We spent a few nights before the New Year camping at different sites along the road to Milford Sound on the South Island of New Zealand. It was stunning. I think we got supremely lucky with the weather because this area is one of the wettest places in the world and our first three days were full of nothing but summer sun, gorgeous blue skies and sunsets like this.
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.
Number of days spent in country – 31
Cities/towns visited – Kathmandu, Bhulbule, Ghermu, Karte, Chame, Upper Pisang, Manang, Ledar, Muktinath, Kagbeni, Jomsom
Number of different lodgings – 16
Flights – 1
Bus journeys – 3
Taxi journeys – 11
Rounds of antibiotics – Justin-1, Ashley-5
Total US dollar amount spent – $1289 including visa fees of $80 for the two of us and $188 for air tickets from Jomsom to Pokhara.
In addition, we incurred $1500 in hospital bills. Our insurance paid for everything except the overnight fees, which were far more than the maximum covered amount of $50 per night that World Nomads provides. We didn’t include that bill in the general roundup cost breakdowns since it was more than we spent otherwise for the entire month. Incidentally, if you get very ill while in Kathmandu, the CIWEC clinic, just across from the British Embassy, is the place to be. It’s clean and staffed with mostly Western doctors who speak a variety of languages.
Average cost per day, per person – $21.50 If you take the plane tickets out of the equation (you can take busses that will save you nearly the entire cost of the flight…though we felt the cost was WELL worth it considering how scary the bus rides were) that number drops to around $18. If you only ate at cheap local places and really hunted for the most basic economic rooms, you could probably live on $12 per day.
Average lodging cost per night, per person – $2.70
Most expensive lodging, per person – $5.60 for a double room with bathroom and AC at the Karma Travelers Hotel in Kathmandu. We booked this online specifically because they included an airport pickup and it was recommended in the guidebook. We stayed only two nights before we found better, and cheaper accommodation elsewhere.
Least expensive lodging, per person – $.56 for a double room with shared bath at the Hotel Nilgiri in Manang on our Annapurna Hike. This place had fantastic yak cheese and fresh bread for sale.
Average food/drink cost per day, per person – $8.90. Breakfast was not included at any of our hotels and we generally ate three meals per day. Accommodation is cheap on the Annapurna Circuit, but you spend quite a bit on food. In Kathmandu we ate at more Western-style restaurants, which were more expensive, but it was what we were craving after 13 day of Dhal Baht on the trail. We had only four beers the entire time we were in Nepal as it was relatively expensive and we didn’t drink while trekking.
Hotel Backpackers Inn in Kathmandu – We stayed here for 2 nights before our trek, and then for two weeks afterwards. We left our luggage there during the trek, including our computers, and there were no problems since they have lockers that you can store your valuables in and you are responsible for the keys. Pre-trek our room was $9 per night for a double room with a fan, private bathroom, TV, and wifi. After the trek we negotiated a rate of $6.75 per night since we knew we were staying for longer than a few nights. Prices would definitely be higher during peak season. The managers were very kind and helped Justin with contacting the embassy for doctor recommendations when I was sick.
OR2K in Kathmandu – This restaurant has good Middle Eastern food, including a mezza platter that was big enough for Justin and I to split. They also make really good salads.
Chinese (Sichuan) Restaurant next to Hotel Backpacker’s Inn in Kathmandu – An excellent spot for a cheap meal, they have some hilarious menu translations that include things like ‘Tiger Skin Fry Pepper’ and ‘And Pulled A Red Leather’. We ate a variety of things there, but our favorites were the Rice with King Pao Chicken and the Beef Noodles, which is a HUGE and delicious vat of soup.
Northfield Café in Kathmandu – Justin has a burrito problem. This was the only place we had been in the last few months that served a burrito that was even close to what he wanted it to be like. They have a good mix of food, nice outdoor seating, and live music every night. It’s a little pricey, but that’s what you have to expect if you want passable Western food.
The Annapurna Circuit – We dove right into this classic hike, despite the fact that it was the middle of the monsoon season and we were in no kind of shape for a trek this big. It turned out to be one of the greatest experiences of our lives and I wouldn’t go back and change a single thing, leeches, blisters, dramatic meltdowns and all. We met wonderful people, pushed ourselves harder than we thought possible, and fell in love with the spectacular scenery. If you are in Nepal, make time for a trek, even if it’s a short one.
Shopping – We didn’t do much shopping here, partly because I didn’t have the energy after I was sick, and partly because we don’t have any room in our packs. However, if you want cheap mountain gear, this is the place to be. There are literally hundreds of stores selling knock-offs of everything you can imagine, from backpacks to down jackets, to sleeping bags and poles and water bottles and….the list goes on and on. Certain things, like backpacks and boots, I’d be wary of since they won’t fit or function as well, but otherwise you can get some great deals here. We rented knock-off sleeping bags for the trek (at a whopping .50 cents per day) and they were fantastically warm and comfortable. We could have bought a down “North Face” sleeping bag for about $20. When we come back I’m going to arrive with an empty suitcase and just buy all my gear there. Make sure you bargain, the first offer price is usually very ambitious.
The bus rides. I mean, we thought we took some scary rides in S. America, but the rides in Nepal were literally the most terrifying experiences of our lives. I am not kidding when I say that more than once I thought we might actually tumble down a cliff in one of these death traps on wheels. In fact, according to some statistics (please know that in a place like Nepal the statistics are a bit vague, so don’t think these numbers are carved in stone…) there are over 1,500 deaths per year due to buses tumbling off the sides of the mountains.
On our bus from Kathmandu to Besi Shahar to start the Annapurna Circuit, we saw the wreckage of one bus that had already crashed down the cliff to the river below AND we passed a dump truck that had just started to go over the edge, fortunately it was only half off the cliff and I’m pretty sure that was only because the back end was full of rocks.
We took a smaller bus to another little town that same day and it was swaying back and forth as it tried to go up a tiny cliff-side road that was completely washed out in some places, and so muddy and rutted in others that the wheels were spinning and we were almost sliding backwards at one point. The bus was completely overloaded with four people in seats made for two, and yet more people packed like sardines into the isle. In addition, there was something like 15 people on the roof (which, as it turns out, might be the safest place to be since in a fall you can just fling yourself off the bus and hope for the best instead of tumbling all the way down the mountain inside it), along with everyone’s luggage, a goat, three or 4 baskets full of chickens and 8 or 10 full propane tanks. I was having a visible panic attack at this point and a little boy next to us decided this would be the perfect time to pipe up and proclaim “This very danger part! Sometimes the bus fall down…”
We had a choice of transport – airplane or bus – to get us from Jomsom to Pokhara at the end of our trek. We know a couple who opted for the bus route back to save money, and after one day they decided they would just walk for the next four days to get back rather than risk one more minute on the bus. We went for the plane, which brings me to the second worst thing in Nepal.
The tiny 15-seater propeller airplanes that fly through the mountains – we took one of these from Jomsom to Pokhara to avoid two or three days worth of bus rides like the ones I just described, and it comes in a close second as far as scary moments go for us.
The flight in and of itself turned out not to be so bad, but the anticipation was pretty awful since we could see the wreckage of a flight that had crashed into the mountain right above the town just a few months before.
It freaked me out just having to look at it from the town, but when we got into the plane and I realized I could see it out my window as we were heading down the runway I just about lost it. I’ve never had so many panic attacks as I did in Nepal. The woman sitting behind Justin had a death grip on his shoulder and was praying vigorously the entire flight. Still, given the choice between this and a bus, I choose this.
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.
There is no doubt that the main attraction at Petra, just outside of Wadi Musa in Jordan, is the incredible stone Treasury building. However, we’d like to argue that the massive monastery is just as impressive, and if you come during shoulder season as we did, you might have it nearly all to yourselves. Both buildings have been carved right into the sides of the mountains that surround the area, and both will absolutely take your breath away. The Monastery is high on a hill at the end of the tourist section of Petra, and getting there will require that you haul yourself up somewhere around 850 stone stairs. We made it without too much of a struggle in the oppressive mid-day heat of late June, though we imagine it’s probably much more pleasant in the early morning, or during the winter.
As an alternative, you can hire a horse or a donkey to cart you most of the way up. If you must go this route, I’d advise you to chose your vendor carefully since we saw more than one animal being openly mistreated, and we even witnessed one man punching an uncooperative horse in the face.
We were incredibly bummed to not be able to pull off a trip to Easter Island while we were in South America, so when we heard that there we a different type of giant stone heads that date back to around 62 BC in Turkey, we were determined to see them. It’s in the middle of nowhere on the eastern side of Turkey, and to see the sunrise on the heads you need to drag yourself from sleep at around 2:45 in the morning (give or take, depending on the season) in order to get to the mountain and climb up to the top. While it’s no Easter Island, it’s definitely lovely and we’re glad to have made the journey.
As an aside, if you do end up going, try to remember that you aren’t the only one who got up before dawn to see this site. The jackasses below insisted on taking all their group photos RIGHT IN FRONT OF THE HEADS as the sun was rising, thus preventing everyone else from getting a clean shot of the ruins with the pink morning light. A number of us asked them to please move for a few moments so we could all get a picture, but they refused. The obliviousness/obnoxiousness/self-righteousness of certain types of tourists really wore on our nerves throughout this little side trip, and reminded us why we generally avoid group tours.
In March we embarked on a whirlwind road trip through northern Argentina with our friends Kristin and Bryan from Happy To Be Homeless. Purmamarca has it’s share of fame for the ‘7 Colored Mountains’, but I had heard rumors of a more spectacular hillside located somewhere outside of Humahuaca. We set off with nothing more than a hand-drawn map the owner of our hostel made us, and a few hours (and a few breakdowns in our beater of a car…) later we made it! The mountains were just as stunning as I had hoped, and completely devoid of other tourists, except for one truck whose occupants looked at our tiny rental car as if we were insane to be driving such a little tin-can up the side of a mountain with…less than ideal road conditions. You’ll need your own car, preferably a 4-wheel drive.
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!