La Floresta, Uruguay

This month we are spending some time in a semi-deserted beach town on the Uruguayan coast. La Floresta is about 30 miles outside of Montevideo; we came by bus, which took about 90 minutes.

We found our house without a problem – it is situated in a neighborhood mostly consisting of vacation homes. The beach is just a few blocks away. Since we are here in April and May, the weather is turning chillier and most of the summer weekenders are gone. Many of the other homes are shuttered for the season. The last gasp of summer was May Day, which is a long weekend in Uruguay. Hundreds of extra people showed up and even the restaurants in downtown La Floresta were full.

20170513_135934

However, the rest of our stay has been beautifully quiet. Few cars drive by, the occasional dog parks, once a week landscapers show up to mow and clear branches. We usually only have to share the beach with one or two other people – if that.

I had never thought of Uruguay as a beach country, but the sands here are stunning. The water is now too chilly to tempt us to swim, but others are out in the waves fishing, kiteboarding, body boarding, or bobbing around, and I imagine that at the peak of summer it would be the perfect cool-down.

We try to go for beach walks each day, avoiding it only during storms. The sand goes for miles, coming upon a stream to deep to cross on foot is the limiting factor. Crushed shells decorate the high-water mark, but much of the sand is beautifully soft. We’ve found pretty shells, even an arrowhead in the sand. The sunsets are stunning, as are clouds hanging over the ocean. It is wonderful to feel like it is our own private beach and that we have it all to ourselves.

There are plenty of gulls, herons, and sandpipers fishing at water’s edge. A couple of days brought mid-afternoon beach spiders that seemed to be feeding right at the waterline. There were also a lot of webs floating in the air, possibly from spiders trying to balloon back to dry land after getting swept out to sea or from a mass hatching. Thousands of web strands were attached to seafront weeds and power lines. Not my favorite natural phenomena to date. Unless there is a stiff breeze, there can be mosquitoes in the evenings; even they like trips to the beach.

20170513_135902

Though humans largely leave La Floresta alone in winter, there is plenty of evidence it is popular and near seafront population centers. Garbage washes up continually, and is especially prominent after wind or rain. I’ve taken to picking up a bag full every few days, but it doesn’t make a dent. It has really made me think about how much must be in the oceans – I’ve read the numbers, but to see it each day is depressing and eye-opening.

Quite frankly, at this time of year there isn’t much else to do in town. On May Day/Day of the Worker weekend, the ice cream parlor and small bookshop opened up, and stands were selling empanadas near the waterfront. But normally, we are confined to two groceries, a pharmacy, and couple of kiosks. Walking around, there is so few cars that sidewalks are unnecessary. No crowds, no traffic. Everyone seems so relaxed. It reminds us of off-season tourist towns in the Midwest.

20170513_140127

We took one afternoon to walk all the way to Atlantida. Unfortunately the reason that spurred us to go was a hunt for parts for our washer (which is missing some of the plastic agitator panels inside the drum and shredding our clothes on the sharp corners that should have been covered). Atlantida has a larger permanent population and is more well-known as a beach town. Even during a weekday afternoon, snack stands in the parks were open. Their grocery is much larger and more well-stocked – they even had Nutella! Their beaches are more populated, and we don’t regret staying in an out-of-the way spot.

The temperatures have gone from low 70s to low 60s while we’ve been in town. We thought the onset of fall would knock the remainder of the mosquito population out. That turned out to be wrong on so many levels. Apparently there is a type of mosquito that enjoys coming out after rainy chilly weather, like we experienced after our first week here. One day, a few flew around when we were outside; the next day, clouds hovered around us all day long, unbothered by rain or wind or bug repellent. We still are waiting for the last of that bloom to vanish… and we are running out of bug spray!

We’ve gotten a lot of work done and have thoroughly enjoyed a respite from city living. Next month will be a change back to the mainstream city-centers of Europe; I’m sure we will miss the quiet beach.

 

Uruguayan Cuisine

So far, the southeastern side of South America is not a great foodie destination. Sure, if you are into grilling this might be close to heaven, but for most other flavors, there isn’t a lot to satiate the taste buds. Much like neighboring Argentina, meals are centered on meat and starch. In a country where there are many times more cattle than people, it isn’t surprising that beef seems to be the ingredient of choice. Heavy Italian and Spanish influences also brought over pizza, gelato, and lots of pastas. Wine is here too, though that industry is smaller and the choices a bit plainer due to the climate.

Since our arrival, we’ve eaten our way through more cuts of meat than I knew existed. They are almost universally tasty, and I’ve discovered that I really do like chorizo. Cooking on the parrilla (here it is pronounced ‘paireeSHa’ rather than ‘paireeYa’ – Rioplatense-accented Spanish is only mildly confusing for us) is an incredibly common way to prepare everything that once had legs or fins. A slatted metal grate off to the side of the fire ensures the meat cooks without burning to a crisp. Fancy restaurants and people tending open grills on the street all give equal respect to the deliciousness that ensues from this way of cooking. Some days it was hard to walk around without hunger pains because grills were going streetside, wafting the smells between the buildings.

We had birthdays this month, which gave us an excuse to head to Mercado del Puerto for a mixed parrilla for two. We wanted to sample a variety platter, and Cabana Veronica obliged. The building is home to at least a dozen parrilla restaurants, and the entire place smells wonderful. Open flames rise from grills all around and it is clearly a place where tourists and locals alike come to enjoy an afternoon with friends and family over food. The pile of tasty grilled beef and chicken arrived at our table after twenty minutes or so. We were also presented with a large bowl of salad – clearly it is like veggies served at steak restaurants – not really expected to be eaten. Quarters of chicken, two or three cuts of beef, chorizo, morcilla salado were all delicious. The only confusion for us was how to eat the sweetbreads. We tried one but clearly there is an aspect to them we didn’t understand; there was enough other meats to keep us occupied anyway, so we didn’t worry too much about it. Everything was grilled to perfection, and we left happy.

20170429_165711
Milanesas, chicken-stuffed pumpkin, asado, parrilla mixta.

My favorite discovery during this stay was morcilla salado – salty blood sausage. I’d never have guessed that I would find it tasty when we started into the parrilla mixta. Cooking it at home only made me more fond of it; it can go on toast with breakfast or with rice for dinner. It is salty with a smooth texture, which is why it can be a spread as well. Uruguay is also has a second popular kind of blood sausage – morcilla dulce – a sweetened version. Stuffed with grapes, orange peels, peanuts, almonds, membrillos (which are a bit like jello), it is not your average meat-in-a-tube. We baked some and it tasted like a mix between mulled wine and a gingerbread house. I don’t think I’ll be craving that one as often as the salty version, but it would fit in as a Christmas food.

Milanesas are another favorite local way to eat meat. Despite the hype, we discovered it is basically the same thing as chicken-fried steak. We favored the chicken over the steak version, but they clearly use better cuts of meat than school lunches from our childhood and the breading has a mix of mild spices inside. Another way to get rid of the ‘lesser’ cuts of meat is to bury them in a chivito sandwich – between cheese, tomato, lettuce, eggs, and possibly bacon. Locals claim these sandwiches are a huge mass of calories that will leave you stuffed. Either we went to a restaurant that served a light version or the huge portions we grew up around have warped our understanding of appropriate meal size. We each devoured one and the full serving of fries and could have eaten more (not that it would have been good for us). And if hand-held, travel-ready packets of food are called for, there are empanadas everywhere. We had Venezuelan style made with carne picada and carne machada in maize dough, but also more traditional Uruguayan ones with flour-based wraps. Stuffed bread never gets old for me!

To go with all this meat, we arrived just in time to explore the fall harvest. Squashes, eggplants, and pumpkins feature prominently in veggie dishes. Once all the difficult slicing and chopping is out of the way, they are great fried or baked. Kevin had even gotten good at stuffing them – baking a half in the oven and then filling it with chorizos or ground beef.

Like elsewhere in South America, there still isn’t much of a choice for yummy snacks or desserts. Prices for chips are much higher than in the US – think $3-4 dollars for a small 100 gram bag of chips. As a result, popcorn has been the cure for my crunch fix. The only chipish items I’ve found that are made locally are crunchy puffs, but they always taste stale and relatively flavorless.

20170429_165609
Snacks! I like the expectations set by the cheese plate image on the Ringo can – a high ideal it did not meet.

Since we were in Montevideo during the Easter season, we did get to enjoy the traditional decorated chocolate eggs. Ours was a mid-sized version, but some are larger than footballs and feature whole scenes of butterflies or swans. These are clearly meant to be the centerpiece for table on Easter. Other desserts are often fruit-, cookie-, or cake-based. Just like in Argentina, alfajors and dulce de leche are everywhere. I am always left hungry for more chocolate though. Expensive imitation Nutella will have to do for now…

20170429_165834
Layered dulce de leche cake, stuffed squash, empanadas, Easter egg

Mate is the national drink; it gives everyone a reason to go to the beach, a chance to relax with friends, and take a break in the afternoon. Every grocery store seems to spend more shelf space on mate than on anything else. All over town, we would see people carrying the hollowed-out gourd in the crook of one arm and a thermos of hot water on the other. There is a whole market for custom-made leather carriers and the special bombilla straws used to drink it. It is interesting in that it is strictly a do-it-yourself drink – no restaurant will put it on a menu, and the most you can ever hope to find in a market is the dried leaves or a vendor selling extra hot water. A large part of the mate experience is preparing it yourself, to just your specifications. The water must be brought to an almost-boil, the leaves added to the cup and shaken just so, sugar or no, the whole mix has to be kept still while allowed to steep, then the rest of the water is added. One batch of leaves can be refilled a dozen times, so it becomes a communal way to spend part of an afternoon. It is slightly bitter, and despite the filtering straw, I always end up with bits of the leaves in my teeth. Much better sugared down!

20170429_170129
Mate done right(ish), bombilla and all

Uruguay does produce a reasonable amount of local wine, growing it along the coast or on the opposite side of the country. The climate isn’t ideal – it is a little too humid and rainy. Tannat grapes favor these conditions but produce a plain wine. Other grapes like syrah and cabernet sauvignon are grown as well, but also taste fairly one-toned. The wines we favor here are aged in oak, adding some body and making a richer-tasting drink. Our favorites were Tannat Roble made by Traversa and a Marselan made by Bodega J. Chiappella. Thankfully wine is relatively cheap, so we don’t necessarily feel cheated out of more varied flavors.

20170429_170054
Favorite beer and wines from Uruguay

Of course, there is beer as well – perfect for beach drinking and the hot summers. But even mass-produced brands like Patricia, Pilsen, and Zillertal seemed pricey and tend toward mass-market watery taste. (Some of that payment sadness is us being ruined by incredibly cheap, delicious beer in Poland last year – they set a high bar and woe to all the countries that have come after.) One bright spot was a small handful of craft brews. A trigo beer called Barbara made by Cabesas Bier was my favrite un Uruguay. Kevin also enjoyed finding the first pumpkin/fall spice beer he’d seen that was made outside the US, also by Cabesas – clearly they have hit their brewing stride.

We didn’t come to Uruguay for the food, and that is probably a good thing. I did enjoy the chance to chow down on red meat before heading to other places where it is more expensive. And it was good to try to local wines and mate. But overall, the cuisine didn’t stand out to me (except for morcillas!). I am so looking forward to chocolate and peanut butter again…..

 

Montevideo, Uruguay

20170417_114822

Finally getting Kevin’s computer back after a month without it (shipping back and forth to other continents is no joke) turned Montevideo into more of a working stop that it was planned to be. Most of our days were spent around the house/neighborhood enjoying the quiet parts of the area. When we went out, we spent most of our time on La Rambla and walking around the city rather than checking out museums or big events.

My favorite part of the city is definitely the Rambla along the waterfront. The wide boardwalk connects beaches, restaurants, and parks along 14+ miles and basically serves as the city’s living room. People hang out, fish, drink A LOT of mate, roller skate, read, walk their dogs, picnic, watch the sunset. Across the road from Playa Ramirez is Parque Rodó, with carnival rides and churros, and (naturally, because they are some type of plague on the planet) a McDonald’s. The last week we were in town marathon training was in full swing for the upcoming event itself. Its close proximity to our apartment let us enjoy it for a while almost every day.

The rest of Montevideo feels equally relaxed. Though it is the capital, largest city, business center, and main port of Uruguay, a big part of the attraction to it is being able to relax, shop, and eat good food. The stress level here feels lower than anywhere else we’ve visited, or lived for that matter.

We didn’t even need to head to museums to enjoy local art. There are murals throughout the city and sometimes even hidden in residential neighborhoods. It competes for the best street art we’ve seen anywhere. There is a lot of graffiti as well, and that does sometimes detract from the surroundings.

20170417_115020
Even Adventure Time is represented!

Montevideo is a city of pop-up markets. We discovered one on Calle Salto, a ten minute walk from our house, that magically appears on Saturday mornings. Its main focus is on food. Trailers that resemble Airstreams let down their sides to reveal fish, meat, and cheese shops; veggie and fruit stands set up under tents; a few blocks at the end are for rummage-sale type tables of clothes and repainted furniture. Unlike farmer’s markets in Seattle, the food here tends to be cheaper than in the regular grocery stores, with a much fresher selection. The best part might have been the Venezuelan empanada stand – the carne machada and carne picada empanadas were fabulous and freshly fried.

On Sundays, the side of Parque Rodó furthest from the beach has a fashion market – it was strange being there in April and seeing the winter clothes get front billing because summer was ending. This one was smaller but just as crowded with shoppers.

20170417_201734
Markets everywhere!

On Sundays, the city’s largest market sets up in Centro. It takes over dozens of streets and their sidewalks. The main ‘entry’ is full of puppies for sale; to the left is an area where it’s possible to purchase everything you need for a master aquarium setup and the fish to go in it. Antiques, records, books, tools, food, spices, mate cups and bombillas, flowers, art, lamps, furniture. Some stands seem to be just an agglomeration of whatever people found in their grandmother’s attic, others are much more curated and specific. Where prices on new items are listed, they seem to be similar no matter which booth we visited. If they aren’t, bargain at will! Thousands of people wander through with their mates in hand looking for things they didn’t know they needed.

While it was rare to find English books at the street markets, some of the larger bookstores have English-language selections. War and Peace, it’s on! Like Buenos Aires, people love to read and bookshops are scattered throughout the city. Libreria Más Puro Verso in the Ciudad Vieja is the prettiest I’ve seen here. Two stories of books in a lobby with stained glass at the center of a curving staircase makes for good photographs and good browsing, especially with a cafe on the second floor near the windows so readers can choose between books and people watching.

20170417_123447
Books always win.

I think of all the cities we’ve visited in the past year+ of travel, the older neighborhoods here are among the most pleasant. Outside of the more cramped-feeling Ciudad Vieja (which built within in the limits of now-vanished city walls), the streets are wide, and tree-lined. Many neighborhoods have colorfully-painted older homes with beautiful wrought-iron bars and balconies. Coupled with the general flatness of the area, it makes the city seem Midwestern, especially now that it is autumn and the leaves are turning and falling. It is almost a daily occurrence to see people grilling over open wood fires in the street, with the whole neighborhood smelling like steak and chorizos.

Montevideo has a reputation as being the safest large city in South America. I don’t really doubt that this is true given all the stories of phone/purse/jewelry snatching we heard in Buenos Aires and the number of people both there and in Santiago that warned us of that possibility. So its mildly ironic that it was here that someone tried to snatch my purse. Unfortunately for him, he didn’t assess the situation all that well. It started as a fairly traditional scam that we’ve run into before: one person asked the time with the hope that we would pull out a cell phone and another guy could grab it and run. Instead, we simply said we didn’t know. Normally that is the end of it, but this time they let us get part way down the block and then one of the men ran after us. He thought my purse would either come off my shoulder (except that I was wearing it across my body) or that the strap would break (it did not) because he was already turning around to flee as he was grabbing onto it. Kevin had a bag with a bottle with it, and, at seeing me being pulled to the ground, took a swing with it. This was the last straw for the snatcher, and he took back off up the street. Thankfully there were no weapons involved, or we would have had to had it over. All told, it went as well as possible, and I still have all my stuff and now a slightly ripped purse.

Despite this isolated incident, Montevideo is a lovely city, and that could have happened anywhere. (Probably better here than in the US where I’d have feared a gun being pulled out.) Being in the city during Semana Santa let us enjoy the relaxed vibe even more as locals packed up and headed to the beaches. The weather has been perfect and the food has been amazing (more about that next time.)

 

Thirty Things I Learned Travelling Before Turning Thirty

For my 30th birthday, I thought it might be fun to look back at the last 365 days and what I’ve learned. It is incredible to realize that we’ve been on the road for more than 15 months, and just how much more there is to see!

1. I hate the way airlines board planes and love flying. Just like I hate check-in at airports but love waiting for the flight and wandering the concourse.

2. Morcilla – blood sausage common in South America – is delicious as long as you eat it hot before the texture gets more unbearable as it cools.

3. Chilean volcanos love to play hide-and-seek. They are massive but still vanish almost with it a trace into the clouds.

4. The library at Trinity College really looks like the pictures, no color enhancement needed.

20160626_120445
Trinity College Library in all its non-color-enhanced glory.

5. Finns on the ferry from Estonia all look like alcoholics. In their defense, they need to buy in bulk and take it with them when visiting their neighboring country… it’s a bargain compared to local prices.

6. Some brands are obnoxiously global like Coke and Colgate and shampoos. Dish soap, though, has a much higher localization rate.

7. Croatian and most Latin American beers are not to my taste. Too light, too beery. Poland, though, is so far the king of beer countries.

8. I am not impressed by beach resorts in Cancun. They are all carbon copies and a weird bubble unto themselves.

9. Antacids in South America are pricey. I guess the food is bland enough (at least on the eastern coast) that heartburn isn’t a problem.

10. I LOVE food-stuffed bread. Polish pierogies, empanadas, Estonian pastries, Hungarian langosh. GIVE ME ALL THE CARBS.

20170416_224626
Carbs = life.

11. Budapest is gorgeous. No wonder so many people told us we’d love it.

12. Eurovision should be a holiday in Europe. I will now base travel decisions around this show and feel no shame.

13. Sweet fruit wines from the Baltic regions deserve more credit. At least they have the common sense to know grapes won’t work there.

14. Torres del Paine is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Destroyed my legs for days and was worth all the pain and hours on buses to get to hike each day.

20170415_231100
Here are some photographs not doing justice to Torres del Paine.

15. Photographs do nothing justice (almost – see #4 for the exception proving the rule).

16. Both Anna Karenina and Middlemarch look intimidating but are brilliant reads.

20160830_181054

17. In Peru, everyone asks if you’ve gone to Macchu Pichu and looks at you like you are crazy if you say no. Ditto Iguazu Falls in Argentina.

18. The hardest part about travelling is the unpredictable selection of books. No, I’m not going to get an e-reader.

19. Purse snatching can happen anywhere. Having a sturdy purse might keep the strap from breaking and sometimes helps you keep your stuff. But that can be good or bad… depending on how much the robber has invested into getting your stuff away from you… I really can’t recommend what is better.

20. For every place we visit, at least 3 get added to the list.

21. Romania is way more interesting than I had realized before going there. I hope we can get back to see Cluj-Napoca and Timișoara.

22. Just about every country has money that is more colorful and pretty than US currency. Uruguay’s coins have animals. Chile’s is a rainbow of colors and makes you feel rich (that 650:1 exchange rate). Romania’s bills are plastic so you can even toss them into fountains for luck.

23. Szellemirtók is a great movie. Don’t be a hater.

20170415_230947
It’s a good movie. There was tasty popcorn.

24. Krakow, Poland and Montevideo, Uruguay are my two favorite cities for street art and murals.

25. I’m never too old to climb around fortresses and tunnels.

26. I might be at least partly Estonian?

20170415_230858
I ❤ Estonia.

27. High heat and humidity is a terrible combination, ergo I could not live full time on the Yucatan Peninsula. Likewise, year-round chilly days and especially windy winters are not to my liking. Sorry Punta Arenas, I won’t be moving to the far south of Patagonia permanently.

28. Travelling and living full time in some small spaces with another human, even one I’m as madly in love with as my hubby, can occasionally be trying. Especially when mosquitoes are fierce, the kitchen is under-supplied, not all the appliances function, and the sink drains don’t have a u-bend to keep smells in the sewer and out of the house. And it is absolutely worth every second.

29. Inca and the related civilizations of Peru have the best pottery.  THE BEST.

20170416_224909
Surprise garbage can guy is my favorite. I relate.

30. Sometimes the mystery wine bottle is full of tasty alcohol. Sometimes it is terrible awfulness that gets dumped right down the drain. The only way to know is to try it.

 

Punta Arenas – Part 2

Since Punta Arenas is a town where visitors usually spend a few days, it doesn’t have the tourist focal points a larger city would. We managed to enjoy our entire month, even though you can feasibly see the entire city in a day or two. There is no real tying this post into any semblance of a narrative, it is just a miscellaneous collection of the little things we did around the area.

On recommendations by Chileans we met in Santiago, we visited the municipal cemetery, the Cementerio Sara Braun. Some travel publications list it as one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the world. Tradition dictates that Sara Braun donated the land but on the condition she would be the last one to enter the main gate. Even today, the main doors are shuttered and people use an entrance to the side. There are large mausoleums and outdoor columbariums, and many rows have massive, well-trimmed evergreens. Families seem to spend a lot of time there, keeping graves clear and reminiscing. Since the environment is so harsh, many flowers are fake, but even those are kept fresh and brightly colored. The overall effect is to make it seem less dreary than most cemeteries I’ve been through.

20170309_104021.jpg
Sara Braun Municipal Cemetery

Many days we walked along the waterfront to enjoy views across the Strait of Magellan and to look for whales and dolphins. Many of the buildings are covered in murals celebrating the seafaring and industrial history of the area. Stray dogs also hang out on the boardwalk. Some seem intent on adopting any family that walks by – one particularly stubborn one followed us for more than half an hour, until he was distracted by another group eating lunch. Apparently the food made them the better option. The largest monument is to Magellan and others along the shore commemorate shipwrecks.

20170324_214643.jpg
Mural and mirador

Austral claims to be the southernmost brewery, but I think the Cerveceria Artesanal Hernando de Magallanes might be winning that title by a foot or two. We first noticed it when we were walking around on our cruise-stop day in town, but it was closed on that Sunday. They have a small operation – their fresh-tasting beers are all hand-bottled. I liked their barley wine the most, but when we stopped in a second time, it was already sold out. Next time we know to stop back in sooner…

20170324_214912.jpg
An even more local beer than Austral, San Pedro – patron saint of fishermen – at the Mercado, monument to Magellan

We happened to be in Punta Arenas for the February 26, 2017 solar eclipse. While it was a total eclipse farther to the north, we still managed to see the sun about 70% covered at the peak. Since we didn’t have welding goggles, we projected the eclipse onto the ground though a pinhole in a piece of cardboard. But, since Patagonia is famous for quickly changing weather, clouds soon covered the sun (we were lucky the sun was out at all). Amazingly, the clouds were just dense enough that we could watch the eclipse though them without needing thick glasses and still see the moon crossing the sun’s face. The entire event lasted a couple of hours. For having almost no advance warning – we only learned it was occurring the day before – we were thrilled to witness it. This is doubly true since we will probably miss the total eclipse that will be crossing the US in August.

20170226_105819.jpg
Feb. 26, 2017 – Annular solar eclipse

Punta Arenas was the nearest we’ve come to winter in more than a year. Temperatures in the 40s are about as close as I like to actual cold, especially with the severe winds that Patagonia can produce. Now that we’ve moved on to Uruguay, I have to say that 75-80 is much more enjoyable for me.

Torres del Paine – Los Cuernos

Waking up the day after the Torres Mirador hike was a new lesson in leg soreness. Our rental apartment’s bedroom was on the second floor, and I made sure I only had to go down the stairs once. I don’t even want to think about the multiple minutes it took to get to the first floor. My knees seemed as though they were discovering  their ability to bend for the first time. Clearly, they were not excited by that prospect.

Once again, we made sure we had our our layers, snacks, and the makings of lunch sandwiches, and were out the door before 7 a.m. The bus ride was gorgeous again, watching the sun rise over nearby mountains, the driver honking to shoo herds of guanacos off the roadway. At Laguna Amarga, we showed our stamped tickets from the day before and headed back to the bus. This time we were headed to the last stop at Pudeto, about another half an hour beyond the entrance. After a short wait, we were joined by many of the other passengers, most of whom were heading to the ferry and longer hikes.

20170324_154601.jpg
The most majestic guanaco  – presumably king of all he sees

Our bus arrived at Pudeto just after 10, and we breakfasted at one of the picnic tables behind the cafeteria. Once again, the sun was warm and we had over-layered in anticipation of bad weather. A couple we had seen the previous day joined us as we were finishing and were impressed we had done the entire Torres hike in a day with two bus rides thrown in. They were smart enough to have at least one knee brace, however. We settled for ibuprofen.

The Cuernos Mirador trailhead begins a few hundred feet up the road from Pudeto, which is thankfully a smooth slope. We picked this trail to do after the Torres Mirador because it was much shorter and much flatter. We also wouldn’t have to rush to make it back for the 6:30 bus pickup so we’d be able to spend more time enjoying the vistas.

20170324_115805.jpg
Wind warning, the Salto Grande, and the Condor and Cuernos peaks

This trail begins as a flat walk to the Salto Grande waterfall. The falls crash into a small, dark-walled canyon with smaller torrents above and below. Like many places around Torres del Paine, the canyon walls reveal a small section of the rock layers that help form the park’s geology. These layers are made up of stone of various hardnesses, so they often wear unevenly. In some spots, this means that fins of rock arc up from their surroundings and create formation that almost look like manmade fences. Just beyond the waterfall is a viewpoint of the Condor and Cuernos mountains where many day-tours stop.

But the trail continues and so did we. By now, our legs had warmed up to the idea of some more walking and hurt less. The next section of the path took us gently around and through areas of forest that had been burned over in human-started forest fires. While many of the trees in this area are still standing, their bare branches eerily reach toward the sky as if in supplication. This area perfectly illustrates the reason the park is so strict about camp fires and stoves – the wind can pick up in seconds and the flames can be out of control in moments. As far as I know, all the recent fires have been caused by tourists. Fines have been increased and enforcement is strict.

20170317_152350.jpg
The Condor and burned-over forest

Down past a lake and up over the final ridge, and we were at the Mirador. There were a handful of people snacking on the rocks, but this trail sees much less use than the Torres does. We settled in and ate our lunch, chatted, took pictures, soaked in the views. Echoing across the lake, occasional glacial crashes could be heard. We saw one small section collapse and side down a rock face – what must have been hundreds of feet but looked small across the distance.

Patience paid off and eventually we were the only ones at the look out. Without other voices and low wind, we could hear the ice and rocks grinding almost continuously. We could watch wind push sparkly waves across the lake at our feet. It was absolutely enchanting. Every direction you can look from this point is beautiful.

20170317_122022.jpg
The Condor stretching its snowy wings across the mountain peaks

Again, the wind picked up suddenly in the afternoon, this time about 3 p.m. Signs at the beginning of the trail warn that gusts can reach dangerous levels quickly and so we donned our jackets and started back. As we walked, the breeze only got stronger, confirming our decision. By the time we reached the waterfall viewpoints, there were moments where it was difficult for me to walk when the gusts swept in just right. Not quite Iceland bad, since we could still breathe facing into the wind, but gaining strength. The spray from the falls was now reaching up and over the viewpoint and it seemed wisest to head back to the cafeteria.

20170317_143701.jpg
The Cuernos (Horns)

We spent the last couple of hours before our bus arrived sipping beer and warm coffee in the cozy cafeteria building and watching clouds being pushed over the distant mountains. After an hour or so, the ferry arrived and we were joined by dozens of others.

While we didn’t get to see the iconic glaciers or trek the ‘W’ or ‘O,’ we at least got a decent taste of Torres del Paine. It really is one of the most spectacular places in the world. The two days partially filled our hiking meter, but left us craving hikes in the Pacific Northwest. We’ll have a lot of trail miles to make up for when we return, though I am so happy to have seen and hiked in one of Chile’s most iconic landscapes.

20170317_164053.jpg
View from the Pudeto cafeteria

In case anyone wants to day hike from Puerto Natales, there are several bus companies that make daily trips to Torres del Paine. We used Bus Sur because they let us buy tickets in advance online (though if you buy in person at the terminal, you can get a discount on round-trip tickets). Other companies like Juan Ojeda, Maria Jose, and Bus Gomez also make the trip. As a general rule, buses leave Rodoviario Terminal in Puerto Natales between 7 and 8 a.m. in the morning and arrive at various points in the park between 9 and 11. For day hikers, the returning evening buses leave between 6:30 and 7:45 p.m. and arrive in Puerto Natales between 9 and 10 at night. It makes for a very long day, but there are several hikes that can be done in that time.

If we opted to do the Torres hike again, I’d go on the same 7 a.m. Bus Sur trip since it is the first one to arrive and that saves time waiting in line during the registration process. But I’d consider taking a later return on a different line in order to have more time at the Mirador. After all, it is a shame to hike all that way and turn right around again. And that also gives more time for the shuttle to show up and get back to Laguna Amarga.

(Also if you happen to be at Rodoviario Terminal and the small bakery/minimart across the street is open – get their torte de calafate. The berries on top look like blueberries but are more seedy and bitter. It is an absolutely delicious dessert!)

 

 

Torres del Paine – Las Torres Mirador

Our stay to Punta Arenas was not going to be complete without a trip to Torres del Paine National Park. While it is possible to take a day-tour from PA, we didn’t just want to spend most of the day on a bus and only a couple hours in the park. We opted instead to find a cheap Airbnb and head to Puerto Natales for a couple of days. Due to a hassle getting a computer shipped to and from the US for repairs, we had to delay seeing the park until the very end of our time in Patagonia. But somehow we lucked out – ending up with the apartment we had been eyeing after another guest canceled and great weather for our hikes.

20170324_120015.jpg

Puerto Natales is about three hours by bus from Punta Arenas – and the entire drive is scenic. We passed thousands of grazing sheep, guanacos, and rheas, and saw wild flamingos for the first time. After arriving, we took in the town’s waterfront, which provided tempting views of the mountains we’d be visiting. A short stop at Unimarc set us up with groceries and snacks for the hike. We tried and failed to get to bed early even though we knew we’d need to be up by 6 a.m. for the two-hour bus ride to Torres del Paine itself.

20170324_115358.jpg
Thankfully reachable by bus – the Laguna Amarga entrance station

At the Laguna Amarga entrance, everyone got off the bus to register, pay the entry fee, and watch a safety video (NO fires, stay on trail, pack out all garbage). We also needed to get our tickets stamped so we could use them to reenter the following day. From there we hopped into a van acting as a hotel and campground shuttle. The gravel roads in the park are in fairly good condition, but the vans and buses still take the corners frightfully fast, especially when you are stuffed in with everyone’s camping gear and the pile is threatening to tip over with every turn.

After the short ride, we were left off in front of a cafeteria about a 10-minute walk from the Hotel Las Torres, where the Torres Mirador trail begins. Even walking up the last portion of the road, the view is stunning. It is hard to take a bad photograph; it is also hard to capture the vastness of the landscape.

20170316_100732.jpg

The trail begins innocently, taking hikers through some flat ground where giant hares keep the grass trimmed and where we saw a fox slinking around the bushes. After crossing the stream for the first time, the path starts gently upward. The first portion has a lot of small gravel and larger stones that are easier to walk up than side down. Many people had hiking poles, and that would have been a good idea, especially later in the day after our muscles started to burn. We also quickly realized that much of the path between the Hotel and the El Chileno refugio, about halfway up, is shared with horses. They are used to transport supplies and tired hikers up and down the trail, but also tend to use the path as a bathroom… Our limited packing space means I did the trail in cloth running shoes, so it was extra important for me to pay attention to where I stepped.

20170324_115506.jpg
Trail running along the river, a crested caracara at El Chileno refugio, one of many bridges

Despite it being fall, the weather was warm and we found ourselves shedding layers fairly quickly. Fortunately, we climbed into some trees and had shade to protect us from the sun. In Patagonia, the sun is always strong, even in a cool wind. We were glad for sunscreen and bugspray, since the nice day brought out the last of the mosquitoes as well. The first few miles of trail gain elevation and then lose it as the trail approaches El Chileno. Views of the surrounding peaks only confirm that every step downward means one more upward later. As we dropped beside the river, the forest surrounded the path. Moss-covered trees reminded up of the Pacific Northwest and this stretch was one of our favorites parts of the hike.

20170324_115601.jpg
Looking up the boulder field, the forest

Going up through the trees, we eventually came out along the boulder field that makes up the last kilometer of the climb. The sign warns it takes about 45 minutes to make it to the top – we took 40 and moved at a fast pace to fit our bus schedule. Here, sections of the trail are essentially stream bed – we climbed over wet rocks slippery with dust and mud. This single kilometer packs in about a thousand feet of upward gain. It is possibly the steepest section of trail we’ve ever gone up. It was especially crowded with people, and in some spots there isn’t much room, so stopping and pausing while others passed by headed the other direction was common.

And then, finally, after more than three and a half hours of hiking, the Torres themselves. They are spectacular, made more so by the turquoise-sunset blue waters at their base. Even with dozens of other groups eating lunches, it doesn’t feel crowded. The granite towers rise almost vertically out of the surrounding rocks – other nearby mountains are being worn down and might someday reveal other spires. The scenery leaves no doubt why this is one of the world’s best known hikes and one of Chile’s top destinations. Superlatives don’t cover it, and pictures don’t come close to doing it justice.

20170316_134432.jpg
Las Torres

Of course, only having nine hours from the time the bus dropped us off to when we expected to be picked up again meant that we only had about 15 minutes at the top. Our timing was fortuitous, however. After we’d been up there about 10 minutes, the wind started out of nowhere. I went from not needing a jacket to layering back up instantly. Clouds that had hung over distant peaks began to cover the sun. Standing up again after a quick granola bar, our legs were already tired and we still had almost 6 miles left to go. (No wonder you can order horses to take you back from El Chileno!).

Having not done much mountain hiking in the last year and half, we were out of practice. Scrambling down the boulder field, I shamelessly used by hands to steady myself and lower myself over taller rocks (my legs are not really that long). Once we got into the woods, it was easier and the trail mostly clear of rocks and roots. Going down and back up out of the river basin was the final straw for my knees, though. The last downward portion of the trail that takes you from forest back to the more open scrubland was slow and painful. So what I looked a little penguiny for the last rocky kilometer or so, I finished the hike and reminded myself that others who were in better shape are some of the best hikers in the world.

20170316_172125.jpg
Hotel Las Torres

We were faster than our 8-hour limit and had time for a beer from the kiosk at the trailhead before walking the last (mercifully flat) stretch to meet the shuttle. The bus back to Laguna Amarga was supposed to arrive just after 6 p.m., giving us about an hour before the 7 p.m. bus back to Puerto Natales.

That time came and went, as did 6:30 and 6:45. I started to get a bit panicky – as did several others who were waiting. The shuttle was called for a couple of times and finally arrived just before 7. Fortunately for us, most of the passengers were also supposed to be on our bus back to PN, so it was held for us at the Laguna Amarga entrance. It ended up leaving more than half an hour late. If we’d have known, we could have had a lot longer at the top or taken it easier coming down. Still, was thankful to have made the bus and not have to worry about getting seats on a later departure.

Back in Puerto Natales, we had just a few minutes to spare before Unimarc closed for the evening. We came away with a meal of as many empanadas as we could eat. The short walk back to our house made us grateful for the wine that was waiting. I’ve never had my tendons and muscles seize up so fast after a hike. I hadn’t looked at the mileage or the elevation gain beforehand, and we now discovered we’d gone nearly 12 miles with 3,000 feet of elevation gain (and then loss). I’d guessed it was more like 8 or 10 miles and 2,000 feet. At least I’d earned all the aches. Of course, we’d be up early the next day to do another hike – but at least we’d planned for a shorter one to follow our first-day adventure.