Posted by: Hours Per Mile | May 5, 2010

Chapter 2 – Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

December 22, 2007

From Calafate we caught a bus to Puerto Natales in Chile, the gateway to Torres del Paine National Park. Its merits are highly praised in our guide book, boasting of mythical, mountain spires seldom seen by its many hikers, shrouded often by stormy, lightning lit clouds. Blindly trusting the book, spurred on by the challenge of backpacking in Patagonia, we arrived in Puerto Natales ready to be impressed. The town was depressing though, its drab buildings no more than two stories tall, walls whose whitewash bear years of grime, cracks resembling the creases in the face of an old, withered man who has seen it all.

Quickly we departed for Torres del Paine. The Sun worked its magic, tinging the landscape golden like King Midas, our greedy eyes sucking down the views from our bus windows. The place drew us in. Azure lakes unfolded at the top of each rolling hill, their color so intense and captivating and different from any lake we had ever seen before. Inviting. Made jumping in and dying of hypothermia seem worth it all for being inside that blue, consumed, tasting it.

The days are long down here in southern Chile. We were able to hike a few miles along the trail before dusk softly descended. We made our camp, wind blowing, cold through and through. Shivering, we lit up our compact camping stoves and slurped hot, green soup for dinner, one of only two food options we brought with us (beans). Emma and I can see through the flimsy walls of our tent, and the wind invites itself in, swirling around our exposed noses. I am not sure we know what we have gotten ourselves into. The whole trip may end up like this, but I want it to in a way—I want to see what I am made of. Life does not always have to be comfortable in order to be enjoyed.

The hike the next day reminded my knees of the feeling of pain, reminded all of us that indeed we were in the Andes, wild and untamed. I see mountains like these from afar and wonder at their personality. I want to conquer them, say, “See, I, too, am a part of nature—we’re in this together mountain!” But, hiking up amidst the elements, further and further, deep into the inner workings and intricacies of the black rocked and snow-laden mountain, I realized that perhaps I didn’t belong there. Nature is God’s and we were rushing into it unprepared. A loud thunder, not predictive of rain, but sounding the call of an avalanche on the opposite mountain, stopped us in our tracks. It was warning us. It was not joking. We turned around.

We had to pay to camp. Most Chileans can’t afford to see their own national treasure. A man told us last night we know his country better than most of its natives. Poor souls! It would be like living in a body an entire lifetime without ever looking in the mirror.

But we were barely making it. We had no Chilean pesos, having spent all we had on the park’s rapacious entrance fee and last night’s tent site. Alongside one of the designated campgrounds there was a remote hostel, tantalizing the poor campers with warm beds, a wood burning stove, and a kitchen serving food brought in by horseback. I felt like a street urchin gawking through the window of a candy store where all the fortunate little children filled their tummies with gumdrops and pretzels. We crouched on the floor, watching the happy hikers eat hot casseroles and drink cold beer, watching the wind carve its intimidating reputation through the tent sites outside. Our reluctance to go face the bitter elements mounted as the thought of setting up our tents materialized—stinging cold tent poles in shivering hands with nothing but our limpid soup to warm us up.

The piles of dirty dishes in the kitchen grew, we noticed, in obvious need of four eager, able hands doing the work of four empty stomachs. In exchange for 8 cold crepes we hand washed in frigid water all the dishes in the entire place. As the people who actually thought to bring money sat over their bountiful tables we mingled with the Chilean workers, felt it, experienced it. We were all ticking, our hearts thumping with a sense of real life, smiles and laughter contagious.

Afterwards, on the floor again next to the wood stove, we ate our plain crepes, slightly disappointed but proud of ourselves. The sweet employees kept sneaking us little tidbits; an apple which we passed around, a pack of crackers, a bit of what they served for dinner. Finally, after all the patrons had ventured out either into the darkness or to their cozy bunk bed, Karina, the chef, brought a box of wine and a huge platter of the unknown casserole (turned out to be tuna from a can with a hard boiled egg and cheese on top). Gordo played a guitar. The Christmas tree stood warm in the corner. A bright moon marked dark outlines of the looming granite mountains and made fluorescent white the waterfalls dripping down them. The night turned out all right. The next morning we washed breakfast dishes, mopped the floor and windexed the windows in exchange for one tent’s fee and a free breakfast. One girl even snuck us a box of four sandwiches for lunch made of cheese and canned green beans. A nice barter system.

While the other three continued up the trail to catch a glimpse of the renowned rock towers of Torres del Paine, I cut out early the next day because of pain in my knee. Slowly, I meandered my way down the mountains and into the valley below. My mind picked up the pace my tired legs were lacking.

Suddenly, I became acutely aware of my brain. My thought processing was like an open wound, each emerging idea felt with intensity and a pang. Thinking is a constant to most humans, yet we seldom concentrate on the actual movement of thoughts flitting in and out of consciousness. This time, however, my only existence seemed to be my brain, my body fading into the background, and man did I feel alive. The funny part is that the only thing I thought about was the act of thinking itself—didn’t get much further.

I found a campsite, and alone and happy, heated up some soup and burrowed into my sleeping bag, leaving the tent fly open to let in the sound of the bustling and chatty birds overhead. My tent was in a horse pasture and I woke up to the rustle of grazing. I tried my hand at writing but didn’t have a pen so I wet an old piece of charcoal from the fire pit and wrote a poem which has since wiped away but here is what is left:

This is yours.

What words could I use

You’ve never heard before?

In your arms rest these hungry birds

Remote Hostel, tired boys


  1. Exciting! Thanks for sharing your stories. Keep writing!

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