Sunday, April 11, 2010

Parting Thoughts on a Year Long Trip Around the World

54 weeks on the road in foreign lands changes a person.

We have experienced quite a bit. We have laughed in happiness and laughed in uneasiness. We have cried in happiness and cried in frustration.

Places that once seemed far off now seem close and familiar. We now have photos of our own to match the picturesque beaches and mountains found on wall calendars. News headlines from distant countries now appear with the names of places we have visited and with faces that look recognizable.

We have wandered through vast unfamiliar countrysides and intimidating crowded urban city centers. Along the way we have met some amazing people who have shared part of their day with us, and for that we are grateful. People have been incredibly open and inviting; whether it was some fruit on a crowded African bus, stories of mountain legends during a trek in Nepal or a comfy spare bedroom to rest for the night.

We have embraced the spirit of many we have met who only have the few possessions they carry on their back (items they are usually offering to share) and who are simply living to see what each new day brings.

We have witnessed many things that have allowed us to further realize how fortunate we are to live in such an amazing country. Our aspirations are not limited in life by our sex, where we were born, who are parents are or what our economic situation might be. Basic education is a given to us and we openly decide where we will work, whom we will marry and where we will choose to live. The American Dream is alive and well and we must never forget that. It is truly unique in the world, even when considering other highly developed countries.

We have experienced all of this together, as a couple, as best friends. We have been through situations and felt emotions that we might never experience in a lifetime within the confines of our normal everyday lives.

We are moving forward in life, somewhat reluctant to let go of the trip, but refreshed and enlightened. We have never been ones to get too comfortable. We like the unknown and the excitement of walking into a new place; whether it be the next border crossing while traveling or seeking out a new corner pub or park the next neighborhood over.

We are different people than when we left. We are better global citizens, seeking out the origins of products we buy and supporting causes we have witnessed in action improving communities we visited during the last year. The adventure does continue; we are living in a new town (Denver, CO(actually since we posted this we have now relocated from Denver to Seattle, WA!)) and seeking out new employers and revised goals in life. Discussions of purchasing tangible material items are now weighed against new life experiences and helping others. We are not saints by any stretch, but we hope we can make a larger difference moving forward.

Thank you for sharing on this amazing adventure with us. We have always told ourselves that this is a 'once in a lifetime opportunity' and just to shake the 'travel bug.' We have now realized there is no reason to limit something to 'once in a lifetime' given our amazing experiences and the opportunity to do so much more in many of the countries we visited. We now wish we might have done more goodwill in our travels and hope that we may do so in the future. So until we meet again, whether it is on the blog or in person, live life well.

'And in the end, it is not the years in your life that count. It is the life in your years.'
~Abraham Lincoln

-Chad & Colleen

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Global Beer Wrap-up

Before we post our final thoughts on the trip, I want to post a conclusion to the informal beer odyssey we partook during our 12 months of wandering. We had previously posted a beer blog at the 6 month mark so we will now give a short update on what we found on the second half of our trip.

Our last beer post ended with us heading to Laos to enjoy the much famed Beer Laos. This we did, enjoying one of the best lagers of the trip (we had A LOT of average tasting yellow lager) drank out of large bottles as we floated down a river in intertubes on a hot sunny afternoon. From there the trip moved on to Singapore where we found craft beer abound as a result of the British colonial influence in the 19th century. There we were also able to visit our largest brewery of the trip, Asia Pacific Breweries, the brewers of the much famed Tiger Beer and also licensed to produce the global brands of Heineken and Guinness. The last two stops of our Asian leg found us in Mongolia and Japan, both delivering unexpected high quality brews. The Mongolian capital of Ullanbaatar had no less than a half dozen craft breweries and Japan exposed us to a country full of beer enthusiasts and the Asian powerhouses of Asahi and Kirin.

From there we took a long flight eastward. If there was one surprise for us on the global beer map it had to be the variety and quality of beer presently produced in South American countries. We sampled everything from small batch beer produced in the countryside to major labels producing $1 large liter bottles in major metropolises. There were exotic beers as well; beer in Bolivia brewed with the infamous cocoa leaf and beer in Patagonia produced with the native calafate berry (think blueberry meets juniper flavors). We were lucky enough to help produce a batch of beer on Thanksgiving Day at the world’s highest brewery in La Paz, Bolivia and we also rode our bikes through the hop fields of El Bolson, Argentina stopping at breweries as we found them along the way.

Some final stats on our beer endeavor. We sampled a total of 292 beers from 33 different countries (the only places we found no domestic beer was in the Muslim state of Brunei and Botswana & Kenya due to time constraints). Argentina lead the way with 53 beers (there seems to be a craft beer revolution going on there, especially in the Lakes Region) followed by Chile with 24 beers, Mongolia with 20 beers and Vietnam with 18.

We were also able to visit 26 working breweries along the way in 11 different countries, again with Argentina leading the way with 8 breweries visited. In Chile and Japan we were also treated to beer museums outlining their local beer histories.
We are now back in the USA and greatly enjoying what we believe are the best craft beers in the world but we do miss the excitement of discovering new brews nearly every day. It was most definitely an enlightening and enjoyable year exploring this wonderful beverage.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Mission Complete

After a flight path that took us from Buenos Aires to Sao Paulo to London and finally to Chicago, we made it back to the USA just over a week ago. After 374 days gone on the road, it was a bit surreal to land at O’Hare in the same place we had started our journey. We have spent the past week catching up with family and friends and getting things in order while we try to plan out our next moves in life. Our options are endless on where to head to next, which is a good thing but also makes the decision all the more difficult.

We are gathering our final thoughts on the trip which we hope to post in a few days. For now, we wanted to share some numbers and facts that we hope all of you will find interesting!

Trip length: 374 days
Flights Flown: 31
Trains Taken: 22
Buses Ridden: 122
Boats Boarded: 31
Ho(s)tels: 187 (some cleaner than others)
Countries Visited: 35 (5 continents!)
Days of Rain: 42

Some of the ‘longest’ items of the trip:
-Longest Train Ride: Beijing, China to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia: 31 hours
-Longest Bus Ride: Rio de Janerio, Brazil to Foz de Igazu,Brazil: 24 hours
-Longest Flight: Tokyo, Japan to Sao Paulo, Brazil: 25 hours
-Longest Boat Ride: Monkey Bay, Malawi to Nkhata Bay, Malawi: 58 hours

We were also fortunate enough to visit with and stay with some great friends along the way (THANK YOU Paul, Bala & Kumaran & Subhash, Norm & Elodie & Max, Pedro & the Chaib Family). Thanks to our friends and some long days/nights on transportation we actually had 51 nights of free lodging:
-Transit (Plane, Train, Bus) - 33 nights
-Friends - 9 nights
-Marriott Hotel Rewards - 5 nights
-Free Campsites - 4 nights

Unfortunately we also had the experience of spending 24 nights in dormitory style lodging, mostly due to price (Tokyo) or availability (Patagonia). We were lucky to spend 42 amazing nights camping in a tent under the stars in Africa and Patagonia.

Thankfully, we managed to stay safe on the trip, no successful robberies (although a couple attempts) and no trips to the hospital. We did manage to lose a few things along the way though:
-Chad’s watch: Somewhere in London Heathrow
-Colleen’s water bottle: Over Augrabies Falls, South Africa
-Headlamp: On the shores of Lake Malawi
-Mongolian Beer Mugs: US Customs in a postal package from Brazil
And we had to replace these multiple times:
-4 watches (Colleen only one)
-7 pairs of flip flops
-4 pairs of sunglasses (Chad only one)

A couple of our favorites from the past year:

Top 5 Beaches
1. Kendwa Beach - Zanzibar, Tanzania
2. Longs Beach, Ko Phi Phi, Thailand
3.Vilankulos, Mozambique
4. Punta del Este, Uruguay
5. Mabul Island, Malaysia

Top 5 Islands
1. Ilha de Mocambique, Mozambique
2. Zanzibar, Tanzania
3. Ko Phi Phi, Thailand
4. Islands of Halong Bay, Vietnam
5. Borneo, Malaysia

Top 5 Large Towns
1. Cape Town, South Africa
2. London, England
3. Kampala, Uganda
4. Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
5. Quito, Ecuador

Top 5 ‘Smaller’ Towns
1. McCleod Ganj, India
2. Luang Prabang, Laos
3. Samaipata, Bolivia
4. Pokhara, Nepal
5. Rhodes, South Africa

Top 5 Man Made Sites
1. Petra, Jordan
2. Taj Mahal, India
3. Machu Picchu, Peru
4. Angkor Wat, Cambodia
5. The Great Wall, China

Top 5 Natural Wonders
1. Sossusvlei, Namibia
2. The Gobi, Mongolia
3. Iguazu Falls, Brazil
4. Halong Bay, Vietnam
5. Table Mountain, South Africa

Top 8 Experiences - We could not narrow it down to just 5!
1. Ger to Ger Camping, Mongolia
2. The W Trail, Torres del Paine, Chile
3. Seeing the Dalai Lama (twice!), India
4. Orangutans in the Wild, Malaysia
5. Car Rental and camping in Africa
6. Annapurna Trekking, Nepal
7. Kerala Houseboat, India
8. The Chaib Coffee Farm, Brazil

Top 5 Sunsets
1. Chitwan National Park, Nepal
2. Addo Elephant Reserve, South Africa
3. Kendwa Beach, Zanzibar
4. Punta del Este, Uruguay
5. The Gobi, Mongolia

Top 5 Countries to Re-Visit in the Future
1. Uganda
2. Northern Namibia & Botswana
3. The UK
4. Nepal - More Trekking!
5. South Africa

Favorite Country
Colleen: Mozambique
Chad: Nepal
Both: Mongolia

Friendliest People by Continent
Africa: Mozambique, honorable mention to Lesotho
Asia: Nepal, Laos, Mongolia
South America: Bolivia

Best Countries to Have a Drink: Mozambique, Vietnam, Mongolia, Argentina

Top 5 Countries Next On Our List
1. Ethiopia
2. Anywhere in the Middle East
3. Bhutan
4. The Stans - Central Asia
5. The USA - yes we live there but we haven’t seen much of it!

One thing we learned - Our fellow travelers are a little different - We have realized we are no exception!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Beaches of Uruguay

Uruguay made a fitting last country for us. We decided to head there some months ago when we realized that a few days at the beach would be a nice way to end this crazy year. Luckily it is extremely easy to get to, a quick 1-3 hour ferry ride (depending on the cost of your ticket) from Buenos Aires. We bought our tickets a few weeks in advance online, and were able to get a great deal. The great deal meant we were on the 3 hour ferry, but it was very nice, including onboard entertainment which reminded us how extremely uncomfortable we would be on a cruise ship. We were told that Americans had to pay a $40 entrance fee for Uruguay but we exited the boat with no questioning or passport stamps. We made a feeble attempt at finding immigration and then decided, why press our luck?, and headed quickly out the front doors with $80 still in our pockets.

The ferry arrived in the beautiful waterfront city of Colonia. There seems to be a nice beach in every coastal city of Uruguay, and Colonia was no different. We checked into our B&B and headed to the beach for what would be our first of eight straight days in the sand. The city was extremely laid back, with not much to do but wander the old town, go to the beach and pet stray dogs. Needless to say, it was right up our alley.

Uruguay is currently in the highest of their high seasons. Hotel prices are double or even triple what they are in low season and everything is booked solid. We spent a few hours searching the internet trying to find a place to stay at the multiple beachside towns further up the coast but to no avail. We finally decided to throw our beach hopping plans out the window and head to the town of Punta del Este, about 5 hours north of Colonia. Punta del Este is what they call an “international beach town”. People come from all over South America and the World to party at the famous clubs and show off their new plastic surgery on the many beaches that surround the city. Nope, doesn’t sound like us at all, but it was the only place where we could find a private room for less than $100 a night and we ended up very happy with our decision.

After a morning on buses we arrived in the downtown of Punta and caught a local bus out to the tiny village of Manantiales, about 15 km away. Here we had reserved a room at what we thought was just a beat up old hostel but was really a full fledged hippy commune, complete with a tent city in the back yard. Are you familiar with the movie “The Beach“? The people looked like extras straight out of the movie and I think every material utilized to build the place was recycled and taken from another building. There were no signs to mark the place, just some indiscriminate bird drawings carved into local telephone poles to lead you there. Let’s just call it interesting, but it did start to grow on us as we spent each day at the beach, playing in the waves and watching the surfers. Every night we sat on the deck and watched the sunset and the stars come out over a bottle of wine. It was beyond relaxed there and the beaches were absolutely beautiful. After two nights we bid farewell to the commune and traveled back to downtown Punta to stay in a hostel. The beaches in town were just as spectacular as the ones outside, and we spent another two days lounging on the beach there. We tried to enjoy every single second of the warm weather, knowing that in a few short days we will be arriving in the freezing cold Midwest.

We finally tore ourselves away from Punta to head to our last stop in Uruguay, the capitol of Montevideo. Carnival was upon us and we had read that there would be some good celebrations in the city. Well it turns out that most people from Montevideo head north to the beaches (where we just were) for Carnival. The city was empty. A parade did pass our hostel on the first night, with floats and lots of drumming, so we ran outside to watch the action from the streets and finished off the viewing from our roof.
With the city empty and most shops closed as it was the weekend and Carnival we spent our time doing the exact same thing we did in Punta, running and going to the beach. Montevideo’s beaches are nothing spectacular, but they are a great way to pass some time. This morning we caught a bus to the fast ferry (1 hour!) back to Buenos Aires and entered back into Argentina for our fourth and final time. Tomorrow we begin our long journey (via Brazil and London) back to the USA.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Grapes, Bikes and Steaks

We bid our final farewell to Chile and boarded an early morning bus out of Santiago which unfortunately left before the free breakfast was served at our guesthouse (after traveling for a year, a free breakfast is a nice treat). Our route took us up out of Buenos Aires and toward the border with Argentina. The bus ascended switch back after switch back as we passed Aconcagua (the highest mountain in the world outside of the Himalayas) as well as the famed Portillo ski resort.

Our last border crossing between Argentina and Chile turned out to be a long one. We spent a ridiculously long time sitting at the border, it was a Saturday in the middle of the summer and the resulting crowds were out in force. We spent a full 3 hours waiting in line outside our bus, the longest border crossing of our trip, in order to be processed. There were no less than a dozen windows processing applicants and the whole task seemed so incredibly simple and straight forward that we had to question what the hold up was (the Argentineans take periodic breaks to drink this funky looking tea called ‘mate’ out of wooden cups and that was the prime suspect for the delays). After the agents searched every single person’s bag, we finally re-boarded the bus and arrived in Mendoza, Argentina a few hours later.

Mendoza is home to the wine industry of Argentina (chances are if you drink an Argentina wine it is from there) and we had been looking forward to our visit for quite awhile. We had already been wine tasting in South Africa and Peru on this trip, and knew that Mendoza would be a great experience. After two nights in town we decided to head out into proper wine country and stay on the “wine route”, where all visitors head to taste the wine that this region has made famous. While Chile had it’s unique Carmeneres, Argentina has it‘s full flavored Malbecs. We were new to the Malbec grape but found that it produced inky dark robust wines, even more so than Cabernet. Malbec is commonly blended in other parts of the world but Argentina has begun making 100% Malbec varietel wines.

With the recommendation and gift of a family member we had booked two nights at a lodge on the wine route with the hopes of treating ourselves; the end of the trip was nearing and two weeks camping in cold/wet/rainy Patagonia had worn us a little thin. The lodge was beautiful, tucked snugly between a couple of small family run wineries and we were treated to some comforts for a couple days including our first private bathroom in over a month. The highlight of our stay was renting bicycles and touring the wineries for an afternoon. We had really enjoyed biking around New Zealand wine country a few years ago and again we had a wonderful experience as we peddled our way from tasting room to tasting room. We left Mendoza rested and in high spirits heading toward the coast for what would be our final two weeks of the trip.

We arrived in Buenos Aires via bus (our 115 bus ride of the trip!) and headed to the Palermo neighborhood. As has been the theme of late, we were encountering large crowds and difficult accommodation bookings in Buenos Aires and opted to once again spend a few extra bucks to stay in a B&B in a trendy neighborhood. The other option was a crowded dorm room in the backpacker ghetto of town; the last thing we wanted at the end of the trip was yet another frustrating (yet entertaining) night in a shared dorm room. Buenos Aires is deservingly one of the most highly touted and appreciated cities of the world. It has vast manicured parks, infinite streetside cafes and clubs open 24 hours a day, enough stores to satisfy the most serious of shopaholics, beautiful architecture that has you thinking you are in a European metropolis and all the history to go with it. We spent our days there taking long jogs in the park (only to return later for a beer on blanket under a tree), wandering aimlessly through different neighborhoods viewing sites and touring local street markets. Our final night in town was the 8th anniversary of our first date (yes you know the anniversary of your first date when you dated for 5 years) and we headed out to what was said by the guidebook and our hotel to be the top steakhouse for the money in the city. I had not had a steak in over a year; this is saying a lot for a guy that grew up in Eldridge, Iowa eating red meat multiple times a week. I think Colleen was actually anticipating my meal more than myself and I was just happy that there was a vegetarian option for her to enjoy (when traveling this long you really start to look out for each other, even more than usual). The meal was amazing, my ribeye came with no less than a dozen dipping sauces and condiments and Colleen’s pasta came in an obnoxiously large bowl allowing me to finish off her leftovers. I can’t say it was the best steak I ever had (that still goes to Daniel’s Broiler in Bellevue, WA ) but it was better than most and at $12 you can’t really go wrong! We headed out the following morning on the ferry to Uruguay and our final country of our long journey.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Patagonia Continued

It comes as no surprise that Patagonia is a draw to many travelers for various different reasons. There are loads of Americans, Europeans, Israelis and Australians down here. I like to call Patagonia the place where people come with too much money and too little vacation time. The prices for tourists activities, transportation, hotels, etc. reflect this. We have actually run into many of the same people at every site as we move around the Patagonia circuit, decked out in high-end goretex and wandering around town carrying hiking poles (why people feel the need to carry these everywhere is beyond me). It makes for an interesting dynamic in these small towns, but also makes you feel like you are on some sort of big tour as you pile in and out of the same buses.

The sights here are extraordinary though, and it is easy to see why so many people have chosen to come, us included. After resting up in Puerto Natales for a night after our big hike, we headed back over the Argentine border to the small town of El Calafate. Calafate is a tourist town to it’s bones and there is only one reason to go there, to see the dynamic Perito Moreno Glacier located 80 km away in Parque National Los Glaciers. We had planned to spend 2 nights in Calafate but after a sleepless night in a creaky dorm room, we opted to head out early to spend the day at the glacier and then continue to our next destination via a late afternoon bus. It was quite pricey to get into the national park (they raise the fees during high season for foreigners) and with the rain coming in and out we hoped the glacier would be worth it. It did not disappoint.

Perito Moreno Glacier measures 30 km long, 5 km wide and up to 60 meters high. It is considered stable in a time when most of the world’s icebergs are receding. What makes it more exceptional is that it is actually advancing, up to 2 meters per day, which in turn causes constant calving of icebergs from it’s face down into the blue waters below. The sound of ice falling and hitting the water is exhilarating, like a massive clap of thunder. We wandered the walkways for a few hours and spent a fair amount of time staring intently at the glacier, waiting for the next giant piece to peal off. It was a very pleasant way to spend the morning and still allowed us to catch the bus back to town and another bus, 3 hours further north in Argentina to the village of El Chalten.

Where do I start with El Chalten? It is Argentina’s newest town, founded in 1985 to cement Argentina’s hold on that particular part of the border with Chile. The village swells to 1800 people in the summer tourist season and it virtually shuts down in winter months. Want to claim something as your country? Build a town! Apparently it is working and El Chalten now exists solely on tourism as it sits strategically at the base of the Fitz Roy mountain range. It is considered to be a world class climbing destination and people come from all over the world to summit Mt Fitz Roy and Mt. Torre (said to be the most difficult climb in the world, mas or minus). We intended to do some more hiking and camping but the good old Patagonia weather continued to have her way with us. We spent the first 2 nights camped in town, while 50mph winds gusted around us. I have no idea how our tent did not collapse on the spot (we counted no less than a half dozen tents with snapped poles in our campground alone). Our first hike of the area started off well, but an hour and a half into it the rains came and they did not let up. We called it quits, hiked back to our tent, changed clothes and decided that what we needed was a good beer to combat the horrible weather. Luckily for us this tiny town had a small brewery, so off we went and tucked ourselves inside for the night, enjoying a beer, popcorn and a pizza.

The next morning we awoke to bluebird skies, very little wind, and no rain in sight. In Patagonia you have to seize good weather opportunities so we packed up our stuff and headed into the mountains for one last night of camping. We hiked in 12 km to a campground at the base of Mt. Fitz Roy, enjoying the jagged mountain top peaks of the Fitz Roy range as we did side hikes to multiple lookouts. We slept in the tent for our last time that night and again the weather felt the need to send us off in style. We awoke at 6:30AM hoping to break camp and hike out early, but the rains had come. We sat the next three hours huddled in our small tent waiting for a break to no avail. Finally we folded our cards and packed up our belongings, disassembled our tent in record time and headed on a long 2 hour sprint in the pouring rain back to El Chalten for our final night in town, spent comfortably in a well equipped hostel.

We had one last stop prior to heading on a flight back north, the town of Punta Arenas. Punta Arenas is at the far southern tip of Chile, about as far south as you can go in the world without reaching Antarctica. The city thrives mostly on tourists heading to and from the national parks an is a pleasant enough place for a traveler to stay for a couple days. We caught up on some laundry from our previous days of camping and took advantage of the local supermarket and hostel kitchen to make some great meals. We had one other stop in town, the local animal shelter which we had read about online. Punta Arenas has a SERIOUS dog problem; a city of 140,000 people and 20,000 stray dogs. Can you imagine if there was one stray dog for every 7 people in your neighborhood? We hopped a local shared taxi to the edge of town and hiked up a gravel road to the shelter. We were welcomed by the two full time workers who showed us around and got some humor out of our broken Spanish. They gave Chad some coveralls and assigned him to poop patrol (it is amazing how much ‘caca’ 87 dogs can produce in a day) and I took care of some much needed dog petting duties. It was truly uplifting to see the service the shelter was providing for these deprived animals and inspiring that it was all done on such a small budget (local and federal governments provide no money toward animal control in Chile). We made a donation, thanked the staff and wished them the best as they are fighting an uphill battle.

The following morning we said goodbye to Patagonia. We were able to spend 8/16 nights in the region camping and indulging ourselves in everything the area has to offer. The landscape, people and animals have definitely left their mark on us

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Torres del Paine

A domestic flight south from Santiago brought us to the town of Punta Arenas in the southern tip of Chile and officially into the region of Patagonia. Similar to Borneo and Mongolia, Patagonia is one of those places you hear quite a bit about but you are not really sure what to expect when you arrive. We landed surrounded by barren hills and grasslands, wind and rain. We learned quickly that what makes Patagonia so extreme is not the landscape (which is amazing) but the climate (which is the most unpredictable weather I have ever seen).

The skies cleared and the scenery was beautiful as we hopped a 3 hour bus northward to the village of Puerto Natales. We had set aside our first days in Patagonia to prepare for and hike the ‘W’ trail in Torres del Paine National Park. After referencing our guidebooks and talking to a guide company, we settled on our route. The ‘W ’ route is named for the shape the trail takes through the park as it winds up and back down three valleys taking in the dramatic lakes, glaciers, towers, spires and jagged cliffs that are iconic Patagonia. The route classically takes 5 days but we opted to customize our own route and lengthen the hike to 6 days.

We loaded our tent, sleeping bags and gear into our backpacks along with a stove and pot we rented for the week. We headed out to the park via a two hour shuttle bus and arrived around noon on our first day. There are three options for accessing the ’W’ and the sights of the park. Most popularly, you can take a second shuttle down the only road that touches the trail to begin your hike. Secondly, you can opt for a crowded catamaran that makes a 30 minute dash across a lake for a $23 fee. Lastly, you can hike in what is referred to as the ’tail’ of the route, a 18 kilometer side trail that allows you to take in all of the scenic views from far off prior to seeing them close up on the ‘W’. Of course we opted for hiking in, thus lengthening our stay and giving us panoramic views of the landscape that most others never get to take in.

The Torres del Paine are quite unique. They are a small mountain system completely independent from the Patagonian Andes Range. They were formed when magma (yep magma!) penetrated through a crack in the earthen basin pushing sedimentary rock upward. The surrounding landscape is comprised of grasslands and granite hills and the Torres del Paine appears almost as some sort of addition to the landscape. They are stunning and quite remarkable. You can actually just sit and stare at them in appreciation for quite some time.

The large shuttle bus made it’s first two stops dropping off passengers at the park entrance and the catamaran and then drove the remaining 6 of us to the far end of the park for the hike in. We exited the bus, opened up our map and headed down trail with the entire park laid out before us. We had a stunningly beautiful day to hike. Bright blue skies and endless sunshine. We completed the ‘tail’ and set up camp for the first night at one of the park refugios. Camping in the park has two options, there are free backcountry sites as well as refugios which cost around $8 a person. The refugios offer toilets, showers, and hot water for washing and cooking. We felt it was best to spend our first night camping in the relative comfort of the refugio testing our equipment before heading into the backcountry.

We awoke to our second day (the sun rises at 5:30am and sets at 10:30am so the days are LONG!) and broke camp to head up valley, and thus uphill, on what would turn out to be the most difficult day of our hike. Our packs were at their heaviest point of the hike (30+ lbs each but luckily they would get lighter as we went through our food and fuel). Our destination was the massive Glacier Grey, part of the Patagonian Ice Field which is the third largest ice field on earth (behind Antarctica and Greenland). We made it over a small mountain pass and the glacier came into sight, quite amazing as it barrels for kilometers down the valley in the distance only to fragment into three separate arms all depositing into a bright blue lake in front us. The mountain pass brought the wind along with the beautiful views so we took a moment to rest and then began the second half of our hike. The trail initially descended down the backside of the pass only to head further uphill making the last few windy kilometers of the hike more difficult than the first dozen. A 30 lb pack in the Patagonian wind (up to 60 km/h gusts the week we were there) acts like a sail and on uneven trail can be quite difficult to manage. You spend a good portion of the time walking bent over, trying to counterbalance the winds. Then they stop for absolutely no reason and you frantically try to right yourself before you topple over. We made it to our backcountry campsite that night, our most remote spot of the hike, and enjoyed some solidarity as we slept alongside the glacier as it let out occasional ’booms’ or calving as ice sheared off its face and into the lake below.

Our third day found us hiking much more comfortably down the valley we had ascended the day before and toward the Valle de Frances. It would be our longest day of the trip, covering 23 kilometers of trail, but favorable winds and blue skies made the hike enjoyable. We set up camp again in the backcountry and woke early the next morning to hike up the Valle de Frances. The valley comprises the middle line of the ‘W’ and offers views of towers and spires to either side. Unfortunately we awoke to thick fog and a light drizzle which eventually turned to snow, a theme that would continue during the remainder of our hike, and were unable to see the valley in all of it’s entirety. Some patches of blue skies gave us small beautiful glimpses of the scenery but we were forced to return to camp in spitting rain where we grabbed our bags and headed several hours further back down trail to a refugio campground for the night. Luckily by this time our packs were beginning to lighten a little as we alternated through either soup or pasta each night for dinner and oatmeal each day for breakfast (we did ‘one armed’ lunches of granola as we hiked). We had a shower that night for the first time in days and headed out the following morning for our final destination and the parks namesake, the ‘Torres’ or ‘Towers’.

The rain was taking a liking to us so it decided to welcome us to the trail the next morning as we ascended nearly 2500 ft over the 17 kilometers leading us to our final backcountry camping site. We took it in good stride and we were rewarded for our efforts as some clear skies opened up over camp. We hurriedly set up our tent and as somewhat of an ‘insurance’ decided to head up trail to the Torres for a sunset in case they were not viewable the next morning. The final push to the Torres is the steepest trail segment of the ‘W’ taking nearly 40 minutes to cover a single kilometer. We caught fleeting glimpses of the Towers as we dodged across streams (There are many, many streams on the trail. I think we ended up jumping over about 50 by the end of the week.) and behind groves of forest as we headed up valley and then nearly all at once they came into spectacular view. The trail sits to the east of the formation so the colors on the rock were not what we hoped to see the following morning but the site was none the less rewarding. As with the glacier, we had a bit of solidarity as we sat quietly staring at the beautiful formations. We headed down quite happy with our decision to make the extra journey and crawled into our tent with great anticipation of the next morning.

We awoke at 4:30am the following morning, along with nearly everyone else in our camp, and headed up the trail in the dark with headlamps. It appeared somewhat cloudy but it was difficult to tell as there was no sun in sight. As the sun gradually rose and we approached the end of the trail it immediately became apparent that there would not be the famous show of blues and reds of sunlight on the rocks that morning. The clouds were not only thick and covering but somewhat threatening. We decided to cut our losses and turned around to head back to camp. We hurriedly made oatmeal and coffee (Colleen still does not drink the stuff) and packed up camp. It was our final day on the trail and our destination was the only road that touches a part of the trail, a few hours down valley. About midway down the rains caught us and they caught us good. A solid downpour onto us and our belongings ensued for the next couple hours and we arrived to the refugio cold and soaked to the bone a full 4 hours prior to our scheduled shuttle. We found a couple heaters in the lobby to warm up by and ordered a cup of hot chocolate and had a good laugh. We were cold and tired but pretty damn happy at what we had just seen and accomplished over the past 6 days on our 103 kilometer hike.

We made it back to Puerto Natales that night and enjoyed a hot shower and some dry clothes. We tended to our blisters and worn bodies as the storm raged on, but luckily this time we were indoors. After not having a drink in 10 days I must admit that $2.50 Chilean boxed wine by a fire place never tasted so good!
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