by Hank Leukart
January 15, 2009
Adopted by Kiwis in Chilean Patagonia
Hiking the Torres del Paine Circuit on another family’s vacation.
Mountains shrouded in fog behind Refugio Lago Paine in Chilean Patagonia's Torres del Paine National Park. (view all Torres del Paine, Chilean Patagonia photos)
ORRES DEL PAINE NATIONAL PARK, Chile — As our plane landed in Punta Arenas, Chile, the southernmost city of its size in the world, my brother Brian desperately uttered, “Get me out of this aluminum tube.” For a self-professed lover of plane travel in particular, this was an uncharacteristic request, but I understood. We had been flying for fifteen hours on our way to tackle the 130-kilometer (81-mile) Torres del Paine Circuit in the Patagonia region of southern Chile, and we had made the mistake of wearing our sweltering hiking boots on our flights. With six hours of bus travel still ahead of us, we were not oblivious to the cosmic humor of having to spend an entire night and day jammed into tiny economy-class-sized spaces so that we could eventually spend nine days hiking through wide-open spaces of wilderness.
After a turbulent landing in the notorious Patagonian winds, we rode in the driver’s cab on a full bus to backpacker’s-haven Puerto Natales, where we bought our final supplies for our trip. Quickly, we learned the Spanish vocabulary for sunscreen (“proteccion solar”), insoles (“plantillas”), and camping stove fuel (most strangely, “bencina blanca,” or “white spirit”). Two striking Chilean girls whom we had met on our flight met us for dinner at Afrigonia, a restaurant described as “African-Patagonian fusion” on our guide map. I can’t attest to the accuracy of the description of this fusion, but the chicken curry tasted delicious after our long trip. We discovered quickly that our Chilean friends had never been on a major hiking or camping trip before, and they feared that their aspirations to hike the full Torres del Paine Circuit outstripped their abilities. After all, most casual hikers who visit Torres del Paine National Park hike a route called “The W,” which can be completed in four days and doesn’t require hikers to carry a tent or food, if they choose to overnight at comfortable “refugios” along the route. Despite the girls’ borrowed, ill-fitting equipment and lack of experience, we were impressed with their courage. Sometimes the best way to learn how to become an astronaut is to borrow a space suit and beg NASA to fire you into outer space on a rocket.
The girls latched onto us after another three-hour bus ride the next morning, and the four of us began trekking through the kilometers of daisy fields that started our hike. Though my brother and I were nervous that the hike’s seemingly auspicious and effortless beginning eventually would be mocked by friends from home hoping to hear stories of death-defying adventure, we appreciated seeing the meadows of white petals and dramatic snow-capped mountain backdrops after so much time spent trapped in aluminum tubes.
Yet even the tranquil fields of white flowers were too much for our Chilean friends; their oversized backpacks distributed the weight of their cargo to the wrong places (their shoulders) despite a detailed pack-strap-tightening class my brother and I taught. At our first campsite, the girls collapsed, completely immobile, after only about 17 kilometers (11 miles) of the hike. Not helping their spirits were rumors flying around camp that a hiker had died that day trying to hike a difficult mountain pass in a blizzard, a pass which we knew we would have to tackle as part of the Circuit. After inhaling lots of spaghetti and cigarettes, the girls began chatting with other hikers at the campsite, trying to find anyone willing to carry the contents of their backpacks for the remainder of the adventure.
My brother and I also began meeting other hikers. I helped an 18-year-old high school valedictorian from New Zealand named Brittany carry a heavy tree stump to a circle of stump-seats already arranged by her family. Suddenly, I found myself in a Kiwi interrogation circle — two families from New Zealand, with three teenage girls and four parents, were throwing out tens of questions in their distinct accents about my job, my brother, and what life was like as an American with an annual pass to Disneyland. Apparently, to New Zealand teenagers, meeting someone with an annual pass to Disneyland is as exciting as meeting Miley Cyrus in person.
After the most audacious daughter, 14-year-old Megan, almost killed me for making the mistake of lumping New Zealanders and Australians together, the kids invited me and my brother to play the Rummy-like card game Phase 10 with them. During the game, Megan also attacked me for not pronouncing her name correctly — with a Kiwi accent, it’s pronounced “Mee-gan.” Soon, Brian and I found we couldn’t open our mouths without being assaulted from all sides for not using correct Kiwi vocabulary. We started talking about “hiking,” and the New Zealander girls yelled “tramping” at the top of their lungs. We mentioned “sandals” and they screamed “jandals.” We said “swimsuit” and they shriked “togs.” Perhaps most entertaining, we chatted about “trail mix” and they immediately shouted “scroggin.”
While talking to the girls’ parents, I said something about the “buttercups” we had hiked through and immediately received a botany lesson from Mee-gan’s mother, a plant-expert. In Randy Pausch’s book The Last Lecture — a transcript of a final lecture given by a dying professor at Carnegie Mellon University — the author suggests that there are two types of families in the world: those who need a dictionary to get through a family dinner and those who can do without. These New Zealand families were the kind that wouldn’t be able to finish an appetizer without a 26-volume encyclopedia.
We quickly learned to speak carefully around these rambunctious teenagers, especially Mee-gan, who frequently managed to start arguments about the way we accented certain syllables in certain words. Brittany, fascinated by our stash of freeze-dried camping food, begged to watch as we made our dinner and demanded to taste every meal or snack we ate. Mee-gan’s 16-year-old sister Ella was more mysterious than the other two, as she sat quietly, seemingly waiting for the right moment to strike. That moment usually never came, but the longer she sat, the more her mischievous silence unnerved us.
Yet all of their unique personalities were intensely endearing, and after the Chilean girls bravely catapulted ahead of us without their heavy backpacks to weigh them down — amazingly, they found other hikers to carry their equipment — we found ourselves hiking with the Kiwi teenagers and their parents.
The girls were enthralled (we thought) with our refined ability to entertain them on the trail; after all, my brother and I have spent hundreds of hours on other trips perfecting word games, memory games, and board games for amusement both during hiking and while settling into our tents at night.
We were on a bizarre family vacation — embedded into other people’s families.
When the Kiwi parents asked us to keep watch over the girls when they strayed too far ahead into the extreme Patagonian winds and my brother and I began throwing sticky-burrs at the girls on the trail like long-lost siblings, it became clear — as we tramped, ate our scroggin, and received our daily botany lessons, the two New Zealand families had implicitly adopted us, and we had become honorary Kiwis.
Did we manage to complete the Circuit with the New Zealanders and avoid being blown away by the 100-kmh Patagonian winds? Find out in the second part of this three part series about my trip to Chilean Patagonia.
How to Hike the Torres del Paine Circuit
- Fly to Punta Arenas, Chile on LAN Airlines. Note that USA and Canadian citizens must pay a $130 (US) “reciprocity fee” to enter the country.
- Buy a ticket on a bus to Puerto Natales and then on to Torres del Paine National Park. Try the Bus-Sur bus company. You will probably want to stay overnight in Puerto Natales. Try Hostel Melissa for an inexpensive $30 (US) room for two people with a private bathroom and breakfast the next morning.
- When you arrive at the park, pay the small entrance fee $15 (US) and begin hiking from Laguna Amarga or Refugio Las Torres. To do the full Torres del Paine Circuit with both side trips (to the Valle de Frances and to the Torres del Paine), you will want at least eight full days of hiking if you’re a strong hiker, or ten full days if you want to take it easy. For a much easier and shorter (four to five day) hike, try hiking “The W.”
- Bring clothing and hiking equipment to handle variable and extreme weather, including freezing temperatures, high winds, rain, sleet, hail, snow, and hot sun. You will also want to carry some Chilean pesos to buy treats or extra hot meals at the refugios along some of the route.
- View my route and download the Without Baggage Torres del Paine GPS track in GPX format.