Following our two days of full-day tours, we “took it easy” with a “free” day that ended up being one of the most exhausting of all. We didn’t have an official tour scheduled, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t have any plans. We hired a taxi driver to drive us around the island, doing the classic “highlands tour” circuit that goes from end-to-end on the island’s one major road.

We started in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, then visited the Galapaguera de Cerro Colorado (tortoise reserve and breeding center), Puerto Chino (one of the many “world’s most beautiful” beaches), Laguna El Junco (lake), and finally stopped at the island’s oldest ceiba tree/treehouse before heading back to town where we had some other adventures on foot. Like I said, it was quite the day.

To give you some context…
We started at the blue house at the western end of the island, then we went to the Galapaguera (green), Puerto Chino (red), Laguna El Junco (blue), and the ceiba tree (yellow). After getting back to town, we walked up to the Interpretation Center and Cerro Tijeretas (purple).

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though! Our first stop was the Galapaguera, a tortoise reserve that was opened in 2003 to help rebuild the island’s tortoise population. There were originally 15 subspecies of Galapagos tortoise. Four of those are extinct, and all of them are endangered, mostly due to human activities. During the pirating/whaling days, it’s estimated that 100,000-200,000 tortoises were taken and killed for their meat and oil. In addition, non-native species were introduced that hindered repopulation. Rats, pigs, snakes, and army ants eat eggs and threaten hatchlings (as do some of the native birds). Goats and other large mammals compete with them for food.

Tiniest lil baby tortoises!! These could easily fit in your hand, maybe like 5″ (13cm) max in length.
Slightly bigger little babies
And these are big enough that you could ride around on their backs.

One of the things that saved many of these tortoise subspecies is their longevity. They live an average of 100 years with the oldest recorded living to 152! This meant that even with the many repopulation challenges, only a few tortoises needed to survive to make conservation efforts possible. Many of the islands now have tortoise reserves and breeding centers which aim to grow the tortoise populations by giving them safe places to mate and grow and eventually releasing many of them into the wild.

In the breeding centers, park rangers collect the tortoise eggs and simulate normal conditions while also protecting them from predators. They incubate the eggs, and after the tortoises hatch, they are kept in growing pens for their first few years of life to further protect them while their shells are still soft. After this vulnerable period, there are virtually no predator risks for the tortoises, and survival is just a matter of finding enough food. The amazing thing, though, is that they can survive for up to a year without eating or drinking! They have a slow metabolism, and they spend more time resting when there isn’t enough food. They also can store water internally for long periods, so they’ll drink a lot when they have access to fresh water and save it for later. (This is actually part of the reason why they were so desirable on ships because they could survive in the ship’s hold without needing food or water, allowing the sailors to have fresh meat at sea with little effort.)

This is where the smallest tortoises are kept until their shells get hard enough. I think they said the first 4 years? Or at least the first two. The fencing on top is to keep out predators, and at night, another cover with even smaller holes is closed as well to protect them even further. (pic by my uncle)
These tortoises were around 5 years old, I think. They’re maybe 1.5′ long (0.5m). Maybe.
This guy was a little freaked out by us. When they get scared, they pull their heads into their shells and use their arms to shield the opening.

We were lucky to arrive at the reserve just in time for feeding! The tortoises are fed twice each week, and the rest of the time, they fend for themselves by eating plants around the sanctuary. Usually, the tortoises are wandering around and you may or may not see many of them, but since it was feeding time, we saw them all! It was really interesting to watch them interact with one another.

This video shows a tortoise “fight”. The dominant tortoise is generally the one that can stretch out its head to be tallest, and you can see that happen in this interaction. Tortoises generally don’t make noise, so it’s just a silent challenge, silent fight, and silent retreat (well, aside from my uncle’s narration hehehe).

Enthusiastically eating that stalk
‘Get out of my way!” Mr. Tortoise says as he steps over his fellow tortoises.

While we’re at it, here’s one more video showing a tiny tortoise stuck on its back. Some of his friends tried to give him a hand, but ultimately, one of the employees came and flipped him back over.

After we were satisfied, we loaded back into the taxi and headed for Puerto Chino. It’s another SUPER BEAUTIFUL beach, supposedly one of the most beautiful in the islands, but I don’t know. They’re all kind of the same and all very pretty. We weren’t planning to go swimming, so I spent my time practicing taking pictures of sea lions, lava lizards, and this pretty yellow bird that kept flitting around.

Path to Puerto Chino. It’s very nice and paved, but hopefully you don’t need any shade along the way…
Cool as a cactus.
You’re supposed to keep 6 feet between you and any animals… but the sea lions do NOT make it easy.
We considered eating lunch at this picnic table, and then a sea lion came and plopped himself right on top.
Puerto Chino. What do you think about the beauty of this beach vs. the others we’ve seen so far?
I’m obsessed with the lava lizard facial expressions
This one is adorable
An American yellow warbler
He’s super cute too
And we’re definitely friends
Sea lion striking a pose at Puerto Chino

From there, we headed to Laguna El Junco, a volcanic crater lake that’s one of the only permanent freshwater supplies in the islands. Now, this goes back to what I mentioned in a previous post about the crazy diversity of landscapes on a single island. The lake is at 700m above sea level, putting it in the “highlands” category which means it’s green and damp and can be foggy while the coasts are simultaneously clear and dry. So even though the weather was beautiful in town, it was VERY foggy at the lake. Even so, we hiked up to see what we could make out through the fog.

At first, nothing. We couldn’t even see across to the other side! But the wind kept the fog moving, and we were lucky to get a few moments of decent visibility. The lake is about 300m wide, and it’s filled by rainwater. Birds like to swoop around and use the water to clean the salt out of their feathers. It felt like we’d stepped into another world! I was happy enough with being able to see the opposite side of the lake, but on a clear day, they say you can see nearly the entire island as you walk around the rim of the crater!

Path leading up to the edge of the crater
Looking back towards the parking lot. Look at the solid layer of fog at the top of the picture!
Plants around the edge of the crater lake
Little flowers by the lake
Frigatebirds!
Soaring around the lake
So cool!
Panoramic picture of the lake during the few seconds that the view was kind of clear
Cousins! (pic by my uncle)

We made one last stop on the way back to town, in the tiny settlement of El Progreso. This is the oldest surviving settlement in the Galapagos, and if you recall from the history post, it has a horrible past. It was a penal colony, and eventually, this guy named Manuel Cobos turned it into a sugar mill. He started treating the workers like slaves, and they ultimately killed him for his cruelty. Now, about 500 people live in town, and it’s also the home of the islands’ oldest ceiba tree! Ceiba trees aren’t native to the islands, but it’s assumed that this one was planted by some of the earliest visitors. It’s said to be ~300 years old which is possible but maybe unlikely because the first settlement attempt wasn’t until the 1830s. But who knows? It is monstrous: 131 ft tall (40m) with a 61ft circumference (19m).

There’s a bridge leading up to the treehouse

The tree is interesting enough just in itself, but it also features a treehouse! And it’s not your average built-by-a-kid treehouse. You can actually rent it overnight, and there’s electricity and wifi (the two most important things, of course), a loft with two beds, a kitchen, and a functioning bathroom (including a shower!). Craziness. And underneath the tree, there’s an underground room where I lasted about a minute before I started thinking about the fact that we were underneath a tree, and if the room collapsed, we’d be dead. So that wasn’t exactly my favorite part, but it was still cool.

Inside the treehouse. The beds are up in the loft, and the kitchen is straight ahead.
Check out that beautiful tree!
My cousin coming up from the underground cave
Not claustrophobic at all…
This is the garden outside of the treehouse. So pretty! (The treehouse is behind me to the right. You can see some of the tree branches sticking into the picture.)

That was the end of the highlands tour, but like I said, it wasn’t the end of our day! After the taxi driver dropped us off back in town, we walked to the Interpretation Center which has a bunch of information about the islands: how they were formed, their human history, the ecosystems and flora and fauna. It’s actually where I got nearly all of the content for my Galapagos History post.

Pelican!
Fishing. Wait for it…
…nom nom nom!
Admiring the pelican (pic by my uncle)
Sea lion baby!

From there, we walked up a nearby hill, Cerro Tijeretas, where you can get nice views of the town and other parts of the island. You can even see Kicker Rock from there! It overlooks a pretty snorkeling spot, and there are a lot of frigatebirds flying around because there’s a colony that nests nearby.

View from Cerro Tijeretas
Looking back towards Puerto Baquerizo Moreno
Frigatebirds from Cerro Tijeretas

This is supposed to be a really great snorkeling spot
Do you see Kicker Rock out there in the distance??

We also popped into a couple of beaches along the way, Playa Punta Carola and Playa Mann. They were fairly crowded because they’re public beaches close to town (especially Playa Mann). I guess if you’re looking for a beach vacation, that’s where you’d go? But I don’t think I’d recommend going to the Galapagos if you’re interested in just chilling on a beach. Save that for a less interesting place.

Playa Punta Carola (pic by my uncle)
I guess this beach is kind of pretty too

I was ready to collapse at this point, but my uncle really wanted to go to ANOTHER beach, Playa Lobería, to watch the sunset. We grabbed a taxi and got there only a few minutes before the beach closed, but that was enough time to look at some adorable little sea lion babies and take a few pictures of the sunset. After THAT, I really was toast. We got some dinner before heading back to our apartment, and I feel confident in saying that everyone slept like a rock that night.

Sunset!
Look at those clouds!
I understand why this beach is named after the sea lions
The tiniest little baby sea lion!!!! The mom sea lions go out to hunt and then come back and reunite with their babies by making sounds at each other. Even though you know they haven’t been abandoned, it tugs on your heartstrings to see such tiny babies crying out for their moms!
I suppose the sunset was worth the exhaustion
On the way out of the park
I’ll leave you with this…
The sea lions literally just go wherever the heck they want. This one was camped out waiting for the tourist information center to open.

Related Posts

Kicker Rock – experience another side of San Cristobal and snorkel in the open ocean!

Lake Bosomtwe – visit a crater lake in Ghana, the country’s largest natural lake

Zakopane – while we’re talking about lakes, go for a hike in Zakopane, Poland to one of the prettiest lakes I’ve ever seen!

In my mind, there are two types of vacations: the “lounging and relaxing” type (not worth going too far from home because you can lounge equally well anywhere), and the “I need a vacation to recover from my vacation” type (anytime you go somewhere new and interesting). A Galapagos vacation clearly fits into the latter category, and my goodness. By day two, I already felt ready for my recovery vacation!

We had another full-day tour, this time sticking a bit closer to “home” and exploring other parts of San Cristobal rather than visiting another island. We were staying in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the largest town on San Cristobal and the capital of the Galapagos. It’s at the western end of the island, and for this tour, we sailed up to explore the northern coast. This boat ride was MUCH smoother than the previous day’s since we stayed near the island rather than crossing open ocean, and I don’t think anyone was upset about that.

For context, this is San Cristobal
We started at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, went up to some spots along the coast south of the circle, and then went to Kicker Rock (in the red circle).
Our first glimpse of Kicker Rock as we headed past on the way to our first stop (warning: this is the first of MANY pictures of this rock)
You didn’t have to wait long for another picture of it… Spot Kicker Rock!
Those are some nice volcano rocks.
We also had a surprise on the way… DOLPHINS!!!! Excuse these terrible pictures but I was caught unprepared and tried my best
Not great, I know.
But DOLPHINS!

After about an hour, we made our first stop. The boat dropped anchor off the coast of the island, and we took a dinghy to the shore because the water was too shallow. There, we did our first “wet landing” which means that we had to get our feet wet, hopping out of the dinghy into the waves and walking up through knee-deep water onto the beach.

On the dinghy headed for shore. Are these not the most insane blues??
Site of our wet landing
I liked the color layers in this lava

One of the many cool things about the islands of the Galapagos is that even though they aren’t very big, they have some incredibly diverse landscapes. San Cristobal is less than 200mi2 (500km2), and sometimes it’s a beach, sometimes it’s like a rainforest, and sometimes it’s like the moon (official terminology). This was a moon stop. That is, if the moon was made of lava that flowed and then cooled and still looks like it could have been flowing five seconds ago. Seriously, it’s crazy! It’s not hard to look at the wavy lava formations and imagine it as molten lava because it looks like it was frozen in action. There are also these fantastic cracks in the ground which are almost exactly like how it looks in a cartoon when there’s an earthquake and you think “that’s so unrealistic”.

What the heck is happening with that lava?? It’s so cool. And so weird.
Panorama of the moon
Cartoon cracks
Don’t fall in!

I think the lava shapes are super awesome, and I was also in awe of the colors! There’s iron in the lava, and it oxidizes (like rust) and makes it turn shades of red/orange! Generally, the landscape is pretty barren, and I found it kind of eerie. It’s like looking back in time to a prehistoric age. Or like the moon (basically the same thing). And it was creepy quiet when no one was talking, aside from the sound of the wind and loose lava pieces clinking across the ground anytime someone accidentally kicked one. It sounds almost like if you tapped two pieces of porcelain together. Besides the lava, we saw a few birds and some cacti, but it wasn’t exactly a hot spot for wildlife.

Cacti with some SERIOUS spines
San Cristobal mockingbirds
They’re endemic to (only found on) San Cristobal Island!
Funky lava sculpture
Such cool textures!
These clouds are also fabulous
Lava lizard. He’s maybe about the length of a hand (well, my hand), and different varieties of these little dudes can be found running around most of the islands.
We cruised past these blue-footed boobies on our way to shore! Check out how crazy bright its feet are. They get brighter during mating season.
Cactus with weird red cactus fruits?
I believe that’s a frigatebird
Try to tell me that doesn’t look like the moon

For our next stop, the boat headed west (back in the direction we came) for a few minutes, and then we did the whole dinghy/wet landing deal at a beach, Cerro Brujo or “Witch’s Hill”, named for a craggy ash mountain at the end of the beach that I guess someone thought looked witchy? The guide said it’s one of the best/most beautiful beaches in the world… and then we also heard that said about at least five other beaches in the Galapagos alone. I’m no beach expert, but it seems like a tough call when every beach has the same deep blue waters and powdery white sand. But hey, I’m not complaining!

Wet landing at Cerro Brujo (pic by my uncle)
What do you think? Most beautiful beach in the world? I don’t know…
This feels like a painting

Beach views. And Kicker-Rock-from-a-distance views.

I spent our free time at the beach walking along the shore and admiring the birds. There wasn’t anything new, but we saw more oystercatchers which was exciting (I felt like such a birder because I knew exactly what they were), plus the usual iguanas and sea lions.

American oystercatcher!
Oystercatcher friends
Snoozing

Marine iguana, wiggling its way along the beach

It’s very entertaining to watch the marine iguanas walking. Plus, when they’re feeling defensive, they do this weird head-shake thing.

Sea lions aren’t the most land-graceful creatures
I guess it’s kind of pretty…
Scoping out my next shot (pic by my uncle)
Iguana!
Another lava lizard

Our final activity of the day was snorkeling at Kicker Rock, aka León Dormido, a formation about three miles (5km) off the coast of San Cristobal. Here’s the extent of my understanding about its formation: hot magma escaped from the sea floor, and when it collided with the cold ocean water, it caused an explosion. This formed a volcanic “tuff cone” (a cone of compacted volcanic ash) that was then eroded for thousands and thousands of years by the sea. Today, there’s a two-peak formation, about 500ft (~150m) tall from the ocean floor with a channel between the two visible rocks that’s about 60ft (19m) deep.

Kicker Rock. You can see the channel super clearly from this angle.
It doesn’t look nearly as intimidating in the sun!

The names are things that people think the rocks look like. Kicker Rock is because someone thought it looks like a boot, and León Dormido, or “Sleeping Lion”, is because someone thought it looks like a sleeping sea lion. I think these “someones” were a little kooky. (Also, there was a beach near where I lived in Peru called León Dormido, and that mountain/rock also looked nothing like a sleeping sea lion. My conclusion is that this is just a default Spanish name for rocks near the sea.)

León Dormido
and León Dormido? I guess I can kind of see it, but no.

Kicker Rock is known for hosting a great diversity of sea life: tropical fish, rays, sea turtles, sometimes sea lions and marine iguanas, and a few varieties of sharks including hammerheads. So, why is this location such a hotspot? It’s a combination of things… the strong currents + the ocean depth + a big, solid structure in the middle of the ocean = a disruption in normal water movement and the stirring up of nutrients that are usually found in the deep sea. The deep-sea nutrients end up closer to the surface and attract sea life.

This provides an especially cool opportunity for snorkelers because it puts some deep-sea diversity within reach and makes it feasible to snorkel somewhat in the open ocean. I was mostly excited about this… but I was also mildly terrified. Okay, confession time. I have an irrational fear of sharks. I mean, it’s semi-rational because yes, sharks can be dangerous, but it’s irrational because I don’t like going in the ocean AT ALL unless the water is clear. And that’s so that I can get myself out of the water ASAP if there’s a shark in sight (yes, in my mind, I can outswim a shark). The concept of WANTING to see a shark while being IN the water is not one that my fear can comprehend. The tour guide said that there are always sharks there, but whether you see them or not depends on the water clarity. I assume other people were excited by the high probability of a shark sighting. I was just anxious, and almost paralyzingly so. But I didn’t want to miss out on something because I was scared, so I told myself that I had to get over it. Did I? Well… get over it? No. Persevere through it? Yes.

Unfortunately for us, the currents were kind of strong, and the water wasn’t especially clear. The boat dropped us near Kicker Rock, and we swam our way around the formation. Visibility was decent for maybe 10 feet, and most of my energy was spent trying to move forward, not get pushed into the rocks, and not get pulled too far away from them. I’m a good swimmer, but it was a lot, especially if you’re also trying to look at things as you go!

Sea turtle!

I didn’t handle the currents nearly as gracefully as this sea turtle…

Since the visibility wasn’t great, I mostly spent my time looking at the little fish and plants and stuff (clearly I’m no marine biologist) that were on the rock. The colors were amazing, and I imagined I was swimming past little fish neighborhoods. I also saw a couple of sea turtles and a faint shadow beneath me that looked like a ray. The worst thing was that there were TONS of tiny jellyfish. I’m 99% sure that the guide told us they didn’t sting, but that was NOT true. It wasn’t super painful, but I kept feeling sharp pinpricks on my face and arms. Wonderful. It also was a little disconcerting to not be able to see the bottom of the ocean (personally not a fan), and it absolutely didn’t help with my shark fear. Focusing on the rock helped me to keep my bearings and feel slightly less adrift.

Jellyfish! These were not very big… maybe about 3″ long (8cm)
Turtles are friends.
Oh to have an underwater camera! (I had my phone in a waterproof case. And I was also nervous that I was going to drop it to the bottom of the deep blue sea, never to be seen again. Even though it was attached to me by a lanyard. And my hand’s death grip.)

Here’s some footage of the fish neighborhoods!

These look like they’re just bubbles, but I’m almost positive that they were little fish. I called them bubble fish. (I’m a GREAT namer, in case you couldn’t tell.)
Not super clear, but these were my favorite little fish. Not the one that’s most obvious in this picture, but if you go up a little, you’ll see a smaller fish with similar-ish coloring (blue head to yellow, orange, and a pink tail).

When we were nearly all the way around the formation, the guide delivered the “good news” that the currents weren’t too strong to keep us from swimming through the channel. Oh, goody. Did I mention? The channel is where the sharks like to hang out. Thought stream: “EEEE! Deep breath. Stay with the group. No sharks want to eat you. Go for the eyes and gills. You can swim faster than most of these people. You’re okay. Don’t think don’t think don’t think.” I did it. It was not great. I couldn’t see anything which made it infinitely worse because there were almost definitely sharks, they almost definitely knew where I was, and I had no clue where they were. Nope nope nope. Not my favorite experience. The good news is that I didn’t get attacked by a shark, so at least my irrational fear took a slight hit (it likes to tell me that if there is a shark in the area, it WILL attack me. Now we’re down to “it MIGHT attack me”).

Anyway, after we swam through the channel, the boat picked us up on the other side. My nerves were about spent by that point, and I couldn’t get out of the water fast enough. Plus, I was tired of getting zapped by jellyfish. And just tired. Everyone seemed to be on the same page because we rode back to town in near silence, and after we got back, I sat around like a potato until deciding on an early bedtime.

With our guide after getting back (pic by my uncle)

Related Posts

Welcome to the Galapagos – learn more about the islands’ formation

Española Island – explore another Galapagos-ian island with a completely different landscape

Diamond Beach, Iceland – compare the white sands of Playa Cerro Brujo to the black sand beaches of Iceland!

Ada Foah, Ghana – lounge around in the Ghanaian beach paradise of Ada Foah

Batumi, Georgia – I can’t talk about beaches without mentioning my favorite pebble beaches of Batumi!

If you’re looking for a relaxing vacation where you can sleep in and lounge around, the rainforest probably isn’t a good destination for you. Well, there’s plenty of lounge time, and you couldn’t pick a prettier place… but don’t expect to do much sleeping in. We set our alarms for 3:30AM because we had a 4:15AM meeting time with our guide, Juvenal.

So, what exactly was exciting enough to rouse us at such an absurd hour? Macaws. We’ll get to that in a bit, but at the end of this post, you can be the judge and let me know if you think it was worth waking up well before dawn was even considering cracking.

When our alarm went off, it sounded like it was raining outside, and Juvenal had mentioned that it’s only worth going if the weather isn’t bad. We got dressed anyway and headed to the lodge to figure out the plan.

Juvenal said that he thought the rain might stop, and it was up to us if we wanted to chance it and go or if we wanted to try the next morning instead. I was 100% on team “let’s go” because no way was I trying to have ANOTHER 3:30AM wake up call the next day! The only thing worse than an early-morning wake-up is an unnecessary early-morning wake-up! And what if it was raining even harder then? We delayed for a few minutes in the hopes that it would let up a bit and then grabbed our boots and umbrellas and hit the road. Well, hit the trail. And then the boat.

My first attempt at taking a picture of a flying bird… hehe not great.
Much easier when the birds are moving slowly!
One more…

We had a two-hour boat ride, and by the time we reached our destination, the rain had stopped completely, and the weather was absolutely perfect!! So, what exactly WAS our destination?

Every morning, as long as the weather is nice, you can find huge numbers of macaws gathering at clay licks to, as Juvenal put it, “get their daily vitamins”. The macaws visit these areas to literally eat the exposed clay. Experts aren’t entirely sure of the reason for this behavior, but a leading theory is that the clay contains salt that is otherwise hard to find in the Amazon. Salt is important for many bodily functions and helps to keep the nervous system and heart functioning properly. Animals, like macaws, with a primarily plant-based diet can have trouble getting sufficient salt from their food. Consuming the salty clay helps to cover this deficiency. Another theory is that the clay helps to cleanse the naturally occurring toxins that are found in plants and prevents them from being absorbed by the gastrointestinal tract. The sodium theory is more widely accepted because studies of macaw behavior have found that they prefer saltier clay. There was one clay lick in particular in Peru where macaws were seen eating from a specific clay layer, and analysis showed a much higher concentration of sodium there than the layers above and below. This isn’t a behavior of only macaws in the Amazon. Other plant-eating birds, like parrots and parakeets, do the same, and even mammals like jungle pigs and deer make regular visits to the clay licks, though not quite as often as the macaws.

The boat docked, and from there, we had an easy 10-minute walk to the viewing area. There was one other tour group already there, but everyone had plenty of space and a good view. Juvenal said that it can get very crowded in the high season, so I felt pretty good about our timing, even though the more unpredictable weather of the rainy season was less than ideal.

Spot the Macaws!
Just hanging out.

When we first arrived, there wasn’t much going on. There were some macaws high up in the surrounding trees, but none of them were anywhere near the actual clay lick. Juvenal said that they partner up for life, so if we watched closely, we’d notice that they go and come in pairs. More and more gathered, and then they started creeping down to lower and lower branches. He said that all they needed was for one bird to make the first move and then they’d all be on the clay. Sure enough, one brave soul boldly landed, ate some clay, and flew away… and then came back after nothing disastrous happened. Pretty soon, there were birds all over it!

Hovering
Getting a liiittle bit closer, with a couple of new friends.
And, he makes his move!
Slowly…
Then, chaos!
And more birds
AND MORE BIRDS
These are all basically the same now, but my gosh I just can’t even believe that this is a real, normal thing. Like, this happens EVERY DAY. What a world.

I’d never seen anything like it! I mean, I don’t know when I would have, but the screeching and the sounds of their wings flapping… well, I think you have to hear it for yourself.

I was having quite the orientation with my new camera. I still wasn’t really sure about the settings or what everything meant, and Dad told me to just shoot on auto because it would still be better than anything I would take with my cell phone. True. The next leg of my trip, after my parents left, was with my aunt, uncle, and cousins, and my uncle knows a lot about cameras. I planned to take advantage of his knowledge, but until then, I just had to make do and play around with it. So… yeah, these aren’t the best pictures. But I’m pretty sure that taking pictures of distant, flying birds is just about the hardest thing to start with.

I wanted to get some pictures of them flying because the colors are even more incredible when their wings are open.
Pretend this isn’t blurry and just appreciate how majestic these birds are.
That one with its wings open on the tree… whoa.
Those two birds flying away on the left are awesome!

The best thing, though, was that Juvenal had a telescope with him. It made you feel like you were right next to the clay lick! And you can literally take pictures through the telescope using a phone camera which is crazy!

Full view through the telescope
Getting even closer…
The wings!
Macaw love
The deep blue feathers are so pretty!

It’s like he’s staring straight into our souls
If I were a bird, I think I would like to be a macaw.

That one on the bottom left is taking a big ‘ole bite. Yummm, clay!

We saw three different types of macaws. The scarlet macaws are, to me, the classics. They’re the ones that look the most rainbow-like. The red-and-green macaws are very similar, but they don’t have yellow feathers like the scarlet macaws. And finally, the blue-and-yellow macaws are pretty easy to separate from the other two. See if you can spot all three types in this photo!

Did you find all three?

At one point, something scared the macaws and they all flew away. It happened so quickly… they were all on the clay lick, and then a second later, they were gone! I guess they just went and took a lap or something because soon enough, they started gathering in the trees again, and the whole creeping process repeated until they were back on the clay lick in full force.

Business as usual…
…aaand they’re gone.
I’m telling you, taking pictures of flying birds is not easy!
Returning to the safety of the treetops
Not a great picture, but I just love those two blue-and-yellow macaws who look like they’re resting their heads on each other.

We’re back!
Getting set for another round at the clay lick

I think I could have stayed there watching until all of the macaws left, but after a while, we called it a morning and headed back to the boat. The ride back to the lodge was so pleasant. There was no sign of the nasty weather from the morning. The sky was blue, and being on the boat on the river was the best feeling in the world. I sat cross-legged on the bench so that I could face forward and look out at the riverbanks and decided that I was at my peak happiness on the river. You think I can live on one of those boats?

The fam with the clay lick in the back left
Juvenal on the ride home

We didn’t see anything too thrilling on the way back, but we did see a bunch of birds. We cruised past another, small clay lick right on the edge of the river. I was no longer afraid of using my camera on the boat, so I had it out (with the strap around my neck and a VERY tight grip in my hands) and was snapping sure-to-be-terrible pictures along the way. The only way to get better is to practice!

Taken from a moving boat
Ride-by photos

It was only about 10AM when we got back to the lodge, but I felt like we’d already lived an entire day! Thankfully, we had some downtime before lunch, and I used the time to lounge on my bed and rest up for our afternoon adventures… which I’ll talk about next time!

Bye, boat!

After winging it on our first day in Canta, we started off Day #2 with a very well-defined plan: hike to “that” waterfall. See photo below for details… (Can you find the waterfall?)                                         

Took this picture while speeding down the road between Canta and Obrajillo (David was appreciating the open road after we got past a spot of traffic). Have you located the waterfall? Scroll down for help…
To orient you, Obrajillo is in the valley to the right, the overlook is at the edge of a village, San Miguel, and we hiked up to the waterfall trickle that you can barely see (which seems kind of close to San Miguel, but I promise you that it’s not).

Okay, so the plan was vague, but Julie did some research and came away with the conclusion that it’s definitely possible to hike there (probably). The directions, as far as she could find, were to start by walking up to a popular viewpoint overlooking Obrajillo. Okay, easy enough. And then, walk to the waterfall. Hm. Welp, at least we knew the beginning part! We could figure things out from there, right?

The good news is, I love to overpack for hikes which means I was already prepared for uncertainty. My formula for day hikes is roughly: (day hike + 4 days) x # of people… and then I pack snacks and water accordingly, as though no one else is bringing anything (even though they are). It’s good to be prepared! What if someone else is underprepared? What if we get lost? What if someone gets hurt? What if there’s a mudslide and we get stranded and don’t want to resort to cannibalism? No one ever says, “I wish we had less food.” Worst case, you don’t need it all and get stronger from carrying the extra weight.

Once we were ready for anything, we walked to get breakfast sandwiches before heading out. This was our staple meal for the weekend (literally 3/5 meals in Canta): a fried egg on a roll. After you eat approximately four, you’re good to go! Then, we piled into the van and drove down to Obrajillo. There was traffic because of course there was. As soon as there are two cars on the road, it seems to be inevitable (I think it’s because Peruvian are so proud of their traffic, they need to make sure it’s always living up to its terrible reputation).

After we parked, we located the path to the viewpoint, and David, Dina, and her daughter split off to do other things… apparently the idea of a potentially endless hike didn’t appeal to them. Sorry, I mean “adventure walk”. Julie doesn’t like “hiking”, so we rebranded the activity. That ended up being a much more appropriate name in this instance anyway. “Hike” implies order, a defined path. “Adventure walk” says “I don’t know where we’re going, but that’s part of the fun!”

At the viewpoint
I can’t get over the greens! Maybe if they knew THIS was the view they were missing out on… nah, they still would have ditched us.

Anyway, the path to the overlook was easy enough to follow. Maybe that could be called a hike. From there, it was inarguably an adventure walk. After the viewpoint, we started asking every person we met for directions. That may sound like overkill, but it was a necessity. When people don’t know the answer to your question, they don’t say, “I don’t know.” They say, “Oh, it’s that way!” and point and say it with full confidence and make you think they have a clue. So, the only way to be safe is to ask as many people as possible, rate their trustworthiness, compare answers, pick a direction, and remind yourself that not knowing where you’re going is part of the fun.

Another album cover option
I love these mountains.
Like seriously. (Also, that’s Canta on the left.)
HOW ARE THERE SO MANY GREENS? Also, fun fact did you know that the human eye can differentiate more shades of green than any other color?

The good news was that we could see the waterfall, Catarata de Shupucro, in the distance. The bad news was that it wasn’t clear how to get there. Even now, the only thing of which I’m certain is that our beginning route was NOT right… because there was no path, and we ended up inside the locked gates of a school. So, thanks for nothing, people who gave us directions up until that point.

Okay, let’s try again with the directions. We asked the school groundskeeper (who looked confused about why we were on the school property… yeah, same) and he unconvincingly pointed us in a direction. A few steps later, a woman vaguely motioned that was as well. Finally, we found a guy who confidently pointed at a path and said it would take us 2 hours to get there. He had the highest trustworthiness ranking. Welp, nothing left to do but cross our fingers and start walking!

Obrajillo. And some fab mountains
Despondent donkey on the path. He was probably trying to find the waterfall as well.
Just starting out, back when we were so young and naive
I mean, it’s kind of like being in an airplane… The earth looks like a patchwork quilt.

Our biggest mistake was asking for more directions after trustworthy-guy. Right as we started up the path, we saw a few people coming down. Julie asked how far it was to the waterfall, and the guy said 20 minutes (LIES) and then gave some directions for how to get there. They seemed trustworthy… I mean, they had just come from there, so you’d think they’d know something. YOU WOULD BE WRONG.

The way up was unpleasant. The path was well-defined but also steep and rocky, and we were all feeling the effects of the altitude. Eventually, Jocelyn tapped out and told us to pick her up on our way back down. I felt bad leaving her, but she clearly wasn’t going to change her mind. We left her just before a fork in the path where we started following the directions of the guy we saw coming down.

Taking a breath before scaling these rocks…
Trail friends

Wrong choice. Very, very wrong. I still don’t know what we should have done, but definitely not that. We ended up on the wrong side of the mountain, and after maybe 30 minutes of walking up the worst ever uphills, we bumped into a couple coming down. Julie asked if we were going to the waterfall, and they said, “No, this is the path to the cross!” And then they pointed at this teeeeeny tiny cross at the top of a mountain in the distance. Can you spot the cross?:

(Scroll for assistance hahaha)
THERE it is. My gosh. Is there anything about this picture that makes you want to walk to that cross??? It looks like torture.
This is me, standing on the path to the cross, looking up at the trail ahead, zig-zagging up this steep mountainside. No, thank you.
Happy because we were taking a break
The only benefit of going the wrong way was getting this view of the valley
Flowery mountainsides

Yeah, no thank you. So, we turned around and tried to find where we went wrong. At this point, we also realized that we were almost all the way back to Jocelyn, so we sent Paul to bring her to meet us. She was nice and rested after her 40-minute break, and we were exhausted after our spirit-crushing uphill climb to nowhere.

Time to change strategies. We could see the waterfall, so instead of looking for the “right” path, we decided to walk towards it until we got there. I’m Peruvian-giving-directions confident that we took the proper route, and I will now describe it here, just in case you ever find yourself hiking in Canta: when you get to the fork in the path, don’t go left. Also, don’t go right. Instead, walk across the poop-covered field, following no path. Jump down the 5’ wall into the cornfield. Cross the field and climb over the short wall at the other side, taking care to avoid the cacti on top (nature’s barbed wire). Cross the river. Walk along the river until you reach a big rock and little waterfall. Cross the river again. Climb up the 7’ rock wall. Continue to walk towards the waterfall until you see a path. Follow the path to the waterfall.

Walking through the poop-filled field
Keeping our eyes on the waterfall while hopefully not destroying this cornfield
Can you spot the Lara? I’m hiding somewhere in this picture!
Exhaustion break disguised as a photo op
Wildflowers
Climbing up the final stretch

Got that? I couldn’t have made it any clearer. No wonder no one could give us directions!

As is generally the case with waterfalls, the view of the actual waterfall wasn’t great from up close. We did, however, get a better view of the valley and took a moment to pat ourselves on the backs because we made it!

Almost there! Almost there!
Sliding my way towards the waterfall
We made it, we made it!!
A little delirious
Waterfall view from the top

The hike up had been steep and tiring, but the way down was brutal. Lots of slipping and sliding with a few falls. Jocelyn had the worst luck. On one of her falls, she caught herself on a cactus and got a cactus spine stuck in her finger. We tried to pull it out on the trail but couldn’t get a good grip or tell how deep it went. I had tweezers at the hotel, so she decided we should just leave it until we got back.

Finally getting back to flat ground!
Can’t believe we were at that waterfall…

The layers in this picture are crazy… the bright green foreground, the hazy green middle (thank you, smog), and the low clouds above, chopping off the mountain tops.

Once we got past the steep part, the rest of the return trip was easy. Well, there was one part where a rock wall collapsed beneath me, but it’s fine because Kylie caught me by the backpack and saved me from disaster. It’s good to have friends with quick reflexes!

Kylie, me, and Julie

 

Going down
Found this kitten model on the way back to town
Shepherd keeping an eye on his sheep
Spot the sheep!

Back in town, we met up with David, Dina, and her daughter and drove back to Canta. Our first order of business was getting the spine out of Jocelyn’s finger. I got my tweezers and tried to ease it out, thinking it might be short. That did nothing, so Jocelyn braced herself and I pulled as hard as I could until it came out. It felt like I was going to pull her finger off! When it finally gave, we all freaked out because it was SO much longer than we thought. I can’t believe she walked around with that thing stuck in her finger for like 4 hours! And I can’t imagine how much the extraction hurt. Geez! Jocelyn wins the pain tolerance award.

We headed to dinner after the drama and devoured our food, only slightly hampered by the nightly power outage. It’s clearly not an uncommon occurrence because the waitress was prepared, bringing in an emergency light. And then the power came back on… and went out, and came on, and went out. Geez, just leave it off.

Back at the hotel, we made a solid effort to stay awake a little longer (it was only like 7:30PM) and eventually gave up and passed out. What a day!

The cactus spine

Our only full day in El Chaltén was dedicated to the hike to Laguna de los Tres. It’s the most popular hike in the area, is listed as “difficult”, and is supposed to take 8 hours, so we were prepared for all of the above. In our usual “let’s avoid the crowds” fashion, we aimed for an unrealistic early departure time (6:30AM) and left at a more reasonable early departure time (7AM) which is apparently still long before anyone else in town is even awake. Well, except for this one guy we met who said he hiked there for the sunrise, but he was a rare bird (we’ve been over this before, but who wants to hike for 4 HOURS in the dark??). Anyway, we were not in good company at 7AM. We were in nearly no company. Fine with me!

The valley on our way up
Sleepy valley

The general profile of the Laguna de los Tres hike felt pretty similar to Laguna Torre, the hike we did the day before, but slightly “more”. The beginning has a bunch of unshaded uphill with great views of the valley. When you feel like you might collapse, it turns flat, and trees start popping up!

The shadeless beginning of the trail
No. Shade. Also, see the little rock peeking up in the far background? That’s where we’re headed (though I didn’t know it at the time).
Slightly sunnier view of the valley
The world slowly waking up
Gnarled forest along the way
Funky forest

About an hour in, the trail forks, and we picked the path that goes to a viewpoint where we got our first glimpse of the mountains we were headed towards. It was breathtaking! And we were super lucky with the weather again, so the skies were clear and the views were completely unobstructed. Seeing the mountains was good motivation to keep going but was also like… “Wait, we’re walking ALL THE WAY THERE??”

Me gazing at Fitz Roy from the viewpoint
First look at the mountains. Can you say WOW!?
Mike with Fitz Roy
This is where I start having the same-ish pictures over and over again because they’re all so darn beautiful.
Selfie with Fitz Roy
Brother-sister selfie!
Fitz Roy and the rest of the mountains
Okay one more. Fitz Roy is the tallest peak in the middle, to the left is Poincenot, and to the right is Mermez.

From the viewpoint until the very last segment of the hike, the trail wasn’t bad at all. It’s basically flat… and then you get to the end, and there’s a sign that says the last kilometer is going to take an hour because it’s like 400m of elevation. And then it actually takes an hour. And it is SO steep. And long. And steep. It wasn’t the worst hike I’ve ever done, but it wasn’t exactly a walk in the park either (lol but technically it was a walk in the national park).

Fitz Roy with some cloud cover
Stay away, clouds!
Fitz Roy with some clouds trailing off the peak
It’s like a little smokestack. Getting closer…

The good news was that we were there early, so there weren’t a lot of people coming down. That part of the trail is only really wide enough for one person at a time, and it would have made things much worse if we had to keep moving aside to let people pass. And, probably most importantly, the sun still wasn’t too hot because of course there was zero shade from that point on.

The one thing that was far from ideal was the wind. It was crazy! Most of the way was shielded from by the mountains, but the final stretch was completely exposed. I know I’ve said this before, but I meant it then and I mean it now… I was not confident that I was safe from blowing away. At the very least, there was a very real possibility of blowing over, and it was so steep that blowing over would probably also mean rolling down the mountain. I stopped multiple times and just dug in because I wasn’t confident that I could land my foot where I wanted.

Green valley
100% chance that I took this picture as an excuse to stop hiking for a second. We came across that river on the left side and through the green patch above it.
Rock and wood-covered trail
The way up…
The rock peaks just over a ridge
Almost there almost there almost there!

Then, I got to the top (Mike was already there), and the struggle was all but forgotten. The mountains you’ve been looking at all day are RIGHT THERE, with their jagged peaks and snowy slopes. The lake below them is the bluest blue you’ve ever seen. (After the brownish Laguna Torre from the day before, it looked especially blue.) There weren’t many people there, and it felt like we were part of an exclusive group lucky enough to experience the magic. Like what the heck is this world we live in??? Who would expect a lake like that, tucked up in the mountains? It’s not even fair for places like that to exist in the world. You blink and blink again and then one more time just to be sure… and it’s still there. And it’s still incredible. And even though it’s clearly real considering you’re standing there looking at it with your own eyes, you think they must be messing with you. How is this place real??? And the weather! I can’t talk enough about the weather. There was one little cloud near the peaks when we first arrived and then it cleared away completely.

Mike and me with the lake
We made it!
Laguna de los Tres
Okay, sorry in advance but like… I took a LOT of pictures, and I only picked a few… But there are still so many because they’re just too pretty! And also basically all the same, but can you blame me?
Me with the lake
Okay now glamour shots
Same pic without me
Okay now get out of the picture, Lara!

We walked down to the lake and then around the edge until we could see another lake right next to Laguna de los Tres, Laguna Sucia. That must be one of those Iceland/Greenland naming things (they named the green land Iceland and the icy land Greenland so that people would leave the green land alone) because “Laguna Sucia” means “dirty lagoon”, and that name couldn’t possibly be less suited.

Me on a rock looking down at Laguna Sucia far below
Laguna Sucia
Laguna Sucia from above
What dirty water, right?

While the two lakes are, basically, right next to each other, it’s super weird because Laguna Sucia is like 100m lower in elevation (that’s a pure Lara estimate though, so take it with a grain of salt because my estimates can absolutely not be trusted). There are waterfalls coming out of the top lake that turn into rivers flowing past the lower lake. So strange.

Laguna Sucia and Laguna de los Tres above
This was my best attempt at getting both lakes in the same picture so that you can see the elevation difference between them. How weird is this??
The blue waters of Laguna Sucia
Someone please explain to me how this lake got the name “dirty lagoon”. The glacier that feeds the lake is at the far end of the picture, Glaciar Rio Blanco (white river).
Laguna Sucia and its awesome surroundings
How is this place real?
Laguna de los Tres and the drop-off to Laguna Sucia
Laguna Sucia is to the left, where it looks like the world just ends.
The waterfall between Laguna de los Tres and Laguna Sucia

We admired the lakes for a while until Mike said he was getting cold from the wind (he was in shorts and a t-shirt. I had long pants and a jacket). Then, we hiked up this little mountain nearby to get one more view of the two lakes before heading back down. Already, we could see that the crowds were getting bigger (aka they actually existed), and clouds were starting to gather around the mountain peaks!

We also eavesdropped on this tour group whose guide was explaining how people rock climb Mount Fitz Roy, the tallest peak. After doing the hike that we just did, they walk around the lake, strap on crampons, and hike up the ice. Probably they will stay the night on the ice, so he pointed out a good place to set up your ice cave for sleeping. The next morning, they walk the rest of the way up the ice, partly having to ice climb until finally there’s just rock. They’ll switch into their rock-climbing shoes from there and take one of the routes that have been defined over the years, basically all named for the origin country/state of the people who first completed it. And after all that, they have to go allll the way back down. Geez. People are crazy!

The water. The mountains. No clouds. HOW did we get so lucky???
The lake. The mountains. Again.
I can’t handle this. Also, that’s the ice patch you have to climb up to get to the peak.
Another lake pic
No words, mostly because I already used them up on the infinity other pictures.
The lake. AGAIN.
THE WATER. I’m still not over it.
The valley
View from the top while trying not to blow away
Laguna de los Tres and a little Mike
Spot the Mike, running away from the wind.
Pano of the lake and surrounding mountains
Pano by Mike from the edge of the lake. AHHH so pretty!!
Me with the lake
This was hurriedly taken in a split-second of calm when the wind stopped blowing because I looked like a marshmallow in the other pics with my shirt all filled with air. Also, look at how the peak is already starting to gather clouds.
Super aqua waters of Laguna de los Tres
LAST ONE I PROMISE.

Mike had big dreams for the rest of our hiking excursion. After we hiked down from the lake, he wanted to explore these two other offshoots of the trail. One was to see another glacier, Piedra Blanca. We walked until we had a good view (we decided there was no need to go all the way to the viewpoint when we could see it just fine already) and then turned around and walked back to the main trail.

Piedra Blanca
The glacier Piedra Blanca is peeking out between the mountains

On that path, there were SO many caterpillars. Earlier in the day and the day before, we noticed that there was a weirdly large quantity of caterpillars on the trail, and we tried to avoid stepping on them. On this trail, there was no avoiding them. It seemed like they might have been an invasive species because there were WAY too many. Besides being all over the path, they were also EVERYWHERE in the branches of the tree and bushes. It got a little creepy once you noticed all of the places where they were lurking.

 

Trail littered with caterpillars
Spot the caterpillars! (It’s not hard.)
Creepy bush-lurking caterpillars
Me refilling my water bottle from the river
Water break! Drinking from streams never gets less awesome to me.

There was one more offshoot that Mike wanted to check out, and I had decided that I was fine with doing whatever he wanted to do (my feet were feeling surprisingly okay). We got about 6 steps down the path before he decided that the weather seemed questionable, so we should head back. Also fine with me! We still had like 3 hours of hiking ahead. The skies had been getting cloudier and cloudier from the moment we left the lake, and by the time we decided to head back, you could see almost nothing of Fitz Roy! Thank goodness we went early! I’m sure the lake is still beautiful even with cloudy mountains, but if you have the chance to see them all together, there’s no question that clear weather is the best way to see it.

The valley with two lakes
The two lakes in the distance to the right are Laguna Madre and Laguna Hija. They’re along the second side trail Mike wanted to explore
Fitz Roy blocked out by clouds
Looking back towards Fitz Roy… So. Many. Clouds!

On the way back, we went the other way at the fork and walked by another lake, Laguna Capri. I wasn’t expecting to walk right along the shore! I imagined that we would be up high above it. It was a cool surprise. We didn’t stick around for too long, though, because I think we both just wanted to get back at that point.

The clear waters of Laguna Capri
I wouldn’t mind going for a swim in there!
Campsite in the woods
One of the campsites along the way
Trail through the forest
Nothing better than a hike through a forest! Also, on the way in, there was a sign warning you about the high winds in the area and saying that if they’re really bad, you should avoid standing under a tree. Can someone explain to me where we should be standing in this FOREST to avoid the trees?

Back at the hostel, I think I sat on the ground and “stretched” for about 2 hours before I felt like I wanted to move again. We hung out with some of our new hostel friends, ate our usual ravioli dinner feast, and went to sleep at the usual “way later than planned”. At least we could sleep in the next day, for once!

Me and Mike with the glacier in the background

Our stay in El Calafate was especially short the second time around. We arrived at about 10:30PM, went to sleep at 3:30AM because we apparently love to self-sabotage, and caught a bus to El Chaltén at 8AM. The morning started off extra rough. Any morning after 4 hours of sleep is not going to be pleasant, but we also got a surprise at 7:30 when the lady from the hostel told us that she was confused when she said that the bus would come to pick us up, and we actually had to be at the bus station at 8. EEEEEE!

Thankfully, we were going back to the same hostel in a few days, and they let us leave some of the things we didn’t need (like our tent) which meant packing was infinitely easier. We ran around like maniacs trying to pull ourselves together and were out around 7:45… and we then powerwalked to the bus station because I do NOT like to cut those things close.

We made it there a few minutes before 8, and then the bus also left a little late. Buses always seem to run a few minutes behind schedule until the one time when you need a cushion… and then they leave exactly on time.

The bus ride was uneventful: the scenery was beautiful, Mike slept the whole time, some obnoxious person played music without using headphones. The usual. When we arrived in El Chaltén, the bus went straight to the ranger station so that we could get an introduction to the park and the hikes.

Flat landscape with mountains in the distance
The road to El Chalten

El Chaltén is a village in the northern part of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, the same park that we visited on our first day when we trekked on Perito Moreno Glacier. The town is inside the park. This is super weird to me because we don’t have people living in national parks in the States. I found myself frequently confused by the “national park” concept during our trip. Like there are portions of some parks that are privately owned. In Torres del Paine in Chile, some portions of the actual W Trek are on private land, some of the campsites are privately owned, etc. You literally can’t do the trek without crossing between private and national land. Very confusing while you’re hiking and get to a sign that says, “Welcome to Torres del Paine National Park,” and you didn’t think you’d ever left.

View of El Chalten from above
El Chaltén

I did some research before we went and thought it would be a good idea for us to take it easy on our first day considering we were coming off of four long days of trekking. There are some short hikes around town, so I had those on the schedule for the first day and had the two major long hikes on the following two.

At the ranger station, the guy who did our orientation said that the weather was really nice, so it would be a good idea to go on a hike in the afternoon if possible because no one knows what weather tomorrow will bring. I said, “We’re doing that already!” Mike said, “We should go on a longer hike just in case.” Ugh. So much for a rest day. His plan was to do the “short” 6-hour hike on the first day, the most popular 8-hour hike on the second day, and this one that’s literally 4 hours up and then 4 hours down on the way back on the last day. He’s a loon. He told me that I could skip the last day if I wanted to rest, but who rests on the LAST day of a hiking trip? That defeats the whole purpose of a rest day!

 

Mike and me along the way
Trail selfie!
The trail with blue, clear skies
Okay, so the weather was pretty perfect…

So, Mike decided that we should do the Laguna Torre hike because the trailhead was literally across the street from our hostel, and it was ONLY 6 hours, unlike the other two hikes he wanted to do. By the time we checked in and got settled and ready to go, it was about 1:15PM aka the hottest part of the day and definitely the ideal time to start a 6-hour hike (sarcasm, in case you didn’t catch that).

The hike itself really wasn’t that bad, but my feet were still killing me, and it was HOT. Even the woman who checked us in at the hostel said that it was abnormally hot, and she was ready for it to cool down again. Yeah, same. The beginning of the hike had some uphill that wasn’t too bad… except for the fact that there was no shade. I learned my lesson after the unfortunate arm-burn incident of the Torres del Paine trek day 3 and covered myself in sunscreen. Mike seems to think he’s superhuman and is fine with a little sunscreen on his face and nothing more. What is it that they say about doctors being the worst patients? I believe it.

Me climbing up a rocky hill
Almost at the lake… just a few more steps! Up, up, and up! (That’s me. Hi, Lara!)
A gorge along the trail
I make the “gorge”ous joke literally every time I come across a gorge, so here it is again. Ain’t this just GORGEOUS?
Green landscape with mountains and a glacier in the distance
First glimpse of the glacier!

After the start, it got much flatter and much shadier for the entire middle stretch of the hike. That was a welcome break! And then, after a tiny uphill, we made it to the lake! Laguna Torre, with its breathtaking waters the color of very milked-down coffee. Yeah, it was kind of gross looking. If that was the main attraction of the hike, I would have said, “NOPE not worth it.” But, you’re really there for the glacier at the far end of the lake.

Tree-shaded trail
There’s nothing better than a tree-covered path
Glacier in the distance with a nice, shaded trail in the foreground
We were definitely thankful for that shade along the trail!
The brown, murky lake
Check out that crystal clear water… yum…
Panoramic picture of the lake and surrounding mountains
It’s still pretty awesome, though.
Laguna Torre with the glacier in the background
Spot the glacier!

We did this extension of the hike to a viewpoint closer to the glacier, and as well-marked as the beginning part of the hike was, this part had exactly ZERO trail markers… unless it was actually so unclear that we were not even near the actual trail. I think we were, though, because part of the hike was along a ridge where there weren’t many other options, so I’m thinking it was actually just terribly marked. The extension was completely exposed to the sun, very rocky, and all uphill. And we spent the whole time going, “Hmm, these rocks look like they’re a little more trampled down, maybe the path is over here,” crossing our fingers, and walking that way.

Me walking along a ridge
This part of the trail was pretty easy to follow, but it wasn’t all this clear.
Mike way up ahead on the trail
Pleaseee don’t make me climb up anymore. (Bye, Mike.)
The glacier!
Glacier glacier glacier!

I don’t even know if we made it to the actual viewpoint because we never reached a sign that said we did. We got to a place that looked like it COULD be the end and then Mike decided that if it wasn’t, it was better than the actual thing anyway (based on nothing but his intuition). That was fine with me. I was ready to turn around. We ate a snack in the shade of some rocks before turning around.

Mike with the glacier
Mike’s classic thumbs up
Another glacier pic
As usual, it looks like we’re on another planet

On the way back, my body was so over walking. Mike was laughing at me because I spent considerable energy ranting about how they have some nerve putting up signs that tell you what kilometer you’re on. How rude, right? You may be thinking, “Oh, that sounds great! Then you know exactly where you are and how far you have to go.” Yes, but no. Yes, I knew exactly how far we still had to go, but no, it wasn’t great. It ruins any chance you have of deluding yourself into believing that there’s only a little bit left. I spent the rest of the time yelling at him (kindly, of course) to tell entertaining stories to distract me from my misery.

Me and Mike with the glacier in the background
Us with a glacier. No big deal. No matter how many glaciers we visit, I’m still totally awed.
The path headed down the mountain
On the way back down! Much better than the way up, though we still had no idea where we were supposed to be walking.
Little waterfall along the trail
Pretty!

When I’m hiking, I go through these phases. At the beginning, my feet hurt and it’s awful, but soon enough, they go numb, I feel fine, and I’m cruising. Later, my feet inevitably remember how unhappy they are and start screaming at me, and I hobble along in agony. Eventually, I get like a 4th wind and can crank out a few more kilometers until I crash and burn again and hobble the rest of the way home. The good thing about this hike was that the trailhead was maybe 20 steps from our hostel, so I really could just collapse at the finish line.

As grumpy as I was at the end, I was happy that we had just done it and had one less day to worry about getting good weather. We spent the rest of the night hanging out with some people we met at the hostel, draining our fresh blisters (that was only me), and crying over the sad state of our feet (also only me). And eating mass quantities of ravioli, the official hiking food of Mike and Lara. All in all, it was a good (and exhausting) day.

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

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!

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.

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).

Selfie of me and Mike
Smiling because this was still very early in the day
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

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!

Pretty pink flowers along the way
Trail flowers
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.

Me looking like I'm about to blow away

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

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

Mountains along the drive
Decent bus views

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

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

Sarmiento Lake with mountains in the far distance
Our first glimpse of the park across Sarmiento Lake.
Another picture of Sarmiento Lake with a slightly different foreground
Yes this is practically the exact same picture, but I love them both so much and couldn’t decide which to cut so here they both are.

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

A guanaco that we passed on the way to the park
A guanaco chillin’ by the road

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

 

A lesser rhea bird by the side of the road
Spotted! Mike took this picture of a rhea. They’re huge!
Pixelated flamingos near the shores of a lake
Flamingos! Sorry they’re so pixelated but hey, phone zoom has its limits and they were VERY far away (I’m usually very anti-zoom on phones, but trust me, without the zoom you wouldn’t have been able to see them at all).

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

Laguna Amarga with its white-ish water and shores
Laguna Amarga (Bitter Lake). It gets its color and weirdly white banks from calcium deposits.
Incredible blue lake
SO BLUE!

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

Mike and me with a lake and mountain backdrop
The girl who took this picture for us asked if I wanted to take another picture because wouldn’t I regret not looking normal? The answer is no, I don’t. No fake smiles here! Instead, it will always remind me of how cold and windy it was.
Me looking like I'm about to blow away
So windy.
Me laughing after nearly blowing away
Impossible to take a normal picture.
Blue lake with big mountains in the distance
Those mountains in the background are exactly where we were headed to hike… not really UP the mountains, but around the bases of them.
Another incredible lake with mountains view
Seriously none of this looks real but I promise I’m not tryna scam you, this is actually what it looks like.
Lake Nordenskjol with mountains in the background
Lake Nordenskjol. Mike and I were baffled by this because the name belongs in Iceland…
Mike and me with a lake and moutains
One cute pic of the two of us. Side note, pretty sure everyone we met thought we were a couple at first and I’m like… we look identical.

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

Crazy blue water with cloudy mountains in the background
View from the catamaran… mountains looking nice and mysterious, shrouded in clouds.
View from the catamaran
More cloudy shroudy mountains.

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

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

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

Looking back at the Paine Grande campground and facilities
Paine Grande campsite. The buildings have beds inside if you’re not doing it on the cheap like us. To the right, you can see tents set up by the mountain.
Hanabi cards from our game
We played a perfect game in Hanabi, nbd but we’re kind of awesome. (It’s a cooperative game which means we both won.)