Esquel, Argentina: We Camped, We Grilled, We Watched the Sunset

March 2014

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In our last hitch hiking journey, we traveled across Argentina from Puerto Madryn to Esquel. Jordan, always looking for a chance to use his ‘I don’t know, I’m not a gynecologist’ joke, was ecstatic that our driver actually was a gynecologist! Couldn’t quite get the joke to translate though…

Esquel reminded me of a Colorado town, which you should take with a grain of salt considering I’ve never been to Colorado. It was nestled in a valley with mountains in the distance and had a real alpine feel. We found a great city campsite during our 3 day stopover that provided us with our own parilla (BBQ grill – comes standard with any Argentinian campsite) and eerily neon sunsets. We had a leisurely ½ day hike up to Laguna Zeta, leaving directly from our campsite (La Colina). As it wasn’t quite high season, the campsite was virtually empty. We did have the pleasure of meeting a Belgian and an Aussie, a couple of over-landers (that’s travel speak for people traveling for long periods of time in camper vans) who met through their love of travel. Not just a Belgian and an Aussie, but the Belgian and the Aussie. We learned about their epic journeys while grilling together at dinner time. Having unsuccessfully tried to arrange a trip to the local national park within our budget, we experienced our first taste of camper van envy seeing how easily they could travel long distances on a whim.

The people in town were super friendly. The grocer even offered us some yerba mate which we all drank together while hanging out at the end of the checkout counter. Later on, we watched the departure of one of South America’s oldest steam engine trains called La Trochita. It reminded me of Thomas the Tank Engine chugging along, I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…

We had a nice rest in Esquel, but were happy to keep heading north…next stop, El Bolson!

This bit of graffiti caught our eye

This bit of graffiti caught our eye

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My typical campsite tortilla making set up

My typical campsite tortilla making set up

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Cocido Madrileño in Madrid: A Comedy of Horrors (and deliciousness)

Always willing to spend our money on food above all else, Jordan and I made a reservation for a traditional Cocido Madrileño at Malacatin, a place recommended by a friend. The food was flavorful, rich, and resulted in one of our three experiences in unexpected extreme gluttony, also referred to by me as an incident in food terror. This occurs when you are faced with exquisitely prepared food which you are excited to eat and due to circumstances beyond your control, that food accumulates in terrifying quantities which you feel pressured to consume. The first incident occurred at Craigie on Main when a 3 course meal snowballed out of our control due to the generous addition of several free courses from to Jordan’s Boston chef connections. Second, at Bergamot in Cambridge in a similar chef to chef quid pro quo tale. Finally, Madrid. We showed up ready to try some traditional food, knowing little else. They had our name, knew we were coming, they were so prepared…we let them swaddle us in warm, vermouth lined ignorance while we teetered on the edge of a culinary eruption. The image of a blueberry Violet from Willy Wonka comes to mind except with a cloudy pork fat color. What we didn’t know was that we should have ordered only one meal for the two of us to share. We also didn’t know there was more than one course. Act 1, excitement! Olives, pickles, a pot of hot, rich pork broth served with pasta, a platter of silky chickpeas, potatoes and stewed cabbage and two loaves of thick crusty bread. Delicious, we dig in, happily. Act 2, we curiously cut into cubes of pork fat. I distribute one of these caloric cubes into my chickpea broth. Act 3, we nervously eye a platter of pigs trotters tiptoeing towards our table. Not far behind, a half chicken and a cured, boiled, pig part elbow each other for room on the remaining white patches of table cloth. We ask, ‘if we cannot eat all of this, can we bring it home?’ they say ‘no’. Act 4, afraid to twist or generally move my stuffed self I am horrified at the unexpected arrival of a platter of steamingly delicious chorizo, morcilla (blood sausage) and beef. The walls seem to be enclosing as our stomachs expand. Surrounded by pleased, prepared patrons, we piled the food on our plates, not wanting to waste, wishing for a life saver to-go container. Act 5, the homeward waddle, hilarity, confusion, defeat, a five hour nap, hoping to feel hungry again one day.

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4 Days in Madrid

February 2015

Isidro Park

Isidro Park

We arrived in Spain via Madrid and had rented a room in an apartment in a funky neighborhood called Malasaña. Our place was right in Plaza San Idelfonso and we could walk everywhere in the city from there. Madrid felt lively and open, as if joining the pulse of the city was possible for an outsider. The tapas culture meant there were little bars every few feet and each one caught our eye. In Madrid, people drink cañas, which are super cheap, small glasses of beer. You always get a bit of food when you order a drink, which feels so special and exciting even if it is just potato chips. Central Spain lore is that the free tapa with drink tradition began ages ago when the field working peasants, forced with frugally choosing between a drink and food during their midday break, always chose to buy drinks. As a result, they were sluggish and famished during their afternoon work, inspiring local magistrates to require food to be served whenever a drink is ordered. In addition to beer and of course wine, we enjoyed drinking vermouth (vermut grifa) via taps that most bars had. They serve it on ice with a lemon or an orange slice. Word of advice, when you get to a bar and order a drink, wait before you order any food so that you can see what sort of free snack will come your way. Usually the first drink gets your something like potato chips, the second perhaps a plate of olives, and it just keeps building! The further off the beaten track we went (and the more old men hanging out in the bar as if it was their living room), the more substantial food we received as our tapa.

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gambas al ajillo

gambas al ajillo

street in Malasana

street in Malasana

We walked through the beautiful Isidro Park and browsed the Prado museum where we saw approximately 1 million portrayals of Jesus from all the great artists, including one classic by Velasquez in which it appeared that saint what’s-his-name the hermit received a cheeseburger from a raven in the middle of nowhere. I dragged our jet-lagged behinds out of bed to catch an 11am walking tour, which thankfully was a great experience with an animated, funny guide. We started off one night sampling probably over-priced but enjoyable tapas at the San Miguel market. The highlight of the market was our first taste of goose mussels, which are dangerous to fish, expensive to buy and mind-blowingly flavorful. Often we just walked to get lost around the city, finding little tapas bars to freshen ourselves along the way. The food in Madrid came through every time: croquetas, salt cod creations, jamón, more jamón, moist Spanish tortilla glistening with olive oil, fragrant olive oil drizzled on garlic rubbed toast with grated tomato, olives olives and more olives….yum.

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goose mussels

goose mussels

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We ended our nights with a few more glasses of wine and vermouth at a little café down the street from our apartment called Café de la Luz. Well done, Madrid, well done.

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A few recs for where to eat:

Casa Labra – Calle de Tetuán, 12: Croquetas, deep fried cod, mmmm

Mercado de San Miguel: tons to sample, try the goose mussels from Morris mariscos

San Gines for churros con chocolate – touristy but i’ll be damned if that wasn’t the chocolatey-est chocolate we found to dip our churros in!

 

Hitch-Hiking Confessions, A Puppy and the Beautiful Valdes Peninsula

Ok, so it’s been a little while since I have posted here but I do plan to get all our photos up and this blog up to date! I will be posting stories of our journey from last year along with posting our current adventures! I’ll be sure to note the date of when we were in each place in South America so no one gets confused.

The next stop on our South American journey took us to Puerto Madryn, on the east coast of Argentina. Puerto Madryn is considered the upper limit of Patagonia, more or less. We were there at the end of Feb/early March of 2014.

Before we get to the epic patagonian nature pics, I have a confession to make. Since we’ve made it through Patagonia safe and sound and I don’t have guilt about my parents worrying anymore, I feel I can finally admit that Jordan and I hitch hiked through most of Argentinian Patagonia. We hadn’t planned on traveling that way but were inspired by several other successfully hitching travelers and given confidence when a few local Argentinian retired couples explained that ‘everybody does it.’ In all honesty, hitch hiking was one of the best parts of our Patagonian adventure. We met the most amazing people, mostly older couples who had children our age. We heard stories from retired heli-ski instructors who fought border protection battles in the wilds of patagonia, we discovered some great new music (Generis anyone?), got to cuddle with several puppies (not even kidding), and ended up in some strange and unexpected places. There was the couple who picked us up in El Chalten who drove 3 hours out of their way on an unfinished dirt (mostly rocks) road to bring us to Luis Piedra Buena, a place they thought was safe and would ensure us further passage to our final goal of getting north. Sure, we ended up going in the opposite direction of where we had wanted to go (turns out our Spanish wasn’t quite as air tight as we thought), but how nice was that! It’s all part of the adventure anyway. See the end of the blog post for a few things we learned about hitch-hiking.

One incredibly generous gentleman picked us up on the outskirts of Puerto Madryn. What had originally been arranged as a ride into the center of town turned into us picking up his wife and daughter at kindergarten and staying in his spare cabaña near the beach for free for the next 4 days. I know…no such thing as a free lunch, right? Well it’s true, the nice man did ask a favor of us. He asked us to puppy sit a 4-week old Black Lab/German Shepard mix for a day and a half before he surprised his daughter with it. The traveling life can be quite hard sometimes….

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After a few days in Puerto Madryn, soaking up some sun on the beach and watching the crowds of wind surfers cut through the surf, we headed on towards the Valdes Peninsula. Valdes is a large nature reserve containing one small town, Puerto Pirámides. The main sights we were hoping to see on the peninsula were elephant seals and an adult Orca skimming the surf to snatch baby sea lions. You can either hire a car for the day from Puerto Madryn or hire a car for the day from Pirámides, which is about the same price once all in. There is no public transportation on the peninsula. We decided to get to the Peninsula and then make arrangements there.

Logistically things worked out well for us. We met two independent Italian travelers (an art restorationist from Rome who worked on the Sistine chapel and a poet/painter who was also an internationally ranked, competitive para-glider) and decided to all go in on hiring a driver for the day to take us to see the wildlife. We saw elephant seals, but sadly did not see any Orca. There is a camp ground in Pirámides, but it was closed when we arrived for some inexplicable reason. We decided to just wander off into the sand dunes on the outskirts of town and guerilla camp. The sunsets and views were incredible and we fell asleep to the alternating howls of the whipping wind and a pack of wild dogs in the distance.

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What we learned about Hitch-hiking:

  • Acknowledge that this can be dangerous so always trust your gut and never take a ride if it doesn’t feel right.
  • Don’t go by yourself! Although it is harder to get a ride as your group gets larger, I would not have done it if I wasn’t with Jordan.
  • Buy a road map so you always know where you are, where you are dropped off and which road you should start hitching on to get out of town.
  • Don’t start hitching from the center of town because most of the traffic will be staying local. Try heading out towards the city limit preferably on the road that leads out of town.
  • Start early in the day, its not fun arriving somewhere at night.
  • In patagonia, and most of Argentina, everyone drinks mate. It is nice to travel with a hot thermos and a bag of mate to offer your driver. We found we had a lot of luck while waving our bag of mate and a giant chocolate bar to the cars as they passed us.
  • You don’t need a sign. They can be hard for the driver to read and a thumb or a waving chocolate bar works just as well.
  • to hitch-hike in spanish is ‘hacer dedo’

Luis Piedra Buena – An Unexpected Visit Along Patagonian Route 3

If, like us, you unexpectedly find yourself traveling north from Patagonia on the eastern Route 3 instead of the scenic, quaint, loved by everyone, filled with puppies, rainbows and marble caves Caretera Austral that you had dreamed of traveling for months, don’t fear! You will be pleased to know that there are a few places of interest along the way for you to continue your patagonian adventuring. One example of this is a town called Luis Piedra Buena.

When we initially stopped in Piedra Buena we were not impressed right away. Regular town, nothing special. Needing to spend the night there we were happy to have met a few motorcycle travelers who recommended a comfortable city camping location. What was meant to be a one day stop turned into a week long stay filled with epic sunsets, penguins and lots of Swiss people.

Despite what its name might imply, Vial Camping was an excellent homestead. For 40 pesos ($4) per person per night we were one of the only guests at this quiet, riverside, grassy campsite (with hot showers and wifi!). In typical Argentinian fashion the campsite had enough parillas (BBQs) to grill a small herd of cows. As the sun went down that first night, Piedra Buena got its first hooks into us with the most incredible sunset. The unending patagonian steppe surrounding the town gives the sky an ominous perspective that is both vast and surreal. The cloud cover felt like a low ceiling but the vastness of the terrain meant there was always sunny sky in sight. The intensity of the colors in the sunset were staggering.

Just down the street is a small island (Isla Pavona) in the river where you can also camp, picnic, hike around and enjoy the epic sunsets. We found it so relaxing that we stayed a week since we didn’t want to be on the move for Jordan’s birthday. Stopping in Piedra Buena helped us realize that as long term travelers we don’t always need to be on the move in search of the next high octane adventure. We are enjoying life and sometimes it is nice to slow down in a small town to simply enjoy the pleasures of beautiful cheap accommodation and sunsets.

We spent the first few days with a retired Swiss man who enjoyed taking dips in the river and letting the current drag him around for a while. Once he left, another Swiss family arrived. Two professors on sabbatical with their sons. After chatting over dinner the family generously offered to squish us in their car the next day to explore Parque de Monte León. This coastal dessert park is home to all sorts of animals including sea lions, penguins and cormorants (whose droppings used to be quite in demand for their fertilizer magic apparently). Standing surrounded by penguins about 3 inches from my feet was quite a special experience and made Jordan and I want to reneg on our previous post in which we implied that penguin watching as an activity isn’t that cool.

We eventually left Piedra Buena, but will never forget our week long excursion at Vial Camping, and the nature surrounding it. We wouldn’t recommend that you plan to stay there for as long as we did, but if you are making your way on Route 3 and need a stop, consider Piedra Buena!

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Day Hike to Laguna Fitz Roy – El Chalten

El Chalten – great little town for the budget traveler inside Parque Nacional de los Glaciares. Home to the Cerro Fitz Roy and located within the pristine patagonian wilderness of Argentina. You can do multi-day trekking here or you can take day hikes, leaving your heavy pack behind.  Our favorite day hike was the sendero Fitz Roy.

Daylight lasts for a long time during the patagonian summer so we were able to start this hike at close to noon. After our leisurely morning, we donned our day packs (carrying only a bit of water as you can fill up from any stream!) and hit the trail. Starting from town, we did the whole hike in around 7 hours returning to our campground in town just as the sun was starting to set. The trail is incredibly well marked. The toughest parts of the hike are the initial ascent from town and then the final ascent to the laguna. The rest of the time its pretty flat. The scenery is stunning as it winds through forest, meadows and rivers and it offers several sneak peaks at Cerro Fitz Roy along the way. When we finally reached the laguna at the base of Cerro Fitz Roy, panting from the very difficult final incline, we were blown away by the beautiful turquoise color of the water. Fitz Roy looms behind the lake. A beautiful behemoth, it appears to have been punched up out of the ground suddenly, giving it a unique look from any of the other mountains we have seen. Such a great day in Patagonia, only made better by eating an Asado around the campfire that night!

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Argentinian BBQ Party: The Patagonian Asado in El Chalten

In a country famous for it’s meat, you’d better believe there’s a proper way to throw down a good BBQ. Lucky for you, I’ve created this easy to follow guide for having a traditional Asado in your own backyard.

  1. Go see your buddy at the market and if you are cooking for ten people, buy enough dead animal for 20.
  2. Hike down to the nearby river, gather tree trunk sized pieces of driftwood and start an enormous fire.
  3. Open magnum sized bottles of red wine from Mendoza (your relative’s vineyard of course) and debate over which cassette tapes of Gaucho (country) music to play.
  4. If you’ve bought a whole lamb, season it with salt only and hang it on a cruz (metal crucifix looking thing). Angle the whole animal upright leaning towards the roaring flames and a couple feet back. Cook the inside first before turning it around and making the skin all brown and crispy. Continue to pound red wine from Mendoza. Did I mention you’re opening wine with steak knives?
  5. Shovel hot coals, some under lamb, but most under cast iron grates/tables (aka the parilla) near the fire.
  6. Thinly slice potatoes and slap them down on the flat cast iron table w/plenty of oil. Season w/salt/pepper/aji. Maybe switch to drinking Fernet Branca in Coke and/or pound more red wine. Turn Gaucho tape to side B.
  7. Slowly roast all other red meat and offal on the grate, season w/only salt!
  8. When the meat is ready to go (nice med-rare), slice it up, put it in a fresh baked whitebread bun w/ nothing else! Everyone gets a sandwich. Everyone drinks. There’s no dancing, but lots of laughter.
  9. Once you’re all fed, bust out the classical guitar and sing old Gaucho songs until 4am.

If you disagree with any of the steps above, please take up your complaints with Domingo, the gaucho who owns El Refugio Campsite in El Chalten, preferably before the fire/meat-eating/wine drinking commences each evening.

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El Chalten – Patagonia on a Budget: An Overview

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El Chalten is a small mountain village located inside the northern part of Parque Nacional de los Glaciares. Home to the famous Cerro Fitz Roy range. This tiny town, founded only a few decades ago has since become the trekking capitol of Argentina. Chalten provided the best, as well as the cheapest, experience for us in southern Patagonia. For the budget traveler, this place was absolutely ideal: easy to navigate, free entry and plenty of free camping.

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What to expect:

Before the bus from El Calafate drops you off on the edge of town it stops at the ranger station where an Antonio Banderas look-alike in khaki overalls orates so passionately regarding park safety and ‘leave no trace’ that Jordan and I were at once seduced and afraid. However, we were glad for it because you can drink the water directly from the lakes and rivers in the park, which was an amazing experience.

The walk from the bus station to the other end of town takes about 15-20 minutes. Chalten is completely surrounded by mountains, with a glacial river running along one side. Literally, at the end of each road is a mountain trail head. Entry into the town/park is free and all campsites along the trails are also free. There is also a campsite in town (El Refugio) where we stayed every few nights where you can access a hot shower and free cooking fuel for 25 pesos a night, which at our exchange rate was $2.50 (in February 2014)! It also happens to be right across from a grocery store, which offers affordable meat and staples.

view from El Refugio campsite

view from El Refugio campsite

view from El Refugio campsite

view from El Refugio campsite

The free trail map provided upon entry into the park at the bus or ranger station is all you need to start exploring. The great thing about Chalten is that you can set up camp and do mostly day hikes, leaving your bulky pack behind. If you are a budget traveler like us, we bet you could easily get away with spending less than $5pp a day while inside Chalten. See our next posts regarding the hikes we did!

Where to Stay:

Best Free Campsite: Campamento Laguna Capri

This campsite is only about an hour and a half from the trail head in town. It is situated next to Laguna Capri and offers an incredible view of the Cerro Fitz Roy. This makes for a laughably easy ‘mountains glowing red sunrise experience’ which in Torres Del Paine, required hard work, early wake up, and in the end totally kicked our ass. Campamento Laguna Capri offers a basic pit latrine that you can also deposit your TP in (nothing else though!). There is no ‘running water’ at the campsite but according to the rangers you can literally drink the water right from the lake, which we did and it was just fine. The best day hike to do from Laguna Capri is the Sendero Fitz Roy, but it is also situated close to the trail connecting sendero Fitz Roy to the trail to La Torre.

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Other free campsites:

Poincenot: In the woods about 2 hours from the end of Sendero FitzRoy. Good for those wanting to make a sunrise attempt at the Laguna Fitz Roy (the end of the Sendero Fitz Roy). However, as the sunrise view from Laguna Capri is amazing and requires no work at all, why not stay there? The last leg of the Sendero Fitz Roy was incredibly steep and arduous and not something I would want to do while waking up/in the dark.

D’Agostini: The site right before Laguna Torre. The final view of Laguna Torre is nice but not as impressive as the Fitz Roy. The campsite here is next to a beautiful, but loud, running river. I also felt that this site was colder than the other two sites at night.

Best Budget Campsite: El Refugio

This site is run by a jumpsuit wearing Gaucho named Domingo. The place has plenty of sites to set up a tent (though try to get next to a fence or something to help block the wind if you can!). There are hot showers and a outdoor sheltered kitchen area which provides free propane and a few burners to cook with. Each night Domingo and his friends, along with the campers, started a huge fire and we enjoyed cooking our meat on the parilla for a traditional Argentinian/Patagonian asado of beef or lamb. At the end of each night, an older Chilean ex-pat would pick up the guitar and stun the crowd with his soul-touching voice. Truly a great place to stay and at 25 pesos a night, it doesn’t get better than this.

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el refugio

el refugio

our little tent!

our little tent!

the kitchen

the kitchen

Coming soon: Posts on the day hikes we did!

Visiting the Perito Moreno Glaciar

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A mere hour or so from El Calafate, inside the southern part of Parque Nacional de los Glaciares, lies the icy giant Glacier Perito Moreno. An easy and outstanding day trip brings you face to face with one of the worlds few stable or advancing glaciers. With a round trip bus ticket you can spend hours gazing at the vividly aquamarine blue crevices and frosty white towers with the occasional gun cracking crash of ice sheets calving into the surrounding lake. The bus drops you off at the beginning of a network of catwalks that allow you to view the glacier from all angles with stress free ease. You can either spend your approximate 3 hours hiking as much of the ‘trail’ as you can, or post up on one of the many benches while you eat your sandwich. Because there are so many catwalks and viewing opportunities, the crowds do not detract from the once in a lifetime chance to see one of the worlds disappearing wonders. We’ll never forget the vast beauty of this stoic giant and the thrill we got watching an entire ice tower detach and crash into the water with a thunderous explosion. Pictures could never do this sight justice.

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We visited the park in February 2014.

The Details:

What: Perito Moreno Glacier, Parque Nacional de los Glaciares.

How to get there:
Bus from El Calafate, Argentina (approx 2 hours).
Bus Company: Interlagos, TAQSA
You can purchase tickets from almost any hostel or directly at the bus station (same price).

When to go:
The bus company has a morning and an afternoon option. Best to take the afternoon option as more ice crashes from the glacier after getting warmed by the sun all day.

Costs (February 2014):
Bus Ticket (RT): 190 pesos (incl. a 5 peso bus station tax)
Entrance to Parque Nacional de los Glaciares: 130 pesos (non-argentinian price)

Where to stay in El Calafate:
As a budget traveler, El Ovejero offers affordable campsites about 10 minutes walk from the bus station. Each site has an Argentinian parilla (grill) so you can cook up your own steak or lamb dinner. Beware of the many stray dogs here though. (50 pesos pp per night)

personal grills for each campsite!

personal grills for each campsite!

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Additional Information:

  • Bring a bagged lunch, you’ll want to stay on the catwalks while you eat and there is only one overpriced restaurant as an alternative.
  • On the way to the viewing areas the bus will give you an additional drop off/pick up option to take a 1.5 hour boat cruise around the glacier. I believe this cost around 120 pesos. The bus will then pick you up and bring you to the catwalks with the rest of your group for the remaining time. We got many mixed reviews of this boating experience (gets you close but boats can be very crowded thus impairing the view) and decided to save our money and just go to the viewing area.
  • There is also the opportunity to walk on the glacier, which allows you to view the ice up close. Travelers we met loved this experience. The one drawback is that you don’t get a chance to view the glacier from afar for too long, which is how you see the ice walls crashing down. Might be worth a two day trip if you do the Big Ice glacier walk.

 

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Food Truck in Ancud: Delicias de Abril

I love a good food truck. The efficiency, the convenience, the lack of pretension. Nobody likes to wait in lines but that’s most often what’s going to dictate whose truck is dishing out the best product.

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Street food in Chiloé consisted of a lot of Milcaos and Pan de papa. There were always completos as well, which is a hot dog done wrong in several different ways.

Then, we come across Delicias de Abril. There is a line of about ten people and it’s moving slowly. I crane my neck around to see what he’s got going on and I see him meticulously crafting sandwiches – two at a time. I didn’t even have to read the menu to know that whatever he was making was worth a try. He had 7 different homemade sauces in front and while making the sandwiches not a single shred of food or movement on his part was wasted. As a line cook, you can spot the others who have spent thousands of hours going through the motions – this guys was smooth. After speaking with him, I learned that he used to cook for a hotel in town but eventually felt stifled by the lack of creativity. He was now his own boss and could clearly sell as many sandwiches as he felt like making.

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How was it? Killer. It was neither the most gourmet or gut-busting thing I’ve ever eaten, but you could just taste that every element was done right. The bread was toasted on both sides, the pork was tender, the homemade salsa verde, garlic aioli and aji all together had a well balanced herbal-richness and spicy acidity. He even introduced me to a texture I hadn’t had in a sandwich before. He replaced lettuce with blanched and chopped up green beans. Throw a thick cut, perfectly ripe tomato in the middle and that was the sandwich. We each ate one, felt great, and immediately got back in line to get another.

Definitely check out his food truck if you are exploring Ancud. It is called Delicias de Abril, located in the main plaza next to the tourist office and you can find them on facebook! Here is a youtube video we found of him as well: http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=f9Hqh7oDEK0

Everything You Need to Know About the Torres Del Paine Circuit Trek

Torres Del Paine, Chile’s premier national park and one of the gems of Patagonia, is located near the tip of South America, about 2 hours from Puerto Natales. TDP is a huge reserve of patagonian wilderness containing mountains, glaciars and gorgeous lakes. Climbers, trekkers and heck even cruise passengers make their way to the park to see the epic scenery during the peak months of December-March. With something for nature lovers of all levels and abilities, the park can provide any number of experiences depending on what you are looking for.

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Even the park entrance has beautiful views.

Even the park entrance has beautiful views.

Intrigued? Perhaps now you want to go to Torres Del Paine (TDP) and everyone keeps talking about the infamous ‘W’ – a 4-5 day trek through a portion of the park. If you are already brave enough to embark on a multi day trek and you have the time to get all the way down to the southern tip of South America, why not push yourself a bit further and go for the entire circuit aka the ‘O.’ For a few extra bags of pasta and a stronger degree of body odor emanating from your hiking shirt, you will gain so much. This is a trek doable for those at different experience levels, as was the case with us. In this post we will share tips based on our experience on the circuit trek in February 2014 to help you plan and enjoy your own trek through the beautiful TDP.

Meet the trekkers:

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Jordan – Nature lover, fearless guerilla camper, biked across the USA using only a tent, comfortable without showering for extended periods of time.

Emma – Nature lover, trekking experience limited to college trip and 3 day Chiloé trek, fearful of passing out by the smell of her own sweat after a few days on the trail.

What to Know Before you Go:

Crowds: First of all, temper your expectations to be alone in the vast Patagonian wilderness. Just because this place appears to be in such a remote locale on the map, it’s a popular destination amongst Chileans and travelers the world over aiming to take advantage of a four month window of reasonable weather. Instead of letting the crowd get you down, enjoy the fact that you are surrounded by some truly interesting, international people who can make a campsite dinner that much more fun (especially if sharing a box of wine or two)! Having done the circuit, we can also assure you that the four days on the back end (ie. not the ‘W’ portion) will contain much fewer people.

Weather and Gear: The weather can be very unpredictable in TDP. We are still pinching ourselves for having had 8 out of 9 beautiful, windless, sunny days during our circuit. However, friends of ours completed the circuit in January 2014 and they encountered rain, insane winds, and snow. Make sure your rain pants and jackets are functioning properly. Also, this would be a good time to refresh the waterproofing on your tent. We had rain proof pack covers which were great for us at night since our small tent didn’t have much room for gear storage or protection. However, we heard from many that pack covers often acted like small parachutes in the strong winds. Thus, it is recommended that you use a garbage bag liner inside your pack to protect your gear and abandon the fancy cover on the windy days. Gaiters and hiking poles are highly recommended! Great for navigating muddy trails and steep inclines. Be kind to your knees and use poles!

Go with the weather! Push yourself on days when the weather is nice because when the weather turns (as it often, unexpectedly does) you’ll find the trekking more difficult and less enjoyable. See below for tips on which days might be good to combine on the trek.

Necessities: a warm hat, sun hat and sun screen are essentials!

Puerto Natales (the hub you must pass through to enter and exit TDP):

Gear Storage: If your travels are taking you beyond TDP, you will most likely have some extra stuff in your backpack that you don’t want with you on the trek. In Puerto Natales, try to find a hostel for the day before and day after your trek that offers free storage for extra luggage. Many of them do! Also, check with your hostel before renting equipment. They might have a bunch of gear left by other travelers that they can give to you.

Bus Tickets: Also, it is best to buy your bus tickets in and out of the park from your hostel because they tend to be a bit cheaper. Buses into the park leave either early in the morning (~7:30am) or at 2:00pm. It takes about 2.5 hours to get to the Laguna Amarga entrance. We recommend catching the early bus if possible, though we were able to hike to Campamento Seron even after entering the park with the 2:00 pm bus. Note that when you arrive at the park, you will be asked to leave the bus to buy your entrance ticket and watch a safety video before going back to the bus to retrieve your backpack.

Two Hostel Options in Puerto Natales:
Yagan House (O’Higgins 584) – for a bit of luxury after your trek. This tiny hostel is beautiful and cozy inside, has a fantastic kitchen, gear storage and free breakfast with eggs, cereal and yogurt! It is about a 15-20 minute walk from the bus station. The dorms were clean and bright and Jordan and I were even able to rent the single room (which had a bed big enough for 2) for a rate of $17.000 pesos a night.

Josmar 2 (Esmerelda 517) – for a more budget stay, with dorms, private rooms and campsites. It is also about a 20 minute walk from the bus station. In addition to offering grills and an outdoor kitchenette with gas, Josmar 2 has wifi and a cheap restaurant. Camping is $4,000 pesos pp. The info booth at the bus station is quite helpful  – ask for a map and directions there!

Food and Water:

Water: Once you go glaciar, you never go back. The water from all streams and rivers inside TDP flows directly from the many glaciars throughout the park. It was incredible to be able to dip our Kleen Kanteen in a river and drink pristine glacial runoff. On the trail, there isn’t a need to carry more than 1/2 a liter of water at a time as you have ample opportunity to refill from the many streams along the way. As indicated by the park rangers, all the water is safe to drink.

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Sprim – Despite the fact that the water tasted incredible, we were glad to have purchased several packets of Sprim/Tang (think South American gatorade). On really tough days, it was nice to have an extra dose of sugar to help get the ‘sprim’ back in our step. Or, sometimes you just feel like big sprimpin’, ya know?

Food – You can find affordable food in Puerto Natales, go for the Uni-Marc as opposed for the boutique grocers. We carried all our own food for the trek and made some good decisions and bad decisions on our grocery run. We were incredibly inspired by an experienced Swedish trekker we met who packed so efficiently that his food weighed almost nothing. He portioned out pasta and scoops of various flavor powders to make a soup for breakfast, lunch and dinner. There we were, sitting next to him holding our weighty cheese brick, nutella jar and pound of butter, feeling a bit embarrassed. I’ll admit that some of the ridiculous items in our larder were there from my own insistence. Like the containers of jam and honey which I ‘needed’ for our oatmeal. We also realized that many of the campsites sell relatively cheap bags of pasta (~$1.000 pesos) and boxed wine (~$5.000 pesos) which are highly recommended if you want to save space and weight. However, do your best to not give into the temptation to purchase ANY preparared food items at the refugios. You may think that a $25 hamburger is worth it on day 5 when wafts of grilled beef welcome you to camp, but don’t be fooled! (The one exception is the $2 hot dog/beer combo offered at the kiosko near the hotel towards the park exit, that’s worth going for twice.) See the campsite descriptions below for those with a kiosko for provisions.

This is how the pasta and boxed wine gets transported to the campsites. Many thanks to the strong horses and hard working Gauchos!

This is how the pasta and boxed wine gets transported to the campsites. Many thanks to the strong horses and hard working Gauchos!

There are many edible berries growing in TDP. Here is a picture of one kind. I don't know the name of it, but it is a pinkish, fat little berry. We saw a ranger eating them and he told us they were ok! Apparently the same berries grow in Russia, according to some Russian hikers we met.

There are many edible berries growing in TDP. Here is a picture of one kind. I don’t know the name of it, but it is a pinkish, fat little berry. We saw a ranger eating them and he told us they were ok! Apparently the same berries grow in Russia, according to some Russian hikers we met.

Good groceries:
Pasta- cooks faster than rice, small, light
Powdered flavor packets – a week hopped up on MSG won’t detract from your commune with nature, but may cause flashbacks later on.
Oatmeal
Peanut Butter
Salami

Questionable Groceries:
Glass Jars of Nutella: you are better off with a sleeve of chocolate cookies or a bar of chocolate. That jar is heavy! And glass? What were we thinking.
Block of cheese: A little cheese won’t hurt but its definitely heavy. Eat it first if you need your cheese fix and definitely get a nice firm cheese that wont get funky on you!
Packaging – Be wary of food containers. Dispose of all unnecessary packaging prior to leaving, perhaps utilizing ziplock bags to get rid of multiple plastics ones (ie. all your pasta could go in one). Remember, leave no trace, pack out trash!

Hikes and Campsites:

The trail map provided at the park entrance is detailed and informative. It provides distances, detailed elevation info and guidelines for how many hours each section should take. Note that the hour estimates don’t give a lot of buffer for extended breaks. We hiked at a good pace with few breaks and usually finished about 30 minutes faster than the map indicated, this was in good weather. Plan accordingly if you like to take longer breaks or keep a slower pace.

The map also tells you what time the trails ‘close’ each day. This means that after the designated closing time you are advised not to leave the campsite you are currently at because you wouldn’t reach the next site before dark.

We recommend doing the circuit counter-clockwise which is how we have listed the campsites below. Also, note that we didn’t stay at the Hotel Las Torres campsite (which we heard was free) and instead headed straight for Seron upon arriving at the park.

Porteria Laguna Amarga (park entrance) – Campamento Seron ($4.000 pesos pp)
Distance: Approx 13 KM
Hours: 4.5
Kiosko with provisions
Flush toilets and showers
Special Notes: Beware of mosquitos! Bring bug repellent.

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This hike was relatively flat and unchallenging. You mostly walk through meadows and get your first glimpse of the beautiful turquoise color of the glacial rivers. Not filled with the most stunning scenery. Can be combined with the Seron – Dickson leg for a long but (altitude-wise) not very challenging day.

Campemento Seron – Campamento Dickson ($4.000 pesos pp)
Distance: 18 km
Hours: 6
Kiosko with provisions
Flush Toilets and showers

This is the extremely windy stretch of the hike.

This is the extremely windy stretch of the hike.

Here you can see Campsite Dickson, mountains and glaciar in the background!

Here you can see Campsite Dickson, mountains and glaciar in the background!

The hike to Dickson takes you through meadows, provides the first glimpse of the many mountain top glaciars in the park, and offers stunning views along an incredibly windy stretch next to Lago Paine. Campamento Dickson is situated right next to Laguna Dickson with a glaciar capped mountain backdrop that rumbles throughout the night. Although a long day, you might consider combining the Seron and Dickson stretch as there is relatively little altitude change.

Campamento Dickson – Campamento Los Perros (not free site, probably around $4.000 pesos pp)
Distance: 11km
Hours: 4.5
Kiosko (not sure)
Flush Toilets, not sure about showers

The hike from Dickson to Los Perros was a pleasantly short hike. You spend much of this hike walking though the forest. Mirador Valle de los Perros offers incredible views as you traverse along a mountain crest. As you get very close to Los Perros you’ll see a glaciar dipping off a mountain into a lake that sits right next to a fresh water lake. You’ve got to scramble up some rocks to see the glaciar lake, so be sure not to miss it! We didn’t end up sleeping at Los Perros and instead combined this hike with the John Gardiner pass because we were told the weather was ideal for the difficult climb. I will say that the bathrooms did feel the dirtiest at Los Perros compared to the others we encountered.

Campamento Los Perros – Campamento Paso (FREE campsite!)
Distance: 8 km
Hours: 6
No provisions
Pit toilet, no showers
Special Note: Extremely difficult elevation on this section!

Get out the gaiters because the beginning of this section was extremely muddy! After you get out of the muddy forest you find yourself scrambling up the rocky and exposed John Gardiner Pass. This hike takes you up 600m and was the most difficult part of the trek for us by far. We were lucky to do it in perfect weather conditions. If the weather is bad or there is a lot of snow the rangers might close the pass which means an extra night at Los Perros or possibly not getting through. Our badass friends from Boston who came in January were told that the pass was closed but they went for it anyway in the snow! The toughest climb is rewarded with a life changing view at the top of the pass when you get your first glimpse of Glaciar Grey in all it’s entirety. Leave yourself a nice chunk of time to hang out up there because its a view you’ll want to soak in for a while (if the weather permits anyway!). Also its good to rest your legs for the incredibly steep descent in which you drop 800m in approximately 3-4 km. I may or may not have fallen several times on my butt and/or face.

Once you get out of the muddy forest, the hike is very exposed through the John Gardiner Pass.

Once you get out of the muddy forest, the hike is very exposed through the John Gardiner Pass.

Our first glimpse of the beautiful Glaciar Grey!

Our first glimpse of the beautiful Glaciar Grey!


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Once you hit this little waterfall, you know you are very close to Campamento Paso!

Once you hit this little waterfall, you know you are very close to Campamento Paso!

Campamento Paso – Campamento Grey (~4.000 pesos pp)
Distance: 6km
Hours: 5
Kiosko
Flush toilets and showers
Special note: First encounter with the ‘W’ – be prepared for a much bigger and more crowded campsite. I took the coldest shower of my life here only to realize hot water came on at 7pm…be sure to ask the ranger when the hot water comes on!  Beware: hot water comes with long lines!

The hike from Paso to Grey was probably our favorite day due to the uninterrupted vistas of Glaciar Grey. While navigating a few wire bridges and ladders bolted into the rocks, you mostly walk along a mountain crest with the beautiful glaciar glimmering to your right. This day was not super challenging and we recommend taking your time and really enjoying the views. Campamento Grey was a bit crowded and some spots can be pretty exposed to the wind. Try to get a spot within or near the trees for a bit of wind protection.

There was a major fire in the park several years back caused by a careless visitor. You can see signs of the damage throughout most of the circuit trek.

There was a major fire in the park several years back caused by a careless visitor. You can see signs of the damage throughout most of the circuit trek.

While this section of the trek is relatively easy, there are a few intimidating ladders and drawstring bridges to get through!

While this section of the trek is relatively easy, there are a few intimidating ladders and drawstring bridges to get through!

Don't look down, Jordan!

Don’t look down, Jordan!

Can you find me? What a pleasure to walk next to this glaciar all day.

Can you find me? What a pleasure to walk next to this glaciar all day.

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Don't miss the 10 minute Mirador detour marked on the trail! It gives you a great view of the edge of the glaciar meeting the lake.

Don’t miss the 10 minute Mirador detour marked on the trail! It gives you a great view of the edge of the glaciar meeting the lake.

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Campamento Grey – Campamento Paine Grande (Not free, 4-6.000 pesos pp)
Distance: 10km
Hours: 3.5
Kiosko
Flush toilets and showers (nice facilities)
Special Note: There is a boat launch here where you can take a ferry to one of the park entrances.

The hike from Grey to Paine Grande starts off walking through hills filled with lupins and foxglove flowers. You slowly say farewell to Glaciar Grey while making your way to Lago Pehoe. Campamento Paine Grande looked refinished with tiled bathrooms and catwalks leading around the campsite. We didn’t stay here however, and can’t comment on the wind etc. Since this is such a short leg, many combined it with the next hike to Campamento Italiano.

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Campamento Paine Grand – Campamento Italiano (FREE!)
Distance: 7.5 km
Hours: 2.5
No Provisions
Flush toilets, no showers
Special Note: Option for pack storage during Mirador Británico hike, use it!

Though probably the easiest section of the trek, we had kind of a difficult time since the sun was so strong and hot with minimal shade. Beautiful lake views. Campamento Italiano is a free site and gets very crowded. It is next to a gorgeous rushing river, but otherwise not the best environment. Since the site is free, you are only supposed to stay there one night, not that the ranger would be able to tell. The hike to Mirador Britanico begins and ends with Campamento Italiano so it is common practice to leave your pack outside the ranger station during the climb and then pick it up before moving on to the next site. After several days with your pack this climb doesn’t feel bad at all without that added weight!

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Resting our feet next to the river at Campamento Italiano.

Resting our feet next to the river at Campamento Italiano.

Campamento Italiano – Campamento Cuernos ($6.000 pesos pp)
Distance: 5km
Hours: 2.5
Kiosko
Flush toilets and showers, questionably clean hot tub (yes I said hot tub)

Typically combined with the Mirador Britanico hike, the Italiano-Cuernos hike is pretty short. Cuernos offers great views of Lago Nordernskjöld, if you can find a good campsite that is. In addition to the refugio dormitory there are also small cabins available for rent here. In front of the cabins, we were amused to find a wood stove heated hot tub. Only two of our hiking companions were brave enough to get into the ‘confusingly slimy’ wooden tub which they found lukewarm but enjoyable.

View from Valle Frances (on the way up to Mirador Brittanico)

View from Valle Frances (on the way up to Mirador Brittanico)

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Campamento Cuernos – Campamento Chileno ($6.000 pesos pp)
Distance: ~15km (Cuernos to Hotel is 12, Hotel to Chileno is 5 but you can take a shortcut to bypass hotel)
Hours: ~5
Kiosko
Flush toilets and showers

Lago Nordernskjöld is so vast and beautiful, that the trek along side it turned into one of our favorite trail sections. Campamento Chileno was a bit crowded and the bathrooms pretty gross. We had to squeeze our tent on the edge of a small cliff above the river that runs through the campsite. I would recommend pushing through and getting to the free campsite, Campamenrto Torres, if possible as this sets you up well for a sunrise viewing of the geological wonders and namesake of the park, Los Torres. Unfortunately for us this site was closed for camping due to a bathroom explosion of some kind.

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Photos will never do this lake justice.

Photos will never do this lake justice.

You can see the trail leading to Chileno on the left.

You can see the trail leading to Chileno on the left.

You can see the trail leading to Chileno on the left.

You can see the trail leading to Chileno on the left.

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Our precarious campsite at Chileno. It was overcrowded due to the temporary closing of Campamento Torres.

Our precarious campsite at Chileno. It was overcrowded due to the temporary closing of Campamento Torres.

Campamento Chileno – The climb to see Los Torres!
Distance: 4km
Hours: 2.5

Everyone tells you to brave the cold and wake up early to see Los Torres at sunrise during which they glow a beautiful red color. Since Campamento Torres was closed that meant waking up at 3:30AM to hike to the Base de Los Torres in the dark. We received good advice to wear all our warm layers, rain gear and also bring our sleeping bag to the top as it is incredibly cold. Unfortunately, the weather for us did not cooperate and we spent hours sitting in the rain and snow hoping to catch a glimpse of Los Torres through the clouds. Definitely worth the attempt, but be prepared for inclement conditions! Once you are back at Chileno, the trek out of the park is a leisurely downhill stroll to the exit with the buses.

We found a ledge which provided some 'shelter' from the elements as we froze for two hours waiting for the cloud cover to clear.

We found a ledge which provided some ‘shelter’ from the elements as we froze for two hours waiting for the cloud cover to clear.

The infamous Torres of Torres Del Paine!

The infamous Torres of Torres Del Paine!

Base Expenses (per person in pesos):

Bus RT in/out of TDP: 11.000
Campsites for 8 nights: ~24.000 give or take
Park entrance (non chilean): 18.000

***add food costs and hostel/camping in Puerto Natales pre and post TDP and this can cost you over $150 – be prepared!***

 

 

Navigating the Sendero de Chile on Chiloé: Pictures and Pitfalls

After a month on the island of Chiloé, Jordan and I realized that, other than a quick trip to Castro, we had only explored the northern part of the island. We decided to plan a mini trek on the Sendero de Chile and hike from Guabun to the sunken forrest of Chepu. The Sendero de Chile is a trail that will eventually connect all of Chile, north to south. We figured that embarking on this short section would be fun and also a great chance to test out our trekking gear before entering the wilds of Patagonia. We had just purchased the food we would be taking on our Chiloé trek, as well as food for Torres Del Paine since we were told it would be extremely expensive to purchase down south (not the case, FYI!). Thus, our backpacks were stuffed to the brim and seriously heavy. We figured, a little extra weight wouldn’t be that bad for just three days, and we’ll get stronger for the big trek in Torres (silly us). We had a free tourist map of the island, which also displayed the trail. Although this map didn’t have as many details as we would have hoped for, we were told that the trail just hugs the coast and should be easy to follow…

Day 1:

Flash forward to the end of our first day and color us surprised to find ourselves face to face with a sign we had painted just weeks before indicating that Al Norte Del Sur was only 800 meters away. That’s right, in 4 hours of hiking with our over stuffed backpacks we had walked in a big circle around the Guabun penninsula! Thank god it was freakin’ beautiful scenery, or I might have cried. We dragged our slightly deflated spirits to the nearby beach, Playa Rosauro. There was no campsite there, but we set up shop, unable to go any further. It was my first night of ‘guerilla camping’ as Jordan called it. We ate ramen, enjoyed the beautiful view of the ocean and passed out asleep.

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Day 2:

The next day we set out again, this time heading for Punihuil via Playa Mar Brava. We were pleased to note the large “Bienvenido al Sendero de Chile” sign at the entrance to the beach. That wave of confidence subsided quickly however after being faced with the choice of continuing to walk along the beach or taking a path into the adjacent meadow. We decided to stick with the beach, it was low tide after all, since we figured it was best to hug the coast. We walked and walked, surrounded by interesting beach birds and gulls, until we reached the end of the beach (marked by an impassible rocky cliff!). We took a path up out of the sand and onto the main road (W-216) where we were most grateful to stop at a small restaurant for a soda. We anxiously watched a stormy rain cloud encroach the coastal path we had just traveled. Thankfully, it blew inland away from us.

Just outside the restaurant were the remains of a large, once informative, “SENDERO DE CHILE” sign which, in pieces lying on the ground, provided no directional guidance. We knew walking the beach was no longer an option so we started down route W-220, following a road sign that read “Chepu this way.” We walked for about an hour when we came upon a small family farm/guest house, Hospedaje Monserrat. It was getting late and the fee for camping was minimal so we parked for the night. The woman who greeted us showed us around their cozy home and took us on a small tour to see the new set of piglets that had recently joined the farm. We were able to conserve our fuel and cook in their wonderfully warm kitchen, and she even gave us a plate of fresh, homemade bread and cheese to try on the house! It was such a pleasant place to stay and we highly recommend it to anyone needing a room while going to see the penguins at Punihuil.

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Day 3:

It rained throughout the night, which made packing up in the morning especially fun. Although a sunny day would have been more enjoyable, we were actually kind of excited to put all our brand new Columbia and REI rain products to the test. We got on the road early and, hiking poles in hand, started to trudge our way through the rain. With no trail signs in sight and a map we had since deemed utterly useless, we continued on W-220 until we hit the beach again. We figured we were on the trail again when we encountered a system of ropes fixed to a cliff, which they were indicating we needed to repel down…in the muddy, slippery rain. Jordan went first.

A mere 30 minutes later we had both feet on the ground and a nice thick spread of mud on our butts and rain equipment. We looked far more hardcore than I felt. To my annoyance, we only walked on that beach for another 15 minutes before climbing back up to the level we started from. We ended up emerging back onto W-220 on which we continued for the rest of the day. In addition to the challenge of the pouring, windy, chilly rain, day 3’s hike was filled with constant rolling hills. With a heavy pack on, this really started to take its toll on us. We finally crossed a wooden bridge, on which a weather beaten wooden sign hinted that we were still on the Sendero de Chile. We knew we must be close to that evening’s destination, a campsite at Dohatau. In fact just around the next bend in the path was Playa Dohatau, and just beyond that lay the campsite. Fate was in our favor because the rain also stopped for a few hours giving us enough time to dry off a bit and set up our tent. No one was at the campground, but we set up our stuff and built a fire in the lean-to. The caretaker came by eventually and we paid him the ~$10 for staying the night. For that 2-3 hour window, the weather turned absolutely beautiful. We took a sunset stroll and an easy going family with a perfectly manicured country home even let us walk along their private trail to view some more of the craggy cliffs and caves along the coast. Those few hours of breathtaking views were the highlight of our trek and in retrospect we wish we had just stayed there for several days. Instead, we decided to take our weather beaten, aching bodies back to Ancud with the caretaker the next day. Our packs were just too unnecesarily heavy and I was starting to fear injury. The next morning he picked us up in his truck, shoved our backpacks in and around the living lamb tied up in the back and we were off. We never made it to Chepu, but seeing Dohatau made the entire endeavor well worth the effort.

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What we learned:

There is never a good reason to hike with an overstuffed, overweight backpack. We should have stored most of our unnecessary belongings and extra food prior to starting the journey at a hostel in Ancud.

We were very happy with the success of our Columbia and REI rain jackets, pants and pack covers that kept us dry despite a full day of intense rain. Those looking to trek on Chiloé, or do anything really, should always be prepared with solid rain gear.

Perhaps the Sendero de Chile is better marked within the National Park on Chiloé, but certainly the northern section is barely marked at all. Definitely find yourself a good map or be prepared to take a lot of guesses!

I’m happy to say that the rest of our Patagonian trekking went far smoother, excellent in fact (see our future posts). We unnecessarily put ourselves through the ringer on this 3 day trek, but we were not discouraged! We got through it and were even more excited for our next challenge, the circuit trek in Torres Del Paine!

anyone else do any hiking on Chiloé? Where did you go and how was it?!

Exploring Chiloé: Costumbrista in Guabun

On one of our free days from wwoofing on a farm on Chiloé we walked to a local Costumbrista near the beach area of Guabun. A Costumbrista is like a festival with food, dancing and brute displays of manly strength as men line up to take a turn cranking the old grain mill used by their ancestors. We drank wine, ate empanadas and a patagonian style lamb called an asado, and watched a dance troupe in full garb perform the national dance of Chilote origin, the Cueca. It was such a lighthearted and fun affair. I couldn’t help but think about a video I watched in the Museo de Memoria in Santiago of older women dancing the cueca, normally a partner dance, alone because their husbands had been killed during the Pinochet era. It was nice to see the dance tradition continue with both old and young performers in the troupe. The dance itself is innocent and fun with a n awesome amount of handkerchief swirling.

We also walked a bit further to Playa Guabun to glance at the Pacific, but didn’t stay too long due to the abundance of horrible, biting black flies swarming us. Apparently these flies are a summer phenomenon that are only bad in and around January.

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these black flies almost made me lose my mind!

these black flies almost made me lose my mind!

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Exploring Chiloé: Penguins of Puñihuil

On a free day during our month wwoofing on Chiloé, an island in northern Chilean patagonia, we accepted a ride with some German and Italian tourists staying at the farm to go see the penguins. The drive to Puñihuil was less than half an hour along some beautiful roads. We were lucky to get a ride, though other backpackers we met were able to easily hitch hike their way there and back in a half day. Hitch hiking is quite common on the island, by those old and young!

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We arrived at the beach, signed up for the next boat launch (~$10 pp), donned our obligatory life vests and boarded. The boat ride itself is only about 30 minutes. It takes you on a short route around two small islands just off the coast. While not the most high octane type of wildlife/boating experience, I appreciated the calmer waters compared with the boat ride we took in and out of Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica! The boat got us super close to the rocky cliffs where hundreds of penguins stood bathing in the sun, or waddling about. It was fun to see penguins in their natural habitat, as opposed to in an aquarium. We even saw a sea lion too! We were very glad to have taken the boat ride and gotten up close to the little guys, but we realized the experience wasn’t as life changing as we thought and thus we would probably be skipping future penguin excursions as we travelled south into Patagonia.

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The tourists we traveled with then decided to take a short drive around the area to take in some other views from a nearby Mirador (vista/lookout point). We stopped at a stunning spot, right on the coast where a restaurant and campsite provides access to a short hike down to the water. If Jordan and I hadn’t been staying at the farm, we most definitely would have wanted to camp there because the view was breathtaking. The place is called Fogon Ballena Azul and camping there costs 3500 pesos (~$7 pp). The view became even more stunning when our German companions spotted blue whales off the coast in the distance. We were grateful that they shared their binoculars with us. They decided to arrange a whale watching tour that afternoon and had no trouble booking it the day of. For around $100 per person they had a three hour tour with multiple whale sightings. Though it was out of our price range, they told us it was a great experience and worth it.

Has anyone else had any incredible penguin experiences? We would love to hear about it!

the yellow building is the restaurant, Fogon Ballena Azul!

the yellow building is the restaurant, Fogon Ballena Azul!

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Milking Cows (aka: the life-giving gauntlet of scabby poop explosions)

I think it was visions of Gina Davis milking cows in ‘A League of Their Own’ that put the romanticism of milking cows in my head. What could be better than milking a cow, then eating the cheese a few days later? The answer to that question is just eating the cheese and being no where near the milk extraction process.

With no good pictures of the milk cows, I present you with a picture of a bull. You get the idea though...

With no good pictures of the milk cows, I present you with a picture of a bull. You get the idea though…

During the first week of wwoofing on the island of Chiloé, I eagerly volunteered Jordan and I to help with the daily milking. Turns out that the cows are up in the summer pasture, so we hiked up to the highest hill to collect the cows with the family patriarch. I tried to pretend that my instinctive ‘flight’ reaction to a cow stepping out of line wasn’t me running away scared, but instead a happy frolic in the meadow. This was off to a tenuous start.

When the cows come down from pasture, the calfs who spent the night away from their milk bearing mothers are each given turns to drink, which also helps get the udders ‘warmed up’ if you will. Once we pried the milk crazed calfs from the udders and secured them behind a fence, we got to work tying the cows’ back legs together so that they would not be able to kick us in the head while we were milking them. It’s tricky though because in order to tie their legs together, you have to put your head right behind them to get the rope around. When I wrote earlier that ‘we’ had to tie the legs together, you can be sure that I just watched as the seasoned farmed did all the work. Once the legs (and consequently the tail) are all tied up, you are ready to grab your short bench and bucket and start milking.

First, we use a little fresh water to rinse the layer of calf saliva from the udders, noting the scabby areas of flesh caused by some over eager baby cows. No one likes calf saliva in their cheese, am I right??! Then, remembering to keep the udder lubricated with the milk you are extracting, you grab hold and try to figure out a pressure/pull combo which makes the milk come out. This can be difficult especially with an endless stream of ‘that’s what she said’ scenarios popping into your head.

Ten minutes later, when I first started to get milk out of my udder and the patriarch had already finished milking two cows, I started to notice the cow leaning. A cow that leans probably doesn’t seem like a event worthy of note, but when you are crouching beneath a behemoth heifer, whose back legs are tied up, you start to realize, ‘wow, if this cow falls over on me, I’ll most certainly die.’ So anyway, I was just coming to terms with the whole leaning thing, when we noticed the beginning of a leg shuffle. Listen to me when I say this, never ignore the leg shuffle of a cow getting milked. In a series of slow motion events, Jordan and I dove out of the way barely in time to avoid a successive eruption of feces, chaotically trying to explode from a knotted tail/leg tie up, followed by a tidal wave of urine that might have been tinged with revenge for the amateur milking job we were doing on this poor cow. We left the muddy milk pen, buckets virtually empty, forearms burning, feeling unclean, emotionally even more so than physically, hoping to forget about the scabby udders threatening to haunt our morning yogurt for the rest of our days.

All jokes aside, what I once thought would be an easy, new thing to learn, turns out to be a difficult job, requiring much strength and skill. It was amazing watching the farm patriarch handle the cows expertly from pasture to milking. If you wondered why most farmers have such strong handshakes, its because they have been milking cows for decades! I was glad to have been given the chance to try milking a cow with expert teachers, and even more grateful for the people out there who do it on a regular basis so I can enjoy the cheese, yogurt and butter that I love so much!

Has anyone else out there ever tried milking cows? How was your experience? We’d love to hear about it.

Wwoofing on Chiloé: The Food!

One of the most spectacular things we ate while wwoofing at Al Norte Del Sur was a traditional curanto, which you can read about in our previous post. Almost everything we ate was cultivated on the farm and made from scratch. It is pretty amazing when a large family, with a restaurant, only has one relatively small refridgerator. That’s all they needed because the produce was just waiting to be picked and the dairy products were squeezed and cultured each day! There was fresh cheese, jam, hearty stews, eight varieties of potatoes and all sorts of delicious homemade breads, fried dough and empanadas. By the end of the month I think I was averaging about 10 rolls a day, which was totally inappropriate considering bending my arm to pick raspberries was hardly the ‘strenuous farm work’ that would necessitate the frantic carbo-loading mania which possessed me at each meal. Not only did Al Norte cook deliciouus food, they also employed a zero waste lifestyle on the farm which taught us alot about sustainability. No food (or water for that matter) was ever wasted. Between the humans, dogs, pigs and compost pile, every morsel was consumed. Needless to say, we were fed very well and, despite my increased risk of developing jam-onset diabetes, we ate happily.

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Homemade jams, local honey and all sorts of other delicious spreads were always available to eat with the fresh bread!

Homemade jams, local honey and all sorts of other delicious spreads were always available to eat with the fresh bread!

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The Most Epic Costa Rican Sunset

As spring and warmer weather is starting to return up north, I thought I would post this beachside sunset throw back from the beginning of our trip. This was in Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica. Enjoy!

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Chilote Curanto: A Fire Pit Feast

image image Aside from homemade cheese and jam, a curanto was the most distinctly chilote cuisine we were lucky enough to enjoy, several times. Nowadays, the people of Chiloé can cook a curanto in a large olla, or pot, on the stove. However, traditionally a curanto is cooked and eaten outside. The benefit of cooking a curanto in a pot is that you can save all the broth from the melange of ingredients, which is then ladled out and sipped on as a lovely addition to the meal. Some even say this special liquor is a type of aphrodisiac! The benefit of the traditional curanto is the rich, smoky flavor imparted by the firepit. We had the pleasure of learning about curantos from the family farm we wwoofed at, Al Norte Del Sur. Curantos can be an all day affair, requiring much preparation. As you can see from the pictures below, the result is well worth the effort! Stones are heated to blazing levels in the morning over a big fire. The stones provide the heat to cook the curanto so it is essential that they get very hot. Once the stones were ready, they piled on sacks of gigantic mussels and clams, freshly picked potatoes, fava and pea pods, chicken, pork belly and sausage. They covered the meat with gigantic leaves that grow all over the island. The leaves help to seal in the heat and also provide a platform to cook the final component of a curanto: milcau and pan de papas! Milcaus are like giant potato dumplings, made from flour, the starch extracted from shredded raw potatoes, and pork fat. Pan de papas consist of flour and freshly mashed potatoes, formed into a disk and stuffed with cheese. These delicious dumplings get spread over the steaming heap of food and covered with more leaves. The entire thing is then covered with a mountain of tall dried weeds and grasses to help seal in all the steam and heat. After about an hour, we would gather around the fire pit and, like kids on Christmas morning, watch wide-eyed as the family matriarch peeled away the grass and leaves revealing the feast beneath. image imageimageimageimage imageimageimageimageimageimage Traditionally, people gathered around the curanto to eat directly from the fire pit, but we filled our plates and ate the feast on the grass in the sun. Additionally, Al Norte spiced up the affair a bit more, serving up glasses of freshly harvested strawberry smoothies and a cocktail of homemade fermented apple cider called chicha, warmed and mixed with honey. We loved the taste of the chicha, a much more rustic flavor than the sweet Terremottos of Santiago! Since the family has a restaurant at the farm we were lucky to taste these curantos and cocktails several times during our month long stay. The restaurant patrons always left the feast happy, and so did we! image image

Wwoofing on Chiloé

View of the entire Al Norte Del Sur Property from the top of the neighbor's hill. The farm house and restaurant are on the left and the refugio where we slept is on the right.

View of the entire Al Norte Del Sur Property from the top of the neighbor’s hill. The farm house and restaurant are on the left and the refugio where we slept is on the right.

We were enchanted by the island of Chiloé. I’ll forever think of it as the land of wood burning stoves, homemade cheese and jam, countless varieties of potatoes, ‘yes that is poop on your shoes’ and some of the warmest people we were lucky to meet. Chiloé is where we first milked a cow, ate sea algae and drank yerba maté; where the weak are separated from the wwoof.

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A common thistle-ish plant

A common thistle-ish plant

Perusing the Wwoof Chile list of member farms is both exciting and intimidating. Exciting because each listing seems to describe a mini paradise which has the potential to be your new, temporary home. Intimidating because it seems almost impossible to know which farm to choose. Jordan and I knew we wanted to start to explore southern Chile, and had heard wonderful things about the island of Chiloé, so we were able to narrow our search. We emailed a family farm called Al Norte Del Sur and were excited to be invited to volunteer with them for the month of January.

waiting to be picked up at the bus station in Chiloe

waiting to be picked up at the bus station in Chiloe

To get down to Chiloé from Santiago, we took a Pullman overnight bus to Puerto Montt. We were pleasantly surprised when the bus flight attendant seved us box snacks for dinner and breakfast! Most long bus rides in Chile come fully equipped with TVs and flight attendants (for lack of a better description!) who serve drinks, snacks, and even tuck you into your gratis blanket at night! From the Puerto Montt bus station, we easily bought tickets to the city of Ancud, where the family would be picking us up. Currently, Chiloé is only accessible by boat and so all the busses actually drive right onto the ferry! There is much political debate regarding the construction of a bridge to connect Chiloé to the main land. A bridge might indeed boost the growing tourism business there, but many are against it, possibly for fear of losing the geographical and cultural independence instrinsic to the island. We saw penguins and sea lions swimming in the water on our way over, which helped get us super excited to explore this unique place.

Better than penguins, we were greeted by the cherub like chubby cheeks of the newest addition to the Al Norte family when we were picked up in Ancud. The semi-uncertainty of what our future tasks around the farm would be was laid to rest when I met this adorable baby because I figured I would be lucky to change his diapers for a month. Look at those cheeks!

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The farm is about 20 scenic minutes from Ancud, on a windy road that hugs the bay. You can thank Jordan and I for the 5 newly painted signs, complete with logo, guiding your way there (probably our only adroit work addition, being so ‘green’ to farm work and all). We couldn’t have been happier to pull into the farm to see an incredible vista of the hilly terrain, a strawberry patch and a young farm pup named Weicha running around in front of their small family restaurant.

the farm house

the farm house

view from the front of the house

view from the front of the house

view from the upper pasture

view from the upper pasture

view from upper pasture

view from upper pasture

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Weicha!

Weicha!

After meeting the family, we were given the day to explore the farm on our own. The 15 hectare homestead included stunning views of the bay from the upper pasture, as well as patches of forest, milk cows, sheep, goats, turkeys, chickens, ducks, dogs, and cats.

apparently turkeys love sitting on fences

apparently turkeys love sitting on fences

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Another wwoofer was also volunteering on the farm for the month of January and he did a great job of posing with many of the farm animals for us.

George, the other wwoofer, having a laugh with Rosita.

George, the other wwoofer, having a laugh with Rosita.

The cute cat, not yet hardened from living the tough life of a farm cat

The cute cat, not yet hardened from living the tough life of a farm cat

He also taught us that in the UK the term pudding, actually refers to all types of desserts! That’s not confusing at all! The family cultivated numerous items including myriad vegetables, strawberries, raspberries, calafate berries, blackberries, grosella, apples, pears, and more.

Gigantic Garlic! It's just regular old garlic, but apparently when the soil it is planted in is kept loose, it will grow this big!

Gigantic Garlic! It’s just regular old garlic, but apparently when the soil it is planted in is kept loose, it will grow this big!

garlic plants

garlic plants

quinoa

quinoa

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We did a variety of tasks during our month on the farm, the most common tasks being berry picking and collecting or chopping firewood. Personally, I feel that I have become adept in the art of strawberry size classification, knowing instantly if a berry would be considered a ‘pequeño’ or ‘malo’ for jam, a ‘medio’ for serving in the restaurant, or a ‘grande rojo’, the cadillac of berries, for selling at the market in town once a week. Jordan’s already bulging muscles grew to an almost unsightly size after his wood chopping mastery. I was also lucky to get the chance to help out in the kitchen at the restaurant often and learned some pretty great recipes!

learning to make Chilote style bread

learning to make Chilote style bread

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The only machines on the farm were a chain saw and a blender. Everything else was done using traditional, ancestral methods.

The only machines on the farm were a chain saw and a blender. Everything else was done using traditional, ancestral methods.

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All the heat and most of the cooking at the farm was produced by several wood burning stoves throughout the house and restaurant. I had never lived in a place that utilized wood stoves so exclusively. The family was constantly checking the stoves to observe the strength of the fire. It was so pleasant coming in from a cold day and sitting next to the stove to warm up. When we emerged from our tent in our refugio in the mornings, I was always excited to see the smoke coming out of the chimneys because that meant that food was being made and hot water would be ready for tea.

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There were many charming aspects of the farm life. While we were there, four chickens hatched little chicks. They were so small and delicate, constantly exploring but never more than a few inches from the mother hen. I’d be picking berries in the dense raspberry bushes and all of a sudden would hear the lightest little chirps as the hen and her brood passed by under the safe covering of the raspberry plants.

chicklets!

chicklets!

Also, while most of the sheep and the goats kept to themselves away from people, there was one house goat and house lamb, Rosita and Robin, respectively. Rosita was abandoned by her mother, possibly because she seamed weak at birth since it took her a little while to stand up. Robin has a lame leg. Thus both of the young outcasts became best friends and always hung out together near the house, waiting to receive their daily bottle of milk.

best friends

best friends

There was that time Weicha the farm pup followed a bunch of boy scouts all the way to the beach and thus was missing for a few days until one of the scouts returned her. We got a private performance of a traditional dance called the Cueca from the oldest granddaughter of the family, attended a local festival called a ‘Costumbrista,’ and saw the most incredible stars at night from our rustic refugio.

our cozy little refugio!

our cozy little refugio!

The best part by far of our wwoofing experience was being fully immersed in the family who generously hosted us. Our Spanish improved, we learned many new things about farming and sustainability, and the warmth and patience of our new friends made our stay at Al Norte Del Sur unforgettable.

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Sunset view

Sunset view

Santiago, Chile: Terremottos

The second day in our Santiago Hostel, Hostal Providencia, we noticed a sign up sheet for free terre mottos. Having taken a tour of the city the day before we had been educated as to the popularity and the strength of this drink whose name translates to ‘earthquake.’ Free drinks at a hostel, you ask? Yes, there were and yes, we signed up immediately.

As we approached the patio for our free drinks that night we were welcomed by the sound of a gentle guitar and singing. While many people were seated at the picnic tables chatting, two Brazilian guys were playing the guitar and singing Brazilian songs. We had been sitting for only a minute or two with our beverages before the musicians welcomed us into the conversation. It turned out that almost the entire crowd was Brazilian! We had been drinking for only a pitcher or two until another Brazilleno arrived with a bag of traditional instruments, which he handed out with no mind to skill or comfort level. As the terre mottos sunk in, I didn’t know if I was in Santiago or São Paulo, all I cared about was refilling my cup when the next pitcher arrived and making sure that the washboard-like ‘jeca jeca’ (or something like that) I was playing was on beat to the now high decibel raucous rhythm surrounding us. It was the kind of music you would definitely want to be contributing to as opposed to listening to while trying to sleep in your hostel bed. I looked over and saw Jordan shaking a gourd draped with beads, and loving every second of it. It was a fantastic night and best of all, we met our new group of friends who we enjoyed Santiago with for the rest of the week!

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Want to ‘feel the earthquake’? Here is the recipe:

Room temperature bottle of white wine
1/4 oz Fernet
1 oz grenadine
Pineapple Ice Cream

Mix all ingredients in a pitcher, stir to dissolve ice cream, taste, add white wine as needed. Take caution as this is quite easy to drink!