Thursday, March 20, 2014

South America in Review (May 3rd - December 9th, 2013)

It was truly a great seven months and a bit. In retrospective, more than three months later, it feels like it was ages ago, and I sometimes wonder if I just dreamt it. However, now that I was processing some data in order to summarize the journey, I could grasp at some hard facts and can be fairly sure that it was not just a wonderful dream.

Planning + weather
We did not plan very much for the trip. We mainly focused on getting proper vaccination, learning Spanish, and acquiring some additional equipment.  Also, a friend of mine who had been on a similar trip before sent me a great Excel table summarizing the weather patterns in various parts of South America during different months. Based on this we created a master plan: spend dry season (June to September) in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and perhaps Columbia, and then head down and hope that Patagonia would be OK in the late spring (November and beginning of December). This worked out really well: in total we had maximally 15 rainy days during the whole trip. The only thing we regret a bit was that we did not have enough time to visit neither Ecuador or Columbia, as we stayed too long in Bolivia, but we regret it only a bit as Bolivia was our favorite country.

During our travels we relied mainly on e-book versions of Lonely Planet, which worked much better than Rough Guides on Kindle. Generally, we rarely planned more than a couple of days ahead.

In total we visited six countries in South America. The longest time - 76.5 days - we spent in Bolivia, our favorite country. We liked the huge variety of things Bolivia had to offer - great mountains, the jungle and generally spectacular nature. We would have probably liked it even more if we hadn't been sick with various stomach problems for approx. 14 days.

In Peru we stayed for fifty and a half days. As we arrived there from Bolivia we were quite shocked about how touristy this country was, but nonetheless it had some great of things to offer. Of course we visited the typical attractions such as Machu Picchu, Cusco, Nazca, Arequipa and Puno, but we also had a wonderful time in Huaraz, which became my favorite Peruvian city.

The third largest amount of time we spent in Chile (43 days), in part due to the two-week Spanish language course we took in Valparaíso. Chile was quite well-organized and we found it similar to Europe (including the prices). We later discovered that many people are first exposed to the continent in Chile, and for this reason, it is sometimes called South America for beginners.

We spent a total of 40 days in our second favorite country, Argentina. The delicious food and wine in combination with the wonderful nature made a everlasting impression on us. We liked Argentina so much that towards the end of our trip we decided to visit it again and spent two days on going to Ushuaia and back. Argentina was generally quite expensive, but because of the blue rate, we could enjoy it to the maximum. 

In Brazil we mainly visited two cities - Sao Paulo and Rio de Janiero - and the Iguazu waterfalls, which we really enjoyed. In total we actually spent only 9 days in Brazil, which was good for our budget, as Brazil was expensive. As we regrettably could not speak Portuguese, we sometimes did not feel as comfortable there as in Spanish-speaking countries.

Last we should mention the two days spent in Uruguay, where we went, among other reasons, to get more U.S. Dollars to finance our stay in Argentina.

We stayed for more than one third of our trip in Bolivia!

We thus recommend that if you feel adventurous and speak at least some Spanish, go to Bolivia. You will love it! If you're not so comfortable with Spanish and rather enjoy comfort, great food and wine, go to Argentina, and you will love it too.

Sweet dreams in South America
When departing for our trip I was hoping that we would spend about one half of the time in the mountains. Due to the lack of huts we knew we would have to camp, and for this reason we carried a tent and other camping equipment with us all the time. After returning to Europe and counting how many nights we actually used it, I am not 100% sure that it was an optimal decision. On the other hand, our equipment was reliable and we never had a major issue with it compared to people that just rented theirs.

In total we spent 223 nights in South America or on our way there and back. Out of this, we spent 173 nights in various hotels or hostels. In Bolivia, we almost never booked on-line, but rather just arrived at a town or village, took a look around and nearly always managed to find a decent place to stay. In Peru we booked in advance only sometimes, that is, when we knew we'd be arriving late in the evening or if the place was very touristy. In the other countries such as Brazil, Argentina and Chile we almost always booked a room. However, after our experience in Valparaíso, we usually booked for just the first night and only if the place was indeed nice, we prolonged for more days directly with the owner.

We used our tent on only twenty nights. As mentioned above, it was not nearly as much as I had expected, but frankly, these were my favorite nights. We spent another eighteen on a bus. Not our absolute favorite way to spend the night, but the full bed (cama) buses were quite comfortable and travelling this way saved us a lot of time. Therefore, if I could choose between a 10-hour overnight bus ride vs. a 6-hour ride during the day, I would choose the overnight one.

For seven nights we were not in control of where we would be sleeping as we were taking part in some tour, and the accommodation was organized for us. This category includes three great trips we did in Bolivia - Salar de Uyuni and Pampa and Selva tour in Rurrenabaque - and the not-so-spectacular tour to Amantani island on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca.

We spent another three nights on the intercontinental flights to/from South America. Finally, the two coolest / most adventurous nights that we decided to categorize as "other". What are they? The first one was an empty classroom with an unlocked door in Maragua's school, where we spent our first night during the hike in Cordillera de los Frailes. The second one was the engineering / billiards room of the Chaca Pampa hydroelectric power station, where we were allowed to stay after we arrived in the village at quite a late hour from our Condoriri trip.

More than three quarters of the nights we slept in hotels/hostels

Money, Money, Money
For keeping an eye on our expenses, we originally thought that it would be sufficient to keep track of ATM withdrawals. We then realized that it would be nice to have a better overview of what we were spending our money on, and thus started using Toshl to track our expenses in more detail. Therefore we have a really good overview of our expenses starting July 25th, 2013. I tried to interpolate the missing data to provide you with as accurate information as possible, and I estimate the error to be maximally 2%.

Everywhere except Argentina we just used our debit card to get money from an ATM. In Argentina we got pesos in exchange for U.S. Dollars, which we either withdrew in Uruguay or exchanged using Brazilian reals that we retrieved in Rio de Janiero. Thanks to all this hassle and the blue rate we managed to get 12 Argentinian pesos per 1 EUR, even though the official rate was a bit over 8 pesos. All prices for Argentina are therefore calculated using this blue rate.

The numbers presented here take into account the expenses for both of us.

This graph also includes gifts and things we planned to use after the trip

Our biggest category was transportation, which totaled to 6143 EUR. Out of this we spent 2250 EUR for tickets from Europe to Santiago de Chile and back. We bought these tickets just one month before our departure as we did not know much in advance how much time Laura would need to graduate. Additionally, we took four flights within South America, which account for 1108 EUR. The rest we spent on buses, taxis, collectivos, etc.

The second biggest expense was food with 3543 EUR. This includes both eating out in various restaurants and groceries. Honestly, we ate out almost every single day when not camping. Usually we ate in quite ordinary or cheap places, but at least once per week we went out to a nice lunch or dinner to try some local specialities.

The next category is accommodation. We spent 2650 EUR on hostels and hotels. We usually went to the cheapest reasonable place. Our normal budget for accommodation was 20 EUR per night for both of us, which was easy to achieve in Bolivia, but more tricky in the other countries.

We spent 2173 EUR on entertainment. This includes some multi-day tours and various entrance fees.

The other categories are much smaller. "Shopping Longterm", on which we spent 693 EUR, includes things we were planning to keep. Some more details for this are described in the section below. Shopping Temporary, with its 460 EUR, included mainly personal hygiene products and some other minor items such as gas for camping, maps, etc. The gifts category, with its 120 EUR, may seem small compared to all the other expenses, but we were more limited by what could fit in our backpacks than with money. The category "other" (456 EUR) consists primarily of various services such as haircuts. The two-week Spanish course we took in Valparaíso cost 622 EUR and it is the only item in the Education category.

Last but not least is a category we call "Trip Preparation" (1209 EUR), which includes, among other things, various vaccinations, travel medicines and the insurance for the trip. The Spanish lessons we took before departing to South America should actually also be included here, but we do not have the exact numbers for them any more.

Thus, in total this great trip cost 18070 EUR. If we subtract Gifts and Shopping Longterm, the direct costs would be 17256 EUR, meaning an average cost of 39 EUR per person per day, which includes all flights and trip preparations.

The cheapest country by far was Bolivia, where we spent on average 21.9 EUR per person per day. In stark contrast, we spent almost double of that - 43.6 EUR - per person per day in the most expensive country, Brazil. See graph bellow for more information.

*Chile includes Spanish course in Valparaíso as we had less Entertainment and Transportation expenses during the time of the course

All these numbers are summarized for each country and category in a Google spreadsheet.

Items bought, lost and stolen
Some people consider South America to be quite a dangerous continent. Indeed it is not as safe as most places in Europe, but with some precautions (and probably some luck), we managed to stay safe, and didn't even need to depart with many of our belongings unwillingly.

However, we had to involuntarily say good-bye to the following things:
  • An old HTC Desire - stolen in the Santiago metro one hour after our arrival in South America. This was a good lesson that we indeed need to be careful.
  • 69 EUR - through a trick that the (German) company Elumbus pulled on us
  • Laura's USB stick - probably stolen from her backpack on the way to Humahuaca in Argentina
  • Radek's Petzl headlamp and camera charger - stolen from the top of Radek's bag either in a hostel in Buenos Aires or on the bus to Bariloche
  • Shampoo - left in Punta Arenas hostel bathroom in the evening and was never to be seen again
We were quite surprised that these things were stolen in the rather wealthier countries (Chile and Argentina). In contrast, nothing was ever stolen from us in Bolivia nor Peru.

More often, we were just stupid and left our things somewhere and it was not worth or possible to go back for them. Like this we lost Radek's swimming suit, Laura's inner glove and sunglasses and two towels. Additionally, Radek's scarf and sunglasses were blown away by wind during the last-but-one day of the Torres del Paine circuit. And probably most often, wear and tear meant that some things were no longer worth carrying and we just donated them or threw them away.

Later on the road we realized that we really needed some things that we hadn't brought from Europe, so we just bought them. Among these were three 32GB USB sticks, which we used for running Linux. One of them was stolen in Argentina. Also, a light down jacket that I bought for 500 BOB is still my favourite souvenir from the trip. Except that we mainly bought replacements for the things we lost or had thrown away.

As mentioned in the sweet dreams section, we took a full set of camping gear with us. To be honest, we were not completely happy with our tent (Jurek Alp 2). The nice thing about it was that it was not too heavy and it protected us well from the weather elements. The main problem was the ventilation: I do not know exactly why, but in Bolivia and Peru, where we were camping at quite high altitudes, we almost always spent an hour or two drying the tent in the mornings before packing it. We were constantly the last people to leave the camp site. To our surprise, we did not have the same problem in Patagonia. Perhaps this was because it was much windier there or because the latitude and altitude were more similar to that of Czech Republic.

For the sleeping bag, I took my Sir Joseph Loop 1200, which is small, light and very warm. The only issue with it was its price and the risk that it would be stolen together with the whole backpack. As Laura didn't have a warm sleeping bag prior to this trip, we bought her a Bivak 3D from Prima. This is a relatively cheap, synthetic, very warm but quite bulky sleeping bag that occupied almost half of her backpack. Both sleeping bags were quite something to carry, but on many occasions we were the only people who were not freezing during the night.

For cooking we used the Czech classic - Var 2. It was reliable and performed well everywhere during the trip: we just needed to protect it well from the wind. The Steripen Adventurer Opti, used for sterilizing water, saved us a lot of time that we would have otherwise spent on boiling water. The only issue we had with it were its atypical and rather expensive batteries. We spent almost three hours trying to get a couple of them in La Paz.

We did not know in advance how often would we be hiking alone, so we bought a Spot satellite messenger because we expected the cellphone reception to be close to zero in the mountains. Fortunately, we never needed to use it for emergencies. However, we did use it quite regularly to send our position to our parents when we were camping. To do this, we had to always find a place with an unobstructed view of the sky.  We typically sent three consecutive messages, but just one or two made it through, and when we were in a valley or a canyon, in about 50% of the cases, none of the three messages were delivered. We are now planning to sell this device, so feel free to contact us if you still want to buy it after reading this :-)

From electronics we did not bring a laptop, but honestly, I missed having one quite a lot. We had a Nexus 7, which was great for OpenStreetMaps, checking e-mails, etc, but using it for writing this blog or dealing with pictures was just impossible. For these activities, we mainly relied on Internet cafés. In Peru and Bolivia there were plenty of them and the majority had decent computers (LCD screen, 2GB RAM, ...), likely because many people did not have their own computer at home (the Internet cafés were often full, mainly with kids playing games). I installed Lubuntu 12.04 32bit with a non-PAE kernel and an encrypted home partition on our 32 GB USB sticks and we managed to use them in almost all Internet cafés. Only once BIOS was password-protected and a couple of other times Lubuntu did not to start, probably due to an unsupported graphic card. A few times I had to configure the IP address manually, but usually DHCP did the job. It was just important to make sure that the café operator did not come and restart the computer because it appeared off-line in their monitoring system. In Chile and Argentina, finding a good Internet café was more challenging, but a couple of times there was an old, but working desktop PC in our hostel. We used our USB sticks mainly for writing the blogs and processing the pictures. I was regularly backing up our photos to a friend's virtual server using rsync. Internet in Peru and especially in Bolivia was often so slow that I was more than a month late with the backups. Especially for this purpose having our own laptop would have been great, as then I could have kept backing up the photos overnight.

Additionally, Laura had a kindle, which was just great as she read more than 50 books that year. We also had my old Panasonic camera DMC-TZ5 with us, and it was rather sickly by the end of the trip. The screen had had two black spots already earlier, and these got larger every month, filling about 20% of the screen towards the end. In September, the camera stopped showing colors, and during the last month before returning to Europe, the display just went crazy. It is still taking good pictures, but relying on the display is tough.

We carried all these things in two backpacks. I took the old 65l bag that belonged to my brother, because it had a lot of pockets, which was great for organizing things. Also, the bag looked quite cheap, which we thought would be good for the trip. Laura used her 60l Deuter bag as it fits her back perfectly. Thinking back, it would have been good to have some anti-theft covers for the backpacks; we only had our rain covers.

Some more interesting facts
I would like to say good-bye using the words of the song that went through my head when reaching the end of Pan-Americana in Ushuaia: “This is the end, beautiful friend”. As we are now both back in Europe and working, this will probably be the last post on this blog for a while. We hope you enjoyed reading it and feel free to ask us some questions if you are planning a similar adventure.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Coming back (December 8th - 11th, 2013)

In total we needed to take five flights, some trains, a couple of buses and metros to come back home, but we managed and are safely back.

December 8th - Punta Arenas to Santiago de Chile
Our first flight was from Punta Arenas to Santiago de Chile. We had a short stopover in Puerto Montt, but did not even have to leave the plane.

In the Santiago metro we were much more careful than the previous time we'd been in the city and managed to get to our hostel without anything being stolen from us. We stayed in the same hostel, and to our surprise even in the same room as we had more than seven months ago.

December 9th - Santiago de Chile
We planned to visit Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino as we were promised that it would for sure be re-opened in December. "For sure" has a bit of a different meaning in South America, but it was not far off either: the new opening date was January 10th. Upon learning this, we just wandered around town and had lunch at the market just like the last time. We decided to take Tour4tips through Santiago Downtown, as we we'd been really happy with their walking tour in other parts of the city and in Valparaiso. It was incredibly hot (above 35° C), but the tour was a lot of fun and completely worth it! In the evening, we returned back to the airport to take an overnight flight to New York.

Presidential palace in Santiago

Adios South America

December 10th - New York
We landed an hour later than planned. To our surprise, our luggage was not transferred and we had to pick it up and go through security. That was quite straightforward. However, after security we were told that we can not deposit the luggage immediately, but rather have to bring it to an Iberia counter at a different terminal. Once there, we were told that the counter would open only in the afternoon and baggage storage is only in yet another terminal. We did not want to waste any more time and decided to take our large backpacks with us to town.

The weather in NY was in stark contrast with sunny Santiago: it was about zero degrees and snowing, with close to no visibility. We had a kind of a plan to follow, and managed it despite the weather. The first stop was at Best Buy, where we bought a new computer for Laura and a new camera for me, as our old ones were really ready for their retirement. The next stop was at REI where we managed to replace our lost sunglasses and stolen head lamp. It was Laura's first time to REI and now she understands why I would love to have something similar in Europe.

In REI, we met Charlie, a wonderful Brookliner who helped us a bit with the New York metro, so we found a fast way to JFK Airport without paying much for the Long Island Rail Road.

December 11th - Arrival
The next flight was quite long, but everything went smoothly: we changed flights in Madrid and arrived in Vienna on time and without problems. We then took an S-Bahn to Wien Meidling and from there a EuroCity train to Česká Třebová, where my parents picked us up and drove us home.

All's well that ends well. We made it home safely, but this is not our last article about South America. I still have a lot of data to process, and am planning to present the most interesting bits of it here.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Punta Arenas (November 30th - December 8th, 2013)

After our breathtaking hike in Torres de Paine, we still had more than a week until our planned return to Europe. We had booked a flight for the 8th of December that would take us from Punta Arenas to Santiago de Chile, and from there we were to continue onwards. We read about a national park and some other places we could visit near Punta Arenas, and thought that we would have no problems spending the last days of our trip in the area. Thus, we took a bus to Punta Arenas already on November 30th.

It took us a while to reserve a room for the night: the majority of the places were booked out. This was a bit surprising, since we hadn't had many problems booking a room anywhere else in South America. When we inquired about the reasons, we were told that many Argentinians go to Punta Arenas on weekends throughout the year because of the large duty free zone there, and it was just a couple of weeks till Christmas, so there were even more shoppers in town.

After we had settled in at the hostel, we headed to the tourist information office: we wanted some more info on the places we had read about. Additionally, we needed to find a new place for the next night, as our hostel was already booked out for then. The lady at the office was very nice: she reserved a room for us, told us how to get around town and to the nearby hills, and to go and see some penguins. She explained that whale watching in the area is very expensive and also that it would probably not be worth going to the Pali Aike National Park, because it's quite far and perhaps not worth the effort. Thus, of our many ideas about what to do in the area, only a few still seemed doable. We realized that spending more than a week in Punta Arenas is not so sensible after all. However, we still managed to do a couple of things in the area.

A statue of Bernardo O'Higgins, one of the founding fathers of Chile, in Punta Arenas

A view to the sea from Punta Arenas

We decided to first visit the Seno Otway penguin reserve. In the morning, a bus picked us up at the hostel and took us to the reserve, where we were told that we can walk around for about 90 minutes. It was very windy and cold, and I really wished I had taken more clothes with me. Radek was very kind and lent me his wind jacket, which helped a lot, but I still felt rather cold after some time walking. It was completely worth it, though: the penguins were amazingly cute! About ten thousand Magellanic penguins gather in the Seno Otway Sound each summer to breed, and we saw several hundred of them. There were especially many at the beach, but we also saw some further inland, walking from their nests towards the beach or back. A couple of daring ones even got quite close to us!

Walking to the beach

There were many penguins at the shore, ready to dive in and have a meal

These guys are heading back to their nests

Absolutely adorable!

Once back in Punta Arenas, we gathered our things and moved to the hostel we had booked through the tourist info office. Eduardo, the guy running the Hospedaje Independencia, was perhaps a bit chaotic, but made us feel very welcome, and we later learned that he can also cook a wonderful breakfast. In fact, it may just have been the best breakfast we had in South American hostels/hotels. After this delicious meal, we hurried to the office of the bus company with which we were planning to travel to Ushuaia. The bus was two hours late, but eventually we were on our way to the largest town on Tierro del Fuego.

Some days later, we returned to Punta Arenas. The weather was not particularly nice, so we decided to forgo the walk in the nearby hills and visited the tax free zone (Zona Franca) instead. We spent about a half a day there and ended up buying just some sweet popcorn. Then it was already time to pack all our things and get ready for the long way back home.

A few more of our photos of Magellanic penguins can be seen here.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Ushuaia and its surroundings (December 2nd - 6th, 2013)

We realized that we would have a bit too much time in Punta Arenas till our flight to Santiago de Chile, so we decided to visit Argentina one more time. Thus, we took a bus to Ushuaia, the largest town on Tierra del Fuego.

December 2nd - long journey
It was a really long bus ride, taking us the whole day (unfortunately, there were no overnight buses between Punta Arenas and Ushuaia). Our bus departed two hours late. Because there aren't any bridges between continental South America and Isla Gran de Tierra del Fuego, the bus ride included a ferry trip over the Magellan Strait. This was a nice diversion in the middle of the long bus ride.

The ferry over Magellan Strait

We arrived at around 10 P.M., but as we were quite far south, it was still light. Later on we did some research and found out that Ushuaia is as far south as Vilnius is north.

December 3rd - Ushuaia
The next day, the weather was quite bad. We relaxed a bit at the hostel and searched for a place to exchange U.S. dollars to Argentinian pesos. Eventually, we managed to exchange at one jewellery shop. We also collected information needed to visit the Tierra del Fuego National Park and made plans for the upcoming days. Afterwards we visited a museum dedicated to the Yámana people. These people were amazing: instead of wearing clothes, they used to cover themselves in animal grease, and thus appeared completely naked to the first Europeans visiting the island.

December 4th - Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego
According to the weather prediction it should have been the best day to visit the Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego. Nonetheless, it was snowing. Our shoes already had quite a few holes in them due to heavy use in the previous seven months, so our feet got hopelessly wet. Laura was a bit cold, but we still enjoyed the nature around us. If I would subtract all the lakes and the sea, it would have reminded me of my home mountains - the Orlické mountains - in winter.

In the morning, the weather still looked quite OK

 The tracks for the end of the world train were very narrow

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

Lakes and mountains and bad weather

We managed to do quite a long hike, but at around 5 P.M., Laura had clearly had enough of her wet boots, so we took a van back to civilization. However, before turning towards Ushuaia, our van made a small detour to the end of the Pan-American Highway and we could take a picture of it. In a way, it symbolized the end of our trip.

Buenos Aires - 3079 Km, Alaska - 17848 Km

December 5th - Glaciar Martial hike
The weather was better than predicted, so we decided to go for another walk. Nobody at our hostel was capable of calling us a taxi to the bottom station of the chairlift, so we started walking in the correct direction, hoping to catch a cab on the street. Soon we were offered a ride by Yuriy (who was just driving by and is not a taxi driver). Yuriy moved to Argentina already before the collapse of the USSR and we had a nice chat with him. I realized that as my Spanish had improved, my Russian had got worse. Due to seven months of no Russian but rather intensive Spanish, these two languages somehow started mixing in my head. I was using Spanish verbs and conjugating them using Russian grammar, for example: viajaем. After saying good-bye to Yurij, we decided not to take chairlift and started hiking up on the piste. To our surprise, in already twenty minutes we were at the upper station enjoying the view back to Ushuaia.

Looking back

We continued a bit more through the deep snow to get to a viewpoint from where we could observe the local snowy mountains. However, because of our experience with wet shoes from the previous day, we decided not to continue to see the Martial glacier and rather just enjoyed seeing it from a distance.

Snowy mountains above Ushuaia

The way down was faster than expected, so already at around 3 P.M. we were back in town.

Dandelions in the snow

The second Škoda we saw during our trip - this one didn't have tires

In the evening the weather got even better. We had one last Argentinian dinner at a local restaurant. It was an all-you-can-eat Parilla and Chinese food, accompanied by delicious Argentinian wine.

Almost perfect weather towards the end of our stay

December 6th - Departure
Even though the weather was getting better, it was time to say good-bye to Ushuaia and take a long bus to Punta Arenas.

It was a long way there and back and the weather wasn't particularly favourable, but I still believe it was worth to go to Ushuaia. As usually, we have many more pictures and we also contributed to OpenStreetMap.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Torres del Paine and Puerto Natales (November 20th - 30th, 2013)

For me, trekking in Torres del Paine was one of the highlights of this whole trip: I loved the wildlife, the stunning rock formations and pristine lakes. Moreover, we met some wonderful people along the way.

We'd just done a lot of hiking near El Chaltén, so once we arrived in Puerto Natales (the town closest to Torres del Paine National Park), we took a day to relax and prepare ourselves. We also had an important decision to make. Namely, there are two popular routes in the park: the "W" Circuit, lasting four to six days, and the longer "O" Circuit, which includes everything from the "W" and the more remote backside. I'd never camped for more than three nights in a row, so I was a bit worried that if we would do the longer route, we'd simply need to carry too much weight. Radek managed to talk me into it, saying he'd carry most of the food. Thus, on the morning of the 22nd, we took a bus straight from our hostel door to the park.

We were dropped off at the Laguna Amarga ranger station, where we paid the entrance fee, listened to the safety instructions and received this map. From there, many people take a bus or walk to Hosteria las Torres and then continue along the circuit, but we decided to shortcut (and not spend money on the second bus), and turned to the right much earlier. The path was easy to find: after we'd crossed a couple of bridges, we saw the trailhead with orange markings and a sign. In fact, with the exception of a couple of places that were covered in snow, the path could be very easily identified along the whole circuit.

Although it was a bit cloudy, we managed to get a sneak preview of the magnificent rock formations that make this place so famous. Before long we also encountered a group of beautiful and graceful guanacos, and soon after that, a fox crossed our way. We saw several other animals that day and on the next, but practically none later on, possibly because this first section was the most remote part of the trail. Indeed, the only other people we saw on the trail that day were Gabe and Jessica, whom we soon befriended. They hiked at a very similar pace as us, and we thus met them again on countless times during the following days.

Guanacos and cloudy Torres

Upon arrival at the Campamento Seron, we noticed a scale hanging off a tree branch, and decided to weigh our backpacks. Our friends Gabe and Jessica had approx. 14kg. Mine was also approx. 14 kg and just Radek's 23 (my hero!). Fortunately, his bag would get lighter with our next meal. It was still way too early for dinner, though, so before cooking we set up our tent and also spent about a half an hour just twiddling our thumbs. Eventually, we cooked and ate, and then played cards with Gabe and Jessica. Our evening ended with a hot shower - a luxury that we decided to take advantage of because it was included in the camping fee.

This Southern Caracara was a frequent visitor at the Seron campsite

We'd planned day 2 of hike to be a long one - ca 10 hours - and in the rush to get an early start, forgot our towels. We noticed only after we had already walked for several hours, so there was no going back. Our relatively flat path took us through a landscape filled with shrubs and bushes, with snow-topped mountains in the distance. We had a bit of a rest on the grassy field in front of Refugio Dickson, and then continued towards our campsite. Here, some of the path lead through a forest, and likely because I was getting tired, I stumbled on a root. This, the first of my many falls on the circuit, left me with a scraped knee and a bent hiking pole. After a minute for recovery, we continued and were soon rewarded with a view of a hanging glacier. The Campamento Los Perros was not far off. We put up our tent and went to cook dinner in a common kitchen, which was basically a makeshift shack with a wooden carcass and a plastic covering. Although it looked as though it would fall down any minute, it gave us some protection from the cold and wind. Thus, we started to cook a much anticipated dinner, but suddenly, the flame from our stove flickered and went out. At first we thought that the gas canister was empty, but when we changed canisters, it still didn't work. Radek had a close look at the stove from one side and the other, and hypothesized that some sand had entered it in El Chaln, where we'd basically cooked in the midst of a sand storm. Gabe and Jessica lent us their stove so we could finish preparing our food, and we decided try to solve our problem only after dinner. Just before going to sleep, Radek borrowed a needle and used it to clean the inside of our stove, which made work as good as new.

The views were absolutely amazing!

Another great view

On the way to Campamento Los Perros

The first glacier we saw during this hike

Day 3 was short, but by no means simple. We woke up to a cold morning and discovered a thin layer of snow on our tent. It was cloudy, and moreover, the trees that surrounded us would have blocked any sunlight from reaching us even on a clear day. Thus, we realized that drying our tent was mission impossible, and just packed it after brushing off the snow. By the time we were done and had had breakfast, nearly everyone else had already left. We started following the others' footprints along a very muddy trail. Soon, another couple - Annelisa and Brent - caught up with us. This was the first of many nice encounters with them. We chatted for a while and eventually, they overtook us. After some more walking in the mud, we made it to the tree line, and from there on, it was very windy. We continued towards the highest point of the circuit - the John Gardner Pass, fighting snow, hail and wind. It was very tough, especially close to the top because of the icy ground there. One particularly nasty gust of wind made me lose my balance and I started sliding on the ice; lucky that my knee hit a rock and brought me to a stop. After this, both of my knees were rather unattractive and somewhat painful. Believing that the conditions would be better on the other side of the pass, we pushed on. Indeed, going down was much easier, and until reaching the tree line, we had a wonderful view of Grey Glacier. Soon we reached Campamento Paso, and even though it was only 3 PM, we decided to camp there because we were exhausted. Gabe and Jessica had arrived some time earlier and chose to stay as well. We spent the afternoon and evening drinking tea and playing Mariáš, one of the most popular card games in Czech Republic.

A bit of snow on our tent

The way up the pass was very windy and cold

Grey Glacier  

As we were walking on the path on the next, fourth day, we again had glimpses of Grey Glacier. This time, the weather was sunny and the glacier seemed even more beautiful. We needed to cross a couple of gullies and climbed some ladders and bridges to do so. We walked past the abandoned Campamento Los Guardas and eventually made it to Refugio Grey. From there on, the path was much more crowded, because the refugio corresponds to the western end of the more popular "W" Circuit. A quick lunch, and we continued south, fighting strong winds along the way. We spent the night at the most luxurious campsite of the whole circuit: the Paine Grande. The common kitchen there was excellent: they even provided cooking gas! However, we decided to make use of this option only in the morning, and bought dinner at the hut instead. This meant a four-course meal, including fresh salad, soup, main meal, dessert and drink. We must have been famished, because the dinner disappeared quickly and we could have certainly eaten more. After our meal, I went to have a shower (Radek had already gone before dinner). Unfortunately, the ladies' shower was just lukewarm. I felt quite cool for a while because I also couldn't dry myself well: as we no longer had our towels, we used our shirts instead, and these weren't as absorbent as we'd hoped.

At times Grey Glacier, seemed endless, but it finally finished here

Radek on one of the bridges we needed to cross that day

Chilean Firetree

In the morning, Gabe and Jessica, with whom we had just discussed that we hadn't seen any animals since the second day of the hike, told us that the zipper of their tent had broken and a mouse had tried to share their sleeping quarters in the night. MacGyver tape to the rescue!

Our plan for day 5 was to walk to Campamento Italiano, leave our large bags there and walk up and down the Valle del Francés, and provided that we have enough energy, continue to Campamento los Cuernos. The path to Campamento Italiano was beautiful, even though we saw many burned trees along the way. Forest fires are common in the area, although smoking and cooking are strictly forbidden except in designated places. On the way up the valley we saw many people who told us that they didn't go up the whole way but rather just to the first viewpoint, and that it was very windy there. Indeed, it the wind was extremely windy, but once we got past the viewpoint, we were sheltered by the forest. When we reached the final viewpoint at the abandoned Campamento Británico, we realized what a good decision it had been to continue to this point. We had an amazing 360° view of the end of the valley! We took some time to enjoy the surroundings and the sunshine, and then continued back down. The weather started to show signs of deteriorating, so we quickened our pace. At Campamento Italiano, we retrieved our backpacks and hurried on. A part of the path was very close to a large lake, and this section was completely open to the wind. Suddenly, we saw something coming fast in our direction from the lake. We realized that it was a cloud of wind-swept water droplets, moving nearly horizontally. The lake and wind showered us for the rest of the way to the campsite, and there, we saw the water reach tents located even at several hundreds of meters from the lake. We arrived quite late, and had problems finding space for our tent. Eventually, we settled for a small and lumpy site that was at least a bit protected from the wind. We considered this campsite the worst of all places we stayed at, and it was also the most expensive.

Burned forest

Some of the mountains had peculiar, but beautiful patterns

Walking up the Valle Francés

Us at the end of the valley, with a view back down

View at the end of Valle Francés

Walking beside the wind-exposed lake

The night was horrible! Howling wind, rain and imagination running wild. Would our tent survive, or would one of the haunting gusts make it collapse on us? Fortunately, it was still standing in the morning (we later learned that Gabe and Jessica's tent did not make it through this night).  It was still windy, however, and drizzling as well. We had a very slow morning: we waited a while, hoping the rain would stop, and when it didn't, we gathered all our things inside the tent, packed them as well as the wet tent, and then ate breakfast with Brent and Annelisa inside the refugio. They invited us to Thanksgiving dinner in Puerto Natales for the following night. Eventually, the dreaded moment came, and it was time to go outside and start walking. We wanted to go to Campamento Chileno along a well-marked shortcut that for some reason was not on the map we were provided (but can be seen on openstreetmaps), and then spend the night at Campamento Chileno. However, right before the Campamento Chileno, the wind was so terrifying that I feared it would blow me straight down to the valley. While I was holding on to a particularly sturdy root with all my might, Radek was holding on to me, and lost his sunglasses and bandana to the wind. After this, I didn't want to continue, so we decided to go down and try again the next morning. Thus, we spent the night at a campsite near Hosteria Las Torres.

Our 7th day in the park began nice and early: we woke up before sunrise, at about 5, had a quick breakfast and then hurried up the valley once more. The weather was gorgeous! We had quite a high pace, both because of motivation to get to the viewpoint and back before the afternoon bus, and because we had left most of our things at the campsite. We reached the viewpoint in just a couple of hours. Most people had gone there to see the sunrise, so by the time we arrived, it was almost empty. This place ... I just don't have the words to describe it ... you can have a look at the photos to get an idea.


Us at the Torres

Another snapshot of the Torres

These mountains could be seen just opposite of the Torres

Almost a jog down, past hordes of people going in the opposite direction, we went back down to the campsite. Once there we had an ultra-quick snack, packed our things, and walked to the Hosteria Las Torres where the buses were supposed to leave from. There, we were greeted by Gabe and Jessica. They had been wondering where we had gotten off to: the previous night had been the only one when we did not meet. They had been packing their tent when we were at the viewpoint, so we didn't see them on the way. We were happy to be reunited once more, and agreed to meet for dinner the following day.

In the evening, we finally got our stomachs full: Annelisa and Brent cooked an excellent Thanksgiving dinner at their hostel. Delicious food and wine, great company - a perfect evening. Our trip to the area ended the next day, when we said good-bye to our friends Gabe and Jessica over a tasty pizza.

You can see some more photos of this beautiful hike here and even though OpenStreetMap coverage was quite good, we still managed to contribute to it.