By January 7, 2012, five days into the trip, I was getting to know my fellow travelers pretty well. We were, after all, spending 15 or 16 hours a day together. My roommate Lynne and I had become fast friends, and our whole group was beginning to feel like a small international family of nature-loving hikers. Today we were leaving El Calafate, Argentina for Puerto Natales, Chile, but unfortunately Rachel wasn’t going with us. Her Grandmother had passed away and she wanted to return home. A bit sad that our little group was now one less, but we said our goodbyes to her at the hotel and headed to the bus station.
Ah, the luxury of being on a trip I didn’t have to plan. We had taxis waiting to take us to the hilltop bus station, tickets were already purchased, and all I had to do was just hop on board and look out the window as the flat grasslands of the Patagonian pampas passed me by. Carola told us that it could take 6-7 hours if there was a long wait at the border but we were lucky to find both sides of the border crossing checkpoints relatively empty. A few piece of paper to fill out, a few minutes of standing in line, bags through the X-ray machines, new stamps in my passport, and we were done. It was another beautifully sunny day in Patagonia and around 2:30PM we were in Puerto Natales.
With Rachel leaving there was an extra room at the hotel and Carola picked me to have the single room. I was having fun sharing with Lynne but for one night, I spread out and took the opportunity to have my yoga practice in the room. I was feeling a bit stiff still from the long hike up to Fitz Roy and being on the bus for so long didn’t help either. It was great to have a low-key, relaxing day since we were scheduled for another difficult hike the next day. I spent the rest of the afternoon walking down by the port and around town. With a population of just around 20,000 it’s not a very big town but even so, it felt oddly deserted. I wondered if the fire in Torres del Paine had already taken its toll on the local economy and the flow of tourists…
Carola is from Santiago but her current base is this town of Puerto Natales. And since she’s a local here we trusted that she’d find just the right place for us to have dinner this evening. Carola didn’t disappoint. For an authentic Chilean seafood dinner, she took us to a restaurant called Ultima Esperaza, which I found slightly depressing (ultima esperanza = last hope) but Puerto Nalates is the capital of the Chilean province Ultima Esperanza so… I just hoped that it didn’t signal my last chance to back out of hiking another 20km in Torres del Paine or reaching Tierra del Fuego.
Once we were all seated Carola made some recommendations. With a completely straight face she said with her Chilean accent, “for appetizer I recommend the pisco sour.” We all roared with laughter and of course all ordered a round of pisco sours. There were many more pisco sours to come on this trip but this was our first one, and probably the most potent. I didn’t need a second round.
Carola told us that the chupe de centolla was delicious at this restaurant so that’s what I had. I half expected a soup or a stew made of king crabs, but what I got was more of a gratin or a casserole. It was not at all what I expected- a mixture of king crab, cream, and cheese baked in a hot cast iron pot, but it was delicious. There were huge pieces of king crab meat mixed in with rich cream, topped with a crunchy layer of slightly blistered cheese. It’s definitely not for everyday consumption and I could feel my arteries clogging, but I scraped off the last little bite without any complaints.
We were going camping for the next few nights so we all headed back to pack our duffel bags to take to Torres del Paine. What will camping outdoors bring? Would we be able to do any of the hikes we want to in Torres del Paine? Is the fire still burning in the park? At least we knew certain parts of the park were open. We’d traveled so far and the weather was so perfect… When I left for this trip I didn’t have any expectations and so far, I was having a great time. No expectations… but I went to bed hoping for the best.