When the time came to leave Rio, our packing had to be done differently. Swimsuits, shorts and sandals all went to the bottom of the case. Fleeces, cagoules, beanies and hiking boots had to be easily accessible. We were flying to Ushuaia, in the very tip of South America. Ushuaia is the most southerly city on the planet, and therefore known locally as el fin del mundo – the end of the world. We went from the Tropic of Capricorn to 55ºS, quite a change in terms of climate, geography and culture.
While in Ushuaia we did a hike up to the Martial Glacier, just above the town, and a boat trip on the Beagle Channel (which Darwin sailed through on his voyage round the world), where we saw cormorants (shags in kiwispeak) and sea lions. We also hiked through Tierra de Fuego National Park and reached the border between Argentina and Chile – marked by a rusty iron tripod.
From Ushuaia we began to work our way north. First we took an 11-hour bus journey to Punta Arenas, in Chile. The main excitement on this trip (apart from the border crossing) was when the bus got stuck in mud and had to be towed and pushed out before we could continue. We also crossed the Straits of Magellan by ferry, reminding us of the very first person to sail round the world. Punta Arenas is a pleasant town, where we spent a day doing practical stuff like getting our laundry done. We also had our very best vegetarian meal since leaving the UK, and for some time before that.
Another bus took us to Puerto Natales, still in Chile but in the province of Ultima Esperanza (Last Hope) – an interesting and rather alarming name. From here we took a bus into the Torres de Paine National Park, to begin our 4-day 40-mile trek. The paths were slightly tougher than we had bargained for, involving quite a lot of scrambling over rocks and wading through streams. Fortunately we had booked a porter to carry most of our stuff, so we were able to walk with just a small rucksack.
We stayed in ‘refugios’ – basic dormitory accommodation but with reasonable facilities, and all meals provided. One of the refugios offered private cabins, and we had booked one of these. They turned out to be up a hill from the main building, unheated, and with outside toilet facilities, so definitely not worth the considerable extra cost. The place also boasted a ‘hot tub’, but we tested the water and decided it was a ‘lukewarm tub’, so didn’t venture in.
We were expecting the weather to be cold, so had taken appropriate clothing. Unfortunately it was also grey and gloomy most of the time, with some rain and very strong winds. We had just one day which was mainly sunny.
Torres de Paine is named after some spectacular rock towers, which we saw from the first refugio lit by the morning sun. When we hiked up there, however, they had disappeared into the mist so we didn’t get a good close-up view. There were other spectacular formations that we did see, including Los Cuernos (the Horns) which resemble a fairytale castle.
We were among the oldest people trekking the park. Many of the young ones were camping out, and carrying everything on their backs. We christened them ‘snails’, not because they were slow (on the contrary, they tended to walk very fast) but because they appeared to carry their homes on their backs. We were at the last refugio relatively early, and sat in the bar watching the other arrivals. Mixing our metaphors, we talked of ‘watching the snails come home to roost’. We were certainly glad to be in warm bunk beds rather than camping.
We were doing the ‘W trek’, so called because that’s the shape of the route. The three arms go up to the Torres de Paine, up French Valley to see a glacier, and finally along Lake Grey to see the Grey Glacier. From there we took a boat trip along the front of the glacier, with some fantastic views of the weirdly carved ice turrets and the blue icebergs in the water. Then it was back to Puerto Natales, and on northwards back into Argentina, and yet more glaciers.