The W Trek, Day 4 – Mirador Las Torres

Our final day in Torres del Paine started bright and early… if by bright you mean dark because the sun wasn’t up yet. We had about 9.5 hours of hiking ahead, and we needed to finish by 3ish. So, we set our alarm for 5AM. Well, I set mine for 4:50 so I would be ready at the same time as Mike, and then I ended up waiting for him until 5:40!!! 5AM Lara was a little grumpy about that, but I suppose it just makes us even for all of the days when I was the slowpoke.

A map of the park with different legs of the trail highlighted

Here’s our map one more time… Day 1 was up and down the pink. Day 2 was along the blue and then up and down the vertical part. Day 3 was along the orange. Day 4 part 1 was up and down the purple, and then part 2 was along the yellow.

I read in various places about doing this hike in time to see the sunrise. From the end viewpoint, the sun doesn’t actually rise in a direction where you can see it, but I guess you’re supposed to do it for the golden morning sun reflecting on the rocks.  Our campsite was about 4 hours away from there which would have meant waking up around 2AM and hiking the whole thing in the dark. I bet you can guess what we thought about that idea. No. Freaking. Way. I know that sometimes I do things that may seem a little insane, but middle-of-the-night hiking on 3 hours of sleep is not something I’m generally interested in. Personally, I was more than pleased with our view of the sunrise over the valley, but I’ll let you be the judge.

Here comes the sun…

You can do it, sun!!!

WHAT JUST HAPPENED? THE COLORS! THE VALLEY! MY EYES! I know I keep promising this, but it really DID look like this! Don’t ask me how. I DON’T KNOW HOW.

Morning trail views

We hiked for about 1:40 before hitting the first landmark of the day, another campsite, Chileno. It didn’t have any vacancies when we were booking which is how we ended up in the middle of nowhere… but after hiking there, I was actually happy that things turned out the way they did. The path to the campsite is a lot of up and down, and a lot of super steep, gravelly up. If we’d been camping there, we would have had to carry all of our stuff up those hills instead of just daypacks, AND we would have done it at the end of Day 3. Noooo thank you. Things worked out exactly the right way.

Headed to Chileno

We saw maybe 3 people on our way to Chileno but figured we’d see some life once we made it to the campsite. Nope. Chileno was like a ghost town. Seriously, we saw zero people during our stop there. Zero.

Oh well! All the better for our hike. It was pretty ideal – the temperature was super pleasant, my legs were feeling completely fine, and the scenery was beautiful. While the walk to Chileno was very sun-exposed, it didn’t matter because it was still so early. From Chileno until the next landmark (about 50 minutes away), there were a bunch of pretty forests to keep us cool. The trail had a lot of up and down which could have been annoying, but it was easy to get distracted because of the trees and the rivers and the overall ambiance.

Seriously the best kind of trails… easy on the feet (no rocks, thank goodness) and sOoOo pretty! (Not sure why I did that obnoxious “O” thing, but it felt right so I’m leaving it.)

Slightly more trustworthy bridge than the usual…

The next landmark is the ranger station at the base of the ascent to the viewpoint. When we got there, we saw the first hikers coming back in the other direction, aka the crazies who hiked up to see the sunrise. If they started at Chileno then it’s not THAT crazy, but we saw some people who were definitely at our campsite. Good for them, I suppose.

From there, it’s less than a mile in distance to the viewpoint, but the time estimate for that segment of the trail is 1 hour. That information alone gives you a pretty good idea of what the trail is going to be like – steep, steep, and steep.

Sure enough, it was. Mostly, it was like stairs… not in the way where the rocks are actually planned out and are reasonably sized like stairs, but in the way where there are rocks and they’re big and maybe if you were a giant they would be good stairs, but since you’re normal sized, it’s much less convenient. The whole time, you’re thinking, “Well, this is better than if it was just super steep,” but you’re also wondering if you’re just saying that to make yourself feel better. And then you hit a stretch where it IS just super steep, the trail is loose gravel, and you worry about your foot slipping with every step… and you think that maybe the rocks were actually better, but “better” still doesn’t mean “good”.

Thankful for shade.

This is where you get your first glimpse of the top of the towers, though I didn’t realize it at the time. I was too busy crying over the fact that we weren’t at the top yet (or possibly just sweating from my eyeballs).

The beginning part was kind of okay (the “giant steps” part) because it was under tree cover, but the last stretch was horrible. No trees, just a rock wasteland. A very vertical rock wasteland. A very vertical rock wasteland with a very bright sun determined to melt off our skin. We kept asking people who were coming down how much we had left, and I could tell from their faces before they even said anything that it was an answer we didn’t want to hear. I so prefer being the one coming down rather than the one on the way up, begging for information.

I was about ready to say forget it (though not really because if you’re going to stop a hike before you finish, it’s better to stop it before you even start. Once you’re going, there’s no giving up) when we came around a corner, and BAM! We were there, hit with an insane view of a lake and the famous torres (towers) of Torres del Paine. It is still completely baffling to me that we spent so much time hiking up… to a lake. Lakes, to me, are things that happen in low areas, not things that you find at the top of mountains. Mind. Blowing.

BAM! First look when you turn the corner

Then you get a better view of the lake… (brace yourselves for the same picture a few more times).

Down by the water. Are you sick of the same picture yet? SORRY BECAUSE I’M NOT FINISHED.

Reflections!

Not posed. (Definitely posed, though this is basically the position we were in the entire time that we weren’t taking pictures. Staring with “how are you real? eyes.)

Looking the opposite direction from the lake. Give this lonely landscape a little love! It’s pretty but probably underappreciated considering the competition.

Even though we got such a late start (hehe), there still weren’t many other people at the top when we showed up. There were maybe three other groups, but you still could easily get pictures without anyone else in them (the most important thing, of course). We hung out/snacked/stared in awe for about 40 minutes. I would have been cool with staying longer, but Mike said we should get going to make sure that we had enough time to make our bus. Ugh. What a painfully rational thought.

As good as my knee felt on the way up, that’s how bad it felt on the way down. I tried to keep as much weight off of it as I could, but it was impossible. By the time we got to the bottom of the super steep part, I could barely walk. Great.

We did it!

Back down, through the rocky desert, slowly melting into a puddle (but prob that would have helped because then I would have flowed my way down the mountain instead of creak, crack, crying my way down.)

I don’t know what happened. There must have been some kind of trail magic because after maybe a mile of screaming on every step, it was like it got tired and gave up. And then it never hurt again, for the rest of the trip. I suppose I finally broke my knee’s spirit and transformed back into the youthful 20-something I actually am, instead of a creaky, old 30-something in desperate need of a knee replacement. Weird, right? (I clearly have high hopes for my 30s.)(Jk though I’m sure it’s going to be great.)

We definitely started our hike at the right time because there was barely anyone on the way up, and we saw a TON of people on our way back. Between the guard station and Chileno, we kept passing people who were already SO tired, and they hadn’t even made it to the hardest part yet. AND it was only getting hotter outside. They’d ask how close they were, and I usually didn’t need to say anything because my “Oh no, how do I break the truth?” face had already given it away. I don’t like to be the bearer of bad news! We were the bearers of a LOT of bad news.

Almost back to Chileno… one of our last moments of somewhat peaceful nature

Back at Chileno, it was a completely different scene from the morning. Chaos. There were people EVERYWHERE. Mike and I looked at each other and were like, “Get us out of here.” Tourists are the worst, amirite? (I know.) Seriously though, having some sort of awareness of the people around you is generally recommended and seems to be something that people often forget to bring with them on vacation.

THESE were the tents at Chileno. Would you sleep on one of those platforms? Definitely not for active sleepers! No chance I would have made it to my tent if we stayed here (because sad, tired legs), but they’re fun to look at!

From there back to our campsite, we passed so many more people. It was definitely the most crowded day. Finally, the crowds I’d been promised! Good thing we already had enough time for our “just us and nature” moments, so we were fine with sharing. This hike is the most accessible because you can drive almost directly to the trailhead (the parking lot is closer than our campsite was), so there were day hikers which we weren’t used to. That also meant that there was a much more varied population of hikers, rather than the slightly more intense backpacking crew of the previous few days. Some of those people… I don’t know. They might still be hiking up that mountain they were moving so slowly.

On our way back out of the valley

90% of the pictures I took of Mike were because he was standing in the way… so I would take a picture with him in it and then tell him to move. I’d say it’s a win-win. He got some nice pictures out of it!

Spot the sad hikers

Ignore how gross and sweaty I look (you can focus instead on how gross and sweaty Mike is). But this was quite possibly the best ice cream I’ve ever eaten.

Ignore how gross and sweaty I look (you can focus instead on how gross and sweaty Mike is). But this was quite possibly the best ice cream I’ve ever eaten.

We ended up making great time on the hike back and were at our campsite 40 minutes ahead of our goal! That gave us time to cool down a bit and pack up the tent without having to rush. Our celebration was a little premature, though. We still had to get to the visitors’ center to catch our bus… another 7km away. Everyone said it would take 1.5 hours to walk which didn’t sound so bad, but I wasn’t thinking about it in terms of “you’ve already been hiking for 8 hours before this”.

We thought about hitchhiking, but it turns out that neither of us is brave enough to commit to a solid attempt. So, we walked. Looking back, I’m 100% confident that we could have gotten a ride. What a day to choose to be shy. I blame Mike because that’s what siblings do. And also because he talked a big game and had no follow through, so it’s clearly his fault.

This bridge was literally the only cool part of our walk to the visitors’ center

It was all the way on the final kilometer though, when the destination was in sight…

So we totally could have just gotten a ride and then walked back 5 minutes to see the bridge.

Unedited post-hike state

By the time we made it to the visitors’ center, both of us were about ready to keel. The entire 7km was shade-less and also essentially view-less which meant there was nothing to distract us from our misery along the way. I was thrilled to have 6 hours of bus ride ahead. I felt like I wanted to sit down for the rest of forever, and basically, I got my wish.

The ride back to Argentina and El Calafate went smoothly, and we even got back before the grocery store closed which was clutch. Mike boiled us a feast of ravioli for midnight dinner, our first cooked meal in four days. And what a feast it was!

And then we procrastinated re-packing our bags for the next leg of our trip and ended up going to bed SO late even though we had an early bus to catch. Classic.

Beautiful view of the lake with sky blue water

The W Trek, Day 3 – Lake Nordenskjöld

Our third day of the W trek started out much better than the second. There was no wind in the forest where we were camping. I didn’t wake up terrified of blowing away. Nothing disturbed us until my alarm went off at 8AM which means Mike slept for 14 hours straight and I slept for 11.

We treated ourselves with a late morning because we had our shortest day of hiking ahead, just over 10 miles. Plus, we were both exhausted, and I think my body would have full-on rebelled if I had tried to wake up any earlier. Even with the extra rest, I wasn’t thrilled about having to move.

A map of the park with different legs of the trail highlighted

Here’s the map again! Day 1 was up and down the pink line, Day 2 was along the blue line and then up and down the vertical part, and Day 3 was along the orange line.

There was no sense of urgency in getting ready to go. We didn’t even have a tent to pack up (we spent that night in a rented tent because it was the only option left when we were booking), and it still took us until about 9:30 to get completely ready (okay… probably it was mostly me taking my sweet time, but we really had no reason to rush). Mike and I met at the trailhead… and it looked like we were dressed for completely different seasons. I was feeling the morning chill, so I had leggings and my winter coat on. He was in his lightweight hiking pants and a t-shirt. The difference is that he’s more often hot than cold, I’m the opposite, and we dress accordingly. Sometimes we’re both right about what will work for us, but this did not end up being one of those times. Who do you think was wrong?

Okay, okay. It was me. I think we walked for 10 minutes before I felt like I was going to melt into a puddle. There was way more sun than I was expecting, plus I hate starting out cold even when I know I’m going to warm up from the exercise.

Lake Nordenskjöld

First views of the lake

Another view of the lake

That. Water.

Our segment for the day was the second bottom part of the “W” which meant we had to take all of our stuff with us again. Since there weren’t any big viewpoints along the way, I thought it was going to be an underwhelming day. HA! You’d think I would have figured it out by then. Maybe there weren’t any mind-blowing, mountain-surrounded valleys, but the scenery was still amazing. Soon after we left our campsite, Francés, the forest thinned out, and we started walking downhill towards Lago Nordenskjöld (that’s about when I decided I needed to take my coat off).

Epic mountain

Yeah, the views were still pretty fantastic

After about an hour, we made it all the way to the edge of the lake! I had no idea that we were going to get so close to the water. It was beautiful! And we walked along a little rock beach which made me like it even more because you know how much I hate sand (and if you don’t, just know that I hate it a lot and do my very best to avoid it).

The rocky shores of the lake

Don’t you just want to go for a swim?

Pretty lake view

If this wasn’t only an hour into the hike, I would have tried to convince Mike to take a snack break so I could stare at the water for longer.

Walking along the lake shoreline

<3 <3 <3

The route for the rest of the day followed the edge of the lake pretty closely, though that was the only time we were actually within touching distance of the water. From there, the trail headed uphill and back into the woods for one of the only shaded stretches of the day. That’s when we reached our first landmark, another campsite, Cuernos. Cuernos is another site where people sometimes stay after the hike we did the day before, and all I can say is thank goodness we got a spot at Francés. No chance would I have survived another two hours of hiking the night before (either my legs would have rejected me, or Mike would have killed me out of annoyance).

Mike filling his water from a rocky stream

This was the actual best thing… I loved being able to drink straight from the rivers! Mike is filling up his water bottle.

The lake

And I thought it was going to be an underwhelming day. HA!

Mike and me with the lake behind us

Lake selfie!

With our fresh day 3 legs, the hike to Cuernos took only about an hour and a half. We stopped briefly to put on sunscreen which turned out to be a VERY good idea, though we probably should have also reapplied because my face was very pink at the end of the day. And my arms! Oh, my poor arms. I was wearing long sleeves, so I didn’t put anything on them… and when I started getting overheated, I pulled my sleeves up to my elbows without even thinking about it. I had an embarrassingly distinct line on my forearms which I hoped would even out the next day a bit. (Spoiler alert, it’s been like a month and a half since this day, and I STILL have a line on my arms. So the moral of the story is to WEAR SUNSCREEN.)

A rocky mountain peak with a little waterfall

Spot the waterfall!

The lake from above

Bye, bye shoreline! Up we go…

After Cuernos, the hike felt a bit like walking through the desert. Any hint of the morning cool was long gone, and there was NO shade, just low plants. It was pretty, that’s for sure, but it was also exhausting. It kind of ended up working out in my favor because usually, Mike is like, “Meh meh meh, I don’t need a break,” but he was definitely feeling the heat too. It also helped that we had such a short day, so we didn’t feel like we needed to hurry.

The rocky trail with some low plants

The trail. Pretty plants, but not great for shade

Me with the lake

I hope you like lakes because this isn’t even close to the last lake picture

The trail bending away from the lake

Is that a picturesque trail, or what?

A particularly rocky stretch

I can’t say my feet appreciated those rocks, though

Elevation-wise, the whole day was a constant up and down and up and down. The good news was that my knee wasn’t hating me as much, plus I had a fresh strategy for the downhills to keep it that way (aggressive use of my hiking poles mixed with a slight side turn, in case you were wondering). Thanks to that fortunate development, we managed to keep a good pace throughout the day. I was surprised by how fast we could comfortably go when I wasn’t crippled by blisters and throbbing knees! And it was so nice to be able to focus on enjoying the hike.

 

Me walking across a suspension bridge

Another suspension bridge! And another 1 person at a time limit

Mike crossing a suspension bridge

Mike making the trek across

Pretty red and orange streaked rocks

LOOK AT THE COLORS OF THESE ROCKS

Another gorgeous trail pic

Ugh so many ugly views I can’t even stand it

Weird-looking cliffs by the trail

Funky mountains. Seriously what is happening with those cliffs?

Beautiful view of the lake with sky blue water

I don’t know what was going on with the light and the water when we got to this point, but yes, this is what it actually looked like and no, I couldn’t believe my eyes.

Another view of the lake with pretty colored rocks

Imagine a pterodactyl in this picture and try to tell me that it doesn’t look like it belongs.

The lake with clouds reflecting on the surface

I CAN’T DEAL WITH THIS. How are these colors real? How is this place real? How did we get so freaking lucky with the weather? WHY CAN’T I LOOK AT THIS VIEW ALL THE TIME FOREVER FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE?

Mike and me with a mountain backdrop

I’m sure you’re sick of lake pictures by now, so here’s us with some mountains instead (except just kidding because how could you ever get sick of those???)

Me gazing out at the lake

So darn pretty

Crossing the river with no bridge

Pretty sure it looks like I’m smiling because I’m laughing about how I’m definitely not going to make it. Mike took this picture and then attempted to direct me across. Once I accepted that water was going to get into my boots, it wasn’t as hard.

Our next landmark was a fork in the trail. The left fork continues along the route of the W, and the right fork leads to the campsite where we were spending the night (because the more convenient campsite was booked… that’s what happens when you book things only 2 weeks ahead of time. No complaints from me, though. I was just happy we could make it work!). I knew our campsite was kind of in the middle of nowhere, but I didn’t realize just how out of the way it was. I estimated it was maybe another hour after the fork in the road. It was not. Try 2.5 hours.

Soon after the fork, we found ourselves at the edge of a river that absolutely should have had a bridge. It was wide, the current was strong, and there was literally no way to get across without getting water in your shoes. I was mostly worried that I was going to fall over and get everything in my bag wet, but my hiking poles saved the day once again, and my socks were the only thing that didn’t come through unscathed.

From that point on, there was truly no shade. Mostly, there weren’t even ground plants. Just rocks. On the bright side, it was fairly flat. I spent most of the walk marveling at the colors. It seems almost stupid when I write it out, but the colors just seemed so vibrant in comparison to other places. Like I was walking around with color filters over my eyes that made everything look unrealistically saturated (so if you’re thinking that my pictures look like I did a little too much filtering, I promise I didn’t. It somehow does actually look like that).

Mountain views

Oh, you know. Just another stellar landscape

Red and black rocky stretch along the trail

This is definitely the surface of another planet. Check out those rocks!

Eventually, once I realized that my time estimate was WAY off, I got to the point where I transformed into Mike (a terrifying image). I was trucking because my knee didn’t hurt, and I just wanted to get to the end. No breaks! No pictures! (Kidding, there’s always time for pictures.) No snacks! I was determined to keep moving at my aggressive pace and left Mike behind at some point. Who knows what he was doing back there, but I was not stopping. Then, we got to the place where I thought the campsite was, and nope. There’s a hotel there, Las Torres, and I thought the campsite was close to there. It’s not. We still had at least another 30 minutes.

Me walking down into the valley

“Mike! What’s taking you so long?”

The valley

THE COLORS

The trail running through a field of weird, low bushes

So… these plants are weird.

More weird bushes

Within minutes, we went from the surface of another planet to this… also possibly another planet but like… what?

River running through the valley

At this point, I was ready to be at the campsite. When I took this picture, I probably thought we were almost there. NOPE. This was still maybe 40 minutes away.

By the time we arrived at the campsite, I was beyond ready to sit down. At least my knee wasn’t hurting, though! And I wore approximately 85 pairs of socks (+/- 83 pairs), so I didn’t get any new blisters! So many victories!

We set up the tent, showered, and went to sleep as soon as we could manage because we had a fun 5AM start the next day. Our last day in Chile!

Me sitting at Mirador Britanico

The W Trek, Day 2 – French Valley

I had possibly the worst sleep of my life after our first day of hiking in Torres del Paine. The day was windy enough to make you feel like you were going to blow away, and the night was even worse. I woke up around 12:30AM because of the WIND. Let me be clear – I am NOT a light sleeper. I’ve slept through hurricanes and thunderstorms and being stepped on. This time, though, I woke up terrified that our tent was going to blow away and could not fall back asleep. There was no reasoning with my middle-of-the-night mind. How could the wind lift our tent + me + Mike + our stuff? Irrational. I just wanted it to be morning so that we could leave.

View of Lago Pehoe

Photo taken while death-gripping my phone so it wouldn’t blow out of my hand

I suppose I must have fallen back asleep a few times because it didn’t feel like I was awake for 6 whole hours. Even so, it was not a restful sleep AT ALL. I kept waking up to my whole body tensed up and my heart beating like crazy.

As soon as my alarm went off at 6:30AM, I was like, “Great! Let’s go! I’ve gotta get out of here.” I think I was up and out of the tent before Mike even opened his eyes. He wasn’t quite as freaked out by the wind, but he did say that he got out a couple of times during the night to make sure the tent stakes were still in the ground.

Lago Pehoe

This is the same lake that we took the boat across on our very first day

There was actual danger of the tent blowing away as we disassembled it, but we managed that with body weight and a pile of rocks. I’m sure we looked like very competent campers… We also discovered that the tent didn’t come out totally unscathed. A few of the tent poles had a slight bend in them that wasn’t there before. So, I’m not exaggerating. The wind. Was. Crazy.

A map of the park with different legs of the trail highlighted

The W trek is the pink, blue, orange, and purple lines put together. We went up and down the pink line on Day 1. On Day 2, we walked the bottom part of the blue and then went up and down the vertical part before getting to our campsite where blue meets orange.

This was our first time hiking with our full packs since we only needed daypacks the day before. We walked about 2.5 hours along the first bottom part of the W (starting from where blue and pink meet, we walked along the blue line) before we got to drop them off again. The beginning of the hike was brutal, not because the hike itself was difficult but because 1) the wind was still insane and 2) my feet weren’t numb yet, so the impact of Day 1 was being acutely felt (despite the super fun blister draining party I had the night before).

Sun rising over the lake

Early morning lake views

Mountains along the trail

Mike loves his panos… and I love this one he took. Those mountains! I can’t handle their awesomeness!

Mountain peak in the distance

Hey, pretty mountain

Gorgeous mountain peak

This mountain actually doesn’t look real

Pretty mountains in the distance

The wind may have been brutal, but I was definitely still enjoying the view

Thankfully, the whole hike wasn’t a windy mess. By about 1.5 hours in, my feet were back to a comfortable numbness, and we hit a forested area that helped to cut out the wind. From that point on, it was like a whole new world. I took off my winter coat and rain pants and actually felt hot instead of like a windblown icicle. Numb feet, comfortable temperature, beautiful mountains… what more do you need?

Forested hiking path

So much better than hiking the windy plains!

The remains of burned trees

Another tree graveyard

Deep blue lake

I can’t get over the colors

Suspension bridge

A suspension bridge across the river… this one was marked with a capacity of 1 person at a time. Not scary at all.

A river with mountains in the background

View from the middle of the bridge

Looking downstream from the bridge

Looking the other direction… Still a beautiful view!

Suspension bridge with mountains behind it

The suspension bridge (from the spot where we stopped to fill up our water bottles!)

When we got to the bottom of the middle leg of the “W” (where the blue line turns north on the map from before), we left our big packs at the Italiano ranger station and continued on with only daypacks. The day’s hiking to that point was fairly flat, so it wasn’t bad having to carry everything. After that, though, there was a LOT of uphill, and I was happy to have a lighter load.

From the moment we started the second part of the hike, Mike was saying that we needed to go faster. I guess he was worried about the time? I thought we were fine and was mostly concerned with doing what little I could to appease my very unhappy feet. There was a zero percent chance of me speeding up and maybe a 5% chance that I was even physically capable of doing so. I told him to go ahead, especially because this part of the hike was slightly more crowded, and he kept practically running to pass people. Nope. Not a chance. So, off he went, and I made friends with some of the other slowpokes around me. There’s nothing like shared discomfort to jump start a friendship!

Trees along the trail

This part of the hike was cool… you basically walk along the top of a ridge that’s lined with these funky trees.

I was extra happy that I sent Mike ahead because the hike was gorgeous, and then I didn’t feel guilty about stopping to gape and take pictures (and catch my breath…). My gosh. The mountains. The river. The blue skies. The trees. I kept blinking, trying to clear my eyes because it absolutely did not look real.

Me on a rock in front of the snow-covered mountain

The first clear view of the avalanche mountain

Mike was waiting for me just before the first viewpoint. I don’t know that he meant to stop like 2 minutes short, but it was nice to get there together. I was already amazed by the little glimpses of the mountains that I got along the hike. The view when we stepped into the clearing was jaw-dropping. We literally sat there and watched avalanches cascading down the side of the mountain! They’re pretty frequent, too. Terrifying. But also amazing. And also terrifying. You can hear them happening… It’s a low rumble, like a plane taking off or thunder in the distance. Crazy!!

Me standing on a rock and short Mike with the mountain behind us

Me and Mike in front of avalanche mountain. I’m standing on a rock.

Avalanche mountain

One more so you can enjoy an unobstructed view

We hung out and ate a snack before continuing to the next viewpoint, Britanico, maybe another hour and a half away. The beginning part was flat, flat, flat, so we stayed together because I could maintain a Mike-acceptable pace, even though my knee was starting to act up again. At the very end, it’s steep, steep, steep… and you emerge to this view that’s somehow even more incredible than what you’ve seen up to that point. I don’t even know how to explain it. There are mountains on every side up ahead, and when you look behind you, there’s the super blue lake from the morning in the distance and you’re like, “I CANNOT BELIEVE WE WALKED ALL THE WAY FROM THERE TO HERE.”

A lake in the far, far distance

I CANNOT BELIEVE WE WALKED ALL THE WAY FROM THERE TO HERE!

Pretty forest

More forested paths on the way to the final viewpoint!

It was so worth it. So incredibly worth it. We said we were going to stay for half an hour and then ended up almost doubling that. Mike and I kept looking at each other in disbelief. How does a place like this exist??? Brace yourself for approximately infinity pictures.

River with mountains

Getting closer to the viewpoint…

River with mountains again

I know these are all basically the same, but like… I’m obsessed.

Mountains!!

What the what.

MOUNTAINS!

SO COOL!

Britanico lookout peaks

How. Are. You. Real?

Me with mountains in the background

Me standing on the most epic rock. You have an unobstructed 360-degree view from up there!

Mountain peaks

<3 <3 <3

Panoramic shot on the way to the last viewpoint

Almost there!

Me sitting at Mirador Britanico

Enjoying the view from my snack spot

Panoramic photo at the Britanico viewpoint

Mike took this 360-degree panorama picture that can kind of help you imagine what it was like… but just imagine it all much, much bigger.

Finally, we set off for the ranger station. That’s when my knee really started hurting, and the rest of the hike was a complete mess. Between my feet, my throbbing knee, and the fact that I was just tired, I was not moving quickly. Sorry, Mike! He, on the other hand, seemed fine. Ugh.

We eventually made it back to our backpacks and from there, had only another half hour to hike to our campsite. It was all flat. Thank. Goodness. It was a shorter day than our first, only 12.5 miles and about 9 hours (basically a walk in the park), but by the time we made it to the campsite, we were both ready to collapse. The girl at reception pointed us to our tent… up a hill, practically the last tent. Then, she explained where the bathrooms were… all the way down the hill. We looked at each other like, “Yeah, right,” and decided there was no chance we were using the bathrooms.

Flat hiking paths on the way to our campsite

The final leg of our hike… wonderfully flat

Another fab mountain view

On our way to the campsite! The views just don’t stop.

Mike passed out before 6PM, almost immediately after we ate. I, unfortunately, got to the point where I REALLY had to go to the bathroom. I did what anyone would do in that situation… and spent the next 20 minutes writing in my journal, trying to convince myself to just go. It went something like this…

“It’s 8:17PM, and I have no interest in being awake anymore. “So go to bed,” you say. “What’s the problem?” Ah. Yes, there is a problem. I have to go to the bathroom, and it is so incredibly far away. And on a hill. I mean, I don’t know if the actual bathroom is on a hill, but our tent is near the top of one and the bathroom is at the bottom. Aka getting there would be very easy, but coming back would be all uphill. No, I take that back. No direction would be easy because my feet are killing me and my knees hate downhills. Also fun side fact, I’m fairly certain that one of my toenails is going to fall off because it’s currently blue.

I know what I have to do. It’s not even really a question. I just don’t like the answer. I need to get up. I need to walk to the bathroom and stop whining. Then, I need to suck it up and walk back to our tent where I will be able to sleep without worrying about waking up in the middle of the night. Then I get to sleep for like 11 hours straight, and what could be better than that? Okay, I think I’m convinced that this is the only way. It really is though… I need to just do it.

Step 1: sit up and drag body to tent door.
Step 2: open door and put on flip flops.
Step 3: open rain fly and try to look semi-coordinated while getting out.
Step 4: don’t cry the first time you put your feet on the ground.
Step 5: do what you need to do, knowing that you have such wonderful things (aka sleep and not feeling like you’re going to pee your pants) ahead.
Step 6: go into a comatose sleep because you took a Benadryl, so you should probs get moving before that fully kicks in and you just pass out.

I’ll let you know how I do.”

Clearly, I survived. It wasn’t pretty. I hobbled my way down the hill, baffled by the fact that everyone else around me seemed to be doing just fine while I was a total wreck. And then, I hobbled back up the hill, collapsed into the tent, and enjoyed my 11-hour hibernation.

Tent on a platform at our campsite

This wasn’t our tent (because obviously I forgot to take a picture of ours), but you get the idea… except now imagine it at the top of a big hill.

The W Trek, Day 1 – Grey Glacier

Torres del Paine National Park is well-known for two major treks. One is called the W, and the other is the O… very creatively named for the approximate shapes of the trails. Based on our time constraints and wanting to have some diversity in our trip, Mike and I decided to do the shorter W (4 days rather than 8ish). For sleeping arrangements, you can choose to camp with your own tent, camp with rented equipment (that’s already set up at the campsites), or sleep in refugios (aka indoors with a bunk bed). For food, you can either bring your own, bring some of your own and get breakfast and dinner provided at the campsite, or get breakfast and dinner plus a bag lunch.

A map of the park with different legs of the trail highlighted

Here’s a map I marked up in an attempt to simplify this explanation for you. The W trek is the pink, blue, orange, and purple lines put together. The O is those plus the green line over the top. Our first day was spent going from the bottom of the pink line to the top and then back again.

Selfie of me and Mike

Smiling because this was still very early in the day

We were trying to do this on the cheap (well, I was. Mike was fine with spending some money. I guess that’s what happens when you actually have an income. I don’t remember what that’s like…), so we brought our own tent and packed our own food. The challenge with that was the fact that most people bring camp stoves and eat actual food during the trek. We had no camp stove and no desire to figure one out before our trip… so we packed all dry food. I felt okay about that because it was only going to take four days. Any longer and we would have considered other options, I think. But nope! Four days and a good supply of protein bars, peanut butter (and jelly for Mike), bread, ham and cheese, gross chocolate cookies that I picked out (whoops! You win some, you lose some), peanuts, and dry ramen noodles (for me. I actually kind of like them that way. Mike thinks I’m crazy). Hehehe. Maybe it wasn’t the most elegant solution, but it worked just fine.

I was VERY worried about our first day of hiking. Mike and I have hiked together in the past, and we have very different approaches. I like to stop to take pictures, take frequent snack breaks, and enjoy the ambiance. I keep a good pace usually, but I’m all about the journey. Mike is a speed hiker. He doesn’t take breaks along the way. I don’t understand how he functions. I need snacks! I need water breaks! I need exhaustion breaks! He just powers through until the end. He might be a robot (the most likely explanation).

Gravel path flanked by green plants and pretty mountains

Such a pretty valley!

We decided to start “early” because I’d rather get out and back early to beat the heat and not have to worry about the sun setting (though with a 10PM sunset on this trip, there wasn’t much danger of that), so we left our campsite at Paine Grande around 7:15. Based on the blogs I read, I was expecting the trails to be crowded. Everyone said that this is the high season, expect crowds, you won’t have that “just you and nature” kind of feeling, so if you’re into that, too bad. I was ready for crowds. We spotted our first hiker approximately 3 HOURS later. Geez, if only the trails were always that crowded. We seriously wondered if maybe we weren’t allowed to be hiking yet, like maybe there were opening times we didn’t know about? Nope. There just weren’t any people. I mean, spoiler alert, there were more people on our way back, but crowded? Definitely not.

Happy Lara walking through the valley before she blew away

You don’t even know how many people we had to ask to hide in the grass so they wouldn’t ruin our pictures

The first part of the hike was through a little valley. It was raining, but after our day on Perito Moreno Glacier, I felt pretty hardcore and was like, “Rain? Psh! NICE TRY, TORRES DEL PAINE. YOU’RE GOING TO HAVE TO DO BETTER THAN THAT.” Then we got out of the valley. And the wind hit us. And I ate my (mental) words.

Valley covered in plants and a pretty, windy trail

Try to tell me this isn’t beautiful (I won’t believe you).

Another view coming out of the valley

I can’t come up with more words to express how pretty it was there

That was around the time that we reached the lookout at Lago Los Patos (Duck Lake) which I, for some reason, thought was a hilarious name. In hindsight I’m not so sure what I was going on about, but I must have laughed about it for a whole mile at least. From Duck Lake on, the day’s hiking followed the lakes’ edges, and it was all incredibly windy.

Lake views with a mountain backdrop and aggressive winds.

Laguna Los Patos. Check out the plants blowing in the wind!

Laguna Los Patos

I can’t get over the colors in the lake!

Streaky rock formation

I thought these rocks were super cool.

Duck Lake

I didn’t realize this until Mike pointed it out, but when you look out in the distance, it looks like the surface of the earth just falls away. Behind this lake is Grey Lake which is at a lower elevation. So weird!

Hiking in the wind is the worst. Especially when the wind might actually be strong enough to blow you away. There were times when it was so strong that my trekking poles essentially turned into stakes that were the only thing keeping me from blowing off the trail. Each time I picked up a foot to take a step, I had zero confidence that it would land where I was aiming. And when the winds were strongest, they pretty much never did.

Lightly forested trail leading away from Laguna Los Patos

Walking away from Duck Lake

Pretty pink flowers along the way

Trail flowers

Laguna Los Patos is tiny compared to Laguna Grey, the next lake we encountered. We walked along Duck Lake for maybe 15 minutes. We walked along Lake Grey for the rest of our day. It took around three hours to make it to our first real checkpoint, Grey Campsite. That timing was nearly spot-on with the estimate listed on our map, and it made us start to think that we needed to take Chilean hiking estimates much more seriously than we take the ones in the States. At U.S. national parks, if you’re someone who has any experience hiking and is in decent shape, take the hike time they give you and divide it in half. We were thinking that might be the situation here as well, and it was not. Instead, it was like they wanted to give an estimate of how long it would actually take! Imagine that!

Grey Lake with some small glacier pieces floating around

Laguna Grey with the first glimpses of glacier pieces. Can you see them?

The hiking trail leading towards snowy mountains

The rocky trail. My feet did NOT like those rocks on the way back.

Grey Lake with its pretty, mountainous surroundings

So. Pretty.

Actually though, my toes were screaming.

Grey Lake with a faint rainbow

Rainbow! We could see both ends of it, too!

Dead tree skeletons

The tour guide on our ride into the park the day before explained why the park is super strict about where you can set fires (only in designated cooking areas). There have been a couple of forest fires accidentally set by hikers, and thanks to the strong winds, they spread crazy quickly and destroyed huge areas of the park. I don’t know if that’s what happened to these trees, but anytime we walked through a tree graveyard, I assumed they were tourist fire trees. They’re eerie, aren’t they? Like sad tree skeletons.

View of a little river gorge from the bridge

We crossed this super cool river along the way

View of the trail with Grey Glacier and Grey Lake in the background

That view… <3

From Grey Campsite, we went on a hunt for the Glacier Grey lookout point (yes, another glacier!). I say “hunt” because the lookout’s location was SO not obvious. Every other trail in the park was extremely well-marked, so I don’t know what happened with this one. After it was all over, I still wasn’t confident that we ended up in the right place. Oh, well. We did find a high point with good views, and what more do you need? Mike’s response to the glacier: “It’s not that cool.” Well, since we were hiking ON a glacier two days prior, yeah, seeing one across a lake wasn’t as impressive. I still thought it was cool though… because everyone knows that glaciers are made of ice! (Bad joke, ignore me.)

View of Grey Glacier and Lake Grey

Checking out Grey Glacier from our “lookout”

Mountains near the glacier. The continuation of the trail runs along the base of them.

Forest view with yellow and orange leaves on the ground

I love the colors!!

When the wind at the “lookout” became too much for even Mike (he said he was getting cold which is something I don’t think I’ve ever heard him say before), we headed back to the main trail. We had one more side trip to take before going all the way back to Paine Grande. There are a couple of suspension bridges near where the O trek meets up with the west side of the W, and I wanted to check at least one of them out. I don’t know what Mike wanted, but I assumed he’d be fine with it because he’s always up for doing more. I guessed that reaching the first one would take about an hour and a half of hiking from the campsite, and apparently at that point in time, an hour and a half extra in each direction (after already being out for 4 hours so far) seemed like a reasonable thing to do.

Plank bridge along the way

There were so many fun little bridges and things along the way! I was impressed with the trail building.

For possibly the first time in my life, my estimate was exactly right (estimating is not a strength of mine), and we were there in an hour and a half. I thought the bridge was awesome. It seemed like some people were afraid to walk across, but things like that don’t scare me (I’m only scared of ACTUALLY scary things, like oranges). The height/potential instability probably made me like it even more.

View of the suspension bridge from the side

The suspension bridge! With some random girl crossing

Mike on the suspension bridge

Mike striking a pose

Me crossing the bridge

Venturing across the suspension bridge!


I felt like it was worth the extra time to get there, plus we also got a slightly closer view of the glacier. We crossed and thought about going to the next bridge as well, but as soon as we hit some stairs (maybe like 10 minutes after crossing the bridge), my legs said no way and we turned around.

Slightly closer view of Grey Glacier from below the suspension bridge

Another glacier view

Grey Glacier from slightly closer

Our closest glacier view of the day… aka not very close at all

The walk back to our campsite was painful. Up-and-back hikes are always a little rough because you know that however far you go is how far you’ll have to return. I’d just about reached my limit on the “go”… so the return was rough. My feet hurt. My legs were tired. I had this irritating knee pain that couldn’t seem to decide which knee it wanted to afflict more, so it settled on harassing both. Mike was in his “power through” mode, and I was in my “slowly crumble into pieces” mode. Not compatible.

The trail snaking up a mountain

We went from that nice, wide, rocky trail to this little, skinny, hiding-from-you trail.

Charred tree skeletons along the trail

Tree graveyard.

View of the lake with the water blowing in the wind

Windy, windy, windy

Thanks to a series of brief “second winds” (hehehe) – more like second, third, and fourth winds – I survived (meanwhile, the actual winds were NOT helping). Barely. Mike seemed fine the whole time which made me feel extra pathetic, but he collapsed into the tent when we got back which made me think that maybe he was a little tired too? I had some stellar blisters on my toes which explains the foot pain. My general assessment of my physical condition was, “I’m going to die,” for the first hour of sprawling on the ground, followed by, “Well, maybe not but I definitely need new feet.” I suppose this is what happens when you go straight from 30-minute dance workouts in your living room to 9.5 hour, 17-mile day hikes. Thank goodness I knew that was going to be our longest day because I don’t think I could have done it again without a little recovery time. I felt slightly more alive after a hot shower but was not feeling terribly confident about Day 2.

Perito Moreno Glacier Trekking

Our first full day started out bright and early with a 7AM bus pickup from our hostel. In writing that, I realize that 7AM isn’t actually that early, but on vacation after a day of travelling… just give me this, okay? This was our only day with an actual organized tour, and it was nice to not have to think for ourselves on our first day. We were headed to nearby Glaciers National Park for a glacier trekking (aka WALKING ON A GLACIER HOW COOL IS THAT) tour on Perito Moreno Glacier.

Perito Moreno Glacier from afar

Perito Moreno Glacier

The bus ride from El Calafate to the park entrance took about an hour and a half, and we were thinking that we got lucky with the weather because it was a beautiful day. NOPE. Almost as soon as we entered the park, it started to rain and the bus windows fogged up, making it seem even more dreary and impossible to see outside. The tour guide explained that it rains VERY often in the park. Even though it’s not too far from El Calafate, it gets an average of 900mm (35”) of rain annually, and El Calafate gets around 200mm (8”). So yeah… minor difference.

Entrance ticket for Parque Nacional Los Glaciares

I took this picture of my ticket like a real nerd… but the reason I’m including this is so you can check out the nice blue sky in the background and appreciate the fact that this is the only picture where that’s the case.

The world's sturdiest wheelchair

Mike got a kick out of this wheelchair inside the visitors’ center.

At our first stop, we got to see the glacier from afar. There are a bunch of metal walkways where you check out the glacier from different viewpoints. Of course, Mike wanted to walk on as many of them as possible, so we added a couple of little offshoots onto the route that the guide recommended. She also stressed that since it was raining, we should be extra careful because the walkways get slippery in the rain. I’m sure you know where I’m going with this… I ate it. Hard. I slipped down a flight of maybe 6 stairs and stayed on my butt at the bottom for a second to figure out how I was feeling. I could tell my legs were a little banged up, but I felt okay until Mike said, “Your thumb!” and I looked down to find a huge gash in my finger. Perfect. Fingertips love to bleed, too. Thankfully, we were nearly finished with our wandering at that point (and the views were beautiful, by the way, even with the rain and the freezing cold and my bleeding finger), so I didn’t have much more to endure before we got back to the bus and the guide hunted down a band-aid for me.

Walkways at Perito Moreno Glacier

My nemesis (the walkways, not Mike). I’m pretty sure this was taken pre-fall

View of Perito Moreno Glacier

If you happen to be there at the right moment, you might be lucky enough to see part of the glacier fall off into the lake below. We weren’t lucky… but it’s supposed to be very cool, and every time we heard a loud noise, everyone would quickly turn to look at the glacier in the hopes that something was happening.

Me thumbs-upping our cold and rainy walk

Looking happy and dry, right? (Ha! I wish)

Glacier pieces in the water

How tall do you think the glacier is above the water? One of the signs said that the edge is about 70m above the water level… which means there’s even more below the water level. I don’t know how tall I would have guessed (and I’m also the world’s worst estimator), but it would not have been 70m. That’s crazy!

Sightseeing walkways at platforms at the glacier

I did think that the walkways were super cool… up until my (literal) downfall

Cool view from one of the viewing platforms

Some walkway views

Another Perito Moreno Glacier view

How many times can I post basically the same picture? I don’t know, but at least one more!

Mike and me with the prettiest glacier backdrop

I’m hiding my bleeding finger behind Mike’s back. Also, we are so wet.

The next part of the tour was the main event: glacier trekking. The bus dropped us at a boat where we all loaded up to get closer to the glacier. It dropped us off across the lake, and we started our land trek to get to the starting point of the glacier trek. Along the way, we made a few stops to get suited up in our gear. First, we stopped in these little cabins where you could leave your stuff, and there, the guides outfitted people with the things that they absolutely should have brought with them… things like waterproof shoes (because walking on a block of frozen water in sneakers seemed like a good idea??), waterproof jackets (they tell you to expect rain), backpacks, etc. I was baffled by these people. Some were wearing jeans aka not what I would choose for physical activity and also the worst thing to wear when it’s wet and rainy. Did they get on the wrong bus? Come on people, pull it together.

Glacier boat view

On the boat ride. Quite the color palette, huh? Light grey, blue-grey, grey.

Once the group was appropriately dressed, we headed back out into the rain (much to everyone’s dismay) and walked maybe 15 minutes to the first basecamp where we were outfitted with harnesses and helmets (which we didn’t use at all, but they said it’s protocol so you have to wear them). Then, we walked another 40 minutes or so to the second basecamp. This walk was through the woods, mostly uphill, and I was ready to collapse by the time we got there. Good, right? Considering we hadn’t even started the walking-on-ice portion of the day.

The view on our way to the glacier trekking start point

Walking to basecamp #1

Closer view of the glacier

Getting closer!

Wooden walkways on our way to Perito Moreno Glacier trekking

These people in front of us got some last-minute ponchos, and good thing because it rained basically all day.

The first basecamp on the way to the trekking start point

Basecamp #1 dome huts in the distance

At basecamp #2, we were fitted with crampons. Prior to this trip, the crampons I was familiar with are those little metal claws that you wear to walk on icy sidewalks. These… these were not like that. It’s more like having the tips of six spears coming out of each foot. The guides told us to be careful not to spike ourselves or get our feet hooked on each other. Eek.

With our crampons in hand, we walked the last 10 minutes to the glacier where the guides helped us put them on. First though, we had to walk like 20 feet onto the ice without them, and it was terrifying. After that, you don’t question why they’re necessary!

Close-up view of the glacier edge

My brain can’t even comprehend the volume of this thing. Imagine how many cold beverages you could make with this much ice.

The group getting their crampons put on

The crampon installation area

Mike's crampons

Mike, showing off his foot spears.

First thought, “My gosh, did they just strap anvils to my feet? SO HEAVY.” Step, step, step. Second thought, “Thank goodness I have these anvils on my feet!” We divided up into smaller groups and headed out into the icy expanse. From afar, a glacier really looks like it’s covered in snow. It’s not. It’s ice. All ice. (I mean, there’s snow in the places where it’s snowing… but where we were, no snow.)

Near the edge especially, the ice was in these huge waves, and looking at it, I had no idea how we were going to go anywhere. We started walking up and down and up and down them, and the crampons are like magic. I felt like I had superpowers! (Possibly the world’s lamest superhero.)

The glacial wilderness

Up and down and up and down

The glacier has two main areas to it: the accumulation zone and the ablation zone. The accumulation zone is the upper part where it snows a lot, adding volume to the glacier. The guide said that it snows there around 300 days a year! We were in the ablation zone where the ice is melting and moving, so you can find rivers and lakes on the surface. Since the ice isn’t all moving at the same speed, sometimes it splits apart and forms these crazy deep cracks filled with the bluest water I’ve ever seen.

Mike with some very blue water

Mike and an ice crack

Glacier crack

Have you ever seen water so blue?

Awesome glacier crack

I want to dive in… I want to not freeze to death. But it’s just so pretty that I want to stare at it all day and also swim in it. But it’s cold. BUT SO PRETTY.

Mike filling my water bottle with glacier water

Mike filling up my water bottle because no way was I trying to end up with ice cube fingers. The water tasted good but was a little too cold for my liking (hehehe)


The whole experience was awesome! Being on a glacier is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. It’s like walking on a giant, abstract ice sculpture, and it’s a big mashup of white and blue and black (which is the dirt, but somehow even that is pretty). Also, just the concept of a glacier is insane. It’s a huge, dynamic piece of ice. They said that the deepest point from top to bottom is about 700 meters. The deepest point we stood on was about 500 meters. Looking down and trying to comprehend 500m of ice underneath my feet was impossible.

Looking down at my feet on the glacier

You’re looking at 500m-deep ice right now

Glacier waves

We walked on that. Doesn’t it seem like there’s no good place for a path? Well, that’s pretty much what I thought every time I looked ahead, and somehow, we always found a way (sometimes with the support of an ice ax….)

Me with a glacier lake

Contemplating going for a swim. KIDDING I’m not trying to turn into a human popsicle!

Endless glacier view, looking towards the accumulation zone

Ice and more ice, as far as the eyes can see. This is looking in the direction of the accumulation zone.

We walked around for about 3 hours, and it rained for about 2 hours and 55 minutes. There was one 5-minute period when the SUN even came out! And then it was gone again, and we were back to the grey and the dreary. The time flew by until maybe the last half hour when we were walking back to land. That’s when I realized how tired my legs were, and every anvil-laden step was a struggle. When we finally got to take our crampons off, my feel practically floated off the ground.

Me and Mike on the glacier

Me and Mike in a winter wonderland

A glacier river

Try to tell me that we haven’t left the planet. Those glowing blue spots on the mound? Spacey.

The largest glacier lake we saw

Glacier lake. This was the coolest. Like in temperature… HAHA I know I’m not funny. But ignore me and just enjoy the awesomeness of this lake like wut.

The glacier in the sun

Enjoying our 5 seconds of sun!

Glacier river in the distance

Glacier river with tiny speck people for scale (can you even see them? Kind of near the middle of the picture)

Waterfall near the glacier

Waterfall on the way back to basecamp #2

Of course, we still weren’t completely finished. We had to trek back to basecamp #2 and then basecamp #1 and finally to the cabins at the beginning where we got to sit inside and wait for the rest of the group to get back. I was thrilled to have a chance to sit indoors, take off my winter jacket, and eat some snacks. We barely ate all day because we were supposed to have lunch on the glacier, but the weather was so bad that no one wanted to stop.

The highlight of the day? Eating the chocolate cake that I brought for lunch dessert (the best way to end a day of hiking!). The second highlight of the day? Walking on a glacier. Kidding. Reverse those, but the cake comes in a VERY close second.

When we got back to town, we went straight to the grocery store to finish shopping for the upcoming leg of our trip. We were headed to Chile the next morning for a 4-day trek, so we needed to buy all of our food for the next 4 days. If it was just me, I would have taken 4 days’ worth of cake, but Mike eats too much. We’d never have been able to fit enough cake in our bags to feed him.

HOW ARE YOU REAL, MR. GLACIER???

Zakopane

At about 10PM after my day of Kraków wandering, Annika, my friend from the city tour, texted me and asked if I wanted to go with her family to Zakopane. She had mentioned it at dinner the day before and said that it’s supposed to be good for hiking. I googled it, and the pictures looked incredible, so I said sure! (Brace yourself for SO many pictures. I can’t help myself!)

Zakopane is in the very south of Poland, right along the border with Slovakia and on the edge of the Tatra mountain range (which is mostly in Slovakia). It’s a popular destination for mountaineering, hiking, skiing, etc. and is beyond picturesque. There’s also a cable car for the less adventurous which takes riders to an amazing view from one of the mountain peaks.

I was supposed to meet them at their hotel at 9AM, and of course I left late, so I had to speed walk/run my way across the city. I assumed we wouldn’t leave right at 9 (because when has a group ever left on time), but I didn’t want to be the late one. I made it there by 8:59… and then we hung out while everyone finished eating breakfast.

There was a marathon happening that morning too, so my mad dash across the city was further complicated. Excuse this incredibly blurry picture… I took it while running haha.

Finally, we set off to Zakopane! The drive was about 2 hours, and Annika and I sat in the back and chatted the whole way there. Annika, her dad Kurt, and I planned to do a hike that Annika had researched. There were three parts to it – the starting point to a hostel, hostel to lake, lake to peak. We wanted to at least go to the lake, but if possible, we hoped to go all the way to the peak and take the cable car down. The rest of the group (her mom Karen, and Peggy and Jorge) was taking the cable car both ways.

Soooo this is how the hike started. And the views were all uphill from here. Like in every way.

YOU HAVE TO BE KIDDING ME

Love love love. Also, I apologize for the completely worthless captions on half of these pictures but like… I am so beyond obsessed that there’s no chance of you getting anything more coherent. Sorry.

We were a good hiking group. Annika was definitely in the best hiking shape, her dad was doing really well, and I was probably the worst, but we were close enough in ability to be okay. The first part, to the hostel, was the steepest. There were a ton of stairs, and they were brutal. At least though, the paths were clear and well-marked. I was a little nervous because we saw all these people coming down dressed like it was the dead of winter and carrying skis. Where were they coming from? We were in shorts, t-shirts, and sneakers, and it seemed like we were reasonably dressed for the current conditions. The thing about mountains, though, is that it gets colder as you go farther and farther up (I know, duh).

The beginnings of a fantastic view

Like, come on. HOW ARE YOU REAL???

Tell me this isn’t straight out of a brochure

I can’t handle this

The mountains though…

I. Love. You. Mountains.

After the hostel, things leveled out a bit, but that’s also when we hit snow. We had to walk more carefully to keep from slipping, but thankfully it had melted and refrozen and been walked on enough that our feet stayed dry, even in our sneakers.

Me and Annika. I wish I had gotten a picture with my entire adoptive family, but I didn’t think of that until later. So this will have to do.

“Where did this snow come from??”

Kurt and Annika on the snowy path

The path!

The whole hike was unbelievably beautiful (when I stopped huffing and puffing and took a second to look around). We walked through tunnels of evergreens, surrounded by mountains streaked with snow. The views in every direction were stunning, like something out of a storybook. Nothing looked real. Then, the lake seemed to appear out of nowhere, and it was next-level awesome. One second we were trekking through endless snow, and the next, we were standing on the shore of a breathtaking lake. The water is snowmelt, so it’s super clear. The lake is surrounded by mountains. I’m pretty sure my jaw dropped. It was one of those views that I wish I could bottle up and capture forever because a picture can’t quite do it justice.

The lake! Czarny Staw Gąsienicowy, in case you were wondering about the name (ha!)

Pinch me

THE MOUNTAINS. AND THE LAKE. AND THE REFLECTION.

Straight out of a travel brochure

We were doing okay despite the snow, so we tried to keep going past the lake. After walking around the edge to the other side, the next step was a super steep stretch with a lot of snow but also a lot of rocks. I thought we’d be fine if we just stuck to the rocks, but Kurt wasn’t on the same page. He thought the rocks seemed unstable. He was probably right. I think my sense of danger is completely messed up now, and I don’t get afraid as quickly as I maybe should.

Going around the lake

Trying to keep our feet dry

Excuse me while I keep posting lake pictures until the end of time

Oh just one more

Okay one more

Okay… one more. Until the next one.

The rocky uphill.

A couple of girls in full-on cold weather hiking gear were coming down, and he asked for their opinion about whether or not we should keep going. They took one look at us and gave a strong “no”. I still thought they were being dramatic. They seemed amazed we had even gotten that far. Oh, well. We turned around, and who knows, that may have been for the best. Annika was thinking that we could take the cable car down from the top, but I’m not 100% positive that we were even headed to the right place.

Okay actually I just looked at a map and plotted out our location. It is DEFINITELY a good thing that we turned around because we were not very close to the cable car. (We were, however, super close to the Slovakian border which I totally didn’t realize.)

This lake rocks, don’t you agree?

Just happy to be here!

Okay maybe it is kind of steep

Andddd back down

“Don’t fall don’t fall don’t fall”

Just as good on the way back down

The lake, featuring the girls who totally judged our shorts and sneakers

I’m obsessed. This is definitely in my top 5 favorite places in the world.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think there’s a wrong way to go when the view looks like THAT.

Dinner! This picture was obviously not taken by me because how often do I successfully remember to take a picture pre-consumption? Almost never.

When we got to the bottom, Karen, Peggy, and Jorge were waiting for us to head back to Kraków. When we got to the city, I was planning to say goodbye and thank you and go back to my hostel for dinner (Side note: dinner was included there… which is insane. Breakfast, dinner, and a bed for like $12/night!). I felt like I had already imposed enough. They didn’t give me an opportunity to duck out, though, and that’s how I ended up eating dinner with them again. It was great. I felt like I was with family friends and like I had known them forever. They basically adopted me, and sometimes it’s nice to feel adopted. They even told me that if I ever wanted to soul search in Florida, all I had to do was tell Annika I was coming. Jorge said he’d take me out on his boat! Like, these people! How cool!

After dinner, we parted ways, and I seriously felt like I was saying goodbye to people who I had known for years. It completely changed the way I’ll remember my time in Poland. I mean, I loved it there anyway, but how much better is joining a family and going on an adventure than just spending days walking around by yourself?

I took my time walking home that night. Nighttime strolls aren’t too common for me while travelling because I’m usually back before dark and then too exhausted from the day to go back out. I almost forgot how much I love cities at night. There’s an energy that doesn’t exist during the day, an almost magical feeling. I sat in the square for a bit, enjoying the night air, the building lights, and the people watching. In that moment, everything felt perfect.

Very dramatic

The Land of Petrified Trolls

Continued from the previous post

Our next stop was to see a glacier! I was excited because it was our first one of the trip. We weren’t sure if it was worth stopping just to take a look, but we figured why not? The glacier is called Mýrdalsjökull (jökull = glacier), and we went to this one part that sticks out a bit called Sólheimajökull. At least that’s what I think the situation is with the names, but honestly it’s a little hard to keep track, especially with all of the crazy Icelandic names. Mýrdalsjökull is on top of Iceland’s largest volcano, Katla, which is due for an eruption anytime. The big eruption in 2010 that sent ash all over Europe was from a smaller volcano nearby… and usually, the eruption of one leads to the eruption of the other within a decade. Katla is very closely monitored because even minor eruptions can result in major flooding from the glacier melt.

Me with Sólheimajökull! Mýrdalsjökull, the full glacier, is the 4th largest in Iceland.

I thought the glacier was awesome, but we were pretty far away so we didn’t get the full effect. It would have been cool to do some glacier hiking or whatever it’s called. I’ll have to add that to my list of things to do when I go back to Iceland one day!

Mike, me, and Tony

Sibling pic on some petrified trolls. Mike said I could go on a higher one so that I could be taller for once. Thanks, Mike.

This is where the craziness of Iceland’s landscape diversity comes in… We were at a glacier, and then 30 minutes later, we were on the beach. Reynisfjara is a black sand beach, but the really cool thing is the rock formations there. They look like a bunch of pencils bundled together and sticking up at different heights. There are two options for how they were formed:

  1. The columns are trolls that were turned to stone when they were caught outside at dawn.
  2. They’re basalt columns (basalt is one of the rocks formed by lava). They’re formed when lava cools and contracts, making hexagonal rocks.

Guess which option I prefer.

It was more of a pebble beach than a sand beach. The ground looks super cool!

Mike holding up the entire cave with his super strength

There’s also a cave at the beach which, of course, has a name of its own: Hálsanefshellir. The rock formations in there are similar to the petrified trolls, but since it’s a cave, they’re coming in from all directions instead of being just straight up and down. I think we got lucky because we were there at low-ish tide, so we could get into the cave. It was still a bit of an adventure because we had to run towards the ocean as the water retreated to get to the other side of the troll rocks and then run away as the waves came back in, re-separating the two parts of the beach. And, we had to watch out for sneaker waves…

I love all the shades of blue and grey in the water and the sky

Inside the cave

Tony and Mike messing around

Full view looking out from the cave

Sneaker waves are basically waves that are much bigger and come much farther into shore than the others, hence the “sneaker” part of the name because they can sneak up on you. The concept of sneaker waves is not at all funny… people have died from getting swept out to sea by the strange and unpredictable tides. We were quite entertained by the signs though, and the fact that they’re called sneaker waves never fails to make me giggle.

The sign says:
DANGER
– Very dangerous sea currents
– Deadly sneaker waves
– Never turn your back on the ocean
– Supervise children
The graphic in the middle shows the danger zone close to the waves that you should avoid, the light blue ones are “ordinary waves” and the dark blue ones above are “deadly sneaker waves”.
To the right, it gives information about a tourist death due to the waves.

I kept imagining someone standing on the beach with a big cartoon wave behind them, tapping them on the shoulder… Surprise! The signs tell you to “never turn your back on the ocean!” We had a lot of fun yelling that at each other. And then we turned our backs on the ocean a couple times (unintentionally!) and found ourselves sprinting up the beach to avoid getting soaked by surprise waves. So that’s what we get for not listening. (Strongly recommend that you heed the signs.)

Standing at the edge of a foamy wave, definitely keeping one eye out for sneaker waves…

Mike doing some earthbending

I found the perfect spot to protect me from the sneaker waves!

Cool rocks near the cave

There are also some rock formations out in the water, Reynisdrangar. In typical Iceland fashion, each of the three rocks also has its own name because why not. They are the remains of two trolls who went to help tow in a large ship… and then the dawn came and petrified the trolls AND the ship. Trolls must be extinct considering how many rock formations are attributed to their failure to keep track of time.

Hooray for black sand beaches!

We had a little more driving to do before we got to our campsite for the night, but we still had plenty of daylight (thank you, super long days). We’d hit all the major destinations for the day, so we consulted Aunt Judy’s list of notes to give us some ideas for a few more stops to make along our route.

On our way to see a cave from her list, we passed a sign marking the start of a hike on Hjörleifshöfði mountain. I have no idea what convinced us to do it, but we had some time and why not? Okay, I’ll take the blame. I didn’t think it seemed that long. In the end, I’d say that at least 50% of it was underwhelming mostly because the entire world was brown (it’s probably fab in the summer), but in terms of Icelandic history significance, it wasn’t a complete bust! We trekked across the treeless mountain, through mud and snow and little ground plants, until we finally reached the top of the mountain where there’s supposed to be an amazing view of the surroundings… and guess what? A heavy fog set as we were approaching the top, so we couldn’t see anything except the faint outline of some strange stone structure.

Looking back at the path as we climbed up

Mike surfing a dirt wave on a dirt surfboard

Multicolored mud

So. Weird.

Ground plants!

Mike paying his respects

It turned out to be a Viking graveyard! This is one of those situations where we wouldn’t have been surprised if we had done ANY research or had even just read the signs before starting the hike because it’s kind of a big deal. Oops. Hjörleifur Hróðmarsson is buried there, the “second settler of Iceland”. His brother was Ingólfur Arnarson, the first settler. Hjörleifur only survived one year on Iceland before he was killed by his slaves. He was avenged by his brother, and apparently, the mountain is now haunted by him… add that to the list of things we didn’t know. Maybe that explains the fog.

The graveyard itself was very confusing. There was this big cylinder/cone thing that was next to the plot of land where the graves were. I thought maybe it was some weird Viking burial thing since it didn’t seem to serve any obvious purpose, but turns out it’s a marker built by Danish surveyors.

Hjörleifur’s grave

Family plot from some more recent inhabitants of the mountain with Hjörleifur’s grave mound in the background

Finally, as we started to walk down from the gravesite, the fog cleared and we had a view of the seemingly endless lava fields stretching in every direction. The mountain we were on must have dropped out of the sky because it’s the only one in the area, and around it is flat, flat, flat.

Going down

Mike and Tony, thrilled to be here

The top of the mountain was weird

Lava fields stretching to forever

On the way back to the car, we passed some ruins/old foundations of two farms. The former farm inhabitants are buried on a plot next to Hjörleifur. I thought the whole thing was kind of cool. Mike and Tony were probably just trying to figure out why they’d listened to me about the hike. Sorryyy.

Farmhouse ruins

Walking back down into the valley

Hjörleifshöfði cave

Since we were already so close, we did stop by our original target (2 hours later…) Hjörleifshöfði cave. It was probably worth a quick stop, but at that point, I think we were all tired and hungry and slightly grumpy. After a brief poke around, we headed to the campsite for another much-needed sleep on the cold, hard ground. This night was extra cold. Ugh.

Little caves along the base of Hjörleifshöfði mountain

Our car outside of the cave. Doesn’t this look like a car ad?

Ghosts, Trolls, and Giant Worm Monsters

Last time we left off at a tense moment (not really). Mike and I had just come across a cave hole in the ground and were trying to decide whether or not to go in. I could tell that Mike wasn’t sure about it, but if I said yes, he would be all in. He’s used to going on vacation with a friend who is also ridiculous, and the two of them take pride in things like doing two days’ worth of hiking in one day. Knowing that, my general attitude towards the trip was “don’t hold Mike back.” So, I said we should go for it.

Down he goes! Byeee Mike!

We ran back to the car to grab flashlights (and learned our lesson about travelling prepared for anything) before climbing down into a big, open space. It looked like it ended right there until Mike found another hole in the back. That led us into a hallway-like area with a high ceiling, and at the end of that, there was a short hole into one final room at the back. That had a low ceiling and was much wider. The ground was all very soft dirt, and it was the definition of pitch black. Maybe there was a tiny hole that would have let us keep going, but we decided to turn around. Our curiosity was satisfied, and I personally wasn’t interested in getting even dirtier.

Journey to the center of the earth

Explorer Mike

Check out the colors on those rocks!

Turns out that there was no need for me to worry about climbing out. It was way easier than expected because it wasn’t a hanging rope climb… I just used the rope to support my arms, walked up the cave wall, and found a ledge to stand on while I squeezed out through the hole to the surface.

Me, climbing out

I’m glad we went. Otherwise we would have spent forever wondering about what was down there and how far it stretched and if maybe it was a passageway to the center of the earth or a troll treasure trove.  (I don’t even know if troll treasure is a thing, but if it is, Iceland would be an ideal place to go looking.) Plus, when adventure calls, I want to be the kind of person who responds with an enthusiastic “YES!” I’m going to say that I passed my adventure test of the day.

The colors! We saw these rocks during our hike back to the car.

Love those groundscape shots!

On the way back to the car, we stopped at Gunnuhver, a geothermal area. It’s different from other hot springs because it’s so close to the ocean that it uses seawater. The steam coming out is 570⁰F (300⁰C)! Eek! The name of the hot spring comes from a legend. This was our first exposure to an Icelandic legend, and they quickly became another of my favorite things about Iceland.

Gunnuhver from afar

This story is about a woman named Gunna who lived on a farm owned by a lawyer. She failed to pay her rent, and the lawyer took away the only thing she owned – a cooking pot. Gunna grew furious to the point of madness and died. On the day of her funeral, the men carrying the coffin felt it get lighter, and people heard a voice during the grave-digging, saying, “No need deep to dig, no plans long to lie.” The obvious conclusion to all of this was that Gunna was a ghost, and she soon took her revenge on the lawyer who was found dead and beaten. Gunna continued to wreak havoc on the peninsula, killing the lawyer’s wife and leading to the deaths of others who saw her. Finally, a group of men was sent to seek the help of a sorcerer. He gave them a ball of yarn and explained that if Gunna grabbed the loose end, the ball would roll her to a place where she could no longer cause harm. It worked (because I guess ghosts really like yarn?), and the yarn rolled Gunna into the spring. It is said that those with “the second sight” can still see Gunna following the ball around the edge and screaming as she falls. (Story adapted from the sign at Gunnuhver.)

Gunna was hungry and she ate this formerly-functional bridge. But actually, the geothermal area expanded and consumed the former viewing area… who’s to say it wasn’t Gunna’s doing?

One of the interesting things about the story, to me, is the fact that since the Icelandic settlers kept such complete records, there’s a census from 1703 that lists her name. So a woman actually existed and lived in the area… and some freaky things happened that may or may not have been caused by her ghost… that’s up to you to decide, but it’s a fact that she lived. Creepy.

The census listing Gunna’s name is one example of the meticulous recordkeeping that allowed the creation of an incredibly complete genealogic database. Nearly all Icelanders can trace their genealogy back to the original settlers. In the early 1990s, an Icelandic software engineer started the first electronic database. This got even further developed in the late 90s when a genetics company signed on. With the help of census data and marriage, birth, and death records, the database is said to include 95% of Icelanders who lived in the last 300 years. It’s been used for genetics research as a way to trace genes to understand how diseases are passed down through generations. The information is available to all Icelanders, so people can see how they’re related to famous Icelanders or their friends and coworkers. When two Icelanders meet for the first time, it’s common to exchange the question, “Who are your people?” as a way to understand someone’s lineage since family names aren’t passed down. There are also jokes about using the database to make sure that no one is dating a family member, but in practice, that’s likely not a problem because most people know their close relatives.

After learning all about Gunna’s demise, we hopped in the car and made it about three minutes before getting sucked in by another sign. This one was for Brimketill, a naturally-formed rock pool along the coast. It looks like a little hot tub (ignoring the facts that the water is frigid and if you tried to sit in it, you’d get crushed within minutes by the waves and the rocks).

The waves were nice and calm near Brimketill… scroll down for the aftereffects.

It wouldn’t be Iceland without a troll-related legend about the pool. This one is about the night troll Oddný. She frequently bathed in the “surf cauldron” (that’s what Brimketill translates to), and on one particular night, she went to retrieve a whale carcass that had washed up on shore. On her way home, she stopped for a rest in her pool, and it was so relaxing that she stayed much longer than intended. She rushed to get home before the sun came up, but she didn’t make it in time and was turned to stone. The pool is sometimes also called Oddnýjarlaug, meaning Oddný’s pool, after her. There was a sign at Brimketill that told the whole story, including specific details like where she lived and the names of her husband and son. Those Icelanders don’t mess around with their legends! Or maybe those details mean it really happened, just like the story of Gunna.

Can you see it? The little hot tub?

We started heading in the direction of Reykjavik and only made two more stops along the way. I’m pretty sure that both of them were unplanned (Mike was driving and did the “planning”, so maybe he knew they were there or maybe it was just luck… I think the latter). We also had to really pep-talk ourselves out of the car because the weather was getting grosser and grosser by the second. Essential Iceland packing list: waterproof jacket. And shoes. And pants.

Despite the fact that one of our stops was at a geothermal area aka where heat from inside the earth is coming up to the surface, it was still freezing. Maybe you have to throw yourself into the bubbling mud in order to feel any warmth. Anyway, the area is called Krýsuvík, and – wait for it – it’s super weird. The soil is multicolored and seems like it couldn’t possibly be natural. Have you ever seen red, yellow, green, and grey soil in the same place? It was baffling. I guess the grey was mud, but still. It was bubbling up like there was a lava monster living under the surface.

Bubbly mud

Count the colors

Weird.

Mike insisted on touching whatever water we were close to in order to report on its temperature. That seemed pretty dumb to me, but it’s not my hand, so go ahead, Mike. He did, fortunately, steer clear of the spots with signs warning you to stay away or the ones with steam pouring out.

 

There were some hiking trails leading up a nearby hill which Mike wanted to check out, but it was getting late and I was starving and my big toe was still not recovered from whatever I did to it in the UK *facepalm*. And my nose was running because I was trying to fight off a cold. You can’t do it all. (And just like that, my “don’t hold Mike back” mantra completely failed. Oh well.)

Boardwalks that hopefully won’t get consumed by steam like the one at Gunnuhver

What is this place?!?!

We were sure that we were going to go straight to Reykjavik from there… butttt then we drove past this beautiful lake, Kleifarvatn, and we HAD to stop and get out to stare at it. And then get back in and drive another couple feet and get back out and stare at it again. And touch the water. Temperature report: FREEZING. Mike said that he would swim in it. I stared at him like he must be some sort of alien because my fingertips almost froze off in the one instant they were immersed, and you couldn’t have possibly paid me enough to make me go in there. Plus, there’s supposedly a whale-sized, worm-shaped monster living in it, and I’m not interested in getting ingested by a giant water worm (I’m telling you, if there’s anywhere that the stories of these funky creatures would be true, it’s Iceland). If Mike and I didn’t look exactly the same, I would question our relation.

A pretty view with a goofy Mike on the side

Pretending I’m not cold. Are you convinced?

Funkyyy rocks

The black sand shores of Kleifarvatn and the water that almost froze my fingers off.

After THAT stop (x4), we went STRAIGHT to Reykjavik to meet up with Mike’s friends, Tony and Alex, who were living in Iceland for a month. We went out to dinner at about 10PM, it was still as bright as day outside, and we ate the most expensive Thai food of my life. The End.

Our drive along the lake

Dinner! From left to right: Tony, me, Alex, and Mike

Into the (Icelandic) Wild

My thoughts for our entire time in Iceland can be summarized into one sentence… “WHAT IS THIS PLACE??” Yeah, I know that doesn’t make it sound like there’s much going on in my mind, but oh well. I could NOT get over the landscape. Everything looked like nothing I had ever seen before and was completely baffling to me.

Mike on the moon

Many things seem to defy logic. When Mike and I were trying to put together plans for our first day (okay, to be fair, any credit for the miniscule amount of planning that happened belongs to Mike), we looked at going to the Blue Lagoon. If you’ve ever seen the pictures of people in massive hot springs with seemingly unnatural blue-green water, that’s probably where they were. So the question is, “Hmm. Do you want to put on a bathing suit and go outside in this place where a winter coat is much more appropriate? Don’t worry, the water is warm.” Right but then there’s the air. Which is NOT warm. At all. “Want to go sit in some lava-heated water?” LAVA?? Does that really sound wise?

We ultimately decided to skip it (not because of any of my questions) because it’s not cheap (nearly $100 each) and neither of us had any strong feelings about going. The Blue Lagoon takes the output water from a nearby geothermal power plant and feeds it into a man-made pool. I was more interested in hunting down some natural hot springs (because going in unregulated lava-heated water sounds like a much better idea, doesn’t it?). Fun facts though: the mineral-rich water at the Blue Lagoon is thought to help with certain skin conditions like psoriasis (there’s even a research facility there). Icelandic doctors will literally prescribe visits as part of treatment, and patients visit for free.

What is this place??

Instead, we went in a completely different direction (geographically and conceptually) and made our way to Garður, once the most populous town in Iceland… but definitely not anymore. Now, the population is around 1,500, and as far as we could tell, the major (only) sights there are two lighthouses. The first was built in 1897, replacing a giant, 50-year-old pile of stones that was used for wayfinding. The second was built in 1944 and is much taller than the first – 28m compared to 12.5m. That makes it the tallest lighthouse on the island, and according to a survey, it’s the second most favorite lighthouse of the Icelandic people. No, I didn’t make that up. These are the divisive questions facing the people of Iceland.

Very confusing beach-scape

Spot the lighthouses! The one on the right is the second favorite. Can you see why? (Don’t ask me, I have no idea.)

When we got out of the car, we 1. almost blew away because the wind was completely out of control, and 2. got our first glimpse of the Icelandic terrain. Well, make that Icelandic terrain type 1 because as we soon learned, nowhere looks like anywhere else on the island, but everything looks weird. In Garður, there are white sand beaches… but they’re spotted with big black lava rocks, in case you managed to forget for a second that you’re on a volcanic island. If I wasn’t worried about unintentionally taking flight, I probably would have spent longer admiring the combination of pretty blue water, dark lava rocks, and light sand. Fair warning that I’m going to completely overuse the word “weird” anytime I try to explain what anything looked like. But like… weird.

Blowing away

From there, we went to a bridge that’s probably not what you imagine when you think “bridge”. This one doesn’t span a river… nope, it spans the gap between two tectonic plates. Like I explained in my Iceland History post, Iceland is along the ridge between the Eurasian and the North American tectonic plates, so there are a few places on the island where you can see a gorge that I guess is basically a giant earth crack. How weird is that? (I know, I said it again.) This was also where we had our first experience with black sand. I was completely fascinated by it and took a picture of my feet, kicking off my trip-long obsession with Icelandic groundscapes.

Headed to the bridge between continents…

Black sand!

The bridge!

Mike is hiding again. Also, this sign makes it seem like you’re standing on two continents at once, but really, you’re on neither.

Spot camouflage Mike in the earth crack!

During his research, Mike spotted some craters on Google satellite view, so that was our next target. The only issue was that he wasn’t sure exactly where they were along the road or what they were called… good, right? And you might think that it would be clear, but there are pull-offs and places to turn to see different things about every 5 feet, so the chances of you finding what you’re looking for are slim. We saw a car pulled off the road somewhere, decided to check out whatever they were checking out (this is like 90% of our decision-making process, “Oh, there are a lot of people there so it must be something cool. Let’s go.”), and realized it was Mike’s craters. Of course they have a name, the Stampar craters, because everything in Iceland has a name. Again, weird and spacey, but this time a different planet. There were some places where the rock looked like it had been liquid lava only seconds before. It was cool to be able to see so clearly how it was formed. Also, totally insane because like… lava.

Crater field

Colorful!

Me and some craters

LAVA!

We were exploring the southwest corner for the day, and there’s another popular lighthouse in the area called Reykjanesviti. Let’s take a moment to talk about Icelandic names. I mentioned this when talking about my first impressions of Iceland, but they’re ridiculous so I’m going to rant again. I don’t know much about Icelandic, but it’s one of those languages where they like to mash things together, especially in names, so instead of it being Reykjanes Lighthouse (yes, I realize that’s longer but SHH!), they just put their word for lighthouse, viti, onto the end. That leads to a lot of incredibly long names and a lot of laughing while attempting to pronounce ANYTHING correctly. Usually you get halfway through the word, reach the point where you’re just tired of making so many sounds, and give up. When you’re driving, you read about half of the word and then you’ve driven past the sign so it’s a lost cause anyway.

Reykjanes Lighthouse

Anyway, as I was saying. Reykjanesviti. It was built to replace the island’s first lighthouse because they were worried it was going to fall into the sea. So, they blew it up (you can still see the foundations) and built a new one farther inland. The same erosion (caused by a combination of storms, the sea, and earthquakes) that threatened the first lighthouse formed cliffs, Valahnúkamöl (see what I mean about the names??). They are beautiful! We climbed up to the top of one of the cliffs and were mesmerized by the sight and sound of the waves crashing into the rocks. We were also absolutely freezing, and it was windy enough to make you think you were going to get blown into the ocean. On the positive side, it wasn’t raining at that particular moment (it was off and on all day).

Valahnukamol cliffs

View from the cliff

The coastline was really pretty, so when Mike suggested we follow some ATV tracks that went out in that direction, I was all in. We walked through expanses of colorful ground plants (I’m not sure if those are natural or if they were planted as part of the efforts to stabilize the soil to eventually reforest) and finally made it to the lava-rocky coast. Again, baffling. I’m not going to waste my time trying to describe it and instead will just direct your attention to the pictures.

Views from our walk

The coastline

Other-worldly

When we’d had enough of getting drenched with sea spray, we kept moving. I think Mike was getting annoyed at me because I was walking like a lost child. I was definitely not going quickly because how was I supposed to walk and take in the fascinating landscape at the same time?? Like I said, every other thought was, “WHAT IS THIS PLACE??” I stepped off the path to see what the ground felt like where the plants were (I know, you’re probably not supposed to do that but I was curious!), and it was like stepping on a pile of cotton balls. No impact, just a slowww sink of your foot.

We eventually ended up at a crater where Mike found a cave opening with ropes hanging down. I’m sure there’s some technical name and explanation for what it is and how it was formed, but I’m going to call it a cave because I don’t know any of that. We couldn’t see very far because it was pitch black. If we wanted to know what, if anything, was down there, our only choice was to go in. We looked at each other, the question hanging between us. I, for one, wasn’t worried about the cave or what was in it. I was primarily concerned about having to trust the sufficiency of my upper body strength to get back out because I haven’t done a rope-climb since elementary school. I don’t know what Mike was thinking, but he didn’t come up with a quick answer either. Explore or play it safe? What do you think we should have done? What do you think we did?

The crater where we found the cave

The cave in question

This is a PERFECT time to leave you with a “to be continued…” cavehanger (it’s like a cliffhanger but this was a cave, soo…).

Check out the continuation post HERE!

Goris

My southern adventure continued with a relocation from Kapan to Goris. The hotel staff in Kapan spoke no English, so I had to rely on my Armenian skills to figure out how to get there via public transportation. Here’s basically how my conversation with the hotel guy went:

Me: Tomorrow I want to go to Goris. Is there a marshrutka?
Guy: Yes, at 9 and noon.
Me: Do I have to call? (to reserve a seat)
Guy: Yes.
Me: Can YOU call?
Guy: Yes.

I crossed my fingers that I had actually said what I wanted to say, and sure enough, the hotel guy knocked on my door at 8:50, right as I was getting ready to walk out. He walked me out to the street, the marshrutka came, and I was off! Nice.

Along the drive from Kapan to Goris. Excuse the fact that they’re blurry… the window was dirty and kept fogging up, so use your imagination.

In Goris, I was staying with one of Kelsey and Olivia’s friends, Mary, who I had never met but has an extra room and was willing to take me in. Cool! She was going to call me when she finished with work for the day, but by chance, we bumped into each other on the street! Goris is a decently big town, so I think that’s impressive. She was walking up the street towards me, I looked at her and thought, “Hmm… she doesn’t fit here,” and I gave her an inquiring look. She apparently thought the same about me and said, “Are you Lara?” So that’s how we met.

Goris is a city (town?) of about 20,000 people. I wasn’t expecting that when I got there. I guess I always think that places are going to be tiny little villages with nothing going on because everyone always acts like there’s nothing happening in the country outside of Yerevan. I was pleasantly surprised! It’s nestled in the mountains, right near the eastern border with Artsakh, so the scenery is stunning. The area has been occupied since at least the 700s BC, and for much of that time, people lived in caves in the weirdly shaped mountains around the town. The caves were inhabited until the 18th century!

I think one of my favorite things about the south is that in every place I visited, the topography was sooo different. The cities aren’t even that far apart, but they look nothing like each other. In Goris, if you walk around the “Old Goris” area, it’s like you stepped onto another planet. I can’t even begin to describe the rock formations, so check out the pictures to see what I mean.

These mountains. Are so weird. But I love them.

Pretty Goris, pretty mountains.

Self timer + rock = pretend photographer

Mary and I walked around Old Goris a bit during the evening after I got into town, and I went on a more intense trek the following day. I tried to follow an actual hike through the mountains, but it was poorly marked and very confusing. Instead, I ended up wandering around on random cow paths that went into some of the strangest places. Oh, well. That was more interesting anyway… at least, I assume it was but couldn’t tell you for sure because I still don’t know where I was supposed to walk.

Cave dwelling

As far as I can tell, the actual path doesn’t go past any of the coolest things. My favorite part of the walk was checking out some of the cave homes. So many of them had doors that you needed to rock climb into, and you could see where the previous inhabitants had chipped hand and foot holes into the rock to help them climb up. Can you imagine having to rock climb into your house?? My reaction to that question is, “IS THAT NOT THE COOLEST THING YOU’VE EVER HEARD?” but I imagine that some of you are probably more on the, “Ummm that sounds horrible,” page. I love enclosed spaces which means that caves are just about my favorite thing, and I’ve now officially decided that my dream home is a cave home (with a very comfy couch inside, of course).

This is one of the caves I climbed into and immediately fell in love with.

Chimney above the window.

Door to the left, window to the right.

Cave window views.

After I finished getting lost in the weird mountains and creeping around abandoned cave houses, I headed into town to check out a few of the sights. I have to say that the buildings in Goris are some of my favorite in the whole country. I love stonework, and the town is overflowing with pretty stone buildings. Even the abandoned buildings look beautiful!

Picturesque

Here’s a series of my favorite random buildings from around town. I’m in love.

I visited two churches in town, St. Hripsime and St. Gregory the Illuminator. St. Hripsime was originally built in the 4th century, and St. Gregory was built in the early 1900s. St. Hripsime is small and pretty and was rebuilt a few times, first in the 1500s and then in the early 2000s. the inside feels like you’re inside a cave… appropriate. St. Gregory the Illuminator Church is slightly more Armenian-church-typical. The inside is plain, and the outside design is nothing extraordinary, but the stone color is a pretty grey that I enjoyed. They also had a very nice gate entering into the grounds, and metalwork is another craft that I’m a big fan of.

St. Gregory the Illuminator Church. Check out the gate in front.

On the side of the church (between the door and the window to the left), you can see artillery shell damage from the war with Azerbaijan

Between the natural beauty of the surroundings and the man-made beauty of the town, it’s definitely on my list of favorite places in Armenia. Mountain views, easily accessible adventure, caves, stone buildings… what more do you need?

St. Hripsime

One thing that consistently makes me sad is the amount of trash that’s just laying around the country. This could be such a pretty river, but instead it’s polluted with garbage.

Field of trash encountered during my hike.

The central square

Spot the little cave door!