Friends,

Time is really starting to fly by on my trip and I find myself writing this to you from Puerto Natales, on my “prep” day before heading out on my 4-5 day backpacking adventure in the beautiful Torres Del Paine National Park.

I last left you in Pucon, after my horrific bus experience from Santiago. The following morning, I was all set to climb the mighty Volcano Villarica (2847 M). I awoke at 6am, ate breakfast, packed my lunch and set out into the dawn to walk to the guide company´s office. There was a strange sense of camaraderie on the streets that morning, since the only people out and about were fellow volcano climbers and all acknowledged one another with a small nod of solidarity.

After a bumpy 45 minute van ride to the mountain´s base, we were told that the winds were just too strong to make it a safe climbing day. The chairlift was not working either, making it at least a 5 to 5 1/2 hour ascent. Gloomily, we all got back in the van and headed back down to the city.

Fortunately, I met up with a few people that morning who were interested in doing a day hike to Huerquehue (werke-we) national Park instead, home of the magnificent Monkey Puzzle tree. The guides arranged a taxi, we went off to our hostels to pick up our swim suits, and met back at the shop an hour later. Sole, a Chilean Winemaker from Santiago, Ileana a Marine Biology student from Sweden, Max a Viticulturist from France, and myself made up our happy little group.

It was a gloriously hot sunny day, belying the blowing winds atop the crater all day. Off we headed into the forest for the 7km walk to Lago Verde. Once there, we all laid out in the sun and enjoyed our packed lunches. The girls were ready to stay and relax, but Max and I were eager to check out the other lakes further up the trail. It was an additional 2 hour loop, but well worth it for the additional views and greater density of the Monkey Puzzle trees: I was so tempted to take a baby tree and pack it in my contact lens case back to the states, to grow it in my living room!

Back at the lake, we swam and laid out in the hot late afternoon sun for a glorious couple of hours. I became fast friends with the girls, having the kind of intense and emotional conversation that you only experience back home with friends of many years. It again reminded me of the kind of bonds that can be formed in a short space of time while travelling.

Heading back down the mountain, and back to Pucon with our timely cab driver, we were all ready for some grub and beer! Not being able to decide on what to order, I suggested a group feeding. picking 4 items off the menu, we each in turn ate for 3 minutes and then passed the plates clockwise around the table until all the food was gone (or Max finished it). It was a very memorable meal indeed. Feeling exhausted from my 20km hike, and fearing exhaustion for our second volcano attempt in the morning, I left around 10pm and crashed into an intense sleep.

The next day we were blessed with incredible weather. My legs were a little sore from the previous days´ exertion, but I managed to keep a steady and strong pace. The ascent could be broken down into three sections…a rocky staircase of winding switchbacks, followed by a crampon-ice axe-necessary snow-ice section, and the final extremely steep loose rock-scree scramble to the summit. All in all, it was an approximate 5000 vertical feet ascent…a pretty tough climb, in not a great distance. However, as the climb progressed I began feeling better and fell into a rhythm. I was therefore mightily perturbed when the guides told me I had to stay behind when we reached the final section before the summit. They told me that I appeared tired and might hurt myself on the way down. I argued, albeit in Spanish, but they seemed unmoved. I was utterly furious. I felt great! So I pretty much told them that I was going, and they´d have to physically stop me. That seemed to do the trick (later on, in the middle of the descent, my guide apologized for assuming i was tired…!!!) Other climbers were not so lucky, and one girl who received the same speech as me sat there and burst into tears. I felt really badly for her. I still don´t know why they pushed us so hard, and why they acted like this ascent was a race. I later found out that the restrictions are set up by the park service, Conaf, to try to minimize the risk of injuries. Even so, I summited a full hour before the designated last safe summit time! The true reasons will remain a mystery.

The exhilaration felt on arrival was stupendous and very quickly halted by the stink of sulphur. The gas emissions from the crater that day were particularly strong, and if I approached the crater to take a few snaps, it felt like I was being slowly suffocated, and a burning sensation hit your lungs and throat. I compensated by holding my breath and then running to the edge and back…! Fortunately, one of the other guided groups had been provided gas masks, and I happily borrowed one to be able to walk along the entire rim of the volcano and take in the views without suffering.

We took an entirely different route for the descent, and it was SO MUCH FUN! After the loose rock (where I banged up my knee pretty bad) we had at least 4 sections where we could glissade down the snow (literally sliding on our arses). It was super fun and you could really get up to some high speeds, controlling it with your ice axe. One section was a specially carved out section of 8 foot high ice, and careening down it felt more like a high speed disney ride than a volcanic descent. Way too much fun. I was screaming and laughing the whole way.

After ice came deep volcanic ash,which you could “jump” through, making the going extremely easy on the knees and relatively fast. I arrived at the bottom exhilarated but tired, covered in ash, and with a giant grin on my face. I´d made it!

After some time at the guide´´s office trying to console the crying hiker who had been denied the summit and listened (unlike me), I went home for a very needed shower (the water ran brown). I then met up with Sole, who hadn´t climbed with us, for Mojitos and food! Unfortunately, she was heading back to Santiago that evening…It was lovely meeting you Sole!! Stay in touch!
Meanwhile, my new Pachamama family was arriving at the hostel. Jorge greeted me with a giant hug. It was very good to see him again. Despite being tired, we headed out for a few beers with the rest of the group who all very eagerly asked me about the volcano. and what it had been like…

The following day, after a little lie in, I headed into town with Kathy (a pachamama passenger from the UK), to catch a bus to go white water rafting on the Upper Trawen river. It has class 3 and 4 rapids. It was the perfect day for the river, as it was overcast and raining pretty steadily. The volcano would have to wait for another day for the rest of the group. After getting kitted out in wetsuits, booties, shorts and helmets we carried the boats down to the river. Kathy and I were placed in a group of five, as there was an uneven number of people. This would have been fine except that it included an “injured” Chilean, who couldn´t paddle for shit, and a middle aged couple from mexico who paddled as if they were stirring tea with a spoon. I was pissed. Our six man vessel was essentially being maneuvered through very dangerous white water with Kathy, myself and the guide working very very hard. The mexican lady grew very afraid after only the first drop and essentially dropped her paddle, preferring to cower in the back of the boat mumbling to herself in fear. How could they have sold her this activity without explaining what it would be like, and the physical challenge it would present?? It was beyond me, and by the time she decided that her role was to re-shout the guides directions, and tell us to paddle stronger, I wanted to smack her in the mouth.

The next few drops were hair raising. Definitely the roughest water I´ve rafted through. Like being in the spin cycle of a washing machine. The Chilean man fell out, and I feared for his life. Luckily we managed to drag him back into the raft. At this point, I was a little fearful myself. This wasn´t safe. so when we had to navigate a portage a little down the river, I expressed my feelings to another guide and insisted that they put another strong person on our boat, which gratefully, they did. Most of us got the chance to jump about 20 feet into the river from a cliff after the portage. It was lots of fun…I yelled “Vive Chile“, shut my eyes, and jumped. What a rush.

The rest of the river was a little more tame, and I was reassured by having another set of strong arms helping us navigate. Great river though.

Now my arms and my legs were equally wrecked!

That afternoon, we recuperated and sat around the hostel whilst it poured and thundered outside. It felt very cozy and I remembered how much I missed thunderstorms. That evening, around 8pm, our group set out to the natural hot springs at Pozones, a set of 4 natural rock pools with varying temperatures from scolding to cool. We sat resting our aching muscles whilst sipping wine for a couple of chill hours. We sang songs. It was lovely.

We were supposed to head out the next day, but since the weather cleared up, Jorge decided to stay and let the group climb villarica. I was a little disappointed as I had already stayed in Pucon for five days, but I was happy when Jorge arranged for the 3 of us not climbing to go on another horseback ride. It was a beautiful ride through meadows overlooking the lakes and mountains around us. The horses were not as tame as the ones we´d been fortunate to ride in Pisco Elqui, these had quite a bit of spirit and needed a much more confident rider. My horse had an itchy tummy, and kept kicking himself in the stomach. He also hated being near the other horses and tried to kick any that came to close. He was also very eager to go fast, which all made for a very energetic riding experience. At the turnaround point, we dismounted and went on a short hike to an incredible cascading waterfall…it was as if I was in Hawaii, except a little cooler.

That evening we tentatively awaited the return of the pachamama family and they showed up looking worn out. 3 of them hadn´t made it to the top and there were some tears shed. we all piled on the bus, and I passed out donuts to everyone ( i knew how hungry they´d be and we had a 3 hour journey to Valdivia).

Getting to Valdivia around 9pm, only the hardy and strong showered and came back out for an epic meal at the Kunstmann brewery with fantastic German Fare. We ordered legs of pork, sausages, steaks, and a 2 1-2 litre jug of lager served in an epically tall glass complete with pour spout. Well fed, we all slept very well.

Which brings me to my rather uneventful day yesterday. I was sad as I knew i´d be leaving the group, but especially Jorge, whom I had grown to think of as a dear friend. In the morning we walked around the fish market and took pictures of the enormously fat sea lions that live off of the scraps the local fishermen throw out to them every day. Then we had a 2 1-2 hour drive to Puerto Montt, where I´d be catching my flight to Punta Arenas. We ate an amazing local lunch of Grilled Salmon, smothered with tomatoes, sausage, and melted cheese, then spent a little while walking around the handicraft market. I bought an angora sweater for $15!! After shedding some tears at my farewell, I jumped in a cab and headed to the airport.

I was pleasantly surprised by both airports in Puerto Montt and Punta Arenas. I was expecting bus shelter type buildings and was very impressed at how modern and efficiently designed they both were. I had an incredibly smooth flight and landed on time a few hours later. I went straight to the information desk and asked when the next bus was for Puerto Natales? The woman at the counter (whom I later found out was completely useless and stupid) told me that there was a bus in 15 minutes, but that it doesn´t come to the airport unless you have specifically requested that well in advance. She told me to take the bus going into the city first, and then there would be a bus at 8pm. I was already tired, so a little miffed, I loaded my bags on the bus and took my seat. Then I thought to myself, wait a minute!! With all those people on that flight…surely someone had made a reservation on the 18.30 bus! Following my gut instinct, I leaped off, grabbed my bags and ran to the public telephones to call the bus company. The phones didn´t work. The stupid woman was gone. I ran to the car rental counter and asked very sweetly if I could borrow their phone to ask if the 18:30 bus to Natales was coming by the airport…The gentleman was very kind and offered to call and ask them himself. Sure enough, I was correct and it was already en route to the airport, and I could buy my ticket on board! He showed me where to wait…and the bus arrived 10 minutes later!! The only issue was that with all my shit with me, I couldn´t easily go to the bathroom first (I ended up using the bus toilet, but it is a very traumatic experience as the toilet seat is on a lever system, and smacks you in the butt when you stand up after wiping yourself) and all of the airport shops were closed, so I couldn´t get a snack before the 3 hour bus ride. Nevertheless, I was very happy to be arriving around 21:30 instead of around midnight.

On arrival, I slogged my bags across town and checked into the erratic rock hostel, immediately surrounded again with like minded travellers from the US (it is a us run hostel), England and other parts of Europe. After crashing my bags down on my bed, I went downstairs, got a restaurant recommendation, asked everyone in the common area if anyone was up for some food, and joined by my brand new Irish companion, headed off for a late supper. I had the most exquisite asparagus soup and chicken stuffed avocados. Yum! Clo was a really spitfire too, and we shared some great stories of our adventures thus far.

Coming “home” (that´s what this place feels like), I changed into Pj´s and stayed up to watch “Collateral” with my hostel buddies, and the hostel Kittie all happily spread out and purring on my chest. Ahhhhhh….a good end to a travel day.

Today I am essentially getting ready for my backpacking trip: getting gear ready, supplies, bus tickets, finding a hiking partner, writing emails (this one!) etc etc. I hope you´ve enjoyed reading as much I have enjoyed writing…and I look forward to updating you upon my return from one of the greatest hikes in Patagonia!

Signing off from Southernmost place on earth I´ve ever been.

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