Monday, April 6, 2015

trekking in Patagonia

Where do I begin? 

Last week, I spent my "spring" (it's actually fall now in Argentina) break hiking the W trek in Torres del Paine National Park, 2,400 acres encompassing mountains, glaciers, lakes, and rivers in southern Chilean Patagonia. While some of my friends were off soaking up the sun, coconut in hand, on the beautiful beaches of Rio, cruising across the ethereal salt flats of Uyuni in a four wheel drive, and exploring the mysterious ruins of Machu Picchu (talk about serious FOMO), I packed all of my bare essentials in a single backpack, strapped on my hiking boots, and traveled to the tip of Chile, the bottom of the world.

Even before I landed in Chile, I was awestruck by the breathtaking views from my flight. At 35,000 feet in the air, I woke up from a short nap to see an amazing sunrise over the Andes mountains. My shoddy iPhone 4S could hardly capture the gorgeous pink and orange hues that encompassed the entire sky; I literally could not tear my eyes away from the tiny cabin windows. I saw cities and towns interwoven among valleys, creeks, and mountains, ant-sized cars making their way down roads that stretched past provinces. Right off the bat, I fell in love with South America's enormous and magnificient landforms, some inhabited by society, others completely untouched. There's a sense of nature here that is so vastly different from what exists back in the states. 

And that's exactly what I was looking for when I signed myself up to do the W trek, a world-famous hiking trail that invites people from all over the world to immerse themselves in Patagonia's natural splendors. But, it's no easy journey. Hiking in Patagonia isn't for the weak, and I prepared myself for the worst well in advance after learning about the unpredictable weather, strenuous climbs, and the absence of daily luxuries like warm showers. This was an experience that not only tested my physical limitations, but also challenged my mental and emotional being. I'm not the most fit person out there (there were times when my legs wanted to give up on me), but I do have strong perseverance and determination, two things that really help you past the rough terrain and powerful winds. 

There were times when I realized that yes, the possibility of being severely injured or even dying during the hike was so incredibly real. I might sound super dramatic, but there were very few designated markers that indicated if you were on the right path, and even fewer signs that reminded you how far along you were to the next view point, camp site, or refugio. There were no checkpoints or park rangers, no emergency contacts and definitely no phone lines. Most of the time, I trekked alone or with my group for hours without seeing a single soul cross our paths. There were so many moments when I couldn't believe what I was getting myself into — crossing rapid rivers that got my socks wet no matter how carefully I tried to balance myself on top of wet rocks, walking through rickety wooden bridges with a two person capacity, climbing mountains of loose rocks and boulders, making it up vertical inclines until my lungs and legs gave out, deciphering which unlabeled path wasn't a dead end, dodging mud slides and horse poop, brushing past thorns and narrow openings, side-stepping down steep hills. Sometimes it would be nice and warm (we stripped off our layers to cool off), other times it would begin to drizzle before we would get caught in a full on rainstorm. The heavy winds threatened to push me off-course multiple times even when I was being weighed down by my gigantic backpack. For 5-8 hours a day, we were small, vulnerable human beings working against the forces of nature.

Despite the the terrifying wrath of Patagonia's unpredictable climate and natural obstacles (and even that one time I woke up in the middle of the night to find field mice rummaging through our belongings), I am so incredibly amazed I was able to rough it up for a week to complete a world class trekking experience and exercise my body while being immersed in nature's wonders. It was a truly humbling once-in-a-lifetime journey spent in the wild depths of Chilean mountains from snowcapped peaks to undisturbed crystal clear waters. I drank out of fresh streams and glacier waters, made meals over a tiny gas burner, slept in cabins and domes, witnessed the end of a rainbow emerge from a turquoise lake, saw guanacos and condors. One of my favorite things was being unplugged from the cyber world; I got to know my friends on a deeper level, and spent a lot of time doing much-needed self-reflection. 

I didn't think I had it in me to complete the whole thing (or even be okay with not showering for 4 days straight), and I was even more surprised that I came out unscathed, no bruises or sores to complain about. My body has never felt better and I can say that my newly defined muscles (!!!) are the fruits of my labor. This is an accomplishment of mine that demonstrates personal growth in many aspects, from getting to know fellow trekkers from different countries (and even bumping into a few from my own neighborhood back in the states!) to practicing my ever-improving Spanish to feeling like I could do anything – I felt so invincible at the end of each day!

After the trek, we recuperated in Puerto Natales, a tiny town of colorful sometimes run-down houses, stray dogs with curious personalities, and random convenience stores scattered throughout. It's a nondescript place, ordinary save for the fact that it's a pit stop for thousands and thousands of trekkers from around the world seeking to stay the night before arriving and departing from Torres del Paine. 

One particular hostel stole my heart with its warm employees and homey atmosphere. We spent the entire day before our flight vegging out in front of the TV with throwbacks to classic movies from the hostel's impressive VHS collection (The Blair Witch Project / Pretty Woman / The Truman Show). We played with sleepy cats, stuffed ourselves with freshly baked chocolate banana bread, and made friends with fellow boarders — the Swiss man with the most impressive copper colored beard, the cutie from Colorado who just finished med school. We made lunches and dinners from leftover camp food that we scrounged up from our backpacks, drank box wine, and consumed enough polenta and ramen to never want to eat another bite in this current lifetime. And before the wine convinced us to go bed early, we headed out to a bar to watch a new hostel friend jam with his band. Passing around liters of beer and singing along to the greatest hits, we were a room full of foreigners and locals, tourists and natives, just enjoying music, soaking up the good vibes, and congratulating each other for an accomplishment that we collectively completed and never will forget.

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