Argentina/Chile/Patagonia "O" Circuit

The “O” circuit 2018
This year it became official. My wife will no longer drive to JFK Airport. The traffic jams on the VanWyck Expressway are so bad that I can no longer ask anyone I care for to drive me to JFK and subject themselves to that kind of frustration without paying them good money. I took the Trailways bus from my home town of Rosendale, NY (about a 2- hour ride) to the Port Authority bus terminal in mid-town Manhattan. From there I took another hour-long bus ride to JFK via the Airporter bus that runs hourly from the Port
Authority, Grand Central, and Penn Station to JFK so that your wife doesn't sue for emotional distress.
I caught a 10: 30PM flight to Buenos Aires Argentina, via Sao Paulo, Brazil. I flew on Latin American Airlines and 14 hours later arrived at the Ayers Recoleta hotel in the toney Recoleta section of the city where tango was born. As usual, when traveling to a South American city, I heard the typical precautions: I would most certainly be robbed at knife point on the street, and that all the cabdrivers would either kidnap me or rip me off by charging double the normal rate.
The sections of Buenos Aires that I visited were in fact safe, sophisticated, urbane; filled with shops, cafes and educated people who, for the most part spoke admirable English. Buenos Aires has a strong European flavor to it. Other parts of South America are populated by a stronger mix of indigenous culture. Buenos Aires not only has the flavor of its or earliest hegemonic Spanish settlers but also of later migrations of Italians and Germans. The city has charm and abounds with the kind of architecture you would find in France or Italy. I had no trouble finding suave places to hang out.
The biggest attraction in the Recoleta was a cemetery. This was not a typical cemetery with granite headstones, tall trees and green grass. It was more like an upscale neighborhood for rich dead people. Each mausoleum was a large, ornate, residence constructed in elegant rows like brownstones in the upper east side of Manhattan. The mausoleums themselves were gaudily decorated in a melodramatic South American Catholic style: lots of thorns and crying saints. Eva Peron, the beloved first lady of Argentina during the 1950s and the subject of the Broadway musical
Evita is buried here. Due to her humble roots, it took a while to get her admitted to this elite necropolis. There are no signs that will direct you to the tomb of Eva Peron: you have to ask one of the
security guards where it is. When I finally found the proper site, it was already crowded with people seeking to have their picture taken next to the grave of the illustrious Evita.
It was late December, just after Christmas, and the temperatures were hot and humid in Buenos Aires. On the second day there I made the preposterous decision to go jogging. There is a beautiful wildlife refuge, the Reserva Ecologia Costanera Sur, that stretches along the oceanfront shoreline of the city. I had to jog about 2 miles to just get to the refuge. I jogged another couple of miles through the refuge and then another few miles back to my hotel. I was moving slowly and schvitzing like a schmendrick. I would've felt more peculiar if it hadn't been for the fact that there were legions of other joggers right there with me at the Reserva Ecologia Costanera Sur. They were tanned, younger, better-looking than me, and did not seem as bothered by the heat as I was. This was normal for these denizens. Most of them simply ran shirtless. Damn.
I wanted to stay in decent physical shape because Buenos Aires was simply a stop on the way to Patagonia where I was planning to embark upon a 10-day hike around the Torres del Paine. Getting there would entail a three-hour flight to Santiago, Chile then another, to Punta Arenas and ultimately, the next day, a 2-hour bus ride to Puerto Natales.
The excitement began when I took a cab to the airport. On the way to the city of Buenos Aires I had taken a cab for a short distance and a $10 fare into the city. On the day of departure from BA the hotel hailed me a cab and they asked me if I was going to an international location.
Since Chile is a different country from Argentina, I told them to go to the international airport. It turns out that there is more than one airport. My ride to the first airport was about an hour from the city. It cost $80. When I got there and tried to check into my flight they told me I was at the wrong airport and that the right airport was a good hour
drive by taxi. I had about an hour and a half before the flight departed. The airline employee at the desk printed me a boarding pass for the flight that was waiting at the airport an hour away and then I frantically sought a cabdriver who would take me to the correct airport at the speed of sound. Fortunately, it took only a couple of minutes to find the appropriate driver. He went through heavy traffic with the skill of a test pilot. He performed reckless, unlawful acts that I applauded loudly and he got me there on time. The final bill was $120. This mistake cost me a total of nearly $200 and a good hour and a half of high stress. I had to go straight to the gate bringing my 50-pound expedition bag down the gangway to gate check it. They looked at me like I was mad as a March hare.
In Santiago, I thought for sure they would misplace my luggage and I would end up having it delivered to me days later in the nether regions of Tierra Del Fuego. As I got to the baggage claim, in Punta Arenas there was already a long line forming of people who had lost their luggage on one flight or another. I assumed that I would become another person in that line. It turned out that while I was waiting in the line, an airport employee came through with a big handcart carrying many pieces of luggage on it. One of those pieces was (gasp of relief) my 50-pound expedition bag. Fyew!!! If my luggage had been misplaced, all my trekking equipment would be unavailable at a time when I needed it the most. This would involve even more money to rent equipment once I got to Puerto Natales where I would meet with my fellow hikers and begin our adventure together.
Punta Arenas is small city that was built along the Magellan Straight on the Southern tip of Chile in Tierra del Fuego. The local people call this place “fin de la Mondo” and it feels that way. The landscape is flat, semi-arid and wide open like the high plains of Wyoming. The Austral winds blow in from the Antarctic and chill the late December air like the Maine coast in November. It is summer here although the average daytime high
is around 55 degrees Fahrenheit though the nighttime temperature seldom dips below 30 degrees Fahrenheit. At least some of each day is cloudy and periods of rain are the norm. When sun comes out it is strong, and Antarctic ozone depletion will cause intense UV rays to scorch unprotected skin.
I spent my first night in Punta Arenas at the Best Western Finis Terrae Hotel in the center of town. Not surprisingly, my bank card wouldn’t work in local ATM. I had informed my local bank that I was going to Chile, but this place must have spooked them. They immediately sent out a fraud alert.
Punta Arenas might not appeal to many travelers if it weren’t for the fact that it has the most convenient airport to the Torres del Paine national park which wins the most hiker polls for most beautiful place on earth.
I had come here to hike “O” circuit. This entails nine days of walking rugged trails around the circumference
Grande Massive de Paine.
The bus to Puerto Natales takes about two and a half hours from Punta Arenas and the landscape turns to rolling hills called the pampa: grasslands that support wild herds of llama with light brown fur and long proud necks with camel-like heads. Man-made structures are scarce and miles apart.
Puerto Natales is a mountaineering town like, Silverton, Colorado, Chamonix, France or Huaraz, Peru. These towns are surrounded by humble agrarian culture but cater to upscale skiers, climbers, and trekkers in trendy active wear who dine in posh/funky cafes and stay in adventure lodging. Puerto Natales has a gear shop on every corner and wholesome, hip eateries abound.
It would be the first day in 11 days of planned activity organized by G adventures. We were to meet at our assigned hotel at 5:45 with our guide Sergio. Slowly the 12 people on the tour showed up in the hotel dining room and informally introduced themselves to each other. The cast of characters included a middle-aged couple from Melbourne, Australia; two young women from the Netherlands; a young couple from Switzerland; a single woman from Adelaide Australia; a single woman from New York City via Belarus; an American single woman from Atlanta; two men in their 20s from Toronto; and a single middle-aged woman from London.
Sergio came promptly at 5:45 PM and launched into his introductory comments. He showed us a map of the 130-km route around the Grande Massive. He then gave us a list of general guidelines and things that we should bring along on the hike. He said that rain gear was essential because the weather in Patagonia could change quickly and one never knew if it would be sunny, rainy, hot or cold. Within a weight limit of no more than 5 kg we had to bring along: two pairs of socks, underwear, a pair of trekking pants, rain gear, a couple of shirts, a fleece, a headlamp, a first aid kit and, something to take pictures of breathtaking landscape with, and a pair of sandals to rest your tired feet in camp after a day of tramping over the mountain terrain.
We would be eating in refuges and sleeping in tents each night except for the first night and last night which we spent at the hotel in Puerto Natales. Each night we would hike into a designated Camping area and, if we were lucky, there would be working, hot showers, a decent meal, and some drinkable booze. Our days would be filled with walking over hilly terrain, sometimes very steep, and then showing up at the designated camp areas staggering with fatigue. A lot of the stuff for our expedition would be carried by a crew of six porters. These were all rock climbers from the area: handsome, strapping, young man who immediately caught the attention of the younger female
members of our expedition. These guys would carry packs that weighed 80 to 100 pounds. I had trouble even picking one up. The porters would place them on to their shoulders and run down the trail leaping like gazelles over rocks and roots.
Our first day of hiking entailed 23 km of walking up a very long hill to a moraine where one could, on a clear day, get a grand view of the famous Torres del Paine. Sadly, the towers were completely obstructed by low lying clouds. As the group ascended the final steep slope, rain, hail and wind began to hamper our progress and limit our pleasure.
At the end of the day we got on a little bus and went to a camp site where we were fed fantastic New Year’s Eve dinner. Pisco sours and Diablo red wine were poured with generosity. After dinner, we retired to a geodesic dome with beanbag chairs around the periphery and a big open dance floor in the middle. It turned out that one of the Dutch women had a great mix on her iPhone and a suitably loud, portable, bear-shaped speaker. Her name was Desiree, but she became known that night as DJ DeeZire. We danced to DJ DeeZire’s music throughout the night. We also played an uproariously silly game of truth or dare. This group was vivacious, joyful, convivial, congenial, and just one big hell of a lot of fun. By midnight when we rang in the new year we were all the closest of friends: hugging and kissing and wishing each other happy new year. Then we collapsed contentedly into our sleeping bags.
On the second day of our trek we ventured onto the, lesser traveled, “O” section of the trek. Peace and quiet were there for the pleasure of all who took the time to wonder its trails. We had a much shorter hike on the second day and Sergio stopped quite often to identify the local flora and fauna. He also gave long talks about the geology of the area. Sometimes these were interesting other times my mind wandered off and I simply enjoyed the scenery. This was a gentle hilly terrain: the grassy pampa lands around the
edges of the park. It was relaxing and painless day. In the evening we settled into our tents, took our showers and ate a good meal at the refuge washed with our usual rounds of Pisco sours and red Chilean wine. We always dined in the company of the porters who had a relentless energy and unending joyousness that infected the whole expedition. The Porters spent most of their spare time rock climbing on the sheer cliffs of the towers. This pastime is usually taken up by people with daring adventurous personalities. Each day on the trail they would run past us with their heavy rucksacks and we would stand on either side of the path with our hands extended to high five them like a sports team. We would shout out each of their names as they passed by and cheer them on. After all they were carrying all of our heavy stuff – including copious bottles of wine for the refuges that had no booze. The third day of the hike took us to Dickinson lake and wonderful views of the snowcapped mountains. It was an unusual day weather-wise for Patagonia in so far as the sky was clear and blue and the sunshine was warm. As has been noted many times over the recent years, the ozone layer of this part of the world has been depleted and the UV rays are unobstructed: blistering to those who forget to bring sun cream. It was a great picture taking day and we all took social media profile quality pictures in front of Dickinson lake. The campground at Dickinson was of good quality with tents on platforms. Each of the campgrounds we visited had plentiful numbers of tents that were already set up. This spared us the task of setting up and breaking down. In general, the tents were of high-quality and made by the most reputable of mountaineering equipment companies. There were always comfy pads in the tent and sleeping bags were provided. Some refer this as “glamping“ a combination of the words “glamorous”, and “camping”. Things were pretty soft when you consider the sumptuous meals that were provided at each refuge, and the comfortable atmosphere that included niceties like chocolate, booze, hot showers and useable toilets. I’m 63 years-old at this writing and have put in hundreds
of miles with a full pack on my back. I make no apologies for “glamping’. You would not experience any of this in the outermost reaches of treks in Peru, Africa, or the Himalayas where the designated campgrounds would have very little to offer besides squat toilets and perhaps potable water. This was more in line with many European trekking routes like the Tour du Mount Blanc, The Dolomites, the GR 10 or any number of other Caminos where each night you can stay at a comfortable refuge and carry light load (slackpacking) during the day.

On the fourth day of our trek we came into some mud. A lot of mud. Way too much mud. All day we spent doing a dance from rock to rock, root to root, and from one side of one trail to the other. We made up a game where we would sing popular songs and replace the word “love” with the word “mud “. This resulted in some rousing renditions of songs such as “All You Need is Mud”, “Falling in Mud Again”, and “Mud Stinks”. For a while I was referring to myself as the “Gangster of Mud “. By the end of the day most of us had prodigious amounts of mud on our shoes, socks, and pants. There was almost nothing we could do about this in so far as the unpredictable weather made impossible to wash clothes in the bathroom and then hang them on a line to dry outdoors.
The fifth day of the trek was considered to be the most difficult. If you looked at an elevation graph of the hike you would see that we go almost straight up and then almost straight down. The hike was about 23 km and it went over the famous John Gardener pass. Being a heart attack survivor and the oldest member of the expedition, I took my time and stayed behind the group when we were going up the mountain to the top of the pass. This looked strange to many of my mountaineering mates because I had actually been at the front of the pack up until this time. I made a conscious decision to put the
truck in low gear and take my time. The way down from the pass was an orthopedic challenge. The route was steep and fraught with slippery mud. Large steps mad from old railroad ties had been placed in the steepest areas so as to aid the hiker and to discourage erosion. For those of us with any kind of knee issues this was the hardest part of the trek. Fortunately, I have inexplicably good knees for a man my age. I hope that bragging about it won’t jinx me.
Once we made it down the other side of the pass we came into the area of Grey Lake and the immense Grey Glacier. Sergio told us that it was over 100 square miles in size. It was grand and endless with beautiful blocks of blue ice. It looked like a frozen lava flow.
On the sixth day, we rested at the opulent Grey refuge. The refuge dining room and bar were spacious, modern, well-lighted, and downright fancy. The fact that there was a rest day after the laborious crossing of the pass meant that we would be compelled to eat hearty and drink heavily. I drank Fernet, a bitter tasting liquor, mixed with Coca-Cola. Too many of these were purchased for me by playful porters who were interested in hearing about my past life in the 60s and 70s. They had me pegged as an old hippie. I can’t imagine how they got that idea. I told him that I indeed did smoke a lot of marijuana when I was young and that I took hallucinogenic drugs. They were delighted to hear this in so far as they were currently smoking a lot of marijuana and experimenting with LSD, peyote, and psilocybin. This led into deeper and deeper discussions about philosophy, existence, and Zen pursuits of nothingness. The more Fernet we drank, the headier the conversation became. I politely bowed out of the reveling at midnight. From my tent I could still hear the jubilant sounds of voices singing, music thumping, and my fellow wanderers hooting and hollering as I fell into a deep mountaineer’s sleep.
Day six, our rest day, was highlighted by an activity called the “whiskey walk “. It took place in the late afternoon hours before dinner. Someone had organized a bottle of Johnny Walker Red and some glasses. We carried them on a short walk down to the glacier. Sergio cautiously made his way onto the glacier and extracted the chunk of ice for us to break up into small pieces to put in our cocktail glasses. The ice sparkled in the southern light as we poured Johnny Walker over the crystals. The resulting cocktail was both elegant and exotic. It didn’t take much for us to feel a glow there on the edge of the beautiful Grey Glacier.
Day seven took us to the other side of the W circuit which we would be following for the rest of the hike. This was good and bad. It was good because some of the most stunning scenery is observed on the W circuit. It’s bad because there are many more people than on the “O”. Large groups would bottleneck on the trails. Day hikers in clean, well pressed clothes, came off the tour boat that docks at several refuges along the “W” circuit. At one lookout, we saw clean, delicate people with a picnic that included salmon, mustard, wine, and stemware served on a portable table with a spotless gingham tablecloth.
I had embarked upon this journey to Patagonia fully expecting plenty of rain, wind, and cold. All the guidebooks warned of this. I am happy to report that there was hardly any rain, or wind, during the first week of our hike. The last couple of days had more weather problems.
On the end of the eighth day we settled in for our usual refuge reveling at the end of a long hike. Sitting at my table, I started to hear chant from a table across the room where the porters were sitting. I could hear my name: Ree-chard! Ree-chard! Ree-chard! Ree- chard!. It was a rhythmic chant that started quietly and crescendoed to a fever pitch
accompanied by pounding on the table. I was being summoned. These guys had a fresh bottle of tequila, a bowl of sliced limes, another small bowl of salt, and they insisted that I join them. I felt like a mythic figure. I had learned how to drink tequila late in my high school years and continued it with great zeal into post-secondary education. I licked the web that connects the thumb and forefinger on the left hand; lightly sprinkled the area with salt; placed the lime between the thumb and forefinger of the same hand. In a fluid motion I licked the salt, drained the shot glass that was poised in my right hand and sucked on the lime slice in the proper way that a tequila drinker should. A great cheer went up. The porters began to chant my name again, Ree-chard! Ree-chard! Ree-chard! Ree-chard!. Again, I licked to salt, hoisted my glass, sucked on the lime, and pounded the glass on the table do the continued cheering applause of the porters. Ignoring the call for a second encore, I repaired to my comfortable tent to watch Netflix on my phone and stay the hell out of trouble.
It rained like hell on the night before the last day of the hike. And indeed, it rained like cows pissing during the first half of the last day. This made the trails muddy and the rivers run much higher than usual with blasting currents of whitewater. The first river crossing still had enough exposed rock to get across without getting your shoes and socks soaked. On the second crossing, I lost my balance and fell in. After that I simply walked straight through the water, come what may. I had seen through-hikers of the Pacific Crest trail do the same thing but was never tough enough to do it myself. My fellow trekkers soon followed suit and after a while it became childish fun to simply walk through the rushing currents, getting our shoes, socks and pants soaking wet. We were hiking in torrents of rain and getting soaked anyway. You would think this would make one miserable but actually I felt free as a bird. It reminded me of being 10 ,11 or 12 years old
when I would simply walk around in the rain all day with my friends and not really care that much. The final 2 miles of the hike were downhill and I started running down, down, down, getting way ahead of the other trekkers who were cheering me on. And that was it. As we reached the parking lot where the shuttle bus would soon arrive. The sun came out and we gathered in a circle, put our arms around each other and danced around and around and around chanting “O!!,O!!,O!!,O!!” Then we went to dry off.


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