I squinted hard, guarding my eyes against horizontal pellets of ice sailing through the air like bullets. Open just enough to see directly in front of me, I focused my eyes on the colorful logo of my travel companion’s backpack, wiling the relentless sleet to stop just long enough for us to get back to our campsite. I flexed my toes inside my hiking boots to make sure I could still feel them. I trudged along, becoming increasingly regretful as I remembered shopping inside a warm, dry REI store just before leaving for the trip. I winced at the memory of confidently deciding against purchasing waterproof pants. Then, I made myself laugh as I thought about being proud of my frugal decision at the time, knowing now that I’d pay 10 times that price for the same pair of waterproof trousers.
I knew Patagonia would be cold, even in the springtime month of November. I had read that it could be windy and the weather could be unpredictable. But the photographs convinced me otherwise. The blogs I’d read didn’t mention the bitter cold, the wind that nearly knocked me to the ground, nor the nasty precipitation in all forms that ceaselessly assaulted me from all angles. Perhaps I had subconsciously glossed over those parts.
I sat in my two-person tent after the brutal hike to the Grey Glacier, mentally doubting my decision to come to Patagonia. I was wet, cold, and 100 blustery yards from the lodge, where I could shower, albeit in a narrow stall with a tiny showerhead that spewed a meager stream of water, and only for a few seconds, when the faucet was pushed. At least the water was warm.
Having no choice but to suffer through it, I spent a sleepless first night in the tent, inches from my new “roommate,” a charming gal from Zurich, who had traveled to four times the countries I had in the same span of time. She seemed to sleep soundly as I lay awake, listening to the wind flap the zippered vents of the tent into the night, slipping into short, jarring dreams of being trapped in the yellow shelter, tossed atop snowy mountains by the wind. In the morning, the cold crushed my resolve to emerge from the warmth of my sleeping bag. Born and bred in the southern U.S., cold has never been my friend, but I had no choice but to stick it out. After an international flight to Santiago, an internal flight to Punta Arenas, followed by a bus ride to Puerto Natales, a cab ride from the hostel to the bus station, a bus ride to Torres del Paine National Park, and finally a boat ride to our camp site at the start of the famous W Trek, I knew figuring out the logistics for my escape would be impossible.
The morning after the dreadful hike through the all that Mother Nature had to offer began much more auspiciously. Having booked my trip with Intrepid Travel months before, I hadn’t a clue who I’d end up spending 10 days with at the bottom of the world. As it turned out, I wound up thoroughly enjoying the time spent with each of my travel companions: three Aussies, three Brits, an Irishman, four Americans, and a woman from Switzerland. The sunny second day allowed much room for laughter, as we were seemingly far removed from the wind and cold of the day before. We sat together in the lodge at the Torres del Paine National Park, feasting on scrambled eggs, granola, and toast. After breakfast, we packed our lunches, making our own sandwiches of meat, cheese, and bread supplied to us by our Chilean guide, along with a daily Snickers bar and a piece of fruit.
Smiles, laughter, and aimless chatter flowed throughout our 22 km journey to and from the French Valley. Along the way, our guide, a local who has lived most of her life in Puerto Natales – save for a few years during her youth when she and her family sought political asylum elsewhere during the Pinochet dictatorship – provided little pearls of wisdom as we trekked. She encouraged us to fill our water bottles with water from any and all streams we encountered. Patagonian glacier water is the purest on the planet and completely giardia-free! It’s also some of the best water you’ll ever taste. She told us about the Calafate berries that were almost ripe enough to pick and eat from the bushes expanding across the park. Between sharing educational tidbits, she admonished us along the way:
“Walk where I walk! Stay on the trail – we must protect the natural areas.”
“Don’t throw that fruit peel on the ground. You say it’s organic. NO. We don’t leave trash in the park!”
She told us about a terrible fire that ravaged the area years ago after a group of hikers ignored the rules against building fires in the park. She pointed out copses of burnt trees, a stark reminder of the hazard of taking nature into one’s own hand.
By the fourth day in the park, our little international group had become good friends. We knew both frivolous and major details of one another’s lives after spending hours on trails sharing stories from home, discussing future and past travels, and talking about where the post-Patagonia holiday would take us (home was my answer, though I was the only one who wasn’t sticking around South America after the Patagonia trip’s end).
The fourth day of the trip was the one I had most anticipated. We were headed to the Mirador del los Torres. I was so anxious to see the iconic Torres up close, I became increasingly impatient as we stopped for Snickers and bathroom breaks. As we hiked, our guide fretted over the foggy weather, and apologized in advance if the fog and clouds prevented her from showing us the best possible view. Assuring her that we all recognized the weather was out of her control, we trudged forward, removing and putting back on our coats as the weather vacillated.
Finally, we were upon them. The majestic torres jutted up from the earth juxtaposed with a glacial blue pool that appeared most inviting.
“That water is four degrees (Celsius),” Dennis, our travel coordinator, said in response to my comment that I’d like to swim in it.
Though the W trail is said to be one of the most popular in all of Patagonia, the Mirador del Torres wasn’t crowded that day. We took turns being photographed in front of the torres before acknowledging that we were all quite frozen and headed back for the day.
Back at the campsite, we killed time before dinner at the lodge, playing gin rummy and drinking Pisco Sours and cocktails made with Calafate berries. Traditional Chilean dinners were prepared for us by Intrepid staff in a set of dome tents where we all ate together as a group. Our last night in Chilean Patagonia, I hung around the lodge alone and watched the sunset over the Andes.
The following day, we headed east to the Argentine side. Arriving in El Calafate after a long but mostly uneventful experience crossing the border, we dropped our things off at the hostel: very basic accommodations that after four long, cold nights in a tent I was inordinately grateful to soon experience.
Next on the itinerary was a visit to the Perito Moreno Glacier in Los Glaciares National Park. Less than an hour from our perch in El Calafate, Los Glaciares National Park boasts long winding trails around the ice field that allow visitors to get close enough to hear and watch massive chunks of ice falling from the structure. Perito Moreno is one of only three glaciers in the world that is advancing rather than retreating. It’s hard to describe the scale of the thing – let own photograph it – it’s 18 miles long, more than 37 miles high, and 3 miles wide.
Eyeballing it wasn’t enough for most of us, so we threw on some crampons and set out for a little trek across the glacier. I kept my head down while repeatedly sinking my feet into the packed ice, conscious of my footfalls, afraid of stabbing my shin with a crampon spike. At the end of our journey, we were treated by our hiking guides to a glass of whiskey chilled with a bit of glacier.
The next day marked our last full day in Patagonia. Without a formal group itinerary, we were given options to spend our day – hanging around in the quaint town of El Calafate, or taking a day trip to a working estancia. I’ve never been one to miss an opportunity to spend time on horseback, so I opted for the estancia excursion, and am I ever glad I did!
First thing in the morning, we were shuttled to Estancia Nibepo Aike, just outside of El Calafate. Upon arriving, we were treated to coffee and muffins while we admired the stunning views of the Andes and watched the livestock roam across the expansive green fields. We listened to the history of the property for a few minutes before hopping on horses and taking a tour of the working ranch. We passed herds of lamb as we galloped by and took a moment to commemorate the experience with a few photographs. Back at the ranch house, we watched a gaucho show and a lamb sheering, before indulging in a feast of cadero asado, fresh vegetables, and Chilean wine. Full and happy, we made our way back to the hostel in El Calafate.
Nearing the end of our trip, we hopped a plane to Buenos Aires. We spent a final night together in a downtown bar, where we celebrated a fantastic trip with craft beer and fried food. The next morning, we met for breakfast in our hotel and said our goodbyes. With my 7:00 p.m. flight only hours away, I decided to treat myself to a quintessential culinary Argentine experience. After a brief internet search, I decided on Elena. On my walk there, I passed the obelisk in the center of town, and encountered a group of young folks covered in paint (I’m still not sure what that was about). Once I arrived at Elena, I decided to suspend healthy dieting and indulge completely. Thus, I ordered a glass of Malbec, the bone-in ribeye (cooked medium rare) with Chimichurri, the cheese soufflé, the arugula salad with a coddled quail egg, and a chocolate soufflé for dessert.
I sat at the table for 2 hours, enjoying every blessed morsel. As I write this, I can still remember the taste of the buttery, tender bites of ribeye doused in flavorful chimichurri, complimented with the smooth, earthy Malbec.
Sated and in love in the only way one can be after a meal unsurpassed, I sauntered across the city streets, soaking in the busy, vibrant elements of the city. A few hours later, I hauled my backpack into a taxi, feeling wistful, already missing the special place I hadn’t yet left.
Patagonia left an indelible mark on my heart, as did northern Chile and Argentina. If I could go back to el fin del mundo tomorrow, it wouldn’t be soon enough.