“Intense protests rock Patagonian Chile.”
That was one of the many headlines we saw as we began to approach Patagonia in Chile’s XI region (there are XII regions from north to south). The far south of Chile is extremely remote, as you would expect, and those in the area often feel that the country’s government is overly centralized and sympathetic to the capital, Santiago and to profits from the international exploitation of the country’s resources. All at the expense of the social requirements in the south.
For example, eight hydro dams are planned for the region and if they go through, they will flood over 15,000 acres of forestland at a cost of $5B to the country. Broad support against the dams culminated in large-scale protests in 2011 and, while we were nearing this area, the region was protesting high energy prices, lack of access to hospitals & education, and seeking input into government policies and projects that affect their region.
From SantiagoTimes.net: “Road east to Aisen has been blocked for 2 days. No supplies coming in. People have been allowed through the barricades on foot, but that may have changed today. Fires/barricades moving closer to town”
Our route was to include the Carretera Austral – reputedly one of the most beautiful roads in the world. The road runs through the Aisén region, otherwise known as the Region XI – the same one embroiled in protests. After speaking with friends who had a similar plan we found out they were either forced to turn back or experienced serious delays due to blockades and lack of petrol.
When we neared Puerto Montt, the start of the Carretera Austral, we looked into our options; we could either head east across the mountains into Argentina or, board the NAVIMAG ferry which would take us and our bikes south through the fjords and archipelagos of Chilean Patagonia. We chose door #2.
On March 2 we rode onto the NAVIMAG dock just three hours before our ship was set to sail. We had been told to arrive five hours in advance because we had to board vehicles, but we are never on time and arrived two hours late. Of course we were dealing with South American time, which means they were also two hours late, so in the end we STILL had to wait FIVE hours to board.
Sadly, my bike’s battery went from full power to completely flat during those five hours. Actually, I had started it up just 20 minutes before boarding to ride onto the vehicle scale just to see how much my bike weighed with all my luggage. I guess the battery was just done – so much so, that I was not even able to bump start it in the parking area. So, for the second time on this trip, my bike was pushed onto a ship (memories of Panama).
On all the other ferrys that we’ve taken on this trip we were the ones responsible for securing the bikes to the deck with good, hardy tie-down straps provided by the ferry company. With NAVIMAG, the crew was responsible for the tying down the bikes – which they did with rope and twigs. Okay – not exactly twigs, but we were apprehensive with their improvised supplies and methods – having always been told to compress our front suspension during transport, we became concerned when they didn’t seem to find this to be a necessary step.
We got settled into our small, 4-berth cabin, grabbed our boxed lunches supplied by NAVIMAG and headed up on deck to watch as the ship pulled away.
The scenery through the fjords was nothing less than stunning. The bushy, green hills that popped straight out of the water created narrow channels through which we sailed for 4 days.
Fjords of Patagonia
Normally, the sailings include one landing however, due to the barricades, many supplies from the north were not getting through to the south so NAVIMAG arranged a rendezvous with another one its ships in the affected area for the purpose of transporting supplies and picking up a few people and stranded crew.
The event took a few hours during stormy weather in an open channel and we were invited to watch from the Bridge or the bow if we didn’t mind getting wet.
We really enjoyed the sailing for the scenery and the experience but also for the people we met on board. Our bunk mates, Dawn and Chuck are avid hikers & attendees of the Banff Mountain Film Fest (like us on both counts) so we got along well – plus, they are very nice people. They even (generously) invited us to stay with them in Seattle on our way home.
Then there were our trail buddies. On our trip, there were a number of places and things we felt we had to see or do, and one of them was to hike in Torres del Paine National Park – listed as one of the world’s best hikes and the poster child for Patagonian outdoor adventures. And, since the final port of call for the Navimag is Puerto Natales, home base for the Torres hike, a number of passengers on the ship were on their way to hike Torres, too. We met a lot of new friends on the boat whom we would get to know very well as we hiked Torres del Paine together.
We didn’t disembark with the rest of our friends as we had a flat battery to attend to (oh, by the way, the bikes did not flop around in the hull of the ship – the sticks and rope worked!). The other good news? The ramp to ride off the ship was so steep, it allowed us to bump-start my bike. This was enough to get us to the hostel… we would deal with the battery later.
There is such a strong feeling of hope and excitement in Puerto Natales you can almost touch it with your finger tips! Everyone, it seems, is there for the same reason – to test their mettle in Torres del Paine. We would see the same people at the grocery store, at the supplies-rental shops, in the hostels, and roaming the streets looking for a place to eat. If you said ‘hi’ to anyone, the very next question would be ‘are you doing the “O” (120 km) or the “W” (75km).
We chose the longer “O” circuit which means we carried enough food with us for 8 days. To lighten our enormous packs we each settled on just one set of clothes for hiking, one set for sleeping and a few extras – wool socks, thermal underwear, toque, mittens – which, come to think of it we also used for sleeping!
Food consisted of nothing more than 1kilo of dehydrated potatoes, soup stock cubes, quick oats, 8 bagels and cheese, peanuts, the occasional chocolate bar and powdered milk (for the oats). Which reminds me, why don’t hiking shops in Canada carry good powdered milk or dehydrated potatoes? I’m looking at you, MEC – this is back packer-gold!
Despite our dedication to carrying very little, our packs were extremely heavy – mostly due to the sleeping bags we rented. The 0-degree bags in our panniers were not going to keep us warm in the Patagonian mountains in their version of October.
You may have heard stories about the winds in Patagonian. And, we had been told that winds in the area could easily get up to 100 kph (60 mph) – which we can confirm after our first day of hiking. The winds were so strong that even though the day was only 12 km long on flat terrain through pampas, we found it more difficult to hike than the following day – which was 20 km long and involved hiking up and down some pretty big elevations. At one point we watched as a bird attempted to take flight from a bush – the poor thing flapped its wings, but stayed stationary.
We and our friends would pass each other on the trail, sometimes stopping to lunch with each other and always meeting up in camp at the end of the day. We shared chocolate, cheese, Ibuprofen (Thanks, Tine!!), wine, back-country pizza recipes (thanks, Team America!) and stories of pain and glory. It all sounds very dramatic now, but it really was a great time spent with interesting people from all over the world.
We were: Team Canada, Team Sweden, Team North-Central Europe, Team Germany, and Team America.
One of the most memorable days of the hike was the day we hiked over John Garner Pass. As usual, Jordan & I were the last to leave camp in the morning – it is a sad fact that we are not morning people and I just don’t know how we will cope when we have jobs again. The trail climbed uphill, immediately… on wet, muddy, forested trail with plenty of roots, twigs and puddles to negotiate. Did I mention we were hiking in shoes, not boots, and that my foot was still broken? We kept our shoes tight and wore protective gators – something we actually packed from home that had now come in handy for the second time.
We climbed for 3 hours until finally reaching the Garner Pass at 1,229 meters (those crazy DirtProof folks did it 1.5 hours!). It really wasn’t that difficult and included some of our favourite terrain – giant boulder fields. We were rewarded at the top with outstanding views of the Grey Glacier – part of the massive Southern Patagonian Ice Field. We lingered for a bit snapping some photos before starting the excruciating climb down.
The “W” circuit is much more popular than the “O” because it can be done in just a couple of days and, as a result, the trails seem to be better kept. Erosion and poor trail maintenance meant that the first 5km down the other side of the pass on the O Circuit were bone-crushing. Despite having poles, my knees were very angry with me.
Imagine their horror when, after many more kilometers, we had to down climb these vertical ladders with giant packs on!
We finally walked into Los Guardos camp at 7pm, worn out but with smiles on our faces. Mine was most certainly for show at that point – I had left it all on the trail that day and didn’t feel too much like socializing. We set up camp, ate in the tent and fell asleep. We loved it and looked forward to more the following day!!
A few more days on the trail and we were treated to some pretty impressive river crossings which are never boring, more icebergs and unfortunately, the area of the park that was severely burnt just two months earlier, when a hiker chose to burn his toilet paper instead of packing it to his next camp. Idiot.
And finally, the Torres, themselves – The three granite towers that draw the 100,000s tourists each year. I was especially lucky to have climbed up to the Torres on my birthday. I’m not sure yet how I’ll top that next year.
We bussed it back to Natales where we showered for the first time in 8 days, put on some clean clothes and met everyone for some celebratory pisco sours and pizza.
The others went their way – with most going to hike other trails or glaciers in Argentina, just across the border in El Calafate. We stayed in Natales long enough to buy a new battery for my bike, do laundry and plan the next part of our trip – to Tierra del Fuego and the end of the world.