Border Hopping: Puerto Natales
Having had my first adventure in Patagonia, I packed up my stuff and hopped on a bus. I waved goodbye (no I didn’t) to El Calafate and headed towards Puerto Natales, Chile with absolutely no idea of what to expect. The first part of the trip was great, but as we got closer to the final destination, the lakes dried up and the mountains dulled to rounded hills. Several small, poor, dirty mining towns began to dot the hillsides as well and my mind flickered back to a conversation I had the night before with the only employee of the i Kue Ken hostel that I was less than impressed with. ”Un poco feo” (a bit ugly) he had said of Puerto Natales. Riding on a credulous wave of enthusiasm from my experience the with god of ice, I had dismissed his pessimism, but now I began to wonder.
The ride lasted about five or six hours including two stops, one at either side of the border. You have to “check out” of Argentina and then go through customs on your way into Chile to make sure you don’t have any corrosive gases or milk products. The town of Puerto Natales is actually only a few minutes from the border. Under a dull and cloudy sky, we descended from border checkpoint, down the gently sloping hill and towards our final destination.
Puerto Natales is a small town, located on the Última Esperanza Sound in Chilean Patagonia. Though it isn’t as clean and quaint as El Calafate, the landscape which surrounds it is nothing short of breathtaking. As we came out of the hills and I began to get a view of the Sound and the mountains surrounding it, any doubts I had about being there vanished and Mr. Un Poco Feo was instantly forgotten (until now).
There is, apparently, no bus station in Puerto Natales, so the bus dropped us off in the center of the town and I set to work finding my hostel, The Singing Lamb. Nothing is too far from anything in Puerto Natales so I only had a few blocks to walk.
Susan, a New Zealander who runs the Singing Lamb, instantly earned my affection by asking me if I was Chilean and telling me that I spoke Spanish with less accent than her even though she had been living there off and on for over 30 years. In truth, to hear her speak Spanish with her New Zealand accent always brought a smile to my lips. What’s more, she is a caring and jovial woman who welcomes everyone into the lamb as if she were welcoming family members into her own home.
I didn’t have much time to get situated at the Lamb because I had to hurry over to Erratic Rock, another hostel/pub in town that rents hiking and camping gear and gives a daily talk (for free) about Torres del Paine, the national park and main draw to Puerto Natales, that is located a few hours to the north. The guys at Erratic Rock are awesome. Not only will they tell you everything you want to know (and more) about the park with smiles on their faces, but they will help you in any way they can to ensure that you are prepared to enjoy your time there to its full potential (thanks Koen!). What’s more, you can grab a beer and something to eat while you are there.
I spent the rest of the night uneventfully. A few friends that I had met in my intensive Spanish class in Buenos Aires were due to meet me at the Lamb the next day, so I returned to the hostel and spent a few hours with some of the other guests (mostly Brits and Aussies that night) having a few beers and talking about what we planned to do once we got to the park.
I spent the next day getting ready for Torres del Paine. I had to rent a tent and a sleeping bag and buy food for the two days that I would spend there. Although I could have easily spent a week exploring all the wonders the park has to offer, unfortunately I was on a restrictive schedule. My friends had some unexpected delays, so I spent the rest of my time that day exploring the town.
My friends finally arrived at about 9:30 that night. We made a mad dash to the market to try to get the supplies they would need while they were in they park. They spent the next several hours packing their things and trying to get ready for our trip to Torres del Paine. The owner, and the guests, at the Lamb were less than thrilled about their late-night packing marathon, but they managed to get themselves in order so that we could leave for the park early the next morning. I, having had plenty of time to prepare while waiting for them that day, relaxed and had a beer.
My excitement grew as the time of departure drew closer but, in truth, I had no idea of the incredible things that were waiting for me in Torres del Paine…