I make some really stupid decisions sometimes. I'm just fortunate that it hasn't come back to bite me yet, but more on that later.
Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas
Leaving El Calafate, I arrived to Puerto Natales in the evening. Puerto Natales is a nice small city on the water that serves as the launching point into Torres Del Paine National Park, and not much else. Many people do multi-day hikes (5 or 8 days) but I elected to just a few day trips to the park instead (50% due to lack of camping equipment, 50% due to waiting too late to reserve camping spots). I arrived to my hostel, Hostel San Agustin, and was greeted by the hosts, three older local women with very limited English. They were nice ladies but real sticklers for the rules; and treated everyone there like they would their child. I witnessed one scold a German couple for trying to get seconds on yogurt for their cereal (probably to help wash down the stale bread), yelling "this is not a buffet!". Not a long-term model for success in my opinion but to each their own. I went off to the local market to get some stuff for sandwiches, and due to metric conversion error, I ordered entirely too much below average ham. So, I got to enjoy that for 5 meals over the next 3 days. The next day I went on a full-day van tour of the park, which allowed me to see most of the highlights in a relatively short span. I realized fairly quickly that I was the only gringo and English speaker on the trip, including the guide. He spoke clearly enough for me to get about 50% of his message. That's enough for context which is sufficient. But the park was the real star of the day. Absolutely gorgeous - you can tell immediately why it's such a popular destination for trekkers and tourists alike. Massive granite towers falling sharply to power waterfalls leading down to the distinctly blue glacial lakes - a powerful experience. Also, the weather pleasantly held out for us, which isn't a gimme around these parts. On the way back to Puerto Natales, we also stopped at Mylodon Cave, a massive cave turned archaeological site where the skins of the now-extinct mylodon were found, which led to a large-scale excavation and lots of new information about extinct species from 10000 years ago. The cave now isn't really anything mind-blowing, but I had previously read about the cave in Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia, so it was cool to see in person. The next day I got to the bus station, backpack filled with the appropriate supplies for a day hike to the base of the famous towers, to catch the 8:30 bus to the national park. That's roughly when I figured out the bus actually only leaves at 7:30 AM and it was long gone. I had (incorrectly) assumed that they started at 7:30 and ran every hour. This was probably the most frustrated I've been to-date, simply because there was no one to blame but myself. Resigned to my fate, I went back to the hostel to regroup. As previously mentioned, the town is really a gateway to the park and doesn't offer much itself, so my options were limited. I used the newly-freed time in my schedule to catch up on some photos that needed to be uploaded, some emails that needed to be sent out, and a nap that needed to be taken. I also caught a local museum dedicated to the natives of the area, which was a cool exhibit and pleasant surprise. The next morning I left Puerto Natales to head to Punta Arenas, Chile's first major Patagonian sea port on the Strait of Magellan.
In Punta Arenas, I got to El Fin Del Mundo hostel to a more welcoming environment in a much larger city. A lot of people visit the Penguin colonies from Punta Arenas, but knowing I'd do a similar excursion from my next stop in Ushuaia, I passed and had a relatively relaxed 3 days. I took an early morning hike to the national park (I was the first person there) which had incredible views over the city to the waterway. I saw a ton of wild rabbits but my quest to find wild foxes or pumas continue to come up empty, sadly. I also met an Australian and a German with whom I could have a completely respectful and level-headed political discussion. It's refreshing to know those are still possible nowadays.
To get to Ushuaia, there was a 12-hour bus-ride. It wasn't too painful because it was broken up by a ferry ride across the Strait of Magellan, where we were able to get off the bus and stretch our legs a bit. It was also my last border crossing for a while (Thank God...because they always seemingly take way longer than necessary for the actual security measures that are performed). I stayed in an AirBnb, since the selection of decent hostels in town are limited, and it turned out to be a great decision. Javier was a very gracious host from his home in the hills above the city, I got some good Spanish practice, learned about his upcoming venture to take his rebuilt VW bus from Ushuaia to Alaska, and hang out with two really cool pups - a younger golden retriever named Amber and a 15-year-old warrior named Darkie. Darkie, almost completely blind and deaf, had seen better days but still gets around pretty good, even if at a much slower pace.
My first day took me to Tierra Del Fuego National Park for a hike along the Beagle Channel. The hike was cool, taking you through the forest and along the coast. The forests are a lot different down here, being comparatively very young (only ~10000 years since the last glacial period) and only feature plants that have adapted to the extreme climate. That said, it ended up costing over 40 bucks including the shuttle and park entry, so probably not worth it from a value perspective. I did get to be a super tourist and have my passport stamped from the End of the World (for a small fee, of course) so I’m still happy I went.
The following day I set off towards the Martial Glacier, a hike you can, or should be able to, reach from the city by foot. I didn't quite reach the glacier, per se. To make a long story short, I got lost and went in the completely wrong direction once I got up into the mountains. I'm not sure why it took me an hour to realize there was no one else on the path towards a relatively popular tourist destination, but by that point it was too late. To put a positive spin on it...well for one I didn't die. Secondly, I've seen several much more impressive glaciers in the last month, so going on my own unique path through muddy and abandoned cross-country ski slopes was probably a much cooler adventure. A few hours later when I got back to the internet I saw a map and saw where my route went wrong. It could've been easily avoided had I done a bit more planning beforehand. Where winging it goes wrong, I guess. No real worries though.
Monday was the highlight of Ushuaia and what I had been looking forward to for days now: my trip to Isla Martillo to visit the Penguin Colony. I avoided looking at pictures to keep myself pleasantly surprised and pleasantly surprised I was. We started at Estancia Harberton, where we looked around their museum of full skeletons of all kinds of marine birds and mammals. We also got a tour led by a local biologist. She told me that Killer Whales are really dolphins and after that my mind was so blown I couldn't really focus on the rest of her talk. After getting off our small boat that took us to the island from the estancia, it was impossible not to smile. Penguins EVERYWHERE. The guide estimates that there are 5,000 couples (not including this year's offspring) and, due to the years of tours, our presence didn’t bother them a bit. This allowed for some great photo and video opportunities, and the ability to get within a few feet of these little balls of joy. I'd say the one downside was the pesky "rules", like no petting, no hugging, no taking any back as souvenirs. Talk about the no-fun police. But all-in-all, an amazing experience. The tour company I used (Piratour) is the only one authorized to lead hikes on the island, where other companies must stay and take pictures from the boat. So as we were leaving and another rival company's boat pulled up as close as they could for pictures, I looked down my nose and laughed as pompously as you might expect, extremely happy with my decision to pay the extra bucks for this tour.
My final day I went to the Ushuaia Prison museum, where Argentina used to keep its most violent criminals in a penal colony, similar to how Britain used Australia. It was a nice activity for a cold and windy day, and it's very well documented in English. They even maintained one wing completely as it was when the prison was open, which serves as a healthy crime deterrent.
Now back to my really dumb decision making. For some reason, I got it in my head I was going to walk to the airport from my AirBnb. Even looking on the map it seemed a bit far but I figured I had a few hours this morning and could get some exercise while saving on cab fare. Dumb. Just really dumb. For some reason, I chose to ignore the maps navigation that suggested it was more like a two-hour walk, or the fact that I would be carrying between 40-50 pounds of luggage on my back, or the fact that it was up and down dirt road hills. An hour into the march, when I realized I was still nowhere close, I started to panic a bit. But I was too far away from the downtown area to find a cab at this point. I stuck my thumb out while walking, which every single car seemed to treat as me offering them congratulations on their driving, because no one even thought about stopping for this friendly gringo. I was positive I was going to miss my flight at this point, but thank God, the Ushuaia airport is tiny and I got their five minutes before the hour cutoff. I've had enough time on this plane to cool off (both figuratively and literally as my sweat-stained shirts start to dry) but I was self-loathing for a while there. Lesson learned, I guess.
I'm typing this on my plane back to Buenos Aires, where my journey first started. It will be great to see old friends, and then in 4 days, welcome Dad and Sarah to South America. Really excited to see some familiar faces.