Now that we’ve caught up on the Icelandic Adventures, it time to move onto the next exciting adventure that I haven’t written about yet. Where this time you ask? How about Patagonia, and the end of the World? This was one of those trips we’d dreamt of for some time, but had to work our way up to it. The reason for the delay was we needed to be comfortable with longer distance solo backpacking, as we we were tackling this one completely on our own. No guides, no tour groups, just backpacks, all the gear we’d need, and maps. Admittedly, once we actually ‘hit the trails’, it didn’t take long to realize that for the most part, these would be well-trodden paths. Albeit very quiet and peaceful trails. However, before we can get to the actual hiking, we have to get there, and this post will serve to ease us into the region, because it turns out that just GETTING into the heart of Patagonia is a multi-day affair. So without further ado, let’s dive into the trip down, and the great cities of Santiago, Punta Arenas, and finaly Puerto Natales.
First Stop: Santiago
Although the first leg of the trip was technically the longest, it was the easiest in terms of booking and dealing with. Ottawa –> Toronto –> Houston –> Santiago. Yup, two layovers, which included almost a full day in Toronto, and a time of nearly 27 hours! Luckily this went pretty smoothly. For the rest of the trip, the planning started several months before, as I had to deal with internal flights, buses, hostels, camp reservations, etc., many of which saw me using my rudimentary Spanish to sort out. Now I understand why big expedition people use local ‘fixers’ to deal with some of the minutiae. Lucky for me, I don’t mind that part of planning, and saw it as a challenge and an ‘optimization problem’ to maximize all of our time while seeing all we wanted to. I could probably write a small novel just on how I planned all the connections later, but don’t worry, I won’t! To kill our day in Toronto, we grabbed the train downtown, enjoyed some nice strolling, and beer and board games at C’est What?.
Upon our final arrival in Santiago, it was now Monday morning at about 10am. We’d strategically planned a 1-night stay in Santiago in case of flight issues, as the next leg was an internal flight on a small plane. This gave us a great opportunity to tour the Capital of Chile on foot and experience her sights and sounds. This was a little rough our systems, as we’d been travelling over 27 hours before we could start touring, but rather than wasting time napping, we got right to it. On the plus side, we were in the same time zone. However, with the slight brain fog, we decided to hop into a ‘free’ walking tour where you just tip the guide for service. It’s a great way to get your bearings and see a historic city centre like Santiago.
On our tour, we saw the major political sites, museums, and learned about the history and culture from a local. We wound our way through many of the well-known areas of the city, including the financial district, the university area, and random bohemian areas and city squares. This was also a great opportunity to ask our guide what kind of food and drinks to try out (Chorillana was the bomb, cheap, and definitely counts as Chilean comfort food), as well as where some good spots to just spend some time people watching. Given that we were there at the end of October (the 29th at this time), we were again lucky to be avoiding major ‘summer’ crowds, which is our standard plan when visiting places like this. Just as fun, but lots less people than the ‘warm’ summer months. I’m using quotes of course because we are south of the equator now, so late October is actually moving into Spring here, whereas at home we were moving into fall.
Other highlights of our brief 1 day stop in Santiago included catching a live concert downtown from a military band. They actually did a whole production of Thriller complete with ghouls choreographing. The locals were totally loving it, and it looked and sounded great. We also tried numerous Empanadas, which became a staple in our diet for cheapness, portability, and deliciousness. We seldom went anywhere without a paper bag full of them. The ‘best’ in Santiago were rumoured to be from El Rapido, which were definitely good. And of course I found numerous craft beer bars (Krossbar and Kunstmann were my two favourites)! Finally, during a late-night stroll back to our hotel, we were very entertained by what appeared to be a spontaneous outdoor neighbourhood Tango party. This was in a residential area (no tourists), and was just locals enjoying the warm evening and a dance to music. Very cool! We’d booked our flight from Santiago to Punta Arenas for later the evening on the next day, so overall, we had about 40 hours in Santiago, and thoroughly enjoyed it!
Next Stop: Punta Arenas
Punta Arenas is pretty much the end of the world in my mind. Sitting on the Strait of Magellan. It is the largest city south of the 46th south parallel in the world, and the furthest south city with any notable population in Chile. our time in this city would be relatively short. We’d taken an evening flight and taxi the night before, arriving after dark at our hostel. The next day, our bus to our next stop was leaving around 15h00, which meant we wouldn’t actually have that much time to tour. In addition, we had planned to use Punta Arenas as our supply pick-up location. We’d read that supermarkets were less prevalent and also more expensive at our next stop, so goal one on Wednesday morning was to get all the food we’d need for our upcoming 9 days of trekking in Torres del Paine. Luckily, we found a good sized store a short walk from our hostel. We stocked up, dropped it off at our hostel, then went for our mini-exploration of Punta Arenas. We did all of this on foot, so obviously were limited to where we’d get to go, but luckily we’d picked a hostel near the downtown.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Punta Arenas is the role it played in the expeditions of Ernest Shackleton. After all, this is where Shackleton eventually found himself when he was planning the rescue of his stranded crew after so many long winter months marooned in the South. Honestly, if you haven’t read Alfred Lansing’s book Endurance yet, you really ought to. It is one of the most inspirational stories of human resilience and determination. A good read for the times we are living in. We’ve got NOTHING on these people! While trying to imagine what Punta Arenas must have been like in those times, Deanna and I made our way to the city square, as well as climbed up the hill to admire the Magellan Strait. This is a city and area with so much dramatic history, it is hard to fathom. However, from my perspective, it wasn’t, in itself, all that compelling. We were glad we spent a day here, but honestly, there really wasn’t that much happening here!
Before heading back to collect our backpacks and find the bus terminal, we did make a point to visit the Shackleton Bar. Unfortunately, it was closed for the day, but we managed to convince them to let us wander briefly in this storied and famous watering hole. I had hoped to get a fancy cocktail here and pretend to be a well-heeled explorer, but had to settle for admiring decorations and paintings while Deanna powdered her nose. From there we wandered around a bit more in search of a filling warm meal, as we weren’t sure what our diet might consist of for the next week and a half or so. Unsurprisingly, I managed to find a local establishment that not only held local craft beer, but also thin steaks. Remember, this is the land of meat (and we hadn’t transitioned to plant-based yet). It was quite tasty, and with full bellies, we boarded a coach bus bound for Puerto Natales, our final ‘town’ before hitting the wild frontiers.
Last Stop: Puerto Natales
And so we found ourselves, at about 18h30 on Halloween Day, in Puerto Natales. We’d left our house somewhere around 04h30 on the 28th of October, and it was now 18h30 on the 31st of October, and we still weren’t at the start of our actual adventure. You see why I said it was a journey to the end of the earth? Regardless, we were almost there now. In proper fashion, I’d booked us into a hostel called the Last Hope. It was a bit dive-y, but the staff were great, and we thought it was just perfect for our last night in a bed for the next while. It would kind of ease us into the rough and tumble expedition we were setting out on. Due to the timing, we actually had 2 nights booked here, since we weren’t organized enough yet to catch a 6am bus to the start of our trek. So we had 2 nights, and one full day to explore.
Right away on night 1 we wandered over to the Erratic Rock hostel, where they have daily briefings (the “3-o’clock talk”) for people heading into Torres del Paine. The staff here are well versed on the most current trail conditions, shutdowns, hazards, etc., and it was highly recommended we attend. Although we did attend the talk the next day, and got a few good pointers, I was more interested in the Base Camp restaurant attached, where we had the most amazing pizza and washed it down with giant beers! After all, we were moving onto freeze-dried meals and instant mashed potatoes. Best make the best of it now, right? The most helpful tips centered around the current conditions. The biggest risk we faced on our circuit was the possibility of not making it over one particular pass, due to snow pack. We left the briefing not entirely certain it would be open. We still had 3-4 days before getting there though, and were hopeful!
For the next day, we had a pretty lazy day of meal preparations, as well as packing and re-packing our gear in our backpacks. After all, for the next week and a half, we’d be living out of these backpacks. Everything had to fit, not be uncomfortable, but have everything we might need for any emergencies. Tents, cooking gear, sleeping gear, clothes of all sorts, cameras, maps, filter, etc. etc. The list was pretty long, but we got the packs pretty dialed in and felt good about them. Once the packs were taken care of, we spent the rest of the day strolling around the village, and over to the waterfront. I liked the views here even more than I had a Punta Arenas. There was a great vibe, and the mountains in the distance were absolutely mesmerizing.
Along our walk were some great sculptures, murals, as well as fantastic views everywhere we cast our gaze. The weather was definitely crisp, but the skies relatively settled. We realized that could change at any moment, and silently hoped the next week would be good. After all, you don’t travel all this way to embark on an amazing expedition hoping for clouds and rain, but sometimes, you have no choice (stay tuned….).
Our ‘lazy day’ also consisted of seeking out a couple more tasty meals to tide us over. And would you believe it, I actually found another brewery to visit! This time, it was a place called Baguales. This place was hopping! It was totally stuffed with people. Some, like us, getting ready to head into Torres del Paine, while plenty of others were on their way back from the pack. It had a bit of a hipster vibe to it, and clearly a bit ‘touristy’, but was still a great little spot to enjoy a beer.
Although the beer was good, what we were really in the mood for was a local drink. And for that, you need look no further than a bar that might have a bottle of Pisco. Ostensibly referred to as the ‘Brandy of South America’, it comes in all shapes and sizes. While Peruvians lay claim to its creation, I have it on good authority that it was actually the Chileans who first created it. Either way, you can have a pretty heated discussion on its origins if you find yourself at the Piscology Bar of Puerto Natales, which we did. To close out our time, we stumbled across this little place. It was dead quiet. We were the only two to pop our heads in. However, the owner / bartender was the best host, in spite of not speaking a word of english. We had a grand time piecing together a conversation while he helped me sample a few different bottles. After all, this entire bar was ONLY pisco, so he had the best of the best (for the right price). It was an end to Puerto Natales Deanna and I won’t forget. A pure moment with a local on his turf.
All in all, the Piscology Bar was a fitting close to this chapter in our Patagonian Adventures. The next morning, we’d be embarking on ‘the Main Event’, boarding yet another bus. After that though, we’d trade tickets for trekking poles, and move to our self-powered adventures. Over the next few posts, you’ll get to read all about our journey trekking the O Circuit of Torres del Paine. Hope you’ll stay tuned for those!