Post #182: Into the Patagonian countryside

January 25, 2023


We both woke up with pretty severe sore throats again, and again we had no heat. I felt like I was trying to swallow red-hot barbed wire. Fortunately, there was plenty of hot water for showers and we’d brought lots of Tylenol and both DayQuil and NyQuil. I was concerned I/we might have strep and we didn’t have any appropriate antibiotics with us. Susan who’s never had strep, was pretty sure that wasn’t it. 


After breakfast, we checked out of our chilly room and headed to Puerto Natales, the “capitol” of this part of Chilean Patagonia and about an hour and a half away. It was the nearest place to get gas, which we knew we’d need before venturing back into the park, and we hoped to find a pharmacy there too. The drive was along a fairly new and fairly well-built two-lane highway into the countryside. The wind pushed the little Renault around and had I taken my hand off the wheel, we’d be blown into the ditch pretty quickly. Rain started and stopped but it was a beautiful drive through low hills, crossing rivers occasionally.


Puerto Natales is where hikers, tourists and other adventurers prepare for their visit to Torres del Paine, nearly all taking two-hour-long bus rides to get to the hard-to-access park. Once we arrived in the small town, we filled the tank and drove toward a pharmacy. Parking was surprisingly difficult to find. When we pulled over into a great, and what we we thought might be a legal spot (the signs were very unclear to us), a friendly non-English-speaking parking attendant/officer came by. She gave up trying to understand our question (asked in our best Spanish, albeit without the unusual Chilean dialect) about where we might be able to park and instead used hand motions to tell us to just park in the (illegal) spot we were in. We were grateful since by now there was a chilly rain and we were in no condition to be walking around in it. 


At the second pharmacy we went into, we picked up amoxicillin without a prescription. It seemed a rather industrial and purposeful town though there were also stores that sold expensive hiking gear and there were lots of (expensive) places to stay. Susan had instead found us a reasonably priced refugio (hostel) located about two hours away and much closer to the park.


We stopped at a couple of small grocery stores (there were no large ones) to get some food for the next few nights, as the refugio where we’d be staying offered a common area kitchen for cooking. Susan had read that in or near the park there was nowhere to buy food at all except, possibly, at a handful of very over-priced restaurants. We love to wander around grocery stores in foreign countries to see what local people eat. Here, we found small quantities and limited selections but most of the usual staples – rice, bread, canned goods, etc. – as well as lots of meat, which the area is known for. Most sweetened foods were marked sugar-free and contained lots of artificial sweeteners instead. We were later told that the distaste for potentially harmful chemical sweeteners that began years ago in the US had not yet come to much of South American. 

"Choco Cracs" were a type of cereal--perhaps just as addicting as Cocoa Puffs. The package even said "high in saturated fat and sugars," as if it were a good thing

In both stores, while the meat looked first-rate, most of the produce was wilted and beginning to rot and most of the bread had mold on it. But the stores were clean and the shoppers stood in line and chatted like anywhere else. 


I really wanted some peanut butter but so far nowhere we’d been in South America had any. Given our sore throats, neither of us had much of an appetite and we ended up buying just a couple of ramen packets and bread – and a sleeve of Oreos, spending 7,000 Chilean pesos (about US$9.00). 

We’d be back in Puerto Natales in a few days but for now it was just a quick stop for fuel and provisions. Before leaving town, we made a brief stop at the waterfront where we checked out the Monument to the Wind, which was fitting, and took a short walk until the rain started again. The views over the wind-whipped sound to snowy mountains, some with glaciers, reminded us again of southern Alaska.

Monument to the Wind
The road out of Puerto Natales was of good quality for the first few miles but soon became as rough as all the others as we headed back toward the park

Leaving town, the road was very good. Until it wasn’t. Very soon, the pavement ended and we slowed for a terrible washboard surface, happy we were in someone else’s car. The road changed back and forth from giant-pothole-filled pavement to rough dirt. Again, the experience was much like driving in Alaska though the distances were much less.

View of the Rio Serrano Valley where we'd spend the next two nights

Nearly two bumpy hours later, we reached the Rio Serrano area at the southern edge of the park. The rough road climbed up a steep hill to an incredible overlook before descending into the valley where our refugio was located.


You know when a place tells you what hours the power will be on, it’s going to be rustic. Vista al Paine Refugio de Aventura was not a hotel and our host Juan Pablo told us that to make sure he set our expectations right when he met us at the sprawling property. The kitchen was available for us and there would be hot water and breakfast in the morning, he said. Heat was provided only for about two hours each in the evening and morning by a wood stove downstairs and the power would be on just for those same few hours a day when Juan Pablo turned on the ancient generator.

The towers had kept themselves hidden most of the day before but were now on full display right from the window of our room

Our host showed us upstairs to our comfortable room with a giant picture window looking right at the mountains. It was breathtaking. From our bed we had a direct view of Los Torres. It was perfect. We weren’t well enough to do much, so we rested and enjoyed the serene view.

Vista al Paine Refugio de Aventura. Photo credit
Evening by the fire at the refugio

When evening came and Juan Pablo got the wood stove going, we made our ramen and warmed ourselves by the fire before turning in for the night. 


From here, we would explore other parts of vast Torres del Paine National Park and we planned to take a boat to see glaciers, something that we tried to do in Alaska but weather thwarted us. The forecast wasn’t much better here but we’d be here for a few days and hoped we’d be lucky.

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