Torres del Paine

What and Where

Named one of the five most beautiful places in the world by National Geographic in 2013, Torres del Paine National Park is one of the top attractions in South America. As such, its visitation numbers have skyrocketed over the past few years to over 250,000 per relatively brief Patagonian summer (roughly December to March).

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Puerto Natales, the red star at the bottom of the map, is the gateway town to Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park.

Located as far south as Calgary or London are north, and separated from the rest of Chile by sea, mountains, and the vast Southern Patagonian Ice Field, it’s not the easiest place to reach. The main gateway to the park is Puerto Natales, a town of 20,000 that’s not nearly as touristy as I’d imagined. Park tourism is a huge source of income, and it’s noticeable, but it lacks the in your face tourist trap vibe of nearby El Calafate in Argentina.

High season for both crowds and winds is January through February, so I opted to visit in the much calmer middle of March.

How

More visitors to Torres del Paine means a more severe environmental impact. Fires caused by negligent hikers have burned hundreds of square kilometers of parkland since 2005, overcrowding at campsites, unsanitary disposal of human waste, and other issues prompted the park to enact limitations starting with the 2016-17 summer season. The number of people allowed to start each day has been capped, and if you show up to the trailheads without reservations you will be turned away.

The reservation system is very simple to navigate online (if you can read Spanish), and I made all my reservations for the hike on my phone back around New Years in Uruguay. Campsites can fill up months in advance, though if you show up to Puerto Natales in the shoulder season with a flexible schedule they seem to be pretty accommodating.

Most of the park is hard to reach for a day trip. Much more ideal is a multiday trek, the most popular of which is the four to five day W. The W can be extended into a less frequented loop hike called the O, which most complete in ten or so days. I did the O in five and a half days, which was very manageable.

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Torres del Paine National Park road and trail map. The red is the W trail, the most commonly done multiday hike in the park.

Along the treks you can stay in huts, have your meals cooked for you, and just carry day packs. The much more budget option, which I opted for, is to erect your tent in campgrounds next to the huts. The campgrounds were quite nice with flush toilets, sheltered cooking areas, and sometimes hot showers. This cost me an average of $7 a night.

Day 1

Last night I’d stayed up late listening to the owner of the Airbnb I stayed at talk about growing up under the ultra-repressive Pinochet dictatorship. It’s a topic I would never bring up on my own, partially because the US helped overthrow the democratically elected Allende and install Pinochet in his place. When I lived in Spain, life under Franco was something that was never talked about. Over 40 years after his death the country still hadn’t dealt with his legacy, instead deciding to more or less collectively ignore it (though I had a coworker tell me about growing up in Catalunya, where Franco outlawed the speaking of her native tongue Catalan).

The Pinochet regime ended much later, around the time I was born. And the 1988 plebiscite on continuing under authoritarian rule was rejected by not even 56% of Chileans. The other guest at the Airbnb, a German hiker, flat out asked the host about life under Pinochet. She said she remembered her house being searched eight days after the coup because her grandfather was a suspected (and probable) communist, the pamphlets which would’ve condemned him to death buried somewhere in the back yard. And the paranoia that anyone you knew could be a government informant, the danger of gatherings of more than three people, and the support of the Catholic Church for the repression.

The German guy was heading to the park at the same time as me, and the rain stopped just as we stepped out for the 30 minute walk to the bus terminal. The terminal was full of young foreigners with massive backpacks. Many of the people seemed to have little to no outdoors experience, and those staying in huts each night and not carrying food had packs much larger than mine.

There were multiple companies traveling the two hour route to the park, and they all left at 7:30am and charged the same amount.

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Lining up to pay the entrance fee and register. Laguna Amarga entrance station.

The bus dropped us off at the Laguna Amarga entrance station, where we all disembarked to pay the entrance fee (about $30, good for the entirety of my six days), and watch a video that made clear if we lit a fire anywhere outside the cooking areas we would be summarily executed on the spot.

Those doing the W got back on the bus to catch a boat to the beginning of their hike, while the O hikers could walk the 5 miles to the start or take a van for a small fee. Having a short day, I opted to walk. There were few people on the road with almost no traffic, and the rain was almost nonexistent by that point.

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Hotel Torres on my last day, which was much clearer than day one. The turnoff to the start of the hike is right around here.

The turnoff to the trail from the road was well marked, though the couple of hours to the campground was a labyrinth of muddy trails intersecting each other without clear direction. Wearing trail runners, I just walked through the mud and streams in the off and on rain knowing that my shoes would dry very quickly.

I was one of the first to arrive at the campground, a field with flush toilets in the center. I set up my tent next to that of a French couple and headed over to the covered area next to the ranger station to chat with others while wrapped in all four of my layers and long underwear.

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Heading down into the valley towards Campamento Serón, my home for the first night.

Some Canadians there had a few months prior done lots of trekking in the Cordillera Blanca a day’s drive north of Lima, where I hope to spend a few weeks at the end of my hike. I was concerned about safety, but one of the women said she trekked solo there in the rainy season and felt totally safe.

Later in the afternoon the sun came out, revealing spectacular vistas of the surrounding snowcapped Andes and drying out all my stuff. Back at my tent someone asked me if I knew where he could charge his phone.

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Part of Campamento Serón after the sun came out in the afternoon.

“Uh, I have a feeling you won’t find a place here to charge your stuff.”

He seemed shocked. “What about the next campsites?”

“I really don’t think so.”

Idiot

Day 2

Why is there something crawling on my legs? I drowsily wondered before the realization of what was happening made me yell and thrash about, trying to get the mouse out of my tent. My tent is on its last legs, the zippers and other parts having given out after being used for around nine total months since 2015. This meant it was perfect for mice to crawl through the openings while I slept.

Having banished the mouse, I was on the verge of falling back asleep when I heard a rustling in my food bag. On the PCT, like virtually all other thru hikers, I almost always slept with my food right next to or touching me. The bears and other woodland critters were too terrified of humans to venture near. The mice in Torres del Paine seemed to lack that fear.

I yelled again and shook the mouse out of my food, securing my provisions inside my backpack and pushing it out into the below freezing night away from my body heat.

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Leaving the campsite in the morning. It cleared up a lot on day two.

The next morning the tents next to mine, belonging to hikers from Colorado, told me their own stories of mouse encounters from the previous night. One of them said a mouse climbed on top of her tent, chewed a hole, dive bombed down onto her lap and began running around in search of food. After much effort she was able to get it out of her tent, where it went to the next tent and did the same.

“When you screamed ‘GET THE FUCK OUT’ at 3:00am, I knew the mice were here. This place is supposedly infested with them,” she told me.

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There’s nobody on the trail if you leave camp before noon.

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A glacier is kind of visible off in the distance.

After scraping the ice off my tent, I was one of the first hikers to hit the trail at around 8:30am. I saw only three others the rest of the day as we followed the path along mountainsides with views of glaciers every hour or so. It was a phenomenal day, and the Canadian woman I met yesterday who’d solo hiked remote Peruvian trails and I had no issues finishing two days’ worth of trail by 6pm.

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Refugio Dickson, a couple hours before my stop for the night at Los Perros campground, was probably the most picturesque camping area I saw in the park.

Los Perros campground was muy tranquilo, and I was able to pick a campsite off in the woods far from everyone else. Perfection.

Day 3

The rangers warned me that my proposed route, over the pass and down to the Grey Glacier all in one day, would take me at least 11 hours and that I should leave by 7am at the absolute latest. Considering I’d been doing each stage in half the time predicted at a leisurely pace, I wasn’t that concerned and rolled out of camp at 7:15am.

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Heading up towards the pass. As you can tell, it really wasn’t that steep.

It was muddy and hard to find my way through the forest because of the pre-dawn dark, but once the sun rose it was fairly easy going. I made it to the pass by 8:40am, which the rangers said would take me most of the day to reach. Cold, I crawled into my toasty 10F/-12C sleeping bag to filter water, eat breakfast, and enjoy the view.

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Two women in their 60s heading over the pass.

A Belgian couple arrived half an hour after me.

“I’ve heard the people on the W carry things like cutting boards and lots of other ridiculous stuff,” I told them. We were camping that night at Refugio Grey, by the Grey Glacier and our first joining up with W hikers who weren’t doing the full O route we were currently on.

“Yeah, I heard some people even wear tennis shoes!” the woman replied.

“I wear trail runners!” I replied, excitedly showing them my beat up shoes. They were aghast and started lecturing me on how terrible that is.

“I don’t know, they were fine for my last 1600km on the Pacific Crest Trail, my 800km in the Arctic, and the last couple of months in Patagonia,” I casually replied while eating my peanuts, which I hoped the disease ridden mouse in my food bag hadn’t infected. A ranger told me hantavirus wasn’t issue in this part of Chile.

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The Belgian couple crossing a bridge, trying not to look down.

They only had a few days of backpacking experience but still thought I was insane. I’ve been lectured quite often on how I’m doing everything wrong (ie my pack is way too light, I’m going too fast, trail runners will kill you) by people who have very little outdoors experience. Mainly from Europeans, who don’t really know what wilderness is and seem horrified when I mention my grizzly bear encounters while hiking.

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The campground below the pass, which I got to absurdly early.

On the pass I met a couple of women in their 60s from Vancouver. One had moved from Yugoslavia to Canada in the 1970, while the other emigrated from newly independent Ukraine in 1994. I’d been to both of their hometowns, Novi Sad in what’s today northern Serbia and Kiev, in October. They had many questions about what it was like to be a backpacker there, and the Novi Sad woman seemed shocked that an American backpacker had visited where she grew up. I also raved about how much I loved their hometowns, which they seemed to appreciate. They were tough, and walked at about the same pace as me.

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Me at Gray Glacier.

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Another view of Gray Glacier.

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Chunks of ice having floated away from the glacier.

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Gray Glacier and its lagoon.

We cooked dinner together and I made the mistake of listening to young European backpackers talk about how underdeveloped the park was, which seemed a little ludicrous after having hiked extensively in little traveled areas of the United States and Arctic Scandinavia.

That night I woke up to a mouse crawling inches from my face, but other than that it was a fairly restful night in my dying tent.

Day 4

By being on trail by 8:30am, an hour after sunrise, I was able to avoid the vast majority of hikers and usually had the trail more or less to myself. Today followed that format, except for a random group of Chinese tourists congregating on top of a rocky viewpoint.

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Heading out in the morning with the sun still rising.

At a junction I took a detour to the Paine Grande campground, one of the most popular in the park, to use the loo. There were foxes going through the campground ostensibly searching for trash to eat, which was a little disheartening.

After using the bathroom and filling up my water bottle, I zoomed down the trail to get to Campamento Italiano and start the steep hike up to the Mirador Británico before it was closed off by rangers for the day.

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Paine Grande Hotel. The campground to its right in this photo had foxes looking for trash.

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A view across the lake on the way to Campamento Italiano.

I arrived with plenty of time, and took a leisurely pace up with lots of stops to enjoy the scenery. It was fairly easy going with just my light day pack on my shoulders. Almost everyone takes the whole day to do it, but I found it fairly easy enough to accomplish in about an hour each way.

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At the Mirador Británico.

That night there were Chileans blasting music in the campground, which is unfortunately the norm in Patagonia. I don’t know why they all feel the need to carry speakers up the mountain and blast music until 3am. Campamento Italiano was thankfully fairly large, so I was able to find a campsite far from them. Thank God this is my last Patagonian camping trip, the loud campgrounds can really take the joy out of it all when you’re unable to sleep until 3 or 4am each night. But like most hikers in Torres del Paine, they sleep in until almost noon so it’s not a problem if you’re taking the rest of the day to walk 5 miles.

Day 5

I usually don’t like camping next to water, partially because everyone camps by water and I hate everyone, but the roar of the stream next to my tent was relaxing. My food bag, tied to a branch near my tent to prevent mice from pilfering its contents, seemed undisturbed. I packed all my things up and hit the trail, heading to the actual Torres del Paine. Torres is Spanish for towers, and paine means blue in the indigenous Tehuelche language.

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Another day on the trail.

The path up to the Torres is the most used in the park, with day trippers arriving to go visit the iconic peaks.

By coincidence, I set up camp in the Torres campground next to the same German guy who was at my Airbnb the night before hitting the trail. He’d implied that what Germany did during World War II wasn’t that bad, and I tried to avoid him, but it is what it is. He’d done the W while I did that plus the extension of the O trek.

I did the slog up to the Torres, a 45 minute walk from the campground. For some reason I had trouble getting the energy to go up there, but after a break of 10 minutes or so reading my kindle I was good to go.

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The Torres del Paine. It’s getting cloudy.

I have to admit the Torres weren’t that impressive compared to the rest of the park, but it was a nice finale. I went back to my tent and went to bed early.

Day 6

Glad to not have any more encounters with vicious rodents, I braved the morning cold and was one of the first to start the 5 mike hike downhill to the Torres Hotel. This is where the trail ends and the road back to my starting point begins. I arrived fairly early and decided to do the extra 5 mile road walk back to the Laguna Amarga entrance station, where one of the noon buses had enough space for me to hop on for the ride back to Puerto Natales.

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Me towards the very end of my hike.

Overall, the O had some of the most stunning backcountry vistas I’ve been lucky enough to encounter. It was well worth the reservations months ahead of time, and I can see why it’s routinely included in the list of the world’s top hikes. Granted, I was lucky enough to do the hike with nearly perfect weather. A few days prior to my start the park was shut down for a day due to storms and subsequent flooding.

Tierra del Fuego

Map of Tierra del Fuego.

An archipelago at the southernmost extreme of South America, Tierra del Fuego isn’t the easiest place to reach. However, with the relatively recent tourism boom it’s become quite manageable with daily connections by air, boat, and bus in summer. 

Bus to Ushuaia, Argentina from Punta Arenas, Chile.


Although Chile controls over 60% of the region, the Argentine side is much more developed and populated. This is all quite relative since the megalopolis of Ushuaia, famed as the “southernmost city in the world,” is home to only about 57,000 permanent residents. 

Boarding the boat to cross the Straits of Magellan into Tierra del Fuego. The latter isn’t connected by land to the mainland.


Ushuaia is pretty touristy, though for good reason: its location on the Beagle Channel, surrounded by snowy mountains and within easy visibility of Chile, is awesome. In recent years, as Antarctica becomes an increasingly popular cruise destination, Ushuaia’s port has become fairly busy. This is the departure point for almost all Antarctic cruises, which makes sense considering it’s only 700 miles (1100km) to the southern continent. Buenos Aires is over twice as far from Ushuaia.

Trekking the Sierra Valdivieso

Looking across the waterlogged valley.

Drying out my shoes after a stream crossing.


I came here to hike the surrounding Fuegian Andes, and began with the Sierra Valdivieso Circuit. The vast majority of walkers seem to do it counterclockwise, though I did it in the reverse. If I’d done it in the more traditional direction I doubt I would’ve seen anyone. Not that my meeting two other groups of trekkers in four days is a sign of crowding. 

The first time I’ve ever seen a skull marking a route. Navigating was pretty easy even without a marked trail most of the way.

The first two days were fairly cloudy.


The Circuit is almost entirely unmarked, though after doing even more remote treks in the Icelandic tundra I didn’t find navigation to be terribly difficult. What was difficult was navigating what I dubbed Beaver Dam Hell on the first day, where I was up to my waist in ponds fighting through thorn bushes.

Heading up into more alpine terrain.

The sun finally came out!

I had a very short day in the hopes of having clear weather over the pass. It worked.


The ground was pretty waterlogged at the beginning, largely because of the invasive beavers introduced from Canada, with water almost consistently at or above my ankles. 

Clear weather on the pass, with some guanacos visible. Guanacos are native cousins of camels.

Looking for a way down to the not visible valley.

There’s a faint impression of a trail here. Probably means it’s the easiest, driest route.

My home the last night on the trail.


Back on the Trail

I returned to the mountains to do a two day route through a less visited corner of Tierra del Fuego National Park. After getting directions from some local farmers, I was able to find the trailhead with a bit of difficulty. 

I woke up the next morning to a partially frozen water bottle, but I survived.

There’s a tiny owl on the signpost, barely visible in the photo.

Laguna Superior.

Looking back toward the Beagle Channel.

Meandering through the forest on a marked trail.

Sleeping With Dead People

“If you’re looking for a place to camp in Coyhaique, just go to the graveyard! That’s what we did. It’s free,” a young University of Santiago student gaily told me while having me pose for a ridiculous photo on the boat. 

Crossing Lake Buenos Aires, the second largest in South America, from Chile Chico to Puerto Ibáñez.


“It’s right by the river, perfect location,” she added. “The dead won’t care. I loved skiing in Colorado.” Confused, intrigued, and a little weirded out, I thanked her and left to seek refuge from the wind in the cabin. 

My plans for making my way south through Patagonia had fallen apart pretty quickly, which seems to be a fairly common theme on all my travels of more than three days. 
Almost out of cash and sunlight at the end of my trans-Andes trek from Argentina to Chile, I hopped in a van whose driver promised to drop me off an hour down the road in exchange for the equivalent of about $2. According to my maps, this town just an hour from the tourist hordes in picturesque Puerto Varas was home to ATMs and supermarkets. 

“No, the closest ATM is in Puerto Varas. We have a Neighbor Box, though,” the owner of the shack that was the ‘supermarket’ told me. 

What the hell? I asked, in more polite terms. 

“A Neighbor Box is exactly what it sounds like,” the cashier told me with a verbal eye roll. “And no, you can’t use it to get cash.”

Having finally found a campground that took credit cards, I paid the $9 and set up my tent in the rain. Then the campsite next to mine decided to have a dinner party with music until 1:30am, and I used the last of my cell phone’s power and the unreliable wifi to book an Airbnb room for the next night. Totally worth the $27. 

Also with the last dying embers of my 3.5 year old phone’s dysfunctional battery I made plans to meet up with my cousin, who by pure coincidence was in the same part of Chile at the same time. 

In Puerto Varas, Chile with my cousin. We asked some random stranger to photograph us.


Ready to get away from the north, I bought a bus ticket to the working class rainforest island of Chiloé and reserved a few more Airbnbs (one of which involved an elderly technologically retarded woman who still wasn’t really sure what Airbnb was, and asked “young gringo, can you help me with my online banking?”; the perils of Airbnbs with no reviews). 

Day hike in the thick vegetation of Chiloé National Park.

On the ferry to Chiloé Island.

Loading the boat for the 6am departure back to the mainland.


The next bus south wasn’t leaving for another few days (a common theme on the Carretera Austral), and hitching seemed difficult with lots of competition. So, after 24 hours in Chaitén without a whole lot to do, I made my way across the border to Argentina’s Esquel, gateway to Los Alerces National Park. 

A panorama from the trail in Los Alerces National Park, Argentina.

The abandoned Refugio Lago Kruger, my home for the night. I wouldn’t have stayed if it weren’t for a couple other Argentines also sharing the space. It was creepy, but I liked having the whole second floor to myself. The other two saw a puma walk outside the window the next day.

I finished the hike in only 2 days, and hoped to do some day hikes on my third day. Unfortunately, a fire had closed the trails so I rinsed my clothes and hung out on the beach.


From Esquel I headed south on Argentina’s Route 40, popularized by author Bruce Chatwin (and home to much better connections than the Chilean side). After 9 hours passing through the dry Patagonian steppe, with the snow capped Andes rising to the west, I arrived in the border town of Los Antiguos. 

Los Antiguos is a phenomenal little one street town solely because its campground is blissfully quiet. No screaming locals blasting music until 4am is a godsend down here. I shared the hiker campsite with a German couple and a Japanese guy who was biking from Canada to Tierra del Fuego. The Germans were also coming from Los Alerces National Park, and reminisced about being called nazis in the park campground. The Argentinian people are so charming, and remind me a lot of Israelis. 

Is this Argentine candy bar named after the white supremacist pariah state in post-colonial Africa? Could be.


There’s no bus service across the border to Chile Chico anymore, so with a combination of hiking and hitchhiking I was able to painlessly cross into Chile. Even walking 7 or 8 miles, I got to town at about the same time as those who hitched the whole way. 

From the Futaleufú/Esquel border crossing, which was beautiful.


I was able to nab one of the last tickets on the boat across Lake Buenos Aires to Puerto Ibáñez, from where there are vans to Coyhaique on the Carretera Austral. Two others, from France and Belgium, and I arrived late and went to the aforementioned cemetery-side campsite. There was nobody there except a dog that was weirdly protective of us and growled at a couple passing by who asked for rolling paper. 

I have a ridiculous number of pages in my passport dedicated to stamps from Argentina and Chile.


Coyhaique, with a population of around 40k, is easily the largest city in the region. Unfortunately, I don’t think I have the time to take the Carretera Austral all the way to its terminus and hike El Chaltén in Argentina. Rather, after a very frustrating day having spent six or so hours trying to figure out transportation info, I checked the weather forecast and opted to just book it to the Fitz Roy Range in Argentina and disappear into the mountains for four days. I’ve forgotten what sunshine and warmth feels like, but the weather prediction says I should get a taste of those this week in El Chaltén on the other side of the Andes!

Argentina to Chile on Foot – Part 2

Day 3

Unlike the trail I’ve just done, where you can camp almost anywhere, you’re only allowed to spend the night by the hut halfway to the Chilean border. I won’t have enough time after that to get to the border, so I’m…free! I only have a few hours of walking today, and I won’t make the boat in time the next day, so my schedule is now very relaxed.

While I’m enjoying the January sun, a dog comes up and abruptly licks my face. It goes rigid and stares off into the woods, where a herd of horses runs out of the woods and towards me. I immediately stand up and try to get away, but the dogs and gaucho shepherding them keep them away from me.

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On the way to the hut at Paso de las Nubes (Cloud Pass).

The trail meanders along a stream for a while, and it’s weird seeing other people on the trail. Only a few are out here, but this trail is definitely more popular than the last one. We ascend up and up and up to the Paso de las Nubes (Cloud Pass), with the Rocca Hut and an expansive view of glaciated Mount Tronador.

For $9, you can camp outside the hut and use all the facilities. The hut is heated, powered, and has running water with real toilets! It’s heavenly. A high school girl gets really excited at the opportunity to practice English with a real live native speaker, and we chat for a while while staring out the window at the glaciers and waterfalls. I get a little bored, missing the thru hiking lifestyle of camping anywhere and running yourself into exhaustion each day.

I don’t sleep well that night. I don’t think I drank enough water in the evening, and I get very irritable while dehydrated. I fret over everything that has and could go wrong, which isn’t exactly conducive to good sleep.

Day 4
The next morning I berate myself, as always, for worrying during the night about things that have sensible solutions.

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Very different from the high and dry passes in Argentina.

From the hut I descend steeply to the valley floor, and it’s evident I’m in a rainforest now. I usually listen to music or podcasts while I walk, a habit I picked up on my 2600 mile Mexico to Canada hike in 2015. It helps break up the monotony and lets my mind wander. I eschew my earbuds now in favor of listening to the sounds of the rainforest, lost in my own little world. I’m damp, sweaty, and caked in mud with a bad odor but I wouldn’t trade this for anything else.

At Puerto Frías the trail ends at a lake. There are just two buildings there: Argentine customs and what I think is a national park office. The border guard post is empty, but after a few minutes I see a boat approaching on the lake. A bunch of tourists pile out on their way to Chile by bus, led by the border guards.

“Can I help you?” Inquires an older woman.

“I’m walking from Argentina to Chile, and I need an exit stamp,” I reply. She looks at first like she doesn’t believe me, but after looking at my pack and how disheveled I am she seems to accept it.

“It’s a long walk from Pampa Linda!”

“I actually started in Colonia Suiza, just outside of Bariloche,” I correct her, not sure if it’s necessary for their records. My hike is much longer than what they originally thought. She and the border guards obviously think I’m a crazy gringo, but they put me first in line and within seconds I’m stamped out of Argentina.

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The view as I climb out of Argentina.

I drop off my hiking registration at the national park office, which seems unsure what to do with it. Hopefully they don’t call a search and rescue on me. They take my passport to look for my exit stamp, but are unable to find it amidst the cyrillic scribbles from obscure Eastern European border crossings. I show them my pages of Argentina and Chile stamps and they wish me luck.

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Welcome to Chile!

It’s only 40 minutes climbing to the Chilean border, but 18 miles/30km to the border station at Peulla. Leaving around noon, I know I won’t be able to make the 4:30pm daily boat across Lago Todos los Santos back to the Chilean road system. The road from Puerto Frías in Argentina to Lago Todos los Santos in Chile just goes from lake to lake. There’s no access to the outside world and nothing else in between, except for a few farms just outside the Chilean border post. Thus, the only vehicles there are a bus that ferries tourists from lake to lake, border guards, and a guy in a truck transporting goods that I see every few hours.

I stop around 7pm on a rocky platform overlooking a river, but get an inexplicable vibe of uneasiness and opt to keep on going. After less than an hour I find a perfect campsite, but something smells weird…and then I notice the rotting corpse of what might have once been a cow or horse. Yeah, let’s not deal with pumas tonight, I think to myself. Going 20 more minutes down the flat gravel road I walk into the thick rainforest, where the undergrowth seems to be less dense than before, and set up my tent out of sight of the road. Which, because it’s a rainforest, is less than 10 meters away.

Day 5

Last night’s sleep was amazingly restful, and I immediately start walking. Based on the GPS on my phone, I’m less than a couple hours from the border station.
 

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Mount Tronador and the sign for the border police. I went and talked to an officer, a very friendly grandfatherly old man, just to let them know I was in the area. He didn’t seem too concerned.

There aren’t even any aggressive dogs trying to stop me from trespassing on their territory, and it’s an easy couple of hours to the border station just outside town.

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Getting closer to town.

“Got any fresh fruit or animal products?” I show him my food back to make sure I’m following Chile’s strict importation guidelines meant to protect their environment.

“You sure that’s it?” Oh god they’re going to search through my entire bag. I’m not hiding anything, but all my stuff is so filthy and it’ll take a while.

“Okay, I’ll take your word on it,” and then he gives me my entry stamp and Chilean tourist visa slip, which I have to save until I leave the country. Every time you cross between Chile and Argentina you’re given a new 90 day visa, so I don’t have any issues staying here for six months like I did in the European Union.

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Lago Todos los Santos, the end of the hike and departure point for the ferry to the Chilean road system.

Fire fire fire everywhere!

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Malalcahuello, a tiny town where the fires stopped me from hiking.

“Nope. Sorry, kid, but with all the forest fires raging in these regiones, all trails are closed.”
mapa-chile

Chile is divided into regiones, their version of states or provinces. They’re numbered from 1 to 15, and at the Santiago bus terminal you better know your region’s number to get in the right ticket line!

Damnit. Oh well, better to find this out now than die in a raging fire.

“Since you hitchhiked here-”

“I took the bus, just asked the driver to let me off on the highway.” He gave me a disbelieving look.

“Well, you won’t be able to get back that way.”

CHALLENGE ACCEPTED. When somebody tells me I can’t do something, I immediately become like a customer I had the pleasure of encountering when I worked in the hotels of Yellowstone. After informing him I wouldn’t let him into random rooms without verifying they were his, he told me, “Fuck you freak, I’m gonna climb in through the window!” Inspirational words to live by.

I headed back to the highway, finding a makeshift bus stop with shade. Within 5 minutes I was able to flag down a bus.

“You going to Temuco?” I asked the attendant. He nodded. I put my bag in storage and handed him $6 for the two hour ride.

After spending the past two nights hardly able to sleep camped out in the back of a noisy hostel, I decided to get a hotel room. If I wanted to save money I would’ve just stayed home, I tell myself. As the bus drove in and out of signal in the windy mountain roads, I used my phone to reserve a room close to the bus terminals. At less than $28, ’twas well worth it. Not as much character as one Ethiopian hotel room near the Eritrean border, which had a bird nesting in the bathroom, but still a nice place to plan my next move.

While waiting forever to pay (I ended up leaving to get a haircut and coming back later), an older woman asked me what I was doing in this part of the world. With Chile’s heavily native population I stand out with my green eyes, pale skin, and hair reddened by so much time in the December/January summer sun. Looking at me, everyone can tell I’m a foreigner.

“I’ve lived here my entire life and never seen anything like this! Usually at this time it’s rainy and cool, but this might be the hottest and driest summer in history. All those fires here, and those six men dead…” If I had looked at a local newspaper in the past week I would’ve known all this.

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It’s not quite as dry as Ethiopia in the dry season, like above at the Bati camel market, but not too far off either.

Temuco is a working class town of about a quarter million well off the tourist circuit, and it was heavenly to get to actually sleep without degenerates screaming by my head all night. It was also nice not being exhausted for my 5 hour bus ride the next day to seaside Puerto Montt, another blue collar town. I stayed in an Airbnb solo for the first time (sleeping in a stranger’s spare bedroom was surprisingly nice, will have to do that again) and transferred to Argentina’s Bariloche.

“Been to Argentina before?” The bored-looking border officer asked me. I just said yes and declined to mention it was my third time. Crossing between the two countries is pretty easy, and immigration always takes place amidst beautiful Andean alpine scenery.

La Araucanía, Chile

Buying a bus ticket in South America can be a bit of an ordeal, but in larger towns with a terminal it’s less of a hassle. Rather than have various offices and points of sale scattered throughout the town, Argentina’s Bariloche terminal has a dozen or so different companies and conglomerates lined up alongside each other. Because each kiosk doesn’t display easily visible timetables (if they have any at all), and there’s no centralized site online with every company’s routes and times of departure, it can be an adventure.

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Buenos Aires’s chaotic Retiro bus terminal, which is reminiscent of a war zone.

My Lonely Planet guidebooks for Argentina and Chile, although outdated, have lists of which companies go where from each town and serve as an excellent start. Looking online at various company websites, I found a convenient bus over the Andes to Chile that didn’t leave at an ungodly early hour. About $31 from Vía Bariloche, a reputable company about which I haven’t heard too many stories of sudden breakdowns in the jungle, the six hour ticket to Chile’s Puerto Varas was easy to purchase.

Entering Chile is a bit more of a process than going into Argentina, as the former has strict importation guidelines on agricultural products (read: no meat, vegetables, or fruit). While border formalities for entering Argentina can take a few minutes for an entire busload, in Chile it’s often much longer. But the sniffer dog’s habit of repeatedly running off into the woods, and bringing along random pieces of luggage taken from the inspection pile in an attempt to play fetch, provided entertainment.

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It’s pretty easy to swap out SIM cards while crossing from country to country. Data costs about 40 cents a day, and the card allowing you access to the network is free or only a couple bucks. You can recharge the pay-as-you-go plan in lots of different places, like supermarkets or newspaper stands. When I asked for a smaller SIM card for my phone, the attendant just said “no problem” and got out a pair of scissors. Apparently in the US they frown very heavily upon that.

Entering Chile was a bit of a shock with a sudden onset of well paved roads and a lack of the general “Berlin 1945” feel you get everywhere in Argentina. The bus dropped me off 4km south of Puerto Varas on the highway, which wasn’t a terrible walk into town. Though next time I’ll pick a company that has a dropoff point in the settlement.

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Walking to Puerto Varas around 9pm.

Disclaimer: Sweden is my favorite country I’ve ever visited, up there with Albania, Croatia, and Colombia, but Chile is quickly rising on that list. Puerto Varas is touristy, but the Swedish hostel I stayed at was lovely and the town is quite nice. Touristy towns in Chile don’t seem to have the “tourist trap” feel of Bariloche.

I spent a full day in town before heading up north to the Araucanía, Chile’s poorest and most heavily native region. Still, Chile is probably Latin America’s most developed country and the region seems more prosperous than just about anywhere in its eastern neighbor.

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The beach of Pucón, my base for hikes in the Araucanía, with the Villarrica volcano visible in the background. Pucón is touristy, but still fairly pleasant.

My first hiking excursion in Chile was to Huerquehue National Park, known for being easily reached by public transit and having pretty lakes. At 50km (31 miles) round trip, the hike from the entrance to geothermal pools just outside the park was steep in places but overall not terribly demanding. I have to admit the scenery wasn’t comparable to other parks in the region, but soaking in the hot springs at the end of the day was quite nice.

Back in Pucón I went to the Villarrica National Park office to talk to the rangers about trail conditions on the popular 80km (50 mile) Villarrica Traverse. Because of the previous mild winter snow is not an issue, and the ranger gave me a map of the trail plus transit info (there really is none other than hitchhiking and a bus at the end that leaves once a day at 5pm).

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The ski center, a pretty lonely place in summer but very close to the start of the Villarrica Traverse.

Rather than hitchhike the 20km (12 miles) up somewhat steep gravel roads, I decided to lengthen my first day and walk it all the way from Pucón. The sun was shining and it was a beautiful summer day, so why not? I’ve heard it’s an easy hitch, though. A little over halfway up I reached the Villarrica National Park entrance station, where I paid the entrance fee ($11, includes all camping costs) and registered my hike with the enthusiastic rangers.

“Now, son,” the ranger told me, “make sure you don’t drink that ash water on your first day. You’ll have so many bowel issues that…” He went on in vivid detail that seemed a little unnecessary, but he did give me useful up to date info on water conditions. Very important stuff on such a dry trail.

At the river, the last water source for some time and my campsite for the first night, a Chilean English teacher who carried everything in bags seemed to be forcing two friends of his on a death march that they really did not want to be on. He seemed mystified by my map, which I offered him since the entrance ranger had given me an extra. He said I could have some marijuana in return, but I declined while he and his friends walked somewhere off in the distance to collect 9 liters from a different water source. I had no trouble filtering the volcanic ash water with my physical filter, and promptly passed out.

I ran into the miserable Chileans later on in the hike, when the one who was actually in shape asked me to tell his straggling friends that he’d gone off to look for cell phone service. “I really need this to call for a ride back into town, I can’t believe there’s no service out here!” What did you expect in a remote valley surrounded by snowcapped mountains?!

I left them to their fate (I heard later on they weren’t at the same spot the next morning, so hopefully they’re not dead in a ditch somewhere) and hiked all the way up to a viewpoint covered in loose volcanic material. Because it was windy and I was tired, I just laid out my sleeping bag on the ash. Watching the sun dip below the Andes and the stars come out, I like to imagine I was looking at the southern cross. But I really have no idea and admittedly did fail the astronomy merit badge at scout camp. I had cell service, but turned it off. It’s nice to be disconnected.

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The weird Martian landscape in one of the valleys.

Rather than rush to finish up the hike, I decided to take it at a slower pace of no more than 25km (15 miles) a day, something I couldn’t really do on the Pacific Crest Trail with a marathon-a-day pace. A Canadian couple I met along the trail would power through the day and arrive at camp by 1pm or so, and invited me to camp with them each night. It was nice having someone to talk to in English, and they let me scan pages from their out of print and sacred Lonely Planet Guide to Trekking in the Patagonian Andes. There’s really no decent guidebook for trekking in Patagonia, so I often have to rely on blogs and national park offices for info on planning this trip. Definitely a big difference from hiking in Europe and New Zealand!

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Descending into a valley with more water and greenery.

The Villarrica Traverse is supposedly popular, but other than the Canadians I wouldn’t see hardly anybody else attempting the entirety of the main stretch. The solitude was nice, though near dirt roads leading to regional highways we’d see a fair amount of locals. One such group kept asking me about the prices of random everyday objects in the US, which was a bit bizarre. At least they weren’t trying to convince me of some weird conspiracy theories involving the CIA and a mysterious, shadowy corporation that controls all the news media outlets like I’d often hear in Argentina, where the politicians have become adept at blaming most of their problems on foreign countries (and don’t forget about the great patriotic war for the liberation of the Falklands from the military dictator Margaret Thatcher, leader of the third world impoverished nation of England).

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A panorama of a particularly nice viewpoint.

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Waiting for the Canadians at a rest stop on the highway to Argentina, heading towards the extension hike.

The trail dips for 15 minutes into Argentina, though luckily we didn’t have to go through border control. I wouldn’t have even known I was in Argentina if it weren’t for the GPS points of the trail I’d loaded into my phone for navigation backup. The Canadians and I decided to do a 25km (15 mile) extension of the Villarrica Traverse, which involved a 2km (1.2 mile) walk along the highway to a barely discernable trailhead by a bridge.

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A panorama of the extension hike, with Lanín volcano and Argentina’s Volcán Lanín National Park on the other side. I wasn’t able to go to the latter because of weather a couple weeks ago, so I was glad to finally visit it from the much less frequented Chilean side.

I didn’t see a single other person besides the Canadian couple on the extension, though it was well marked and easy to follow. The three of us ended the day where the trail seemed to vertically scale a cliff with the trail signs blown down. After talking a bit, we decided to spend the night there by a lake and take a much easier to follow (not to mention safer) nearby dirt road back to the international highway in the morning.

Within a couple hours of waking up I was walking along the highway to a nearby rest stop, with raindrops starting to fall from the sky. Rather than walk the 11km (7 miles) along the highway to the closest village and wait six hours for a bus, I found a good spot and stuck my thumb out. Within 15 seconds a local had pulled over and said he’d give me a ride all the way back to Pucón, almost an hour away, if I agreed to speak English with him.

Looking back, I saw my companions just a few minutes down the roadand told him if he was willing to wait and take the three of us he could get even more English practice (the Canadians didn’t speak any Spanish). He agreed, and we hopped into his bus. The guy was very friendly, refused to take any pesos to help cover gas, and dropped us off in front of our hostel. Chile is wonderful!

La Región Patagonia

Maybe I shouldn’t write this as my hometown gets hammered by an ice storm, but at the moment I don’t really care: Uruguay and central Argentina were getting so damn hot and humid that upon arriving in Córdoba I immediately bought a bus ticket down south. Walking around during the middle of the day was unbearable and necessitated spending hours in air conditioned book cafes (admittedly what I was going to do anyways; I’ve finished six books in the past month).

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This is usually what happens when my hometown gets more than a millimeter of snow.

My main memory of Córdoba was being a stupid gringo that lost the key to his padlock. Thankfully (or not, from a security standpoint) it only took the receptionist 7 seconds plus a hammer to break it open. I accidentally woke up my Scottish roommate during the process, who turned out to just be an American with a cold and not actually Scottish. He was also sleeping in some other guy’s bed due to a mixup in bunk assignments by the staff, which made for a very entertaining scene when he came back really drunk at 2am. As the only person in the room who spoke both English and Spanish, I translated the scene for the very startled Argentinian engineering student the next morning.

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The quite comfortable cama ejecutiva seat on my 23 hour bus ride. The seat reclines 140 degrees or so.

The 23 hour bus ride to tiny Junín de los Andes was surprisingly nice, and I slept better than I did in the hostel. They did play some bizarre music videos, including one of an Argentinian guy dressed as Hitler in what appeared to be a Japanese video game. Argentina’s roads are pretty bad, so it was a little like being on a bumper car ride from the state fair, but other than that I can’t really complain about anything other than the disgustingly sweet food they handed out throughout the trip.

The main attraction of Junín is its proximity to Volcán Lanín National Park, where I was hoping to do some hikes around picturesque lakes under a volcano. The first woman at the tourist office seemed a little dense, but gave me maps and a bus timetable. When I went back to ask for a more detailed hiking map another worker looked aghast at what the first woman had written.

“There’s a weather alert in the park and it’s way too dangerous to go right now! Who the hell wrote all this on your map?!” She exclaimed as the perpetrator suddenly found something to do in the back of the office.

At the bus station, I inquired without success on available seats across the Andes to Chile. Desperate not to have to spend the next three days in this tiny town with the crazy homeless woman who kept glaring and growling at me all around the central plaza, I was able to procure tickets five hours south to El Bolsón via the picturesque Ruta de los Siete Lagos (Route of the Seven Lakes). And the next morning, after a relatively sleepless night while everyone in the local campground had a rave and blasted music until 4am, I watched the scenery change from desert to lush pine forests surrounded by snowcapped mountains.

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Walking to the start of the hike.

El Bolsón is a pretty hippie-ish place and, after registering my trip with the local mountaineering office and procuring a map in the undying rain, I was largely set for spending some days in the mountain. The municipal campground was again noisy, with what seemed to be air raid sirens (I later learned it had to do with a fire) going off around midnight.

There’s a bus every hour or so to the start of the hike, but the weather had cleared when I awoke and so I opted to instead walk the 8km on unpaved farm roads. A dog from the village followed me most of the way, which caused the farm dogs to go berserk.

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Drying out my tent next to the rickety old bridge of death.

After the rolling hills and farms, the trail began to climb. Mile for mile it was probably one of the most difficult hikes I’ve ever done, ascending at a ridiculous rate for 10km. I did it in about 3 hours not including long breaks (I didn’t want to get to the end too early), which upon arriving at the Cerro Hielo Azul Hut I was told was impossible and should take over twice that time. I replied that I hiked 4400km from Mexico to Canada and spent two months hiking solo in the Arctic, which they didn’t seem to believe. One ranger asked me about the northern lights, and didn’t seem to understand that the farther you get from the equator the more light there is in summer (and thus you can’t really see them in summer, when I had about a  month of perpetual daylight). After this I pretty much didn’t listen to what they said.

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Climbing the boulders up the mountain towards the glacier.

Camping is prohibited near El Bolsón except by mountain huts, which charge about $5 a night for you to put up your tent. The Hielo Azul Hut had flush toilets and a special shelter for campers with a stove for heat, which was quite nice in the higher altitude temperatures. I spent the evening chatting with Argentinians in the shelter, where they gave me peach marmelade and the tea-like drink mate. As a gringo that speaks Spanish, I get a lot of comments about how respectful it is to come to a country already speaking the local language. People here have been very friendly to me, and as practically the only foreigner I stand out.

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View from the hill above the glacier, overlooking the valley where the Cerro Hielo Azul Hut is.

I awoke early the next morning to ascend the glacier, a popular day hike from the hut. The ranger didn’t want to let me go solo, but relented after I talked about wandering off into the Icelandic tundra by myself for days at a time. He said it would be a minimum of 3 hours round trip, not including time spent at the glacier, but I was able to return within 2 hours including some rests.

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Selfie at the small glacier because I was the only one there. I didn’t see anybody going up, but ran into about 30 people while going back down.

During parts of the ascent I had some don’t look down and don’t fall, what the hell am I doing out here?! moments as it was fairly steep. Some parts I had to ascend using my hands amid loose scree. Looking back, I can definitely see how they don’t want people to go alone.

The steep climb on uneven, rocky terrain played hell on the muscles around my left knee. Still wanting to continue with my original plan, I downed two ibuprofen (aka Vitamin I on the Appalachian Trail) and was fine.

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Hanging out in front of the Retamal Hut.

After a terrifying ascent and subsequent descent into the next valley, I decided to take a day off at the hut campgrounds. There are worse places to spend a sunny day than reading and resting one’s knees on a Patagonian riverbank. My Spanish sure got a workout, as all the chatty locals wanted to know what an American was doing in a popular Argentinian vacation spot.

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Overlooking the river.

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Path through the forest.

The end of the hike was very easy, and since I left the hut around 6:30am I didn’t see anybody until almost two hours later. A porteño (someone from Buenos Aires) social worker, his northeastern boyfriend, and I walked to the Wharton convenience store bus stop and asked around until we found out how to take the $2 bus back to the hippie village. They were interesting to talk to, and said that although Argentina legalized gay marriage a few years ago it still wasn’t that welcoming of a place outside of Buenos Aires. They had to go back north for work, and I was on my way to Chile, so we parted ways.

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Heading down to catch the bus back to El Bolsón.