PATAGONIA

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EL CHALTEN & FITZROY RANGE

A three hour bus ride from El Calafate and we had arrived in El Chalten, a quiet little town surrounded by the stunning FitzRoy Range, the northern sector of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares.  El Chalten is a frontier town, only founded as the result of a land grab between Argentina and Chile but now a base for the many hikers and climbers that come to explore the region.  We walked the small grid of streets where the maximum speed limit is 20km/hr, not that it matters – there are probably more dogs than cars.  Our hostel – Aylen-Aike was located close to the river and we watched as the mountains changed with the setting sun.

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The following morning it was time to pull the hiking boots out once more (they had been hidden deep in our backpacks since Torres del Paine) and we set off with Laura and Andy on a day hike to Cerro FitzRoy.  We had a taxi driver drop us further into the National Park and walked along Rio Blanco before the climb to Cerro FitzRoy.  The climb wasn’t too bad (even with the teasing false summit) but the view makes it 100% worth it.  We really had picked the perfect day – blue skies surrounded us in every direction and we enjoyed the sunshine while taking in the marvellous Cerro FitzRoy and surrounding glaciers and lakes below.  Will decided to brave the icy cold water and ran and jumped in.  Needless to say, he didn’t last very long but he did gain the respect of many onlookers with only a few to follow suit.

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The walk back to El Chalten was long but also incredibly beautiful.  Looking back we watched the sun setting on Cerro FitzRoy while all around us the scenery changed from dense forest, rocky mountains and open valleys as we approached El Chalten.  It really was an incredible day hike – best described as many of the scenic highlights of Torres del Paine, packed in to one day.

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In the days to follow we chose short walks through the town over long day hikes, which was quite lazy of us, but I’m not sure that we had fully recovered from Torres del Paine.  We enjoyed reasonably decent coffee and toasted sandwiches at one of the local panaderias (bakeries) and for dinner, outside of cooking our own meals, Will had some of Argentina’s famous steak while I tried some Patagonian lamb stew.  We really enjoyed our time in El Chalten, it is a quiet, beautiful little town and I hope tourists respect that for years to come.

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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.