Tag Archives: Patagonia

Trekking the “W” in Torres del Paine national park, Chilean Patagonia

This is what trekking food for five people, for five days looks like:

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Pretty dismal. But of course the trekking mentality is that food is simply fuel to get you to the most remote, wild and beautiful areas.

Torres del Paine national park is world famous; as well as the mountains, lakes, glaciers and streams which abound in Patagonia, there are the distinctive granite towers which inspired its name.

Extremely hardcore folk trek the full circuit (also known as the “Q”), which takes around nine days. As a born and raised city girl I suspected my love for nature would seriously wane after that long, plus Mark and I were conscious that we wanted to have as much time as possible in Peru and Ecuador.

So we settled for the more manageable, but still challenging, W trek, named after the shape of the route, plus a bit extra (which we dubbed the “Q tip”, geddit?). This trail navigates up and down out of the mountain valleys, via the park’s must-see attractions: Los Torres, Los Cuernos, Valle Frances, Paine Grande, and Glacier Grey.

We hooked up with an English couple we had met in El Calafate, Jack & Jenna and Derek, an American from San Francisco who had been travelling for five months already. We made a good team – the combination of Jack’s impressive supply of games, Jenna’s organisation and feminine solidarity, and Derek’s Spanish speaking skills was a winner. (I’m not sure what Mark and I brought to the group; Mark was an excellent packhorse and his melodic farts were an endless source of amusement. My role was pacesetter for steep uphills thanks to my geeky walking sticks or “power poles”)

The self-styled "Team Salami", named after the supersized sausage that was the cornerstone of every meal we prepared at camp.

The self-styled “Team Salami”, named after the supersized sausage that was the cornerstone of almost every meal we prepared at camp.

Our French pal Cyrille joined us for the first couple of days before peeling off to complete the full circuit on his own in search of spiritual discovery. (He had the world’s heaviest pack and a pair of self-whittled walking sticks; the rest of us joked that his discovery may be that actually, he hates camping and should have stayed home.)

We took in some amazing views:

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The glacial water was so fresh and delicious, you could literally lap it up like a dog:

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As a special end to our trip, we woke up in the early hours of the last day to start trekking in the dark, under a full moon and a canopy of stars. The goal was to arrive at the main Torres viewpoint before sunrise, after an hour long uphill slog.

We made it with enough time to spread out our roll mats and get comfortable with our sleeping bags and thermos flask, ready to watch the moon drop and the towers glow pink and orange as the morning sun came up.

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Totally worth the shockingly early start.

Of course, trekking isn’t all photogenic vistas, perfect weather and happy camping – there were some truly miserable moments which had me swearing never to put myself through this ordeal again. And swearing like a fishwife in general (sorry Mum). Over the five days we hiked over 100km (70 miles) and most days were at least eight hours of solid trekking. By the end, most of us had shattered muscles, knackered joints, bruises, scrapes, blisters, mosquito bites and numerous other painful niggles. And we stank.

Look at our hangdog expressions on the last day.

Look at our hangdog expressions on the last day.

Towards the end of the trek, the main thing keeping us going was thinking of the celebratory feast back in civilisation, with all the heavy, unnecessary treats we had to leave behind (and BOOZE!). Team Salami headed straight for a local brewery for pitchers of beer and this kilo of chips smothered in cheese, bacon and fried chicken – definitely deserved.

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Personally, I was hallucinating visions of fresh fruit, salad and veggies after nearly a week of cereal bars, dried noodles and salami. I very nearly climbed into this trough of apples in excitement.

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Perhaps this is easy to say from the comfort of a warm, cosy room, but having to walk miles through crazy weather magnified the beauty of the landscapes. Seeing the Torres light up at sunrise would not have been as special if we had been dropped off by a tour bus (obviously this isn’t possible anyway!). The sense of achievement after all that hard work made the whole experience more profound and utterly unforgettable.

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Argentinian Patagonia: El Calafate and El Chalten

Our first stop in Southern Patagonia was El Calafate in Argentina.

The words spectacular, dramatic, astonishing, jaw-dropping, and stunning still don’t quite capture the scenery, which made Mark and me feel we had somehow magically stumbled into the pages of a glossy coffee table book.

So thank goodness for Mark’s camera.

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The Perito Moreno glacier is 250 sq km (97 sq mi), 30 km (19 mi) in length, and more importantly, stable.

Look at the tiny person on the viewing platform, to give you an idea of how vast this glacier is.

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The sounds here were as impressive as the sights – the peace would be broken frequently by eerie noises of the ice creaking and groaning as it cracked deep inside the glacier, or as chunks larger than family cars broke off at the edges to crash and splash into the water. It was as though the glacier was a living, powerful being.

El Chalten is a charming hippie village at the foot of the mountains, full of picturesque, shanty-style buildings in pastel colours. It’s properly remote; just 400 inhabitants (the population grows to around 2,000 because of visitors in peak hiking/tourist season) and there is a very shaky satellite connection for Internet. We were a bit alarmed to see this sign warning us that there were no more pubs for miles (I thought my father would appreciate this).

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Luckily there was enough trekking and more beautiful scenery to quench our thirst instead (not to mention a great microbrewery and pub on the main street).

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The wind in Patagonia is notorious – the multitude of coastline, lakes, peaks, and glaciers all near each other create many different microclimates which cause powerful and unpredictable bursts of wind.

This isn’t an ocean, but a mountain lake.

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On this day, all but one of our group of five were literally swept off their feet by the wind. All you can do is drop to the ground and clutch while at rocks or bushes to avoid getting blown away. We attempted to reach the peak of Lago de Los Tres, but couldn’t fight the wind even crawling on our hands and knees. The very next day the same lake was as calm and still as a mirror.

One of my favourite things about hiking is how it sharpens your appetite and gives you a great excuse to feast. Not only do you deserve a hearty meal after ten hours of stomping around mountains and hoisting yourself up steep slopes, you can indulge merrily knowing you’re in no danger of putting on weight.

A local specialty is Patagonian lamb, barbecued in the traditional way and served in huge portions.

I've heard of "food porn" but this splayed, legs akimbo pose is something else. Hellooo boys!

I’ve heard of “food porn” but this splayed, legs akimbo pose is something else. Hellooo boys!

I also learnt about the local calafate berry, which is part of the barberry family (Persians – barberry is zereshk) and resembles very tiny blueberries. You can find all sorts of things made with these berries: jams, jellies, booze, cordials, salsas and sauces. There is a legend that says that if you eat calafate, it means you will one day return to Patagonia.

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Knowing this, I tucked in to this calafate ice cream with gusto; I would definitely love to come back.