Copacabana and Lake Titicaca: 9-11 March 2015

Copacabana

9 march 2015
I’m up early for coffee with Brayan before heading to a line of buses near the cemetery in La Paz. By now it’s almost familiar – a man standing by one of the buses shouts COPACABANAAAAAA at everyone passing by and I walk up to him and buy a ticket and eat a quick snack and file onto the bus along with a few other tourists and locals and in a few minutes the bus is climbing up the valley and passing El Alto. We drive through concrete and cinder block suburbs for about an hour. Gradually the landscape opens up to green fields soggy in the rain, sheep and llamas walking next to their colorful cholita shepherds. Soon the fields rise to rolling green hills and the hills rise up to green mountains and a little later through breaks in the clouds the sun sparkles on a bright sapphire lake bounded by steep green peaks.

This is lake Titicaca, the highest lake on earth, and in the Inka philosophy, the place of creation of the Inka people, the sun, and the moon.

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Back on the pavement and past more beautiful rolling hills for an hour or so and finally we’re pulling into a large plaza dotted with kiosks, white colonial buildings with red roofs, and a white cathedral with huge graceful arches framing a stone courtyard. I step out of the bus and wander downhill, toward the edge of the lake. There are two main streets leading down to water, where charming little restaurants have signs and menus written in English on chalkboards out front, and souvenir shops overflow with little llama figurines and Peruvian blankets and macrame bracelets and knitted alpaca sweaters. There are hotels and hospedajes and cheap motels which are confusingly called hostals, but surprisingly there don’t seem to be any classic backpacker hostels here. I wander into Hostal la Libertad which has an open, bright lobby tiled in white with a tall glass entrance. The stony-faced, unsmiling receptionist offers me a private room for 30 bolivianos a night (a little less than $5) and I when I go up to settle my things I see that the room itself is finished but the floor it’s on is bare concrete, with unfinished windows open to the sky. At the end of the hall, past the rooms still under construction, the floor drops off into empty space.

I leave my hotel in the afternoon and wander Copacabana for an hour. The majority of the town is the two touristic streets running parallel to each other, down to the water where flocks of paddle boats sway with the ripples and larger speedboats lie at anchor waiting to take their next cargo of tourists to Isla del Sol. Lots of backpackers wandering around, like me. Further up the hill there’s the plaza and cathedral, and from there the town spreads out into residential streets and then into little farms. I can walk from top to bottom in 30 minutes or so. I wander inside the cathedral, looking at the enormous altar covered in gold plate. Niches along the walls of the sanctuary hold statues of Mary and Joseph, dressed in elaborate royal robes. At the front of the cathedral is a side chapel dedicated to a replica of a famous statue of Mary to which many miracles have been attributed.

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From the cathedral I walk through town toward a steep hill overlooking the water. At the entrance to the hill is an arch announcing the hill as CALVARIO, or Calvary, a name for the hill where Jesus was crucified. My breathing is shallow and I sweat up the steep steps, panting from the altitude (3800 meters, about 12,500 feet). There are stations of the cross carved along the way.

I hope for feelings of reverence as I’m sweating my way up the hill, but I’m distracted by the feeling that this is all very out of place. I can’t forget the history of Bolivia, the conquest of the advanced civilization that was once in power here, the absolute razing of their sacred spaces and their people by the European invaders who justified torture and murder by calling it evangelism. The cathedral and calvario hill feel a little like they were dropped here intact from Europe, cookie-cutter style. At the top of the hill where I rest and eat a grilled trout I bought in town, I watch the sun setting over this huge lake which for the Inkas was traditionally the birthplace of their people, and I think, this could have been such an important pilgrimage site, for the same reasons that the Inkas found it to be a sacred place, and they missed it and built a giant European-style cathedral instead, away from the water which is so important in Christianity – water which is there in the creation story even before light. How did they miss it?

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I’m not able to come up with any satisfying explanation before sunset and I’m tired from the walk, so I stumble back down the dark stone steps and back through the quiet residential streets and on to the loud touristic street and back up to my motel room where I toss and turn for most of the night.

10 march 2015
I’m up early for a humble breakfast of apples and peanut butter and cold rice from my dinner last night, and then I walk down towards the water and pay one of the myriad tour companies for a day trip to Isla del Sol by boat.

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The island has always had people living on it, I learn, maybe as far back as 3000 BC. There are sacred spots where the sun and moon and even people were meant to have been born, and a spring that was supposed to be the fountain of youth, but surrounding these are normal people carrying out their lives raising quinoa and barley and other crops on ancient terraces built into the hills.

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We dock at the north end of the island where there are a few hotels and overpriced restaurants and a map of the ruins and paths on the island. I go with a group and a guide to some of the sacred places – a rock that looks like a puma, a labyrinth in ruins, depressions in the rock that look like footprints and were supposed to be the footprints of the sun. With the tour and the commercialization of the place it’s hard to feel reverent and contemplative, to try and see what the Inkas saw here, but I watch carefully for it anyway.

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After the tour I walk along the path that crosses the island toward the south. At this point I regret not sleeping for a night on the island, because I have to walk very quickly to reach the south end of the island in time for my boat back to Copacabana. The scenery is lovely, tall green hills dotted with little ruins, grazing sheep and llamas, deep blue bays. But i have to speed walk along the path to make it to the boat in time for the hour-long slow journey back to Copacabana, and there I eat a quick dinner with friends who are leaving on an evening bus.

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I go to sleep early again, planning to get up early and take a bus to Arequipa, in Peru. Tonight is my last night in Bolivia.

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La Paz: 5-8 March 2015

La Paz Blog

5 March 2015
We rise slowly and methodically over La Paz in a teleferico (a suspended cable car). I’ve read a lot about this city and it’s as impressive as they say – buildings seem to have been absolutely poured into the valley, spilling up onto the sides until the hills become too vertical to support any further construction. The buildings become shabbier and poorer as we rise. Far away in the heart of the valley I can see the tall, modern-looking skyscrapers of downtown.

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We pass the poorest of the buildings we’ve seen so far – just shacks – crest the very edge of the cliff that lines the valley, and the teleferico glides along a slow u-turn and the doors open to let us out. At the edge of the terminal we see a long street covered in market stalls extending as far as we can see. We’ve come to the 16 July market in El Alto. Roman and I stroll down the first street, where for about $10 I buy an alpaca sweater that I think would have cost $100 in the US. We keep walking and pass the vendors selling car parts – booth after booth after booth with rows of gears in all sizes and steering wheels and seatbelts and chrome floor mats and entire engines in differing states of repair.

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The car engine booths slowly give way to the furniture section, and as we’re passing a side street I smell something amazing and we turn to investigate. On a nondescript corner between two furniture shops a woman is cooking under a plastic awning, surrounded by a pans filled with soup, rice, chicken, potatoes. The amazing smell is coming from the deep-fried chicken spitting in a shallow vat of oil. I desperately want some of this chicken. Roman and I stand politely by the row of pots while the cook talks with other customers, the two of us trying to figure out the etiquette for ordering. I err on the side of being too polite when I travel – I hate to be an inconsiderate foreigner – but I think the way it works here is you go up and shout at this poor lady and eventually she brings you your food. After about ten awkward minutes waiting for her to notice me and ask what I want to order, someone in line says “let the foreigners go first” and I point to that fantastic chicken and she grins and tells us to go have a seat inside. In another ten minutes there’s an enormous pile of rice under this beautiful golden chicken breast, ringed with potatoes and a little shredded lettuce and onion and tomatoes, and I kid you not readers it is the best fried chicken I have ever eaten – and I grew up in the South.

After we have eaten the glorious fried chicken and enough rice to feed at least three grown men, we pay the bill – 26 bolivianos, about $3.50 – and stroll back out onto the market. The furniture section seems to go on nearly to the horizon, so we turn inwards to the center of the market, thinking we’ll wander for a bit. Every time we turn a corner I expect to see the end of a street where the stalls get emptier and further apart and eventually stop. But this market doesn’t stop. It’s as large as a small town. You can buy everything in this market: flowers, toilet paper, beds, carved stucco Greek columns, puppies, cocoa leaves, ducks, jewelry, shoes, bicycles, cars, toilet seats. We never find the end, and after maybe an hour of wandering in the rain we start to ask for directions back to the teleferico and people point and give us vague directions and after another twenty minutes or so we’re climbing back into a gondola and looking down on the city with the enormous market of El Alto still buzzing behind us.

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In the afternoon we find decent coffee – like me, Roman misses good espresso – and wander central La Paz. In the evening we cook in the hostel’s sad excuse for a kitchen, and investigate the bar next door, and meet new people and run into friends we’ve met in other cities on the road.

6 march 2015:
Roman takes a bus for Copacabana and I sit down for a long day of writing and catching up on plans for the next leg of my journey, through Peru and Ecuador.

In the evening, despite my repeated reminders to myself that I am not an 85-year-old woman, I fall asleep at 21:00. I wake up a few hours later when my roommate comes in – an American from Vermont. After a few minutes of conversation he brings up cocaine. I didn’t know this, but it seems La Paz is a major cocaine hub in Bolivia, and like Medellin and Cartagena in Colombia, it attracts its fair share of tourists mainly traveling there to get high. This style of traveling baffles me, readers, and I am an open minded person but I think this is a pretty pathetic reason to travel. After many attempts to get me to come with him, my roommate leaves for some kind of famous cocaine bar and I decide to do something more interesting, like drinking cocktails and playing pool at the hostel bar. I meet L—–, a German, and play a game of pool that lasts probably an hour because we’re both so bad at it. To console ourselves we decide to look for a drink at a bar downtown.

Up an old brick set of stairs in a narrow alley we almost miss a little low wooden doorway, but a woman just outside hears us speaking English and gets our attention and invites us in. She’s Bolivian but speaks almost perfect English after having lived in Bermuda for many years. She introduces us to the tiny bar, called Bocaysapito (mouth of the toad), so named for a black road statue enshrined in a little alcove in the back of the bar. We learn later that you’re supposed to buy the toad a drink and stick a lit cigarette in its mouth, and the toad will grant you a wish. The superstitious residents of the bar crowd together around old wooden tables and along benches, everyone sharing space and talking together around candles and pitchers of very strong Fernet and coke. Someone is playing folklore on an acoustic guitar. We find ourselves at a table of bohemian-looking Bolivians who fill little two-ounce glasses for us from the pitcher. The woman who invited us in talks to us about Bolivia, about the president Evo Morales, about the future of the country. She introduces us to the owner of the bar, a man with a dark sun-stained face and long hair. This is about the time we stop paying for drinks and stop looking at the time on our phones and dive into the conversations around us. Sometime around 2:30 the music stops and sometime around 3:30 everyone else gets kicked out of the bar, but we’re still talking and we’re at the owner’s table and we light another candle and keep talking and pouring Fernet.

Around 5:00 suddenly everyone is starving. “Let’s go to las velas!” . We’re in a taxi for ten minutes then and out into a little concrete market with a sign outside that says LAS VELAS and inside the concrete stalls are sleepy women with their long braids tucked behind their shoulders to keep them out of the little fires under their grills, and on the grills are the late night comfort foods of La Paz: golden chicken and grilled sausages and near the entrance, two ladies selling anticucho, which is meat from the heart of a cow. They cut it into thin ribbons and grill it and serve it with spicy peanut sauce and a little tennis-ball-sized boiled potato, for 10 bolivianos a plate (about $1.50). It tastes smoky and rich like most grilled meat and we each eat several little plates with the healthy appetites of people who’ve been up all night drinking.

The sky is getting light as L—– and I climb out of the taxi in front of our hostel. There’s a little terrace on the top floor of the hostel where we look out at the city as the dawn grows and brings to light what little color there is to see in this grey city.

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7 march 2015
L—– and I spend the day wandering from coffee shop to coffee shop. Neither of us slept much after being up all night, but we enjoy the sleepy day, watching the rain from under the eaves of dark cafes selling drinks that always seem to come in tall clear glasses with the milk and coffee layered like a parfait.

Late in the afternoon I meet Brayan, my Couchsurfing host in La Paz. We take a public bus to his family’s home near the stadium and he opens the door to a guest bedroom where I’m staying for a couple of nights. I eat with the family around the dining room table, talking shyly with Brayan’s parents and brother.

8 march 2015
Brayan and I go again to the El Alto market where he buys a slew of house plants and I buy a pair of the sturdy flat shoes the indigenous women wear. I figure if those shoes stand up to working and walking and carrying sacks of potatoes, they should work just as well for traveling.

In the evening I eat another helping of anticucho from a street vendor near Brayan’s house. It’s my last cold night in La Paz. From the view at Brayan’s house I look out across the valley sparkling with the lights of the city, houses draped like a blanket into the crannies of the hills.

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Torotoro National Park, Bolivia

Torotoro National Park, Bolivia
2 march 2015

We wake up to a quiet morning in Torotoro, the tiny village that’s grown up in an ancient valley full of dinosaur bones and old mysterious caverns.

This day our hired guide takes us out a long Torotoro street paved with pebbles, toward the national park. A herd of sheep passes us, driven by a woman in traditional dress, and we stop by a riverbank where our guide points out nondescript-looking depressions in the stone. They are the tracks of dinosaurs, apparently – apatosaurus and velociraptor – though I still can’t figure out how you tell the tracks apart from random holes in the stone.

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Our Spanish-speaking guide’s name is Macedonio (many times this week Roman and I forget his name and say “I know it’s almost the name of a country…”). He walks quickly over the tumbled stones of a dry riverbed where he tells us he’s been running since he was right. We hike along the boulders to a small natural bridge, and further on to a huge canyon where we see red-fronted macaws circling the thermals in pairs.

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Macedonio hops confidently down steep steps that lead to the bottom of the canyon. He doesn’t look back or walk at our slower pace. This begins to bother me after a while, as I step carefully and slowly to keep from slipping down the steep incline. I think I recognize his attitude from the days when I first began hiking. When you’re in shape the temptation is to show off. For a wilderness guide, this temptation is both stupid and dangerous (I believe), since it doesn’t matter how in shape you are if someone in your group isn’t able to keep up – and furthermore it sets a terrible example for people who aren’t familiar with the terrain or acclimatized to the altitude. I try to stay patient with him and focus on enjoying the scenery.

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At the bottom of the canyon we begin to follow a creek (Macedonio jumps over slick boulders and disappears around blind curves, leaving us to guess at the best route across the stream). I forgive him a little when we come to a wide, brown pool where the stream pans out and mixes with water spilling down the canyon wall in a series of cascades tens of meters high. We change into bathing suits and swim in the cold pool and laugh as we shiver under the cold spray of the waterfall.

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Later as I’m lying in the sun after lunch, the stream starts to rise rapidly. “It’s raining hard in the valley,” Macedonio tells us. In a few minutes it’s gone from a stream to a torrent and the water is at least a meter higher than when we came into the canyon. For some reason Macedonio is ecstatic about this really quite dangerous situation. Roman and I shake our heads and wait an hour for the water to go down while Macedonio walks around giggling and taking photos. We navigate out the canyon over high water (sometimes through it, holding hands to keep from falling). Macedonio decides to climb a random boulder, about 5 meters high, while we wait for another group to pass. Later we drip up the steep steps we came down earlier and Macedonio lags behind us, exhausted from climbing, stopping to splash water on his face and rest.

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In the afternoon we meet him for a visit to a tiny, shabby building displaying fossils and bones they’ve found near torotoro. It’s an interesting exhibit but Macedonio rushes us through it. On the roof of the building he talks to us about the land his family owns, the area surrounding the building where they’ve found fossils and turtle skeletons. We walk through a corner of a fenced-off acre of red dirt and he shows us how to see where the white half-moon skeletons of turtles lie buried in the brown hills.

Macedonio leaves us for the day a few hours before sunset. I want to explore the town so we walk up smooth, worn pebble streets towards the hills. Old ladies walking past with their long braids swaying and old men sitting in benches in the shade of mud walls greet us with buenas tardes as we walk past. It’s only a few blocks of white-painted adobe buildings with their red-tiled roofs, and then the houses are concrete or brick again and in a couple more blocks there aren’t blocks anymore and the countryside opens up into rolling fields.

But we’re not going to the rolling fields, we’re exploring town, and our exploration takes us to a little cafe run by a talkative old Bolivian man with a Swiss espresso machine (Roman is excited about this). The man calls me muñeca (doll) like it’s 1950 and brings me an aperitif of gin and sweet grapefruit soda.

We’re tired from the hike and the simple, delicious dinner we eat in the restaurant of the hotel where we stay. I go to bed early.

3 march 2015
We’re up early for breakfast and our meeting with Macedonio. He takes us out of town in a sturdy white jeep, up green hills laced with granite shelves tilted into a bowl. Torotoro huddles at the base of one of these shelves.

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The red road flattens out at the top of the ridge with deep valleys opening out on either side. To the south I can see a pale road tracing the contours of deep, green hills and leading away into the mountains. Soon we turn west and enter a kind of promenade of boulders bigger than houses. Macedonio stops at one of these to show us a protected space where pre-inca indigenous people likely took shelter. There are faint red paintings on the walls – just lines – of mountains, people, rivers.

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Further along the boulder field we take another rapid walk, Macdonio skipping along the path. He’s so far ahead that we don’t see him half the time and have to guess at his route. Once I sink to my shins in mud, not having seen him flit over a subtle stone pathway through the bog.

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Macedonio’s carelessness is irritating me and making it hard for me to appreciate our next stop, a complex of giant stones worn into weird shapes by erosion. They call this the little city – there are rocks that look like cathedrals, palaces, an open square of grass like a central plaza. It’s a little strange to be taken on a tour of something that has only imaginary significance. The ancient people didn’t actually use this network of stones like a city, and neither are they geologically significant. I wish we had been allowed to explore the rocks on our own and create our own story.

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At lunch I rinse the mud off my chucks. We take the jeep back down into the valley and along a little dirt path to the entrance to a cave that Torotoro is famous for. It’s a wide, tall mouth full of large broken stones in a huge arch set into a stony hill. In the far corner the cave narrows and becomes tinier and soon we’re crouching and squatting and shuffling along on our hands and knees and squeezing through a tunnel into a stone chamber under the earth. After a few meters we can stand up again. In the beams of our headlamps we can see elegant, strange stalactites in improbable formations that look like trees or blood vessels or somebody’s brain. I’ve never been in a proper cave before and I find it fascinating. Sometimes we can walk, sometimes Macedonio has us slide down smooth rock slopes, holding on to anchored ropes for support, sometimes we have to squeeze through more tunnels. Halfway through the cave we switch off our headlamps and sit in silence and darkness under the earth for a minute, listening to the distant rush of an underground river.

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Up and out the exit to the cave and Macedonio is practically running. We squeeze through tunnels barely big enough to fit through, climb up and down ropes, and slide down rock chutes at a breakneck pace. Later Macedonio tells us he decided to rush us through the cave because he was afraid of a flash flood that would swell the underground river where we follow its course; but in the cave he says nothing about this (perhaps wisely).

In the afternoon after Macedonio leaves us for the day, Roman and I walk the course of the river that flows through Torotoro, building stone cairns and skipping rocks in the river. We climb a hill overlooking the tiny colonial town to watch the sun set.

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I sleep early again. I’m exhausted from keeping up with Macedonio today. Our tour is technically over, and tomorrow we take buses from Torotoro all the way out to Cochabamba and up to La Paz.

Cochabamba, Bolivia

27 February 2015

18:30 – Roman and I arrive exactly on time and find our bus parked behind Sucre’s terminal, looking far shabbier and worn than in the picture the man at the ticket office showed me. My armrest is fraying and the seat squeaks as I sit down, but it is actually pretty comfortable. As I get up for one last bathroom run – there’s no bathroom on the bus – a man in an aisle seat grumbles about the supposed “semi-camas” (reclining seats) that the bus company advertised. The seats aren’t terribly uncomfortable, but the guy at the ticket office was definitely exaggerating when he said the bus was a “luxury”. Truthfully, I think I prefer the cheap local bus to a luxury bus anyway, at least for short trips.

18:49 – puffs of black smoke drift by my window as the engine rumbles to a gentle start. The sun sets before long and I’m asleep soon after.

3:00 – Roman and I drag ourselves groggily off the bus and into the terminal. It’s big and echoes like a gymnasium – even at this hour – with the shouts of bus company operators screaming out destinations. We’re both a little dazed. We don’t have a hostel to go to – there don’t seem to be many traditional backpacker hostels in Cochabamba – but we can’t stay in the cacophonous terminal, either. After sitting and blinking sleepily for a few minutes we decide to try one of the hostels listed in Lonely Planet. We take a taxi downtown to the first place the book suggests – depressing and barren-looking as a jail. We walk through deserted streets to another potential hostel – no room. Finally we find a cheap hotel with clean rooms and soft beds and pass out for a few hours.

28 February 2015

Roman and I switch hostels – we try a hostel listed on hostelworld in the hopes of finding a backpacker crowd, a few other travelers we can exchange tips with. But the hostel – rather a beautiful guesthouse – is completely empty. We pay 100 bolivianos each for beds in a dormitory that’s empty except for us.

Cochabamba by daylight is much lovelier than at night. Like Sucre, there are colonial buildings, but the city has a decidedly modern feel, and a far busier pace. It seems to me to be a wealthy city. We eat more mysterious Bolivian food in a pretty restaurant, then go in search of a tour operator to take us to the nearby national park Torotoro. We ask for directions to tourist information centers, which we never find, and eventually end up stumbling on a tour agency that seems about to close for the siesta. A friendly Bolivian man inside gives us some options for a tour of the national park. The prices are good – about $150 each for a three day tour – and we arrange to leave the following day.

In the afternoon we walk up to a huge hill dominating Cochabamba, on top of which stands the largest Jesus statue in the world – taller even than the famous Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio. We ride the cable cars up – signs at the bottom of the hill bluntly state that people who walk up are likely to get robbed – and come out on top of the hill to a view of a huge city sprawling through two adjoining valleys. High-rise office and apartment buildings dominate downtown Cochabamba, while the city spreads out away from them, big and urban and busy.

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In the evening we go to a restaurant called Casablanca where I try ceviche – actually a specialty of Peru – that must have the juice of 20 limes in it. On the way back to the hostel we stop by an Irish pub where Roman orders a quinoa beer, which we’ve started seeing more of in the Andes. It turns out to have been made from barley with quinoa added in for laughs I guess, meaning it’s not gluten free. I think this seems like a cruel joke and if makes me glad I haven’t ordered one.

1 march 2015

A new day, a new month, the beginning of my sixth month of travel. I check my calendar and see it’s actually been six months plus one week since I left the US. It doesn’t feel like that long. I thought by now I would feel tired, lonely, worn out, ready to go home. Instead I feel relaxed. The more I travel, the more I get used to living out of a backpack, the more Spanish I learn and the more people I talk to, the more I come to know myself well and really understand what I want to see and do when I travel. I travel better the longer I’m at it. And the trip doesn’t feel long. In fact it feels more like two or three different trips than one: there was the time before I could really speak Spanish, when I was more of an outsider; there was my long stay in Buenos Aires and my depression there; and there was the day I left Buenos Aires and really started moving and the road trip began. And now in some ways it feels like another trip is just beginning.

A new month, a new day. Today Roman and I decide to visit the nearby town of Quillacollo where there’s meant to be a large Sunday market. We take a “trufi”; not quite a taxi and not quite a bus, it’s a minivan that I would normally say seats about 8 people plus the driver, but I think we squeeze in 12. As in most countries outside the US, personal space is much much smaller than what Americans assume is the norm – so sometimes you’re pressed in between two strangers. Four people squeeze together on a bench seat, and special folding seats built into the aisles spring out to make use of every available spot. When someone in the back wants to get out, the people in the folding seats have to get out too to make way.

We grab a trufi in Cochabamba and take the 45 minute trip to Quillacollo. We keep thinking we’re going to miss the market – it’s always a gamble when you take public transit somewhere you’ve never been – but finally we’re in downtown Quillacollo and there’s no mistaking it. It’s a madhouse, throngs of people everywhere and the trufi inching through the crowd of people crossing the street. At first all we can see is the crowd, locals bustling back and forth and around the street, indigenous women with brightly colored striped blankets tied on their backs (sometimes there’s a baby tucked back there, or a load of potatoes or rice), and here the style of hat they wear is a simple wide-brimmed hat in white or tan, a sort of lacy texture with flowers tucked in somewhere.

Once we’re off the trufi and slipping into the moving tide of people, there are the stalls selling fried fish, batteries, razors, heads of pick axes, secondhand clothing, toothpaste, underwear; ragged plastic tarps swaying loosely as the ladies running the stalls slap their towels languidly at clouds of flies. We wander the aisles. Each street has its sellers: a street for shoes piled neatly in stacks, a street for fresh-squeezed fruit juices, a street for bouquets, a street for restaurants. The food market takes place under a pavilion in the center of the block of stalls, divided into alleys. There are pyramids of bananas, oranges, cactus fruit, huge papayas and avocados, piles of peaches, apples, and mangos. In the butcher stalls we see piles of chicken heads and feet.

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We stop to drink fresh-squeezed peach juice with cinnamon and a sweet peeled peach at the bottom of the cup. While we sit with our cups an old woman approaches Roman and tries to negotiate the sale of his backpack in Quechua (an indigenous language). She’s at it for about five minutes before we finally make her understand that we don’t speak Quechua.

Later we rest in a plaza and eat chantilly, a cup of red jello with a quivering tower of soft meringue on top. Four teenage boys have a small speaker hooked up to someone’s iPod and are practicing breakdancing in the center of a gazebo. Old couples, young children, and teenaged girls in indigenous clothing eat chantilly under the tall graceful arches of the gazebo and look on as the teenagers slide their sneakers over the polished stones and make flips and headstands one after another.

In Cochabamba we meet Eddy, the travel agent who takes us by taxi to the bus for Torotoro. At the stop we’re waiting in our squeaky seats for a few minutes when it becomes apparent that the bus company made a mistake and all the seats on the bus have been sold to two different people. After an hour of scrambling, every seat is full and people are sitting on benches squeezed in the aisle. Two skinny kids share the seat next to me. I offer my seat to the older boy when I see his head start to droop and he nearly slides onto the floor. He falls asleep right away with his head on Roman’s shoulder while I stand in the aisle.

Roman and I take turns standing for the rest of the winding, bumpy road to Torotoro. Sometimes the bus leans a little going around a curve and I look down and see a cliff half a meter from the bus tires. Just after midnight we’re in town, a few adobe buildings fading into darkness, and our park guide greets us yawning and points us to a cheap hotel where we bang on the door and stumble into our room for the night.

9-10 February 2015: La Serena

9 February 2015
10:46 – last minute packing in the hostel and a quick goodbye walk through Valparaiso, and now I’m on the bus headed to Concon (a suburb north of Valparaiso) where I’ll begin the day’s hitchhiking journey. I checked most of the boxes on the touristy list of things you’re supposed to do in Valparaiso, but I’m still leaving with the feeling that I haven’t really seen the city. I couldn’t manage to open my eyes wide enough, my arms wide enough, my mouth big enough to swallow the city in four short days. I found it enchanting. Where else have I been – where else will I ever be? – with so many hidden alleys filled not with broken glass and piles of trash but with mysterious, rickety staircases leading to hidden murals and beautiful painted houses tucked behind blind turns in the hills?

11:19 – the bus passes through Viña del Mar – the resort-style town in the far suburbs of Valparaiso. No charming alleyways and corrugated metal houses here – we speed along carefully manicured wide avenues free of graffiti and trash, bounded by perfect little plots of grass and boxy hedges. 20-story resort hotels tower across from a wide, modern boardwalk. In the States this place wouldn’t feel out of place, but it’s jarring after bohemian Valparaiso. It feels plastic.

12:09 – time to start hitchhiking. I find my spot – a wide sandy shoulder by the road leading north out of Concon. I’ve got two choices here – the scenic coastal road or the eastern highway that leads to the big interstate that runs the length of Chile. I pick the eastern highway since I’ve got a long way to go today: La Serena is nearly 600 kilometers away.

12:25 – a security police van flashes its lights at me and backs up across the road. I’m sure hitchhiking is legal in Chile – maybe it’s only in certain places? I scuff my feet anxiously in the dirt as the driver rolls down his window. “Hey, chica! This is the wrong road for La Serena. Try the coastal highway,” the driver yells at me with a grin. “Good luck!” I laugh at myself and haul my bag across to the opposite intersection. It’s still a little surreal to get advice from a police officer on the best place to hitchhike.

12:33 – a sleek white Volvo pulls over and the elegant woman in the front seat tells me they’re headed to La Serena. That’s pretty amazing luck – it’s late in the day and I was sure I’d be looking at five or six short rides and maybe not making it the whole way today. I hop in and meet Victor, who’s driving, and Marsela. She works in security, he in taxes. They tell me a little about their family – three children – and their vacation to La Serena as we head north.

Along the way we chat sporadically, my limited Spanish and their Chilean accents a barrier to easy conversation. I haven’t really mastered the ability to converse comfortably in a new language. I’ve met travelers who speak less Spanish than I do but are far more adept at jumping in to conversations (Europeans especially are good at this), so I think there’s a skill to it, but I haven’t picked it up yet. Still, Marsela and Victor are kind and generous. We stop for lunch at a little diner and they insist on paying for my meal. They tell me I’m the first hitchhiker they’ve ever picked up, and they treat me more like a daughter than a stranger they picked up by the side of the road.

19:02 – I hop a bus for downtown La Serena after I hug Marsela and Victor goodbye. We killed the last few hours dancing to Victor’s mixtapes of Bruno Mars and Amy Winehouse while he gunned the Volvo through dry hilly landscape along the edge of the sea. Now I’ve entered a low, dingy urban sprawl surrounding La Serena. People say it’s a beautiful town but right now I mostly see dirt and cookie cutter houses and dying trees. I try to remind myself that cities never look beautiful from the outskirts.

20:00 – a fellow backpacker I vaguely recognize greets me as I’m checking into my hostel. Worn out from the road, I don’t make the connection until a couple of hours later – he’s Boris, a Dutch traveler I met about three weeks ago in Puerto Natales. I never guessed we’d see each other again. The coincidences of life on the road continue to surprise me.

10 February 2015
12:00 – Boris and I pay 3000 pesos each (about $5) for a bus to Pisco Elqui, a small town nestled in the Elqui valley east of La Serena.

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The bus takes us deep into a valley carved into steep, high mountains mainly bare of vegetation; rocky, red hills crowding each other as they rise ever higher into the chain of the Andes. Streams and trickles of streams drip along the valley floor and there’s a narrow band of green trees and short grasses running along the cleft of the valley. We pass the town of Vicuña and the valley blossoms, becoming greener and more lush. We begin to see rows of grapevines, some heavy with fruit. I see that in some of the vineyards, fine pale lengths of very thin fabric hang in long stretches above the grape vines, but I’m not able to figure out why only some of the grapes are covered.

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14:40 – after a surprisingly long but beautiful bus ride, we’re hopping out of the bus right in front of the Pisco distillery, and we sign up for a tour in the lovely, colonial-style building that serves as a reception area. Just inside, a cool airy courtyard houses a restaurant serving rich-looking families amazing-smelling food.

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Apparently the Spanish brought grapes to this part of Chile but weren’t able to grow dry grapes for proper wine. Instead they began distilling the sweet wine that their grapes produced into a strong liquor – Pisco. The distillation process looks interesting and the historical artifacts are nicely preserved, but I’m left with the feeling I usually get on winery tours – the part of the winery that you actually visit never seems to be the area where the majority of the production happens, rather a separate section reserved just for tourists. I dislike the inauthenticity. But I don’t dislike it so much that I can’t enjoy the Pisco tasting at the end of the tour or the free Pisco sour afterwards. Boris and I relax on the patio, talking with a guy from Sweden who’s been studying in Santiago for a few months.

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16:55 – Boris and I decide to try our luck hitchhiking back to La Serena. We ask around a little at a parking lot but all the cars are full or everyone’s going somewhere else. I make a sign – I always have better luck hitchhiking with signs – and we start walking along the road out of town. After about 15 minutes of trudging, holding my sign up, waving, and smiling, a big pickup truck pulls over and the family inside gives us a friendly wave. There are a couple of hitchhikers already squeezed into the bed of the pickup, but there’s room for two more of us. As the truck picks up speed we chat with our fellow hitchhikers, a couple traveling around Chile together. They’re musicians – he’s carrying a ukelele and a music stand made out of bamboo.

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This is my first ride in the back of a pickup truck – I think it’s one of the classic hitchhiking experiences, like getting a ride with a trucker. I’m actually a lot more comfortable than I thought I would be. I guess he’s driving around 100 kilometers per hour, and the wind is strong but not so strong we can’t have a conversation. I’m not really worried about bouncing out of the truck, but I still keep a firm hold on the lift gate just in case. Boris doesnt seem worried.

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We’re back in La Serena just as night falls. Tomorrow is a traveling day again, headed far, far to the north and the driest desert in the world, Atacama.

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.

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 Sköttsberg 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.