Hunderburton Adventures


A record of wanderings through Latin America

Archive for the ‘Patagonia’ Category

Disaster on the Torres Del Paine!

Saturday, December 31st, 2011

So our attempt at finishing the Torres del Paine circuit was a blazing failure. That was a pun. If you can’t guess why, it will all become clear in time.

Torres del Paine (Towers of Paine – “Paine” I believe means blue in an extinct native language) refers to both the national park and these jutting out “towers” for which the park is famous (and obviously its namesake).

Image from wikipedia of Torres del Paine

I’ll start our story with the relevant history of the park: what we’ve gathered from speaking with locals is that the park started as farm land (albeit primarily unfarmable farmland due to its mountainous situation) and tourists wishing to hike through the land would request shelter, showers and whatnot from the farmers. Tourism increased and the farmers saw potential to capatalise on their situation, and set up serviced huts (called refugios). Most of the park has now been donated to the Chilean government, but parts, including some through which hikers pass, remains private property. The park is now one of Chile’s biggest tourist attractions bringing around 70,000 tourists every summer.

The biggest attractions of the park exist on a 4 day hike but for those wanting to see everything there is a 9 day full circuit (we got greedy and did this one). Okay, so to our adventures: around a week ago we set off for the 9 day circuit through the park. On the 5th day we joined the main tourist  drag, looking forward to seeing the iconic towers and all the other sights the lazy 4 day trekkers come to see. That night, we met a somewhat panicked American couple who told us that they had left their tents for a short day trip to see the nearby glacier, only to find on their return that a wall of fire separated them from their stuff. Later that night the authorities closed the path until the fire could be controlled. The fire blocked our planned route too, so we had no choice but to wait and see what would unfold. On the 6th day the refugio staff informed us we would need to evacuate by the end of the day. The two options available to us were to go back the way we came or to pay for a $70 ferry ride out. The ferry was a tourist boat providing scenic views of the glacier, it was also the only boat  on the glacial lake, and therefore the only evacuation route by water. We had been hiking next to this glacier for the past two days and were not too interested in paying for the privilege of seeing it from a slightly different angle. The ferry ran every few hours but was becoming increasingly late due to its new role evacuating hikers and supplying firefighters with new men and equipment. Even if we wanted to fork out that kind of money for evacuation we couldn’t since the ferries quickly become booked out. So again we had no choice but to wait around the refugio, peering out at the smoke wondering whether it was getting closer (A day later someone told us that it actually did burn down a neighbouring building to our refugio).

Torres del Paine fire from ferry during evacuation

The fire (taken from the ferry)

Later we were informed that even turning back was not an option, as the fire was spreading rapidly, and the entire park was to be closed for an indefinite period. This created the rather bizarre situation, one which could only ever be the result of poorly planned privatization, that we were legally required to leave, which we could only do by paying $70 per person, a price which many hikers don’t have the free cash to cover.

The fire made front page news in Argentina and Chile

We figured if the fire got close enough the Chilean government would be obliged to pay for our evacuation. We didn’t have the highest hopes, however, as we had heard that the emergency response in South America was second-rate; rather than fire fighting vehicles and helicopters, the volunteer fireman only had shovels and buckets. Furthermore, one story recounted by another hiker was of a mountain climber who died during a climb in Argentina. The Argentinian government’s response, either through lack of interest or funds, was to leave the body on the mountainside, and now climbers have the opportunity to see a corpse hanging on the side of a mountain (this may attract more tourists so perhaps is not such a bad move). Anyway, our assumption that Chile would pay for our evacuation may be have been a risky maneuver in order to save $70 but it paid off in the end when the government announced a state of emergency and gave us a free lift back to Puerto Natales (although we arrived at 1 am without a place to stay).

lago grey torres del paine fire evacuated ferry

Fire from afar: you can see the smoke at the base of the mountain and the ferry which rescued us.

So this is the reason we are back in Puerto Natales 3 days premature. The biggest “Paine” of this whole mess is that we missed the main highlights of the trek and probably won’t be back to this remote part of the world for a while.

Our 5 hiking days did however have perfect weather and we have seen things many wouldn’t. The weather was so rare that one park tour guide told us that it hadn’t been this sunny and dry in around 10 years. Usually, we’ve been told, the weather is  really crazy with perhaps sun in the morning, gale force winds by midday and snow by night. Most visitors are still blown away by the park which I guess is the reason for the sustained numbers of visitors (once quite literally, four years ago, when the strong winds in the area actually blew a hiker away. He probably died).

Unfortunately the unusually blue skies and hot sun we experienced were a likely contributing factor to the fire. Despite not seeing everything we still managed to see 3 glaciers. One of which Sven and I managed to get extremely (and probably dangerously) close to during one of our wanderings (there is so much day light in the area that after setting up camp it is easy to check out the area near the campsite). We scrambled down these rocks and ended up at the glacier. I’ve made a strip of pictures to show you the events which transpired:

glacier grey torres del paine

Sven eating glacial ice

I think Sven would like me to mention that that ice could be thousands of years old and also contributed towards shaping the environment we all came hiking to enjoy. If tasting glacial ice allowed one to share this history and to be part of the amazing geological system (which most humans can only humbly observe) and experience just a small amount of the grandness of this landscape, then Sven might be a very wise person… but it doesn’t so he isn’t; he’s just an idiot.

Glacier close up

We saw some pretty nice things in our 5 days but nothing which needs explaining, so here are some photos (They are in a higher resolution than usual so click to see them bigger); enjoy!

torres del paine circuit second day between seron and dickson

torres del paine lago dickson refugio

Location of one of the refugios (right next to the lake). The really white thing is a Glacier.

Glacier from a mountain pass

Ice bergs!


Wednesday, December 14th, 2011

Shock shock shock! New site!

Well, a little different. It took us a whole bottle of Pisco Sour this afternoon to redecorate, so we hope you like it. We’re particularly pleased with the top banner, every time you load the page you will be greeted with a different photo from our trip. Overkill, perhaps, but neat right? The design was hotly debated, so let us know what you think. Suggestions welcome.

We’ve now left Bariloche, and are back in Chile in a town called Pucón. Our last day in Bariloche was spent hiking up to the refugio that we would have reached if we hadn’t chickened out on the terrifying mountain pass. Again, the walk was spectacular. Its amazing the variety of different country around Bariloche. This walk basically followed a river from where it flows into one of Bariloche’s enormous lakes, up to its source, the tranquil Laguna Negra and the snow caps that fill it. It’s beautiful country. Sven said it reminded him of Jurassic Park and I think he’s right – these great big open spaces, low green shrubbery and these colossal snow-capped cliffs with waterfalls tumbling down everywhere you look. Photos never quite capture the sense of height and space, but here were our best attempts:

Walking to Laguna Negra

Walking to Laguna Negra

Refugio Italia

Refugio Italia at Laguna Negra

As an interesting aside, the bus that took us to and from the walk was decorated somewhat eccentrically with fluffy blue frames on the mirrors and matching metallic playboy stickers. We’ve been on this route four times now, and each time the driver has been a humourless, aging Argentinian man so I don´t know what that´s about!

Bariloche Route 10

Bariloche Route 10

So that was Bariloche. We are all very glad that we didn’t listen to everybody’s warnings about the ash cloud and went anyway, it has been a major highlight! Pucón, where we are now, is a great little town filled with adventure activities. The ancient lonely planet we were reading at our last hostel described it as the “Queenstown of South America” and so far that seems pretty accurate. The main attraction is its volcano, one of only five in the world with a permanent lava pool which means its smoking continuously. We’ll be climbing up it tomorrow (if I don’t make myself sick from the kilo of raspberries I just bought), so stay tuned!

Pucon Volcano

Pucon Volcano

Quitters (especially Anna)

Sunday, December 11th, 2011

Hola amigos!

Just a quick post about our first overnight hike. This is mostly just an excuse to show y’all some of the great photos we’ve taken over the last few days.

The hike which we had planned to do while in Bariloche was closed due to ice, so, on the advice of the guy working at our hostel, we set out for a different nearby hike with virtually no idea of what to expect. The track started near a bizarrely located hotdog stand (maybe 10km from the closest other building), and gradually wound uphill for about a kilometer. Then, all of a sudden, the track seemed to end. Luckily, Nick’s map (and brilliant navigation skills) gave us the general direction so we persevered along some tiny animal trails up a giant hill and into a forest. The uphill didn’t stop for a looonnggg time, sometimes it was more of a climb than a hike, but eventually we made it to a clearing from which we had a pretty impressive view.

Bariloche Lopez

Over the day we climbed from a starting point of about 800m to roughly 2000m, where our hut was, over a distance of only 4 km. For those of you who aren’t familiar with hiking distances and heights etc; this makes for an incredibly difficult walk. The steepness made the views more impressive though, and the hut we stayed in last night is possibly the most spectacularly located building in the world.

Refugio Lopez
Refugio Lopez (the hut)

The huts here are great. They have permanent staff (none of whom speak a word of English apparently) from whom one can buy chips, drinks, wine etc. And for about $12 a night they give you a comfortable mattress to sleep on. Anna and I went with this option, but Nick (being the tough mountaineer that he is) decided to camp in the cold and (later) the wet.

Refugio Lopez Camping
Nick´s tent is the closest one

Owing to weirdly timed buses, we had to leave for the hike before 8am, and, as a result, arrived at the hut before 2pm. This gave us a lot of time to look around, so Nick and I went exploring the mountain ridge directly behind our lodging. The mountains jutted about 300-400m above the height of the hut (about the height of Mt Cootha, for those of you who are from Brisbane) and were incredibly steep. We thought we´d try some climbing for fun, but discovered about 100m up, to our horror, red markers up the mountain side indicating the direction of the following day’s hike. Unfortunately we didn’t manage to get any good photos of the mountains, but I will try my best to describe the route up. The majority of the path required hands and feet to get anywhere, and if you looked back you could see maybe 2 m of steep ledge, then nothing until the level of the hut ground 100m below (we pretty much had to walk along the top of a cliff). If we slipped at any point we would certainly plummet to our deaths. I’m not usually scared of heights, and have even dabbled in rock climbing, but I kind of freaked out at this point and had one of those “oh my god i’m actually going to die in the next few minutes” moments, so we climbed back down the mountain.

Refugio Lopez
View of the hut from the terrifying mountain ledge

Because the hike we were doing was evidently far above the level of the regular traveler, the only hikers anywhere near the hut were locals who didn’t speak any English. When we asked if the mountain was, in fact, the path, they would all say ¨si, si¨ and tell us that it was easy. So we discovered at that point that Argentinians are some weird breed of mountain people, because no reasonable person would consider the path easy, or even safe. Eventually a group of five hikers clambered down the mountain from the other side. Four of them were more Argentinians, but luckily one of them was a German guy who spoke English, which was was great because while our Spanish is fine for ordering coffee, it’s not nearly at the level needed to discuss the difficulty of mountain climbing. The German had this crazy laugh which made him sound like a psychopath from a horror movie, but he turned out to be a good guy. He told us that the climb was, in-fact, hellishly difficult, and that once you scaled the first mountain, there were a series of mountain ridges covered in ice to get across. Later that night some Israeli´s came down the mountain looking thoroughly beaten. One had a gash in his leg which was bleeding a lot, from falling down on an ice sheet, he told us. At this point we started to think we might head back the next day.

The next morning it was raining a lot, and even the hut woman told us the pass would be dangerous (when an Argentinian mountain person tells you a pass is dangerous, it must be) so we had a good excuse to turn back without feeling like quitters. So that’s what we did! YEAH TEAM! (So, dear readers, contrary to the name of this post, Anna wasn’t especially responsible for our failings…)

One other thing I wanted to fit in- we think we saw an Andean Condor flying over the hut. ¨Whats so great about seeing an Andean Condor?¨ you might be thinking? Well let me tell you! They are the largest flying animal found anywhere on earth, which is pretty amazing in my opinion. It was pretty far away, so we cant be totally sure that it was a condor, but later the German guy said that he had definitely seen one around the same time, and the thing we saw flying was about the size of a fighter jet, so there’s not a lot else it could have been.

Andes Bird
An example of a bird which is not an Andean Condor. Just another sort of bird of prey which hung around the mountains


Friday, December 9th, 2011

Our first walk through the beautiful Patagonia! This post won’t have much substance and I wish I could put in some narrative flow but I do not posess the writing abilities. They say a picture is worth 1000 words and so I am hoping that this is true in order to make this post worth your while.

Our spirits and expectations of the national parks around Bariloche were dampened when we arrived yesterday to find an ash cloud where Bariloche was meant to be. Despite this we thought it would still be worth it to go for a walk the following day in the mountains and Christine (the Malmorian (i.e. Malmö in Sweden) we have been traveling with recently) had talked to people and basically organised the whole thing for us so we thought we may as well go along. The worst thing we supposed that could happen would be that we may breathe in enough ash to maybe age 20 years.

There must have been favourable winds or something during the night because looking out the window the following morning (before the walk) showed us that actually there was a town beneath of the ash of yesterday and what more there were beautiful mountains as well! At that point we thought that we might actually get to see some real beauty today and maybe only age 10 years instead of 20. With this new level of enthusiasm we hopped on the next bus to the skiing resort town located at Cerro Catedral. The skiing resort was, of course, a ghost town due to it being out of the skiing season (as a side note; this was the first time I have seen skii slopes not covered with snow) but it happens to be where a hike starts. We were only doing a day hike so the plan was to reach the first hut (or refugio as they are called here) of the hike and then come back (10km each way). Unbeknownst to me at the time was that the trail we were walking was one which I had wanted to do while in Patagonia (I was blindly following Christine so I hadn’t bothered to try and work out where we were going).

The walk was nothing short of spectactular, photos never give these things justice but they are nice none the less. This section of the Andes, as you will see, is much greener than near Santiago although not nearly as high. It felt very New Zealand-esk.

The theme of these photos is “Anna standing or sitting on a rock”. I assure you it was not intentional, it was just a conicendence that the good sceneriary photos included Anna … on a rock. So if you are a fan of Anna on rocks and nice scenary then get ready for the best darn photos you will ever experience.


Bariloche Frey

Near the beginning of the walk

Bariloche Frey

A river where we stopped to snack.


Bariloche Frey

This was the lake right next to the refugio.


Bariloche Frey

Us at the refugio. The middle one is Christine.

Anyway it was a tiring walk but inspired us to do another in the same area. So tomorrow we depart on a 2 night hike. I’m sure you are all looking forward to that!