…And the journey continues.
With the Perito Moreno Glacier down, and a day spent schlepping around the grasslands in a 4X4, many excursions still lied ahead for me during my Patagonian journey. I found that El Calafate is a good launching point for other anticipated day/weekend trips, like the Torres del Paine National Park in Chile or the trekking capital of El Chaltén, among others.
I called it an early night on the day I explored the plains, due to the insufferable wake-up time the following day—unbearable even for an early riser like myself. I took a double-dose of melatonin (Which my sister scolded me for) popped in my earplugs, closed the curtains, and forced myself to go to sleep at 8pm—a wise decision given my 4:30am wake-up time the following day. Why on earth was I putting myself through this?
Because I was headed to Chile at the crack of dawn.
I’m such a boluda because I completely forgot that the Parque Nacional Torres del Paine was in Chile, a 4-hour skip-and-a-hop away. Fortunately, the desk worker at my hostel casually mentioned that I can’t forget my passport because I’d be crossing the border. It was then I realized I’d be leaving the country.
I logged on to the migrations webpage and reprinted my tasa de reciprocidad (reciprocity fee) because I would need it upon re-entering the country. Had I not thought to do this, I would have had to pay a $160 USD fee, which would have been no fun for me and Mr. Wallet.
In a nutshell: Bring your passport and a copy of the reciprocity fee if you decide to go to Torres del Paine.
Now that that’s settled, let’s go through what happened.
So after peeling myself out from under my warm bedsheets after a mini freak-out about what time it was, I got ready and hobbled my way to the hostel lobby where I awaited the shuttle bus. The driver was only 10 minutes late for the 5:30am pick-up, a record here. I was glad I didn’t sleep in! We picked up a few more passengers and then drove down the hazy Ruta 40 during the dawn hours. The bus drivers (there were 2) chit-chatted while sipping on mate to help them get their day off to a good start. I reclined in my seat and appreciated the Patagonian sunrise over the endless, undulating steppes.
When there was finally enough sunlight to see my own nose, I worked a little bit on my homework, taking breaks here and there to take in my surroundings. Before I knew it, we were at the border. The bus driver directed us all to get off the bus and register with border control in a tiny cabin in the middle of nowhere. Not sketchy at all (actually, it was legit—it just doesn’t sound it.). The groggy officer stamped our passports and we signed something and we were back on our way. Only 10 minutes later and we were at Chile’s border control, which took a tiny bit longer. Chile is very strict about cross-pollination, so don’t bring fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses, honey, leaves, or seeds with you. It felt a lot like an airport—I filled out a claim form, passed my backpack through a scanner and got my passport stamped once again.
Finally, we had arrived. I was a little worried about the whole currency exchange, but no worries because there is a currency exchange spot right across the border, literally right next door to the border control center. This place doubles as a café and souvenir shop, or if you’re me, a free public bathroom (when in doubt, go!). They’ll exchange from USD and from Argentine pesos, and I had the latter. I received my Chilean pesos and scratched my head at the highly-inflated prices around me. Everything down to a stick of gum was in the thousand price range, and the exchange rate was well…foreign to me (pun always intended.). The multihued Chilean pesos felt kinda cool though—the material is “plasticky” and the bills I had felt sturdy. There was an interesting holographic section on them too.
Enough about the money—let’s get into the landscapes. At the currency exchange place we met our guide, who was the most enthusiastic and passionate guide I’ve ever met. Seriously—this guy literally had the Cuernos del Paine (you’ll see these soon) tattooed on his arm. I admire that he’s found his life’s passion! He was delighted to hear that I spoke Spanish, because now he didn’t have to give the tour in two languages. We piled into another tour van and started on the circuit throughout the park. On the way, I saw tons of guanacos, a relative to the llama, majestically grazing. Since they are extremely used to people being within one-llama’s-length between them, they thought nothing of our van approaching them, full of eager tourists extending their cameras for an Instagram-worthy shot.
I couldn’t not take a picture.
We stopped for a picture overlooking the miraculously reflective Lago del cisne.
Continuing on and fawning over the guanacos everywhere, we admired at the beautiful landscapes surrounding us. After about 30 minutes, we stopped at a look-out point that required a quick, 20-minute hike up the hill. On the way, we walked through the solemn field of dried-up beech trees. I was face-to-face with the forest fire aftermath of four years ago, caused by campers trying to start a campfire.
I felt specifically proud of my oddly-keen tree identification skills when the guide stated the Latin name for the trees and I was able to correlate it to the English name. Shout out to my 10th and 12th grade bio teachers, if you’re reading. You’re the real MVP’s.
We kept scaling the hill and the view waiting at the top was more than worth the huffing and puffing it took to get there. I found myself literally surrounded by spectacular wonders and it was here, we got up close and personal with the Cuernos del Paine, cuernos being Spanish for “horns”.
The unique color formation is due to the lighter portion being granite and the darker part being sedimentary rock—at one time the darker layer was covered by more of the lighter, granite layer. After a while, the granite eroded away, leaving the dark sedimentary layer exposed. This layer is more resistant to erosion which is why it has stood the test of time and still remains.
Peppered about the park are the strikingly-red or orange neneo bushes (neneo mulinum spinosum), which dramatically contrast against the milky-green lakes and charcoal mountains behind. The red bushes are the machos, or males, and the orange ones are hembras, females.
It was this view that gazed me to stand in amazement, mouth agape, blinking hard to remind myself of this reality. Much like the Perito Moreno Glacier, this view kept getting more beautiful and inspiring by the second. It is quite literally SO incredible, that you cannot believe you are physically standing there enjoying its splendor. Crystal, reflective lakes overlooked by circulating birds and towering mountain ranges, along with native wildlife and diverse geographical formations surround you as you just stand there as your pathetic human self and feel insignificant.
As lovely as pictures can portray it, nothing compares to actually being there. Really. I couldn’t stop myself from mouthing the words, “wow” and “oh my god”, over and over.
On the way back to the van, we took the fork in the path and went another route in order to see the salto grande. The trickling streams transitioned into gushing rivers which evolved into a cascading waterfall emptying into the lake below.
Despite the glaring “peligro” sign, our experienced guide flippantly scoffed and waltzed right on through into the danger zone to snap some pictures. I love this guy.
Before we knew it, it was time for some lunch. Before we left, our guide introduced us to his armadillo friend.
I think his name was Bernardo, or something.
We went to this cute freaking adorable red lodge smack-dab in the middle of a lake for some grub, and we traversed a long rickety bridge to get there. I fell in love with our guide even more because he got us a 25% discount, since he knows people and stuff.
Good-bye, Chilean pesos…I barely knew thee.
The majority of our sightseeing was in the morning, because after lunch we only went to one more lookout before making the trip back to Argentina.
I would love to come back to Torres del Paine for a hiking/camping trip one day, especially given the cumbersome cloud cover we had all day. The five-day W-Trail was beckoning me to discover its trails, as well as the countless other pathways and camping spots. Someday, I’ll return to “aprovechar” the rest, and at my own pace!