Friday, March 29, 2019

Hiking Patagonia, Part Two, the Base of the Towers

The destination--the base of the triple peaks of Torres del Paine (pronounced "pie-nay").  The name translates to 'The blue Towers' via a combination of Spanish and the native language of the indigenous Tehuelche people.  (That's the Spanish name for them.  They called themselves the Aónikenk.).  When I got here it was raining and windy and miserable and the peaks were hidden in cloud.  The hike up had been under cloudy skies with cold rain that was mixed at times with sleet.  I was resigned to the fact that I had been dealt a bad day to do this bucket-list hike.  I turned around and started back down, but then noted a small patch of blue sky off to my left ...

People who hike only one day in the Southern Hemisphere are most likely to do this hike.  It's a well-trampled trail and was very crowded on the Saturday that I was there.  It's moderately difficult - almost 13 miles round-trip from the trailhead parking area (complete with gift shop and restaurant), with 2500 feet of elevation gain, most of which happens in the last few miles.  Having hiked only level beach hikes for months I found that my climbing muscles had seriously atrophied.  This hike turned out to be nearly all I could handle.  Worst of all, the weather was not cooperating.

Our group, two American couples along with me and our guide Javier, were on the trail before 8AM.  On the lower slopes, under cloudy skies, we had views back to the lowlands to the south, with the showy Fire Bush putting on its display.

Fire bush is a favorite sweet nibble for the horses, so they are more commonly seen at a distance from the trail.

We ascended about 600 feet up to Windy Pass, where we could see the route ahead leading back down to the Refugio in the woods beside the noisy Ascencio River.

The Refugio, a back-country pit stop, comes complete with picnic tables, a store, restrooms, and plenty of campsites.  It was there that the rain started in earnest.  We continued up the river valley through the forest of Antarctic beeches of three species.  Here and there we caught a few splashes of the upcoming fall color, which would be in its full glory in about three weeks.

The climb began as we turned left, leaving the river.

Our group was splitting up, with one couple ahead of me and one behind with Javier.  As I approached the viewpoint the faster pair, Sam and rail-thin Lorrie, passed me, heading back down.  They said it was too miserable up there and there was not much to see so they were retreating to the woods to have their lunch.  I headed on up and recruited a stranger to take a few snapshots of me with what little view there was,

then I too headed back down.

I didn't get far before I noted the patch of blue sky off to my left.  I thought to myself "I'll never get here again, why hurry away?" so I turned around and headed back up, arriving just as the clouds parted.

Or as much so as they ever do here.

I wandered around taking photos, then spotted Javier with the couple from San Francisco.

Sam and Lorrie soon returned too, and we all had lunch together beside the lake and I got my moment in the sun.

On the way down the trail was so crowded that it felt like rush-hour on a DC freeway.  We were cued up waiting to get through narrow spots.  But the scenery was gorgeous, now that the sun had won out over the storm clouds.

The beech trees here have a semi-parasitic free-loader known as Chinese Lantern.  Similar to mistletoe, it photosynthesizes its own sugars but relies on the host tree for its supply of water.

The scenery had opened up beneath the blue sky.

But as afternoon rolled on and we returned to the valley, crossed the suspension bridge over the Ascencio River, it was getting cloudy again.

Back in the parking lot we rested and had a snack and were joined by a beggar, a young crested Coracora, which is a common local scavenger and predator, second only to the Black Breasted Eagles and the mighty Condors.

I was bushed, but very satisfied with the day as we made the 45 minute drive back to the hotel.  Next day my thigh muscles were sore.  What a softie I have turned into.  But I could relax and recover later.  There were more hikes to do.  Stay tuned.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Hiking Patagonia's Torres del Paine, Part One

Darwin's Rheas, locally known as ñandu, grazing on Patagonian Steppe with Paine Grande wreathed in cloud behind.

If you're going to hike in the Southern Hemisphere, the mountains of southern Chile have to top the list of destinations.  It's a hiker's mecca.  And arguably at its very epicenter is Torres Del Paine National Park.

I didn't come to Patagonia specifically to hike, but how could I *not* take the time to explore this bucket list destination.

This report covers my grueling three-day journey to get to Torres del Paine - five flights followed by a four hour drive - and the a glorious afternoon hike from my motel, the Tierra Patagonia, down along the shores of Lake Sarmiento.

As usual my photos, with captions, will tell most of the story.  It began with a final sunrise from my Topsail Island, NC condo, with a prophetic glimpse of a high-flying jet, no doubt headed to some exotic international destination of its own.

First leg took me to Charlotte, then the second leg presented some interesting scenery, as I had a window seat.  First we passed over an old hiking venue of mine--the Overseas Heritage Trail through the Florida Keys.

Marathon Key with the Seven Mile Bridge in the background. 

Then, passing another string of coral keys east of the Isle of Youth, Cuba, I captured this view, complete with what we meteorologists call 'cloud streets' because of the resemblance to city streets lined with buildings.

Finally we arrived at Costa Rica, where they were at the end of their dry season.  The hills approaching San Jose looked pretty parched.

My flight schedule, tailored to save a few bucks, gave me eleven hours in the San Jose airport and a chance to watch a nice sunset.

Then it was on to Bogota Columbia via a pre-dawn 'red-eye' flight.  After a quick layover in Bogota, I was on to Santiago, Chile where I got a hotel for the night near the airport.  Here's a view of a hillside neighborhood as seen from my sixth floor hotel room.

2AM wake-up call, 5AM flight from Santiago to Punta Arenas.  I was flying over the glacier-covered mountains and melt-water-fed lakes that I was here to hike.

At Punta Arenas my driver, Camillo, an avid photographer, picked me up and we headed out across the flats of Patagonia.

I was the only passenger, so Camillo and I stopped many times as he introduced me to the indigenous wildlife.  The drive felt more like a wildlife safari than a tedious commute.  Here's the ubiquitous Guanaco, wild relative to the domesticated llama.

Next was a good close-up view of a Darwin's Rhea or ñandu, as it is called locally.

Then … who knew there were Flamingos in Patagonia.  Wind was nearly calm in this normally windy place so we lingered here and got lots of great shots.

Camillo captured some good shots of a Black-breasted Buzzard Eagle, but my shots with my little point-and-shoot camera didn't come out too good.  As we approached the hotel, we stopped for the headline photo with the Rheas grazing with the mountains behind.

The wind was almost dead calm as I checked in to the hotel.  I got this shot from the dining area and lounge as I was talking with Basilio, coordinator of the hikes and excursions.

He said the lake is almost never this glass-smooth.  Maybe twice a year.  So I hurried to dump my stuff in my room, changed, and then headed down the trail through the 'backyard' and down to the lake.

I did a quick six and a half miles along the lake shore and adjacent bluffs, then back to the hotel.  It's an award winning architectural masterpiece, and a bucket-list destination all by itself.

And every room has this view.

Stunning.  This was sunset on my first day in Patagonia.

Next day, my first full day, I had scheduled the iconic bucket list hike to the base of the towers--the Torres del Paine--namesake of the park.  That report is next.  Stay tuned.