(December 23/24 – written by Dave)
We’ve settled into Puerto Natales for Christmas. Yesterday we moved into our new AirB&B apartment. It is great. Victor, his wife Patty and son Mattias are wonderful hosts. Patty took a real shine to Nancy, giving her a tour of the garden. The three of them, plus Grandma who lives next door welcomed us with smiles and warm conversations. Mattias gave us tips on where to book a Torres Del Paine trip and then volunteered to buy our Christmas salmon for us because the shop was closed yesterday and we didn’t get back from our tour while the shop was open today – we are sometimes really lucky on AirB&B hosts.
We got most of our chores done yesterday as well. We knew we wouldn’t have time for shopping today and didn’t expect much to be open on Christmas day. We are planning on riding onward on Boxing Day, 26 December. With 3 days riding to reach Punta Arenas, and no towns between here and there, we needed to stock up on food.
We were up early today to be picked up for the 2 hour bus ride out to the park. We went with a tour company called Maria Jose. You can take a public bus to the park but it is not overly practical as there are many places you’d want to stop at and the public buses only stop at two points. Going with a tour company is probably the way to tackle this park, if you are not able to do it on your bicycle.
It is weird travelling on a bus compared to a bicycle – you’re removed from the physical environment and you have such a different impression of a place than you would if you had been out in the elements. Even on the bus, we were constantly aware of which direction the wind was blowing, how hard it was blowing, what the weather looked like up the road. The defining character of this area of Patagonia for us will be the wind. In contrast, while it was windy when we got off the bus at various points today, it was only a momentary distraction for the other bus travellers and likely their impression of Patagonia will be completely different to ours. That is not to say that there are better or worse ways to explore the world – to each their own. I expect that we were the only ones on the bus feeling like we were in a bubble. On a bicycle, we also stop wherever and whenever we want – being in a group, getting ushered from photo point to photo point was odd as well. And, just to add to the weirdness we feel travelling off the bikes, on longer bus rides/plane rides/car rides Nancy is generally fighting not to let motion sickness get the best of her, which generally raises the stress level.
There are some other challenges of group travel as well. At the start of the trip, the guide told us not to disturb anything in the park (their phrase is “no intervention”) – plants or animals. Ultimately the park disrupts the lives of all plants and animals but they try to manage this with walking paths and fences near the road. Early in our tour we had an unfortunate incident with our bus. We came across a small bus stopped at a group of mothers and juvenile guanaco. The guanaco were all on the road side of the fence. Our bus stopped and the guide ushered all 25 of us out for photos. As you’d expect, the nervous mothers bolted, hopping the fence. The juveniles couldn’t make it over the fence so they raced around in a panic, mothers hanging on the far side pacing.
One of the little ones tried to jump the fence and got his legs caught and started to thrash. We’ve seen way too many guanaco carcasses on the fences as we’ve been riding the last few weeks so we know that this could easily be fatal. One of the passengers on our bus walked over to the fence and helped free the young animal by stepping on the fence wire to lower it so the animal could get over it. All the while ignoring our guide who was making comments about no intervention. Well, for crying out loud, the road is an intervention, the fence is an intervention and stopping a bus full of 25 punters is an intervention. We all got back on the bus only to be scolded in English and Spanish by the guide for helping and not following his instruction to leave it alone.
I was really upset because ultimately the guide and driver caused the problem (if we ignore that the road and fence as the ultimate cause). The driver and guide are supposed to be professional. To be scolded was all a bit rich, I mean they stopped the van and ushered us out. Nancy wouldn’t let me say anything but there were lots of mumbles on the bus – I was not the only one upset by the guide.
Ok – got that off my chest – the rest of the day and park were so spectacular so we left bad feelings well and truly behind at the next viewpoint! So onto the park.
Torres Del Paine was “discovered” by Lady Florence Dixie. She was a Scottish explorer, war correspondent, writer and feminist. She travelled throughout Patagonia and wrote of Torres Del Paine in a book published in 1880. She and her party are sometimes credited as being the first “foreign tourists” to visit the area of the park. There are not too many female explorers, or at least not many that are given any credit – so full marks here to Lady Florence. Evidence of indigenous people living here goes back some 12,000 years so who gets the real credit for discovery is open for discussion.
These days, about 250,000 people a year visit the park. The vast majority of them are not from Chile and probably more than 50% of the visitors are from Europe. Most of the visitors come in the months of December through February. It is pretty unusual to get blue skies and no clouds but that just about what we had. Clouds built up during the day but the morning was all about blue. Our guide kept telling us how lucky we were.
Of course all of the peaks, lakes and rivers have names. I have a flyer that helps me put labels on all of my photos but I took too many photos and I’m sure that most readers won’t really care about the names when you see the photos. It is such an amazing place to visit – get it on a sunny day like we did and wow is about all you can say. We’ll try posting some Christmas and Puerto Natales notes tomorrow but for now, enjoy the park. Photo overdose follows!