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The End of the World

There is a song by R.E.M. called “This is the End of the World as we know it” but where actually is the end of the world? Since a few decades we know the world isn’t flat and there is no edge you can jump off. So the end of the world is more or less a term to describe a place which is far off from everything else. This is true for Ushuaia which is also called “fin del mundo” (end of the world). And here I am. I travelled all around the world until I reached it, the end of the world.

I met with Jurie, my Japanese fellow traveler, for breakfast. Our hostel provides all ingredients for a good breakfast but you need to prepare it yourself in the kitchen and wash your dishes afterwards. While Jurie was turning the raw eggs provided into scrambled eggs, I took the oranges and squeezed fresh juice out of them. I never have been in a hostel where I needed to prepare breakfast to this extend but I really like the idea. Preparing your own food saves money which the hostel can use to provide better ingredients than it’s usually the case. In comparison most hostels have either no breakfast included or only a very basic one like toast and jam.

After breakfast Jurie and I went to see the El Martial Glacier. The glacier is right out of town and it only took us 15min by taxi to go there. When we arrived around 9am the chairlift to go up the first meters was not yet running and instead of waiting we spontaneously decided to walk up. It actually took us only half an hour to cover the distance of the chairlift since the terrain wasn’t very steep. Up on the mountain we had a wonderful view of Ushuaia or better to say we couldn’t really see the city but an impressive big cloud covering it. Also fascinating were the trees in their red, yellow and green color. Even in German autumn you are unable to admire such a blaze of color as you find it here.

We continued our hike up towards the glacier. It was steeper now and we walked as far as we could walk in hiking boots without the use of crampons. The glacier itself was less fascinating compared to what we saw last in the Los Glaciares National Park but it’s definitely worth coming up here.

We were back in town at lunch time and walked around in the center and in the harbor area. The center of the town is kind of touristy since Ushuaia is the main port for cruise ships going to Antarctica. There are numerous outdoor and souvenir shops as well as restaurants. It’s a dream of mine to go to Antarctica one day and I’m sure it will come true. For lunch we fancied some Sushi but unfortunately the Japanese restaurant was closed and so we shared a pizza instead.

In the afternoon more or less everyone from our travel group left for a visit of the Tierra del Fuego National Park. It has not only beautiful scenery but also a few sights to offer. One of them is the End of the World Train which goes around the national park and is considered to be the southernmost railway in the world. After we visited a station of the train we continued to a tiny post office in the park where you could send your mail with a “fin del mundo” stamp on it. Here I also got my passport stamped to document I have reached the end of the world.

Still in the park we went for a walk along the shore of the Roca Lake and visited the parks museum where we learned a lot about the local flora, fauna and the native inhabitants of the Tierra del Fuego (“Land of Fire”). We also tried to spot some beavers but all we could observe were their movements in the water. Beavers are actually a plague in the park and we saw a number of areas where they have destroyed the forest. Lastly, we went to the end of the Pan-American Highway which connects Alaska with the Tierra del Fuego, a distance of 17,848 km.

When we ended the tour our local guide told me in private I look a bit like Uma Thurman and he wants to go out for a drink with me tonight. Since I had enough local cultural experience with Pedro in Brasilia during the last weeks I didn’t join him.


Crossing the Strait of Magellan

We were supposed to leave at 7am since it’s an approx. 500km drive from our bush camp to Ushuaia. We also have to cross the border going from Chile into Argentina again which can take a while. Some people in our travel group seem to be early birds and even get up two hours or so before the scheduled departure to do whatever. As soon as they start to make some noise, like putting down their tents, my night is over as well. When I got up around 6:30am it was 12 degree which is not too cold for sleeping in a tent. Personally, I find camping in high altitude much more uncomfortable.

Breakfast was a truck breakfast again, meaning we were eating while being on the road in order to save time. Today’s cooking group served some yoghurt and bananas. The special feature of the bananas were little texts on them like “The WiFi password is: Banana” or “You have a nice bush” which we all enjoyed.

After driving for 30 minutes we arrived at the Strait of Magellan which is separating the Argentinian mainland from Tierra del Fuego (“Land of Fire”). Interestingly, Argentina mainland is not connected to Tierra del Fuego and when you want to travel there overland you have to cross Chile. The Magellan Strait is approx. 500km long and named by the explorer Magellan who was the first one successfully driving through the passage and ending up in the Pacific Ocean.

Luckily we were one of the first ones lining up for the first ferry boat crossing the Magellan Straits at 8am. The ride was approx. 30min and while hanging out on deck I met a Chilean business man who is in the tire business and had a quick chat with him.

We stopped for lunch half a kilometer before the border in San Sebastian. We had to consume all fresh food such as vegetables, fruit and meat because it’s not allowed to take it into Argentina and we didn’t want to end up in trouble in case they inspect our truck. Since it started to rain, the cooking group prepared all sandwiches for us in the truck while we were chilling out in a little café close by. The café had a very unique atmosphere since it was decorated with local antiques. One of them was an old gas lamp which was not just illuminating the room but also heating it up a bit.

We arrived in Ushuaia around 6pm. We will stay here for three nights with six people sharing a room in a local hostel.

Drive Day, Central Asia Visa and Burger Feast

Last night was again very windy. Although my tent was protected by a few bushes the wind was so strong and the ground my tent was standing on so soft that a few picks came out in the middle of the night. During nighttime I needed to get up 3-4 times, first to align my tent with the direction of the wind and then a couple of more times to put picks back in, thus avoiding my tent from falling down on me.

For today we had nothing planned but driving towards the Strait of Magellan which we will cross tomorrow. On the way we stopped in Puerto Natales so people could return their rented camping equipment and todays cooking group could shop for food.

I had none of these duties and went to an internet café instead to check my emails. It’s very much funny how attached we are to the internet today and how it spans the world. While being on my first overland trip in Africa I had no access to news, my family and friends for three months. When travelling today you try to get online whenever you can.

Staying connected also enables long-term travelers like me to work on the planning of the trip while going and not plan everything in advance. Today I received an email from my friend Michael informing me the visa service has returned my passport and I now have all necessary visas for my Central Asia trip from Istanbul to Beijing. There were three visas outstanding I have asked the visa service to obtain: Iran, Turkmenistan and China. For Iran you first need a reference number which needs to be issued by the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and also for Turkmenistan you need a letter of authorization. Therefore, applying for all required visa is a lengthy process. If you use a visa service it can also be quite expensive as I paid 440 EUR for the three visas mentioned above including visa fees and the fees of the visa service.

Unexpectedly the visa for China was also a challenge. Usually China issues tourist visa with a duration of 30 days which are valid for three months after they were issued. While this is perfectly fine for the standard tourist on his two week vacation, it’s an issue for overlanders like me. First I will need two months travelling from Istanbul to the Chinese border and second I will stay for three months since the country is so huge and there is a lot to see and experience. A letter from Dragoman confirming I have booked and paid this long-term trip with them along with hotel booking confirmations and the kind request to issue me a respective visa turned out to be helpful. I received the double entry visa as I have requested it enabling me to spend two times three months in China. This visa will also enable me to leave the country between my two trips from Istanbul and Beijing and from Xi’an to Kathmandu. I will use the week between the trips to do a little side trip to South Korea which isn’t far away from Beijing.

You might also ask how it’s actually possible to apply for visas while travelling. The key in my case is a second German passport and a good friend back home holding the contact to the visa service. Usually you are only allowed to hold one passport but in special cases like mine, where you would need to interrupt your travel for several weeks just to apply for visas, you can actually receive a second passport which is valid for six years instead of the regular ten.

After driving all day we arrived at a place with the atmosphere of a ghost town. There were many empty houses and nobody on the street. At one house we spotted a farmer and asked him for permission to camp on his ground. He agreed and charged us 30 USD for the whole group.

We were pretty early today and it was still daylight. After pitching up my tent I went for a walk to take some pictures of the ship wreck in the ocean and the empty houses. In the meanwhile the cooking group prepared dinner. We had very delicious burgers with melted cheese, fried onions and salad.

Torres del Paine W-Walk – The three Towers – Day 5

It’s the last day of the W-Walk and the highlight of the day will be the “Torres del Paine” itself, those three towers which gave the national park its name. While most people visit the towers on a day trip from the “Hosteria Las Torres” the walk from the “Torres” campsite up to the viewpoint is only one hour. This gives you the opportunity to get up early and be at the towers when the sun is rising.

First I was planning to walk up to the viewpoint for sunrise and set my alarm for 6am. However, the wind outside my tent changed my mind. There were strong gusts of wind during the whole night. They were so loud that I woke up from them a couple of times although I usually have a very deep sleep. I was a bit scared a tree will fall down on my tent so exposed was it here on top of the mountain. When waking up at 6am I thought there is no way I’m getting up and walk in the dark and strong wind like this. Probably I get blown away and nobody will ever find me.

When it became daylight I got up and had a look around. The wind was indeed quite strong but the sound of it was even worse than the wind itself. I left my backpack in the tent and made my way up to the viewpoint. While being up there I was running into two handfuls of other people. Two Spanish guys even came here for sunrise and said I haven’t missed much since its cloudy and the sun didn’t come out. I’m really wondering if the three towers are actually a good spot to take sunrise pictures at this time of the year. The sun is not rising behind the towers but on the opposite side of the valley. There it was covered by other mountains until 9:30am or so. The two guys were already waiting a couple of hours just for the clouds to disappear and the sun to come out to get a perfect shot of the mountains. They were already half frozen and jumped around to keep warm. I joint them waiting for an hour or so but then I gave up since there were more and more clouds coming.

Back at the campsite I packed my tent and started to hike down to the “Hosteria Las Torres”. On the way I met a few people from my travel group. The guards had warned them to come up here because of the strong wind but I told them it’s actually not too bad and they should continue to the viewpoint. In total maybe only a third of our group went up the mountain today. The others were too exhausted and preferred to have a lazy day drinking coffee in the hotel.

On the last meters of the trail I slipped and fell down. Unfortunately this ripped two holes into my rain trouser and I was not amused about it since it’s the second day I’m wearing them and they shouldn’t rip that easily. When I’m back in Germany in the middle of April I will try to claim a guarantee case on them.

Since I more or less only needed to walk down today I was the first one finishing the W-Walk.  Actually only five people walked the full W and two the full circuit. The rest was doing either no hiking at all or only day trips. I arrived at the “Hosteria Las Torres” around 1pm and spend the time waiting for the others by cleaning myself a bit, changing cloth, having some lunch in the restaurant and talking to other people chilling out there.

When everybody else was down in the late afternoon we drove to the ferry to pick up Ross and Stuart who did the full circuit in the Torres del Paine National Park. Afterward we went back to the base camp at “Lago Perhoé” where we had a nice group dinner in the associated cozy restaurant and exchanged our adventures of the last days.

Torres del Paine W-Walk – Long Walk in the Rain – Day 4

Today’s plan was to walk from the “Italiano” campsite to the “Chileno” or “Torres” one. Looking at the map this appeared a huge hike especially because I have heard the way to “Torres” is going up only. So I thought I better get up early and start walking as soon as there is daylight.

When I got up at 6:30am it was still dark. I put down my tent and packed my stuff away. Then I sat down on a fallen tree having breakfast and waiting for the sun to rise. The first ray of light appeared at 7:15am and so I started walking. During the first meters I still had my head torch on since it was kind of dark underneath the trees. As soon as I came out of the forest it started to rain. Since it was more spray than proper rain I thought it may stop after a while. Unfortunately this wasn’t the case and the rain became heavier.

Since I was sure to be the first one on the trail I didn’t make an effort to find a bush to hide behind when changing to my raingear. I stripped in the middle of the trail and put on my rain trousers. My North Face jacket is waterproof anyhow and so I only needed a protection for my big backpack otherwise my sleeping bag and food will get wet. Unfortunately I didn’t have a cover since it’s the dry season and I didn’t expect to walk the whole day in rain. But I still had a rain poncho which I wrapped around my shoulders and the backpack to protect it.

Walking in the rain was pretty lonely since everybody seemed to hide in their refuge or tent. After walking for nearly two hours I was running into the first people. I actually knew one of them. It was Marco a guy from Switzerland who travelled with me from Salvador to Rio. I was surprised to see him here but we could only exchange a few words until the both of us needed to continue.

The rain didn’t want to stop and my rain trousers fulfilled their purpose. Most people don’t own them because in a city an umbrella or a rain jacket is fully sufficient. But when being in the outdoors rain trousers are really essential. When you hike through wet bushes normal trekking trousers would become completely wet after a while which isn’t the case with rain trousers.

Right next to the trail were many funny signs. One of them said you shouldn’t burn your toilet paper which I found really weird. I would never even think about to burn my toilet paper, especially not in the middle of a national park. First I thought it might be a spelling error and they don’t want you to bury your toilet paper. But then I thought they really mean it like this because in the past there were several fires in the park caused by careless hikers. Maybe one of the fires was caused by burning toilet paper.

At some point before the “Hosteria Las Torres” a shortcut to the “Chileno” campsite appeared. While on this trail I ran into Ross and Stuart coming from the opposite direction. I was happy to see them alive and hear they have covered the most challenging part of the circuit. What they are doing is really incredible walking the full circuit in the Torres del Paine National Park in only 5 day instead of the recommended 8-9 days – tough boys. They told me a few of their adventures such as they missed the right trail to the “Refugio Dickson” and ended up in swampland. Luckily they were able to find the right trail and walked until 10 or 11pm with their head torches until they reached the refuge. They also told me the “Chileno” campsite is closed since it’s the end of the season and so I will need to walk up further to the ”Torres” campsite. I didn’t worry too much since I was running very good in time and would have walked to “Torres” anyhow.

I arrived at the “Torres” campsite at 5pm. By then it had stopped raining and I pitched up my tent between the trees. Tomorrow will be an easy day for me since it’s only one more hour up to the “Torres del Paine” viewpoint. I hope the weather will be better tomorrow since Ross and Stuart told me because of the rain they couldn’t see much.


Torres del Paine W-Walk – French Valley – Day 3

Day 3 of the W-Walk led me to the French Valley. As I learned my lesson yesterday by running late and didn’t make it to the “Italiano” campsite, I had more discipline today and got up at 7am. It was still dark and so I had breakfast waiting for the sunrise. I started walking shortly after 8am towards the “Italiano” campsite. It was a gentle walk in pretty flat terrain and so it didn’t take me more than 2.5 hours to reach the campsite. The walk itself wasn’t too scenic, just a few bushes and little streams.

A rope bridge led me to the campsite crossing a clear stream of glacier water. The streams in the Torres del Paine National Park are actually used to supply drinking water to hikers. Whenever I’m thirty I just fill up my water bottle in one of the streams in the park. Therefore, it isn’t allowed to wash in them. Instead you fill up your water bottle and from there splash the water over your body. The other option is just to stay dirty for a couple of days.

At the other side of the bridge my fellow traveler Ian was welcoming me. This will be his first night at a campsite in the park. However, he has already used his camping stove to cook while staying at the refuge during the last two nights. After I have put up my tent I met Sarah and Liz on their way to the French Valley and invited them to leave some of their stuff in my tent so they don’t need to carry it up to the viewpoint and back again which is a return trip of six hour. I also left my big backpack in my tent trusting nobody will steal it and just went up with a bottle of water and my camera.

Describing the French Valley is nearly impossible same as capturing it on a picture. It’s a large valley filled with colorful trees surrounded by stunning mountains and glaciers. In the middle of the valley flows a river and the trail is more or less following it. While walking you can hear the sounds of cracking ice or even see it moving down the mountains. This is really picture book Patagonia. Unfortunately it was cloudy all day and I can only guess the colors of the valley would look even more stunning in sunlight.

It was a 2.5 hour walk up to the “Británico” campsite and from there another 30min to the viewpoint where you have a fascinating panorama view of the valley. I sat down on one of the big rocks up there and enjoyed the view before walking back to the “Italiano” campsite. Luckily my tent and all my belongings were still there and I was happy I didn’t need to carry them during the last six hours.

Torres del Paine W-Walk – Glacier Grey – Day 2

My alarm went off at 7am since I wanted to get up early to walk as much as possible along the ice field of Glacier Grey towards the “Paso John Gardner”. As it was still dark and everybody else seemed to be asleep I turned around and continued to sleep until 8:30am. After I got up I noticed I had actually put up my tent on the middle of the trail. It didn’t matter too much since there is nearly no traffic towards the pass since most people only walk to the “Refugio Grey” marking one of the end points of the W-Walk. Probably only Ross and Stuart have passed my tent early this morning on their long way to the “Refugio Dickson”.

It took me about an hour to wash with the cold water from my water bottle, have breakfast and put down my tent. Having breakfast in my small tent is kind of funny since there is really not much space, no table or any other comfort item. My breakfast consisted of cereals with milk and apples. I have figured out all non-dried food I’m carrying weights most and so I started to eat all the apples I’m carrying to make my backpack lighter.

After I have packed all my stuff I walked to the viewpoint of the “Los Guardas” campsite. The campsite is situated right at the rim of the Glacier Grey where the ice is calving into the lake. This viewpoint offered a much closer view at the glacier than the viewpoint at the “Refugio Grey”. On my way back from the viewpoint I met a German guy and it turned out I have already met him yesterday on the trail when he was offering me some of his carrots. He’s a math student and after he finished his study he was unsure which type of job he wants to take. The only thing he was sure is he doesn’t want to spend his life to calculate risks for large multinational companies but do something more meaningful. He decided to travel for nine months through the Spanish speaking countries of South America which are actually all except of Brazil to improve his Spanish. He’s doing the W-Walk with his Chilean friend he has met a couple of week ago.

I continued to walk towards the pass and made it about half way until I started to return. First I had to cross some rocky terrain where I needed to climb up a ladder which was a bit scary with the big backpack on my shoulders. A few minutes later I arrived at another viewpoint which offered a fascinating view over the ice field of the glacier. It’s really beautiful and peaceful up there in this stunning landscape and I had the feeling these are moments I’m living for.

On the way back I stopped again at the “Los Guardas” viewpoint since this morning the rim of the glacier was in the shadow and I wanted to see it in sunlight. I arrived at the “Refugio Paine Grande” at 6:30pm. Actually I didn’t want to spend the night here but at the “Italiano” campsite. Getting up late and chatting to people on the way made me running late. From the refuge it was another 2.5 hours to the campsite but it will get dark in 1.5 hours. Therefore, I decided to spend the night at the refuge and luckily they had a bed for me for which I paid 15,000 Pesos (33 USD).

The room was a mixed gender dorm with three bunk beds. There was a couple from Chicago, three boys from North Carolina and me sharing the dorm. In a few days it will be the 30th birthday of one of the boys and his dream was to come here to the Torres del Paine National Park and do the W-Walk. He read about this hiking experience in a men’s health magazine 1.5 years ago and since then wanted to come here. As you might know people from the US often don’t have more than two weeks of vacation so coming here was his annual leave from work.

At the refuge I also met my fellow traveler Liz from the UK. She was worried because her niece Jo, she is travelling with, wasn’t back from the mountain and it was already dark. She had asked the guards of the park to search for her but they were very much relaxed and wanted to wait a few more hours until they go out and search for her. Luckily, Jo turned up around 10pm. She was running very late on her hike to the “French Valley” but finally made it back to the refuge.

My back hurts a bit from carrying the heavy backpack all day same as the blisters on my heels. However, I was surprise how well I recovered last night and hope it will be the same this one. In the refuge there was also the opportunity to have a hot shower but it was only working during the shower time from 8pm to 9pm. It turned out only the women’s shower had hot water and so some of the guys came to shower with us.

Torres del Paine W-Walk – Glacier Grey – Day 1

The Torres del Paine National Park is one of the spots you shouldn’t miss when travelling to Patagonia. It offers a stunning landscape and the opportunity to hike for multiple days with a change of scenery on every day. The most popular hike you can do is the so called W-Walk because on a map the trail looks like a W. It takes about 5 days to walk along the W. Other opportunities include day trips or the full circuit which according to guide books takes 8-9 days. Accommodation is offered in refuges with a dorm type of accommodation, paid campsites with facilities and free campsites with a bush camp character and no facilities.

What I personally found interesting is the opportunity to walk for multiple days in a safe environment and being completely self-contained thus carrying your camping equipment and food on your back. While on other multiple day hikes such as a special version of the Inca Trail or the Kilimanjaro hike I had porters to carry my stuff this time I wanted to experience how it actually is to carry all your stuff with you at all times. I also decided to do it the rough way and only stay at the bush camp type of campsites. Although this option is the cheapest one I didn’t do it to save money but for the outdoor experience.

Breakfast was at the base camp where my cooking group consisting of Mollie, Diann and myself served three different types of cornflakes (normal, whole-grain and chocolate) as well as fruit. Afterwards we arranged bread, meat, cheese, tomatoes and cucumbers so people could make their packed lunch. Finally, I sorted out my luggage to prepare the backpack I will be carrying for the next five days. After I have packed it I was wondering how much stuff it was and thought I might have packed too much. I don’t know how heavy my backpack was but would guess 15kg or so. Actually it turned out this is really the amount of stuff I need to carry since 90% of it was camping equipment such as my tent, sleeping bag and mattress as well as food I will need to survive five days in the wilderness. Have you ever put everything what you plan to eat in five days on one pile? If not you should do so and lift it to see how heavy it actually is.

Before heading off for the hike the first issue appeared. The crew of the Dragoman truck we ran into yesterday told us due to strong wind the campsite at the “Refugio Paine Grande” is closed. This means instead of camping I will need to stay in the refuge for the first two nights. Since the refuges are booked out pretty quickly and we weren’t sure if there is any availability the rangers radioed them to find out if there is a spot for Ian and me. Luckily there was since it’s the end of the season. Everybody else in the group had booked and paid their accommodation well in advance which is the normal way of doing it.

At lunch time Anki drove us from our campsite “Lago Perhoé” to the ferry. Usually there are three ferry boats crossing the Perhoé Lake, one in the morning, one at midday and one in the evening. Since it’s the end of the season, there was only the midday and the evening one. Most of us took the one at midday, others came in the evening and a few people stayed at the base camp since they didn’t fancy to go hiking. The ferry brought us from the “Guardaria Pudeto” to the “Refugio Paine Grande” which was a 30 to 45min ride costing 12,000 Pesos (27 USD).

On the boat I met Tony who was travelling with us from Manaus to Rio and is now continuing his journey with Tucan. He and his friends were also challenged by the closure of the campsite at the “Refugio Paine Grande” and instead of staying at the refuge they were planning to camp at the paid campsite of “Refugio Grey” meaning a 3.5 hour hike up there. I spontaneously decided to do the same and told Ian I will have a no-show in the refuge and he should pay for me in case they insist on the reservation.

I also met two Israeli guys planning to walk up to the campsite and joined them walking. After 30-60min they stopped to cook lunch and so I said good-bye to them. I made up my mind and wanted to walk even further than to the campsite at “Refugio Grey” spending the night at the free bush camp type of campsite “Los Guardas” which was an additional two hours walk and I wanted to arrive before sunset. I also suffered a bit from the heavy load in my backpack. Usually you only carry your large backpack for a few minutes and not for hours, uphill and through strong wind as I experience it on my way at “Laguna Los Patos”. I was really questioning if I will survive five days like this or after a while suffer from back pain? I had also heard from the people of the other Dragoman truck that when they were hiking here in Torres del Paine some people got blown over so strong was the wind.

While walking up to the campsite I ran into some of my fellow travelers. The first ones were Ian and Jeremy who went for a seven hour return trip to “Refugio Grey” and the second ones were Ross and Stuart planning to do the full circuit in just five days. When resting at the “Refugio Grey” for a few minutes I met a German guy and his friends just finishing the full circuit. They told me the circuit part outside the W is actually less scenic and the main experience you have is walking for hours without meeting other people. They also said the trail will become very muddy, there is very strong wind when crossing the “John Gardner Paso” and they have met a guy who experienced a snow storm up on this pass just a couple of days ago. As much as I was tempted to join Ross and Stuart on their circuit experience the less I was prepared for it. While Ross and Stuart were not planning to camp they didn’t carry a heavy backpack which enables them to walk much faster. Their plan to do the full circuit in just five days involves a couple of very long hiking days including walking at nighttime which I don’t fancy too much. This night they will stay at the “Refugio Grey” and tomorrow walk for 15 hours to the “Refugio Dickson” including the crossing of the pass. I also didn’t wanted to be in a rush and take time to enjoy the landscape and talk to people I meet along the way. Lastly, I wasn’t prepared for a potential snow storm. I had no gloves with me and was walking in hiking sandals since during the last hike at Mount Fitz Roy my proper hiking boots caused blisters on my heels.

So I only joined Ross and Stuart to see the viewpoint at “Refugio Grey” where we had a nice view at Glacier Grey and the icebergs calving from it. Then I said good-bye to continue to the campsite “Los Guardas” where I arrived at 7pm. After pitching up my tent and having dinner I went straight away to bed so exhausted was I from carrying this heavy backpack all day.

Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine Base Camp

Adios Argentina y Hola Chile! Time to head west and enter Chile. Crossing the border was a two-step process. First we had to see immigrations and then customs. It’s actually not allowed to bring any fresh food or wood products into Chile and the customs officers are very serious about it. We needed to unload our entire luggage and get it x-rayed. Before doing so our leader Anki collected all items we were not sure about if they need to be declared and showed them separately to the customs officer. It turned out they accepted most items. Only nuts got confiscated such as pistachios and walnuts but for some strange reason they didn’t take our peanuts. We speculated the immigration officers at this border like the more expensive nuts and will eat them once we have left. In addition our whole truck got inspected by customs including our camping equipment, food boxes and the fridge. In total the border crossing procedure took a bit more than an hour.

Our leader Anki also told us not to mention we will be driving to the Torres del Paine National Park but to Ushuaia. The reason behind is they make groups of people hiring a local guide for the national park which we don’t want but hike around on our own. You really don’t need a guide in Torres del Paine since the trails are pretty good marked.

Driving here in Patagonia is very much different from home. The distances are so huge that some days we cover a distance which is comparable with crossing Germany. But there is no autobahn without a speed limit, our truck cannot drive too fast and sometimes there is not even tarmac on the road slowing down our driving. Therefore, you have the amazing landscape of the Patagonian steppe and snow covered mountains. Also the service stations are kind of cute. They are very tiny, don’t belong to a big chain and have an individual touch the owner gave to them. On our way to Puerto Natales we also ran into another Dragoman truck driving up north. We stopped for a few minutes and had a chat with the crew and passengers.

We arrived in Puerto Natales around 4pm. Here we had two hours time to get everything we need to survive five days in the national park such as food, snacks or camping equipment. My fellow traveler Ian from the UK, who is except for me the only one planning to camp during the five day hike, hired a camping stove. I didn’t really want to carry a stove and cook in the evening. So I went for the cold food strategy and purchased food which you don’t need to cook and which doesn’t need refrigeration such as cornflakes, apples, muesli bars, crackers and tuna paste.

Since my cook group needs to prepare dinner tonight as well as breakfast and lunch tomorrow we also needed to shop for food. While Mollie and I had about the same idea about food shopping, our fellow traveler Diann had different ideas. While I wanted to buy fresh stuff only, Diann wanted to mix it with tined vegetables and fruit. The issue I had with this was that on one side fresh vegetables and fruit taste better and on the other side they are also cheaper. I would have compromised with Diann if there was a way to fit the tins into the budget we received for food shopping but there wasn’t. This resulted in Diann signing-off from shopping and walked away. I felt somewhat sorry and saw her afterwards to explain the situation and say I’m sorry about it.

We left Puerto Natales at 6pm for the Torres del Paine base camp which is a campsite within the national park. When we arrived it was dark, cold, windy and rainy. Not really perfect conditions for cooking outside. After we started cooking we even needed to move the whole kitchen into a more protected area which slowed down the whole cooking process. However, in the end Mollie, Diann and I managed to cook what was supposed to be fried noodles with chicken and vegetables. The main issue was the noodles. Although we added lots of oil they were sticky like glue resulting in the dish not looking very tasty. This is the first meal I consider a fuck-up for my cooking group but although it didn’t look inviting it tasted quite good and all 21 people ate it.

Ice Climbing and Trekking on the Viedma Glacier

The Viedma Glacier is one of the 47 glaciers in the Los Glaciares National Park. What makes it special is that you can go ice climbing in the middle of the ice field as some of us did today. From El Chaltén it was about half an hour drive to a lake where we took a boat to the glacier. The boat ride was another hour but very scenic. As we came closer to the glacier the wind became stronger splashing water all over the open deck on top of the boat. Some people got soaked in ice water and needed to change cloth. After a while only the brave went up for a few seconds trying to catch a picture from the beautiful landscape. There were a number of small blue shining icebergs floating around on the lake formed by melted glacier ice. We also had an excellent view at the front side of the glacier where we could hear the cracking of calving ice.

After the boat docked we got off and walked over rocky area. Compared to other mountains the surface of these rocks looked more round since it was formed by the moving ice of the glacier. After walking for a few minutes we reached a tent where we got equipped for walking and climbing on the glacier ice. We put on a special type of crampons with which you cannot just walk on ice but also climb on it. They had strong spikes in the front of the crampon enabling you to climb vertically. Furthermore, we received a climbing harness and a helmet for security.

Before actually stepping on the glacier ice we received a demonstration how to walk in crampons. Compared to normal walking you need to keep your legs a bit more open so the spikes of the crampons don’t get tangled with each other or with your pants causing you to fall. We also received a demonstration on how to walk upwards, downwards and sidewards without falling. Walking in crampons felt strange in the beginning but after a while you get used to it and walk quite confident.

It was a maybe 20min walk over the glacier ice until we reached an area suitable for ice climbing. On our way we needed to cross a crevasse which is a deep crack in the glacier ice. We used a rope for crossing it so in case you slide into it you can be pulled out. The ice itself looked kind of dirty which is due to the rocks contained in it. In areas without rocks the ice was either white or blue.

The three guides with us prepared the ice wall for climbing and gave us a demonstration on the ice climbing technique and how to use the two ice axes in your hands. Then it was up on us to try it. It was actually quite fun since compared to rock climbing you are not dependent on the surface of the rock which forms the path to follow. You can actually climb more or less freely on the wall since you can put your crampons and ice axes in every place of the ice. I felt a bit like a fly walking up a wall. Each of us climbed 3-4 times at the wall and afterwards we had our lunch in the middle of the ice field. I had some sandwiches but tried not to drink too much since it isn’t allowed to pee on the ice field.

In the afternoon we climbed on another wall featuring blue ice which was even more amazing. Compared to the white ice the blue one was much harder and you needed more power to hew your ice axes and crampons into the ice. We also tried another ice climbing technique with which you go a bit sidewards with every step which gives you more stability when removing one of the ice axes to put it in another place. Climbing with this technique looked a bit like dancing cha-cha-cha and was funny to observe.

After having mastered the blue ice wall we went for a walk on the ice field looking at all kinds of ice formations. The highlight was the area where the glacier ice ended and the rocky area started. Here you could go in the area between the glacier ice and the rock which was extremely fascinating. There are several tons of ice above you and you just hope that it doesn’t crack and fall down on you. It felt great being under the ice. It appeared blue and transparent and the shape of it gave you an impression on how it’s actually flowing. There were also some holes in the ice which we could also see on the surface of the ice field. The holes are formed by melting glacier ice and here underneath the ice you could see it running down.

After we returned from the ice caves our guides had prepared a little surprise for us. It was an alcoholic drink cooled by glacier ice. After we returned to El Chaltén I was desperate for some pasta. The name of one shop sounded like they are selling fresh homemade pasta and I went there. They were actually selling pasta but only uncooked so I went into a small restaurant next door called “Mathilda”. The restaurant turned out to be a one woman show and the food I had here was truly homemade and very delicious.