Friday, February 10, 2006

Patagonia VII: On Route 40 all the way to the Chilean far south

The "W circuit" (adapted from


Going back to El Calafate, we moved to Puerto Natales through the Patagonian ranges and prepared for the most famous and notorious of Patagonia’s treks, the Torres del Paine trek.

Going back to El Calafate
Morning. We got up early, the streets of El Chalten dark and spotted with the Tungsten warm lighting, the wind softly blowing and taking some more of the little warm we had. The bus was due to depart at 6:30 am and we got there ahead of time, and waited in silence in the minibus that was filling quickly with other backpackers. I forgot to mention this note earlier, but only couple of hours after we returned from the trek, heavy clouds shrouded the Fitzroy pinnacle and soon rain was pouring down, closing the window of beautiful weather for who knows how much time. We were lucky, very lucky!
The clouds were still there, overcastting and grey, silencing and depressing any joyful talk. The bus soon departed and returned the same way it came, passing again through the famous Route 40 and stopping at the little farm near the river, with the curios lama and the indifferent cow…Even so, this ride was still definitely different from the one we came with to El Chalten, due to an expected rendezvous in the midst of nowhere.
We were riding fast and hard the rough dirt road, the sky opened a bit for the great blue, when I suddenly saw that a bus from the same company, riding in the opposite direction (to El Chalten) came straight toward us in a collision course. What the hell?! I was intrigued and soon I saw the bus stopping short in front of our bus that also slowed down to a stop (of course…). The parking break was pulled into action in the-all-too-familiar whistle and the door opened only to let the other bus driver board the short steps and hand something to one very grateful tourist. A cardigan! I could only guess that she forgot it in El Calafate’s bus office and they returned it to her…The drivers took advantage of this rendezvous to drink mate together and I took advantage and boarded down to capture this head-to-head similar buses meeting in the middle of nowhere…Soon, other passengers took notice of my wandering and also went down, some taking pictures, some just stretching their limbs and enjoying the cool and fresh air outside the close bus. Soon the bus returned to ride the dusty road and finally we came back to El Calafate.
This time, nobody waited for us, or for others. Before going out of the terminal, we purchased already tickets for the next day's bus to Puerto Natales, Chile. After that we took our stuff outside and me and Barak looked for a taxi, while Maya went to buy some groceries for lunch. While looking for taxis, I have felt being dismissed of by the taxi drivers, with no patience and bad manners, saying with their tone and body language “we don’t need you, if you wont take the fare, somebody else will”, which upset and enraged me. At the end we took a taxi, but I was quite irritated and it took out a lot of my spirit that morning.
Coming back to America del Sur, we were welcomed with smiles and were quickly checked in with our luggage. Maya prepared Pasta with her famous Mixta sauce, and later we split – I went to the internet for emails and blog, while the two of them went horseback riding in the area.
When I came back after several hours, the two were well deep into a TAKI card game with no other than Mor and Tania, which stayed in the same hostel! We had some nice talk and also tasty mousse (if I remember correctly) before I went back to the centre for some dinner (Barak and Maya were not hungry and I didn’t press them to join me – I had my book in any case…).

Puerto Natales and the rush of preparations
The next day, Thursday the 29th, we woke up early (again…) and after a nice breakfast we put all our stuff in the pre-ordered taxi and rushed to the bus terminal, boarding the 8:30 AM bus which was packed with Israelis (and no wonder, at the high peak of tourism in the area). The five hour ride passed slowly, even though being very scenic with the Andes spikes in the background and the plains along the route 40 were vast and full with scattering-fleeting sheep, dispersing while the bus rushed through the dirt/asphalt road, south as can be. At a certain point we came to a small coal-mining town near the border with Chile called Rio Turbio. You could feel the remoteness of such a town, almost at the end of the world. Shortly after passing through town we came to the border crossing with Chile, and after stamping, we boarded the bus again (while seeing a cute Labrador sniffs people bags for drugs) and headed for the Chilean border, and then, Puerto Natales!
Grey clouds welcomed us when we came with the bus into town, along the beautiful port. Going down to the sidewalk, enormous amount of people gathered outside the bus company’s offices, many are travelers but many others, hostels owners and staff, pushing fliers and working up their persuasive talk. Even though it makes life easier to find an hostel, it is also VERY annoying when you rush to find and retrieve your pack and those people, with no patience whatsoever, push their interests before you can even grip the who, what and how of the new place. As I had my own recommendation in my email, we all walked to the nearest internet and I retrieved the phone numbers. Calling all these hostels, I quickly were reminded that we are on Chilean soil, with Chilean currency and cost of living – all hostels charged a minimum of 8 dollars per night, dormitorio, shared bathrooms. Damn...At the end, we confided to one flier and made our way according to the Lonely’s Planet map of Puerto Natales, when a shrewd-looking guy we already saw outside the bus company’s office approached us with fliers and Hebrew of a 2nd grader. I didn't like him from start, but even so I kept silent and my ears open and listened to what he had to offer. Indeed, it was the lowest offer one can get, period. It was packed with Israelis. Maya, Barak and me looked at each other and nodded, following him while he blabbered on about this and that in Spanish and occasionally with his low grade Hebrew...A half man size yellow Hebrew sign written was stationed outside the house, which was one of a line of houses. It reminded me of Valparaiso style of building (lacking the vivid colors), as I can only guess that it is the custom of building in old Chilean port cities. Prior to the Torres del Paine boom, Puerto Natales was a fishing city that declined into almost poverty due to over fishing and loss of work. As I have sensed, the towns is tourist oriented and that's what enable them to pass the difficult months of winter, when less tourists come to visit and fishing is not at best.
Coming to the Jose-Maria hostel, we quickly comprehend we came to a “mass stocking” hostel, i.e., many rooms, oriented in a one long and not too clean corridor. In the rooms, which cost 6 USD per night (the cheapest ever), we were surprised to find comfortable beds, TV and the best, a private bathroom...Now, how can one resist to such an offering?! We succumb to the Israeli mess and noise and handed over the money for one night. At that point Maya declared/suggested me make preparations to depat for the trek ASAP, meaning, the next day's morning. Barak didn't mind, and neither do I so after re-arranging, we went outside again to find some food. Near the entrance, we met with who than Aviran and Shiri, both smiling and symphatic as usual. They told us they are going to depart the next day to the Torres del Paine trek, the W circuit, and were happy to hear that we plan the same. They gave us key information about were and how to arrange bus tickets and equipment (i.e., Go to Juan). We parted and went outside a dribble of rain welcome us from a cloudy overcastted skies. Setting aside stomach issues, we went first to see we have a bus the next day. We managed to find the agency where Juan, the manager, arranges his “empire”. And indeed, he built some empire – in the little agency he put some PCs with slower than you can imagine internet, a big topo map of the Torres del Paine, and stocks of sleeping bags, tents and the like up to the ceiling. With Hebrew which would not ashame most foriegners coming to Israel, he talked fluently and explained us shortly that everything can be arranged through him: Bus tickets, sleeping bag (no 3-person tents, though), gas for the stove and so on. He urged us to find tent in other agencies and then come back for a brief explanation about the different routes to visit the park. We went to one agency and they didn't have any, so went to another and also they didn't have any 3 person tent to rent, all were on field. Damn, we should have thought about that (not that we had anything to do against that...). We stumbled by mistake into one shop which offered good equipment for high price, but we were so glad to have a 3-person tent we didn't care too much about the price. Maya and Barak also rented sleeping bags and mattresses as it was convenient and not pricier than Juan’s offers. We took all our stuff and went back to the hostel to drop them before going back to Juan’s place for bus tickets, and on the way we met again with Aviran and Shiri, informing them that we will go on the same bus as they go to the park. They were happy, and with that we left them to wonder in town and we hurried back to the hostel – we had a lot of things to do before we could close for the day!
Maybe 5 minutes have passed till we hurriedly went back into the streets in order to buy the bus tickets for the next day and to have a brief introduction about the possible touring options we had in the park. Juan was springy and very experienced, asking us how much time we have and detailing us the recommended route.
Most people visit Torres del Paine National Park by either hiking the 7 day circuit trek or by hiking the shorter "W circuit", "only" 4-5 days. The full circuit, which skirts the main ridges in the park: Cerro Torres, Paine Grande and Cuerno is regarded as demand full as you need to carry food provisions for a week without mentioning warm clothing, camping equipment and the like. The "W circuit", on the other hand, contains the "juicier" parts of the park with less time invested (and of course also less effort). Even if I had more time, I would have chosen the sorter version: already I comprehended that very long walks is not for me. As Maya and Barak were not rich with time, the longer version was not even considered, ever. Usually, the W requires between 4-5 days, depends on fitness and Juan routed the whole tour in 4 days, walking in average 10 hours a day, with an exceptional day demanding a 25 km-long leg. We should have rethought the whole route and add an additional day, but Juan confidence and non-chalant explanation took us easily.
It took us no more than five minutes to see that Juan acted and talked like a typical Israeli, and not surprising, after years of dealing with Macho, non-suckers (FRAYERIM), 100% self assured Israelis. It was a sad moment, to see how Juan incorporated the bad habits of the Israelis and so well implemented it on uncommon Israeli travelers like the three of us. This observation was evident when Barak asked Juan if it is possible to sleep in a camp that charges a fee for the usage of the camping ground and utilities and by doing so, shortening the longest leg by a few km. Juan looked at him surprised, certainly not ready for such an uncommon suggestion, an outrages one. Israeli that wants to pay when he doesn’t have to?! He commented by saying, "but why when you don’t have to? Be an Israeli and Walk several km more and sleep for free." He replied, musing. No need to explain the extent of pity I felt over this man, consumed by the "I am not a sucker" culture. Even though I am and was not a fan of giving cash to other persons, it was a good idea as it spread the km`s we had to walk more equally among the four days and in the worst case, we could have planned on 5 days. But, instead of doing so, we stuck with the common timeline and later we regret not doing opposite. We bought the bus tickets and also a gas canister so we would have two full ones to cover the four days. On our way back we stopped at several supermarkets and bought food provisions for the next days, as usual, sticking to tradition with Pasta and Mash potatoes as the mains. Finally, we found the time to eat lunch/dinner. Maya spotted a Pizza place but the prices were outrageous and me and barak managed to convince Maya to try in a local place that an Hebrew sign stated that this a real "bargain" and the food is "excellent!". Well…maybe they are used to eat shit, but the three of us don’t. Maya and Barak could not eat the Milanesa de Carne (Beef Schnitzel) and the fried potatoes were awful. I found the food not good, but I managed my self. Later we all bought cookies to take out the grease and unpleasant taste of the bad food. Being the ones to drag her to that lousy restaurant, we felt a bit bad about it and assured her that once we came back from the Torres del Paine trek, she will have her pick, wherever she wants.
Later we went to buy some last things and also went to send emails to people at home, so now no one will be worried if we don’t contact in the next few days.
As Jose-Maria hostel is an Israeli hostel, an ISRAELIYADA hostel at that, the noise was dominant and the packed Israelis were seen everywhere. Even so, I was optimistic that we gonna sleep once our packs will be ready, only I was wrong. Around half an hour into my sleep, hammering on the door woke me up, accompanied by loud shouts of some guys, drunk/on high most probably. This pack of idiots tried to open the door with their key, and once that didn’t work, they tried to force it open. Lucky for us, I managed to drag my brains out of the sleep I was in and shout at them they are knocking on the wrong god damn door, and after roaring laughter and giggling, they moved on leaving behind some peace and quiet. Thank god! Just in case, I have took my ear plugs and stuff them deep into my ears, hoping for the best. We all needed sleep, as the next days were expected to be not easy. And while sleep took me slowly into the comfort darkness, I already saw visions of the trek and of nature…

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