SAN PEDRO DE ATACAMA

A quick stop at a customs office just outside San Pedro de Atacama and we were now officially back in Chile.  I’m not entirely sure at what moment we officially left Argentina (no signs) but the scenery on the drive from Salta was beautiful.  At our highest point we reached close to 4000m before descending back down the mountain range and arriving in San Pedro de Atacama where we were still at 2,438m above sea level.
Atacama_002Atacama_015Atacama_014As we walked the dusty streets of San Pedro de Atacama the air was dry and it took a moment to catch our breath.  The Atacama Desert is considered the most arid desert in the world and we guzzled down water like it was going out of fashion.  The whole town blends in to its vast surroundings – white and sand-coloured buildings line the streets with roofs made of clay and hay.  Stepping inside the storefronts it is quite the contrast with various textiles and souvenirs of the brightest colours filling the buildings.Atacama_088Atacama_093Atacama_091We had a 4:00am start on our second morning with a visit to Tatio Geysers, the highest geyser field in the world at 4320m above sea level.  With temperatures below zero at dawn, you can see the flow of vapor from the geysers, reaching as high as 10 metres!  We had been warned of how cold it could be and dressed accordingly – I had 3 pairs of pants and about 5 layers on top however as we stepped out of the bus and began walking around the geysers we were all still frozen to the bone!Atacama_019Atacama_024We huddled around the geysers, watching them bubble away and catching just a little relief from the cold as the warm vapors sizzled out.  As the sun rose it began to get warmer and we continued exploring the geyser field.  At one stage, we decided to jump for a photo only to realize that exerting that kind of energy at over 4000m above sea level makes you all kinds of dizzy and we definitely didn’t try that again!  With the darkness fading it was time for breakfast and we enjoyed hard boiled eggs and coffee – heated straight from the geysers!  At first no one was eating their eggs, rather using them as a device to thaw out their frozen fingers.Atacama_034Atacama_040Atacama_052Atacama_042Atacama_047Atacama_057We braved the cold and stripped down to our bathers for a quick swim in a geyser fed pool before continuing to Machuca, a small, almost uninhabited town located near the geysers.   We had a quick look around and tried some llama kebabs which were surprisingly quite tasty!  The town is close to a small wetland area where families of flamingoes, ducks and seagulls live, as well as the odd llama or two who always manage to entertain me (yes, from eating them to watching them)!Atacama_067Atacama_063Atacama_076Atacama_075Atacama_083The Atacama region being a desert, has next to no rainfall (or clouds) making it great conditions for stargazing.  We went on a night trip to an observatory located out from the town where our guide showed us various constellations in the sky with his incredibly strong (and illegal) laser.  After our introduction to the millions of objects in the sky, we were left with time to view various points through a number of different telescopes.  We took photos of the moon through one telescope and through another we could see Saturn which looked amazing with its rings (I tried to get a photo of that but it wasn’t as easy)!Atacama_185Atacama_186Atacama_188Finishing off our time in the Atacama Desert we took a half day trip to another “Valle de la Luna” (Valley of the Moon).  The various rock formations date back up to 22 million years and with the absence of any animals or vegetation, it really does feel like you are on another planet.  Atacama_098Atacama_105Atacama_129Atacama_131We continued through the valley, stopping to look at rock formations such as the Three Marias and the Dinosaur head (our favourite).  We walked past the Amphitheatre rock formation before climbing a hill to watch the rocks change colours as the sun set.  Atacama_144Atacama_142Atacama_149Atacama_152Atacama_171Atacama_184We really enjoyed the little town, it’s like no town we’d ever seen before.  Not necessarily pretty, but unique – especially when compared to the many colonial cities we had visited so far.Atacama_086

You can see more photos from San Pedro de Atacama here.

TORRES DEL PAINE NATIONAL PARK

Approaching Torres del Paine National Park, we had our first taste of the scenery that would surround us for the next five days – bright blue lakes surrounded by large mountains and threatening snow covered peaks with clouds looming in the sky above them.  Whether prepared or not, we had arrived and soon enough began the ‘W’ trek.

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After reading and talking with other people, we had decided to trek from West to East, the less traditional but increasingly popular direction.  Day 1, looking dorky with our hiking poles and with our way too heavy backpacks loaded up we set off on the path to Glacier Grey, our second glacier of South America.  To begin there was a quick catamaran ride across Lago Pehoe (Lago = Lake – see you can learn Spanish too!) and then an 11km walk to Refugio Grey, our first campsite for the trek.  We walked with Andreu and Elena from Spain and enjoyed the beauty of Lago Grey and the distant Glacier Grey that feeds the lake.  Icebergs floated throughout and at high points you could certainly feel the chill off the water.  We watched as a woodpecker smashed its beak into a tree (those things are crazy) and sighed when we asked returning hikers “how much longer do we have to go?” with conflicting answers.

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Arriving at camp there was a quick high five as we had somehow survived our first day hike.  We set up our tents and walked 10 minutes to a nearby Mirador (lookout) where we could walk down to the lake’s edge and we watched the sunset over the glacier and lake.  Large icebergs floated in the water with smaller bits close enough to pick up and touch – the water was ice cold!  We cooked chicken burritos for dinner much to the dismay of fellow hikers on their last can of tuna or plain pasta.  We savoured every bite knowing very well the food we had to follow for the next few days was going to pale in comparison.

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Day 2 and we left our tent and backpacks behind as we continued a few kilometres higher to another lookout over Glacier Grey.   Hiking without all of our gear felt amazing and we moved quickly to the viewpoint and back.   Returning to our campsite we had our first experience packing up in the rain before continuing back on the same track as the day before to our next campsite – Paine Grande.  Highlight of the trek back out was stopping for a break near 3 wonderful girls who gave Will a hard time about his complaining about me going too slow.  I sat back enjoyed the view while they gave him a serve about making sure he looked after me!  Approaching Paine Grande we had talked about pushing through another 2 hours to make a further campsite however once we saw everyone with their tents set up relaxing on the grass near Lake Pehoe watching the sun go down, that motivation to continue was surpassed by setting up our camp and drying out in the sun.

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Day 3, we set off on a cloudy and slightly rainy morning for Camp Italiano where we were to leave our bags before continuing up into the French Valley.  With each day, the scenery was so different and it was hard (especially for me) not to take a photo every time you looked up – it was all so incredibly beautiful.  We arrived at Camp Italiano in good time however many hikers on their return from deeper inside the valley had said there was poor visibility as you inclined.  Nevertheless we set off, hiking over large rocks and through some of the greenest areas we had been to so far.  As we hiked, you could see the clouds lifting and by the time we arrived at Mirador Glacier Frances, the clouds had cleared and we had a perfect view of the glacier and its surrounds.  At this point we chose not to continue any higher as there seemed to be a lot more cloud so instead continued on to our next campsite Los Cuernos to set up before dark.

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On Day 4 we were prepared for what many people had said would be the hardest day – almost all uphill for approximately 15 kilometres to Campsite Las Torres.  I am not sure if we had just prepared for the worst and therefore were pleasantly surprised, but the hike was not too bad and we were once again surrounded by different scenery, which probably also helped take the focus off those gigantic hills!

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We arrived at Campsite Las Torres by 4:30pm and as the sky was clearing we decided to hike up to the Mirador Las Torres, in hope of seeing the sun shining on the Torres (Towers) that the park is so very famous for.   While the hike up to the towers is only 45 minutes, it is a gruelling climb to the top.  In some respects it was best not to look ahead as tiny human specks on the cliffs above you indicated just how far you still had to go.  The view at the top however was worth every knee-buckling step as the clouds cleared and we were able to appreciate the beauty of the towers, backlit by the setting sun. Had it not been so cold we could have stayed up there all evening but we needed to ensure we walked back down the track before dark.

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It was a cold last night at camp and we awoke to rain pouring down on our little tent.  We had discussed getting up to see the Towers once more at sunrise however the sound of rain and the cold air somewhat discouraged us.  I think we were also more than satisfied with our view the night before as well so instead at first break in the rain we packed up and continued on the path not only out of Valley Ascensio but out of Torres Del Paine National Park.

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It was hard to believe that our trek had come to an end.  It really was an incredible journey, challenging and downright painful at times but also rewarding and inspiring.  We met more wonderful people along the way and spent the whole five days surrounded by some of the most beautiful landscapes we have ever seen.  Would we do it again?  Yes, I think so however as much as carrying all of your own gear gives you a great level of satisfaction, it is also met with a desire to get to the next camp as quickly as possible so perhaps on round two, one of those nice warm wooden cabins would be considered!  Nevertheless, we had survived the park (and each other) and can share our stories with those who have also experienced or perhaps will experience Torres Del Paine in the future.