Trekking Torres del Paine National Park

For the past week we’ve been off the grid, exploring one of the world’s most incredible wildernesses. Torres del Paine National Park is the pride of Patagonian Chile and attracts tourists and hikers from around the world. We spent 7 days in and around the park, tackling the famous W trek, as well as a few other choice spots in the area.

We stayed at the highly rated EcoCamp Patagonia in a standard dome. While we upgraded on the first night to a suite dome with a private bath, we were unable to reserve the more luxurious accommodations for the entire stay. Thus, the standard dome and the shared bath wasn’t the most spacious and swanky lodging we’ve ever had, but it was a lot better than a tent!


From our dome window we could see the Torres, the highlight of the park, and the stars, sunrises, and sunsets were amazing. We were not overwhelmed with the EcoCamp service but the surroundings made up for the lack of attention to detail at the facility.

On the seven hour drive from Punta Arenas to EcoCamp we stopped at the Cueva de Milodón, The large wave-like grotto was home to the prehistoric mylodon, a giant ground sloth that has been extinct since humans arrived in the area. His (her?) bones and manure were found at the site and have been carbon dated at roughly 10,400 years BC. The mylodon was basically an early Big Foot. And, the cave provides a nice opportunity to stretch during the long trip to Torres del Paine.

The primary reason for visiting Torres del Paine is to attempt the Classic W trek. This is a four day hike on the park’s most famous trails. Our group of 10 hikers and two guides set off on Tuesday morning to a clear blue sky. On this day we hiked from EcoCamp to the Cuernos Refugio, which was about an 8 mile stroll along the beautiful glacial Lake Nordenskjold. The refugios in the park consist of primarily bunk houses with very mediocre food. At the first night’s refugio we were happy to learn that EcoCamp was able to reserve us a cabana, which was a little A-frame cabin for two. The privacy was a nice surprise, even though we had to walk outside a few steps to the shared bathroom.

1.1486420735.a-little-windy-on-the-trailDay two of the trek is to the French Valley. The 16 mile hike is one of the harder paths in the park. It was a 10 hour day but the views were totally worth it. Steve went to the furthest lookout, while Marnie turned around after the first lookout, saving about 3 hours and 3 miles of uphill walking/climbing. Still, it was a long day for everyone. We finished this portion of the hike at the Paine Grande Refugio, which is perched on the banks of Lago Pehoe. Here we shared a room in a bunk house with four fellow hikers. Since we’d all been hiking together for several days, we were all friends by this point and enjoyed the experience, which of course included a nice bottle of Chilean wine.

By the third day, after two nights of refugio living, shared bathrooms, and pretty crappy food, we were ready to return to EcoCamp’s luxuries. Before that, however, we completed another 7 mile hike, ending at the Gray Glacier. The views of the glacier were spectacular and once we reached the end of the trail, we boarded a boat which took us close to the glacier wall to see the sparkling blue ice in detail. 1.1486420735.lago-grey-trailThere was even a large floating piece of ice that had broken off the glacier three months before. The iceberg had formed an arch and was a spectacular site. After the cruise we returned to EcoCamp for a tasty meal accompanied by good Chilean wine. The Carmenere is now one of our favorites.

The fourth day of the trek completes the W, which is the shape the trails forms on the map. We awoke to a rainy and foggy morning. The signature hike to the Torres, or towers of granite, is another 14 miles path, pretty much straight up. After three days of hiking, Marnie took a break on this day, and Steve tackled the challenge without problem.

We finished our time with the group of 10 with an easy hike on the Fauna trail, which is about 6 miles through the habitat of the guanaco. Guanacos are a cousin to the llama and are prolific in and around Patagonia. We were able to get very close to these exotic creatures, along with their babies. Here guanacos live in large herds of females and chulangos (babies), with the males fighting for the right to the herd. We saw some of the competition between males and even saw guanacos breeding. Babies are born between November and February, so we saw lots of little ones. Amidst the guanacos you’ll also find rheas, which are like ostriches, only smaller. This place is truly incredible.

To top it all off, we spent our last day in Torres del Paine tracking the elusive Baguales. Baguales are Chile’s version of the mustang, and there is a herd of 100 of these wild horses living in a remote area of Torres del Paine. We joined six other travelers for a full day of learning about the horses, hiking off trail to find them, and finally watching them graze, play, fight, and breed from a distant hilltop. These aren’t just any old horses. The herd has some unique behaviors that scientists are now trying to study. First of all, the stallions co-exist in the herd, which is very unusual. We were led by Victor, who is a veterinarian by training and has a passion for studying and preserving these beautiful animals. We learned about his research and his ambitious plans to protect and preserve these beautiful creatures. Our day finished up at Lago Azul (the blue lagoon) with a traditional Chilean barbecue of beef, lamb, chicken, and chorizo served with great Chilean wine and homemade ice cream. It was the perfect way to end our exploration of this incredible place.

We’ve now traveled by bus from EcoCamp to the Argentine town of El Calafate where we’ll spend the next week exploring the region’s glaciers and trails. More to come on that in the next blog post.

Thanks for following along!

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Exploring Viña, Valparaiso, and Punta Arenas

We’ve just completed our second week of Spanish immersion in Viña del Mar and have made our way south to Punta Arenas to begin our exploration of Patagonia. It’s hard to believe the first phase of our trip is already complete.

During our second week in the beach resort community of Viña del Mar we explored the surrounding area and its beaches. One day we took the bus to the large port city of Valparaiso, which is less than 30 minutes south of Viña. Valparaiso saw its heyday in the late 19th century when it served as a major stopover for ships traveling between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. The opening of the Panama Canal meant considerable decline for Valparaiso and it has only recovered a little. You could see in the design of the buildings that it was once a rich vibrant city. Now it’s pretty run down, dirty, and unpleasant.

Valparaiso has been staging a comeback (at least that’s what they say) and has attracted incredible artists who have created unbelievable murals throughout the streets of the hillside town. We spent most of our time here wandering the cobbled hillside lanes looking at the artwork on the city walls. The photos will give you some idea of what we saw. We also took a little cruise in the harbor to get an up close look at the Chilean military ships and shipping traffic.

Just north of Viña are the popular beaches of Reñaca and Con Con. One day we joined the thousands of tourists on the beach by renting lounge chairs and an umbrella. It was a relaxing way to spend a warm afternoon.

During our second week in Viña del Mar we continued to attend language classes in the morning. ECELA, the school we’ve been attending draws a mix of students from around the world. In our classes we joined students from Germany, Switzerland, Australia, Brasil, etc. and learned about their lives and customs while practicing Spanish, our common language. Most afternoons we relaxed, studied, and took walks through the beautiful neighborhoods of Viña del Mar.

One highlight of our time here was spending time talking with our Chilean family. Cristina, her cousin Eduardo, Eduardo’s wife Alexandra, daughter Constanza, and renting student Fernando seemed to enjoy our company, as we spent many hours around the table talking about “stuff.” Our conversations, all in Spanish, ranged from music to politics and from families to travel. Almost every night we spent an hour or two enjoying “once” which is a meal in Chile, sort of like tea time right before bed. Instead, we usually had a glass of wine. While attending classes is a great way to learn a language, nothing beats the casual conversation you get while living with family. We’ll miss them!

Yesterday we travelled by plane from Santiago to Punta Arenas, a four hour flight south. We are here for just one full day. Punta Arenas is the gateway to Patagonia, so it’s kind of a mandatory stop. While here we’ve explored the duty free shopping area, the massive cemetery, and the streets of the city.

Tomorrow we’ll head to Torres del Paine National Park to begin our stay at EcoCamp Patagonia. Here we will explore the “W” trek, a classic hike around this beautiful region. Stay tuned for lots of pictures when we get back online in a week or so.

We love your comments, so please keep them coming.

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!Estamos aprendiendo español!

In English, the title of this blog is “We are learning Spanish!”

We’re on the road again! After a busy and full week in the beautiful Chilean city of Viña del Mar, we have a little time to post a blog. Let’s get up to speed…

We had just about one month at home to celebrate the holidays, catch up on business, and repack for the next trip. On Saturday, January 14th, Steve’s parents once again chauffeured us to the airport from Prescott. (Thanks Judy and Larry!) It was the start of a long journey through Dallas and Santiago, Chile to the coastal resort town of Viña del Mar. We are here for two weeks to brush up on our Spanish and to enjoy the sun and sand before heading south.

Our home base is the home of Maria Cristina, a wonderful Chilean woman who offers homestay opportunities to students of the language school we are attending. Cristina has a small three-bedroom apartment just a block from the beach, and she rents all three rooms to short- and long-term students. She sleeps on the couch! We were assigned to Cristina through school, and while the accommodations are basic, we feel lucky to have landed in a such warm and welcoming home. Cristina cooks at least two meals a day for us, and we now have a routine of ending the day together with a glass of Chilean wine. She and the others who live here (one other student who is Chilean and Cristina’s cousin and family) speak only Spanish, so it’s kind of an all or nothing thing. If you need something you have to figure out how to say it in Spanish.

During the week we attend ECELA, a Spanish language school which is just a 10 minute walk down the beach. 1.1484925236.our-school---ecelaFor four hours every morning we do two hours of grammar and two hours of conversation in groups with others from all over the world. Sometimes frustrating, always fun, immersion is the best way to learn a foreign language. Plus, there are some very interesting people you meet along the way. We’ve done programs like this twice before (in Cuernavaca, Mexico and in Quepos, Costa Rica) and each experience is unique. Here in Chile they use certain words that aren’t used in other countries, so we are continually challenged.

Each day after school there has been a unique activity, either offered by the school or with Cristina. On Monday we attended a class in making sopaipillas, a traditional Chilean snack. On Wednesday we went with other students to the Varamonte vineyard in the Casa Blanca Valley to learn about (and taste) Chilean wine. 1.1484925236.veramonte-winery-casa-blanca-valley-chileSince the tour was conducted in Spanish, we were happy to have a little knowledge about wine-making from our previous travels. Otherwise, we never would have understood our guide. We probably got about 85% of what he said. Oh, and the wine was great!

One evening this week we went with Cristina and her friend Marcela to the Reñaca area of Viña to see a concert of tango music. On another day, Marcela drove us about 30 minutes inland to the country home of her friend. The “campo” had a beautiful swimming pool, gardens, and fruit trees. We spent the day enjoying property, practicing our Spanish, and picking and eating the most delicious plums we’ve ever tasted.

The week concluded with one more morning of classes, followed by lunch at home accompanied by the inauguration of Donald Trump. We’re amazed that our Chilean family seems to know as much, if not more, about American politics than we do. Everyone was glued to the television during the telecast, knowing all the faces and names of our country’s leaders. They know John McCain, Paul Ryan, Rick Perry…all of them. We are willing to bet the Chileans (at least the ones we are with) know more about what’s happening in Washington than many Americans do!

Viña del Mar is the most popular beach getaway in Chile. 1.1484925236.on-the-pier-in-vi-aWe’re in the middle of the summer season, and with heatwave we are having, the town and beach is expected to be packed with visitors this weekend. It’s kind of how Arizonans flock to San Diego in July. We’ll probably spend some time on the beach to soak it all in before we head south to colder climes next weekend. We hear it’s currently snowing in Prescott, so we’re happy to be at the beach!

Exploring new places is one of our favorite things to do. We hope you enjoy the photos from our week in and around Viña del Mar.

Enjoy the pictures and stay tuned as we’ll post more next week. Thanks for following along!


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