March 13, 2010

Torres del Paine National Park

March 8. This morning, we arose early again (better weather, less grumbling), ate breakfast, our new driver, Javier, and hit the road by 7:15. We drove out of the canyon of El Chaltén and onto the steppes of Patagonia. We drove out along Lao Viedma, crossed the river Leona, which drains Viedma into Lago Argentino, stopped at La Leona roadhouse (where I bought a café medio), again in Esmerelda for gas, and then turned west for Chile and Torres del Paine National Park.

We got a little surprise when we turned off the highway (well, two lanes of pavement, the fabled Ruta 40) and onto a gravel road (a lane and a half wide). This was our road for the next couple of hours. After a while, we stopped at the Argentina border post, then at the Chilean border post, about 20 minutes down the road. Chile's interested in preventing problems with their fruit production, so they were interested in whether we were importing fresh fruit. Since we'd been warned, we were good. We had a substantial lunch at the roadhouse a block from the customs house, where we also changed our money for Chilean pesos (500 to the dollar).

Our new guide, Juan, met us at the Chilean border house. (We wondered how he got there, out in the middle of not much at all as it is.) He's friendly, communicative, and knowledgeable. Paola is still with us, too.

Although the restaurant was only a block away, we got in the bus and drove there. The wind was so strong that the restaurant was shuddering with it during lunch and the trip out of and back into the bus was more adventure than it should have been. The wind has been strong all day (as it was yesterday). If anything, it is worse today, with gusts strong enough to set road gravel in flight and to make it difficult to keep your footing. During the first few days, we were repeatedly told that the sunny and calm weather we had was unusual. I think we're back to normal. It's been warm, into the high 70's, but quite windy and with puffy clouds overhead and with looming clouds over the mountains.

Along the way, we saw guanácos, rheas, crested caracaras, a hare, and lots of cows and sheep. As we neared the park – still on gravel, with lots of bus traffic – we stopped for photos in a spot with fifty or so guanácos. They're quite graceful and gracious to allow us to gawk at them.

The camp is beautifully situated, on a peninsula in Lago Pehoe, which is fed by glaciers. There are a lot of camping shelters, a restaurant with a stupendous view of the mountains, two wash houses, and access to our bus. We're back in tents, though, so no wireless or electricity.

Dinner was the usual three courses (as was lunch), starting with soup, followed by spaghetti with meat sauce, and finished with either flan or mousse for dessert. In spite of hiking or walking every day, I wouldn't be surprised if I gain weight on this trip.

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