Hiking in Torres del Paine

Most people go to Patagonia for one thing: Torres del Paine. The chilean national park, named after its three most famous peaks, is often recognised as one of the most beautiful natural places in the world… And rightly so, too.

It was created as a national park in 1959, but originally only around the area of Lake Grey. It was renamed Torres del Paine National Park two years later, but was then much smaller than its current almost 230,000 sq km – overtime, more and more land was added into the national park to protect it from the damage that livestock farming (what it was used to until then) was doing to its ecosystem.

Nowadays, it’s a very popular destination for hikers from the world over.

The main trekking route in Torres is called the W Walk, for the trail’s shape that hits all the main spots: Lake Grey, the French Valley, Los Cuernos, and the park’s jewels… the three towers.

It’s a five-day trek, but I chose to only walk two of them – we started from the Las Torres campsite, and after having seen the towers on the first day, I couldn’t imagine anything would top them. The hike itself was not too difficult. After the volcano climb and the hike to Fitz Roy, everything felt easy and possible. It’s well indicated, with quite a lot of covered forest areas that allow for rest from the elements (get ready for some rain), and a lot of sources to stock up on drinking water on the way. And it’s frankly never too steep; the main difficulty is getting over some bigger boulders at the end as they’re sneaky on the ankle.

For the rest, it’s all typically Patagonian. Blues, greens and whites; strong winds and gushing water rumbling down mountains. I’ve got to the point with writing about Patagonia where I’m lost for words that feel exact and at the same time new – reading through my previous posts, I’ve said all there is to say about the colours, elements and beauty of Patagonia. But unlike the repetition in my words, the landscapes of Patagonia never seem less than wild and exciting and novel. There is no getting tired of your thighs aching as you struggle up a narrow trail to get to the viewpoint at the top of a hill. There is no getting over the sound of streams through the forest on a muddy national-park walk. There is no stopping that giggly yet worried feeling as you lie in your tent at night, wondering if the deafening wind is going to blow it off. It’s a constantly overwhelming land, in both the best and worst ways.

But mostly the best.

I hope you enjoyed these small accounts of my time in Patagonia as much as I enjoyed discovering the region. In the next post… we’re headed north!

Travelling to the end of the world: Tierra del Fuego and Ushuaia

I’m not going to lie: the Tierra del Fuego is far from everything.

This piece of land, situated at the very southern end of the south American continent, and whose land belongs to Argentina, is named for its geological activity. Tierra del Fuego means ‘land of fire’, and is made up of lots of relatively small islands created by the volcanoes of the region.

Let me explain: Tierra del Fuego is situated right at the intersection of three tectonic plates: the South-American plate, the Scotia plate and the Antarctic plate. And what happens where plates meet? Volcanoes, earthquakes, mountains, the whole shebang, basically. And while it makes for a rugged, slightly unpracticable landscape, it’s rather lovely on the eye.

We spent three days in the land of fire. After the uneventful crossing of the Magellan strait (where every ‘dolphin’ we spotted turned out to be a graceful penguin), we spent our most memorable night of the trip, wild camping in the fields surrounding an abandoned house we made ours. Only its walls can tell the story of our terrible, terrible dance moves…

The next two days in Ushuaia were filled with penguins, pan de queso, sea lions, walks, penguins, meat, penguins, the most wonderful lighthouse at the end of the word, and penguins.

To be rather honest, I didn’t enjoy Ushuaia much. I had imagined a small wind-battered town where only lovers of nature came to spot icebergs and walk arduous trails that led to Cape Horn. As it turns out, Ushuaia is a large, urban and very touristic city, filled with fashion shops, restaurants and casinos. There are three different Irish pubs. The magic was lacking.

But one thing slightly made up for it: I got to stamp my own passport! I’m not sure it’s an entirely okay thing to do, but that made it even better…

Hiking to Mount Fitz Roy in El Chaltén

El Chaltén gives off a feeling of a completely artificially created village. Small and lost on the outskirts of Los Glaciares National Park, it was in fact created in 1985 to provide a base for those coming to hike the many trails that surround it – and offer views of the spectacular Mount Fitz Roy. It’s a bit of a mess of a town. The one ATM never works, the supermarkets are tiny, busy and empty of anything but packet pasta sauces and browned fruit, the roads are often barely more than trails, and a lot of the houses seemed to be only half finished. But it’s got a few good places to eat, a wonderful ice cream shop, and obviously, terrific surroundings.

El Chaltén takes its name from the mountain that looms over it; in the local indigenous Tehuelche language, meaning ‘smoking mountain’. But the peak’s official name is Cerro Fitz Roy, after the captain of the Beagle, the ship of Darwin’s 1834 expedition.

I walked two of the main trails in the area – first a short one to the Cerro Torre viewpoint, an easy and mostly flat walk that leads to a very windy albeit beautiful view of Laguna Torre and the mountain of the same name. I’ve sadly got no photos of Laguna Torre, because the wind blew so much water into my camera that all my shots are decorated with water droplets…

But it was nothing like the next day’s hike: longer, at 10k each way, with a tricky uphill last kilometre that took a lot out of us (especially on a moderate hangover). But then we got this view.

I’ve always been more of a city person than a lover of nature. I’ve got a huge thing for the ocean, and will happily sit for hours starting at waves, but mountains don’t have a special place in my heart. But Patagonia showed me the emotions that come with a long, exhausting hike to a monumental bit of nature. And the icy blues and pure whites did right by the sucker for colours that I am. I think only the landscapes of Iceland and the beaches of Brittany top this view for me.

Our first peek at Fitz Roy during the hike

The view from the first viewpoint

Starting a trend that would last throughout our time in Patagonia, the clouds surrounding the top of Fitz Roy cleared just as we arrived, and the weather turned right as we stared walking away, gracing our hike back to town with an apocalyptic ‘winter is coming’ background.

But the whole way down I was feeling this exact level of happiness:

Going down Patagonia’s Ruta 40

Patagonia Ruta 40

Patagonia Ruta 40

Patagonia Ruta 40

We head onto Ruta 40 as we leave Bariloche. In the morning sun, the cold lakes’ water evaporates and creates thin, smoke-like clouds on the surface, veiling the snow-capped mountains that frame the water. We peek at them through the thick forests as Gus – our truck – starts her drive south. Rocks gleam against the see-through blue of streams and the white of the surf. It looks mysterious and a little magical, like a scene out of an Arthurian legend.

Going south the landscape turns to steppe and it’s like stepping into The Lion King. Guanacos, the local llamas, run wild everywhere. Too often, their carcasses can be spotted through the window, usually caught in the fences that separate pieces of land and border up the road. Sometimes we slow down to let a rhea wobble across the road, its long neck bobbing forward and back. Fauna and flora come first in Patagonia.

Patagonia Ruta 40

Patagonia Ruta 40

Patagonia Ruta 40

Patagonia Ruta 40

Down south it’s all burnt yellows and washed-out algae greens; bucketloads of ocres – dust and sandy hills, sometimes turning rusty red or almost bright pink. Scattered piles of rocks cohabit with prickly evergreen. In the distance stands the solid deep purple of the mountains – here they are low and flat-topped, tracing a perfect line against the blue sky.

The wind ties it all up together. It’s shaped the land. Trees are bent and shrubs grow sideways. Huge clouds of dust follow everything and everyone, everywhere. It sticks to your clothes, your shoes; covers your face and settles in the lines of your hands, and its ashy taste is part of most meals.

Patagonia Ruta 40

Patagonia Ruta 40

Patagonia Ruta 40

We bush camp twice along Ruta 40. The first time, we find a large meadow-like spot away from the road, surrounded by trees. We build a fire surrounded by animal bones picked around the area. We’re up late drinking, hidden from the wind, warmed up by the fire.

The second night, we pitch our home close to a stream, and the few trees are this time no good at providing any refuge from the wind. It follows us everywhere – as we try and drape our flyovers on our tents; as we find a discrete spot in the bushes for a bathroom break; as we attempt to get rice and beans from our plates into our mouths. The one thing it comes handy for is drying our dishes.

And we’re back in the truck. Gus swirls around bends, braving trail roads as well as the endless asphalt, sometimes a little shaky from the gutsy gusts of wind. Off we go.

Patagonia Ruta 40

Patagonia Ruta 40

What’s overlanding? Travelling Patagonia with Dragoman

Have you heard about overlanding? I hadn’t until I travelled Patagonia on Gus, a sturdy orange truck who drew looks everywhere she went and provided a homely if a little drafty home for our group.

The idea of overlanding is to travel off the beaten track, as a group, with your own truck. I travelled with Dragoman, a company who’s been in the business since the 80s, and has routes covering Africa, the Americas, Asia and the Indian sub-continent. I joined the group in Santiago – like most in my group, although some had been on the truck longer – and we set off for five weeks on board Gus.

Overlanding trucks become your home for the time you’re travelling on them. Gus was our vehicle, but also our kitchen, our DJ, our workplace, our living room, our late-windy-night hangout; it housed our bags, food, tables and chairs, tents and somehow also fitted 24 grown people.

Packing up after a windy dinner

Being studious and updating our travel diaries

Jacolien loves nothing more than flapping dishes to get them dry

You’ll need to be flexible, adventurous and ready to get your hands dirty if you want to enjoy life on the road. A driving day goes like this: you’ll get up at the crack of dawn, zip up your bag, pack your tent, eat a quick breakfast, get in the truck and drive. You’ll get one or two breaks in the morning to stretch your legs or wee in a bush. Lunch will be on a sidewalk by a supermarket, or cooked for you by one of the cook groups and served on the side of the road, eaten on well-loved low stools in the cover of the truck. Then off you go again, perhaps with a shopping stop to pick up groceries for the evening, all the way until an appropriate field is found to camp in. Then tents go up (more or less easily depending on the wind), bottles are cracked open, the cooking team gets to work, a bonfire is lit up and you’re soon eating fuming spag bowl in the pearly evening light.

There are bad days: we found ourselves entering Tierra del Fuego in graying weather. A few hours later, as we stopped for lunch, rain was falling hard. We parked up by a seemingly abandoned administrative complex, struggled to get a pair of hobs on in the rain to boil the kettle for some hot drinks, while we dined like (fallen) kings on cold pasta so compact it felt like cake and cold tomato sauce straight out of the packet.

You’ve got your insufferably stuffy, long driving days when even the breeze coming through the open windows is hot and leaves your eyes dry with dust. You’ve got nights so windy that you wake up every hour or so to check that your fly sheet is still attached to your tent. You’ve got lunch stops at services where the only option is a sandwich filled with a tough chewy slice of beef. You’ve got miserable evenings, flapping wet dishes in the drizzly wind after yet another version of spag bol.

But the good days more than make up for it. One night we stopped Gus right at the border between Chile and Argentina. The wind was so intense we had six people putting up the one tent and a seventh running after a flying peg bag. Then the sun came out, the wind slowed down, and a rainbow came up as we sipped on mulled wine. The cooking team got to peeling potatoes, some went for a walk, a big few sat down to retrace the last few days in their travel diaries, and I sat in the truck, typing away. Overlanding has its own rhythm and if you manage to get onto it, you can get filled with such happiness that it gives you that: this, now this is why I’m travelling.

We found this abandoned house in the Tierra del Fuego and decided to make it home. The Ghost House was the location of some of the trip’s most memorable moments: a dinner cooked inside, a dance party to the light of head torches, and an “actual” bathroom – as seen below

On days without driving, you’ll be stationed in a town with time to go and explore on your own. Depending on the country you’re in, it could be museums, day trips, hikes, sporting activities, or just a day off sitting in a coffee shop to update your blog… You’ll share a hostel room with your truckmates, alternating taking over the kitchen to cook yet more pasta, or heading out for the first vegetable in sight in weeks.

I mentioned Gus being our workplace. For me, stop days meant getting to work on cleaning the truck. Each in our group got given a job to do during our time travelling: some were in charge of security, others of setting up our kitchen sink and handwash station, others still of loading and unloading our backpacks into the back locker.

One of the parts of overlanding that seems to most confuse people is the kitty. It’s not a truck pet, but rather the common fund that all passengers contribute to at the beginning of the trip and that serves to pay for group spends: lunches and dinner while camping, mostly, plus campsite fees and the occasional team punch. It’s an aspect of overlanding that helps it be a relatively cheap way to travel, as a lot of the spending is spread across the group. And with all cook groups being keen to shop cheap, there is sometimes money leftover at the end. We had enough for a tango show and a few bills each!

But like so much when it comes to travelling, I’d say the most important, and undoubtedly best part of overlanding, is the people. This mode of travelling isn’t for introverts. Like I said earlier, the truck can get a little cramped, so I’d end up falling over people and asleep on their shoulders before knowing what their day job was. I would get stuck knocking knees for 10 hours with truck mates and shared a tent with someone who was barely more than a stranger. But that’s a quick and easy way to make great friends real fast. We shared snacks, jokes, stories, photos and clothes; we experienced together some of the most beautiful places on Earth and some of the best moments of our lives. Such as taking a walk with a dozen people through fields and streams, with sheep loudly bleating as we walked around the few tombs of the smallest cemetery I’d ever seen, placing sheep bones by headstones and sharing one white wine cup between most of us. Or sitting down for a lunch of empanadas, sweaty and exhausted, at the foot of Mount Fitz-Roy. Or dancing around a bonfire to Macklemore’s Downtown like it’s the last night on earth.

On our way to lunch by Fitz Roy 

The cemetery mentioned above

The gang at Torres del Paine

If you’re curious about overlanding, don’t hesitate to leave your questions in the comments – I’d love to get more people to experience life on the road, is a big orange truck…