Monthly Archives: March 2013

The windy W

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Torres del Paine is famed principally for three things; the Torres, three granite monoliths for which the national park derives it’s name, the “W Trek” that takes in the three main valleys and seriously high winds…. We experienced pretty much all of them – poor weather meant we missed out on one valley.

After Refugio Grey, we headed to Mountain Lodge Paine Grande. An e-nor-mous refugio, complete with cafeteria, bar and minimart. And a hotel. With full reception. For some, this was the start of the “W”, for us, the end of the circuit and farewell to a few friends we had met on the way. Over Pisco Sours (2 for 1 happy hour stylie – woop-woop!!!) we said our sad goodbyes to our new buddy Paul, plotted the best way to tackle the “W” and set the world to rights.

There were now only a handful of trekkers that were heading the same route us; completing the circuit before the W- Paul, Elisabeth and Stefani, “the Aussies”, plus “the Russians”, (as the two out of three groups were known), were all finishing in these parts and heading back to, and beyond, Puerto Natales or Puerto Arenas. We missed them already as they had been a constant over the past five short, yet seemingly long, days.
With weather closing in, our penultimate day trekking, happened to the hardest by far.

You heard it before you felt it; racing down the valley, gusting at a rate of knots you didn’t want to think about. And then to hit you. Full force. Knocking you sideways, slamming into you. Dust and dirt from the paths filled your eyes and mouth, as you squinted behind your ‘buffy’ hoping it was but a small gust of wind.

Water spouts on the lake

Water spouts on the lake

Across the Lago Nordernskjold, the wind whipped the surface water into a series of long spouts, tossing more than a fine mist ashore to cover the unsuspecting trekker and animal. We slogged across the headland, trying to time the more exposed sections as we were buffeted by the weather.

Looking for the pot of gold...

Looking for the pot of gold…

As we headed round the headland, the force of two weather systems across both valleys collided and mini water spouts, that looked like whirlpools, appeared on the lake and the oncoming winds were much worse. Glad we weren’t kayaking as it would have been hard work, and then some, for sure. As hard as it was, we were still ever grateful we weren’t tackling the pass, as it would have been infinitely worse and far more treacherous.

Onwards we toiled across open grassland and scrub; head down into the driving wind, thankful for the well-trodden path, which meant all we had to focus on was putting one foot in front of the other! Without any obvious shelter to be seen, we ducked down at the base of a small hillock, ready for more than a handful of trailmix to see us through the rest of the day. We gave up on the idea of a warming cup of soup and settled for crackers with the last of the lomo vetado and queso de oveja, conscious of the fact Campamento Torres was a good few hours away.

Wet and cold we crossed and recrossed the swollen river, Rio Ascendcio, a raging torrent matching the sound of the wind that howled down the valley. The undulating trail through the dripping lenga forest, was a welcome refuge… we were temporarily out of the wind, and rain. We passed boughs that looked like twisted rope, some weathered by age, some by the fierce winds. Coffee coloured rivulets of rain coursed down the paths, picking up loose soil on their way to the river below. Exposed shiny tree roots and slick rocks providing perfect foot holds as we carried on up the valley.

A bridge across the river A

A bridge across the river A

Traversing terminal moraine plus a suspension bridge led us to our quickie pit stop, or potential home for the night….refugio El Chileno. Bedraggled day walkers and campers alike sat huddled in a riot of multicoloured Gortex and woolly hats in the camps “cooking hut”. With thoughts of comfy beds farther down the valley and/or the next camp spot north, one thing was a certain…it was futile hiding from the weather- there really was nowhere to hide on the open scrub, woodland or scree that stood between man and mountain.

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Fixing up soup in the fly of our tent


After a quick Scooby snack we headed along the path that would take us to both the Mirador Las Torres and the campsite Campamento Torres and it’s well laid out and numbered pitches, at the foot of the scramble up mountainside. As quickly as we could, we put up the tent – after nearly two weeks, we had it got it off pat and were tucked inside the tent in no time at all, with a warming cup of soup on the go, in the ‘fly’.

The rain eventually stopped and slowly the winds subsided, no longer roaring and ripping it’s way through the treetops. Dawn broke, with a clear, cloudless almost full moon….hope for us yet!!!!

Well before sunrise the ‘camp’ began to stir, early morning brews made (bed tea had been booked for 5.30am) and tents secured before the procession of head torch wearing trekkers began – all eager to see the torres in all their glory in the early morning glow, scrambling up a well marked trail, across the glacial rubble, with luminous markers to guide us…. We weren’t disappointed!  As the sun came up the mighty granite columns changed colour, gradually turning a fabulous shade of orange for a fleeting few minutes; mirrored in the rippled glacier lake below.

Towering torres at daybreak

Towering torres at daybreak


Even though we were finishing the trek ahead of schedule and hadn’t managed to take in Valle Frsnce we were leaving on a high, walking out with the sun on our backs. As we headed back down the valley, passing groups of trekkers and day walkers, slogging their way up to see the magnificent views of Torre Central, Norte and Cerro Nido de Condor.

We stood watching horsemen leading small parties on the paths up to the refugio … We finally understood the “give way” signs we had seen on day one!

Four legged tours

Four legged tours

Informacion ...

Informacion …

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First time foragers

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Given that, once we made camp we were all supposed to use either the picnic tables scattered amongst the tent pitches, or in some refugios, the cooking “hut” provided, an element of (good natured) beach-towel-bagsy-sun-lounger syndrome emerges around 6.30pm when thoughts turn to supper….

After a few days together on the trail, we had checked out each others kit, swapped stories on where we had been and where we were going. Picnic table conversation became the preserve of fave foods and what we were missing and less so about what we were preparing for supper. We thought we had been pretty smart by adding a few fresh ingredients to our de-hy curries, risottos and pasta base meals, so we had to take our hats off the the guys that trekked with bacon plus fresh eggs too!

With bacon running low; onion, garlic and Parmesan, the staple of our non dry stores, we decided to add a few things we found along the way to sex up our suppers…..

Chancing our luck with chanterelles

Chancing our luck with chanterelles

On the trail leading from Refugio Dickson, chestnut mushrooms, morels and chanterelles were all within tantalising and easy reach of the trail. We even thought we spotted a few field mushrooms near the boggy meadows, but weren’t sure enough to risk picking them. Stopping for a spot of lunch, on the banks of the Rio Los Perros, we spied several clusters of chanterelles…. too good an opportunity not to miss! After all, we could always check with the ranger that they were edible.

Mushrooms cleaned, chopped and added to the garlic and bacon lardons, Matt produced the best risotto of the trip. It was perfection on a plate…all that was missing was a big bowl of salad!!

‘Greenery’ in any shape or form, was absent in our camping food and four days in, we were both beginning to miss it. Spinach, broccoli appeared as headliners on the longed for list. Between Refugio Grey and Refugio Dickson, the grassy plains were studded with daisies and dandelions.. pis-en-lit is a well used salad leaf in France, so, once again we thought why not! Washed and wilted they were fantastic in our pasta with arrabiata sauce.

Patch of Calafates on the trail

Patch of Calafates on the trail

Calafate berry breakfast

Calafate berry breakfast

Having spotted so many Calafate berry bushes close to the trail and tasted them in ice cream, we decided to spruce up our morning porridge with a handful of these, instead of raisins. Close to Campamento Los Perros we found a patch of sun-ripened and almost blueberry black berries. Picked and rinsed we added them last minute. Similar to pomegranate seeds they popped in our mouths. Sweet but watery, rather than juicy, we wish we had picked a few more… We would tomoz for sure!!

Getting over John G

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We had been a little spoilt on our previous trek, having camped with no more than eleven people, tops, at any one campsite. Just the two of us, on one occasion. Torres was a lot more popular and the campsites were awash with orange, yellow, green and blue tents; groups huddled together in matchy-matchy hired ones, their guides perfecting their peacock routine before the refugio care-keepers and rangers, who were equally perfecting their own dance, ‘miraculously’ feeling the need to tightrope walk (two out of three campsites) chop wood and fix/build fencing in the late afternoon, just as the first wave of trekkers arrived.

The night before tackling the pass, we had stayed at the tiny forested Campamento Los Perros. Named after the nearby river, Rio de los Perros, river of dogs, reportedly named after two herders’ dogs that had drowned in the fast flowing waters, we were glad the numerous crossing we had made over the streams had proved uneventful!

Approach to Refugio Dickson

Approach to Refugio Dickson

Views from Dickson

Views from Dickson

With no real facilities to speak of, it was a far cry from the fully serviced campsite we had experienced the night before – Refugio Dickson – an oasis beautifully set on a lakeside spit in flat meadows where we had eaten our first home-cooked refugio meal; ushered to a seat by the pot bellied wood fire, we had eyed each other nervously, as we were not entirely sure what Matt had agreed to when he booked supper. Pleasantly surprised, we tucked into a salad of tomato and onion with fresh coriander and garlic dressing, asparagus soup (packet) followed by a tasty and hearty stew, a cross between a beef bourguignon and stroganoff with rice, finished off with a dust of paprika on the plate. It had been delicious albeit bereft of vegetables.

Having overslept we packed up in record time (for us) and began our first climb of the day, through the stunted forests and boot sucking peaty bogland, with roped-together log bridges and the odd stepping stone to save us from a muddy foot bath. Onwards and upwards we trudged towards the tree line and barren rocky slopes of the terminal moraine that marked the start of the climb over the pass. With a few spots of rain on our tent in the night we had been expecting the worst. Overhead “Lenticular” clouds were forming in the sky, and as we had learnt on our Antarctic trip, they only spelt one thing – high winds were on their way.

The way forward .. And up..

The way forward .. And up..


The glacial river below ...

The glacial river below …

John G was a straightforward kinda fella but nonetheless he did lead us along with a number of false summits on the way. We traversed the moraine, dropped back several times to the raging river below and back up amongst the craggy rocks and boulders, one step at a time, zig-zagging our way to the summit and over the saddle. At 1241m, it is the highest point on the Torres del Paine circuit and worth the slog…..

The astonishing view across to the colossal Glaciar Gray ahead and to the right, the vast edge of the Campo de Hielo Sur, the Southern Patagonian Ice fields. You could take a hundred photos and never quite capture it’s magic or immensity. Unreal and beyond amazing.

Looking towards the Hielo Sur

Looking towards the Hielo Sur


Time for the dreaded descent…..
Here’s the thing, you feel every step of effort ascending; lungs and calves screaming as you focus on placing one step at a time. Downhill can be just as gnarly and decidedly harder, as your legs start to shake with the effort of keeping upright in a wider leg stance, back leaning into the mountain, placing each step with care to avoid sliding and slipping your way down the next ten metres. I have what can only be described as an irrational (bordering on pathological) fear of steep descents and exposed ridges; basically when I feel I am not in control and start imagining the very worst with every small stone that dislodges and careens down the escarpment, bouncing off rocks as it makes it way to certain death. A touch melodramatic, I know.

The descent from Paso John Gardner was deemed difficult, a straightforward trail yet steep. In fact horrifically steep in places. Although I really don’t like being on exposed sections, on itsy-bitsy paths, the initial descent was ‘relatively’ easy, as we slipped and slid only a couple of times on our way back and forth the moraine to lower lengas forest. The views at each turn, almost more spectacular than the last, which gave us something to focus on rather than our stumbling feet.

Working our way through the forest was an altogether different story. Grab ropes and railings made from metal tubing were a godsend as the trail descended sharply through the evergreen forest, weaving back and forth; the ice field coming ever closer into view. Rocks, tree boughs, limbs and roots all played a part as we scrambled our way steadily, but slowly down. we were supremely grateful it was not raining as we could only imagine how slippery and treacherous it would be in poor conditions. Someone was definitely looking out for us on this trip!

Glaciar Gray and lake below

Glaciar Gray and lake below

Arriving at our next stop, Campamento Paso, we decided to push on to the next camp site; it was only 4.30pm and yet the small site, packed in either side of a bridged stream was already over flowing with tents. As we rounded the next slope, the trail opened out and we had the most amazing view of the snout of Glacier Grey with the Hielo Sur behind. Fuelled by the vista unfolding before us and a desire to make camp well before dusk, we almost skipped along the undulating wind blown path that hugged the mountain slopes.

The steep slopes gave way to an eerily pretty exposed section that had not yet recovered from a series of forest fires; stunted blackened trees lined either side of the path, ragged steps cut into the slopes and makeshift handrails kept walkers on course and away from the crumbling edges. The wind off the glaciers started to howl as we carried on towards the gullies and much talked about ladders we would need to climb up and down. Having seen some of the ‘maintenance’ carried out on the trail I had already started to worry what health and safety checks had been carried out on the ladders!

Up...

Up…


Down...

Down…


They were easier to climb up, rather than down, or it may have just been the first one (up) was shorter and felt much sturdier by a long shot. Gingerly leaning over, placing hands either side of the rail I did say a little prayer (as did Matt before me) as the pin holding the right hand rail visibly moved a fraction out of its holding plate. Clutching on for dear life, you could feel the weight of your rucksack catching gently in the wind with each slow (and for me, quite terrifying) movement down the ladder…

Back on solid ground, albeit it rocky boulders that lined the ravine, we got our second wind. Probably just as well, as the the next site was most definitely closed with tree branches covering the pitches, and for a very good reason… There was no longer a viable drinking supply close to the camp. Although we hadn’t planned to, we would have to push onto Refugio Grey. Either the path was easier or we were just pumped with adrenalin, but either way, we made it into camp, well before the sun set, pitched tent and hit the camp showers and shop… A sight for sore eyes with rows (and I mean rows) of luxury things you start to lust after when you are camping for a while. We settled for a litre of vino to celebrate our double walking day! We were gonna suffer tomoz!!

Blackcurant sun-days

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Torres and the odd tree ..

Torres and the odd tree ..

From Laguna Amargo, we set off at a fair ol’ pace in the company of Jan, a young chap from Germany, taking the slightly longer alternative route that took us along the rolling grassy floor of the valley; the path was easy to follow as we walked through scorched and twisted trunks of trees, a legacy of a careless trekker who had tried to burn his toilet paper/make camp many moons ago. The story changes depending on the teller, but the fact remains, the dry tinderbox landscape, with its scrubland, open grassy plains was prone to forest fires. Torres sadly had seen a few in the last decade.

Up and around gentle slopes, with stunted nirre trees and scrub revegetation, we crossed and recrossed little channels and streams, back onto the wide open river flats. Jan was heading onto the next refugio from us and had to reach our stop, Puesto Serron before 2pm, if he was to make to Dickson before sundown. Do-able, but meant he would have to push on ahead. Having swapped stories on our similar experiences on the West Coast trail, we said our goodbyes.

This way to Seron ....

This way to Seron ….

Charting the sunshine factor...

Charting the sunshine factor…

Earlier we had spotted the UV indicator board near the entrance to Park HQ; heads up on how sunny it would be and dutifully applied suntan lotion before we set off. As the sun climbed higher in the clear blue sky and we began to feel it’s heat, we stopped for a spot of lunch in the first place we could find with any shade, near the banks of the rushing Rio Paine. Pitta liberally spread with Philly cheese, slices of queso de oveja and lomo vertado, plum tomatoes… All that was missing was a chilled glass vino rosso!

Time to up the ante on the sun protection and get the big guns out – SPF50. What we hadn’t realised on our quick pharmacy dash was that as a hypoallergenic kid friendly version it was not just a delicate shade of puce in the tube…. It was tinted purple. Great, Matt looked like he was auditioning for a Ribena ad, and I, a poor cousin of a geisha girl… No more arguments as to whether or not it had been applied fully!

Meditating on benefits of SPF ..

Meditating on benefits of SPF ..

We rejoined the trail, following the burnt orange painted markers, mirroring the path of the river. Not long after, we began a game of tag with a small groups of trekkers all heading for the campsite, alternating pitstops along the broadening trail, now heading over meadowlands and pastures scattered with nirre woodland.

Our first official campsite came into view; a small simple structure that housed the bathroom (hot showers!) attached to a main building for those that preferred to have their meals cooked for them and chance the reputation of the care-keeper cum cook…who spent his spare time practising his tightrope walking between trees (!?!)

Campsite caracara

Campsite caracara

More trekkers arrived, tents started to pop up and as the sun began to set, the mozzies made their appearance. Happy sharing the campsite with the caracaras that wandered into camp, the mozzies were not a welcome addition. Perched around picnic tables, preparing our collective suppers was a great- ours a mix of Austrians and Americans, we chatted about were we were heading, our trip so far and traded travellers tales; it also meant covertly (or not) we could check out what the others were preparing for supper.

Having seriously liberally doused ourselves in “Jungle Formula” (post shower sweetness replaced with ‘Eau de Deet’) we were surprised they were going anywhere near us. While we were busy flapping our arms to keep them away, had admire Paul, a proper dude from New Mexico, who calmly let them hover, settle and ignored them. And they seemed to ignore him. Wasn’t working for me – I retreated to safer ground and zipped up the tent until it was time for supper – pasta with fresh Neapolitana sauce and a sprinkle of Parmesan. 1- 0 to the mozzies.

Trekking in Torres

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We packed more keenly for our ten dayer in Torres; with extra rations and knickers required it was time to examine a little more minutely what we would use/need. Out went the thicker down gilet in favour of a smaller synthetic and lightweight version…. With the promise of a bed in the nearest refugio dorm if I got THAT cold at night, I was comfortable downsizing on a few extra ‘home comforts’.

Also unlike Fitz Roy, Torres del Paine had a number of serviced refugios along the circuit and in the well trafficked trek known as the “W”. In my mind this meant steamy hot showers, warming plates of meat stew and rice or potatoes on the nights we didn’t camp cook, washed down with the odd glass of good vino to aid sleep, of course. You get the picture. Reality was likely to be a different ball game as two different companies serviced the park and reviews were mixed.

Park ride

Park ride


A bone rattling ride took us into the Parque Nacional Torres del Paine; excitedly we checked out the real life gauchos riding alongside, on the dusty dirt road that led to the entrance. As we wound our way through the barren scrubland, we were met by unexpected views of the imposing and distinctive Torres, towers of batholic rock, part of the Paine massif and the pinnacles that form part of the infamous “W”. With the sun shining down on us, we reckoned were off to a pretty good start…
Weather report TDP style

Weather report TDP style


We stopped off at the Guarderia Laguna Amarga, to register at the park headquarters and listen to the brief. A far more formal set up than Fitz Roy, the pep talk was a little on the hurried side, as we were processed for park fees, directed into a room to watch a video on the do’s/don’ts and pick up the latest weather report and csmpsite info. Our hearts sank just a little as we saw the spike in the per km winds coming in. Beaufort scale of 6 was brewing on the day we were expecting to cross the pass!
Pretty as a picture... The Torres

Pretty as a picture… The Torres

Checkpoint Chile

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We were both sad to leave El Calafate as we hadn’t really given ourselves much time to chill or look around, or, eat our fill of ice-cream. Yep, the Calafate berry and dulce leche combo had truly won us over! We were obvs destined to return another time…

The bus, packed full of locals and touristas alike, sped along the steppe. From the window we caught sight of huemels and gaunacos grazing on the open grassland plus small flocks of flamingos…. The stakes in our game of ‘spot the wildlife’ had gotten much higher!!

After hearing Sofia’s “horror” story of how she nearly got fined $5000 ARP for forgetting she had a banana in her bag, we thought carefully about what we were taking over the border into Chile; I was neither blond, cute or fluent in Spanish (she had spent 18 moths in Rosario) so would not be able to blag my way out of a cell for bringing in contraband! Plus, let’s face it, we weren’t really prepared to visit a prison cell for carrying organic Scottish oats! Like the good honest citizens we were, we mentally prepared a list of the trekking staples we had with us… Just in case.

We filled out one set of immigration forms, in duplicate, then another set in triplicate, then a third set (suspiciously identical to the first) plus finally the all important declaration. Even if we had a better grasp of Spanish, it probably would still have probably felt like a bit of a farce; we got off the bus, ID’d our bags, declared our oats and dried fruit goodies (greeted with a whatevs shrug), picked up our bags (with a side trip thru the scanners) and got back on the bus.

We were now in Chile. Whoop-whoop!

Arriving at Puerto Natales was “interesting”. Our bus threaded its way along through the ‘burbs and, without warning, pulled up on one of the main drags into town. Not quite what we expected, even with what looked like a bus terminal sign a block or so away. The end of the line it would seem and obvs “the norm” as out of nowhere people appeared; touting for business, hostels and taxi service alike, with makeshift placards bearing passenger names. Had we been a bit more savvy as to the drop off point, we would have sorted out onward transport too!

As the other passengers dispersed, Matt hailed a cab and with a pit stop at an ATM, we made our way to Espacio Kau. Has to be said, “the boy done good”. One of the trendier places in town it was smack on the sound/seafront and had its own cheeky cafe. Result!! I could already taste the freshly brewed coffee with my breakie tomorrow …

Sidewalk and serenity

Sidewalk and serenity

Indigo on the Sound

Indigo on the Sound

Puerto Natales is the jumping off point for Torres del Paine and the 200 odd hectares that make up the national park; a colourful and imaginative mix of low-level painted corrugated homes and shops, really modern design-led spaces and ramshackle old brick buildings. We liked the seaside-cum-travellers vibe that sat side-by-side its small town sensibility with municipal gardens, churches and clean wide pavements.

City colours

City colours

With diets that had been somewhat lacking in fresh fruit and veg, we drooled over the oranges, apples, peaches, plums and pears piled high in the shop window of the local supermarket. Plump juicy raisins, dried mango, cranberries and cashews were added to our shopping basket to take trekking with us. We got over the fact we couldn’t find wheat crackers and tins of tomato sauce drenched fish for our lunches… instead we would munch on lomo vetado, salami and queso oveja.

Simple yet sumptuous ... la Picada de Carlitos

Simple yet sumptuous … la Picada de Carlitos

Tummies rumbling from missing lunch and our supermarket sweep, we realised we were a tad too early for supper (it was only 6pm). Bugger! Tempers soon began to fray as we searched the streets for somewhere (read anywhere) that was open. We lucked upon La Picada de Carlitos, a restaurant split into two with the main restaurant side closed and the more local refectory style dining open. Half a dozen families sat eating and we ordered what we thought what would tide us over til supper ‘proper’….OMG it was a mountain of food! Matt’s cheeky starter ensalada of agucata y pollo, with it’s whole avocado filled with chicken was enough for four alone. We sighed with immense relief we had only ordered pollo a la plancha, grilled chicken and chuleta de cerdo, pork chop with a couple of simple mixta salads, as we spied a table across the room…. Giggles erupted as their mains arrived …. The parilladas, mixed grill they had ordered (for one) could have fed a family of four!

'Swimmin' in the sunset at Last Hope Sound

‘Swimmin’ in the sunset at Last Hope Sound

Stuffed to bursting, we ambled along the waterfront and watched the setting sun across the sound.

Running on empty

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We had planned to pick up cash in Calafate before jumping on the bus to El Chalten. Had we known two things we would have certainly made the extra effort….
1. The bus would not leave on time; it was oversubscribed and we ended up having to wait for second bus
2. The ATM in El Chalten had been without any money for four days

Consequently we arrived with not a lot of dosh to our name. Potentially not an issue, as we were destined to be self sufficient with enough food to cover six days of camping and $400 Argentine pesos in our pocket for emergencies.

It wasn’t until we started on our third (out of four) partly used gas canisters, far earlier than planned, we realised things might get a little too tight for comfort. We had, reluctantly, agreed to try to help make inroads into the mountain of gas left over by previous trekkers that had stayed at Lautaro, in Calafate. Only problem in that is you are never 100% sure as to how much each has been actually used… The “shake test” only a broad indication; We took four of the fullest we could find.

Three meals, four breakfasts to go, it was time start rationing gas use. Less brews and to hell with the possibility of nocturnal visits by scavenging grey foxes…. we started to soak our trekking staple of porridge overnight in the tent too. We even joined both right hand sleeping bags to conserve energy and save on fuel; I stayed warmer for longer and needed less hot brews of an early evening … Complete wuss, that I am, as quick as you could say ‘sundown’, I was already tucked up in my double thermal and ‘duner’ layers.

We had a Plan B and a back up Plan C (natch). Not that we would need either but we figured if we weren’t charged for both nights camping at Paidre del Fraile, we would have enough for simple supper at El Chalten… should our gas run out (camping outside of town).

Our guardian angel was defo with us on this trip….. We marched into El Chalten with just enough gas to make a final last brew, clutching one unused bag of porridge and a handful of dried snacks.

Luckily, the only thing that had eaten into our paltry funds was a one off camping fee….. We had enough in our pockets for a longed for beer from the microbrewery AND a few cheeky empanadas for the bus journey back to Calafate. Bring.It.On!!!

Money well spent .... Cheers!

Money well spent …. Cheers!