Welcome to Patagonia: Puerto Natales, Punta Arenas, and Ushuaia

Welcome to Patagonia

The cool blowing wind and small town were in stark contrast to Santiago. Backpack after backpack came down the miniature baggage carousel in the airport: no suitcases, no boxes, just backpacks. I had never seen anything like it and knew I was in the right place. Even with all the backpacks, mine stuck out: the metal cooking pot, tent, and more than moderate wear from months on the road gave it distinction. While in Santiago, I booked highly competitive campsites in the famed Torres Del Paine National Park for two weeks post-arrival in Puerto Natales. This was the first complete opening for the 4ish day W-trek. Compared to the summer high season, two weeks was a last minute booking. With a scheduled trek, I needed to figure out how to fill the time. Finding two weeks of activities wouldn’t be hard; as usual, getting back would be.

Backpacks loaded up, a shuttle brought a large group from the airport to the heart of the small town. Without a reservation, I searched on foot and found a hostel named Refugio Hoshken. The people at the hostel had a great vibe, and all the workers and guests were Spanish speakers. First things first, with an adventure around the corner, I needed supplies. Nutella, pasta, and some veggies later it was time to plan. Between backpacker blogs, notes from travelers on the road and speaking with people at the hostel, an outline was easy to form: for the next two weeks I would make it to the island of Tierra del Fuego, the city known as “the end of the world”: Ushuaia. It was time to leave city life and venture into the natural wonders of Patagonia.

After a night of drinks with people at the hostel, I made the decision to get out of Puerto Natales as fast as possible. That meant waking up early and finding a ride to Punta Arenas, the furthest city South in Chile and the hub of transportation to Tierra del Fuego. Finding a ride was going to be the real thing. In Spanish, hitchhiking is referred to as “usar un dedo,” or use a finger. Hitching is a more accepted practice of Patagonian culture than in the US, where hitching and serial killers are generally linked in conversation. However, hitchhiking had no guarantee of a ride or final destination. This certainly added an extra dimension to my adventure.

Of course, it was Sunday which meant less traffic, I missed my target leave time of 9:00AM and didn’t get out of the hostel until 12:45PM. Route 9 was the highway, actually the only major road, going North up to Calafate, Argentina and South East to Punta Arenas, Chile. After walking 30 minutes, I found a suitable spot on the road where all cars and trucks that were leaving town would have to pass. Jumpy and a bit bashful at first, I stuck out my thumb and watched the cars zoom past. Car after car, truck after truck, minute after minute, I quickly discovered that hitchhiking was more difficult than I imagined. Close to an hour on the side of the road, the toll of repeated rejection was building, and I began to lose hope. The clock hit 3:00PM. Late in the afternoon, my faith in getting a ride hit a low, and I prepared to head back to the hostel. While heaving up my pack, a downshifting engine sounded in the distance. A blue semi-trailer slowed and pulled over. Stepping up the cab of the truck, I struggled to pull my backpack in and slide it over my legs to a comfortable spot between the driver and me.

An odd interaction at first, the driver said he was going towards Punta Arenas and asked where I was headed. The Mack Truck was comfortable and it was music to my ears that we were headed the same direction. My initial small talk didn’t go far, and it seemed that we were going to share a three hour journey in silence. Excited with my first successful hitch, I couldn’t help but push harder on the conversation and found the key to opening him up: I asked who his friend sitting on the dashboard was. The friend I was referring to was a pink pig stuffed animal. Hugo had a heavy build, dark hair and was an ex-army infantryman who had been hauling piping all over South America for ten years. The rest of the ride was beautiful and entertaining as we drove through the flat endless Patagonian plains. My vision of Patagonia as only mountains was way off; however, it wasn’t quite Iowa. Hugo pointed out ponds with flamingos, enormous lakes that looked like oceans, and rainbows that started and ended on the bottom of the world. As we neared Punta Arenas, he shouted a word that I couldn’t quite make out and pointed to the water. The word he was yelling over the roar of the 18 wheeler was Magellan. We were passing the Strait of Magellan. Knocking the dust off of the high school history file in my brain, the realization of where I was brought goosebumps to my arms and a smile to my face.

Buildings began to appear, traffic picked up, and I could tell we were getting close to Punta Arenas. A larger city than Puerto Natales, Hugo pulled over about 7 miles outside of town at a truck stop. His final destination outside of town left me on the side of the road. A handshake and wish of safe travels weren’t the only things I left the truck with. A confidence and warmness towards the people of Patagonia was growing inside. The cool temperature in Puerto Natales was replaced by bitter cold emanating from the distant glacial topped mountains. Luckily, another car pulled over 5 minutes after Hugo dropped me. The driver excitedly asked where I was from and drove four miles into town before dropping me off. Three miles to go until Endless Sky Hostel, the cheapest and nicest hostel available, I began the walk. As usual, upon passing a pack of stray dogs, the group ran over and ran in circles barking for the next two and a half miles,

The Strait of Magellan, a heavy pack, cowboy hat, five raggedy dogs, and a destination of the “End of the World”. Life was surreal: I was living a movie.

The hostel, a converted cozy house, was very nice. Walking in, the man at reception laughed, and I caught the gaze of two women out of the corner of my eye. It turned out the two women were researchers from Spain and had spent the previous month aboard a Spanish military vessel on an Antarctica expedition. Talk about an adventure!  It was obvious who my company would be during my stay in Punta Arenas. We headed to the grocery, picked up a couple of bottles of wine for $3 a piece (the spoils of being in Chile), dinner, and spent the night heatedly discussing the environment, the man that fell overboard and died on their vessel near Antarctica (a story for a different time), Catalan’s bid for independence, US policy, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Not exactly light conversation.  We turned the hostel into an international forum when an Australian woman and couple from France joined the conversation. Just an average night 6,638 miles from Chicago.

Punta Arenas was a pleasant stop along the way, but the clock was ticking on reaching the real destination: Ushuaia. Herman, the hostel owner helped with the logistics of taking a multi-hour ferry to cross the channel to reach the Island of Tierra del Fuego. Unfortunately, being outside of busy season, the next ferry to the island town of Porvenir didn’t leave until the following morning (Tuesday) at 9:00AM. My friends from Spain had left, so I spent the day walking up to the high point behind the city, going to the central market for an incredible salmon lunch with wine, writing, and having dinner with the woman from Australia. These indulgences were savored knowing that the hiking and backcountry adventures to come would be based on survival, not comfort.

As always, I was too excited to sleep and was out of bed early. Today I would be ferrying across the Strait of Magellan and hopefully hitchhiking from the city of Porvenir to Ushuaia. The journey by bus was about 11-12 hours, but that wasn’t my adventure. I knew that if I was unable to hitchhike, I could always camp in the plains with the 50+ mile per hour winds (on a good day) and potential for rain.

The beautiful ferry ride included dolphins jumping around the massive ship when we approached the port. To my disappointment, the crew wouldn’t let me disembark until all cars and trucks were off of the ferry. This was going to be a huge disadvantage for finding a ride. People would be well on their way by the time I reached the single road to Ushuaia. Time went by slowly as I sat on the side of the road waiting. No cars passed and I cursed out the crew for not letting me get off. Near 12:30PM a pickup truck came into view. They pulled over and said they were going to the Argentine border: about a two hour drive. I happily threw my gear in the back, and we flew along a dirt road with magnificent views of golden grass plains contrasted against a cloudless blue sky, whales swimming in the channel, and a local animal named vacuno everywhere.

Another couple of hours and 140km closer, I was back out in the middle of nowhere walking to the border. The checkpoint was a welcome sight, but I was on my own with no ride. After receiving an entrance stamp to enter Argentina, a mental push was necessary to continue the journey into the nothingness of Tierra del Fuego. Wind and dust blew so hard that every step was a struggle.  Forty five minutes seemed like hours. Even if there was a sign of life, it wouldn’t be visible or audible. Was anyone going to pass by? Would they stop and have sympathy? There was so much road left to go. Battling doubting thoughts, the sound of savior came from behind: a light double honk. A woman and her mother driving an SUV shouted something inaudible and waved to get in. We spoke Spanish, but the woman had a boyfriend in San Diego and spoke fluent English. Her first comment was no surprise, “we don’t usually come across people from the US out here.” We drove through nothing for the next hour until reaching the women’s hometown: the last city before Ushuaia was named Rio Grande. The town was rather large, and they dropped me at the start of the city.

Hitchhiking near large cities and into cities is generally more difficult. Near 3:30PM, finding a suitable location and ride before dark were added onto the negative side of the probability equation for making it to Ushuaia. Not one to quit, I walked South about 1.5 hours through Rio Grande far enough out of the city to ensure all roads leading to the highway were merged. 5:00PM and the odds kept decreasing. The number of cars passing was minimal, but I kept walking. A small white hatchback flew past, but hit the brakes a quarter mile up. They pulled a U-turn heading straight back towards where I was standing. My first thought of “Oh shit” was quickly replaced by “what a nice guy” when a 27 year old yelled in Spanish, “Hey buddy! If you want to get to Ushuaia cross the road and let’s go!”

In our almost three hour drive, Nicholas and I shared a deep conversation about life. Even though we grew up on opposite sides of the planet, we were from the same world. An hour South of Rio Grande, the landscape changed dramatically. Butted against the ocean, enormous mountains, lakes, rivers, trees, and glaciers in the distance made up the Patagonia of my dreams. It was 8:00PM, I made it to La Posta Hostel in Ushuaia, Argentina. I was at the end of the world and the farthest South I would be traveling on my journey. It was time to get into nature.

Tierra del Fuego National Forest was located just west of town, and there was regular transportation. So I thought it would be relatively inexpensive to get there and spend a few nights camping. I was wrong, and the information on backpacking sites must not have been updated for the inflated Argentine Peso. Comparatively, Ushuaia was the most expensive place in South America I had been. The hostels, food, and the National Park were more than standard US prices. However, I was already inside the park 12 miles from town, and I knew I would regret not staying and hiking.

By 1:00PM the tent was pitched right off the shore of a river feeding from a beautiful emerald lake. With a hill to block the wind and no people nearby, it was the perfect spot for a busy park. There were all sorts of short trails in the beautiful area, but there was very little “adventure” due to the number of people and ease of all but one trail in the park. With everything set up, I walked to a trail that ran along Lake Acigami named Trail XXVI. The color of Lake Acigami juxtaposed against mountains covered in trees beginning their transition to Fall colors was a spectacle of beauty. At 2:30PM I reached a fork in the trail: one trail continued straight flat along the lake, and the other was supposedly the most difficult trail in the park to the top of Mt. Guanaco. Of course, the difficult trail which led to a 360 degree top down view of the entire area was my first choice, but a sign with large letters that said “do not attempt after 12:00PM” caught my attention. Being in such a remote and far place from my idea of normal civilization, I heeded the warning.

The remainder of the trail was anticlimactic, but nothing could take away from the ever present beauty. Sitting down for lunch at the end of the trail, a Spanish man named Sergio passed and we began talking. He complimented my Spanish, which is always nice to hear, and he was so much easier to understand than the Chileans and Argentinians I had been speaking with. The hike back with Sergio was much faster and it was nice to have some company. Moving into late evening I headed back to the tent and cooked dinner while watching the sunset. Everything was perfect.

Banging on top of my tent and orders being shouted in Spanish broke the silence of night at 2:00AM. I quickly unzipped the tent and a group of five police officers were standing outside with flashlights pointed directly at me. Confused, I asked what the problem was, and they yelled that my food bag I had hung in a tree had broken in the wind and I needed to clean it up. It was an extremely odd interaction, but I followed their directions. While picking up my things on the ground under the tree, I looked at the food bag and decided there was no way the bag broke. It looked like someone had slit it with a knife. In addition, all of my unopened food was missing; only the unopened things like salami and coffee. Now extremely uncomfortable with the officers I heard them speaking that I was the guy alone they had seen earlier. After letting them know that everything was cleaned up, it was relieving to see them leave.

Morning couldn’t come soon enough. Following the interaction with the officers the night before, I never went back to sleep and sat in my tent strategizing what to do if they came back. The good news was that it was a beautiful morning and I was in a magical place. Not wanting to have another interaction with the officers, I decided to pack up my things, take them with me on my hike, and move camping spots to another side of the park. Today, I would be climbing the Guanaco trail up to the top of Mt. Guanaco, and I would be doing it with a full pack. It would be great training for some of the big hikes to come. Up and up and up, the recommended five hour ascent began under full tree cover through beautiful forest. When the trees broke, there was a distinct view of Lake Acigami and the surrounding mountains that was breathtaking. I sat on a rock above it all, alone, and breathed it in.

The trail was easy to follow, but was all uphill. After the tree break and a flat muddy plateau, excitement took over up the final ascent. The deep blue of the Beagle Channel was in the distance, Lake Acigami was to my rear, and the hike up barren black rock was challenging with screaming wind. This was what I was waiting for! The whole way up I had not seen any other hikers, but once on the final ascent I passed a few. Surprisingly, out of the four people I saw all were from the Midwest including a brother and sister from Chicago.  All in, it took me two hours and forty-five minutes to reach the summit with a full pack. This was almost half the recommended time to complete the trail with no weight. The descent was quick and I walked another five miles once reaching the trailhead to a new campsite for the evening. Enthusiastic about my conditioning, by the time I finished I was tired and my feet were beat. Right as I began to cook dinner next to my tent, it began to rain and I crawled in for the remainder of the evening.

In the morning, everything was soaked from the previous evening’s rain that lulled me to sleep. With no major hikes planned for the day, I propped up everything to dry and had a nice long breakfast with the remaining food that hadn't been stolen. By 11:00AM everything had finally dried, and I walked down to the Beagle Channel to do yoga. A shuttle headed back to Ushuaia at 1:00PM, but before returning to La Posta Hostel I stopped at the grocery to restock. It wouldn’t be long until the next hike, and the next one would be more substantial.

Back at the hostel, I ate potatoes, steak and wine. To my delight they were the cheapest items at the grocery in Ushuaia. While eating, I researched two hikes: the Dientes de Navarino and the Valdivieso Circuit. It was a tough decision, but in the end the logistics of getting to the Dientes trek, it would cost near $200 to reach an island and would take about 6 days total including the hike, led me to select the Valdivieso Circuit. Valdivieso was a four day unmarked hike through peat bog, mountains, and beaver destroyed forest. It was not one to be taken lightly, and I asked every person at the hostel if they would like to join. Out of everyone asked, over 20 people, no one had a tent or sleeping bag. What were these people doing here? Although I was comfortable with my navigation ability and condition, I still wanted a partner. However, partner or not there was a weather window. Good weather in Patagonia meant hiking, end of story.

Unable to find anyone, my first multi-day major hike through Patagonia would begin the next morning. Alone on the bottom of the world.


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