Calafate and Chalten

13 January 2015:
I wake up late in the morning, refreshed. I’m Couchsurfing again, this time with Eduardo, an Argentine IT specialist who is basically the perfect Couchsurfing host. He picked me up from the bus terminal late last night after I left Puerto Natales and crossed the border back into Argentina.

Eduardo’s friendly and chatty and speaks English almost perfectly. He plays a Janis Joplin record while I cook eggs and tells me about previous surfers he’s hosted. By the time I’m done eating he’s convinced me to go visit the nearby glacier Perito Moreno, which I had intended to skip because of the high cost and a general vague notion that glaciers aren’t that interesting. Eduardo sells it well though so we head to the bus station where I pay 250 pesos for transport to the park.

Because I take the late afternoon bus, I arrive at the park with only a couple of hours to explore. I regret this instantly, as soon as I see the glacier. I think when I pictured glaciers in the past I thought of sort of a giant rectangular ice cube with snow on top – like the pictures you see of Antarctica. This is completely different: it’s much craggier than I expected. It’s a field of giant wrinkled slices of ice, all sliding and piling up over each other as they march toward the peninsula. It does not look like a comfortable place to walk – in fact, I can’t imagine walking over this at all, the way you think of polar bears or penguins doing. It really does look like a river of ice. It’s colorful, too: alternating between an unnatural electric blue, deep cold sapphire, and brilliant pale sky blue laced with pure white. It’s also enormous – 14 kilometers long and nearly 50 meters tall at its edge. It comes to an abrupt end in a jagged wall of ice that makes me think of the wall from Game of Thrones.

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This is the cool part: the bus leaves me at the top of a huge hill that’s maybe two kilometers from the edge of the glacier. What’s happening here is that the glacier is headed straight for this promontory hill extending into the lake, and it’s so close that at times the ice blocks the flow of water at the shore. They’ve built balconies and platforms all along the side of the hill facing the glacier where you can watch it calve. There’s an enormous crack and then you see it – a huge outcropping of ice, tall as a high rise apartment building, pulls away from the body of the glacier, almost as if it’s being tugged, and shatters into fragments as it plummets and explodes into the lake below. Spectacular. I watch for hours.

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That evening, back in Calafate, I return to Eduardo’s place and meet Anna, a couchsurfer from the Netherlands. We visit a bar together and Eduardo makes us Pho soup from scratch, and we talk into the night.

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14 January 2015:
12:47 – Eduardo, Anna, and Eduardo’s dog Blanquita drop me off just past a police checkpoint by the side of the road leading out of Calafate. There’s a depressing little pack of hitchhikers spread along the first fifty meters or so of gravel shoulder across from the welcome sign – mostly men in groups of two of three. This worries me a little – maybe this is a bad spot to hitchhike? – but I’m hoping that being blonde, female, and solo will give me an edge.

13:14 – one of the police officers ambles over to check my passport. We chitchat about Nevada while he makes some notes on a clipboard and asks my age and where I’m headed. He wishes me luck. I think about hitchhiking laws in the US, and how the hitchhiking culture is clearly different here if the police are actually keeping tabs on hitchhikers rather than arresting them.

14:02 – two men in a company van wave at me as they drive past, then continue down the road a few hundred meters and pull onto the shoulder. I walk the distance and hop in the back and meet Luis and Cesar. They’re men in their 50s working for a transportation company, and they tell me that they make the trip from Calafate to Chalten every day and always pick up hitchhikers, but they have to be out of sight of the police station when they do since the back of the van is an open floor – no seats or seat belts. I sit on my backpack and grin to myself as we settle in for the trip to Chalten. Success!

Luis drives and chats with me : he lived in Rio Grande for many years and remembers Ushuaia well, but he’s lived in Calafate for a long time working for this transpiration company. Cesar is quieter, mainly checking his watch and pouring endless cups of mate for the three of us.

14:36 – as we turn towards Chalten we stop to pick up Paolo, a hitchhiker from Brazil who’s traveling for three months on 100 US dollars and has hitchhiked from Brasilia all the way to Ushuaia. He’s a little skinny and road weary, but full of smiles and cool stories. He drifts off to sleep after we talk for a while, but I wake him up as we get closer – the views of the mountains are spectacular! Jagged, grey peaks loom above the low hills, tinged blue and fading into deep shadows where they overlap each other. Luis stops for a few minutes so Paolo and I can take pictures. They say it’s rare to see Fitz Roy so clearly from the road, normally it’s hidden in clouds.

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16:13 – we arrive in el Chalten. Luis and Cesar promise us rides back to ruta 40 if we need them and show us where they work when they’re in town. “Anything you need, just bang on the door and ask for us.”

18:26 – I start up the path toward Laguna Capri to meet Paolo, the Brazilian hitchhiker, who headed up here ahead of me. It’s a steep climb, but somebody loves this trail: clearly marked, clean, well supported and free from trash and overgrowth. It’s a dream. The sandy path weaves through tall grasses which quickly give way to shorter, hardier vegetation as I climb a little in elevation. Dusty, dry, yellow sand dotted with rocks. Clear, dry air. I can see clear across valleys when the trees open up, clear to hard granite peaks thrown into deep shadow by the afternoon sun, white patches of snow dotting the peaks.

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I reach Laguna Capri in an hour and a half and there’s Fitz Roy, a rounded granite monolith soaring above the treeline in the soft light of early evening. Paolo and I sit in silence for a while and take it in.

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15 January 2015
8:52 – The weather in Patagonia is famously changeable, so I don’t worry too much about the low clouds shrouding the mountains as I set out from my hostel on the edge of town. I work up a fine sweat as I climb up to Laguna Capri again, where I wake up Paolo and chat with an American couple I met back in Puerto Natales. Paolo’s moving slowly but we get going in an hour or so, headed to Laguna de los Tres where the views of Fitz Roy are supposed to be incredible. The trail is flat, clear, and well maintained, which I’m grateful for because it’s started raining and the wind has picked up. After Torres del Paine I’m fully prepared for rain and nothing in my backpack is going to get damaged, but it’s still miserable to hike when you’re wet and we’ve got about seven kilometers to go yet. Thankfully the showers clear after an hour or so and the famous Patagonian wind sets in. I’m dry in about 10 minutes and worried in another 10 when the wind knocks me over. I start to consider quitting the trail since it’s violently windy and getting worse, but the clouds are clearing and Paolo is doing fine and there are other hikers around, so we keep climbing.

It’s fierce wind on the way to the top, and a steep, nearly vertical rocky climb for the last kilometer. Fitz Roy is right there – impressive – but I can’t stand nor walk for the violence of the wind screaming over the mountain range. We have to crawl to peek over a ridge hiding the lake, and I stay behind a huge rock where the wind is merely terrifying, not intolerable. Just crouching there, I get exhausted from battling the gusts that buffet me from around the sides of the rock and the constant noise and the energy that’s howling around me. I can’t stay for more than a few minutes.

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It’s an exhausted, though warm and less windy hike that I take back to Capri where I say goodbye to Paolo, and back to my hostel in Chalten where I fall into my bunk.

16 January 2015
15:38 – I round a corner of a stony, barren hill and find a dusky turquoise lake with a perfect iceberg floating in the middle. At the western end of the lake rests the leading edge of a modest glacier flowing down from steep peaks above, slate-colored granite spikes tinged blue in the clear air. Snow and ice glisten in the calm sunlight.

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This is Laguna de los Tres. I was lucky with the weather today, clear, dry air, blue skies, warm sunshine, and I hiked much slower than normal to save my aching feet still complaining after yesterday’s walk. It’s really perfect weather, a perfect hike, and perfect views, which don’t make for a very interesting blog post but were a lovely experience.

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In the evening I visit friends at a hostel across “town” (chalten is tiny, only 12 blocks). I’m out late and have to hustle back to my hostel before they lock the doors at midnight.

I go to sleep a little anxious. Tomorrow I’ll attempt a long hitchhiking journey to el Bolson, 1300 kilometers north through some of the most deserted countryside in Argentina. I’m doing it solo and without a tent. I’m hoping it’s just a fun and crazy idea, not a dangerously stupid one.

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8-10 January : I attempt Torres del Paine

8-10 January 2015 –

I returned early from Torres del Paine, driven out of the park by a massive and unexpected snowstorm and the realization that neither I nor my equipment were prepared for Patagonia’s violent weather. Snowstorms aren’t unheard-of in the park, though this one was still a surprise for a lot of hikers, and I wasn’t the only one to bail early. It was a disappointing and unfulfilling conclusion to my Puerto Natales saga, but was not without some memorable moments, which I’ll write about here.

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8 January 2015:
18:30 – the bus from Puerto Natales arrives at the Administration center. I step out into dry, warm air and late afternoon sunshine.

I know my bag is heavy – I’m guessing 12 or 13 kilos – so even though I’m anxious to be on my way after the four-hour bus ride, I take my time getting ready to hike to Carretas. I tighten down the straps along my backpack and check that the heaviest bits are shoved at the bottom for balance. Though it’s chilly, I strip off my insulating layers since I already know I’ll sweat through them as I hike. I stuff a trail mix bag in my pocket so I won’t have to stop in fifteen minutes when I’m hungry. Though it’s late in the evening I slap on sunscreen just in case.

The path starts out along a gravel road before cutting into a field of tough, stubby grass that covers the rocky plain. The other backpackers on the bus must have left right away, because I don’t see anyone else as I follow the trail north across the fields, skirting low craggy hills dotted with a few trees twisted into spirals by the fierce Patagonian winds. Fortunately, the wind now is light and dry, the sun drifting in and out of clouds brooding over the massive peaks I can see towering beyond the hills to my right. It’s pleasantly warm and I sweat a little with my heavy pack as I walk.

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8:16 – I arrive at Carretas, pleased to be a little early even though I took a few breaks to rest. The campsite consists of a sign, a vault toilet, a few hollows of flattened grass where other hikers have pitched their tents, and a largeish three-sided wooden structure that looks like a bus shelter. This the cooking area. This is the entire camp. A friendly Chilean helps me find a site that’s sheltered from the wind (though not from the mosquitos). I pitch my tent reasonably well, checking carefully that the narrow side faces into the wind and the surface is pulled tight with guy lines. I’m glad I practiced setting my rental equipment up before I have to do it in real weather. I’ve only camped a few times before and I’m still making some of the beginner mistakes.

In the cooking shelter I meet a couple planning to hike the full circuit, as I am, and I run into Marcus, a German backpacker I met in Puerto Natales. He shows me his huge laminated trekking map and the tiny trail he’s planning to take that veers up the John Gardner pass and way off the normal routes the tourist hikers trek. He’s prepared for it – he walked all the way from Ushuaia to Punta Arenas, a trek of 14 days, last month. We swap New Years stories: he says he was picked up by the Chilean army in the wilderness and invited to an asado. We talk and nobody really feels like sleeping, but it’s getting late. We’re still so far south that the sun doesn’t set until nearly 11:00, so we go to sleep with the sky still light.

9 January 2015:
8:30 – breakfast is fancy powdered cappuccino mix and a bit of trail mix. I’m apprehensive. I feel good, strong and well rested and over my cold; but I know my pack is heavy and I have a longer walk today. This is a test today – to find out how I handle weather changes, if I can manage the weight I’m carrying, and if I can hike the trails in a reasonable amount of time.

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10:00 – I wait around camp for the other hikers, making some sketches, but eventually I’m too antsy to sit any longer and I set off. The landscape is similar to yesterday’s – a single path winding through windswept plains. The central peaks of the Torres del Paine formation come into view as I round smaller hills, ever closer, and I take breaks to sketch when I feel like it. I pick up an excellent walking stick as I pass through a copse of burnt, dried trees. I remember hearing that this part of the park burned about five years ago. The grass has come back rich and thick, but the skinny dead husks of the trees that burned will be standing here for a long time yet.

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13:50 – Paine grande lodge. It’s another two and a half hours to my campsite Italiano. Here, the trail winds over the low foothills next to the massive bulk of the mountains. Giant peaks loom on my left, and after a few minutes a sparkling, unnaturally turquoise lake comes into view on my right. Between these two wonders I walk alone with my bag for some hours.

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15:30 – My pack is heavy and I stop for breaks frequently. The mountains help keep my spirits up. The Cuernos formations are right in front of me, huge spades of granite with nearly sheer sides, thrust up one right after another, tops ripping through the ragged clouds. Deep valleys fade in and out of view as the clouds wind through mountain range. The peaks are massive and deep and you can never quite get a complete view of everything – something is always hidden, something appearing and then fading out of view. In front of all of this, the glacier-fed lake Sk├Âttsberg ripples, light turquoise against the gentle gray stone shores.

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17:15 – I arrive at Italiano exhausted, but accomplished. I was a little slow, but not dangerously slow, and I feel all right. This campsite is busy – there are probably seventy tents already set up among the trees. This campsite has a guard station and cooking shelter set among the trees next to a clear swiftly rushing river. The mouth of the valley Frances opens just above the campsite, already obscured by early evening mist. At times cliffs and glaciers appear further back along the bends of the river before the fog shrouds them.

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I cook my modest dinner of instant mashed potatoes, cheese, and sausage, and I drink a little wine given to me by a Spanish woman I meet in the shelter. The couple I met at Carretas is here too and we play cards after our meal, but the temperature plummets at sunset and we escape to our sleeping bags by 21:00.

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Sometime during the night it begins to rain.

10 January 2015:
7:45 – I’ve been awake for a little while but haven’t yet mustered the courage to leave my warm sleeping bag and my dry tent. I’m pleased that my rented tent doesn’t leak and that my large sleeping bag kept me more or less warm during the night – but the thought of getting out to hike up Valle Frances in the freezing rain is intimidating me. I promise myself a hot breakfast – more potatoes with cheese and sausage, and hot coffee – and haul myself out of my tent.

10:00 – I leave my tent pitched and take my small day bag up the misty valley. It starts off merely sprinkling – though I can see snow further up the valley – and the exertion from the steep hike keeps me warm under my waterproof jacket. This trail is rocky and meanders across stony streams and through quiet, green woods as it skirts the blue river that cuts through the valley. All the time the huge Glacier Frances looms to my left. It’s a hanging glacier – a glacier in the process of falling over a cliff – and huge chunks calve as it inches over the edge. I’m in no danger – the valley is wide and I’m hiking on the opposite side from the avalanches. During the night at camp we could hear what sounded like thunder rumbling through the valley. As I watch the glacier and catch sight of a small-ish slice of ice cascading down, I realize that I was actually hearing the sound of enormous blocks of ice crashing onto the valley floor as the edge of the glacier broke apart at night.

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I keep hiking, but the rain picks up and it gets colder.

12:50 – I’m an hour past the glacier overlook and I’ve just come out of the tranquil, snowy woods and into a wall of wind and ice. The snow howls against me and smacks me down, knocking me off balance as I try to cross a clearing. This is it, then – my turn-around point. It was freezing in camp this morning and to get myself to even try the hike I told myself I would turn around if things got too cold and miserable. Things are too cold and miserable now. I made it up the valley nearly to Mirador Britanico: enough of an accomplishment for me. I head back toward camp through quieter woods.

A snowstorm in the middle of summer isn’t unheard-of in Patagonia, but this seems like more than the 15-minute weather blip I was expecting based on other trekkers’ stories. The clouds are dark and endless and the rain and snow are coming down solid and steady. And as I hike down and the trail gets easier, the real problems are becoming apparent – my hands are numb inside my wool gloves (“don’t bring gloves – you won’t need them,” they told me in Puerto Natales) and my feet inside their wool socks and chuck Taylors are cold. I took a gamble when I decided to try this trek in sneakers, and I’m beginning to need to think seriously about whether I’m going to lose that bet.

14:30 – I’m back at camp and it’s menacingly cold. The rain is coming down steady even among the trees. I eat another hot meal and try to encourage myself to pack up my tent and head for the next campsite. Supposedly, I’m not allowed to stay at Italiano two nights in a row. I think through all the steps I need to take to get my bag ready, and wonder how in the world anybody takes a tent down in the rain without it getting soaked.

15:15 – amazingly, I somehow figure out how to take the tent down underneath the rain fly, keeping it mostly dry. It’s dirty and the rain fly is drenched. I stuff everything in the tent bag, trying not to think about how utterly frozen through I am, and trying very very hard not to think about how difficult it will be to set it all up again in a few hours. I’m headed to Cuernos campsite, a couple of hours away.

Before I start down the trail, I weigh my options. I can hike to Cuernos, camp in the freezing cold and rain tonight, and hope the weather changes. But what if the weather doesn’t change? And what if I run into more freezing temperatures and rain later on in more remote parts of the park? And will I be able to enjoy being out in this park if I’m worried about hypothermia the whole time?

I hike toward Cuernos for about ten minutes. The rain comes down harder than ever. It’s freezing and the trail is flooded – my feet are soaked through and my toes are beginning to numb. At one water crossing I stop in the rain for a minute and take a deep breath.

I turn around. I have exactly enough time to reach Paine Grande in time to take a boat across the lake and catch a bus out of the park. My feet and hands are dangerously cold. It’s not going to stop raining any time soon. I decide to head for the previous campsite, further south where the weather looks clearer, and decide there whether to take the boat back to puerto Natales or spend another night in the park and try to make it work.

18:25 – I make Paine Grande just in time for the catamaran back to the park entrance. Two hours of freezing cold rain and wind made the decision for me – I’m heading back. I shudder with cold as we cross the lake and look at the massive dark clouds smothering the mountains.

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Part of me thinks I may have given up on the trek too early (though it seems my instincts were correct – other hikers who were in the park that week told me it was cold and rainy for days afterward). But hypothermia is not something you mess around with when you’re in the mountains alone, and this wasn’t a situation where I needed to risk it. I console myself by telling myself I’ll come back one day and trek with a friend and better equipment and see Torres del Paine properly.

Leaving Ushuaia and downtime in Puerto Natales

January 3, 2015
I leave Ushuaia on the 6:00 bus, the sun already high in the sky and melting a little of the snow off the tops of the mountains I missed seeing on the bus ride in thanks to the rain.

It’s a long but mainly uneventful day of bus rides north, across the border with Chile, into the little coastal town of Puerto Natales. There is one moment I wrote about –

18:43 – one of the drivers checks to see if anyone is going to Puerto Natales on the 18:00 bus. (At this point it doesn’t even bother me that 18:00 was 45 minutes ago – after my bus journeys last week I think I would have been more surprised if the bus were on time). A few minutes later, the bus pulls onto a gravel shoulder by the side of the road at a small intersection and stops, idling. There’s no bus terminal in sight – not even a gas station – just wind, grass, hills, the long stretch of road. A few of us get out with our bags, along with one of the drivers. We mill around. After a few minutes the driver gets back on and the bus leaves us by the side of the road with our bags: me and my strange seatmate; a woman with her two kids; and an older Argentine lady traveling solo. We’re all alone. The wind blows. The sheep graze. A couple of minutes pass. I start wondering if I understood correctly that this is a bus transfer, or maybe something got lost in translation and I’m supposed to start walking. At least everyone else is in the same boat as me, and none of them seem concerned. After a few more awkward minutes a bus pulls up showing PUERTO NATALES on its front window display – sure enough, this is the bus transfer. We’re on the bus in a minute and a couple of hours later I’m hopping out at Puerto Natales.

January 4, 2015:
I wake up sick. The plan for Puerto Natales was to prepare for and set out on a backpacking trip in Torres del Paine national park, but the cold that I caught in Ushuaia is hitting me hard today. In cities it’s not so difficult to get by with a cold, you can vary your activities and take breaks and drink lots of tea when you need it – but I know better than to head into the wilderness with a fever. I force myself to relax, be patient, and recover before the hike.

I spend the day chugging tea and lying in bed.

January 5, 2015:
I chug tea and lie in bed.

January 6, 2015:
I chug tea, lie in bed, and watch a Star Wars marathon with Miguel, who works at the hostel.

January 7, 2015:
I feel a little better. The tea appears to have had no effect but the medicine I finally bought is doing the trick. I spend the day packing, renting equipment, panicking when it seems impossible to fit all my equipment in my modest 50-liter backpack, taking a deep breath, and managing to fit everything in anyway. I chug more tea just to be safe.

January 8, 2015:
I’m ready. I buy a ticket for the 14:30 bus to the park. I’m doing the “Q” circuit through Torres del Paine – the full loop around the famous peaks, plus the “tail” trail that leads into the park from the south. It looks to be about 140 kilometers – 87 miles. The nine days I have allotted should be sufficient, based on all the information I was able to gather before hand, and will even leave me with a buffer day if I run into bad weather or need to take an extra day to rest. This is a big deal, though. I’ve done long hikes, and I’ve camped, and there was that time in Colombia when I walked through a jungle for four days – but this will be my first honest-to-goodness backpacking trip. I don’t do anything halfway, apparently. I’m a little nervous – but I feel ready.

I leave a thank-you drawing in the hostel’s guest book and get ready for my bus ride.

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Ushuaia: Day 3

2 January 2015:
9:23 – seven minutes until I’m supposed to meet Diego, a couchsurfer from Ushuaia whom I’m meeting for a hike today, and the bus company’s office still hasn’t opened. I’m going to have to leave to go meet him and return together to buy tickets for Puerto Natales.

10:15 – Diego and I wait for a while decide that the office isn’t open today. He very helpfully calls a few travel agencies around town who can make bus reservations, trying to help me plan a route to Puerto Natales in Chile tomorrow. One company in town has places available. On the walk over I tell him about changing my plans and heading to Puerto Natales in Chile instead of El Calafate in Argentina, and how a friend convinced to go to the Torres del Paine national park to hike. “Estoy emocionante!!” I’m excited!

11:24 – buying bus tickets has taken an unusually long time, so we ditch our original plans to hike a summit in the national park and decide to walk to the glacier closer to town instead. Along the way he tells me about his work in casinos and in the national park.

14:38 – we reach the bottom edge of the glacier, which is covered in snow and looks pretty much just like all the other patches of snow on the mountain. It’s been snowing for about half an hour and the wind is fierce. We’ve climbed 800 meters in the past couple of hours, staying warm with the effort but feeling the bite of the wind through our jackets when we stop for food or pictures. Ushuaia is bitterly cold today – only about 6 degrees centigrade. Though I dislike being cold in general, it feels kind of nice after about eight months of summer temperatures. Somehow it didn’t really feel like January before.

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The views of the mountains are beautiful. Wild, hardy mountain grasses and mosses line the ascent. The glacier begins just above the vegetation line. Further up, broad slate-line rocks cover the peaks of the mountains. When I turn around, I can see the majority of the town of Ushuaia and the bay laid out below.

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22:01 – I spend another slightly uncomfortable evening with my Couchsurfing hosts. We eat dinner together after a little while and I give them a thank you drawing, alfajores, and a magnet in the shape of Nevada as thank you presents. It’s a shame I never managed to connect with them, but I decide not to overthink it. Sometimes it’s just bad luck with Couchsurfing.

I’ll be up at 5 tomorrow to catch my bus to Puerto Natales.

Ushuaia: Day 2

1 January 2015:
14:20 – I pause to eat hard boiled eggs and raisins on a little stone wall holding up the trail. I can’t stay long – the wind is blowing now and even with my down jacket I get chilly quickly. As soon as I start moving again I’ll shed layers the way I did at the start of this hike, a walk of a few kilometers along the edge of a bay that extends into the Tierra del Fuego national park. I’m within sight of a clear, turquoise bay lined with little flowering bushes and a variety of trees – I think aspen or beech, mostly, and some firs. The dark earth is lightly covered in a bed of yellow oval-shaped leaves from the fall and dead branches. There’s not much undergrowth in the park so the woods have a pleasant open feeling.

My hands start to get numb and I move on. The lake I’m heading for is still a few kilometers away.

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14:45 – I’m waiting for the bus back to Ushuaia from the national park. While I wait I sketch the snow-capped mountains on the other side of the lake. A man stops and shyly asks if he can take a photo of my drawing.

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I’m loitering by the parking lot when I spot an enormous black bird of prey circling the lake with slow, powerful wingbeats. Its wingspan must be nearly two meters wide. Its head is white and after a few minutes I realize that what I thought was the sun shining on its back is actually white feathers lining its shoulders. It’s a condor – not a rare animal to see in the park but an exciting spot nonetheless. It circles majestically, and conveniently, in front of a peak called “el condor”. The bus arrives just as the bird disappears from view.

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23:56 – I’m walking back from the bar where I met a friend from the states to get some advice on hiking Torres del Paine. The sun has just barely set, and the sky is still light in the west – it’s nearly midnight! The longest day of the year was just a couple of weeks ago and there are only a few hours of true darkness at this time of year.

Back at my host’s house, I’m a little uncomfortable again. Couchsurfing is often a gamble : sometimes you connect and make a friend for life, other times it’s just a bit awkward or unremarkable. I’m still surprised at how very difficult it is for me to converse with my hosts. All three of them work in the tourist industry in Ushuaia, so I thought it would be easy for us to talk, especially as my Spanish is steadily improving, and I assume they’re used to talking to foreigners – but I can barely understand them when they talk to me and not at all when they talk to each other. There’s a skill to knowing how to slow down, speak clearly, and use short sentences when you talk to someone who’s not fluent in your language, and for whatever reason, these guys don’t have that skill. I don’t blame them for it, though it does surprise me. Maybe they’ve never hosted someone who doesn’t speak Spanish well before. In any case, our interactions are strained and awkward. I do my best to be a good guest in spite of the language barrier.

Ushuaia: Day 1

December 31, 2014:

10:31 – sitting by the bay in Ushuaia waiting to board a boat. Marco, one of my Couchsurfing hosts, had an extra space on a boat tour he leads daily that goes through the Beagle Channel. I look out across the clear water to the green forested slopes of the steep mountains where they plunge into the sea.

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The boat tour takes us towards some of the islands in the bay, first to a small island where there’s a colony of sea lions. I’ve seen sea lions before, at the wharf in San Francisco and in Cabo Polonia in Uruguay, but never so close. The sides of the island are so steep that the prow of our boat nearly touches the rock next to a sleeping animal. We’re maybe three meters away from them. Looking back now, I’m surprised I couldn’t smell them, but at the time I was enchanted at being so close and didn’t think about smells. They lie in heaps piled on top of each other, snorting and burping and sometimes snarling at one another. Our guide tells us that most of them are female and most are pregnant. We take photos in silence to avoid disturbing them while they sleep.

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The weather improves steadily as our boat heads east toward the end of the little archipelago where a disused lighthouse looks out toward the Atlantic Ocean. The guys running the boat break out mate and beer (they actually have what looks to be a little keg on board) and blast ska music. I chat up three friendly Brazilian guys who spent a summer working at a ski resort in Tahoe some years ago and we reminisce about Nevada.

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We round the end of the archipelago and glide back west along the channel, over what I’m told are unusually calm and beautiful waters. We pass another island where cormorants are nesting, and like the island with the sea lions we get very close. I’m able to see young chicks begging for food and adults diligently adding sticks to their nests stuck in cracks in the rock.

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As we continue west, the sun comes out – another rarity in Ushuaia – and the clouds clear from the tops of the mountains surrounding the town. There’s snow on the mountain tops and we can see where there’s a little glacier tucked along a slope. Someone spots dolphins on our left and we stop to look. They’re tiny – maybe a meter long – and shy, surfacing 10 meters or so from the boat to breathe.

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We stop at another island covered in rich green grasses. Our guide takes us along a careful walk, pointing out flowers and grasses of interest. We see hawk-like birds called caranchos. One of them squeaks a high pitched, melancholy cry. “That one is hungry,” our guide says. We find chauda berries, called devil’s apples. “Don’t eat those while you’re in the park, they make a good laxative.” We spend a while examining a llaleta plant, which is a hard mound of small, tightly clustered leaves that looks like moss growing over a lumpy rock, but is actually hard layers of a plant heaped up over hundreds of years. We find one about half a meter in diameter that is probably 150 years old. The plants only grow a few millimeters per year.

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The sun is out fully as we return to the boat and our guides are fanning themselves and sunbathing with their shirts off. I’m still shivering a little in long pants and long sleeves – they’re not used to the comparatively warm weather here. Everyone is happy and relaxed and we sit on the boat enjoying the sun and speaking little. Ours is the only tour today so there’s no rush to get back to town.

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22:10 – I’m drinking fernet and coke nervously. For New Years’ I go to an asado with my Couchsurfing hosts. As an introvert I find large group interactions, especially with people I don’t know well, inherently draining and sometimes stressful, but I still enjoy being around people in general so I decided to go for this one.

Maybe it wasn’t the best choice. I can have a conversation with an individual in Spanish, but a big group conversation is too advanced for me, and I’m not able to follow the rapid Spanish conversation at all. I feel incredibly self-conscious sitting at the table trying to figure out what to do with myself while everyone around me talks and laughs and drinks. I feel isolated. I don’t want to leave – that would be giving up, right? – but I feel more and more uncomfortable as the night goes on. This is one kind of situation where I find myself completely lost – I have no idea what someone less introverted and socially anxious would do. Am I supposed to give up and leave? Do I interrupt everyone and insist they speak English? Do I interrupt the person next to me and make them talk to me instead of the group? I can’t figure out how to feel more comfortable without being rude. I drink more fernet.

Eventually it’s midnight and the conversation pauses for a few seconds and we say cheers.

An hour or so later, the asado is ready. Being drunk only makes it harder to speak Spanish when I get the occasional opportunity to talk to someone one-on-one. This combined with a couple of hours of social anxiety makes me almost unable to string together a sentence. I try to enjoy the slow-cooked steak and sausage. I grab a taxi back to my hosts’ apartment while they head to the national park for a party. I should have pretended to feel sick and left hours ago, I think to myself. I wonder what it’s like to be an extravert.