The W Trek, Day 4 – Mirador Las Torres

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

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

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

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

Here comes the sun…

You can do it, sun!!!

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

Morning trail views

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

Headed to Chileno

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

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

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

Slightly more trustworthy bridge than the usual…

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

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

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

Thankful for shade.

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

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

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

BAM! First look when you turn the corner

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

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

Reflections!

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

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

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

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

We did it!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On our way back out of the valley

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

Spot the sad hikers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unedited post-hike state

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

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

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

Beautiful view of the lake with sky blue water

The W Trek, Day 3 – Lake Nordenskjöld

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lake Nordenskjöld

First views of the lake

Another view of the lake

That. Water.

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

Epic mountain

Yeah, the views were still pretty fantastic

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

The rocky shores of the lake

Don’t you just want to go for a swim?

Pretty lake view

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

Walking along the lake shoreline

<3 <3 <3

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

Mike filling his water from a rocky stream

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

The lake

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

Mike and me with the lake behind us

Lake selfie!

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

A rocky mountain peak with a little waterfall

Spot the waterfall!

The lake from above

Bye, bye shoreline! Up we go…

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

The rocky trail with some low plants

The trail. Pretty plants, but not great for shade

Me with the lake

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

The trail bending away from the lake

Is that a picturesque trail, or what?

A particularly rocky stretch

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

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

 

Me walking across a suspension bridge

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

Mike crossing a suspension bridge

Mike making the trek across

Pretty red and orange streaked rocks

LOOK AT THE COLORS OF THESE ROCKS

Another gorgeous trail pic

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

Weird-looking cliffs by the trail

Funky mountains. Seriously what is happening with those cliffs?

Beautiful view of the lake with sky blue water

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

Another view of the lake with pretty colored rocks

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

The lake with clouds reflecting on the surface

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

Mike and me with a mountain backdrop

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

Me gazing out at the lake

So darn pretty

Crossing the river with no bridge

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

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

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

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

Mountain views

Oh, you know. Just another stellar landscape

Red and black rocky stretch along the trail

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

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

Me walking down into the valley

“Mike! What’s taking you so long?”

The valley

THE COLORS

The trail running through a field of weird, low bushes

So… these plants are weird.

More weird bushes

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

River running through the valley

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

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

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

Me sitting at Mirador Britanico

The W Trek, Day 2 – French Valley

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

View of Lago Pehoe

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

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

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

Lago Pehoe

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

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

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

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

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

Sun rising over the lake

Early morning lake views

Mountains along the trail

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

Mountain peak in the distance

Hey, pretty mountain

Gorgeous mountain peak

This mountain actually doesn’t look real

Pretty mountains in the distance

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

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

Forested hiking path

So much better than hiking the windy plains!

The remains of burned trees

Another tree graveyard

Deep blue lake

I can’t get over the colors

Suspension bridge

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

A river with mountains in the background

View from the middle of the bridge

Looking downstream from the bridge

Looking the other direction… Still a beautiful view!

Suspension bridge with mountains behind it

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

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

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

Trees along the trail

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

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

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

The first clear view of the avalanche mountain

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

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

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

Avalanche mountain

One more so you can enjoy an unobstructed view

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

A lake in the far, far distance

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

Pretty forest

More forested paths on the way to the final viewpoint!

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

River with mountains

Getting closer to the viewpoint…

River with mountains again

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

Mountains!!

What the what.

MOUNTAINS!

SO COOL!

Britanico lookout peaks

How. Are. You. Real?

Me with mountains in the background

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

Mountain peaks

<3 <3 <3

Panoramic shot on the way to the last viewpoint

Almost there!

Me sitting at Mirador Britanico

Enjoying the view from my snack spot

Panoramic photo at the Britanico viewpoint

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

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

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

Flat hiking paths on the way to our campsite

The final leg of our hike… wonderfully flat

Another fab mountain view

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll let you know how I do.”

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

Tent on a platform at our campsite

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

The W Trek, Day 1 – Grey Glacier

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

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

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

Selfie of me and Mike

Smiling because this was still very early in the day

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

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

Gravel path flanked by green plants and pretty mountains

Such a pretty valley!

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

Happy Lara walking through the valley before she blew away

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

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

Valley covered in plants and a pretty, windy trail

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

Another view coming out of the valley

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

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

Lake views with a mountain backdrop and aggressive winds.

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

Laguna Los Patos

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

Streaky rock formation

I thought these rocks were super cool.

Duck Lake

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

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

Lightly forested trail leading away from Laguna Los Patos

Walking away from Duck Lake

Pretty pink flowers along the way

Trail flowers

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

Grey Lake with some small glacier pieces floating around

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

The hiking trail leading towards snowy mountains

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

Grey Lake with its pretty, mountainous surroundings

So. Pretty.

Actually though, my toes were screaming.

Grey Lake with a faint rainbow

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

Dead tree skeletons

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

View of a little river gorge from the bridge

We crossed this super cool river along the way

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

That view… <3

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

View of Grey Glacier and Lake Grey

Checking out Grey Glacier from our “lookout”

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

Forest view with yellow and orange leaves on the ground

I love the colors!!

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

Plank bridge along the way

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

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

View of the suspension bridge from the side

The suspension bridge! With some random girl crossing

Mike on the suspension bridge

Mike striking a pose

Me crossing the bridge

Venturing across the suspension bridge!


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

Slightly closer view of Grey Glacier from below the suspension bridge

Another glacier view

Grey Glacier from slightly closer

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

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

The trail snaking up a mountain

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

Charred tree skeletons along the trail

Tree graveyard.

View of the lake with the water blowing in the wind

Windy, windy, windy

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

Me looking like I'm about to blow away

The Road to Torres del Paine

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

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

Mountains along the drive

Decent bus views

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

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

Sarmiento Lake with mountains in the far distance

Our first glimpse of the park across Sarmiento Lake.

Another picture of Sarmiento Lake with a slightly different foreground

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

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

A guanaco that we passed on the way to the park

A guanaco chillin’ by the road

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

 

A lesser rhea bird by the side of the road

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

Pixelated flamingos near the shores of a lake

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

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

Laguna Amarga with its white-ish water and shores

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

Incredible blue lake

SO BLUE!

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

Mike and me with a lake and mountain backdrop

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

Me looking like I'm about to blow away

So windy.

Me laughing after nearly blowing away

Impossible to take a normal picture.

Blue lake with big mountains in the distance

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

Another incredible lake with mountains view

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

Lake Nordenskjol with mountains in the background

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

Mike and me with a lake and moutains

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

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

Crazy blue water with cloudy mountains in the background

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

View from the catamaran

More cloudy shroudy mountains.

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

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

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

Looking back at the Paine Grande campground and facilities

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

Hanabi cards from our game

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

Perito Moreno Glacier Trekking

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

Perito Moreno Glacier from afar

Perito Moreno Glacier

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

Entrance ticket for Parque Nacional Los Glaciares

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

The world's sturdiest wheelchair

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

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

Walkways at Perito Moreno Glacier

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

View of Perito Moreno Glacier

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

Me thumbs-upping our cold and rainy walk

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

Glacier pieces in the water

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

Sightseeing walkways at platforms at the glacier

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

Cool view from one of the viewing platforms

Some walkway views

Another Perito Moreno Glacier view

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

Mike and me with the prettiest glacier backdrop

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

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

Glacier boat view

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

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

The view on our way to the glacier trekking start point

Walking to basecamp #1

Closer view of the glacier

Getting closer!

Wooden walkways on our way to Perito Moreno Glacier trekking

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

The first basecamp on the way to the trekking start point

Basecamp #1 dome huts in the distance

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

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

Close-up view of the glacier edge

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

The group getting their crampons put on

The crampon installation area

Mike's crampons

Mike, showing off his foot spears.

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

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

The glacial wilderness

Up and down and up and down

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

Mike with some very blue water

Mike and an ice crack

Glacier crack

Have you ever seen water so blue?

Awesome glacier crack

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

Mike filling my water bottle with glacier water

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


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

Looking down at my feet on the glacier

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

Glacier waves

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

Me with a glacier lake

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

Endless glacier view, looking towards the accumulation zone

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

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

Me and Mike on the glacier

Me and Mike in a winter wonderland

A glacier river

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

The largest glacier lake we saw

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

The glacier in the sun

Enjoying our 5 seconds of sun!

Glacier river in the distance

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

Waterfall near the glacier

Waterfall on the way back to basecamp #2

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

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

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

HOW ARE YOU REAL, MR. GLACIER???

Wieliczka Salt Mines

I left Auschwitz around 4PM and took a bus back to Kraków. I had plans to leave Poland the following day, and I still had one thing I wanted to do – visit the Wieliczka Salt Mines. My original plan was to visit the mines in the morning before leaving town, but that didn’t seem like the most relaxing schedule. I started thinking maybe I should try to make it to the salt mines that day. I’d be back to Kraków by 5:40, it was another 25-minute bus ride to the mines, and the last tour was at 7PM. I hoped the bus would be on time and the tours wouldn’t be sold out (according to the internet, it’s a popular place with limited tickets) and decided it was worth a try, right?

A monument to the miners

I arrived at the mines at 6:20 and ran to the ticket office to see if there were any more English tour tickets. The woman at the counter printed me a ticket for 6:30! Perfect! Everything was going according to plan. I couldn’t figure out where I was supposed to go to wait… I mean, there was an area with signs for different languages, but no one was standing there which made me second guess it. Since I had no other ideas, I decided to hover around there at 6:30 and hope someone would come to talk to me. A woman asked if I was there for the English tour, I said yes, she took my ticket, and in I went! Inside, there was no one. The woman told me to wait a minute, and she came back with the guide. I was still confused. He said, “I think we have one more person,” and went off to try to find them. When he came back, he said, “Nevermind!” and told me to follow him. What.

Yup, I was the sole member of a group tour. Just me and the guide whose name started with an M and was super Polish and even though he offered like 3 alternatives for what he could be called, I couldn’t handle any of them. Some people might not like being the only one on a tour, but I love it. There’s no struggle to hear the guide, and I can ask every single question that comes into my head without worrying about annoying the other people on the tour. Guides are always more than happy to answer questions.

King Casimir the Great. He was the first ruler to make laws organizing the mine management. During his rule, about 1/3 of the state treasury income came from selling salt!

M was funny (yes, we’re going to call him M). He made corny jokes and laughed at my ridiculous questions, in between his apologies about how his English wasn’t very good. That’s what people always say when they speak perfect English. The first time he said it, I kind of laughed and then protested adamantly when I realized he was serious. I mean, come on. My Polish was so bad that I couldn’t even say his NAME, and he was cracking jokes back and forth with me in English.

The Wieliczka salt deposits are 13 million years old. People began harvesting salt from the area as early as 6000 years ago by collecting surface brine in clay pots, evaporating the water, and using the salt left behind. When the surface water ran out, they started digging wells and found rock salt instead of more water.

The first mining shaft was dug in the 13th century, and tourism to the mine started in the 15th! The early tourists were guests of the king. Mining was dangerous work. The two biggest dangers were cave-ins and methane buildup. This mine never had any cave-ins, and people were sent ahead with torches to burn any methane out of the air. The floors were also very slippery, making it easy for people to slip down the stairs (especially while carrying heavy rock salt).

This chamber shows some of the different devices they used to move the salt. Large pieces were shaped into cylinders so they could be rolled (they each weighed about 2 tons!) and smaller pieces were put into barrels.

In total, there are about 2,000 chambers and over 250km of tunnels. That is INSANE. It’s like a whole underground city! At its height, there were 800 miners working in the mines and 60 horses! The horses helped to lift cylinders and barrels of rock salt to the surface using a pulley lift system. They were treated very well, but they also spent most, if not all, of their lives underground.

I know this is super dark, but there are horses hitched to this thing that was used to lift those 2-ton salt cylinders to the surface!

As usual, I did zero research before showing up. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting, but it certainly wasn’t the underground salt sculpture garden that I got. This mine, at least along the “Tourist Route” (that’s the tour I picked… there are others where you can crawl around less travelled routes, but I wanted to see the highlights. We visited less than 1% of the mine!), is decorated with crazy awesome sculptures, the older of which were carved by miners and the newer by various sculptors.

Gnomes!

That’s a lot of wood! Rock hard, salt infused wood.

Well, first you have to walk down a mine shaft via 380ish stairs to where the tour starts, 60 meters underground. Then, you go on a trek through tunnels and chambers and down more and more stairs until your head starts to spin. No wonder you have to go through with a guide! The chambers along the route are named for various famous Poles, including Copernicus, King Casimir the Great, Pope John Paul II, and Polish patriot Josef Pilsudski, among others.

Having my own private tour was literally me living the dream. I asked M every question that popped into my head. Throughout the mines, there are floor tiles made of rock salt, and the chambers and tunnels are lined with wooden supports to prevent cave-ins. I asked M how many trees went into the mines. He didn’t know and also said that I was the first person who ever asked him that question (success!). He explained that the wood is strengthened by the salt which makes it a great option for supports.

Sometimes, there are salt buildups called cauliflower salt that come from leaks in the mine. When those drips aren’t there, though, it’s easy to forget that you’re literally surrounded by salt. M kept telling me to lick one of the walls because they taste like salt, and I refused because that seems like one of those things guides say so they can laugh while you do something ridiculous. He insisted that it wouldn’t be weird and people do it all the time, but I held out… at least until the end after we parted ways and I had some privacy. The verdict? The wall tasted like salt. True or not, I still think the guides must laugh watching people lick the walls.

Cauliflower salt

One of the many underground lakes. I bet it’s very easy to float in there! This one is 9m deep, and a world-champion Polish windsurfer went windsurfing here in 2004! With the help of a very large fan. Ha!

Walkway wrapping the perimeter of the lake.
One of the other underground lakes has a music and light show. Guess whose music they play? That’s right, Chopin! Who else? I admit that it was kind of awesome listening to Chopin in a huge underground chamber. You feel like you’re physically wrapped up in the music because of the acoustics.

Obsessed with the chandeliers, and the wooden supports are like a sculpture

Very intense

Josef Pilsudski

Visitors (a looong time ago) used to be able to take a boat through the tunnel to the chamber on the other side. When Poland was occupied by Germany, a bunch of drunk German soldiers drowned here when their boat flipped over and the salt in the water made it hard for them to submerge. Eek!

Salt chandelier in Holy Cross Chapel, one of the many underground worship spaces

The most epic room along the route is St. Kinga’s Chapel. M told the story of Princess Kinga, a Hungarian princess who married the Prince of Kraków. For her wedding present, she asked her father for salt to take with her to Poland (because salt was so valuable it was even called white gold!). They went to a salt mine in Hungary, and she threw her engagement ring in. It was carried (magically, I suppose) through the salt deposits and when she arrived in Poland, she instructed miners to dig. Her ring was in the middle of the first piece of salt found.

Don’t quote me on that story because there’s a 90% chance I got it wrong. When he first started telling it, I definitely thought it was a real story until it got magically weird and I was just confused… so maybe I did get it right because my retelling is certainly baffling as well.

Presenting Saint Kinga with rock salt

ANYWAY, the cathedral was the most awesome part of the tour which feels like a cliché because that’s the thing they boast about, but it really is spectacular. There are rock salt sculptures everywhere. It took three self-taught miner-sculptors 70 years to finish. Unreal. It’s also super cool how they use the different qualities of rock salt for different effects. The purer stuff is used when they want it to be more transparent, for example in the light fixtures. The majority of the sculptures are less pure. Everything is carved from Wieliczka salt, with the exception of the nativity scene’s baby Jesus who was carved from special pink rock salt brought from another mine.

St. Kinga’s Chapel. There are still services held here every Sunday! Quite the commute… The acoustics are supposed to be fantastic, so it’s also used for concerts.

All of the walls are carved so intricately!

No wonder it took 70 years.

Pink, glowing baby Jesus

Mary, Joseph, and Jesus on their way to Egypt

Most of this is made from less pure salt. Can you spot the one part that’s made from super pure stuff? It’s really hard, I know (hahaha)

Who else wants a salt chandelier for their house?

The detail! The perspective! The artistry!

Okay one more

Pope John Paul II

The altar

The tour took about two hours, but it felt like it was over in a flash. M and I parted ways in this incredibly tall chamber (36m tall!) where he said they once flew a hot air balloon and someone bungee jumped (not simultaneously, I assume). I asked if he’d bungee jump in there, and he said not a chance. I’m with him. It was sad saying goodbye because we were basically best friends after our time traipsing through an underground wonderland together. Though I guess a real friend would know his name.

I was on my own to explore the last couple rooms on the route (this is when I licked the wall) before making my way to the exit. I had to wait for a few more people to accumulate and then I was lifted 135 meters to the surface in a tiny, terrifying elevator with a group of Italians who, based on my limited Italian skills, thought it was similarly terrifying.

Different examples of rock salt. Pretty!

In case you want a bite to eat, there’s an underground restaurant.

SO COOL!

Corridor

Massive banquet hall. Can you imagine holding an event here??

Banquet hall decor.

Just one more light fixture…

Back on the surface, it was raining. Ugh. Of course. I found my way to the bus stop (with only like 10 minutes of wandering around like a lost sheep), rode back to Kraków, and walked home to the hostel. The girl working at the desk just about made my day when she told me there was still food left from dinner. I stuffed my face with a burger and potatoes, took a quick shower, and collapsed into bed. Packing could wait until morning.

Auschwitz I

Poland was added to my “must go” travel list during a visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. Before that, I don’t think I’d ever thought twice about Poland, but I was standing there, looking at a map of the concentration camp locations when I realized that if I wanted to really understand, I could go visit one in person. What was stopping me? (Not a job, like any normal person.) With that, my future was decided; my trip to Poland was definite. I obviously ended up wanting to see much more of the country, but that was the spark that got me there.

It’s always a difficult experience to visit somewhere like Auschwitz. There’s so much emotion tied up in the place, and it’s challenging to figure out the best way to manage it. This is my general approach… On one hand, you don’t want to completely desensitize because then, hearing something like “1.1 million people were killed here” isn’t emotionally jarring. You SHOULD feel uncomfortable. If not, you aren’t allowing yourself to truly process that reality. On the other hand, you can’t let yourself feel everything fully because then you’ll never be able to continue existing. You won’t get through the experience, you’ll turn into a puddle of despair, and you won’t learn what you need to learn. You need to hover somewhere in the middle. You give yourself a chance to process. You try to turn the numbers into actual people. You let yourself feel… and then you also remember that hope exists, that this massive evil doesn’t define the entire world, and that in you taking the time to learn and mourn, you’ve already helped to move the world one step in the direction of becoming a better place.

The hallway in one of the barracks. The walls are lined with prisoner photos that were taken when people were processed into the camp.

Auschwitz is near Oświęcim, Poland, about 1.5 hours from Krakow. I took a bus there and got a general entry ticket when I arrived (note if you’re ever planning to visit – I thought I needed to get a ticket online and freaked out because there were barely any left… and then I had no problem getting one on the spot when I showed up that day). You can also choose to get a tour, but I ended up deciding no because 1. I’m a cheapskate (normal entry to Auschwitz is free, or they have paid tours in various languages) and 2. There are some things I like to do on my own, without having to worry about moving at a group’s pace. A guide isn’t REALLY necessary because there are a lot of informational signs, but it would have been nice to at least know what buildings to visit first.

Here’s a picture of the map of Auschwitz I, to give you a sense of the layout of the camp. The main area with all the buildings is surrounded by barbed wire and is where the prisoners were kept. The C-shaped building below there was the prisoner registration building, and the gate into the camp is to the left of that building. To the left of the camp, outside of the fenced-in area, was the crematorium.

Auschwitz was actually a camp in many parts (there were 48 “Auschwitz” camps, most of them small work camps that manufactured goods for the war). The two main parts were Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Auschwitz I, as the name suggests, was the original concentration camp. Some former army barracks were used as the starting point, and the majority of prisoners were Polish intellectuals, resistance members, and Jews. Within a year of opening, nearly 11,000 people were imprisoned there.

There are two terms used when talking about the Nazi camps: concentration camps, and extermination camps. Concentration camps aimed to kill prisoners slowly through inhumane conditions. People died from disease, starvation, and torture. Guards did things like pour cold water on naked prisoners and leave them outside to freeze. Extermination camps were built with the intention of killing large numbers of people quickly. Auschwitz I was a concentration camp.

When visiting Auschwitz I, you take a similar route into the camp as the prisoners did. You start in the building where new prisoners were processed and make your way through the famous entry gate that declares, “Arbeit macht frei”. Work sets you free.

The iconic Auschwitz gate, proclaiming, “Arbeit macht frei” or “Work sets you free”. This is the most famous of these signs, but Auschwitz was neither the only nor the first Nazi camp to sport this slogan.

Walking into Auschwitz.

On the way to the gate, you pass a large green. The signs nearby explain very matter-of-factly that this was one of the sites used for shooting executions. The camp map has letters to indicate various locations: “C – sites of execution by shooting, D – sites of execution by hanging, E – sites of mass gassing by means of Zyklon B, F – sites of murder by lethal injection”. I read through those a few times before the words really sank in. In case you forgot where you are, this is Auschwitz.

This green was used for prisoner executions by shooting. The registration building is in the background.

First glimpse of the double barbed-wire fence after walking through the gate.

For me, it was incredibly hard to reconcile what I was seeing in person with the reality that I knew. Inside the gate, the camp doesn’t look like the place of nightmares. There are brick buildings, tree-lined paths, green grass, wildflowers… if you didn’t know where you were, it would seem almost serene.

Deceptively peaceful

That potential feeling of serenity is extinguished around the perimeter of the camp. There, multi-layer barbed wire fences, imposing guard towers, and intimidating HALT! signs snap you back to reality. I couldn’t look at the signs without getting chills.

This brought me back to reality VERY quickly.

Most of the buildings within the barbed-wire boundaries housed prisoners. There was also an “infirmary” where experiments were performed on sick prisoners, identical twins, Jewish women who were forcibly sterilized, and more. It’s nauseating, what was done to these people.

These long barracks housed prisoners.

The early prisoners slept on the floor on mats like these.

Eventually, triple-decker bunks like these were used.

The prisoner housing has been converted into a series of exhibitions. Each WWII occupied country has an exhibition that tells the story of its Jewish population during the war. It seemed like they were put together by their respective countries which I thought was cool. They all have different exhibit design styles, and you get to see history from different perspectives.

It’s hard to imagine crowds of prisoners on those tree-lined paths.

Guard tower.

The most jarring displays are the ones showing the confiscated belongings, sorted by type. Glasses. Suitcases. Shoes. Pots and Pans. The shoes and the suitcases got to me the most. There was a corridor lined on both sides with piles of shoes. I can’t even venture a guess of how many there were, in every size and style and color. To think, every shoe in that display was once on someone’s foot. A human being’s foot. And then they were taken off, thrown into the pile, and that human was killed. Baby shoes. Mom and Dad shoes. Brother and sister shoes. Grandpa and Grandma shoes.

Then, the suitcases, each labeled with the owner’s name in white paint. Names make things feel real. You can stand there and read off name after name of these people who were just as real as you and me, people who took the time to pack their suitcases, thinking about what they might need to take with them. The shoes and the suitcases sent me into a downward spiral. I could have ended my day there, in a puddle of despair, mourning the state of the world, but I reminded myself that I had to keep going. I still had more to learn.

“The Book of Names. The names of the murdered are inscribed in this book as an eternal memorial.”
Just take a second to look at the size of that “book”.

The prison block was rough too. The basement has cells designed for various punishments. Some are too small to sit down, others have no light, some were “starvation cells” (prisoners were given water to keep them alive until they starved, prolonging their suffering). One room has a memorial honoring (Saint) Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest who volunteered to take the place of a man randomly selected for death by starvation, as punishment for a prisoner who escaped. The man ended up surviving the war. A glimmer of light in the darkness.

Next to that building is the “wall of execution”. A sign outside of the courtyard says, “You are entering a courtyard where the SS murdered thousands of people. Please maintain silence here: remember their suffering and show respect for their memory.”

The wall of execution. The original wall was dismantled in 1944, and this portion was reconstructed after the war by the museum.

Thousands of people. Standing there, about where the executioner would have stood, I looked around and tried to imagine the scene. How can I picture something that is so far beyond my comprehension? The place looks nearly the same now as it did then, but the people, the sounds, and the circumstances are completely different. The rooms where people had to undress before their executions are right next to the courtyard. They knew exactly what awaited them outside. Try as I might, I couldn’t imagine being someone in that situation. I didn’t want to; it was too scary. They didn’t have a choice.

Auschwitz I had its own crematorium just outside the barbed wire fences. Then, “in the autumn of 1941, the largest room… was adapted for use as an improvised gas chamber, the first of its kind in Auschwitz… many thousands of Jews were murdered here by the SS within hours of their arrival at Auschwitz. Several groups of Soviet POWs were also murdered here in this way, as were sick prisoners whose return to work was considered unlikely. Poles from outside the camp who had been sentenced to death… were shot here”. In 1942, the first improvised gas chambers were created at Auschwitz II-Birkenau, and this one fell out of use. It’s a strange feeling, standing alone in a room that looks so ordinary and so empty and knowing that thousands of people were killed there.

The crematorium/trial gas chamber

On the outside looking in.

After visiting the crematorium, I felt overloaded. I was ready to leave. I walked out of Auschwitz I unobstructed, past the “Arbeit macht frei” gate and out of this place that consumed thousands of people who were no guiltier than I.

I made my way to the bus stop to catch the next shuttle bus to Auschwitz II-Birkenau.

Zakopane

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

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

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

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

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

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

YOU HAVE TO BE KIDDING ME

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

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

The beginnings of a fantastic view

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

Tell me this isn’t straight out of a brochure

I can’t handle this

The mountains though…

I. Love. You. Mountains.

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

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

“Where did this snow come from??”

Kurt and Annika on the snowy path

The path!

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

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

Pinch me

THE MOUNTAINS. AND THE LAKE. AND THE REFLECTION.

Straight out of a travel brochure

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

Going around the lake

Trying to keep our feet dry

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

Oh just one more

Okay one more

Okay… one more. Until the next one.

The rocky uphill.

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

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

This lake rocks, don’t you agree?

Just happy to be here!

Okay maybe it is kind of steep

Andddd back down

“Don’t fall don’t fall don’t fall”

Just as good on the way back down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Very dramatic

Kraków Ghetto and Wawel Hill

I didn’t have any big plans for my second day in Kraków, so I allowed myself a leisurely morning before setting out to investigate the random collection of things I had on my “to see” list. Mostly, I was tired of chaotic, ambitious days and wanted to leave the day somewhat unplanned so that I could go with the flow and make game-time decisions.

My first move was to the former location of the Kraków Ghetto. In Kraków, the ghetto was placed on the fringes of the city (at the time), and 15,000 Jews were crowded into an area previously occupied by 3,000 people. I took a tram there from my hostel and started at Ghetto Heroes Square where a memorial commemorates the ghetto victims. When the ghetto was operating, this square was where people were gathered before being sent to various concentration camps. There is a memorial there now, a series of empty metal chairs scattered across the square. A nearby sign explains that when the first Jews were being deported, they were told to bring things with them to start a new life. A lot of them brought chairs so that they would have somewhere to sit in their new homes. Reading that… it hit me pretty hard.

Ghetto Heroes Square with the Empty Chairs Memorial

A pharmacy located by the square was the only one that continued operating after the establishment of the ghetto. The owner, Tadeusz Pankiewicz, declined the offer to move his pharmacy to another part of the city. He lived onsite and was the only non-Jewish resident of the ghetto. He and his staff did what they could to help the ghetto residents, providing things like medicine, smuggled groceries, information from the outside, and even hair dye for those plotting escapes. Today, the pharmacy is home to a small museum.

Only a few blocks from the square is the Schindler enamel factory. Many of the Jews who weren’t immediately deported were kept in Kraków for labor purposes, forced to work in a couple Nazi-established factories and others supporting the war efforts. Oskar Schindler, whose story is told in the film Schindler’s List, is credited with saving the lives of 1,200 Jews, shielding them with the help of his factories and endless bribes. The building is a museum now.

Schindler’s factory

The plaque

A few portions of the ghetto wall are still standing, so I went to visit those as well. The one is marked with a plaque that says (in Hebrew and Polish), “Here they lived, suffered, and perished at the hands of Hitler’s torturers. From here they began their final journey to the death camps.” The top of the wall looks like a series of tombstones… I’m not sure if that was intentional or not, but it’s another one of those things that makes your heart hurt because it’s just not right.

Ghetto wall. You can see how the shape of the top of the wall looks like gravestones. Eerie.

Ghetto wall + children’s playground

Near there, I spotted a marker on google maps for a fortress! (Mom, skip this paragraph.) A few reviews said that while it’s closed, there are a few places where you can sneak inside, a prospect that clearly appealed to me. I walked around the building a few times but, much to my dismay, couldn’t find a reasonable way in. I found one spot that looked like it had been recently patched. Maybe that’s what they were talking about. In my assessment, you’d have to be either a child or a contortionist to squeeze inside now. It’s too bad… I peeked through the windows, and it looked like an interesting place, plus there’s supposed to be a great view from the roof!

The fortress

So, I settled for walking around the outside and then continued on my way to the Krakus Mound. What is this, you ask? Well, honestly I’m not really sure, and it seems like no one else is either. This is one of two mysterious prehistoric mounds in Kraków. No one knows when exactly they were built or why. This one has a solid wooden core, covered with soil and grass. Like… what????? IT IS SO WEIRD. It looks like a pimple on the surface of the earth. Legend says that it was built to honor the mythical city founder, King Krakus, and the other was to honor his daughter. But, no one knows. I just went for the view.

The Krakus Earth Pimple.

The view of Kraków from Krakus (hehe)

From the top of Krakus Mound, I spotted this building and was curious about what it was. Turns out, it used to be part of a limestone quarry that no longer operates because the limestone is gone. It was also a concentration camp for Polish prisoners during WWII and was used as part of the set of Schindler’s List. If I’d had more time or an adventure buddy, I would have tried to figure out how to get there to explore. Next time! (Yup, I guess I need to go back!)

My last major stop was Wawel Hill. I was coming from the outskirts of the city, so I took another tram in an effort to keep myself from walking into exhaustion.

Church of St. Bernardino of Siena. It’s near Wawel so while I was walking past, I decided I might as well pop my head in.

Inside. I like the ceiling!


Wawel Cathedral is one of the most prominent sights on the hill today. The first church on the site can be traced back to the early 1000s, soon after Poland became a Christian country. The current structure, however, was built in the 1300s and is actually the third iteration. The first was destroyed, and the second burned down – a common theme on Wawel Hill.

Today’s cathedral is quite the architectural hodge-podge. The 1300s cathedral was built in the gothic style, but portions of the previous Romanesque cathedral survived the fire intact and were retained in the new design. Later on, various chapels were added on to the side, and those are in the Renaissance and Baroque styles. Much of the interior was redone when baroque was all the rage, so it doesn’t even resemble what it would have looked like originally.

This is a great vantage point to see the many architectural layers of Wawel. The white limestone, like the bottom half of the tower, is from the old structure, built in the Romanesque style. The rest of the tower and the other brick area you can see are part of the 14c. Gothic church. The chapel with the gold dome is in the Renaissance style from the 16c. (and the dome was painted black during WWII to protect it. It’s 54kg of gold!). The chapel to the left with the black dome is Baroque from the 17c. So there you have it! Architectural collage.

The front of Wawel Cathedral

The castle has had plenty of its own struggles throughout the years. It fell victim to multiple fires, was occupied by the Austrian army during the partitions of Poland, and was further damaged and plundered during WWII. Kraków didn’t see nearly the destruction that Warsaw faced during the war, however, so Wawel and other landmark buildings did manage to survive. Today, the palace buildings house various museums.

A model of Wawel. You can see the cathedral in the back middle. To the left, there’s a gate into the castle compound, and the cathedral museum is in the building to the left of that. The U-shaped building in front of the cathedral is the royal kitchens, and the building behind that with the arches is the castle. The tower next to the kitchen has rounded corners which were supposed to help deflect cannonball fire.

Inside the castle compound with the cathedral up ahead to the left and the royal kitchens to the right.

There used to be other buildings here as well, as you can see by the foundation remnants in the lawn.

I skipped the castle museums and only bought a cathedral ticket because I wasn’t really feeling up to a big museum experience. With my ticket, I could go up the bell tower (which was all I really wanted), see the crypt, visit the cathedral museum, and walk around the inside of the church like a VIP. All that for just $4! Ha!

The cathedral is beautiful, but like so many others, there’s almost too much going on. It’s completely overwhelming to the point where you can’t appreciate anything inside. “Geez, ya think they have enough fantastic marble statues in here? Who’s this? Another dead guy?” “Ugh, there’s so much shiny gold in here that it’s making my head hurt!” I call it the “Vatican Museum Effect”. If you’ve ever been to the Vatican Museums in Rome, you know what I mean. There’s so much amazing art around you that it all seems “normal”, and instead of looking at each thing individually, you try to take it all in at once and completely lose your mind.

In the bell tower, there are a few different MASSIVE bells. I don’t know much about bells, but they were big. That seems like the most important takeaway. The biggest weights 12,600kg (13.9 tons), is only rung a couple times each year (and requires 12 bell ringers), and can be heard 30km (18.6 miles) away. I suppose that’s all impressive in the bell world. I mean, it sounds absolutely insane to me. Why make a bell that’s clearly a huge pain to handle?? I’m sorry, I’m probably being incredibly offensive to bell-lovers everywhere. Bells aren’t really my thing.

The great bell, Zygmunt

The bell tower was fun to explore…. there are little gaps like this one that you have to squeeze/duck through.


The crypt is filled with dead kings and queens and national heroes. I was excited because it’s the only fully-intact part of the Romanesque church. The cathedral museum has mostly Pope John Paul II paraphernalia. Did you know that he was the first non-Italian pope in almost 500 years? He also has a crazy life story (it’s worth a read!), could speak 12 languages, and is a Polish hero. There is a case of gifts he received during his time as pope, and the coolest was a cross that American astronaut Buzz Aldrin took with him to the moon! I just kept looking at it and thinking, “That cross has been to the moon and back!” Whoa!!

Inside the Romanesque-style crypt

Flowers at Wawel

More Wawel flowers

The final thing on my list was visiting the stained glass museum. I am obsessed with stained glass, so it sounded wonderful! The only problem was that their tour minimum is two people, and I am obviously only one person. You’ll be shocked to hear that it’s apparently NOT the hottest destination in Kraków. No one else turned up, so I was out of luck. That was a bit of a bummer, but it did mean that I had some extra time to relax back at the hostel. A dull silver lining, but a silver lining nonetheless.

This looks like the home of a woodland creature…. but it’s actually just part of the Wawel wall