Last we left off, we were in Valdivia heading for Puerto Varas and on to Patagonia. The remaining drive to Puerto Varas was uneventful except for the endless toll booths. We usually tried to dump off all our change which smounted to a lot of coins. One tolltaker called us something which we later found out meant "You have broken the piggy bank!".
It was rainy and dreary overcast when we arrived at Puerto Varas. The city tumbles down the hillside around the lake. The buildings are mostly unpainted wood and were built by German immigrants in the early 1900s. The town has a great view of Volcan Osorno but we saw nothing but dark clouds and rain drops. It is supposedly a very charming town but it was lost on me with the weather.
We quickly found the Guest House even with the tangle of one way streets. It is a large German-Victorian style house built in the 1930s. It has been restored by the owner and nicely decorated but a bit cold in temperature since the heat had not been turned on for the evening. That evening, we ate at Merlin, one of the best fish restaurants in Southern Chile. The food and the wine was good. During our meal, we noticed a dog hanging out on the front steps. We saved a bit a bread and thought it would be nice to give him something to eat. Wrong! Do not feed Chilean homeless dogs. They will follow you back to America. All the way back to the Guest House, we tried to ditch him by crossing back and forth on the street and walking faster but he was relentless and ended up at the Guest House. The next morning we saw him again a couple blocks away downtown as we drove away. Fortunately, he didn't see us. ;)
We caught our plane in Puerto Montt in the rain and headed for Patagonia. We were met at the airport by Jerome who would be our guide for the next 5 days and Carlos our driver. In the van, we met Emma and Sam, two young Australian lawyers from Melbourne who were finishing a 3 month round the world tour and Ydriss, a French bank trader who had been living in New York and was just starting his 3 month trip around the world. They quickly started exchanging stories and tips.
Ahead of us was a 6 hour drive to the camp at Los Torres. We crossed a wide plain with low shrubs with the mountains far in the distance. It reminded me a lot of driving across Wyoming. The highway stretched ahead for miles, a long thread into the distance and we met very few cars. But lots of wildlife including foxes, rheas, geese, ibises, condors and flamingos. We stopped at Hotel Rubens for lunch which is in the middle of nowhere. We made a quick stop in Puerto Natales to meet the staff and stretch our legs. The town was windy and felt a lot like a fishing village in Alaska. Next stop was the Milodon cave, where a large skin of a prehistoric sloth was found in the late 1800s. It was thought that the natives kept it as a pet. I doubt it given the large claws but it was vegetarian.
After two more hours on dirt road, we reached the eco-camp. The camp is on private land along with the Hosteria de los Torres. It is collection of geodesic canvas dome tents which are elevated on platforms. They are large enough for you to stand and have two very comforable and warm twin beds. Our dome had a wonderful view of the Torres which were visble. The camp also had hot showers and a nice bathroom facilities. We headed off to the main dome which is a large dome with sofas, kitchen, dining area and a very nice warm wood burning stove. We met for appetizers and pisco sours which became our nightly ritual. We had dinner and tumbled into bed even though it was still light at 11pm.
Sun came up about 5am and we later got up for our first hike. At 5am we could see the towers but by time we hit the trail, it was overcast and windy but no rain. The trail headed up a steep grade past the hosteria and then dropped down to the refugio. Along the way George and Jerome talked plants.. There were lots to discover, orchids, calceolaria and escalonia. After the refugio, the path went through the lenga beech forest up and down crosing small streams. We never had the same type of bridge or crossing. Sometimes a few rocks, sometimes a full bridge, other time a few shaky branches. After 4 hours hiking, we reached an open area and we could see part of one tower above. We could also see what we needed to climb in the next 40 minutes. A big rock scramble up a talas-moraine slope. The path was marked with red-orange dots painted on the rocks. But once we reached the top, it was magnificant. The towers peeked in and out of the clouds like a picture from a calendar. It was sunny and windy. We had our lunch with about 40 other people and could not stop taking pictures. This was our best hike. We finally had to leave and returned to camp for our pisco sours and dinner.
The next morning, I awoke to the glow of the sun on the towers and the pink sunrise. The weather changes so fast that by time we left for our next hike and destination, it was rainy. We drove to Lago Pehoe and boarded a catarmarin boat for the crosing to Camp Pehoe which would be our location for the next night. We left out backup clothes and headed for Lago Grey and the Grey Glacier. We had a 24km (15mile) roundtrip hike ahead of us. The trail started out between the hills and the wind increased as we got closer to the lake. The lake is strewn with white-blue iceburgs and we could feel it in the wind. We climbed to the appropriately named "Windy Pass" where we saw the glacier in the distance. The wind at this time was blowing about 40mph. It about knocked us over. The hard part was next. We had to climb down from the pass over some of the worse trail I have ever been on. Wet slippery rocky path down along streams and crawling down on muddy slopes. All along we kept thinking, we have to come back this way. After about 4 hours, we finally reached the glacier look out which was even more windy but so spectacular. The glacier goes for 18km and is huge, 120 ft high. It was amazing to see. Also above was the Gran Paine Massif which was being dusted with new snow. We started back and tackled the cliff again. I finally had to have Jerome carry my pack which really helped. I know... whimp! But hey... it is vacation.
The next day, we went to the Francis valley to view the Cuernos and more glaciers. The weather was not on our side and we had wind and rain most of the day. But it was not a heavy rain so we were never really miserable. There were more rock moraine scrambles, more mud and more cliffs to climb but the views were amazing even in the rain and clouds. At the lookout, we even had some sleet and constantly heard avalanches off the snowfields and Francis glacier. It was a long day back. We had to wait about 2hours for the boat and
waited mostly in the warm refugio packed with other hikers. We went out early to get a seat on the boat which was a mistake. The wind whipped across the lake and the boat was lake. We were frozen to the bones by time we got back to the main eco-camp. The hot shower felt so good but I still had to hang out by the wood stove for a long while to finally get warm.
It was sad to say goodbye to our fellow hikers. We were very lucky to have such a nice group of fellow world travelers. We had similar outlooks on life and really hit it off. We exchanged addresses and hugs before going to bed.
It was a long travel day as we drove back 6 hours to Punta Arena and our 4 hour flight to Santiago. We stumbled back into the Hotel Orly around 12:30am and crashed. Today, we are being lazy and walking around the malls in Santiago. They are the only thing open since today is a public holiday, Immaculate Conception. I wish I had realized it before and we could have returned to the US earlier. Oh well. Tomorrow we have a wine tour and very late flight at midnight back to the states. The vacation has been wonderful. Would we come back? You bet.