Trekking Apu Ausangate

Overview

Ausangate is a mountain about 60 miles (100km) east of the old Inca capital of Cusco, Peru. Extending up to almost 21,000 feet (6,384m) with lots of snow and glaciers, it’s a pretty prominent part of the landscape.

A circuit around the mountain is 45 miles (72km) and used to be a pilgrimage route for the Inca, who viewed Ausangate as sacred. The trail is fairly well marked. I never once had to take out my map, though I did make extensive use of the GPS function on my phone along with the Maps.Me app. That app has the route in the free downloadable Peru map set, and fit the actual trail perfectly.

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Ausangate as viewed from the trail.

Hiking the route solo seems pretty atypical, though I did it by myself without pack animals and had no problems. Most people hire transport to cut off 15 miles (25km) from the beginning and end of the hike, and also have mules carry all of their belongings. They generally do this shorter route in 4 or 5 days, though carrying all of my belongings I managed quite well in 2.5 days. The main difficulty is elevation; the trail rarely goes below 15,000 feet (4570m) with multiple passes up to 17,000 feet (5180m).

The area is inhabited by alpaca farmers. There are many hundreds of alpacas along the route, and the pastoral herders are quite friendly. Their first language is Quechua, but they speak passable Spanish.

Transport

The loop starts and ends at Tinqui, a small village with a few restaurants and basic hotels three hours east of Cusco. It used to be a seven to eight hour bus ride, but the recent completion of the Interoceanic Highway linking Peru and São Paulo has made the trip possible in less than half the previous time. Buses cost $3 and leave approximately every 45 minutes from the Paradero Livitaca, a very basic (and tiny) bus terminal near the old stadium. It’s visible on Google Maps, and taxis from the old town cost a little less than $2 for the ten minute ride. The sign in front may say Ocongate, which is a larger town 15 minutes before Tinqui, but they almost all continue on to and terminate at Tinqui.

Day 1

From Tinqui a dirt road leads up towards the mountain. The glaciers and permanent snowpack of the 21k foot mountain make it fairly easy to discern, and since there’s only one road navigation isn’t difficult. There are signs marking the way to Upis, the first village in the counterclockwise direction.

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Walking through Tinqui, the village where the loop begins and ends.

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I did the route counterclockwise, so I started going towards Upis and came back via Pacchanta.

It’s a fairly gradual climb up away from Tinqui, passing by fields of crops and livestock. There’s a fee of $3 for the hike, which should be the only fee for the trip though herders may ask for something for crossing their land.

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Heading towards the mountain. The clouds are growing fairly ominous, though it often rains in the afternoon here.

The trail leaves the road and jolts to the right along a footpath through a narrow valley populated by alpacas and older herdswomen. The dark clouds gave way to a light rain for about 30 minutes. I just walked on through it.

Once the rain stopped I arrived at the Upis campground, which is just an open field with an outhouse. At 1pm it seemed like most people had already stopped for the day, maybe because the sun disappeared for half an hour. You can camp pretty much anywhere in the area, which along with rain seems for some reason to really disturb most hikers in South America. Many of them refuse to hike in the rain, and will stay in their tent all day to avoid it.

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Alpacas on the way towards the Upis campground. I kept on going and decided to tackle the pass since it was only 1pm.

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Leaving the campground for the pass, which is around the corner on the right.

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Around the time I got too close to an alpaca herd and the herd dog let me know. Throwing rocks at it kept it at bay.

The rain seemed to hold off until I got farther down, and I was glad not to have to deal with a thunderstorm at the pass. I could hear the thunder but never saw any lightning.

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The first pass, Arapa. I didn’t stay long because of the thunder and approaching storm.

At 5:15pm, with the sun below the ridge and the darkness rapidly enveloping everything, I opted to set up camp. It was my first time setting up my new tent, having shipped it to my father who brought it with him when he visited me in Argentina (tents in South America are three times the weight, twice the cost, and really shitty, so I decided to just buy an American one). Setting it up in a thunderstorm was far from ideal, but it was pretty easy to figure out. And it kept me dry, which is what really matters!

I decided to go without a stove for this trip, so I just sat in my tent eating crackers and waiting out the long 12 hour night. I woke up around 11pm to see some small dog-like creature inches from my face outside the mesh of my tent, and was glad I´d brought all my food and belongings inside the nylon.

Like on the PCT, I just slept with my food (although unlike on the PCT I slept inside a tent). Except for grizzly bears and animals in high-use areas used to people, everything is usually terrified of humans and won´t approach food if you´re touching it.

Day 2

Waking up, I opened my tent flap to find a great view of Ausangate in the clear dawn skies. Visibility was nil when I set up my tent in the deserted alpaca grazing grounds, but now it was shaping up to be a phenomenally clear day.

My 10F/-12C sleeping bag, which served me so well in the Arctic, kept me warm throughout the night. It must´ve gotten below freezing, since when I awoke my tent was covered in ice.

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I lost the trail here in the early morning, having to backtrack a bit and cross the lake outlet to get to the other side.

With socks on my hands to protect them from the cold, I hurriedly packed up all my things, shook the ice from my tent, and headed off.

Some alpaca herding dogs stopped me from going into the next valley, but my trekking poles and some rocks stopped them from biting me. My break by a stream in the hills above the valley was abruptly cut off when the alpaca herd appeared around the corner emerged and stopped, just staring at me. It was a little surreal seeing dozens of alpacas appear and just stare at me en masse, but I knew the demon dogs from hell would be there soon. I crammed all my stuff into my pack and zoomed away as fast as I could at 16k feet (4900m) and headed toward the next pass. This hike was basically pass hopping punctuated by valleys filled with alpacas and their evil herd dogs.

I lost the trail heading down toward the next valley, but somehow managed to get down a steep hillside without slipping in alpaca dung. The woman tending the herd demanded $3 for crossing her land, which I argued over before finally paying. It almost certainly wasn´t official, but I had just terrorized her flock by walking through it and the fee was pretty minimal.

A German hiker came from the other end of the valley and passed me while I took a break. He´d just come from the Rainbow Mountain, a popular day trip from Cusco that gets many hundreds of visitors each afternoon. I´d opted to skip it since I was concerned about my first hike at a sustained high elevation, and wasn´t sure exactly where it was. I wanted to make my first hike in Peru as easy as reasonably possible.

“Maybe we’ll see each other in a while!” the guy called as he left. After 20 minutes I finished my break and almost immediately passed him while he huffed his way up towards the pass.

“This is the last pass, and it’s all downhill from here! Only 30km more,” he panted. I just smiled, knowing that there was another pass after this one and that his distance was quite off (though he might have been taking a taxi from the last village to the highway, which cuts off a few hours and is common; but his mileage was still pretty off). I decided against crushing his dreams with reality.

The pass was beautiful albeit cold and windy, so I didn’t stay very long.

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My view during the break I took below the pass, in a more sheltered site.

I passed hundreds of alpaca on my way down the valley, and was accosted by five snarling dogs near a hut. They startled me, and though most of them seemed friendly one tried to lunge at me. Throwing rocks at it, I saw a woman come out and run towards me. I think she wanted money or to sell me something, but recognized that in the midst of avoiding the teeth of her dogs was not a good time to beg. This was the last time dogs were an issue for me on the trek.

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The valley below the pass.

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There’s a group of trekkers, with horses hired to carry all their things, to the left of the photo. They let their horses roam after setting up camp.

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The next and last pass is up ahead around the corner on the left. I camped before it in the hopes of climbing the pass in the morning.

The trail followed a stream through a picturesque, verdant valley. One of the dogs from the hut followed me and seemed to want food, which I didn’t give it. I figured mint cream crackers and dry ramen weren’t good for some aging alpaca dog. There was nobody in the valley other than some guy who I’m fairly sure saw me while I was going to the bathroom. Turns out I wasn’t as alone as I thought.

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My campsite the second and last night. Since it was getting dark I decided to wait until morning to tackle the pass, not wanting to be caught at night at high elevation without a sheltered campsite.

Day 3

Going up to the pass took more time than it would have at lower elevation, but at the top I had cell service and chatted with my brothers about topics that will not be addressed here. It was the highest I’d ever been in my life, 17k feet (5180m), and was amazing.

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A panorama of the last high pass.

The descent through the last valley was easy, and I quickly passed some hikers that had hired mules to carry all their belongings. They must’ve been the ones camped with the horses the night prior.

As I got closer to Tinqui I saw more and more people, including a woman who was way too old to be begging for candy. One young girl rushed out to show me her orange and white kitten, which really did not want to be in her grasp, and was satisfied when I told her it was incredibly adorable.

A hailstorm lasted 40 minutes, which I walked through while listening to BBC podcasts. Making good time, I decided to continue all the way back to the highway and catch a bus back to Cusco.

El Altiplano de Bolivia

The heat and humidity of the jungle surrounding Iguazú Falls were not my cup of tea so I opted to flee to the cool, dry Bolivian altiplano.

I went from Iguazú Falls in the far northeast of Argentina to Bolivia in the northwest via Corrientes and Salta (both Argentine cities).

The journey was fairly uneventful, if long. Not including stops to change buses, Iguazú to the Bolivian border is a 31 hour journey through Argentina. At one layover, in Corrientes near Paraguay, a crazy and possibly homeless woman kept following me around spouting random words in jibberish that I assume was supposed to be English.

Eventually, after a day and a half breaking up the journey in the northwest Argentine town of Salta, I made it to the border town of La Quiaca in the dark. Not wanting to deal with border formalities at night, and knowing lodging options were much better on the Argentine side of the bridge, I found a pleasant hotel with private rooms for $15 a night. At 11,300 feet (3440m), I was finally in the altiplano and could definitely feel it in the thinner air.

Map of Bolivia. I came up from the very southern tip and headed northwest through the altiplano.

Bolivia has made Americans get a visa to enter the country ever since the president became convinced the US government was part of a conspiracy involving denying his jet permission to land in Europe. He has a tendency to blame the US for everything, including a recent referendum barring his path to further years in office (he´s on the path to becoming president for life, and I´ve heard the opposition leaders tend to have a habit of disappearing).

Technically you’re supposed to get this visa in advance, but in practice you can usually get it at the border. I’d heard stories of buses stranding tourists at remote desert border outposts because they didn’t want to wait for the visa to be granted, so I opted to walk across the border into Villazón. Seemed like a much safer bet in case anything went wrong.

As seems to be the case in so many Spanish speaking countries I’ve visited, the whims and mood of government officials is much more important than any official requirements. The Bolivians seemed much more interested in my $160 reciprocity fee than anything else, and were strangely picky about what bills they’d take. Like most other South American countries, they seemed to have little appetite for their own currency and instead insisted the fee be paid in crisp American dollars.

Success! My old friends trickery and deceit served me well in navigating government bureaucracy.

The border guard, whose sluggish and vapid gaze suggested recent emergence from a long coma, rejected four of my twenties because of microscopic tears. However, she let me walk into Bolivia to go to an ATM, withdraw bolivianos, and convert them to dollars at an admittedly decent rate. Bills with lots of black marker drawings all over them were apparently fine. Others have told me you can sometimes pay a “service fee” directly to the border guards of about $10 to $15 to get around this craziness.

There was a shift change halfway through getting my visa, and the new guy wanted an itinerary, passport size photo, and copy of my yellow fever vaccine (the previous woman seemed much more interested in texting her friends). I gave him a bunch of papers in English that I had with me, knowing he’d have no idea what they were, and he seemed mollified. I didn´t have a copy of my yellow fever vaccine, but looking at a yellow piece of paper I had with my father´s outdated business address sufficed.

After filling out a couple forms that asked for another itinerary and a list of random things like my father’s mother’s maiden name, I was given the visa and entrance stamp. My itinerary was different each time I wrote it, and I made up reservations for hotels with addresses, but they didn’t seem to care. All in all it was very quick without a line, maybe because I did it at 7:30am on a Wednesday.

Some Bolivian funny money I withdrew back in Potosí because I’d heard the salt flats, my next destination, didn’t have reliable ATMs. Bolivia is pretty much an entirely cash based country.

Villazón, the Bolivian side, had more currency exchange offices than I’d ever seen in my life. I walked around until I found a crowded one and converted the last of my Argentine pesos to bolivianos. The rates at all these shops were surprisingly good, and including converting bolivianos from the ATM into dollars for my visa I only lost about 1% off the official Google rate (which seems largely unobtainable anyways).

Having crossed the border hours sooner than I expected, I went and got a SIM card for my phone. Data in Bolivia costs about 30 cents a day, and the $1.50 SIM card was very easy to purchase and register.

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You can buy these cards from elderly women off the street to top up your phone. Scratch off the pin number on the back, enter it on your phone, and your account is credited with the amount. Data costs about 30 cents a day.

Next door at the post office I mailed my father a postcard from Iguazú Falls. “You mean…you want to buy stamps? For outside of the country? Uh, I have to go look in the back…”

The postmistress and her assistant disappeared into the back for 8 minutes and found, to their surprise, that the post office does in fact have stamps. They seemed blown away by my request and the fact that somebody actually walked into their unmarked office, hidden from the street.

With nothing left to do in Villazón, like most border towns lacking in charm or anything to attract a visitor, I headed to the bus terminal and bought a ticket for the next departure north to Tupiza. Not that the road goes anywhere else.

Bus travel in Bolivia coats about $1 an hour, stops fairly frequently to drop off and pick up passengers, and rarely if ever stops for a bathroom (on average every 4 to 5 hours in my experience). Tupiza isn’t the most interesting town, but it’s in a beautiful desert altiplano setting. Tired of buses and not in a hurry, I got a room in what seemed to be the nicest hotel in town.

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The view from Tupiza looking south.

At less than $22 for the night it was extremely expensive by Bolivian standards, but quiet and well worth it.

I bought a ticket for the next morning at 10am to Potosí, five hours north. Arriving 25 minutes early to the terminal, I found that the bus had already left  but was given a ticket for the next departure two hours later (this one left a little late).

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The delicious $1.50 raspberry frappe I enjoyed while waiting for my bus to depart for Potosí.

The hotels in Bolivia all have terrible reviews online. After having stayed in many of them I have to wonder whether or not these princesses realize they’re in a developing country, and that $5 a night for a room doesn’t necessarily mean you’re staying at the Four Seasons. I found a palatial room for $11.60 with immaculate private bath in Potosí at a place that was reviewed online as being barely fit for human habitation (I thought it was great).

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This is what $11.60 a night gets you in Potosí.

Almost everything was closed in Potosí because of Holy Week, so after a day of wandering around I bought passage in a shared taxi to nearby Sucre. The shared taxi was able to get to Sucre in half the time of the bus on a winding route through the vast and undulating altiplano. It was well worth the extra $3 for a faster and more comfortable journey.

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Looking towards the central plaza of Potosí.

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Wandering the high streets of Potosí.

The main thing to do in Sucre seems to be wandering the whitewashed, narrow alleys and drinking coffee in the comfortable European-style cafes. It’s pretty relaxing, and I spent most of my time hanging out with an ex Mormon guy who hiked the PCT the year after me. We went to this bizarre castle on the outskirts of town (photography prohibited for some strange military reason), climbed a nearby mountain to look at the bones from the goats sacrificed there on Easter, and talked about our experiences on the PCT. It was quite nice.

Sucre, the de jure although no longer de facto capital (that honor belongs to La Paz), is where the Bolivian independence movement began. Their version of Independence Hall is in the central plaza, and they offer guided tours in both English and Spanish. Every explanation of independence figures seemed to end with, “…and then he was decapitated. Now we move to next man….and then he was decapitated.” My tour was in English and hard to follow, other than that a very large portion of Bolivia´s founders for some reason ended up decapitated.

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The whitewashed streets of Sucre.

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A statue of President Sucre, second president of Bolivia, fourth president of Peru, and a close ally of General Bolívar, in the tranquil plaza of Sucre.

One day in Sucre was devoted to a particularly uncomfortable case of food poisoning, but I survived.

Iguazú Falls

Having been to Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego, and Buenos Aires, the main Argentine attraction left was Iguazú Falls. Supposedly one of the most spectacular sights in the world, I figured it was a fitting end to my Argentine travels. Though I have to admit I’m ready as hell to get out of this dysfunctional, overpriced wasteland of conspiracy theorists. I think I’ve been here way too long and am getting jaded. 

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Iguazú Falls in the far northeastern part of Argentina.

As seems to be a common theme on my trip, my intended destination wasn’t the easiest place to reach. Located where Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina all converge, the gateway town of Puerto Iguazú is a 19 hour bus ride from Buenos Aires.

A very confused looking woman at the Devil’s Throat part of the falls.

The falls can be viewed from the Argentine or Brazilian side, though I’ve been hearing over and over that the Argentine side is more impressive. Maybe that’s just because of my selective hearing and the fact that Brazil makes Americans, Canadians, Australians, and Kiwis get a visa. Either way, I didn’t think it was worth the $210 to get a Brazilian visa just to visit the falls (it’s $50 cheaper if you get it in the US). I’ll do Brazil on another trip.

There are dozens of buses per day leaving from Buenos Aires’s Retiro terminal for Puerto Iguazú, and the journey in cama ejecutiva class (very comfy seats that recline about 160 degrees) cost me approximately $112. I misread the departure time on my ticket and had to rush down to the terminal to catch it, in the process losing and having to replace my admittedly inexpensive metro pass.

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View from my seat on the bus to Puerto Iguazú. In cama ejecutiva seats there are three seats per row, compared to four per row in semi cama. The seats are rather comfortable in both classes, and comfort can be quite variable from company to company. I went with Vía Bariloche, which I had positive experiences with in the Lakes District of southern Chile.

The Retiro terminal is a gargantuan labyrinth of ticket booths, food stalls, and departure platforms. Ticket sales and departure platforms are all grouped by region. Going to the northeast to Iguazú? Better not make my mistake and try to get your ticket printed out in the Patagonia section of the terminal.

Despite my panicked worrying that I was going to miss my bus, I arrived at the platform to find that it had been delayed an hour. As I heard in Spain all the time, es lo que hay (it is what it is).

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The Buenos Aires Retiro bus terminal is 400 meters (a quarter mile) long.

Long distance bus journeys in South America are quite comfortable, especially if you travel with a reputable company. This isn’t as important in Argentina and Chile, where buses go off cliffs with lesser frequency than in Bolivia or Peru, but comfort of seats can vary greatly from company to company.

Upon arrival in Puerto Iguazú, I heard mutterings from the coach attendant about a bus driver strike. My hostel was only a 4 minute walk from the terminal, with prices a fraction of what they are in high season, and I discovered at reception that the strike meant no buses to the falls today. It was a stunningly beautiful and cloudless day, quite atypical for such a high rainfall jungle climate.

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My favorite hostel resident.

“Wait, you speak Spanish. Want to help us find and split a taxi?” asked a pair of Arctic Norwegian women at my hostel that I’d met on the ride from Buenos Aires. The receptionist at the hostel told us 400 pesos ($26) one way would be ideal, but some dude on the street named Pedro offered to take us for 550 pesos ($36) round trip.

Pedro turned out to be a great deal. He claimed to be a taxi driver, even though his car didn’t have taxi written on it anywhere, but he delivered us to the falls at the agreed upon price. He didn’t speak English, so I sat in front and we chatted.

“It’s so good those women have a man traveling with them,” he told me, which I declined to translate for the Norwegians in the hopes of averting an international conflict. Having spent ten weeks in the Nordic countries last summer, I did not think that would go over well. Norway is perhaps the most gender equal country in the world.

Entrance to Iguazú National Park costs 500 pesos ($32). Although it’s only valid for one day, if you bring your passport and register at the ticket office upon exiting you can enter at half price the next day.

There are three main sections of the park:

  1. Entrance area – There’s really not a whole lot here other than the ticket office and a small visitor center.
  2. Cataratas (falls) – Views of the falls from lower and farther away. There are two circuits, an upper and lower, where you can walk on elevated boardwalks with many viewpoints. From the lower circuit you can take a boat to San Martín Island.
  3. Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat) – A boardwalk leading to a massive semicircle of roaring waterfalls, one of the more iconic views. This part isn’t visible from the Cataratas section.

Iguazú Falls is almost incomprehensibly massive, and you can’t see all of it from any one point on land. All three of the above stations are linked by train, with departures every 30 minutes in each direction. Apparently sometimes you can walk from the entrance to Cataratas, but the trail was closed when I visited.

Entrance

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The entrance train station.

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Riding the train through the park.


Cataratas

I found this section to be the most impressive, and on my second day I spent all my time here. San Martín Island was closed my first day because of high water levels, but I was able to visit on my second day. The island is very close to the falls, and you get wet from the spray quite quickly.

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Coatíes are similar to raccoons. I saw many people feeding them. They were most definitely not afraid of humans.

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Lea, one of the Norwegians I visited the park with, was fascinated by the coatíes.

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Looking at the falls from one of the many viewpoints.

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The Norwegians on the boardwalk.

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Looking from a viewpoint to the river, the water jetted off by Iguazú Falls. There were some cool views of the jungle from the boardwalks.

 

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Looking out from the upper circuit boardwalk in the evening. Most people had left by 4pm, so after that I largely had the park to myself for a couple hours until it closed at 6pm.

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There were tons of views of the falls from many, many viewpoints.

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Walking along the path in the evening. The falls are surrounded by jungle, which was cool to experience.

Garganta del Diablo

The Devil’s Throat was impressive, but that’s largely the only part of the falls you can see from here. I visited this section  on my first day with the Norwegians and did not return.
On my second day the bus strike had ended. Buses depart from Puerto Iguazú to the park and vice versa every 20 minutes. The round trip ticket costs 130 pesos ($8.40).

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Another view of the Devil’s Throat.

 

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The butterflies came out with the sun, and they were everywhere.

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The mist thrown up by the falls made photography a little difficult.

Visiting in the April shoulder season was phenomenal, even if it was 85F/29C with high humidity. There were much fewer visitors than in the summer high season, and in the evenings I largely had the park to myself. Lodging was a fraction of what it is in summer, and I was able to get a bunk in a four person dorm in a nice hostel for about $12 a night.

I really lucked out with weather. Both days of my visit were sunny and cloudless, a break in a week of thunderstorms.

Not only are the falls impressive, but the surrounding jungle is also pretty interesting. The bird watching in the area is supposed to be superb, and from the boardwalk I was able to see toucans and hummingbirds.

Overall, I’d say the falls were worth braving the heat, humidity, and days of bus rides to and from the park.

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.

Argentina to Chile on Foot – Part 1

 
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I found this in Puerto Montt, a Chilean working class town I visited just to catch the bus to Argentina. I have no idea what it is, but it scared me a little.

Day 0

Argentina’s Nahuel Huapi National Park came up next on my list, with my plans for hiking further north in Chile having been dashed by the fires. It was getting too hot there, anyways. Time to go to cooler altitudes and/or latitudes.

The park is known for mountain passes with amazing vistas, glaciers, and the striking Mount Tronador on the Chilean border. The Nahuel Huapi Traverse is probably the most popular route, hopping from valley to valley and hut to hut, but I opted for a less frequented (and supposedly much more rugged) trail: Colonia Suiza to Pampa Linda, then walking over the Paso de las Nubes to Chile and taking a two hour ferry across a lake to the road.
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Mount Tronador as seen from a mountain pass on the trail.

After a Bariloche steak dinner ($11 in total, which seemed super expensive, but I now realize the same thing would be much more in the US), I stopped by the Club Andino to get some more info.

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Trailhead at Colonia Suiza. It took me a little less than 48 hours to get to Pampa Linda.

“You want a map?? Okay…but it’ll cost $6.” Um, yes I do want a map and that’s totally a reasonable price. Call me old fashioned, but I tend to like to know where I am and where I’m going. I had the route’s GPS coordinates in my phone, but you can’t rely on electronics.

While waiting for the bus to the trailhead, which never came, I gave up and decided to just sleep in a campground 4km from town. It was getting late, and I could try again the next day. I didn’t think I’d be able to sleep with all the noise of a campground, but the next thing I knew I had woken up from a 10 hour slumber.

Day 1

It turns out the info on the Bariloche website for getting to Colonia Suiza is incorrect. What a surprise from a government website! You have to take bus number 20, which leaves every 20 minutes, to the roundabout at kilometer 18. Tell the driver you’re heading to Colonia Suiza and he’ll charge you for the whole trip, which should cost under $2 and is cheaper than paying separately. He’ll then announce when you should get off, after which you transfer to the number 10. The latter leaves every hour on the half hour from the roundabout.

Colonia Suiza is just a collection of campgrounds and little shacks selling meals at the end of a dirt road. The bus dropped me off less than a 10 minute walk to the trailhead, where I lounged for a while and had breakfast.
Ambling up through the gentle grade of the forest I ran into a young Argentinian couple I’d chatted a while with on my first hike a few weeks ago near El Bolsón, a few hours south of here. They’d spent the night at the hut just ahead of me, which seems to be a popular overnight trip.
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The red Refugio Italia as viewed from the trail.

There was a sign saying to register at the hut, but when I went there nobody seemed interested so I just continued. After the hut the number of people dropped dramatically, and the route involved a lot of scrambling up and down rock faces with ropes. Not that easy with a full pack! The trail went up steeply to passes and then plunged back down below the tree line to valleys with forested trails overgrown with trees, and towards the end of the day I found it dead ended into the lake. I walked in the shallow water on the lake’s edge to rejoin the trail, after which I dried my soaked shoes and socks in the dying sun and cooked on my tiny butane canister stove.

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The trail just ends at the lake, so I walked in the shallow water on the edge.

Back in Iceland I would pack out hotdogs for my first night of camping. Hotdogs in Iceland are cheap and ubiquitous, and the tradition seems to have followed me to Patagonia. It’s a nice treat for the first night, and I just boil them for five minutes. After eating crackers all day it’s a delicacy.

The pass loomed above me. It’s to the west, so once I get up there I would have more sunlight descending, I thought to myself. I pack up all my things from dinner and hike on.

The trail is difficult to follow, but with the map and GPS file on my phone I’m able to manage it. It’s steep, but once I get above the marshy tree line I can see the pass and make my own way.

At the top I’m tired, and not entirely sure the route down. The wind isn’t that strong nor is it that cold, so I opt to camp right on the pass. The ground isn’t firm enough for my tent stakes to stay down, so I weigh them with rocks and fall asleep.

Day 2

At 3am I jolt awake, disoriented and cocooned in fabric. There are creatures jumping over me, and they trapped me in a sack! my panicked mind screams. When I come to my senses I realize my tent has collapsed in a windstorm, and no kidnapping bears are dancing over me. I can’t find all the tent stakes, which scattered when my tent fell down, and decide to just wrap myself back up in the tent and go back to sleep. I can find the stakes in the morning, when it’s light and I have my contacts in. It starts to rain, but I’m too tired to care.

I awake at 8am, later than I’d like. It’s cold, but my water thankfully  hasn’t frozen. After putting my contacts in I find the last of my tent stakes within 15 seconds. Putting on all my layers, with socks over my hands to act as gloves, I hurriedly pack up all my stuff and hustle down the pass.

The route isn’t well marked, and I realize I have to reach into my pack to get my phone. But it’ll take a minute to power on, and I’m COLD and it’s WINDY. FUCK THIS TRAIL, AND FUCK ARGENTINA! I scream. I realize that won’t help, so I get out my phone and easily find the route.

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Looking down into the valley.

It leads across yet another pass, not into the valley that I had thought. After a couple hours of hiking I pull out my sleeping bag by a stream and crawl inside while I yard sale all my gear on the rocks to dry. Filtering water, I see two people below me in their campsite. I don’t know if they can see me, but I watch them for a while. Just to make sure they’re okay. Soon they’re up heading towards the next pass.

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Selfie over the abyss.

I catch them fairly quickly. They’re from American Samoa, down in Patagonia for two months. We talk for a while about their hikes, and I get more info about the best way to head south. I’m meeting my cousin in Argentina on February 6th and 7th, and after that I’m taking five weeks to go down to Tierra del Fuego. But there’s so much to see and hike along the way.

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The trail goes up there…somewhere.

They get cold and I head on, climbing over and descending the next pass. It’s seemingly near vertical, and going down takes a long time while I try not to contemplate the vertiginous abyss below me. I get lost at the bottom, but after a while find my way back to the route.

At a lake before the next climb I finish my book, Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy. It’s about the lives of defectors from North Korea who now live in South Korea, and the difficult adjustments they face. I spend most of my breaks reading, and in town usually load up lots of new books onto my kindle.

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Looking back from where I came.

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These passes have some pretty nice views.

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The lake is so blue!

Ascending this next time is easy, because it’s up a slab of granite that hasn’t eroded as much as the other slopes. I’m able to run up this one, then enjoy the vistas at the top. *My last ascent!* I excitedly realize as I look at the elevation profile for the next part of the hike. It’s all downhill from here.

Back below the tree line I meander through forests, and the trail seems to be better maintained. There are some people by the lake, but my misanthropy takes control and I decide to keep going. I quickly cook a ramen dinner and am back on the route, camping just out of sight of the trail. I could’ve continued to Pampa Linda, but I’d have to camp in a campground. There will be lots of people and noise, so the forest is a much better place.

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Getting closer and closer to Mount Tronador.

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Leaving the higher passes to head back down to the green valley.

Day 3

In the morning I’m woken up by the screaming of cows, which is a little strange. I don’t want to get up because it’s cold, but I have to go to the bathroom. The latter ends up winning and I put on all my layers, rush out, then jump back into my -12C sleeping bag.

Eventually, at 8am, I muster up the courage to hit the trail. My latest start on the PCT from camping on trail was 8am, which seemed ungodly late. I just couldn’t get myself out of my tent that day, and instead spent a couple hours reading some ridiculously awful gay Amish romance novel that was circulating the hiker community.

Out here, 8am is ungodly early for most people. Then again, I’m pretty atypical in that I hike more than 2 hours a day. I much prefer getting up early and walking until sunset. If I’m not tired out from walking all day, then I don’t sleep as well. Old PCT habits die hard.

After a very steep descent the trail levels off, and then crosses a river. Knowing my shoes and socks will dry fast in the sun, I just walk across it like normal. In Iceland I did the same thing during a storm, which made German hikers yell at me to take off my pants first (still not really sure what that was about).

This river was much more peaceful (read: I haven’t seen a single human yet today), and I meander on over to the ranger office in Pampa Linda. There’s really nothing there besides the office and a campground, and after checking in with the ranger I lay all my stuff out to dry in the sun.

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.”
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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 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.