Monday, November 25, 2013

Getting to Torres del Paine: hitchhiking on a yacht, long bus rides, and friendly faces

The Goal: Meet my friends in Torres del Paine

These past several months whenever people would ask me what my plans were next, I replied, “No se. No tengo un plan.” (I have no plans) I really enjoy the traveling life without a plan, doing what I want where I want when the mood strikes. However, there was one plan for this trip that I had been looking forward to for half a year: meeting up with my friend Serena and her fiancé Eric to celebrate my 30th birthday in Torres del Paine.

Torres del Paine is Chile’s most renowned national park and is to Chile what Yosemite is to the United States. The park is centered around some spectacular walls of granite, considered by many to be one of the most beautiful place on Earth. It was recently named the "8th wonder of the world" by voters on VirtualTourist; also, my well-traveled friend Caleb recommended it as “the standard to which I compare all natural beauty”(check out his blog, he and his girlfriend are doing good things on their trip to SE Asia). Becaues of this, it attracts a zoo of backpack-laden tourists from all over the world to hike on its famous trekking circuit. It, along with the Andes in winter and the Atacama Desert, was one of very few “I must go here” goals for this trip.

The Torres. Pretty rad.

Serena and I met in 2005 when we were roommates during our three-month internships at NASA Goddard as part of the NASA Academy program. We bonded over things like arguing about which temperature to keep our room at (we worked out a compromise where I gave her all of my blankets and in exchange was allowed to keep the room at a cool-ish level), being the weirdos who biked to work, taking obscene numbers of photos with rockets, and sweeping the end-of-program awards ceremony. Unlike most summer program friendships where you stay in touch for a while but eventually drift back away into your own lives, many of us from that summer are still in touch eight years later. This is in part thanks to the Girls Heart Rockets running team that grew out of the program, first as an informal group named after an inside joke, but it quickly morphed into a seriously ass-kicking competitive relay team.

When I used “I’m going to be traveling in South America” as my excuse this year for not signing up for any Girls Heart Rockets races (glad to have a really legitimate excuse for a change versus my normal excuse that until we form a sister team “Cows in Space”, I’m too slow for Rockets), Serena responded, “Sweet, can I come?”

Serena, chowing down on a bell pepper after reaching Baso Torres.

Unlike all of my other friends and sibling who had said the same and even made promises to join me for parts of this trip for years only to weasel out in the end, within 24 hours Serena had committed, and within a few weeks we had made definite plans that the two of them would join me in Patagonia over my birthday.

So I had intentionally kept my trek on Isla Navarino “short” (if seven days can be called short) even though I would have liked more time to explore the island, because I wanted to leave plenty of buffer time to make sure that I could make it to Torres del Paine in time to meet up with them. Or at least I thought it was plenty of buffer time: I planned my Navarino trek to end on a Thursday, and the trek in Torres del Paine wasn't starting until the following Tuesday. Given that it took me 2 days to get to Ushuaia from Bariloche, I figured twice the time to make it half the distance should be plenty. Right? Right??

Leaving Puerto Williams: appropriately difficult for an island at the end of the world

There were only four options for getting off the island and to Punta Arenas (from which there are a good dozen or so buses a day to Puerto Natales):

  1. A 1.5 hour flight with DAP airlines directly from Puerto Williams to Punta Arenas, leaving twice daily Monday-Saturday (the cheapest commercial option and by far the fastest)
  2. Taking the same zodiac back to Ushuaia that I had taken to the island, then take an all-day bus to Punta Arenas the next day (with the bus, more expensive than flying)
  3. A 36-hour scenic (but expensive) ferry ride that would get me to Punta Arenas Monday night: too late to meet Serena and Eric in Puerto Natales but maybe early enough to rush to meet them in camp after their first day of hiking
  4. Attempting to hitch a ride on a yacht to Ushuaia, then bus to Punta Arenas

Since the flight was the cheapest and by far the fastest certain option, my first order of business once I returned from the trek (see Navarino Part VIII: The Feral Swampbeast Returns to Civilization) was get tickets for the first possible flight to Punta Arenas. I had been told before I left on my trek that getting onto a flight once I returned would be no problem—high season hadn't’t started yet—and that that would be better since the tickets were expensive and if anything happened to delay my return, I wouldn't want to have to forfeit the ticket.

But when I showed up at the DAP office (Puerto Williams is serviced by the famous Antarctic airline DAP via a small airfield outside of town) and waited the 30 minutes for whatever hamsters were running the computers to spin their wheels enough times to permit a search for ticket availability, I was informed that all of the flights were full. “¿Y manaña? ¿O Sabado?” I asked, and was then informed that the flights were full for weeks. I asked if there was any wait list or way to get on and they told me to return at 3 pm to see if there had been any cancellations. I showed up at 3 pm, and the office was closed. I tried again a few hours later and found them open, and they told me to return the following day at 2 pm. I did, and the office was closed. After this happened several more times I started to lose my patience with the folks at the DAP office...but I had yet to experience the full of their incompetence (I can only assume DAP pilots are as much above average as the staff at the office were below it...).

This has nothing to do with the story, but is a memorial plaque in the Puerto Williams museum honoring Captain Robert FitzRoy of the HMS Beagle, who visited Isla Navarino several times in his trips to South America

Meanwhile I went to scope out my other options. I was too late to get the next-day’s zodiac, the one for Saturday was full, and the weather for Sunday was looking iffy enough that they warned it may not go on Sunday.  So the zodiac was out. I wasn't keen on the expensive and slow ferry, despite the scenery (which with bad weather rolling in probably wouldn't be too spectacular anyhow) because it would mean missing the first full day of hiking with my friends.

So I spent a lot of time hanging out at the yacht club in hopes of meeting someone I might be able to catch a ride to Ushuaia with. It was a fun place to hang out regardless, full of fascinating people, and also had the town’s best internet signal (there are, it turned out, three places in Puerto Williams with an internet signal: the town library with terrible slow internet in a cramped space, the town museum with somewhat less slow internet that cut out often but in a really nice spot, and the yacht club which was about on par with the museum but had the distinct advantage of also having a bar). The first night back, this meant arriving with the intent of having a beer and seeing who was there, and leaving at 4am having drunk ALL the beers that the yachties and Chilean navymen kept buying me.

Inside the Club de Yates, coolest bar ever.

I had a great time there meeting and talking to people and especially enjoyed getting to know Ben and Anna (and their dog Osa), a San Franciscan couple my age who had sailed down from San Fran over the course of several years and were also looking to bum rides to Ushuaia in order to hop on a free trip to Antarctica that they had managed to charm their way onto.

My dancing all night after my trek got me two things: (1) very sick, and (2) an invitation to an asado at the yacht club the following day. The asado was being thrown at the club on Friday to welcome the sailors who were arriving for a friendship regatta being hosted by the Chilean Navy in order to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of Puerto Williams. Free wine, free food, and fun company? I do not say no to such things. At the asado, my host and I put out the word that I was looking for a ride, but there were no bites. Still, I got to meet some real characters including the famous Charlie Porter, a glaciologist (officially a research associate at the University of Maine) living out of his two boats and house in Puerto Williams, but in one of his previous lives was a pioneering (and still legendary) big-wall rock climber in Yosemite and Patagonia.

On Saturday the folks at DAP had suggested that I show up at 11:30 at the airport to ask the captain if he could squeeze another passenger on what I assumed was an afternoon flight (since I asked at DAP if I needed to bring all my luggage with me and they said no). Apparently this is pretty standard there and my chances were actually decent—if they weren’t hauling a lot of stuff, they might have weight left over for me. So I slowly dragged my sick, wheezing self the 40 minute hike to the airport from town. I made it almost all the way there at shortly after 11 when, first, a plane took off (this worried me). Shortly thereafter a car full of carabineros who were dropping a friend off for a flight drove by (this unworried me somewhat) and picked me up. We arrived just as a vehicle full of the folks I recognized from my many trips to the DAP office was departing, and they told us that the flight had already left. It turns out that the staff at the Puerto Williams DAP office have no idea when their own planes leave.

Bridge on the way to the airport.

My carabinero friend was furious in the totally calm, joking Chilean way (tip from Charlie Porter: “The key in Chile is you never, ever lose your cool. Chileans communicate in jokes when they get pissed off.”), since he had also been told to show up at 11:30, and he was a ticket-carrying passenger. We spent an uncomfortable hour back in the DAP office trying to wrangle our way onto the evening flight, although at that point I never wanted to set foot in the DAP office again, having written them all off as utterly useless.

We were promised that if we returned to the airfield at 7:30 pm, the carabinero would have a ride and I might be able to squeeze on as well. To me this meant that there might be a flight leaving sometime that evening but they definitely wouldn't have room for either of us when we showed up, but I kept my mouth shut and agreed when the carabinero told me to meet him at the police station at 6 pm to drive over nice and early (since he, too, did not trust the info from DAP).

Tired, sick, feeling quite miserable, frustrated, and hungry, I returned to Patty’s, stopping on the way at the waterfront to watch the regatta which was now fully underway and to catch my sick, wheezy breath. I cooked myself some soup and chatted with the latest arrivals. I told Patty my plans to leave at 6 pm and try to catch the afternoon flight and teared up when we said our “maybe goodbyes”.

It was the first time I had come close to crying in over a month. Walking back to the yacht club heavy-hearted it struck me how deeply the place had grabbed onto my heart. My wild soul had found a place wild enough to want to stay.

Colorful boats (with the Yaghan scenic ferry in the back right) in Puerto Williams

How I hitchhiked on a yacht to cross the Beagle Channel

I wandered back across town to the yacht club, feeling suddenly lonely and craving the company of friends. After chatting briefly with Ben and Anna I curled up on the upper inside deck of the club to catch up on emails, rest, work on getting a blog post up, try to map out my transport options, and update Serena on my transportation situation.

Suddenly Anna appeared with the news that they had found someone to catch a ride with, leaving the next morning to Ushuaia, and that if I asked there might be room for me as well but I’d need to commit right then because they were heading over to the port station to get their passports stamped out (since Puerto Williams is in Chile, and Ushuaia in Argentina). I waffled since if I could get onto the flight it would be a lot faster, but I decided to walk with them anyhow since I was going that way in order to meet the carabinero for our attempted flight-catching.

Sailboats participating in the Puerto Williams 60th Anniversary friendship regatta

On the way over, the yacht’s captain Marcel informed Ben and Anna that he wanted to leave that evening instead because bad weather was rolling in. When he said that, I jumped, thinking if I could get to Ushuaia that night I could catch the early morning bus on Sunday, get to Punta Arenas Sunday night, and be in Natales in plenty of time. So I put on my gutsy mooch pants and asked Marcel directly if there might be room for me, too. He gave a sort of noncommittal response, so once we got to the station I asked, directly again, feeling really awkward about being pushy but sufficiently driven by desperation. He said yes, sure, why not, and I promised to supply wine to seal the deal.

And that’s how it happened that my fourth experience hitchhiking in my life was on a yacht.

Iorana, Captain Marcel's yacht

I felt guilty about standing up the carabinero, but figured he would make it to the airport without me as Ben, Anna, and I handed over our passports and Captain Marcel checked us out of the country. I suggested Patty’s place as a place for dinner before we took off. Marcel laughed since he was friends with Patty and was already planning on having dinner there. Ben and Anna had to pack for Antarctica (how often do you get to say that?), so Marcel and I walked to Patty’s together.

We chatted on the way and Captain Marcel told me stories about how he’d landed in this part of the world. How he’d worked chartering trips (and still does) around Tierra del Fuego and Cape Horn. How he was now old enough to collect his Belgian pension and that it provided plenty to live on while he worked as a gaucho at Yendegaia. How he loved living without a phone and internet. How he had been married once for seven years and that was quite enough. How “I’m happy, I have no problems, I don’t want someone else’s problems.” And I could only nod my head and agree on that count.

Patty had a treat in store for us: a mountain of fresh king crab, the last of the season. I supplied the wine, an “expensive” (for Chile, where excellent wine is about as cheap as water) $12 USD bottle of Casillero del Diabalo 2012 Reserva Carmenere. Casillero del Diabalo is my favorite wine back home, and since discovering Carmenere in Chile it has become my favorite wine, and sweet shit this was good. Patty and Marcel and the others kept loading me up with so much crab that I felt like I wasn’t going to be able to walk. It was absurdly tasty on its own, and Patty makes a magic Mapuche merkén (like chipotle) spicy sauce (as well as a really good garlic mayonnaise, but her magic spicy sauce is my favorite) that made it mind-blowing. It was a meal that in a restaurant in Ushuaia—or anywhere else for that matter—probably would have run over $100. And that was just a regular dinner with friends at Patty’s place. (I miss her!)

There were several of these trays served up.

King Crab dinner at Patty's

Me, Captain Marcel, and Patty

It was around 10 pm when we wandered back to the boat, me with all my stuff, and loaded down with a belly-full of what must have been several pounds of crab. We grabbed Ben and Anna, hopped on the boat, untied from the Club de Yates, and were off. Marcel’s yacht, Iorana, was very comfortable, with a large aft cabin where he stores his wine and dried meats (and where we dropped our packs), a kitchen and dining table that converts to a large bed, a side couch, and a fore berth where Marcel slept. He set the autopilot and got up every few minutes to check on things while we sat and chatted. I was exhausted and although I  tried to stay awake and chat as long as I could, I soon fell asleep at the table for an hour, after which I was given permission to curl up in a corner and was out cold until we docked in Ushuaia at 4 am.

What I hadn't factored into my flash decision to take the boat was that I’d have to check in to Argentina before I’d be allowed to go anywhere, and the offices wouldn't be open until 9 am—well after the morning bus I had wanted to take had left (and as it turned out I wouldn't have been able to get on that bus even if the timing had worked out). Well, at least I’d get to sleep.

Marcel turned the boat radios off, determined to sleep as long as possible, and we all fell asleep to the sound of the thumping bass of a Saturday night party raging onshore. He woke us up at 10 am to go check in. We had breakfast (I supplied bread, butter, juice, and oranges, Ben and Anna supplied what fruit they had left from their boat, and Marcel spoiled us all with homemade rhubarb jam. We all waked over to the police station where they took their sweet-ass time (over an hour) checking us in. Then we said our goodbyes and scattered: Marcel to deal with customs, Ben and Anna to find their friend to help prep the boat for the trip to Antarctica, and me to try to book a bus ticket to Punta Arenas.

Anna on arrival in Ushuaia

Escaping Ushuaia

Ushuaia has no bus terminal, which made things difficult. Buses in Chile and Argentina generally cannot be booked online as a foreigner. The booking offices were all closed since it was a Sunday. At the info center I was told that word I hate so much, “imposible”, when I asked where or how I could secure myself a seat on a bus for the morning.

In fact, the info I was supplied at the info center was wrong. I had spent many hours in the previous days mapping out my transport options and knew that there was a Chilean bus company that at least in theory ran a bus Monday mornings from Ushuaia to Punta Arenas. When I asked at the info center about this bus, they said “no existe” and handed me a printout of the “complete” list of bus connections, which did not include the company that had the Monday bus. It later occurred to me that all of the companies on their list were Argentinian, which further confirmed my finding that Argentinians generally refuse to acknowledge that Chileans can do anything right (contrary to my experience, where Chilean outfits generally do the same thing for cheaper and in a more friendly way). They also told me that it was not possible to pay on board a bus in Argentina, and that because tomorrow was a holiday nothing would be open, so there was no possible way for me to leave Ushuaia until Tuesday. I didn't believe them.

Ushuaia is, however, a very beautiful town.

I was tired and grumpy and sick of information offices feeding me blatantly wrong information and being the absolute opposite of helpful. I started asking around town in shops and tourist agencies instead about where I could get a bus until finally one person pointed me down the street with the words, “5 blocks that way, be there at 6 am”. Sure enough, 5 blocks away, I found the office of a little tour agency with a little piece of paper taped in the window that showed the Monday bus I had seen on the internet leaving at 7 am.

I found a hostel that would let me pay $60 Argentine pesos (~$10 USD, depending on who you exchange money with) for a day of internet, use of their kitchen, and shower, and settled in, crossing my fingers that I could show up and get on that bus the next morning. Meanwhile, I randomly connected with an acquaintance from Bariloche who was in Ushuaia celebrating her very successful exams to be a tourism guide in Bariloche, and we caught up over dinner. I hope she makes it into the business soon, because, I had decided, competent providers of tourist information are desperately needed in this part of the world!

Marcel had generously offered to let me spend another night on the boat, so after dinner I wandered back to the boat, crawled into my sleeping bag (Marcel was off partying with boat friends), and woke up early the next morning (Marcel was out cold, so I left him a note to thank him and say goodbye) to see about the bus.

View of the boat mooring in Ushuaia at sunrise

I showed up at the tour office at 6 am, walking up the streets while the discos were still raging. There wasn't a soul to be seen outside except a stand of groggy police officers up early to keep drunk kids from getting into too much trouble. The tour office was dark, so I left a “I need a bus ticket!” note at the door and then tried to sneak into the hostel two blocks away for the shower that I hadn't used the previous day. I was caught by thoroughly disgruntled employee who I only confused with explanations, but in the end I think he was too tired to deal with me and gave up and let me shower. I was quick, and back at the tour office by 6:30, at which point the discos had dumped their load and the streets were full of kids who looked way too young to be drinking legally and girls in platform shoes and mini-dresses in the frigid cold while I was bundled up in a down jacket. The office was still dark, but I was relieved to see  a small crowd gathered outside.

I chatted with a man who turned out to be a Penguinologist from Oxford until the bus showed up and, much to my relief, they let me in without a ticket. Not only that, but they let me pay in Chilean pesos and gave me a very generous exchange rate that meant I paid about 60% of what I thought I was going to have to pay ($30000 CHP, which equals ~$60 USD). Score! I settled into my seat with Professor Penguin and breathed an enormous sigh of relief. Professor Penguin had celebrated his birthday the night before and a friend had baked him a cake, which he shared with me for breakfast. I felt like the luckiest person alive.

A final Ushuaia photo

After that it was 11 hours of tedium (= rest, sweet rest) interrupted only by a long hour and a half wait at the border crossing where, for some reason, they never bothered to stamp us out of Argentina. Then another stop at the ferry crossing across the Strait of Magellan between Rio Grande and Rio Gallegos where, because of huge swells they took us out of the bus and put us inside  (I didn't have time to grab my camera, so no photos or videos, sadly). This was fortunate because unlike all of the other long bus rides I had been on, this bus didn't feed us meals or snacks and I was getting hangry (= hungry + cranky, thanks Tom & Ellen for the brilliant word). Professor Penguin and I got hot dogs.

Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales: the final leg

We arrived in Punta Arenas at 6 pm, and 10 minutes before our arrival I was informed at all of the buses continuing to Natales for the next 24 hours were full. By this point this neither surprised nor phased me, I just asked about other bus companies and the bus steward actually called ahead for me and made me a reservation with another company. Because—I know this may come as a shock to my Argentinian readers (giving you guys shit, but you know I love you)—Chileans are helpful! And nice!

We pulled into Punta Arenas, I hugged Professor Penguin goodbye (he was transferring between two Antarctic trips to visit his penguin colonies), and the bus steward gave me directions to the other bus company. On my way I was tempted to stop and get dinner—food other than hot dogs and cake and cookies—but thought I’d check in first just to be safe. I showed up and was immediately whisked onto an earlier bus. Food can wait. I was finally on the final leg to meet my friends!

Surprise friend addition to the birthday tour: Anneke, my Australian friend I had met in Bariloche.
No one got swagger like Anneke.

I arrived in Natales three hours later (after a total of 14 hours sitting on buses) at around 9:30 pm. I set off from the bus station confidently, with a carefully-drawn map that I had made up with the help of the Internets in Ushuaia the day before in hand—only to end up standing in the rain, confused, turning in circles, trying to figure out where I was, hopelessly lost, because Natales had built a new bus terminal that was well off the edge of my nice little map. But less than a minute later someone came to my aid and the chatty, frighteningly made-up but good-hearted woman walked me most of the way to the hostel while telling me her entire life’s story.

I arrived at 10 pm where I was greeted by the hostel owner, who was expecting me thanks to my Bariloche pal Anneke who managed to make it down to join us for the trek and who had arrived the day prior. I was so very relieved to see Anneke, a familiar face, a friend to go play with. Anneke even fed me. I slept like a rock that night. The next morning at 8 am, Serena and Eric were there with their rental car, and off we went to our trek in Torres.

On the road with Eric

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