Eventful yet unproductive – Ushuaia (fin del mundo), Argentina

After 15 hours on a bus I finally arrived at the end of the world, Ushuaia. As I was checking Facebook that night, Kari, a fellow traveler I met in Calafate had posted she was in Ushuaia and as luck would have it she ended up being at the same hostel as me.

We met at breakfast the following morning and she decided to keep me company while I looked for last minute Antarctica deals. Unfortunately, it turned out it was Sunday and everything was closed. We ended up wandering around town looking for any store that happened to be open. Without luck, we headed to the end of the world sign to take some pictures. Since we had each other, we didn’t have to take selfies, which both of us have come accustomed to as solo traveler. While taking our pictures, we ran into Vashti, another solo traveler who was staying in my room. The three of us would become fast friends! Now a threesome, we headed to a small market that was open and we all ended up buying a ring made out of an Argentinean coin by the cutest old man.

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On the way back to the hostel, I decided to try and see if one more tour agency was open, Ushuaia Extremo. Solange (the coolest tour agent ever) happened to be working on a Sunday and convinced me to book a tour leaving on December 6th. I couldn’t believe it, I was going to Antarctica! After accomplishing what I set out to do even with all the stores being closed, the three of us headed to dinner. Vashti and I shared a delicious plate of meat and french fries.

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The following day, we found out that it was a national holiday and again all stores would be closed. While Kari was out on a 4X4 tour, Vashti and I headed out on a mission to find something to do. As to not waste an entire day being unproductive, we went to the Galeria Tematica. As sad as this is to admit, I cannot recall much of what I learned. I was too busy taking pictures in the scenes and not paying attention to what the audio tape was narrating about the scene. Nevertheless, Vashti and I had a great time laughing throughout the whole museum. Later that night, the three of us drank lots of wine and simply enjoyed each others company!

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Since I would be seeing lots of penguins in Antarctica (or at least I hoped), I skipped out on the penguin tour with Vashti and Kari. I used the next day as my catch up day…updating my blog and figuring out what to do with my week before I departed for Antarctica as well as figure out future plans. I also exchanged American dollars that day at the creepiest stuff animal store, but at least they gave me a good exchange rate!

I had convinced Kari to come to Torres del Paine with me and complete the “backside” of the circuit, therefore leaving Vashti the following morning. On our final day together and itching to get outside, the three of us headed to Tierra del Fuego, the national park in Ushuaia. We walked for around two hours and then headed back to town. For our last night together, we went to one of the only bars in town for a beer. As much as I tried to convince Vashti to come with us to Torres del Paine, she kept turning me down.

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Although I didn’t accomplish much with my time in Ushuaia, hanging out with Vashti and Kari made it all worthwhile. I can’t even really explain what we did with our days, but they were definitely eventful yet unproductive and we have friendship rings to prove it!

The reason we came back to South America – The “W” Circuit, Torres del Paine, Chile

Farima and I reunited again at Erratic Rock, our hostel, in Puerto Natales to take on the “W” Circuit in Torres del Paine, a national park in the Chilean Patagonian region encompassing mountains, glaciers, lakes, and rivers. The W Circuit – named after its shape in the letter “W” when examined on a map – is considered one of the most popular paths amongst the many trekkers, travelers and nature lovers that the National Park attracts, due to the picturesque and what is known and quoted as the best views of the entire circuit it offers throughout its course.

Conveniently, the hostel we stayed at had informational sessions every day in preparation for the treks, as far as what to expect, pack, eat, weather conditions, etc. We attended the 3 o’clock session the same day next door at Base Camp (a bar adjoined to the hostel next door and owned by the brother of the hostel owner) and soaked up as much information as we could while getting lost in the gray, foreign eyes of our speaker – a beautiful Dutch Mountain man both Fi and I had come to know and love… from a distance. After the information sessions, we headed out to get the necessary things needed for the next five days including camping equipment, gear and easy to prepare and carry, food items. That night we packed our bags and prepared, physically and mentally, to embark on an adventure of a lifetime the morning that would follow.

We left Puerto Natales at 7:50 am the next day and decided to take the catamaran (the 2nd stop on the bus) to the Paine Grande Lodge, the start of our adventure hiking the “W” from the direction West to East, which is the first stop for many other trekkers that are hiking the same route.  With roughly 18KG’s on our backs (or at least the feel of it) we trekked the 3 hours and 45 minutes to our home for the night at Refugio Grey (another common name for a camp site with facilities, i.e. bathrooms, showers, kitchenette area) admiring the valleys, Lago Grey, and the stunning Glacier Grey at a distance. After setting up our tents and giving our backs, hips and shoulders a break from the backpacks, we headed to another short trail to catch a glimpse of Glacier Grey a little closer. As the winds were strong and fierce at the Glacier viewpoint, we didn’t venture too close to the edge and only stayed a short while to admire the glacier’s beauty, snaps some photos and hold a strong stance to avoid being blown away! After our short trek for some glacier sighting, we headed back to our camp site, cooked dinner at the kitchenette, proud of our first pasta meal that surprisingly tasted delicious (thanks to the added avocado and tomato we stubbornly decided last-minute to bring along without regards to its added weight on our backs) and headed to bed after a successful and memorable first day.

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We later realized, as we continued to see people hiking back and forth carrying close to nothing, we could have alternatively set up camp at the first Refugio Paine Grande and hiked to and back from Refugio Grey the same day. Although this would have taken us a bit longer time wise, the advantage of it would have been not having to carry our backpacks there and back on day one and the following morning on day two (day two consisted of us going back the same way we came to Refugio Paine Grande to do the rest of the “W” – imagine Refugio Grey being at the top tip of the very first slant of a “W” and Refugio Paine Grande being the bottom tip of it).  Regardless, it was part of the experience and I actually believe that it made us that much more prepared and stronger for the next 4 days that followed.

On Day 2, we hiked back down to Refugio Paine Grande Lodge and stopped there to take a break and enjoy our lunch. After our rest and lunch break, we had another 2 ½ hours to Campamento Italiano (campsite that was not a Refugio) as we began our hike after lunch. To our weather misfortune (THANKFULLY, the one and only during our entire 5 days!) the rain started to make its way down upon us shortly into our second leg of our hike. Although a little windy and rainy, we were still surrounded by stunning views of the mountains and lakes surrounding us and it did not stop us from making a few short stops to admire the sights, and snap some photos to enjoy after the fact. After all, we were in Patagonia, we weren’t going to let a little rain have much of an effect on our overall experience!

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We arrived to the next campsite a little cold and a little wet, and tried to get dry as soon as possible. We still managed to enjoy some risotto and warm ourselves up next to our rented burner stove. That night ended up being the coldest throughout our trek, mainly because my sleeping bag had gotten wet in the process. Although we contemplated sharing one sleeping bag, we decided it wouldn’t have been the best solution given the amount of space we would have had to share. I ended up sticking it out like a champ and writing it off as all part of the adventure!

We survived the night and woke up to the sun gracing us with its presence the following morning. Leaving all of our gear at camp, we trekked up to Mirador Britanico (imagine the middle top point of a W, that was where the viewpoint was). The moment we reached the top, the clouds were in our favor as they began to clear up and we decided to sit, eat our sandwiches, while admiring the peaks, the snow-capped mountains, and the ever changing clouds above, below and all around us. It was truly a sight you have to see to believe.

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After the viewpoint, we made our way back down to pack up our gear and head to our next destination and our 3rd campsite, Refugio Los Cuernos. The 2 ½ hour hike to Los Cuernos was striking with views of the blue waters of Lago Nordenskjol and the mountains surrounding it. We lost count of how many times we stopped to admire its significance and take pictures to remember it for after; although as hard as it is to admit, pictures don’t do much of Torres del Paine any justice. After reaching camp and grabbing one of the few camp sites left, we set up our tent and headed to the common area (another warm kitchenette for all campers at the Refugio) to cook dinner and even got to sip on some delicious whiskey spiked coffee… of course, only to get some good sleep that night!

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The fourth and hardest of the entire 5 days was a 5 hour hike to Refugio Chileno the next morning, followed by another hour hike to our campsite, Las Torres. Despite its difficulty, the sights surrounding us were awe-inspiring; everywhere we turned we were faced with a unique, different, and magnificent view of the park; a true representation of everything the trek and the region offered.  When we arrived at the campsite, the ranger checked us in and advised us to hike up to see the Torres that same night as the sky was clear with limited clouds in view and we may not have been blessed with the same circumstances the next morning. Although we had planned on hiking up for sunrise the next morning, it didn’t take more than a mere advice for the ranger to convince us to hike up it the same night, despite our already long day. After we had come all that way, we couldn’t risk possibly missing the Torres in a clear light.

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We made our way up the fairly steep climb reaching our final destination in about 45 or so minutes. When we arrived, it was hard to stop staring at the well deserving famous towers of the National Park and main attraction of the W Trek. The lighting couldn’t have been more perfect as the sun was setting behind its peaks. It was truly a spectacular sight that I am grateful we got to experience.  After taking some time to soak up and further admire the magnificence of the towers, we headed back to our campsite, cooked our last camping dinner, and headed to bed in an early fashion and in preparation of our 4:00 am wake-up call.

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The following morning while it was still dark out, we hiked the hill back up to the Torres once more in hopes of catching a different yet as equally attractive view of the towers, as the sun reflected off the Torres after it rose over the lake on its adjacent direction. Needless to say as it is hard to put into words, try to justify through pictures, or attempt to provide a verbal description, the splendor of all that is Torres del Paine, the top of the hill offered remarkable views of the sunrise in both directions, over the lake and across towards the Torres. Although there were a bit too many clouds for the sunlight to reflect off the Torres, nothing can take away from the pure glory of it all.

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After saying our good-byes to Torres del Paine, we headed back on a roughly 3 hour journey into town to catch our bus back to Puerto Natales. It was definitely a bitter-sweet ending to our five-day adventure. As much as we wanted to continue on living and hiking through the National Park, our feet, hips, knees and shoulders, had an agenda of their own!

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The following day, Farima and I took a rest, relax and catch up day in Puerto Natales and enjoyed each other’s company one last time before we had to split off again to head our separate ways. I was headed south and she was headed back up north. It was our potential last day on a continent we had mainly experienced together over the past 7 months and had come to love.  It was a tease to be traveling with my friend again for only a short while, but we have exciting plans together for the future ahead, so it is not necessarily a goodbye, just a See-You-On-Another-Continent later!

Those 5 days spent in the Torres del Paine National Park, trekking, camping, sometimes walking through puddles of mud and rain, embracing the cold, the wet clothes, sleeping bags, shoes, eating nothing but carbs but having a good excuse to indulge in as much chocolate as our bags and stomachs could handle, playing nonstop 21 questions, exchanging stories, smiles, forgetting without minding any attention to personal space in a cramped 2 person tent, and last but certainly not least, getting the chance to take in, breathe, and remember Torres del Paine, for all its beauty, grandeur, and justified glory… I must admit, the experience was absolutely unforgettable and one for the books. I am glad we got to experience that together.

Co-Written and Edited By: Farima Mn.