Posted by Sarah on Saturday, December 03, 2011Disclaimer: We are unable to upload any photos at this time. Hopefully Chile Chico will provide somewhat better internet service, so for now read away! 

Words cannot explain what we experienced in this last 11 day leg, but I will go ahead and give it a shot. When leaving the super small town of Villa O’Higgins, we were carrying our most unappealing food supply yet (thanks to limited options) but were in high spirits as we were about to embark on a stellar off-road hike through the mountains on an old horse trail. Little did we know that by trail, they meant a barely visible obstacle course sometimes designated by cairns –  or horse skulls, bull skulls, tin cans, kettles, or shoes in lieu of cairns – that may or may not cross rivers nearly every 10 minutes. It rained, hailed and snowed. A lot. We went from stuffed to starved to stuffed again. We fell in mud, slid down cliffs, and ran through rivers. We experienced the solitary “paisano” culture first hand – food included. Our bodies are bruised, cut, blistered and sore. We were exhaustingly challenged with nasty weather and rough terrain but equally rewarded with the most stunning views and vibrant sunsets. Here is the short list:

Day 1: We were on and off the trail for most of the day, complete with bushwacking through chest-deep thorny bushes. That night we camped outside the casita of the first Paisano, Ruen and were able to cook in his cocina on the wood-burning stove.

Day 2: We left Ruen’s around noon in a rather unsuccessful attempt to wait out the rain and hiked into the better part of the evening. While making dinner we discovered that the fuel (rubbing alcohol) we bought was not strong enough to maintain a flame – and everything around us was more than damp – so it was raw macaroni and cheese for dinner…yummy!!!

Day 3: A semi-dry environment greeted us in the morning and so we continued on the semi-existant trail after quickly stopping in to say “hola” to the second Paisano along the trail. Hearing about the “old wise man at the end of the lake” yet again, we took off in search of some guidance. In the late afternoon we reached the infamous third Paisano, Don Rial. We were quickly convinced to stay at least two nights while we waited out the continuing storm. Plus, the warm stove, sheep skin covered wooden cots, and hearty meals were too good to pass up. The evening was spent listening to Don Rial’s stories over mate and warm, cookedfood.

Day 4: Thanksgiving! In honor of our home country feast day, we prepared multiple gourmet meals and engaged fully in the expected gluttony. Breakfast consisted of decadent french toast made out of fry bread and served with rhubarb jam; lunch was another sensational beef stew; but dinner was the winner – a beef potpie with a crispy crust and rich gravy. It was a remarkably memorable Thanksgiving – and such a treat to not be munching on raw top ramen and crumbled poundcake!

Day 5: We were planning on leaving today but nasty weather kept us at Don Rial’s for yet one more night. Again, we passed the day by the wood-burning stove, reading, journaling and cooking, while every now and then “helping out” on the ranch by getting water, gathering fire wood, or foraging for fresh mint. Rough, we know.

Day 6: Finally our time at Don Rial’s had come to an end. We were quite sad to leave him behind but so grateful for his unbelievable generosity and hospitality. He sent us off with a bag of harina tostada (our new breakfast obsession), two soup packets and bread. Furthermore, we received invaluable information and directions regarding the upcoming trek. Starting off on a trail and pointed in the right direction (along with being incredibly well fed) we felt good, with dry socks and shoes – which didn’t last long. We got to the intended shelter without a hitch, and slept for half of the night under the stars until it started raining and we had to move inside and onto coffin-esque wooden platform boxes.

Day 7: Our goal for today was to make it to the bottom of the pass. Piece of cake, right? Not so much. We were on trail for the morning but upon reaching a rocky valley it disappeared out of sight…about the same time that it started to rain and hail again. This led to some intense bush whacking, river crossing, and cliff climbing. A rock slide assisted me down the side of one “small hill” (i.e. cliff) but luckily I just ended up with some bloody hands and ripped rain pants. We eventually made it to the bottom of the pass, after one final very cold and deep glacial river crossing, and camped on a tiny patch of tundra amongst a massive field of boulders and a plethora of waterfalls.

Day 8: We awoke to what we first thought was rain but turned out to be very wet snow. Thus, the higher we climbed on the pass, the drier and heavier the snow became (ice clinging to the straps of our gaiters). We crossed an even colder river in the middle of the snow storm before post-holing through knee-deep snow. The almost blizzard-like conditions at the top of the pass caused us to turn, ever so slightly but ever so crucially, down the wrong valley where we hiked for an hour before realizing we made a giant U. Trekking back up and through massive avalanche-prone snowfields we eventually made it to the correct valley then down another boulder field to diminishing snow pack and partially clearing skies. Here we found a trail – inciting temporary glee – that inevitably led us down into a canyon which furthermore turned into a waterfall. After a brief discussion, we decided to simply scale the canyon wall – which became an on-all-fours, dirty, gritty, heart-pounding type of feat. Wandering around on safe ground, we, alas, found a legitimate trail! After twelve long hours, we spent the night camped by a shelter – exhausted and starving but safe and warm.

Day 9: The day started out wonderfully – we had a good trail, clear sky, sun, warmth, and semi-dry shoes. We trekked along on a clear trail for a few jovial hours before being startled by a herd of cows in the middle of our path. When a bull charged, Shelley fell crossing a river via a log, Trinity and I opted to run straight through it, and we ended up far off of our trail – bushwacking through a muddy marsh with dense, prickly trees. After many hours of looping around to avoid the angry bull that was now stalking us and trudging through the muck and mud we found a fence that led to a gate which “halleluja” led to a trail. We weaved in and out of the trail, hiking in our flipflops for a while due to the ridiculously numerous river crossings, when the trail vanished. Again. However, this time when we hiked around looking for it, not only did we find a trail, but we also found a gravel road!! A mini-celebration ensued and we hiked until dark, being calmed by the scene of the setting sun glowing across a magnificent glacial mountain range with an Andean Condor sailing serenely through. Ahh, peace.

Day 10: Today was perfect despite the fact that we were hungry. And not just a little hungry, but hungier than I have ever been in my life – the ready-to-dig-down-and-eat-a-bug type of hungry. The adrenaline of the past few days had kept us from noticing the fact that our daily calorie consumption was hovering around 1,000 while we were hiking close to 12 hours per day. Famished, we stumbled upon a military base where we asked to buy some bread. This miraculously led to a full four course meal and three extremely happy girls. Thirty-seven kilometers later, we watched another breath-taking sunset and laid our aching, battered bodies to rest.

Day 11: We limped our way into Cochrane where we are currently recovering over wine, showers (albeit cold), and veggies. Our Israeli “Trail Angels”, Naama and Tal, provided us with a delicious meal and cultural insight – much appreciated after a helluva journey.

Additional things we loved: 
– Cuddling with Ruen’s 1 month old puppy.
– Drinking fresh warm cow’s milk in the morning.
– Hearing that the carabineros (park rangers) would start a search and rescue for us if we didn’t check in with them in Cochrane after our anticipated 6-day journey.
– Being so happy with our fry bread (aka torta patagonia) and homemade rhubarb jam…and then having Don Rial unearth a massive hot loaf of bread he baked in a heaping pile of hot ashes. Pure delight.
– Being dry and warm inside while the crummy weather roared on outside.
– Experiencing the true paisano, gaucho (Patagonian cowboy) culture.
– Everything and more about Don Rial – his generosity, stories, food, affiliation with NOLS, kindness. Plus, he most likely saved our lives on multiple levels – note calories and directions.
– Having an unexpected delicious and extremely satisfying Thanksgiving dinner.
– Seeing horse poop on the trail! (signifying we were on the right trail)
– Going from 1 to 2 to 3 nights with Don Rial without a blink.
– Cooking the best looking (and tasting) piece of meat I have honestly ever seen.
– Foraging for mint in the pasture and then making hot mint tea.
– Seeing blue sky after multiple days of gloom.
– Being able to hike until 10:00pm (since it’s light as day well past 9)
– Waking up to a rooster instead of an alarm (okay, there are times when this isn’t so pleasant…)
– Feeling like we walked from the depths of winter straight into summer.
– Being legitimately in the middle of stinking nowhere.
– Witnessing the most impressive, brilliant sunsets.
– Seeing our first lupins! And then, like the guanacos, seeing them everywhere….
– Getting Chileno pesos through sketchy money exchanges on the sidewalk and in the grocery store.
– Finding out that the guards didn’t say we could have a “morsel” but rather “almuerzo” (lunch) – what a glorious surprise (for me) when that heaping bowl of stew was set down! That’s why Shelley and Trinity didn’t have a third roll with butter…
– Gazing up at Orion’s Belt – and knowing that we are all under the same sky no matter where we are in the world.

Additional things we battled: 
– Swarms of gnats and thirsty mosquitos.
– Chest-high thorny bushes.
– Mud. Of all forms and all depths.
– Cold, uncooked meals from pasta to soup.
– Ravenous dogs eating Trinity’s snack rations for day 3 while we were inside the casita of Paisano #2.
– Running out of the camera battery after day 4 (luckily the tablet had enough battery to snap a few pics for the remaining days).
– So. Much. Snow.
– Obstacle courses instead of trails…or just no trails at all…
– Ubiquitious river crossings at quite inconvenient times and places, i.e. during snow storms or in canyons by raging waterfalls.
– Slippery logs and slick rocks.
– My propensity for falling…
– Horseflies.
– Cold showers…oh the simple things in life…
– Potential PTSD from the angry bull…every time I hear a loud “moo” shivers run down my spine.
– The Cochrane carabineros not having even heard about us…..
– Not having much cash and finding out that the ATM doesn’t accept VISA.
– Slow internet and random afternoon power outages

It’s still hard to believe we have already been on the road for two months, but then again the long summer days are only just beginning. We are happy, generally healthy and ready for more…just so long as ferocious bulls stay far, far away. As soon as our blisters shrink and our aches diminish we will be heading up to Chile Chico, but for now we are off to another asado with new friends and plenty of wine.