January 24, 2023
Travel, we’ve found, is not always glamorous; sometimes it’s just dealing with normal crap in different countries. I woke up at 4:30 am with a terrible sore throat and Susan also woke not feeling well. We’d brought several covid tests with us and a quick test confirmed it was not that, but probably a nasty virus we picked up in the last few days. I decided to blame the annoying Venezuelan from the boat tour in Ushuaia.
The plan today was to tackle a difficult 12-mile hike to the best-known feature in Torres del Paine National Park—the trek to Los Torres (the towers). Los Torres consist of three incredible steep peaks thrust from between other mountains. Paine means blue in a local native dialect, and the mountains often have a blue tint. Unfortunately, given how we were feeling, hiking to Los Torres was off the table, at least for the time being. We know some things will go wrong while traveling and it’s usually things like flight delays or losing valuables or something else that’s fixable. But getting sick is hard to plan for. Fortunately, we were in a decent inn with a private bathroom.
We decided after breakfast to pivot and explore Torres del Paine National Park by road and take a shorter hike that was said to offer a distant view of Los Torres. We were a good hour and a half from the entrance but with enough DayQuil and Tylenol, we figured we could still explore some beautiful places.
We headed out on a new paved road toward the park. Yay, Chilean roads seemed to be much better than Argentine roads! It lasted about eight minutes and then turned into a rough dirt road. Not our first dirt road we thought, so we gritted our teeth and bounced around the potholes. The tiny Renault was not happy as all the doors squeaked loudly and lots of rattles appeared deep inside. The car had only 13,000 miles on it but was already making decidedly un-Toyota like noises. On the other hand, the manual transmission was a joy. I’d forgotten how much I liked to drive a stick and this one was superb.
For miles, the little car jolted down one dirt road after another, occasionally passing rheas alongside the road, until we found a short hike near a stunning view. We had been driving in a sudden rain and I was thinking that the climate here can sure change quickly when it started to snow lightly. It wasn’t cold enough to stick on the road, but the nearby mountains revealed a new coating of fresh snow as the clouds parted. It was breathtaking. And it was mid-summer.
When we got to the trailhead parking lot, it was raining. We reclined the seats and rested for a while hoping the weather would clear at least some. When the rain paused, we popped some more Tylenol and layered up with a final rain jacket. It was a chilly 45 degrees and the wind was starting to pick up again – probably, we thought, not the best place to be when we’re fighting a virus but we didn’t come thousands of miles to Pataonia to sit in a room.
Like much of Patagonia, Torres del Paine is known for constant strong winds and, away from the mountains, into the pampas where we were headed next it was blowing like stink, as sailors say. Susan and I both have long hair and having it blow in our faces gets tiresome – and the wind was so fierce that it kept blowing our hats off. Susan came up with the great idea to use the full-face balaclavas we’d bought years ago for a snowmobile trip if the wind got to be too much. We had them in our bags . . . back in the room. We agreed that on the next hike we’d bring them with us just in case.
Our hike was short – about three miles – but it was about all we could handle. As we climbed, we kept looking at where the towers should be but they the clouds refused to part. But opposite them another set of mountains gleamed with new snow. Just as we were arriving back at the trailhead, it began to rain lightly again. We climbed into the car and peeled off some layers while the heater warmed us.
After resting a little while in the warmth of our little car, we took yet another long dirt road toward the trailhead to Los Torres. By now, both of us had really achy throats, were pretty exhausted and felt like a nap might be just the ticket. But we decided that even if we couldn’t do the planned hike to the base of the towers, we could at least see how close we could get.
As we drove off, a guanaco stood perfectly still on the hillside announcing that this territory belonged to him and reminding us we were guests.
Many more miles of dirt road later, we pulled over when we saw the mist of a tremendous waterfall, Cascada del Rio Paine. A short walk brought us close to the falls. Too cold to stay long, we soon headed back up the road.
Leaving the falls we soon crested a hill and, with the sun now shining, a large lake of the oddest pale lime green color appeared. When we slowed into a pull-off we saw the brightest pink flamingoes along the shore of Laguna Armaga. We looked at each other, both thinking, wtf?
The pastel colors were startling after the white snow and blue peaks and we stared, mesmerized at the strangeness of it. Nowhere had we heard that there was such a thing in the mountains of Torres del Paine.
Herds of guanacos grazed on the shore, adding even more interest to the wild and beautiful scene.
We parked on the side of the road and scrambled down the steep hillside to the muddy shoreline for a closer look at the magnificent birds.
As we looked up from the shoreline, the stunning towers finally began to reveal themselves beyond the lake in the distance. They were shrouded in mist, clouds and light snowfall. Torres del Paine, like Mt. Denali months before, would show themselves to us on their terms.
We eventually left the lake and turned off on an even smaller dirt road that crossed a bridge, went up into the foothills and ended at a small dirt parking lot. We sat in the car and gaped at the huge jutting peaks through the snow mist. We both wished so much we’d felt well enough to hike into them as planned but knew neither of us were up for it. Damn you, Venezuelan man!
We were still far from our hostel but found an alternate route back that skirted several lakes with soaring peaks standing sentinel behind them. Dozens more miles of rough dirt road bounced the little car around as the predicted even stronger wind picked up, blowing us all over the road.
Some of the dirt roads had crews along them, building new parallel paved roads so that someday travelers here wouldn’t have to suffer the bone-jarring ride. We wondered if it would feel the same, without the challenge of the rough dirt roads and whether the now nearly empty park would then suffer from crowds.
Back at our room we had a chill, which was a problem. The heat for the entire building was turned on only at night. During the day it was cold in our room. In fact, the two days we were there, the old radiator heater in our room never got warm, even at night. Fortunately, the bed had a thick comforter though it felt strange to get under the covers in daylight.
Later, for dinner I drove to the tiny town center a half mile away, luxuriating temporarily in the car’s heater to pick up a couple of empañadas at the only place that sold food. Susan was already in bed when I got back, choosing rest over dinner.
After all the driving today, we were a little concerned about getting gas since there were no gas stations within an hour and half of us, but the little Renault seemed to be sipping fuel and we hoped we’d have enough to get to our next hostel tomorrow, a couple of hours away. We also hoped we’d wake up without sore throats.