How to Travel Colombia Alone, as a Blonde Woman with a Fractured Foot

(Disclaimer: this post was written 6 months ago, on flights between Colombia and the US. When I came home from exchange, I forgot I hadn’t posted any of these yet.)

(Disclaimer 2: due to an incident unrelated to the fractured foot, I lost my phone whilst in Santiago. As a result, I have minimal and somewhat low quality photos of my travels in Colombia. Just imagine everything a little more colourful, and a little less pixelated.)

I did not plan on beginning my two months of post-exchange travel with a fractured foot. That was definitely not the plan. But two days before my flight out of Santiago, I slipped on the stairs after a despedida (goodbye party) and fractured my foot. And so, I began my travels with the added challenge of a heavy boot and intermittent pain.

On the upside, it gives my blog post a specific perspective. How to Travel Colombia Alone, as a Blonde Woman with a Fractured Foot.

The first thing I discovered is that everyone is incredibly nice about it. Travelling Latin America while blonde results in a lot of street harassment, catcalling, whistling, and my darker haired friends have been worried about me alone in Colombia. But the calling out on the street in Colombia has been more of a “ah pobrecita, ¿qué pasó?” (You poor thing, what happened?) rather than anything sexual or objectifying. Its sweet! I’m enjoying the shift in vibe.

I originally booked my tickets for a 5 day stop over in Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, on my way to the US. However, after 5 minutes of research I discovered that Bogotá is definitely not the best that Colombia has to offer. Its not the prettiest, safest, or sunniest – all things that are important to me. So I added budget domestic flights to Cartagena for three days, and limited my time in Bogotá to two half-days at the beginning and end.

I arrived in Bogotá on a Saturday afternoon, and found the entire city cloaked in rain and fog. From what I had read, this wasn’t surprising, as Bogotá hovers at 20 degrees with rain year-round. However, the fog made it harder to see any of the city and the rain (along with cute cobbled streets and lots of hills) made it a challenge to walk around at all with the boot.

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However, I still managed to explore a bit of the city. I stayed in La Candelaria, the historic centre of the city. It has cobbled streets, colourful houses, and historic buildings. I just walked around a bit to get my bearings and see the area, and I found beautiful churches, a plaza swarmed with pigeons, and a little shop selling homemade pastries. The man who worked there was lovely, and let me try a Colombian drink called ….. something he definitely told me and I cannot remember (oops) and a chocolate pastry while his little cat watched on.

The next day I hopped on an early morning domestic flight to Cartagena. And damn, that city is hot. But not hot in a Dubai way, more so in a Bali way – tropical and humid and sticky. I love summer and heat, so I just immediately accepted that my hair was going to be frizzy and my face make-up free, and enjoyed it. But if you don’t enjoy the heat, Cartagena in the summer wouldn’t be enjoyable.

Also, the boot made it worse. It almost reaches my knee, and wraps my leg up tight, so it really conserves heat. I didn’t stop sweating the whole time I was there. It was pretty gross.

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Cartagena is a port city on the Caribbean coast, but the main drawer is the historic walled city. I stayed in a hostel just outside the wall, in the Getsemani neighbourhood. Apparently Getsemani used to be a dangerous (and somewhat brothel-filled) neighbourhood, but now its full of bars, cafes, and street art.

On safety in Colombia, I didn’t feel unsafe at any point in Cartagena. Obviously, I was careful; I didn’t walk around by myself at night, I didn’t carry my passport or credit card with me, I didn’t flash valuable items on the street. But even so, the historic area is just a chilled out touristy town. I heard of rougher areas out by the metropolitan area, but the historic town seemed low-key and everyone I met was lovely.

When I was researching what to see and do in Cartagena, I was frustrated to see it repeatedly described as the “ultimate walking city”. And to be fair, it definitely is. The historic centre is mostly closed to cars, so all there is to do is wander around the streets, find the brightly coloured houses, and the balconies covered in flowers, and cute shops, and churches and historical monuments. Normally, that would be my dream holiday. Under these circumstances, slightly less ideal.

But I persevered. After over-exerting myself on the first day, I managed to learn my limits. I would explore for about an hour, and then find a cafe or somewhere to sit and refuel. Particular shout out to Ceiba Juice Bar in Getsemani, for providing good coffee and a cute window with a breeze to spend afternoons reading and chilling out.

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I visited the Church of San Pedro Claver, an 18th century priest who is known for his work with slaves and human rights. Historically Cartagena served as a a slave port, and Pedro Claver was a monk in the 17th century who dedicated his life to carrying for the slaves who passed through the city. The convent has been converted into a museum, not only exploring the history of San Pedro but also modern human rights struggles.
I also visited el Palacio de la Inquisición, which also serves as the National History Museum in Cartagena. This is the building where the trials of the Inquisition took place, and none of the accused were found innocent. Aside from its historical importance, the building is also beautiful and is considered one of the best examples of Colombia’s colonial architecture. The museum isn’t free, but I had the same surname as one of the girls at the desk, and after chatting about the weirdness of the coincidence, they never took my money. I did however pay for an audio guide, which was very cool and interactive and taught me lots of cool stuff. However, the museum has so much information on the signs in each room that it probably wasn’t worth the money. (Note: most of the information is in Spanish, whereas the guide can be bought in English).

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In Cartagena, the sun sets early but the nights stay warm, so people take to the streets in the evenings. The fractured foot meant that partying wasn’t going to happen, but I spent a lovely chilled out evening with people from the hostel just sitting in the plazas drinking cheap beer and chatting to other people hanging out.

After three days in Cartagena, I flew back to Bogota. I had one (blissfully rain-free) morning to see the essentials, so I woke up early and walked around everything I could manage. I went to the Botero Museum; I don’t really understand art, and yet I continue to go to art museums, usually when they’re free and somewhat quirky, which this was. I spent the rest of the day on a self-conducted walking tour of the city, passing through the Plaza de Bolivar and checking out the Cathedral, Congress, and anything else that caught my eye along the way.

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I really enjoyed Colombia. I mostly booked my flights because I kept being told not to go, because it was too dangerous or god knows what. But its 2016 and Colombia has come a long way. It’s incredibly beautiful, the people are lovely, and it has so much fascinating history. I only saw two cities but I have heard great things about everywhere else, and I would love to come back and see the country in more depth.

 

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Weekend in Buenos Aires

I loved Buenos Aires.

I knew I would, to be fair. Its so my kind of city. I’ve loved living in Santiago, but its a functional city, built to withstand earthquakes, and house lots of people, rather than a beautiful city. And I have loved visiting the crazy natural wonders that Chile has to offer, that are out-of-this-world beautiful, but I’m not so much a nature girl. I am through and through a city girl.

And Buenos Aires is a beautiful beautiful city. Its all big white European style buildings, with New York style streets, and blue skies, and purple trees, and Argentinian-Spanish buzzing all around. Its got history and pretty buildings and good food. Oh, the food. Argentinian steaks. Italian gelato.

(Buenos Aires has a huge Italian population, so it somehow becomes this South America/Italy mix and I love it.)

We arrived on Friday night, and decided to venture out for dinner to make the most of our limited time in the city. The hostel recommended a nearby restaurant, and I have no photos because its very atmospheric and dark, but oh my god the steak was amazing. Argentina knows steak.

On the way back to the hostel, we wandered around the streets to get a feel of the city. It was almost midnight and the city felt alive. People were sitting in cafes, hanging out, enjoying the beginning of the night. It was warm but not hot, just a perfect strolling around at midnight temperature.

And then, by accident, we stumbled upon El Ateneo Theatre. This was on my list of things to see in Buenos Aires, but I didn’t know where it was, and then we found it in the middle of the night, basically empty. El Ateneo is an old theatre, converted into a bookstore, and it is amazing. I love bookstores anyway, but this was something else. Each level of the theatre seating was full of shelves, and the stage converted into a coffee shop. Its peaceful and beautiful and I wanted to stay there and read forever.


The next day we went on a free walking tour of the centre of the city, in order to see all the main sites and get a little bit of historical context provided. We passed by Parliament, the supposedly widest avenue in the world (with sixteen lanes), la Casa Rosada (Presidential House), el Plaza de Mayo (the main square and home to near-constant protests, now and throughout history), and the Obelisk, amongst other things.


Next, we headed to Palermo, a trendy neighborhood known for its cafes, bars, and shopping. Buenos Aires is a huge city, but luckily has a good metro system that we used to get across. By the time we got to Palermo, I was dying for a coffee and nearly threw a tantrum as we kept walking through the streets in the crazy heat. Once we found coffee and water, I recovered and could appreciate the colourful streets, lined with boutiques and trees and people sitting outside cafes enjoying the sun.

Palermo is also renowned for its nightlife, so after a nap we returned for a night out. In true Latin American style, we had dinner at midnight, went looking for bars around 2, had energy drinks at 4 (this may have been a mistake), and left the club at 6. We caught a taxi home as the sun was rising and the weather was chilled and beautiful and I, clearly still buzzing from the energy drink, just wanted to stay out and find a park or the waterfront and chill out.

Instead, obviously, we went to sleep.

Somewhat luckily, it rained the next day, which was the perfect excuse to sleep in until we had enough sleep to function and the weather cleared up. We made our way to the San Telmo Market, which everyone had insisted we had to see. It was nice, as markets are, and we picked up a few souvenirs and saw some nice stuff. It wasn’t a life changing market. A bit overhyped, in my opinion.

Then we kept walking towards the waterfront and down to Puerto Madero, the newer docklands area of the city. We walked along the water as the sun set and the sky turned purple and we talked about how we were never going to leave.
The next morning we were up bright and early, and walked over to La Recoleta Cemetery. It seemed weird to visit a cemetery as a tourist destination, but every guide insisted on it. The graves are more like mausoleums or family tombs, belonging to wealthy Argentinian families. The star attraction of the cemetery however, is the tomb of Eva Duerte, or Evita, the actress and wife of the President Juan Domingo Perón. She was active in politics and beloved by the public for her charity work, but her body was exiled when Perón was overthrown. I’ve been studying 20th Century Latin American History this semester, so one of my favourite parts of travelling is getting to see all of the things and people I have learnt about.


As our last destination, we caught a taxi to the historic neighbourhood of La Boca. We had been warned repeatedly that this was a dangerous area, but the main few streets were perfectly safe and a must-see. We were assured that as long as we got taxis there and back, and stayed in the clearly main areas, we would be totally safe. And this was true, we were safe and the main area was totally clear. However, I’m not sure it was a must-see. It was super colourful and I’m sure would have been amazing previously, but it has become so touristy that it felt like a Disneyworld, a part of the park designed to replicate an “authentic Latina city”. Every shop was a souvenir shop, and even the restaurant we found off around a corner with a beautiful garden served less than incredible steak. I will say though, the cheese was incredible.

We only spent a weekend in Buenos Aires, and it was a bit of a rush, and we didn’t want to leave. (Actually, we almost didn’t, there was a moment where we thought we were going to miss our flight home). But it doesn’t matter, because I know I’ll be back. I can see myself living in Buenos Aires one day. That’s another city added to the list.

 

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Wine and Spa weekend in Mendoza

I decided a long time ago that South America was far too large to see all of in one semester, so during my exchange I have been focused on travelling up, down, and all around Chile. However I have made time for a few excursions outside of the country, the first of which was a weekend trip to Mendoza.

Mendoza is a city in the heart of Argentina´s wine country, and just across the Andes on the other side of the Chilean/Argentinian border. It is famed internationally as one of the great wine regions of the world, and famed locally in Santiago for being a quick and easy trip across the border to renew visas.

(Not mine, of course. I definitely went through a complicated and stressful and expensive visa process before I got here. Please don’t remind me.)

When I travelled to Mendoza in September, it wasn’t actually my own trip. I was invited to join a group of friends who were going for the weekend, and I decided to join in the adventure. Apparently a lot of people thought this sounded like a good idea, and we ended up being 21 people in total.

I think its possible to fly to Mendoza, but the generally accepted way to get there is by bus. Its about 5 hours away driving, through the Andes and across. However, the border crossing adds a significant and unpredictable amount of time to the journey.

Since we were such a big group, it worked out to be easier and more cost efficient to get our own bus to take us there and back. This meant that were free to be as loud as we wanted, wander up and down to switch seats to talk to whoever, and were a lot more comfortable than we would have been in a normal shared coach. The views were beautiful and it was fun just hanging out and catching up with friends.

However, border control was another story. We arrived in the middle of the day, which I guess is the busiest time. We were there for three hours, which weren’t the most thrilling of the trip. There was some food, and bathrooms, and we could get out of the bus and stretch our legs. But also, there were multiple confusing queues and the endless waiting.

Being Australian added an extra level of difficulty to the process, as Argentina requires Australians to pay a $100 reciprocity fee to enter the country. I took a stand and refused to be the only person amongst 21 to pay to enter Argentina, and took advantage of my dual nationality to get away with it. Even post-Brexit, the British passport has its uses.

 

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On Saturday, we went to explore Mendoza´s main event – the wines. We caught a bus to Maipu, about half an hour out of the city, to the area with all the best vineyards. We rented bikes and spent the day cycling around the Argentinian wine region, stopping off at various vineyards to take tours and enjoy the tasting sessions. I’ve gone on a few winery tours now, and to be honest I´ve started tuning out when they do they explain the whole vines and grapes and barrels and manufacturing process. They’re all pretty similar. Lets be honest – I’m there for the wine, and for strolling around the beautiful vineyards.

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The first place we went (Domiciano de Barrancas) was a smaller, boutique vineyard, and the view of the vines against the snowy Andes took my breath away. But the second place (Trapiche) was even better, with the tasting taking place on a balcony overlooking the gorgeous gardens, complete with lakes, vineyards, and a little family of geese. We tried an amazing sparkling wine and took as many refills as we could manage, and just lay on the balcony enjoying the sun and the beautiful view.

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Although the sparkling was by far my favourite, I´ve been making sure I actually try all of these supposedly very fancy and high quality wines. I normally only drink white, but red is actually the specialty of the region and I have been proud of my attempts to sample all of the reds we have been offered, and pretend to be able to appreciate the high quality of these internationally famed wines.

On our second day in Mendoza, we travelled outside of the city again to the Termas de Cacheuta. These were a network of outdoor heated pools in the amongst the mountains, and we literally just spent the whole day lounging around in the sun and the pools. Each pool was a different temperature or depth or with a different view, so we could just move around in search of what we wanted all day. It was so relaxing and so lovely.

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It was on Sunday that I had one of those moments I get periodically when I’m travelling, that moment of “oh, I´m chilling in thermal pools in the mountains of Argentina. That’s pretty surreal, and pretty amazing. My life is pretty surreal, and pretty amazing.”

We travelled back to Santiago overnight, so that people wouldn’t have to miss classes on Monday, and with the added bonus of hitting the border in the middle of the night. We timed it so that we would arrive before the majority of the scheduled inter-city buses, and this time made it through in half an hour. Success.

We arrived home at 3am, and stumbled back to bed, to sleep on a flat vertical surface rather than the uncomfortable seats of the bus. We all love travelling, but the actual physical “travelling” part is always the least enjoyable.

Argentina was beautiful and friendly and their accents are lovely (the ‘sh’ sound they make for ‘ll’ is cute). The country is huge and I only saw a tiny portion, but I will be making my way back soon.

 

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Celebrating Fiestas Patrias in Santiago

One way to get a new country is to celebrate its holidays, so I count myself lucky to have been here during September to celebrate Fiestas Patrias in Chile. Also known as ‘el dieciocho’ (the 18th), Fiestas Patrias is the celebrations of Chile’s independence from the Spanish empire. The 18th commemorates the beginning of the independence process, and the 19th is the Armed Forces Day. If the holidays happen to fall in the middle of the week, the celebrations often extend for whole week. Sadly, this year the 18th was a Sunday, so we only scored a 3 day weekend.

One thing to note about Fiestas Patrias is that suddenly there are Chilean flags are everywhere. You don’t normally see so many flags in Chile, or in Santiago at least, but from the 1st of September they are absolutely everywhere. Not only flags, but also typical Chilean dress. We visited a winery on the 2nd and every staff member was dressed up, apparently for the whole month. Same goes for supermarkets. Its very cute, although I’m sure the novelty wears off pretty quickly for the staff.

Fiestas Patrias is typically celebrated through asados, which are barbecues. The weather had suddenly improved; we were barely into spring but already it was 26 degrees every day. The weather had been making me miss Australia, and I  was definitely hanging out for a barbecue and drinking in the sunshine. As luck would have it, that is basically what dieciocho is. On one of the days of the long weekend we hosted an asado at my house, with all of my housemates of varying nationalities and their friends. Everyone brought drinks and meat for the barbecue, and we hung out in the garden, grilling the meat and sharing it all. (It’s worth noting here that I didn’t help to cook any of the meat, but I was constantly being brought more and more delicious things that everyone else was making and more than happy to share.)

Another essential aspect of Fiestas Patrias is the day drinking! Beers, as always, are cheap and plentiful, but terremotos are the drink of the weekend. They are made from pipeño blanco (a type of white wine), pineapple ice cream, and grenadine. Supposedly, they’re called terremotos (earthquakes) because the ground shakes when you stand up after just one. They are yummy and chilled and great for summer, but also super sweet. For me, the extreme sweetness makes me drink them really slowly, which is lovely for a chilled out day drink.

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We spent the first day of the long weekend at my house, and then moved to another asado at a friend’s house in the evening. His party was on the rooftop terrace looking over the city. Santiago isn’t the prettiest city in the world but when its all lit up the view is beautiful, with the hills and the lights. My friends sat on the edge of the terrace – on the 26th floor, scaring the crap out of me – and we looked out at the city and the moon and the fireworks. It was a lovely warm evening with good food and good people.

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I hung out with internationals basically all weekend, but Fiestas Patrias in Chile is a more personal celebration than other independence days elsewhere. It is a time for family and friends and parties at home, and that’s what we embraced on Saturday.

The next day we moved on from asados onto the other great tradition of dieciochofondas. These are basically huge fairs held in public parks during Fiestas Patrias, and they kind of remind me of English fetes during summer. During the day we went to Parque Ines de Suarez for a family friendly fonda. We sought out any and all free samples (the flavored wine guy was more than happy to keep refilling our glass), ate traditional Chilean empanadas on the grass, strolled through the markets, and joined in on some children’s games.

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Another essential aspect of Fiestas Patrias is the national dance, the cueca. The dance is a reenactment of the courting ritual between a rooster and a chicken, and involves a lot of clapping and stomping and waving of a handkerchief. It is performed widely during the Fiestas Patrias weekend, at parties and schools and at fondas. At the fonda we attended there was a big tent, a live band, and lots of partners on the dance floor. This wasn’t professionals putting on a show, but rather Chileans celebrating their national dance together and having fun. What really interested me was the variety of people getting involved; this isn’t a dying tradition, it’s something that every Chilean gets involved in. The dance floor featured kids and teenagers alongside old couples, and people who clearly know how to dance alongside people just having fun.

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In the evening we moved on to Parque O’Higgins, the biggest fonda in Santiago. This one was a lot less family friendly, and more like a big festival. We bought overpriced chips and went to a concert for a Chilean band we didn’t know, and danced along like we knew the words. We drank more terremotos, and happily accepted when they offered to add more liquor (rum or vodka) and asked whether we wanted lots or a little (we chose a lot). When the concert finished we went in search of more music, and ended up in one of the makeshift bars where the tables had been moved to make room to dance.

We danced until we knew the fonda was about to end, then made our way out so we wouldn’t get crushed in the crowds.

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Fiestas Patrias was such a good weekend, probably the best weekend I’ve had staying in the city of Santiago. Although a lot of friends travelled to other towns for the holiday, I loved the experience of celebrating a national holiday in the country’s capital. It was a weekend of good food, good drinks, good parties, and good people. I loved the experience of getting involved in Chilean culture, and celebrating a holiday that is so important to Chilean people.

CHI – CHI- CHI LE – LE – LE VIVA CHILE

 

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Trekking (1 day of) the W Circuit

Our third and final adventure in Patagonia was a one day trek to the base of the eponymous towers of the Torres Del Paine.

The generally accepted way to travel through Torres del Paine is to hike the W circuit, a 4 day/55 km trip. We had decided against this for a variety of reasons, amongst them that it was the low season and winter and thus all the refugios along the trail were closed, and also that trekking for 4 days sounded like death.

During the trip I felt a little concerned that we were cheating, that we were just driving around and not really experiencing Patagonia de verdad. To balance this, we decided to do a one day trek which consisted of driving to the park, a four hour walk to the base of the towers, four hours back, and coming home.

It was a lot harder than we expected.

After the first hour of slogging uphill through the mud, we were exhausted and Jess was concerned she might throw up. But I got so stubborn about it. I knew how much I would regret not doing it and not pushing myself to go as far as I could. After some mini-crises and rest breaks, we managed to keep going and it definitely got easier in parts.

The landscape kept changing throughout the walk. We started by climbing up a muddy hill, using our (rented) hiking sticks to pull ourselves up. At this point the view was not good enough to justify the difficulty, and even on the way back we were surprised by how difficult the mud on this hill was in comparison to the huge mountains. Next was a nice flat path through a valley, which was easy to walk and had awesome views, although we were dangerously close to the edge. Then we were climbing up and down rocky paths, across makeshift bridges, through forests, up rivers, through snow, and across ice.

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Some of it was crazy beautiful. There were amazing mountain views, frozen waterfalls, and streams where it looked totally frozen but you could hear the water running underneath. After about four hours of walking and towards the top it started to snow (so faintly that I thought I was hallucinating) and the tiny flakes sparkled in the sunshine.

Some of it was hell. We were super slow on the way up, so we ended by ourselves for hours because everyone else started off with a lot more enthusiasm. The more tired I got, the more aware I became that we could slip and fall to our deaths at any point and we wouldn’t know what to do. I had imagined a nice hike up a nice hill, with clearly marked paths and totally safe. It wasn’t quite like that. We lost the path multiple times and I nearly slipped off the edge of the valley at one (particularly terrifying) point.

For me, the ice was the worst part. I’ve always hated that feeling of slipping on ice, even when I’m safe on a footpath it still scares the hell out of me. We were trekking through Patagonia in August – most things were closed because no one encourages trekking at this time. A lot of the trek involves walking across or literally climbing up through streams and using them as the path. I don’t know how effective that is in summer, but in winter they’re frozen over and completely ice. The path you’re trying to follow is just a stream of ice. It’s so slippery and hiking sticks aren’t so effective at gripping onto ice, so you’re just sliding. Trying to climb up a stream as though the scarce rocks are stairs when it’s all a slippery surface scared the crap out of me.

Ultimately, the ice is why we didn’t make it to the top. Throughout the whole way there I kept refusing to turn around, insistent that we couldn’t get so close to the end and not make it all the way. However, we ended up stopping approximately 15 minutes from the base of the towers. The last part was completely ice and snow, twisting and turning up the mountain where a real slip could send you falling way too far down. We were exhausted and sore and very aware that we needed to repeat the entire experience all over again just to get home. To suffer through 15 minutes of that ice, just to see the towers and turn around again (and to try to walk down the ice, which scared me even more) just did not seem worth it. We’d seen the towers before, getting closer didn’t seem worth our lives.

Everyone in the group asked us why we didn’t just do the last part, but honestly I felt no regret. I’d been so insistent on finishing, on not giving up or backing down and disappointing myself. But I did the absolute maximum that I could do, and then another 5 hours of descent. The view from where we stopped, in the snow amongst all the mountains, whatever distance high, was incredible.

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I am so proud of us for doing as much as we did and not giving up. It sucked and we were exhausted and sore and scared and unconvinced of our own abilities, but we did it anyway.

Feel the fear and do it anyway.

(As a post-script: everyone else manages to W Circuit perfectly fine. Partially winter sucks, partially we just suck at trekking. Jess spent a lot of the day yelling “WHY DOES ANYONE EVER ENJOY DOING THIS”. I can’t wait to hear about everyone else’s adventures in Torres del Paine over summer.)

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Road trip to Torres del Paine

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Our second adventure in Patagonia was a guided tour around the Torres del Paine National Park to see all the main sites. This could definitely be done by yourself, if you could rent a car and knew which points to aim for. That would definitely have been my ideal, just because I like to be in control and don’t love the idea of paying someone to do something I could do myself, but without that option this was definitely the next best idea.

The road trip around the park was my highlight of the trip to Patagonia. The park is absolutely beautiful and full of things you can’t even imagine existing, but it’s also way too big to see yourself without committing to the full 4 day trek. I didn’t want to miss any of it and this was definitely the best way to do it.

Once again, we started the day before the sun could be bothered to wake up, but we braved it anyway. Our first stop was the Cueva del Milodón, a 200 meter long cave and incredible natural monument. We walked through the cave, which also serves as an archaeological dig site, and learnt all about prehistoric Patagonia. The cave contains remnants of extinct animals and human activity. One of the animals that lived in this area was the Mylodon, a giant sloth that went extinct roughly 10,000 years ago. The cave has a life-size replica of the Mylodon at the entrance for size reference. It was apparently a herbivore, but it would still scare the crap out of you.

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We continued our drive, and once we got close to the park we stopped at various look out points. From the very first look out, we could see the eponymous towers of the ‘Torres del Paine’ perfectly. We had been expecting rain and clouds, but it was such a clear day and it made every view even more surreal.

There is no way to explain the beauty of the park, so I’ll just show you.

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Those dark grey pointy mountains on the side? Those are the ‘Torres’ of ‘Torres del Paine’.
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Laguna Amarga

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You know how in skyscrapers, the higher you go, the less the difference seems? Maybe this isn’t a relatable analogy, but I lived in skyscrapers for a few years. On the 19th floor, the height is insane and the cars look like ants. But from the 40th floor, it more or less seems the same. You get so high that the difference is barely noticeable, your brain can’t comprehend the difference in something so extreme. That’s what Torres del Paine felt like, in terms of beauty. It was all so so beautiful that after a while you start to become immune to the extreme beauty – it’s all just incredibly beautiful.

Or at least, that’s what I thought until I arrived at Lago Pehoe. I was becoming immune to the beauty, until we got there.

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Lago Pehoe does not look like it should exist in this world. It looks like a beautiful mystical kingdom from a far away mythical land. It looks like the White Queen rules it and somehow a rift in time and space opened and it slipped through to our world. It shouldn’t be here. It shouldn’t be real. It is the prettiest place in the entire world.

I didn’t actually end up taking that many photos of it, because I spent the entire time insisting that it clearly wasn’t real and just staring at it in awe. Luckily, Jess kept it together and managed to take photos of its beauty.

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We went to one of the campsites for the W Trek for lunch, which was all closed but still had benches and areas to sit and relax and even a little convenience store that was open and provided me with much needed coffee. We took our lunch and walked down to the shore of the lake, where we sat down and admired the view.

Sitting on the shore of Lago Pehoe, staring at the bright blue water and incredible mountains, sipping low quality coffee, with my best friend, was honestly my favourite moment of the whole trip. It still seems surreal.

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Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay there forever, so we bundled back into the van and continued on to see the Grey Glacier. Unlike our previous low key site seeing, of driving up to a lookout, bracing the wind, taking snaps, and bundling back into the van, this experience was a little more intense. We got out in a car park and were told it would be a little bit of a walk. This seemed ok. We walked through a forest, across some dubious bridges, and all of this seemed fine. And then we reached the huge open beach of the Grey Lake and it’s unbearable wind.

A note on the wind: Patagonia is always cold. It is the south of the country, very close to Antarctica. It is mountains and lakes and glaciers. We went in winter. We knew it would be cold. We had prepared for cold. We wore at least five layers every day, and we could deal with the cold. What we couldn’t deal with however, was the wind. Nothing protects you from the wind! The park is notoriously windy and there is nothing you can do to escape it, particularly from the beautiful vantage points that offered such amazing views because there was nothing blocking you. Sometimes we would get out of the car and I wouldn’t even be able to look at the beautiful sights because the wind was too damn strong to look up or face the right direction. I don’t like the cold, but I can handle it. This wind is another thing.

So we’re on this huge open beach, and our guide tells us that we have to walk all the way across it to be able to see the glacier. This was honestly the most intense resistance training I can imagine. I couldn’t even lift my head up, all I could do was focus on my feet and try to battle my way across the sand. You couldn’t walk in a straight line, the wind would blow you across and we could not stop cackling as the wind crashed us into each other as we made tiny steps across this vast expanse.

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Eventually, we made it to the other side. At this point we had to go right up to the water, so the little pebbles were blowing up and hitting our faces. I wanted to look up and admire the glacier that I had worked my ass off to see, but honestly the wind was so strong I could barely open my eyes. Also our phones died, so I don’t think we even got good photos.

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Trying to pick up the ice to get a photo with it, as the tour guide insisted. Our phones died before we actually got the photo.
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I don’t really remember seeing this view, but it looks incredible. The Grey Glacier is off in the distance.

And then, we turned around to do it again. In an attempt to block some wind, we linked arms with the couple that were on the tour with us and fought through the wind together. It was absolutely absurd but a very cool experience, and one that I don’t think you can do in summer, as the ice melts and the lake covers most of the beach.

This was our last stop on our tour, and then we drove back through the park. We might have stopped a few more times but I barely remember. The tour was amazing and the park even more beautiful than I could have imagined, but I was exhausted and I spent the trip home watching out the window in silence.

This was my favourite day of the trip, and every time I look at the photos again I cannot believe I saw those things and that they exist in this world. Torres del Paine is absolutely incredible and I am so so so glad I went.

 

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Boats and glaciers

Our first adventure in Patagonia was a boat trip to visit the glaciers. If this sounds vague, it’s because it was. We honestly booked this trip without knowing anything about it, except that the lovely lady at the hostel recommended it, and basically nothing else was running because it was winter.

So we woke up way too early and put on a thousand layers of clothing and went out into the darkness to our first adventure. It’s worth noting here that the sun doesn’t rise in Puerto Natales until about 9am, so we were honestly in complete darkness for the first few hours of this excursion. Someone came to pick us up in a car, and then we were taken to a tourist office, and then we were put on a bus with a lot of other tired tourists, and then the bus stopped quite quickly and we were carted through the darkness onto a boat. I want to say here that we were on a dock walking onto this boat, but it was too dark to really see where we were going and I was pretty sure I was going to fall into the freezing water.

However, we were escorted onto the boat and soon all was revealed. The boat was going to travel through the fjords from Puerto Natales to Parque Nacional Bernando O’Higgins, the largest national park in the country, to see the Balmaceda and Serrano glaciers.

The boat had a large space with tables and seats, which meant that we could hide inside from the cold and wind between different sites, and had a deck in the front and back to stand outside and admire the incredible views. Despite it being freezing outside, we went onto the deck as soon as there was light so that we could watch the sun rise over the mountains. It was beautiful and the whole sky turned lilac as we watched.

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However, we were escorted inside for coffee and it soon became way too rough to go outside. It was windy and the water was rough, and the waves were crashing against the windows so strongly that we couldn’t even see outside. We waited this out from the safety of the cabin inside, and ventured out again as soon as it calmed down.

For part of the journey, I just stood at the back of the boat (where the cabin of the boat protected me from the waves) and watched the mountains go by. It was cold, and I got in the way of a million photos, but it was peaceful.

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After about two hours, we arrived at the national park to see the glacier. This required actually getting out of the boat and walking through the park for about an hour, but we were quickly rewarded. After about ten minutes of forest, you turn a corner and get an incredible view of the glacier and the huge lake of ice at its base. The rest of the walk is along the edge of this lake, which provided amazing scenery the whole way. We walked to the base of the glacier, where the view wasn’t particularly different but was the perfect photo opportunity for all of us tourists to get our shots with the glacier, from every angle possible.

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When we were done, it was back on the boat to turn around. To warm us up after venturing into the cold, we were all treated to a complementary glass of whiskey. The novelty of this treat was great, but I managed about two sips before I gave up. It was the same view as before and I was exhausted, so I napped until we stopped for lunch. The lunch was the real surprise of the trip – and definitely the reason it cost a lot more than we had expected.

The boat stopped half way home, and we all got off. We were at a cattle ranch, where we were to be treated to a three course meal. The main course was a fresh lamb barbecue, served to us still sizzling. It was absolutely delicious and I ate way more than I could physically deal with. After lunch we wandered around, and honestly this place was so beautiful it looked like a postcard or a stock photo. I wanted to stay outside and take it all in, but the wind was so cold that I couldn’t bear it.

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If it had been summer, I don’t know if we would have done this trip, mostly just because it cost more than we would have liked. However its definitely worth the money – the views are awesome, the food is great, and the experience of hiking through a far off and inaccessible park to see hidden glaciers is amazing.

 

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