coffee and headed back to the airport for the bus… the 3.5 hour long bus ride to Puerto Natales. I was about 48 hours into an uncomfortable illness that I was glad to make it through the flight to Chile without throwing up, then keep food down after lunch, but the bus ride made my face pale and minutes felt like hours. Made it, though, and into the new town and new hotel, where we could see the snowy mountains which were part of the Torres Del Paine national park that we were going to spend 4 days in. We had a day to roam the small town and its many outdoors shops and hipster hostel coffee shops and restaurants, Mia and I enjoyed what I think will be one of the best dinners of my life, and then we went to our tour-guides house / company HQ to meet the others in our group and get the itinerary. That’s where things took a turn, the itinerary that we had reserved and confirmed months ago was not the itinerary laid out infant of us. Reasons for the change were that a few refugios (basically the half dozen small hotels or cabins in the park) had to cancel a lot of reservations for the season due to limited resources to deal with human waste and trash. We were considered lucky our reservations weren’t completely cancelled, but it meant camping in different stops along the trek rather than in rooms at a desired location.
We did the W trek, which gets its name from looking like a W-shape of trails on the park map. Our first day was an out-and-back hike up to the famous Torres Del Paine. Then we got shuttled in our group almost all the way back to town (this part changed from the original plan) to a big ranch house for a lamb dinner. It wasn’t as pleasant as that makes it sound, but we had no choice and were happy to have showers, beds, and food. The next day we were shuttled back to the park and our group was able to split up and hike as each person wished as long as you make it to your destination for the end of the night. The weather on the first day was perfect, the heather on this second day was varying between light rain, knock-you-over-wind gusts, and bright sun between clouds. It felt like the longest hike of the trek, along a lake and to where we were supposed to stay in dome cabins…but we found out the itinerary was even more screwed up than we found out about 2 days earlier because we had to stay in 2 person tents instead. It snowed that night and the follow day was cold, snowy, rainy, cold, my goretex jacket didn’t work so I got soaking wet. I was loving it, though. I think I remember that day as my favorite day of hiking because the conditions felt like something I would rarely get to experience. The middle point of the W is a long hike up a the French valley to some view points. Because of the heavy snow, it was closed except for the first part. Sad and Mad went for it and were optimistic that the weather could clear. Mia and I continued on the rest of the trail to the next refugio. I’m glad we did because we arrived around 1pm, which meant it almost everyone else was still out hiking. I got to shower and dry some of my soaked clothes next to a fire. We played cards and had lunch while waiting for the rest of the group to arrive. The weather never did clear up for the cousins but they were glad they gave it a shot. We kept hearing that this particular refugio had “the frat-iest bar” which I think just meant a 2 for $5 beer deal and a 2nd story view. I’ll take that. We hung out at a table and got to know some of the other members in the same tour group before grabbing dinner and settling in. This refugio was a lot like a ski lodge and dorm put together. We woke early the next day and finished the remaining left side of the W, which was a strenuous hike with a lot of elevation changes and steep rock-steps. At one point Mia twisted her knee with about another hour left, she borrowed my extra hiking pole and fought through it to the finish. The original plan was to rest that night in the cabins, but instead we got sent down to tents again, and then hike the same trail back to the refugio we just stayed at. Due to Mia’s knee pain, my knee pain, and an scary storm forecasted to arrive overnight, we had a feeling sort of like when we got stuck in Mexico during a hurricane. A feeling of being trapped under poor circumstances and constantly fearful of what else can go wrong. We had an out though, if we decided quickly to leave, we could buy tickets on a ferry boat that was about to arrive and depart at a beach a little further up the trail. It was a best-case scenario to get back to Puerto Natales late that night and having this feeling from Mexico compounding anxiety in my gut, we took the opportunity to go. The cousins wanted nothing to do with out early departure, and stuck it out in the park for one more night.
The ferry turned out better than we expected. It was actually connected to a hotel at the south end of Lago Grey, and ran glacier tours for hotel guests after stopping at this drop-off / pick-up beach at the north end of the lake. So we hopped on, feeling kind of guilty for leaving and spending money of the ferry, but then were handed drink vouchers for a cocktail onboard and the glacier tour began. It was pretty amazing and I took advantage of it, probably taking more photos of the three branches of Glacier grey connecting to Lago Grey then I did of anything else on the trip. Icebergs break apart from the glacier and drift down the lake south and land on a black sand beach. We had to cross the beach in a rush to get the last bus from the Hotel to the park administration building at an entrance. The bus turned out to just be a hotel pickup truck that also brought a construction worker for the hotel to the park entrance with us. Then we were able to get on the last bus of the day, which took us back through the entire park to pick up all the hikers leaving that day from different pick up points. It was a lot of travel, and we got back to Puerto Natales at 10pm and into a bunker-style hotel Mia was able to book from her phone on the bus. We had an amazing celebration dinner as the only customers in the hotels restaurant and promptly passed out. At one point around dawn, which that far south was 4:30am, the rain which was surely impacting the cousins inside the park, was also battering sideways against the hotel room window. We were feeling pretty smug about making it back there already, dry and warm with a roof over our heads. We got to have a day of walking around town again, having some local beers and picking up souvenirs gifts, then we got to rendesvous with Syd and Mad who had yet another adventerous day hiking in intense weather to get back. We were happy with out choice and they were happy with theirs. The very next day we took that long bus back to the airport and a few planes, countries, and 20 hours later, were were back in Los Angeles.