Thursday, January 14, 2010

Hold Onto Your Babies and Old People….

Goes the warning on the map of Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia. Seriously, the maps provided by the friendly CONAF park staff have a picture of this guy blowing wind on hikers. And warns all those who dare tread by that they better hold onto their babies and old people so that they aren’t swept off the trail into the Rio Frances below. He was blowing really strong on our way out-so strong we (ahem, with full packs) passed several disgruntled day hikers. But I digress…

After last year’s taste of northern Patagonia for our luna de miel (honeymoon), we were already planning a trip back for this summer. One of my favorite tricks in South America is that if you buy plane tickets within a country, you can get them really cheap. So on a quick weekend ski trip to Chile in September with Jackie and the Jackass, we sealed the deal and bought RT Santiago-Punta Arenas tix. Punta Arenas lays on the Estrechos de Magellanes and is full of hotels and bars where Admiral Byrd used to get wasted planning the rescue of his stranded men nearly a century ago.

The trip started off with Matt going to the bathroom and coming out to find out I had gotten us upgrades to first class. Even though the flight from Lima to Santiago is a mere three hours, it was a delooshus three hours in flat beds with down comforters. A loooong layover in Santiago full of the equivalent of Chilean Fat Tire (named Kuntsman….which Chileans pronounce kooontsman), and hours at the mall (seriously, malls in Chile are really nice), we were on the red-eye to the southern end of the skinny country.

Punta Arenas is bursting with hospedajes, which are just people’s homes in which you can stay. Since we arrived at 6am, we couldn’t catch any shut eye yet, so drunk with jet lag, we wandered around the city looking for something to eat. You cannot believe how hard it is to find something before 9am in the morning there. We eventually found the local hotspot-no name on the wall, and five things on the menu: café chico, café grande, sandwich de queso, sandwich de chori-queso (cased meats and cheese), and platano con leche. Just what crabby Kate needed after no sleep and a morning on the Straits of Magellan.

Naps later we made our way to a great bar. Huge beers and the sun still shining at 9pm. Not bad.

The next day we were off to Puerto Natales, which is the jumping off point for the park. Matt had booked us a room at the self-described “couples’ hostel”; I was expected heart-shaped toilets at the very least, but nothing out of the ordinary except no rooms with bunk beds. Puerto Natales is really cute; brightly colored houses made of tin walls dot the small cove jutting out into the sound and the city is ringed by snow-capped mountains and glaciers….heaven. And has literally the best pizza I have ever had in South America. We ate there three times; almost twice in one day. Tons of wagwags (large packs of dogs-but I can’t remember if that is a true definition or somebody’s killer Balderdash definition…) and I almost slipped at least two dogs into my pack to bring back. For as touristy as the area is, translation services could be improved. When I tire of my international development career, I am going to move there and make sure no menu ever again offers “poo of beef” as a dish.

One of the hostels/guide shops has an information session every day on the logistics of the park. You’d be surprised at how little information there is—even on the world wide web—about getting in, around, and out of the park. It was moderately useful, although we cut out early after a Canuck whinily asked if she would get cold at night.

Five days of hiking in beautiful country was just what I needed after a long crazy year. Highlights and lowlights:

• Liking thousand year old ice from Glacier Grey; wanted to make a cocktail but didn’t have the foresight to pack booze.
• Drinking warm overprized beer overlooking the Glacier
• Applying sunscreen at 9pm
• Catching guanacos in the act….reminded me of being in Madagascar ten years earlier-literally as we set out for any trip we saw some animal doing it zebu/lemur/cock-roach style; it’s quite hilarious to hear the cacophony of hoots in different languages when all the tourists on the bus realized what was going on
• Picking up four ready-to-eat, freshly killed corderos on the way back for the bus driver’s Christmas dinner
• Not seeing people for hours at a time
• Hearing Dan’s music in the mall in Punta Arenas; always amazes me where he turns up…hiking down Kilimanjaro, driving to work in Cochabamba, and aimlessly wandering around the mall in Chile
• No car alarms, house alarms, horns, or D’Onofrio ice cream man whistles
• Two-hour Christmas day run –look out Santiago maraton!
• Chupe de centolla: Literally “suck of crab” but in reality, the most amazing dish ever. Like Lucas’s macaroni and cheese with huge chunks of just-killed giant crab.
• Don Lujo would surely say the cordero; he tried the classic Patagonian lamb so many different ways I lost count
• $3 wine that doesn’t give you a headache or the shits
• Chile’s answer to the applepomecrantini-the calafate sour; oh-my-god. Sorry, Peruvians, but Chileans win here. Both Peruvians and Chileans (and a few Bolivians) claim that their country invented the pisco sour (and the potato and the diablada dance) and it is a constant source of good-natured discussion among the neighbors. But my vote goes to Chile for the mostamazingpiscovaration ever…with the added benefit that legend has it if you eat the calafate berry (or drink a liquid version..) you will surely return to Patagonia.

• One of two of my pairs of pants ripping literally up the ass as I bent over on the first day. Too much crab and helado, I think
• A surprise from a French tourist trying to crawl into our tent in the middle of the night
• Matt breaking the camera…good thing Keith had another one
• Missing the madness that usually is Christmas at my house….but will surely be re-enacted over New Year’s in Colorado
• Not getting to try beaver pizza; seriously pizza de castor was on a menu in Punta Arenas.
• Literally getting blown over by the guy on the map one day
Matt being the better facebooker than I am will surely have posted pictures there by the time I write this, so check ‘em out!

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