Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Torres del Paine

We camped outside Torres del Paine for a couple nights, and then spent one night on an Estancia (ranch) outside the national park.   Torres del Paine is famous for hut to hut trekking, but we weren't quite ready for that, and instead opted for a couple of day hikes.  This turned out to be a good idea, because Silas's hiking boots were too small. Somehow, his feet had grown since we had been hiking in the Gredos in Spain in mid-October.  So he wasn't in good shape to hike and the first day he got horrible blisters.  After that, he was walking in crocks, which was better on this feet but still not good.   The day after the park, our big task in Puerto Natales was to buy him a pair of tennis shoes that fit! (Along with lots and lots of laundry.)
Our first day hike was  up a hill on the other side of Lago Grey from the central massif.  It was a short, steep and hot hike up to a Mirador, a lookout point.  We went through a little bit of brushy stuff and then started climbing.  It was quickly clear that Silas wasn't going to be able to make it up, so Mike, Maeve and the guide headed up and I headed down with Silas, barefoot, tied to my back with my scarf and his boots tied to my backpack on my belly.   We made it back down to the van, where the driver was, and Silas took a nap in the back seat while Mike and Maeve got to the views at the top, which is below.  I think it must have been less hot up top and it looks windy.

From the ridge line, you could see the Grey Glacier, which is connected to the Ice Sheet but is still retreating rapidly.  There is a huge glacial lake at the foot of the glacier that wasn't there a couple of decades ago, famous for its icebergs.  You can take a boat ride on the lake, but we'd decided we'd rather hike while in the park.  After Silas' nap, he and I changed him into crocks and headed out to a rocky beach at the foot of Lago Grey.  Mike and Maeve found us there playing when they got down.  That was a great area for the kids to play, but there was tons of cool wind coming off the glacier.

The next day, we went for a walk to another mirador (viewpoint) of the massif.  This was much more level and Maeve and Silas ran most of the way in their crocks.  This area was burned not too long ago, and there were no trees, except for the burned ones that were still standing, grey sentinels to the power of fire.   The burn was human-caused, and there is now tons of environmental education materials around and very strict fire regulations.  The environment is pretty hostile, and it takes a long time for the trees, principally Nothofagus species, to grow, so regrowth is slow.   The Nothofagus in the park were a different type from those we'd seen in Tierra del Fuego, they were much shorter but their wood is harder, more of a large shrub-tree, and were traditionally used for furniture and building.   They were also deciduous, like the varieties further south.

Family at the mirador Cuernos.  You can see the Glaciar de los Frances, a glaciar hanging off the top of the central Cerro Paine Grande.  There are actually a couple of glaciers there, the central one on top and a couple more that are formed from ice that falls from the central glacier.  This one isn't connected to the ice sheet, unlike its neighboring Grey Glacier, and is just formed on the mountain top.   You can also see the tree line on the other side of Lago Nordenskjold.   A decade ago, there were trees covering the area where we were hiking.  Now there's only scrub. Our hike this day included Salto Grande, a big waterfall from Lago Nordenskjold (in the background in this photo) going downstream until the water eventually runs into the Serrano River, running to the Puerto Natales fjord, and eventually to the Pacific Ocean.
Our camping experience was great.  We did a supported trip, meaning we had a guide, a driver, and a cook.  Our cook was super awesome and was psyched to have vegetarian clients.   It wasn't exactly back woods camping.  We rented gear from the company so we didn't have to bring our own stuff, saving a ton of space in the luggage.  They had 2 2-person tents for us, so the kids got their own tent.  The campgrounds in Chile are set up to not be very rustic.  There are shared bathrooms with running water during the day while the generator is on, and a dedicated cooking/hangout space for each campsite.  Then there is plenty of room for several tents.  Our campground was on the steppe, next to a river, and also had a cafe and playground.  There are many backwoods campgrounds in the park, as well as huts for hut to hut hiking though the massif. 

On our way out of the park, we took a quick detour to another waterfall, Cascada Paine, where Mike and Maeve scrambled down to river-level.  Silas was again napping in the van.  This part of the park hadn't burned, and you can see more scrubby growth.  You can also see the very grey quality of the water from all the glacial silt.

On our way out of the park, we stopped at an overlook on a lake, and on the hillside above, was a group of guanacos.  We'd seen some earlier in the day, including a baby, near the Salto Grande.  There were also flamencos, but too distant to get a good photo.  In the park, we saw tons of birds, jackrabbits, guanacos, nandus (Patagonian large bird, looks like a dark grey ostrich) and Andean condors.  We never saw any pumas.

Estancia Tercera is a tourist/working ranch outside the park.  We went there because we wanted to stay on an Estancia and because it was outside the park and would therefore let Silas ride a horse.  Inside the parks, both in Chile and Argentina, 5 year olds are too young for horse rides.  It was the kid's first time on horseback, and we rode over the steppe for an hour.  Both the kids were on leading reigns.  The first photo is of all of us getting ready to head out.

 Mike took this photo on our way back.  You can see the step, the Estancia buildings, the the Torres del Paine massif.  Riding the the steppe was amazing - we later walked some on the Argentina side of the range, but it's so dry, with scrubby grass and lots of prickly bushes.  The horse, sheep, and guanacos just push through it.  On horse back, we had a different perspective.  The Estancias are generally huge, with massive amounts of acreage.  This is because sheep are very destructive.  The grasses are pretty low in nutrients, and the sheep pull the whole grass clump up when they eat it.   Sheep and guanacos are not friendly and cannot co-habitate.  Cattle and guanacos can go-exist pretty well, cows impact the environment less (don't pull up the plants) but need more acreage just because they are big.  The Patagonian cows are not tasty, they are used for eating & milk, but the low value of the grasses there does not lead to the tasty Argentinean beef, which is mostly raised in the Pampas, the region nearer to Buenos Aires.  The guanacos, the native grazers, are much more picky. They use their flexible lips to pick off just the best, freshest shoots and don't eat whole plants, so they move a lot looking for tasty treats and don't cause erosion and environmental degradation.   On our ride over the Estancia, which does have some sheep but is mostly based on tourism (groups like ours, others who just use it as a hotel, and their gauchos and horses are also used to do long-distance trail riding in the park), we saw a couple groups of guanacos grazing.
We had amazing weather all throughout the south.  The skies were generally blue, it wasn't cold, and we didn't get hit with the famous Patagonian winds.  We ranged from wearing fleeces, jackets, gloves and hats, to being in short-sleeves some afternoons.  The sky was amazingly blue, with long vistas. 

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