CHILLING OUT IN CHILE
My phobia of long flights that leave me craving for fresh air and clean loos had started giving me sleepless nights in Aug-Sep this year, more than a month before the date on which I was booked to fly to Chile, literally to the end of the world. I had checked the images of my destination on Google on many occasions and had tried to build some excitement for myself, but the very thought of a 16 hour flight from Paris to San Tiago gave me goose bumps and never let me look forward to the journey, which they say is always more enjoyable than the destination.
Working in the travel business has its own pluses and a trip to PUERTO VARAS to attend the annual ADVENTURE TRAVEL WORLD SUMMIT was for me one of them. The summit sees participation of adventure-lovers from around the world, not as much for the Summit, as for one of the many PSAs (Pre Summit Adventures) that range from Kayaking or Trekking to Cycling, Mountaineering, Canoeing, Wildlife Safaris and a score of others. All the delegates choose an activity, travel in small groups for a couple of days and then end up at the venue for a 5 day Summit. What a great format to first network while you are on a tour, make friends with like-minded travelers and then discuss opportunities and issues pertaining to the world of adventure travel over informal, yet educating and interesting seminars and workshops.
PUNTA ARENAS to PUERTO NATALES
The “Adventure” I chose was to trek through the spectacular TORRES DEL PAINE NATIONAL PARK hence I took an internal flight from San Tiago to PUNTA ARENAS, from where we drove for more than 4 hours to a woody cottage-styled, centrally heated, sea-facing hotel in a very cold and sleepy PUERTO NATALES- the gateway to beautiful Paine park in Patagonia region. The drive seemed to take us away from the civilization as we didn’t spot any other vehicle for hours. Moreover, with a population of just 15500, the picture book town didn’t offer any views due to a late arrival. I had heard that the place greets visitors with black necked swans and seagulls, but they didn’t stay up for us on this particular day.
PUERTO NATALES – (KAYAKING GLACIER GRAY)- GREY SHELTER (11 km)
The alarm on the phone woke me up from a well-deserved deep slumber that was too short lived. Nevertheless, I came to the room window and found myself reaching for my camera the very next moment. To wake up to a view like this was a bliss.
A quick breakfast, sorting the luggage that meant leaving everything behind except a light rucksack and a 3-hour drive brought us to the most stunning scenery I had ever witnessed. This was just a photo stop but a trailer to what was in store for us. The peaks were opening up right in front of us as if extending their arms to embrace us and subtly saying welcome to my world.
We had still an hour to drive on. Finally, we came at the edge of LAKE GREY, where vast plains greeted us with the first sight of small floating icebergs. The flat land was bigger than a few football grounds put together.
We walked for a few minutes in the windiest conditions and reached our catamaran that had been awaiting our arrival under bright sun but weathering an extremely cold breeze. We hopped in and for next twenty minutes or so, saw stunning mountains from up close.
After zodiac landing, we walked to VERTICE GREY SHELTER, a cosy lodge (referred to as Shelter in Patagonia region), that served as a base for many treks and trails in the neighboring mountains. The lodge/ shelter is located on the circuit of extremely popular “W” trek in Torres Del Paine National Park.
A quick lunch and we headed back to the shores of Lago Grey to get ready for the adventure that was in store forus. At Logo Grey, we got equipped with wet suits, paddling jackets, life jackets, gloves and kayak skirts for a wonderful adventure that comprised of paddling on the east side of the lake to enter a protect bay with lots of icebergs.
The moment our canoes were released in freezing cold water, the heart skipped a beat. The first 10 minutes were spent along the shore to ensure that both the partners could row the boat in tandem. the guide stayed close by in his canoe and circled every member’s canoe unless everyone was confident to sail away. The ride was easy and contrary to the fear that i was harboring. Fifteen minutes in the canoe and both of us were sailing ahead manoeuvring the zig zag turns through floating tiny glaciers comfortably. This was as close as one could get to a huge glacier that stood like a wall right in the front.
After flirting with glaciers for as long as the sunlight allowed, we headed back to the lodge having had an awesome and eventful day.
GREY SEHLTER – (ICE HIKE GREY GLACIER) – PAINE GRANDE SHELTER (7.6km)
This day was the highlight of the entire tour as it posed amazing challenges in some picture perfect setting depicting nature at its best.
We headed again to the lago grey. En route a fox was spotted by a few fellow walkers. While everyone else continued to walk, i waited for a better view. The very next minute it appeared out of the bush, paused for a picture and starting following me. And before i could gather my wits, i saw the fellow running behind me. While the locals there must be used to these gimmicks, the Indian in me was not amused. i tried to run faster to be able to catch up with the others but they were not in sight. Finally I saw a travel-journalist who at first would not believe me. Then both of us waited for a while and once her doubts were confirmed, we started running together, trying to increase the gap between us and our chaser. In all the confusion, she dropped one of her hand-gloves but it was too risky to go back a few steps and pick it up. We paused again to see how the curious fox picked up the glove and disappeared into the bush. We heaved a sigh of relief after connecting with other group members though it did cost us a glove.
The first half of the day involved traversing the mighty grey glacier and the adventure started when we reached northeast coast of Lago Gray. After some briefing by expert guides on dos and don’ts, handling of ice equipment and the route, we went in a zodiac boat for 15 minutes until we reached the west side of the Grey Glacier. After walking for an hour in icy cold conditions on a rocky terrain that involved some ascent, we finally reached the glacier. There was more safety briefing here before we began our exploration of the Grey Glacier which lasted approximately 3 hours.
We observed cracks, rivers, lagoons and tunnels with their different tones of blue.
These 3 hours spent on ice were the stuff that dreams are made of. Later we returned to the zodiac boat for a ride back to the base camp.
A short walk to the hotel, lunch, and we were off for a 4-hour afternoon trek to PAINE GRAND SHELTER, our base for next two nights. The lago gray accompanied us for most of the time offering amazing views throughout. This was a long but flat picturesque walk, which offered such a magnificent contrast of lake’s blue and mountain’s brown with patches of snow that words cannot describe. World’s second largest bird CONDORS flew up in the sky but quite far from a clickable distance though one TIUQUE (Chimango Caracara) seemed excited and followed the walkers for quite some distance. She hopped from one tree to another and posed for pictures, quite undisturbed by us.
We arrived at PAINE GRANDE SHELTER off the side of Cerro Paine Grande. This too is part of the W cicruit and serves as an ultimate base camp to explore Torres Del Paine.
The access to this site is only through hiking trail, that we walked or through the lake. in the evening, after a relatively long walk. The legs were giving up having walked on ice for couple of hours in the morning, followed by long walk from our first shelter to this one, where we arrived low on energy but high on spirits. Living up to the Chilean hospitality, once again we were welcome by Pisco Sour, the national drink that one gets addicted to for its smoothness and taste.
PAINE GRAND – (FRENCH VALLEY TREK)- PAINE GRAND (5.5)
Still hangoverish with once-in-a-lifetime experience of the previous day, we left early for a full day trek to Italian Camp in the beautiful French Valley.
An extremely tough and uphill hike kept us going for the views it accorded, especially of the Monte Paine hanging Glacier, with its constant melting glacier forms waterfalls that feed the French river. Another 2.5 hours from here brings one to the British Camp, which we avoided.
At the turning point we stared the Monte Paine as it had small avalanches running down its face every few minutes. This was a parade of avalanches right in front of us. The stop also was good to spot some native birds.
We returned to Vertice Paine Grande Shelter for the night. The trip was more or less over. Following day we knew that we would have to return to where we started and will eventually get busy with the summit- a reason that had brought this fantastic group together.
Once back in the restaurant for the customary Pisco Sour, the big windows offered uninterrupted views of Lake Pehoe on one side and towering peaks on the other. As soon as we had settled down and discussed our long day that left everyone in awe, I spotted a bright red speck on a bush outside in the vast open field. I picked up my camera and tiptoed towards it as it grew bigger and bigger, eventually turning out to be a birder’s delight. This, i was told by our guide Sandra, was a LOICA (long tailed Meadowlark), incidentally a very pretty bird.
This was a bonus for me. The day had ended with sweet pain in the muscles, a guaranteed deep sleep, a big smile on my face and an after-taste of Pisco Sour in the mouth.
PAINE GRAND – (PEHOE LAKE ON CATAMARAN)- PUNTA ARENAS
Finally we had a relaxed breakfast as the day did not have any adventure activity planned and all we had to do was return to PUNTO ARENAS to catch a flight to PUERTO VARAS. When we spotted our catamaran at the lake side, we picked up our backpacks and boarded it for a 30 –minute picturesque ride in broad daylight to Patagonia Planet Reception, where our coach was waiting to drive us for next five hours to the airport.
We paused in small PUERTO NATALES town for a bit and walked around for 10 minutes.
Once we reached the airport in PUNTA ARENAS and boarded the flight, the fun and jokes continued. We guys had spent a lot of quality time together and created memories for a lifetime. While we felt sad for the tour had come to an end, we were also excited about the SUMMIT which had more than 800 delegates arriving from all over the world. The airport in Puerto Varas offered a traditional warm welcome and soon we all boarded our shuttles to our respective hotels, only to meet the following day for some serious business.
Check the complete image album of this awesome trip-
31 Oct’ 2015