Patagonia: the John Garner Pass

Day Three: Los Perros to Refugio Grey

This was the big one. The one the first two days had been leading up to. The John Garner Pass.

Standing at 1241 meters (4071 feet) it’s the highest point along the Torres del Paine Circuit. To reach it required a 5:30 wake-up call. Cubano, our cook from the night before, scrambled some eggs, we hastily assembled our lunches, and then we were on our way.

Climbing that morning, our route gradually became more exposed, and those famous Patagonian winds picked up. Above the tree line, the terrain turned to loose rock — a familiar surface for those of us who’ve hiked the Colorado Rockies. To our left and right were jagged peaks, ice hanging off their steep slopes, and behind us, growing more distant with each step, was the lake from our campsite.

Still, we got very lucky, and we knew it. The Garner Pass can be… well… impassable. Hikers have been blocked from crossing it by the elements, and some have gotten lost and even perished. Us? We reached the top in our base layers. What should have been a very brief pause at the top — my guidebook warned “the near gale-force westerlies blasting through this keyhole may make it hard to enjoy the views for long” — turned into a leisurely (first) lunch.

Eventually we got moving again. That initial part of the descent was a highlight of the day and the entire Circuit. Dominating the landscape below us was the end of the mighty Glaciar Grey, a massive hunk of blue-tinted, creviced ice stretching nearly 100 square miles, itself a part of the vast Southern Patagonian Ice Field, one of the largest in the world. The glacier jutted through the mountain range, feeding into Lago Grey to our left. Soon, the terrain under our feet began to vary, still rocky on the surface but bursting with vegetation.

Its beauty aside, the descent eventually turned bruising, noticeably steeper going down. And it was long, so very, very long, and we had used up a good amount of energy on the way up. In all, the 24 kilometers (15 miles) took their toll and for the third straight day a group of weary hikers stumbled into camp. We would feel it the next morning.

Before we made it to camp though, we had one more hurdle to clear: a bridge taken straight off the set of Indiana Jones. The views were stunning — if you dared to look. Danny, borrowing Elizabeth’s phone, provided death defying cinematography (as well as narration)!

Refugio Grey was situated a stone’s throw from where the glacier calved into the lake, but aside from the location, it was easily my least favorite. By now, we had joined the “W” portion of the Paine Circuit, which brought us in contact (and close quarters) with many more hikers. Grey was a vast camp, with two large buildings, some nasty showers with long queues, and an enormous dining room that even had a bar — and couches.

Couches! We were sooo tired after dinner, I thought I might fall asleep right there and then. The sole exception was John, who seemed to have a limitless supply of energy. While I sank deeper and deeper into the couch, he bought a bottle of Jim Beam and a few Cokes — as well as some bonafide glacial ice! — and stayed up drinking with our porters. (Wanna know what glacial ice tastes like? Like Jim Beam and Coke.) The following morning, he was still hurting less than any of us.

Day Four: Refugio Grey to Paine Grande

Another “rest day,” which meant another 12 kilometers (7.5 miles). But at least we got to sleep in a little!

The porch of our refugio was now a makeshift ER as Danny drained blisters right and left. First Elizabeth, then Catherine, then Freddie. He had a great technique that wowed us all. Using a needle, he threaded a small piece of string through each injured toe. The thread absorbs the fluid in the blister without breaking the skin. It’s genius.

Then Peter announced he had the biggest and squishiest one. Silence. He wasn’t kidding though. His blister was the biggest any of us has ever seen and we quickly took to calling it his sixth toe. Draining it drew a small crowd as other groups and guides came to watch Danny perform his miracle surgery. Overall we were now a full half hour behind schedule. (Good thing it’s a rest day!)

Eventually we ventured out for a short walk to the tip of the peninsula that faced the end of the Glaciar Grey. It felt liberating to leave our day packs and trekking poles behind, if only for a half hour.

The glacier had a blue glow unlike anything I’d ever seen. The ice absorbs all the other colors but can’t absorb the blue, so it’s reflected. We returned to the refugio for a so-so lunch (pasta alfredo) and relaxed before setting off at 1:30.

The hike itself was a breeze. An easy climb brought us to a lookout that provided a view of the glacier calving. We finally experienced a more authentic Patagonian climate, too. The sun disappeared, the wind picked up, and there was even a little rain. Our layers came in handy as we paused to take photos.

From there we descended, took a break at a secluded nook where I polished off what remained of my precious dried kiwi, and ultimately found ourselves in a valley that resembled a dry riverbed. I especially enjoyed this final segment. Simple and peaceful, it led us straight to Lago Pehoe, where we stopped for the night.

Refugio Paine Grande was the largest and most elaborate of our campsites. It had a second floor that Danny described as “the bar with the best view in the world,” and while that may have been a stretch, it was indeed a beautiful setting. On one side was the lake, and looming in the distance was the Paine Massif. We enjoyed quite a few cold beers there while I caught up on my journal and Elizabeth found removing her hiking boots to be “amazeballs.”

Then it was onto Thanksgiving dinner: some sort of ground beef and vegetable mixture atop mashed potatoes (the only trace of home!), a broth masquerading as a soup, salad, and dessert. Uneventful, for sure, but then it was back upstairs to the bar and a nice Carménère 2014.

All that good wine reminds me of another highlight from the day — our game of “Trail Tinder,” in which John, Peter, and I swiped left and right on oncoming trail traffic. Suffice it to say Elizabeth was unamused. I swiped right a lot and probably didn’t help my cause when I explained that I wasn’t picky.

Patagonia: First Steps

Patagonia. The name evokes images of jagged peaks studded with glaciers feeding into bright blue lakes — and at least for some, clothing catalogs.

It’s the trip of a lifetime and for us the planning started more than two years ago when we nearly pulled the trigger — but ultimately pulled the plug — on a trip. We vowed to try again in two years, figuring we’d need to catch our collective breath after the elections. How’s that for clairvoyance??

Our journey took us to Torres del Paine on the Chilean side. It was a deliberate choice to focus on one “small” part of Patagonia instead of hopping around this vast region. To truly experience the park, we would hike the legendary Paine Circuit, around the Torres del Paine Massif, bookending our trek at the one-of-a-kind EcoCamp Patagonia. The Paine Circuit is a 136-kilometer (85-mile) trek that we set out to cover in seven days, going counter-clockwise (as most people choose to do).

We flew all night to Buenos Aires and continued onto El Calafate, a small Argentine city that serves as the ideal jumping off point for much of southern Patagonia. After feasting on Patagonian lamb, split and roasted over a wood fire, and a good night’s rest, we crossed into Chile (a rather long and tedious border crossing). Upon arrival, our guide Danny, whom we had met the prior day, briefed us on what was to come while we sipped on some sticky sweet calafate pisco sours (calafate being a berry native to the region).

It also happened to be my birthday (commemorated with a pair of passport stamps) and we celebrated the occasion at EcoCamp, where I ate king crab legs and two desserts, and drank more wine than I should have on the eve of such a long trek.

Day One: EcoCamp to Lago Dickson

This one was a slog. A breathtaking slog, but a slog nonetheless. It’s worth noting that my guidebook refers to this stretch as “Day One” and “Day Two.” That may have been a pretty good hint to break up these 32 kilometers (20 miles) — but Danny’s objective was to cover as much ground on the first day as possible, building up our strength and leaving us with an easier second day before we hit the John Garner Pass. So we hiked 11 hours.

We started by heading north from EcoCamp through a mostly flat valley, broke for lunch (at a refugio where most people opt to spend the night!), and pivoted west at Laguna Alejandra, a small horseshoe-shaped lake. From there we climbed for about 40 minutes and, with Lago Paine to our right, headed southwest until we reached Refugio Dickson. Not a whole lot was said towards the end — especially after we came across a freshly-killed hare, mauled by a puma — and we eventually limped into camp tired and aching (but still doing better than the hare).

That first day we saw preciously few fellow hikers. There were a few people early on, but they stopped for the night at the midway camp, so after lunch we had the trail completely to ourselves (and apparently a puma).

Our first night’s camp would be one of my favorites. Situated in a clearing on the southern shore of Lago Dickson and protected by mountains on its other side, it was lightly populated with a basic refugio at its center. We were served fried chicken with tomato risotto, which isn’t as fancy as it sounds (wait, does it sound fancy at all?) but was downright delicious compared with what we’d be served at the larger camps.

Danny spoke to us about our punctuality, or lack thereof, and he was right. If we continued to take our time with breaks and photo ops (we’d finished an hour behind schedule), it wouldn’t bode well for the more challenging days ahead — namely the John Garner Pass. We took his comments to heart and never needed to be scolded again.

We crashed hard that first night.

Day Two: Lago Dickson to Los Perros

Our second day was a “rest day.” We quickly learned those words meant something entirely different in Chile. So we hiked 11 kilometers (7 miles) at a leisurely pace through dense forest. It really shouldn’t have been a tough day, but I think some of us (ok, it was me) were still feeling the effects of the prior day’s march.

Freddie, Peter and I started the day by walking down to Lago Dickson and dipping our feet in the icy blue water. It felt really good… for about five seconds… and then you started to lose feeling in your toes. (That didn’t stop us from doing it a few more times.)

For the first part of the morning, Lago Dickson was at our back, but I couldn’t help sneaking a few peaks before it completely disappeared. We stopped for lunch at a thunderous waterfall, enjoying the shade and some mist. That Patagonia sun could be powerful at times!

One of our great early discoveries was that in Patagonia fresh water flows like wine. We had ample opportunities to refill our water bottles every hour or so at various mountain streams. (Even if my bottle was mostly full, I’d refresh it with cool water every chance I could.) This was a big change from prior treks, where water had to be purified, and we’d grown accustomed to carrying up to three liters with us. That fact alone greatly lightened our loads.

Before arriving at our campsite we hit the day’s highlight: Laguna de los Perros. There a glacier calves directly into a small lake and chunks of ice float on its surface. It’s a spot known for its notorious winds, but in what would become the norm on our trek, we were able to spend a substantial chunk of time there.

We spent the night at the Las Perros campsite where we had our own cook for the night. “Cubano” spends three weeks at a time shuttling supplies between Las Perros and Dickson and cooking for trekkers. After a cheese and charcuterie course (a local gouda style cheese with jamon and small sausages), as well as some pisco sours, he made us a filling beef and lentil stew, paired with Chilean sauvignon blanc. Hey, life could be a lot worse! The campsite itself was in a small uneven clearing in the forest. We were pretty tired after dinner, but with the sun not setting until around 10, a quick after-dinner walk to the lake was in order.

Then it was time to go get some sleep. Because the John Garner Pass awaited us…

Peru: Parting Thoughts

Back in college, my roommate Stan, an electrical engineering major, had to fulfill a social sciences requirement that led him to write an essay on Peru. All these years later, the title of that essay — Peru: A Land of Extremes — remains a steady source of amusement for our friends. Stan wasn’t wrong though, a point that hit home when we left Lima, a city nestled on the coast, rose to Cusco at all of its 11,200 feet, and then dropped back down into an endless sea of jungle.

That diversity attracts millions of visitors to Peru each year. We left enriched by the experience. Yet something gnawed at me as we raced through the outskirts of Lima on the way to the airport. It was the sense that Peru had become a playground for gringos. More so than any other nation I’ve visited, I got the distinct impression that Peruvians were living their lives distinct and far apart from our daily adventures — activities that were completely foreign to Peruvians themselves. Come to Peru, we were told. Hike the Inca Trail. See Machu Picchu. Stay in the Amazon. Sail on Lake Titikaka. Fly over the Nasca Lines. And while you do that, we’ll be over there, quietly going about our business.

Immersing oneself in a local culture, getting off the tourist track, and meeting the locals is always a challenge when traveling. In Peru, that gap seemed wider, a feeling I just couldn’t shake as I headed home.

Jungle Sounds

What stays with you long after you’ve left the Amazon aren’t the sights, but the sounds — that enchanting, ever changing symphony that is with you from the moment light enters your eyes right up until you disappear deep into the best sleep of your life.

Our visit to the jungle took us to Puerto Maldonado, a rather unattractive city near the Bolivian border. After crossing over the Andes, our plane slowly descended over a seemingly endless flat green carpet, punctured only by a rich brown river that twisted and snaked its way through the Peruvian jungle. That river was the Madre de Dios and, after nearly an hour upstream on a long boat, its shores would be our home for the next three days and nights.

Those days would be filled with excursions — hikes, canoe trips, canopy walks — through an ecosystem unlike any other. We were struck by the size of it all. You know how they say everything’s bigger in Texas? Well, if Texans ever waltzed down to the jungle, they’d head home with their tail between their legs. We were also overwhelmed by the sheer diversity of plant life, a seemingly endless array of trees and plants intertwined with one another.

But mostly it was the sounds… if I close my eyes I can still hear the jungle surrounding me.

The view — and the sounds — from our cabana

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Dawn boat ride on the Madre de Dios River

Dining with the Limoncellos

It doesn’t take long to take in the sights of Peru’s rather dreary capital, leaving plenty of time to graze through a city that has rightfully earned a reputation as South America’s gastronomic epicenter.

Old Lima remains the city’s commercial hub and contains some spectacular Spanish architecture well worth a visit. When you decide it’s time for a break, Bar Cordano is a central Lima institution dating back to 1905 — its decor is a step deep into the city’s colonial past. Businessmen take their lunches there and the menu, like most places we visited, is as voluminous as a New England diner’s. But what Bar Cordano does superbly, and superbly cheap, is the jamon sandwich. In full view to all who enter through its faded wooden doors, there’s jamon de norte and jamon de pais, two hulks of ham from the country that sit atop the bar, alongside a mound of fresh rolls and a big slab of queso. A tall beer washes it all down and before you know it you’re back in the Plaza de Armas soaking in the palace and churches.

20130907-184214.jpg Making a jamon de norte con queso sandwich at Bar Cordano

Of course Lima, nestled on cliffs overlooking the Pacific, is best known for its ceviches. Fresh fish is being chopped and marinated in a spicy blend of citrus at every moment and in every corner of this city. And while it may be hard to find a bad batch, finding a great one takes a little time and effort. Our favorite was Sonia, located in the working class seaside neighborhood of Barranco. Sonia has been making ceviche utilizing every possible ocean critter for 33 years. Peru’s national drink, the pisco sour, is a great accompaniment, but don’t overlook the leche de tigre (or “tiger juice”) — that’s the marinade from the ceviche itself and… maybe I should let you discover that one for yourself.

20130907-172650.jpgShrimp ceviche at Sonia

Lima’s restaurant scene continues to go upscale, with brilliant chefs taking a stab at novo andino cuisine. One of them is Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, who recently opened Amaz in the upscale Miraflores neighborhood. Amaz has already been reviewed in the New York Times and featured on Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. Amaz was, well, amaz. The highlights were paiche, one of the largest freshwater fish in the world, served in a chorizo sauce, and a flawless lomo saltado, a traditional Peruvian steak stir-fry.

Before we departed for the airport, there was time for one last bite. It would be one of my favorites and a fitting end to two weeks in Peru. La Lucha is a hopping sandwich joint in the heart of Miraflores, and when we got there at 7 on a Friday night, a crowd of Limonites (or as I persisted on calling them: Limoncellos) were already queuing to place their orders and jostle for a table. On the advice of the guy behind me, who claimed he had been five times in three days, I ordered the chicharrón, a fried pork sparerib sandwich with sweet potatoes, red onions, and a ubiquitous Peruvian hot sauce called aji. Add fries — “las mejores del Peru” according to the menu; who am I to argue? — and a Pilsen and I knew I would sleep well on my red eye home.

20130907-172125.jpgThe chucharrón at La Lucha

Machu Picchu!

No words or pictures can ever do the centerpiece of the Incan empire justice. Nestled among endless peaks and valleys deep in the Andes, the colossal series of homes, temples, astrological signs, and agriculture terraces is awe inspiring and worthy of its status as one of the great wonders of the world.

I could barely sleep the night before. We would rise at 3:30, fill up on Nutella and peanut butter, and line up at the gate. The park rangers don’t permit you to commence the final approach to Machu Picchu until dawn due to its treacherous nature — while relatively flat, many parts of the narrow trail hug a cliff with a precipitous drop off. So we cranked up some music on our iPhones (“Blurred Lines!”), turned our head lamps into strobe lights, and had an impromptu dance party.

The sheer size of Machu Picchu makes it difficult to soak it all in. I asked Renaldo, who had been doing this trek for 13 years, how many times he had been there. “Over a thousand.” Do you ever get tired of it? “Never.” I could see why.

Eventually it was time to leave, but before I did there was one final climb: Wayna Picchu. That’s the pyramid-like mountain that you’ve seen in every photo jutting out just beyond Machu Picchu. A steep vertical ascent culminating 1,180 feet above the ruins, it’s just the sort of challenge my tired, sore legs needed after a 4-day trek. Despite my longing to kick off my dusty hiking boots and down a cerveza (or four), the extra work was well worth it, leading to its own set of ruins at the summit and a one-of-a-kind glimpse down onto the sacred site.

***

I’ve been blessed to travel to many great places around the globe, but Machu Picchu is the greatest I’ve ever seen. The natural beauty of the location and the exquisite manner in which the city was built into the mountain side make it a right of passage for any traveler. And if trekking for four days and sleeping in tents doesn’t appeal to you, know that there is a train that will take you directly there and back. (There goes your last excuse.)

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Inca Trail: Day 3

The Inca Trail is, of course, a journey to Machu Picchu, but along the way you pass through nearly a dozen other Inca sites, from simple check points for the couriers who served as a precursor to the two-legged Pony Express, to elaborate villages, temples, and agricultural terraces. The two most spectacular of these were Intipata and Wiñay Wayna, which alone made the journey as momentous as the ultimate destination.

And after the rain and snow, the sun shined down on us the third day. The trek of 6 miles consisted primarily of steep descents along 3,000 steps laid out by the Incas. It was truly the most epic day until…

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A view of the Andes from the ruins of Wiñay Wayna

Inca Trail: Days 1 & 2

After an early wake-up call and two-hour drive from Cusco, we arrived at kilometer 82, the starting point of the Inca Trail. Three days later we would look back on our first group photo and scarcely recognize the clean, naive faces in it. That first day was a long (8.7 mile), gradual ascent to about 11,000 feet. The weather was beautiful, perhaps lulling us into a sense of complacency, and the scenery was reminiscent of the Colorado Rockies — a river valley running through the Andes.

We met our amazing team of 14 porters (“the Green Machine”), our gifted guides Raul and Renaldo, and Super Mario, the incredible chef who ensured we didn’t lose so much as a tenth of a pound along the trek.

We went to bed early to the sound of raindrops on our tents…

The second day of the Inca Trail is universally regarded as the toughest. This section of the trail is 10 miles in length and rises to 13,829 feet — the highest point in the trek. Really, it’s challenging enough without rain. Followed by heavier rain. Followed by snow on the approach to the summit. Followed by still more rain.

Despite the adversity, we topped Dead Woman’s Pass, where we were rewarded with a queso sandwich, a hot cup of coca leaf tea, and (most importantly!) a shot of rum.

The rain would eventually give way as we brought our soaked selves into camp.

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Our guides Raul and Renaldo bringing up the rear on the second day’s climb to Dead Women’s Pass