Exploring the End of the World (Tierra del Fuego)
It was in the middle of the night when our airplane touched down in Punta Arenas (Southern Chile), a medium-sized, sprawled out city that serves mainly as a military base and hop off point for Patagonia hikers and Antarctica travellers. We had 5 days to spare before our epic Antarctica journey. For some reason we hadn’t really made any plans in advance, which was probably attributable to a bit of travel planning fatigue (it felt much better to play with my nephews in Australia than doing google searches) combined with an increased desire to go with the flow. I guess you could say we decided we’d just wing it. Initially we figured we could just spend the 5 day hanging out in Punta Arenas. However, after one day of strolling through the city, visiting a couple of museums, and stopping by the fish market for ceviche we felt like we had seen it all. That’s when an idea struck us: let’s explore Tierra del Fuego, the archipelago off the southernmost tip off the South American mainland. So we found the nearest car rental place, jumped on Google to book a few hotels, downloaded a map and then set off.
The further away we got from Punta Arenas the more beautiful the landscape became, a mix of steppe and grassland. Guanacos (a type of lama) started to emerge and suddenly seemed to be everywhere.
After a day of driving through this beauty we arrived in Porvenir, a small port town. The place had a unique feeling. A ghost town with colourful houses that while looking charming had seen better days. A hint that we were approaching the “end of the world” after all. Leaving Porvenir the next morning the paved roads gave way to dirt and gravel. Slowly, we were winding our way through the rugged nature. Once in a while we saw signs hinting to former gold mines. Bumping along the increasingly difficult dirt track, we realised that we hadn’t seen other cars in a long while. It struck us that our little Renault rental car might have not been the best choice for this terrain. Compared to our Australian Outback adventure where we were fully prepared with a 4wd camping vehicle, this car was so bare bones that it didn’t even have a clock on the dashboard! It also hadn’t occurred to us that we should have stocked up on water or brought something to eat. Plus, Google maps (also not unsurprisingly) had lost satellite connection. With a somewhat uneasy feeling in our stomachs we continued the journey. It was either a choice of going all in or returning. We chose to keep going. And were happy that we did. After 2 more hours of off-roading (I’m still surprised that the car didn’t fall apart … turns out French cars are more solid than I thought) we hit the coastline and with it a somewhat better and more frequented road. The day turned out to be a highlight. Little did we know that we would pass by the only king penguin colony in the area. Beautiful creatures!
Hugging the beautiful coastline we continued the journey, passing big farms and a couple of small villages, before turning land-inwards.
Then the landscape changed from steppe into woodlands. Soon we arrived at our accommodation for the night, Parador Russfin. A street sign pointed us towards a reception. To our confusion we found ourselves at the office of a wood cutting factory. Were we at the right place? With my very limited Spanish vocabulary and lots of hand waving we finally figured out that we indeed were at the right place. Tripadvisor had failed to inform us that this place was basically an accommodation for the seasonal wood workers in the area – and the occasional tourist that passes by. Well, we got our fair dose of adventure after all! Dinner and breakfast were served in the factory canteen where we found ourselves amongst workers in blue overalls. Fun things happen if you don’t plan much in advance. The next day we jumped back into our little Renault winding our way back to Porvenir and then setting over via ferry to Punta Arenas. Next day we flew out of Punta Arenas to Puerto Williams to begin our Antarctic adventure. Albeit only spending a few days in Tierra del Fuego, we had gotten a teaser of its rare beauty.
Hiking in Torres del Paine
While most hikers in Torres del Paine come fully prepared with the big hiking packs, tents, sleeping bags and cookers, we were somewhat less prepared. Once again, we were kind of winging it by just bringing along a small day pack with a change of clothes, a few toiletries, a camera, headlamps and Kindles. For one, we didn’t have a tent, mats or sleeping bags with us on our year-long journey. It would have just been too much to carry around the world given our diverse set of activities and and our decision to travel with carry-on luggage only. Plus, Torres del Paine offered several lodges across the main trail, called the W-trek. So we opted for either staying in bunk beds or rented tents along the way. And lastly, the thought of trying to get on with the absolute minimum seemed a good challenge.
The whole week exceeded our expectations. The landscape was just stunning. The sharp edges of the grey stone massif with its distinct granite peaks reaching high up into the sky looked spectacular. As a contrast to the peaks, the well-trodden hiking paths took us past unbelievably clear, ice blue lakes surrounded by scrubland. The lakes have an incredibly bright blue colour due to the fresh glacier water and the lack of sediments and provide a beautiful contrast to the vegetation with its green, brown and yellowish colours. To our surprise, the lodges were well equipped and quite comfortable (apart from the occasional snorer in the mixed dorm rooms). For the most part, the meals (including a bagged lunch) tasted surprisingly good. As advice for the less heavy meat eaters out there, opt for the vegetarian option once in a while. Otherwise, get ready for a filet of meat and rice for dinner 🙂
Thinking that nothing could beat this stunning scenery, we encountered yet another highlight on this trip, Glacier Grey. It’s a massive glacier that winds its way down the valley all the way into the lake Lago Grey. We had booked a glacier hike and were excited to set foot on this massive piece of eternal ice. Just getting there was a trip in itself: with the dingy across the choppy waters of Lago Grey, followed by a 1.5 hour ascent through rocks. We put on crampons and after a few instructions we set foot on the large ice shield. Surrounded by the high peaks of the National Park with the glacier coming down on one side and the blue lake on the other, this felt like being at the heart of Patagonia!
One other highlight on our hike was to make friends along the way. Most hikers walk the W-trek from East to West so we kept running into the same people at the lodges. At dinner on Day 1, we set next to a Swiss-Italian couple, Anna and Marco. Marco spoke only Italian but that ended up not being a major barrier for us to communicate. While Anna translated most of our conversation, Marco would at times happily chat with us in Italian, cracking jokes and looking at us expectantly for a reaction. At times we had no idea what he was saying and laughed along with his jokes. It was refreshing to meet someone who didn’t let a language barrier get in the way of connecting with others! Excited about our new friends, we caught up again in other lodges along the way and even hiked the last day together.
Halfway through our journey, we arrived at one of the lodges early in the afternoon. Waiting for our rented tent, we struck up a conversation with a couple sitting next to us and hit if off right away. Morena, an actuary, and Sebastiaan, a software developer, were both from Holland. I was intrigued by the fact that they both worked part-time in interesting jobs and managed to take a two-month vacation every year – one month for traveling and the other month for volunteering. Quite inspirational! Over a couple of beers the conversation moved from work-life balance, volunteering and travels to metaphysics and meditation. Before knowing it, the afternoon had passed and we were sharing dinner together.
Sadly, Morena and Sebastiaan were going against the stream on the W-trek, hiking it from West to East. So unfortunately we wouldn’t be able to catch up along the way. Just before we parted ways, however, we figured out that we’d all be back in Puerto Natales on the same night. A double date it was. And even better, it was Sebastiaan’s 40th birthday giving us a good reason to celebrate! We ended up having a lovely dinner and fun evening at Mesita Grande Pizza (great thin-crust pizza, highly recommended). After parting ways that night, I felt confident that somehow the four of us would again cross paths somewhere in this world.