Winging it in Patagonia


Glacier Grey on our way to an ice hike

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.

Punta Arenas

Punta Arenas

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.


Guanaco in Tierra del Fuego

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!


Entrance of the King Penguin Park


King Penguins in Tierra del Fuego


King Penguins in Tierra del Fuego


King Penguins in Tierra del Fuego

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


Beautiful Patagonia (Chile)

After spending 21 days in the Antarctic cramped on a small sailing yacht, we found ourselves back in Patagonia and ready to move our legs again. This time we were in Puerto Natales as the starting point for 5 days of hiking in Torres del Paine. I was super excited as I had always wanted to hike in Patagonia and everyone who had been there described it as a “must see”.

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 🙂


The Torres – the famous three granite peaks


On the way to Valle Frances


Valle Frances 


Hiking in Torres del Paine

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!


Hiking towards Glacier Grey


Glacier Grey


Getting ready for our glacier hike


Hiking on the glacier


Torres del Paine’s stunning scenery!

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.


With our hiking buddies Anna and Marco from Switzerland

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.


Meeting Morena & Sebastiaan at Refugio Cuernos

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.


Trekking in the Bhutanese Himalayas


Exhilarating, strenuous, cold, remote, stunning, and very rewarding. Those are just a few of the words that come to mind when summarizing our recent 7-day trek to the Jhomolhari base camp in the Bhutanese Himalayas.

I was very much looking forward to this adventure and being back in the remote wilderness. I must admit, however, that I tend to romanticize those type of trekking trips, somehow forgetting the unavoidable painful moments. But Christian and I love the challenge. And with that challenge comes appreciation and a sense of accomplishment. And that’s what we feel looking back on our Himalaya adventure.

The incredible thing about an organized trekking tour (you have to book through a travel agency to get a tourist visa to Bhutan) is that you really “just” have to carry yourself up (and down) the mountains. Everything else is taken care of. Tenzin, our tour guide, brought us up to speed with Bhutan’s history and every imaginable story about Buddhism; our horse guide took care of our seven pack horses; and three other guys managed the camp. Yep, that’s right: 5 men and 7 horses supporting just the 2 of us! Sounds like luxury camping. But wasn’t. The whole experience was still an adventure. It was physically challenging (we hiked an average of 15km a day with an average altitude difference of 1500-2000m), it was hard to breathe (our highest pass was 4890m), and it was cold (freezing temperatures at night which made sleeping through pretty much impossible). But it was so worth it. Here is a glimpse of our daily “life in the mountains”:

Day 1: Talking about challenges, we didn’t even make it to our starting point on Day 1. Heavy rain in the days before our hike had caused some landslides, blocking the road. Our driver, determined to navigate through the narrow opening on the street, tried to make it through. That turned out to be a bad idea. The car slid to the left and hit a huge rock. Luckily, the damage wasn’t too bad.

There was no way, however, to drive any further so we packed up our stuff and decided to walk instead, adding 3 extra kilometers to the 22 kilometers planned for that day. And the fun was only about to begin. The rain had turned the rocky trail into an enourmous mud slide. What we expected to be a long but leisurely hike through the sub-tropical forests ended up being an 8-hour balancing and rock-jumping exercise.

Exhausted but proud of our progress, we reached the camp side where hot tea and a glimpse of the stunning Jhomolhari summit, Bhutan’s second tallest peak, awaited us.

Day 2: We woke up to sunny skies and a crystal clear view onto Jhomolhari. Just beautiful.

Energized we set out to conquer the next 17km of the trek, hugging the valley floor and a fast flowing river.

Close to the 4000m altitude mark we came through a small village. Really just an accumulation of a handful of houses. It’s hard to imagine to live in such a harsh climate. The place is snowcovered from November to March and people mainly live off yaks and sheep. Despite being remote, the people were quite inviting. A group of villagers that were catching up (outside in the cold) happily posed for pictures. And some school boys took the opportunity to practice a few English phrases with us.

After one more hour we reached the base camp (4080m) with spectacular views onto the 7314m high Jhomolhari. It got cold pretty quickly so we bridged the time until dinner, snuggling up and reading in our sleeping bags. Besides the actual hike, dinner was the main highlight of the day. We couldn’t wait for our daily dose of hot soup – the best imaginable thing when it’s cold outside. Well, actually, there was something that topped the soup. When we all huddled in the kitchen tent that night, our crew produced a whiskey bottle. Not being a big whiskey fan my enthusiasm was limited. But, hey, try that stuff with some hot water. It’s magic! The perfect way to warm up before jumping back into your sleeping bag.

Day 3: Our acclimatization day. In order to avoid altitude sickness, the itinerary plans in an acclimatization day at the base camp. While we had woken up to clear views, that soon changed.


We set out on a 4-hour hike up to the actual base of Jhomolhari and got caught in a hail storm before it started to snow a bit. Crazy how you can get all types of weather within a couple of hours.

Back at the camp in the afternoon, the sun reemerged. Time for some hooping with the crew! This turned out to be super fun. Our horse guide had the funniest technique and everyone cracked up laughing. Once dusk was upon us, the typical routine kicked-in: reading, dinner, mystical stories in the kitchen tent over our shot of “hot-water whiskey”, some more reading, bedtime 🙂

Day 4: This was a tough day with an ascent of 800m followed by a descent of 1000m. But also very rewarding. We passed yak herders through a stunning scenery with crisp blue alpine lakes and rivers. The weather gods kept challenging us with a hail storm during the last 200m of our ascent. But we made it up to the highest point on our route (4890m), cold and sweaty at the same time!

The amazing outlook was shortlived, however, as we needed to make a 1km vertical descent back down to our camp. Again, the scenery made up for the workout. Our path led us through rocky cliffs, wildfower meadows, various nomadic settlements and provided incredible views onto gigantic waterfalls.

Our camp was tucked away in a beautiful small opening in the wood right next to the river. Optimistic about the sun that broke through the clouds, I took a little “shower” in the river. But, somewhat predictably, the weather turned rainy and cold within minutes so my enthusiasm was shortlived. I jumped back in my usual 5-layer outfit immediately. The attempt to start a cozy bonfire was rained out. But we had gotten a few minutes of warmth.

Back to our usual treat: a bit of hot whiskey and hot water bottles. Yes, our crew prepared hot water bottles for the night for us! This was another nice surprise. Reminded me of my childhood when I was sick and my mum would tuck me into my bed with a hot water bottle. Without our little “heaters” I would have probably woken up even more times during night.

Day 5: Both Christian and I thought we had the hardest day of the trek behind us. Happily we jumped “out of bed”, stretched our stiff bodies and eagerly awaited our hot coffee and breakfast.


Our cook kept surprising us with new items. That day he produced pancakes. Strengthened, we continued the journey. But it was not as easy as expected. The previous four days of intense hiking in altitude must have taken a toll on us. Both Christian and I moved in slow motion, our bodies feeling incredibly tired. Like snails we dragged ourselves up the first 200m past hillsides lush with rhododendrons before gradually climbing above the tree line again. And then we hit the last killer ascent, a steep 550m climb up to our last pass (4520m) on the trek. Mentally, this was the toughest stretch for Christian and me. But I also knew it would be our last big one. And again, stunning views from the top. Only one more hour downhill to our camp for the day!

Arriving at the camp, Tenzin, our guide, surprised us with a Druk 11000. Druk is one of Bhutan’s national beers. The Druk 11000 is an extra strong version with 8%. We were happy 🙂


Day 6: Our last day of hiking. One more last, steep ascent before venturing into a 1.6km vertical, rocky downhill path. The weather gods on our side, we had sunshine for the whole day. After arriving at the camp site around lunch time, we ventured out to meet locals in the nearby village.

While enjoying a beer at a local grocery shop (really just a room with some basic goods), we got a peak at “doma”. Doma is an integral part of Bhutanese culture. It’s made out of betel nut, betel leave and lime (synthetic calcium carbonate). You chew the mixture which makes your mouth go slightly numb and stains your teeth red. It’s spat out after chewing, so you can see doma stains on the ground all over the place in Bhutan. These days the government is trying to reduce the use of it given its addictiveness and negative health implications. But it’s so ingrained in Bhutanese culture that people, especially older ones, won’t give up the habit.

Two little girls, just back from school, were curiously peaking through the shop window. Happy that I had brought the hoop, we attempted to teach them how to do it. Very timid at first, the girls barely dared to touch it. But with a little encouragement they went for it, and had a lot of fun.

Back at the camp there was one more game we wanted to try. A typical Buthanese stone-throwing game. Sounds pretty simple (i.e., just get the stone as close to the target as possible). Turns out it’s not. Both Christian and I were pretty bad at it. Our trekking crew, unsurprisingly, “rocked” the game.

With a little bit of nostalgia, we enjoyed our last trekking meal that evening. Our cook surprised us again – this time with empanadas and a pizza! What a treat on our last night camping. Satisfied, we stumbled into our tent and, admittedly, were both looking forward to a proper shower and sleeping in a real bed again the next day 🙂