After a night of ‘al fresco’ sleeping in what turned out to be a urine-saturated ditch just out of the boundaries of the ferry port in Punta Arenas, the result of a delayed ferry from Tierra del Fuego, we began our route northwards towards the Torres del Paine National Park. Ahead lay only 250km to the town of Puerto Natales, billed as the gateway to the National Park. Unfortunately we quickly realised that the harsh headwinds that had haunted us for much of Tierra del Fuego were blowing all the stronger on the mainland and this relatively short distance took just shy of four days to cover. Certainly not one for the record books! With group morale soaring upon our arrival to the small coastal town we found a small campsite, our first night of paid accommodation, and settled into a cheap celebratory meal of salmon and chips!
After a day of respite we headed along the winding gravel road towards the national park, camping in a lush green valley base in a small copse of trees at the foot of a range of snowy peaks. The following day progress was interrupted somewhat as we approached closer and closer to the mountains themselves, each corner providing better views and photo opportunities than the last. That evening we set ourselves atop a hill overlooking a vast plain with the Cuernos del Paine erupting up in front of us. With the sun slowly setting in the sky and both mountains, glaciers and clouds providing a theatre for the senses we decided that we would continue cycling for a few hours into the night with the aim of ‘Matt Damon-ing’ our way into the park – that is to say sneak into the park without having to pay for requisite £20 entrance fee. We all agreed that charging such an extortionate fee for the right to visit such a natural landscape was unreasonable, and that the entrance fee totalled a couple of week’s food budget too!! Three hours later, and a with a successful Matt Damon under our belts, we once more camped hidden from view in some trees, again succeeding in bypassing the mandatory campsite fees. Waking the next day just as the sky began to be touched by a bluish pink and breaking camp quickly before we were spotted we once more set our legs against the torrid wind and began the struggle along yet another gravel road. Although the sun was beating down on us with a UV risk of 10/10, the wind still howled and seemed to blow in fits and starts from the mountains causing us to jump off our bikes every few minutes and hold them windward to act as shelter from the onslaught of gravel and grit shaped ammunition that flung up in our faces and attacked all exposed body parts. After three hours of this we were counting the number of cuts on our arms, legs and faces from these awful conditions! Finally, and after far longer than we had anticipated (this is becoming a common occurrence), we reached the start of the trail that would lead us to the Towers of Paine themselves. Locking the bikes up and packing light with just two tents and no sleeping mats we set off up the climb in the late evening light, eventually reaching a free camp spot at a little after midnight. The over-zealous ranger who ran the site spotted our head torches and quickly jumped from his hut to ask to see our national park permits (which we obviously hadn’t got) and gave us a telling off in Spanish for arriving at the camp so late. Apparently walking along the paths wasn’t permitted after 7pm, which to our minds seemed a little ridiculous. We pleaded ignorance to this and feigned that we couldn’t understand what he was saying and so thankfully we were let off the hook. There are some benefits to being dreadful at Spanish!
A few uncomfortable hours of sleep and some delicious watery porridge later we were powering up the climb to reach the viewpoint of the Towers of Paine. I hadn’t really thought much about them before heading out to Patagonia despite their iconic status within the world of rock climbing and the outdoors in general and so didn’t really know what to expect. Needless to say the rising granite spires were more spectacular than I had ever imagined, and the words that my Dad said to me before heading out on my trip echoed within me. He has dreamed of visiting this place ever since he became an avid rock climber in his youth and his sentiment to a distant landscape and the importance that such a place held within him made my experience resonate all the more. A few photos later we headed back down the trail, bypassing the hoards of other walkers heading up to the viewpoint. Again, the popularity of such a place couldn’t help but diminish our own personal sense of discovery we were longing to find in these new landscapes. This feeling, coupled with national park bureaucracy preventing any travel away from the major paths encouraged us all the more to make our own way through the landscape and spend an unforgettable night at the fringes of a wood overlooking Lake Nordisfjord and the enormous mountains plunging into its glacial blue waters.
We left the park with our eyes firmly set on the tailwind that would carry us to Cerro Castillo, a small border town between Chile and Argentina that would be our home for Christmas Day. We arrived late on Christmas Eve to the most windspent forgotten place we had been! Immediately we regretted the decision to leave the sanctuary of the National Park, yet after a little while cycling through the desolate streets we chanced upon a local who pointed us to a bus shelter waiting room, equipped with three leather sofas and a large wood burning stove. Perfect! Christmas Day accommodation complete! Unfortunately the chocolate and beers were sadly lacking, but once more this kind local opened up his small shop at 9pm to allow us to get our Christmas Day beers and treats. And so Christmas morning we awoke, the first time any of us had been away from home for this time of year, and found we’d been locked inside this room whilst all of us had the need for a morning toilet visit. Far from ideal. Luckily I managed to climb out the window and make sense of the situation to the lady across the road who rang up the man with keys to the room and gave us half a Christmas cake for our troubles. Well, that couldn’t have gone much better. The rest of Christmas Day passed with plenty of relaxing and drinking, a long game of poker and even an extra special Christmas lunch and dinner of lentils and potatoes! Although the day as a whole inevitably lacked that true Christmassy feel given the sunshine and aridity of the setting, we all agreed that it was a great day nonetheless and as the clock struck midnight we toasted another round to the adventure ahead.