The Abel Tasman trek is one of the easiest ‘Great Walks’ in New Zealand. Most people take 3-5 days to hike the whole thing and camp, or sleep in Dept. of Conservation huts along the way. We didn’t have the time, or the gear for an overnight trek, but we really wanted to spend some time walking in the park. It’s possible to take a water taxi to many points along the track, and walk in either direction. We opted to head to Bark Bay, which is halfway out. We walked the whole way back to town, normally a two day walk if you are camping, but without the gear it’s totally possible in one day. We saw some spectacular coast, and it was well worth the absurd cost of the water taxi, even though we did get rained on for the last 12 kilometers.
We are fortunate enough to be tramping around New Zealand in early summer when there are flowers blooming everywhere. These are super tiny, each flower is about 1/3 the size of my pinky fingernail, but there were so many of them where we were walking this morning that the meadow looked almost like it had a light dusting of snow.
If you’re reading this post, then the world hasn’t ended. This is obviously great for many reasons, one of which is that you still have time to head down to Tasmania and check out Cradle Mountain! Cradle Mountain is one of the most visited spots in Tasmania, and for good reason. The landscape is dramatic, stunning, and feels very wild. The hiking is some of the most beautiful we’ve done, and felt a lot like parts of Patagonia.
We’re getting ready to post our ‘Nepal Roundup’ early next week and we came across this snapshot while we were sifting through our Nepal photos. These types of horse caravans carry everything from construction supplies to fresh eggs to some of the hardest to reach villages along the Annapurna Circuit. The men who lead the horses walk beside them and direct them almost entirely with different whistling sounds. On this particular day it was incredibly foggy and at times we couldn’t see more than 10 or 15 feet in front of us. The horses wear bells to alert walkers to their presence and we heard this caravan for quite a while before we came out of the mist and almost crashed right into them!
Hiking up to the Thorong-La Pass on the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal was one of the most difficult days of our 12 day trek. We were both feeling a bit loopy from the altitude, and I had been battling a little headache since the night before, which was creating a bunch of stress about whether I was going to suffer the consequences of altitude sickness before I managed to make it to the top of the pass. We were so immersed in our own thoughts that it took a while for us to notice that the thick fog that we’d been hiking through for the last hour was no longer surrounding us. We turned around and realized that we’d broken through the clouds and could finally see some of the peaks behind us. We had just a few minutes of this view before the clouds rose up and obscured the views again. It was a good reminder to stop every once in a while and take a look at the majesty that surrounded us.
During our initially planning for our hike on the W in Torres del Paine, I spent hours sifting through material about the park, the hike, gear lists etc. This post by World Travel for Couples was incredibly helpful for us and contains a whole wealth of information.
I was nervous because we aren’t generally big hikers and I wanted to make sure that we were totally prepared. I stressed about the route, and then I stressed when we realized we’d have to change the route. I stressed over what clothes to bring, what kinds of food we would need and how much food to bring. Now that it’s all said and done I can honestly say that I could have spent that time doing other, more productive things.
I had pictured the trail as a great wild wilderness, where we would be out on our own, miles from nowhere, reliant on only ourselves for survival. While the park is a great wilderness to some extent, it’s also incredibly heavily travelled. Puerto Natales, where you will stay to base yourself and leave most of your regular travel gear, has built a huge industry around supplying trekkers for this area. You can buy or rent everything, and I mean EVERYTHING you need in this town. If you do forget something, the refugios along the way have everything you might need, for a higher price of course.
There is no chance of getting lost, the trail is like a backpackers super-highway, and while there were plenty of times when we were alone, there was always someone just a few minutes behind. The trails are very clearly marked with signs telling you where you are, and often, how far you have to the next stop.
The refugios that you will come across on the ‘W’ portion of the trek have bathrooms with flushing toilets. Inside they have hot water available for you to use for free. If it’s cold and raining you can sit in the dining area next to a fire and play cards, or buy boxes of wine and warm meals. Occasionally you can find an open electric socket to charge a camera battery.
By the time this post goes up the free sites with the pit toilets will be open for use, and those will provide a considerable amount more of the “wilderness” feeling, but we hear that they too can get really crowded during high season so you’ll never really have to worry if you run out of toilet paper or need an extra package of crackers.
If you want to undertake the 10-day trek you will need more careful planning as the back half of the circuit lacks the amenities of the ‘W’, but as a novice, the ‘W’ circuit is challenging enough to make you proud of yourself, but not so wild as to require any knowledge of how to tie your food up into the trees or start a fire with nothing but a piece of flint and some dried grass. In fact, you can even decide to just trek with the clothes you need since you can buy full meals from refugios, and if you arrange it in advance, you can rent tents and sleeping bags at specific campsites so you don’t have to carry your own. One woman we trekked with decided her sleeping bag wasn’t warm enough for her, so for the second and third nights she rented one from the campsites we were at and returned it in the morning. If you really feel like blowing some cash, you can even sleep in dorm rooms inside the refugios.
At the end of the day, what it all boils down to is this – if we can do it, you can do it.
Here are my personal top bits of advice if you are planning a trip to the park:
* Even if you don’t stay at the Erratic Rock, you MUST attend their daily ‘3 o’clock talk’. It is chalk full of info, in English. If covers what to bring, routes to take, where to buy any food or gear supplies you need, and generally what to expect regarding trail conditions in the moment. These guys are experts, they spend a lot of time in the park and they know what they are talking about. You can rent all the gear you need from them (or a variety of other places in town).
* Bring, or rent hiking poles. I have never in my life hiked with poles, but I swear, with a huge pack on your back they will save your knees on the down-hills and help you balance if you get hit with giant gusts of wind. They also really help distribute the weight going uphill…”4 legs good, 2 legs baaaad.”
* Think about what will fuel your body. We met some guys who, I kid you not, brought 4 loaves of white bread, a huge jar of dulce de leche, and a bottle of whiskey for their 4 day hike. Yeah, they survived, but still…give your body something to work with. We found it easier to deal with mealtimes once we portioned our food out per meal ahead of time. We had a huge ziplock bag for each day, and inside was all our food for that day – oatmeal with chocolate and raisins for breakfast. Trail mix, chocolate, granola bars and dried fruits for snacking while hiking. Noodles or rice and meat sauce in foil bags for dinner. We also had some random cheese, sausage, and apples that we ate along the way.
* Speaking of fuel, if you plan to stay at the pay campsites, you don’t need to buy a whole new canister of fuel for your campstove. Simply root around the “almost empty” bin at the Erratic Rock and pick out a canister or two that feel about half full. You can use the already near-boiling water supplied by the refugios to get you started and you’ll end up using very little gas.
* You only need one Nalgene bottle. The water from the streams really is drinkable. Growing up in Colorado I was instilled with a healthy fear of getting Giardia from drinking mountain stream water. Well, I swear, it doesn’t exist in Torres del Paine. All the water you encounter is fresh, cold, and perfectly healthy to drink.
* Bring two sets of clothes – one to hike in, one to sleep in. When you take your hiking clothes off, hang them outside for a while if you can because, well, they stink. Does it suck to wear stinky, dirty, damp clothing for four days in a row? Not gonna lie here, it totally sucks at first, but once you get moving in the morning you just forget about it. That shower on the fourth day will feel like heaven.
* Blister band-aids. If your feet don’t thank you for these, I promise you’ll run across someone who will.
* Bring a spare camera battery. We met a few girls who only had one camera between them, and the battery had died. They were on their way up to the Torres and had no way to capture the moment. Super bummer.
* Go to the ‘3 o’clock talk’. I have to put it one more time because really, you’ll get all the info you need from them.
At the time of writing….
- To get to the park there are multiple busses that all leave from Puerto Natales and take you as far as the entrance to the park. Your hostel can probably sell you a ticket. They tend to leave twice a day – around 7am and 1 or 2 pm, and return from the park twice a day – around 1pm and 5pm. Cost – 12,000 – 14,000 per person, round trip ($25-30, depending on the company)
- Entrance to the park for foreigners is 15,000 Pesos, which is about $30 depending on the exchange rate.
- From the park entrance, you can walk, or take a shuttle for about $5 to the Hosteria Las Torres, which is where we started the trek. If you prefer to start at the other end of the W you’ll need to take a catamaran across the lake to Refugio Grey, which costs more. If you start where we started you will end up taking the catamaran back across the lake at the end. Check for current catamaran pricing, it’s not cheap.
- Camping in the park is free at some sites, but not at others. In January 2012 we paid 6,000 Pesos (about $13) per person for the Los Cuernos site, and 5,000 Pesos (about $11) per person for the Chileno site. Prices change though, so check out the website for each of the major refugios before you head out – Fantastico Sur and Vertice Patagonia
One of the original bits of inspiration for our trip was the desire to head way, way south to hike the W in Torres Del Paine, in Chilean Patagonia. Unfortunately, the park was closed at the end of a December due to a devastating fire that was set by a careless trekker who chose not to follow the rules, and we feared that we wouldn’t be able to see this rugged bit of nature.
We delayed our journey south for a few weeks, which proved to be a wise decision as more and more of the park was re-opened to the public every week throughout January. Just a few days before we were set to start our trek the entire circuit we intended to hike had officially been opened, though we were cautioned that the most recently opened part (the west side of the classic ‘W’ trek, named for the shape of the route through the mountains) would still be smoky, ashy, and not such a great place to be wandering around in. We decided to play it safe, and shortened our trek to just a ‘U’.
It was the first time that we have been ‘real backpacking’ together, which means carrying all our own gear – tent, sleeping bags and pads, cook stove, and all our food. Patagonia is notorious for wild weather and it’s not uncommon to encounter anything from blistering sunshine to snow or sleet all in the course of a single day. We attempted to balance packing enough layers for all the possible elements, while trying to keep our packs at a reasonable weight.
We had attended the infamous “3 o’clock talk” given at the Erratic Rock hostel, which is where we ended up staying both pre, and post-trek in Puerto Natales, Chile. With their guidance, we diligently separated our food into ziplocks, portioning out each meal for easy access and efficiency. We brought mostly lightweight, carb-rich and sugar loaded food such as oatmeal, noodles with packets of meat sauce, granola, peanuts, and tons of chocolate bars and caramel candies. I cannot tell you how thrilled I was to be eating chocolate every few hours to keep my energy up, and knowing all the while I was definitely burning it all off.
We set out with high hopes and heavy packs, and day one was fairly uneventful. We chose to trek first to the Campemento Cuernos, the traditional middle part of the W. We originally wanted to be able to stay in one of the free sites in the French Valley, but due to the fire the camps were closed so we knew we’d need to stay two nights at Cuernos to accommodate a long 26 kilometer day hike to the valley and back.
The big attraction at Torres del Paine is, well, the Torres. However, we had heard that the French Valley was majestically beautiful, and we were looking forward to spending the whole day exploring the valley. The day started out beautifully and it didn’t take us as long as expected to reach the base of the valley where, unfortunately, the weather took a turn for the worse.
As we made our way over giant boulders, past glaciers, and wound our way into the forest at the top of the ridge, the weather turned from chilly and drippy to downright freezing with whipping winds and sideways rain and snow.
We made the push to the very top where the last mirador (viewpoint) lay just to say we did, but we weren’t able to see much. By the time we made it back down to camp we were soaked, exhausted, and my feet had multiple blisters.
The next day was another big push, retreating out of the campsite and up towards the towers. We started early and made good time, though we ended up stopping at Campamento Chileno instead of continuing another hour up to the free site at Torres. My feet felt like they were on fire and I wasn’t even sure I wanted to continue standing, let alone hike another 5 kilometers.
We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing inside by the fire and debating the merits of waking at 2:30 am to hike the last two and half hours in the dark to see the Torres at sunrise. We ended up deciding to sleep in a bit and start the hike at the more reasonable hour of 7.
The next morning we made it to Torres in great time since we weren’t weighed down with our heavy packs, and we were greeted with clear skies, and only a few other trekkers marveling at the immensity of the stone towers.
On our way down we began to encounter huge groups of hikers on their way up, as well as people on their way down who had stayed at the free Torres campsite and gotten up early to see the towers at dawn. Apparently, there was nothing much to see at dawn as the sky hadn’t yet cleared, so it turns out we’d had the perfect timing – arriving after the sky cleared, but before the bulk of the late-morning crowd appeared. We rushed back to the campsite, packed up all our gear, and started down the mountain, for the last 8 kilometers. My feet screamed at the thought of being back in my hiking boots, so I wore my New Balance barefoot trail runners for the remainder of the day and while I might not recommend them generally for multi-day hiking, they were so much more comfortable for my aching feet.
We arrived to the end of the trail with plenty of time to spare before the shuttle left for Puerto Natales, so we rewarded our tired bodies with huge glasses of beer and some of the most expensive hamburgers we’ve ever eaten. I have to say, after 4 days of oatmeal and ramen noodles with tomato paste, those hamburgers were the most delicious things ever!
After it was all said and done, we had hiked around 60 kilometers in 4 days, consumed something close to a million calories in chocolate and peanuts, and realized that we are more ‘outdoorsey’ than we thought. With the exception of one trip a million years ago when I was in college, we just don’t tend to do these kinds of multi-day outdoor hikes. We weren’t really sure what to expect, and we were both pleasantly surprised at how much we enjoyed ourselves. Initially we were really disappointed to not be able to do the last part of the ‘W’ trail. The thing is, Torres del Paine isn’t going anywhere, and we can always come back to finish the circuit. In fact, when we come back we plan to do the full 10-day loop, which promises to be even more spectacular than the glimpse we saw in our 4-day version.
Word on the Street
In the interest of not making a blog post into a novel, I’ve made a separate post dedicated to what you might want to know if you’re thinking of doing this hike. Look for it in the next few days!
Until then, check out the slideshow on Flickr!
The title pretty much says it all. We had heard that we should expect some ferocious winds during our time trekking Torres del Paine in Chile and in the Parque National Los Glaciers in Argentina. We sort of thought people were exaggerating when they said you might literally be knocked down sometimes, but that’s exactly what happened to me on more than one occasion. The winds can supposedly reach speeds, in bursts, of 180 kilometers per hour! We didn’t feel anything that strong, but there were times when it was strong enough that we had to just give up for a bit, sit down, and wait it out.
So far, hiking in Patagonia has been one of the highlights of our trip. We love the feel of the small mountain towns, and just when you think the scenery can’t get more spectacular, it does. We’ve got lots to say about each of these parks, but for now we’ll leave you with a video of some of our windiest moments.
Wow, that title sure is a mouthful. The thing is, any post about the Perito Moreno Glacier in El Calafate, Argentina deserves such a title because the glacier itself is so huge.
Perito Moreno has been on our South American Must-See list for as long as I can remember. While it’s not the biggest glacier in the world, it is one of the most accessible and tourists come in droves from all over the world to get up close and personal with this giant hunk of ice. It measures 97 square miles, and is part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field on the border of Chile and Argentina. This ice field is so massive that it contains nearly 1/3 of the world’s fresh water. It stands at a height of about 250 feet, and that’s just above the lake! One of the most remarkable things about Perito Moreno is that it’s one of the only glaciers on Earth that continues to grow instead of melting away into oblivion.
There are a million varieties of tours you can take when you visit – everything from boat rides that get you up close to the face of the glacier, to bus/boat combos, to ice trekking tours. You can also go on your own and take a public bus to the park entrance and spend the day wandering the catwalks. Despite the fact that we have generally been living like paupers, we decided to go ahead with a major splurge for our chance to spend a day doing some ice trekking. There’s only one company in town that runs this show (heeellloooooo monopoly!) so we forked over way more cash than we should have, and attempted to go to bed early since we were getting picked up bright and early the next morning.
We were a bit bummed to be greeted with a drizzly morning, but we layered up, grabbed some extra plastic bags for the camera gear, and hopped on the Hielo & Aventura bus at 7:30am. It takes about an hour to reach the glacier from town, and as our bus rounded the bend to give us our first glimpse of the ice, the driver slowed way down and blasted comically dramatic music to heighten the atmosphere. We were given an hour to walk around the catwalks and take photos before we boarded a boat for a ride across the front of the glacial lake to where we would get our gear for the ice hike. After a moderate climb up behind the edge of the glacier we were given gloves and crampons and split into very small groups to begin the trek.
Hiking on ice is fairly straightforward. Make sure your crampons are on tightly, then lift your feet and smash them down into the ice to make sure you have a good grip. Keep your feet enough apart that you don’t rip your pants or skewer your own calf, which apparently has happened more than once on these tours.
Our guides were fantastic and took us on a long and meandering path where despite the fact that we knew the other groups must be close, we didn’t see them at all. The ice is constantly moving, changing shape, melting and re-freezing. This makes each trip unique, and some features that we saw will have totally vanished in the time it took me to actually get this post up (6 weeks since we visited).
We saw numerous ice caves, including one that was big enough for us to walk inside, though we had to really watch our step because it was split down the middle with a crevice that was easily 20 feet deep. The inside was perfectly smooth, slippery and so blue that we almost glowed.
We also saw numerous ‘erratic rocks’, which are rocks that tumble down the mountains that surround glaciers and are then carried by the movement of the glacier. Eventually, when the glacier is gone, the rocks will remain and appear completely out of place since they are often carried great distances and then deposited in the valleys and flatlands created by the glacier.
It’s a very surreal feeling to be out in what seems like the middle of nowhere on something that is as foreign as the surface of the moon. The ice changes texture and shape often so there is always something new to look at after walking just a short distance. The surface is deceptively peaceful since one wrong step can leave you crashing through a thin spot, or slipping into one of the fast moving rivers that form on the surface as parts of the ice begin to melt. Above all, it’s exquisitely beautiful.
After tromping around for nearly 5 hours we were completely exhausted and were taken back to the boat landing to begin the journey home. Much to our surprise and delight, we were given a chocolate biscuit and a healthy glass of Jameson on glacier ice (yes, for real) to finish off the day.
This was easily the most expensive tourist day trip we’ve done so far on our journey, and it was totally worth it.
Word On The Street* The Perito Moreno glacier is part of the Los Glaciers National Park in Argentina, about an hour outside of El Calafate. You can visit parts of the park for free (notably, in El Chalten, Argentina) but you must pay an entrance fee to see the Perito Moreno glacier. At the time of writing, the fee for international tourists was $100 pesos. * There is only once company that can take you out onto the ice – Hielo and Aventura. They offer a Mini-trekking tour, which is a half-day trip, or the Big Ice trip, which ended up being a full 12 hours, door to door. We highly, highly recommend the Big Ice trip if you are fit as it seemed like a much better value. The Big Ice tour costs around US $175 and the Mini-trek is less, somewhere around US $140. Prices can be higher if you book ahead with a travel agent, but most hostels will book at the same cost as going directly through the company. * Waterproof shoes are essential. Waterproof jacket and gloves are a good idea, especially if the weather isn’t being cooperative, though Hielo and Aventura will loan basic gloves if needed. Crampons are provided. * You’ll need to bring your own lunch, and you’ll eat it on the ice. Having a bag to sit on is a good idea.
For more pictures, take a look at the slideshow below!
Mother Nature seems to be telling us to go away.
Our first clue was that Torres Del Paine, the national park in Chilean Patagonia that inspired this trip, was set ablaze just before Christmas and the whole park was closed. It is starting to open back up, so we have hope that we’ll get down there as planned for our treks, but hearing about it just 4 hours after we bought plane tickets to the area was wildly irritating.
Last week we arrived in Bariloche, Argentina to find a town shrouded in volcanic ash. The volcano is actually located over the border in Chile, but the wind is blowing all the ash right into Argentina. What is normally a spectacular view from our hostel window…well…it was a 50/50 chance that we were staring out into pea soup.
We took a short hike one day and ended up ankle-deep in ash on some parts of the trail. Partway up, the view was looking clear and we took the picture below.
By the time we got all the way to the top (which was just 30 minutes later) well, the view was totally obscured by ash. The next picture is taken in the exact same spot an hour after the first.
There is ash everywhere. It piles in the gutters on the streets. It creates a haze on all the windows. It settles in your hair. Hiking on ash covered trails proved to be a dusty endeavor as every step produced a huge ‘pouf’ and we were thoroughly filthy by the time it was all over. Washing our clothes out in the hostel sink that night was quite a chore and it took us each nearly 30 minutes to get the water to run clear through our clothes.
Finally, we left Bariloche in search of clear skies, and we heard the place to be was El Bolson. We arrived to a town shrouded in haze from yet ANOTHER FIRE. For real. El Bolson is located in another gorgeous valley, surrounded by rocky mountain peaks. If the wind is quick, you get a chance to see the mountains.
If the wind is taking a nap, you can barely make out the peaks through the haze.
We can’t seem to escape Nature’s heat!
We’re heading back into Chile today, and as we went to buy bus tickets this morning we were told the road was closed last night because the fire is encroaching. As of right this minute it seems to be open again, and we’re keeping our fingers crossed that it stays that way. If all goes well our next post will hopefully be about what an amazing time we hope to have rafting in Futaleufu, Chile!