Me looking like I'm about to blow away

The Road to Torres del Paine

My alarm jolted me awake at 5:15AM, and it didn’t take long for the feelings of soreness and tiredness to sink in. Ugh. Mornings are the worst. Especially early mornings after long days of hiking on glaciers (I know, your feelings of sympathy must be overwhelming). But, we had a bus to Chile to catch, and staying in bed wasn’t an option.

I booked our bus online before the trip because we wanted to take a slightly less common route to save time. Instead of bussing from El Calafate to a town in Chile and then from that town to the national park, I found a company that goes directly from El Calafate to the park. It was a little more expensive but essentially saved us an entire day. Worth it when you have limited time! Booking things online always makes me nervous, so I spent the morning crossing my fingers that the bus was actually going to show up. They sent a confirmation email with a pick-up time of “6:15AM +/- 2 minutes”. That seemed crazy because how can you only give yourself a 4-minute window? Well, turns out that you can’t… or at least you shouldn’t. The bus came at 6:45 which isn’t actually bad, but by then I had already spent 25 minutes going over alternate plans in my head, wondering at what time I should start to seriously panic. Moral of the story (and the ongoing struggle of my life) is that I need to chill and not worry so much.

Mountains along the drive

Decent bus views

It took about 3 hours to get to the border checkpoint between Argentina and Chile. Everyone got off the bus to get stamped out of Argentina, back onto the bus to drive to the Chile checkpoint, and back off again to get into Chile. They’re a little intense about preventing people from bringing fresh foods and uncooked meats into the country, so we had to fill out a form declaring what types of food we had with us while a dog sniffed everyone’s luggage from under the bus. We had lunch meat that was okay because it was cooked and some eggs that were acceptable because they were hard-boiled. Customs was another thing I was irrationally worried about, and of course, it all worked out just fine.

The border adventure took around an hour and a half and then we got onto a smaller bus with the other people who were going directly to the park. We soon realized that most of the people on our bus were doing a day tour which seems absolutely insane. It’s like 10 hours on the road for max 3 hours of actual driving in the park. Oh well. That situation worked to our benefit because instead of taking us straight to our final destination, we got to stop at the viewpoints along the way and listen to the tour guide give background info.

Sarmiento Lake with mountains in the far distance

Our first glimpse of the park across Sarmiento Lake.

Another picture of Sarmiento Lake with a slightly different foreground

Yes this is practically the exact same picture, but I love them both so much and couldn’t decide which to cut so here they both are.

Parque Nacional Torres del Paine was established as a protected area in 1959 after being severely damaged by cattle farming and intentional fires set to clear the land for that purpose. “Paine” means “blue” in the indigenous Tehuelche language, and the “towers of blue” are three granite peaks that form the park’s most distinctive landmark.

A guanaco that we passed on the way to the park

A guanaco chillin’ by the road

The park is diverse in its landscapes, plant and animal life, and climate. There are glaciers, rivers, lakes, and waterfalls, over 500 different types of plants, and 25 native mammals (including a very high concentration of pumas… hurrah!). There are grasslands, shrublands, forests, and deserts. We were amazed by how quickly the entire landscape could change during a day of hiking. Along the way, the guide pointed out some of the different animals. We saw guanacos (similar to llamas), flamingoes, and rheas (large flightless birds).

 

A lesser rhea bird by the side of the road

Spotted! Mike took this picture of a rhea. They’re huge!

Pixelated flamingos near the shores of a lake

Flamingos! Sorry they’re so pixelated but hey, phone zoom has its limits and they were VERY far away (I’m usually very anti-zoom on phones, but trust me, without the zoom you wouldn’t have been able to see them at all).

When we got to the park entrance, we all got off the bus to pay the entry fee, and Mike and I had to register to let them know that we were planning to stay in the park. Some of the people on the tour were confused about what they needed to do, and the guide explained that they only needed to register if they were planning to hike and stay overnight. Someone’s response was, “Why would anyone want to do that?” Ha. The park ranger went over some standard safety stuff with us and gave us park maps which, side note, were incredibly nice. Not only were they very useful information-wise, but they were also made of this soft plastic-y material that made them incredibly durable. It definitely makes sense because of the extreme conditions in the park! Rain, wind, no problem!

Laguna Amarga with its white-ish water and shores

Laguna Amarga (Bitter Lake). It gets its color and weirdly white banks from calcium deposits.

Incredible blue lake

SO BLUE!

We made a few more viewpoint stops inside the park limits before Mike and I were dropped off at the Pudeto catamaran stop and everyone else continued on their merry tour way. Unfortunately, the next boat wasn’t leaving for another 2 hours, so we attempted to find a sheltered place to wait. The wind was insane! This was our first real taste of the famous Torres del Paine winds. The mixing of warm air from the equator and cold air from Antarctica causes strong winds, and since the southern tip of South America is SO far south, there aren’t many land masses in the way to slow them down. I call them the winds blown ‘round the world. It certainly felt like they had a world’s worth of acceleration time.

Mike and me with a lake and mountain backdrop

The girl who took this picture for us asked if I wanted to take another picture because wouldn’t I regret not looking normal? The answer is no, I don’t. No fake smiles here! Instead, it will always remind me of how cold and windy it was.

Me looking like I'm about to blow away

So windy.

Me laughing after nearly blowing away

Impossible to take a normal picture.

Blue lake with big mountains in the distance

Those mountains in the background are exactly where we were headed to hike… not really UP the mountains, but around the bases of them.

Another incredible lake with mountains view

Seriously none of this looks real but I promise I’m not tryna scam you, this is actually what it looks like.

Lake Nordenskjol with mountains in the background

Lake Nordenskjol. Mike and I were baffled by this because the name belongs in Iceland…

Mike and me with a lake and moutains

One cute pic of the two of us. Side note, pretty sure everyone we met thought we were a couple at first and I’m like… we look identical.

The catamaran left right on time (something that consistently threw me off on this trip. My previous South America experiences led me to expect things to always be operating behind schedule, but everything in Patagonia was crazy prompt!), and it took about 30 minutes to go from Pudeto to Paine Grande where we were camping for the night. The water was the same, bright blue as we experienced in Iceland. Beautiful! We only lasted for like 2 minutes outside before we decided to hide from the wind below decks.

Crazy blue water with cloudy mountains in the background

View from the catamaran… mountains looking nice and mysterious, shrouded in clouds.

View from the catamaran

More cloudy shroudy mountains.

On the other side, the catamaran left us right next to our campsite for the night. Oh, and when we were on our way off the boat, Mike went to get our bags and smacked his head on the low ceiling of the baggage area. He sliced his head open (not too badly, but it still wasn’t good) and was started bleeding everywhere. So we were 2/2 for bloody injuries and days of the trip.

We checked in and went to scout out a spot for our tent. Every blog I read before the trip recommended putting your tent near the edge of the mountain to help block some of the wind… which was great to know, except there was literally no space left next to the mountain. No blocked wind for us! It was a fun adventure trying to assemble the tent without blowing away. Once we got inside, neither of us wanted to leave again (also, is it just me or is it incredibly hard to get out of tents?), but I rallied and took a surprisingly hot and satisfying shower before getting ready for bed. We played a few rounds of Hanabi, Mike’s favorite card game, and then passed out. It was probably good that we didn’t have an intense day because even without doing a lot of hiking, we were completely wiped. Plus, we were starting our big trek the next day! We had an upcoming stretch of four fairly intense days of hiking, and as I said in my voice journal for the day, “I’m mildly terrified, but it should be good.” Optimistic!

(Side note, my journaling strategy for the trip was to do voice journals instead of written ones to save time. It worked… okay-ish? I’ll just say that voice recordings are definitely not a strength of mine, as anyone who’s ever received a voicemail from me can attest.)

Looking back at the Paine Grande campground and facilities

Paine Grande campsite. The buildings have beds inside if you’re not doing it on the cheap like us. To the right, you can see tents set up by the mountain.

Hanabi cards from our game

We played a perfect game in Hanabi, nbd but we’re kind of awesome. (It’s a cooperative game which means we both won.)

Dilijan National Park

We’re approaching the time in my trip when all of my best friends start leaving I get sad and have to begin the whole friend-making process again. Ugh. Hopefully I can manage to keep myself from falling into a moody depression like what happened in Ghana. I think I’ll be okay, but still, I’m not excited about having to find new people who are on the same page as me. It’s not as easy as you might think.

Walking into Dilijan (the town)

Anyway, the point of that whole rant is that the first person from our crew to leave was Shant, and his final wish was for us to go hiking and camping in Dilijan National Park. Dilijan is a 240 square kilometer national park. It was established as a nature reserve in 1958 and was changed to a national park in 2002. You know what the best part of Dilijan is? THERE ARE TREES! Yeah, yeah. I know that sounds stupid, but I miss forests. Dilijan has plenty of trees, and it made me very happy.

This is Sharambeyan Street in Dilijan. It’s been preserved as basically the Dilijan “old town”. There are different kinds of artisan shops all the way down the street which is pretty cool.

Are you ready to hear a ridiculous story that supposedly explains the origin of the name “Dilijan”? Once upon a time, there was a shepherd named Dili who fell in love with the daughter of his master. Obviously, since this is how these stories go, the master was wholeheartedly against it and ordered Dili killed! Seems like a dramatic response to me, but well… yeah. Anyway, Dili’s mother searched for him for days and days, wandering around and calling out “Dili jan! Dili jan!” (If you recall, people use “jan” as a term of endearment after someone’s name or sometimes just in place of it.) The End. Hehehe that might be one of my favorite Armenian stories yet.

Along the hike!

Anyway, one of our friends from Gyumri is spending a month working with the Transcaucasian Trail. They’re planning to build over 3,000 kilometers of trails in Armenia and Georgia. It’s going to be super cool! (If you want to see the route or read more about it, check out their WEBSITE.)  It’s also going to take nearly forever, but still, anything is better than what they have now. As you may have realized from my many posts about “hikes” I’ve gone on with my friends, there are a ton of cool places to hike here, but very few of them have actual trails, and even fewer have trail markers. Armenia has a lot of potential as a tourist destination for people who are into outdoorsy activities, but it’s much easier to sell that when you have accessible information and actual official trails.

Dilijan is beautiful!! It was on my list of places to definitely visit, so when Shant said that he wanted to go there, I was all about it. We got in touch with our Dilijan friend, and she said that we could camp behind their house and borrow camping equipment. Nice! I’m pretty sure that you can probably just pitch a tent wherever in Dilijan, but this way we didn’t have to worry about renting equipment and carting it with us.

This was the marshrutka on the way back to Yerevan. I was confused about why they had these little cubes inside. They looked like footrests. Nope. They were seats. Gotta pack the people in!

We took the first marshrutka from Yerevan at 9AM and were in Dilijan by 11. After stocking up on snacks and supplies, we walked to the campsite and got our tents set up before heading out for a hike. Since the trail marking is still a work in progress, there aren’t many well-marked options. They have all sorts of maps in the TCT headquarters of the various jeep trails and such that exist around the park, so one of the guys there showed us a route that we could take that had no markers but used existing paths. He said it took him 5 hours which I took to mean it would take us at least 7. He tried to insist that he wasn’t going fast, but that means nothing when you’re talking to someone who hikes all the time. We decided to give it a try, I confirmed the directions to the trailhead about 50 times and took a million pictures of the map, and we were off.

A tiny church along the way

I hate being the navigator. Okay, that’s not a completely fair statement. I like navigating and I’m good at following maps, but depending on who you’re with, having the navigating responsibility can be stressful. If I was with Sarah (best friend Sarah), for example, it would be fun. If we hit a point where we weren’t sure which way to go, we would just try one and turn around if it was wrong, no big deal. It’s all part of the adventure.

The view from the top.

Sometimes though, people see pauses and uncertainty as you not knowing what you’re doing, and they lose all confidence in your guidance. That’s when I hate navigating. Following hiking maps isn’t quite as easy as street maps, so sometimes you need to just take an educated guess. There were some parts where I wasn’t completely sure about where EXACTLY we should be walking, but I knew that we were following a river the whole way, so as long as we were close to the river, we weren’t lost.

The crew! Laura (Carineh’s friend who came to visit), me, Carineh, Gagik, and Shant

There was only one part where the “trail” shown on the map wasn’t even close to right. Otherwise, we made some slow progress, but I always knew where we were. We made it to the halfway point after about 3 hours, and I knew there was no chance that we were making it all the way to the end before it got dark. That dude who made it in 5 hours must have been some sort of mutant. Called that. We made a group decision to go a little bit farther so that we could get a good view and then turn around and head back. At least then we would be following a path that we had walked before, and I had a GPS tracker running so we could use that to make sure that we were going the right way.

Tired and happy

The view from the “end” of the hike was awesome. There was a great view of the valley, some mountains in the distance, and there were even a few trees starting to change colors already! It would be super cool to go there in the middle of fall with all of the leaves changing.

After spending a little time resting and enjoying the view, we started hightailing it back in an attempt to hit the road before dark. We had flashlights with us, but that’s no good when you’re not following a clear path. There were a few parts of the hike where we were walking through fields, so you had to be able to see ahead across the field to make sure you were walking in the right direction. We were about 5 minutes from the road when it got completely dark, but luckily that was close enough. The whole hike ended up taking something like 5-6 hours, and I was wiped by the end.

We ate dinner in town at the one restaurant everyone always talks about before heading back to the tents. And s’mores. Because what is camping without s’mores? We didn’t last very long after getting back… I think everyone was exhausted. I could have slept on a bed of rocks.

Here’s our taxi driver looking at a map while driving. Comforting, yeah?

Me, looking like I’m haunting Carineh. And a mystery person looking like they’re haunting me… though I don’t think you can see it that well. Just know that there’s someone else lurking there who looks even creepier than I do.