Los Viejo Mochileros in Patagonia

by Linden B. (Lindy) Sisk

Last Update 20120210

The pictures on this page may be assumed to be the author's unless otherwise noted. Between Tristan, John, and I, there are several hundred pictures, many of them excellent. They could not be all included. To focus on the hike itself, many good pictures of street scenes in Bariloche and Puerto Montt were not included.

"You are nothing to the mountain, nothing to the ocean. You can sometimes make one mistake, sometimes two. Then you die. In earlier times the possibility of death was a given -- now we have this cell-phone culture where you always expect to be saved. Suddenly people are shocked when somebody dies."
— Mark Jenkins, climber and writer

Warning: The route described in this report should only be attempted by people in excellent physical condition, and who have extensive hiking experience including land navigation skills and the ability to find routes in areas with no marked trails. Equipment required to survive unexpected weather is mandatory. While this route described lies entirely within an Argentine national park, it is not just a walk in the park — as you will see.

Sweetie, if you're not living on the edge, then you're taking up space.
— Florynce Kennedy, 1916 - 2000

My good friend Tristan MacDonald contacted me late in 2011, and asked if I would be interested in accompanying him and another friend, John Tesdorpf, on a hike in the Patagonia Andes sometime in late January, which is summer in Patagonia. I have spent quite a bit of time hiking with Tristan, and trusted that he would bring me back alive, so I immediately indicated that I would go.

And so it began.

Note: Elevations shown on maps are in meters.

"An otherworldy range of mountains exists in Patagonia, at the southern end of the Americas. It is a sublime range, where ice and granite soar with a dancer's grace. From the mountains' feet tumble glaciers and a dark forests of beech. The summits float in the southern sky, impossibly remote. Climbers who gaze upon these wonders ache to unlock their secrets. Hard, steep, massive, these might be our planet's most perfect mountains.

To court these summits is to graft fear to your heart, for all is not idyllic beauty among the great peaks of Patagonia. They stand squarely athwart what sailors refer to as the 'roaring forties' and 'furious fifties' -- that region of the Southern Hemisphere between 40° and 60° south latitude known for ferocious wind and storm. The violent weather spawned over the great south sea charges through the Patagonia Andes with gale-force wind, roaring cloud, and stinging snow. Buried like a rapier deep into the heart of the southern ocean, Patagonia is a land trapped between angry torrents of sea and sky."

from Enduring Patagonia by Greg Crouch

But we are not climbers - we are Mochileros, a word derived from the Spanish word "mochila", which means backpack. So, we are backpackers, and we were not attempting the summits of the Patagonia range further south, but just looking for a beautiful hike in the mountains. The area we would be hiking in is in the Argentinian Nanhuel Huapi National Park - so, just another walk in the park, we thought. And so it was, for four days — but the last three...

First we had to get there. We needed to get to Bariloche, which has an airport. An airport that was, at the time we needed to book the flight, closed for repairs and modifications. The summer in Bariloche is actually the low season — the area has ski resorts, which are the mainstay of the tourist industry. So, we booked a flight to Santiago, Chile, with a connection to Puerto Montt, Chile, from which we could take a bus to Bariloche.

Then the Bariloche airport reopened, early, and then closed again because of ash blown from an erupting volcano in Chile, the Puyehue Cordòn-Caulle volcano, which blanketed the area, raising the possibility of having to cancel the hike completely. However, John made contact with Jeremy, who runs the web site Trek Bariloche, and Jeremy reassured us that the area we were hiking in was not much affected by the ash fall — we would be fine, once we got there. Tristan booked the flights to Santiago and Puerto Montt, and off we went, on Saturday, January 21, 2012.

We drove down to Miami from St. Augustine, Florida, where I had visited Tristan and Alex for a few days, and where John also lived, in a car rented one-way to the airport. We checked with the airline to see if it was possible to fly to Bariloche now that the airport had reopened, and received the information that it was, if we wanted to pay an extra $250 apiece, which seemed a significant amount of money on round-trip tickets which cost $1365. So, we decided to go for the original plan via Santiago and Puerto Montt.

Looking back on the experience, we could have avoided the stress of transiting Santiago, and the bus trip to Bariloche, and it would have been worth the money - but hindsight is always better than foresight. In addition, a sudden eruption of the volcano could have closed the airport again, so we stuck to the original plan. For the flight to Santiago, we boarded a new-looking LAN Air Boeing 767-300, a spacious aircraft with 7-across seating and video entertainment screens on the back of each seat.

We left after 8:00 P.M. Miami time, and arrived about 6:00 in the morning, Sunday, in Santiago. That area is two hours ahead of Eastern time in the U.S., so the total flight time was a bit less than 8 hours. The flight was pleasant, and being served dinner and later breakfast by a well-trained flight crew made the time seem shorter, as did watching movies on the entertainment system. We slept some as well.

Entering Chile proved to be a problem. Usually on an international flight, the crew distributes customs and immigrations forms for the arrival country. That was not done, and we arrived at customs and immigration with no idea of the procedure, and a language barrier. We stood in a line for immigration, only to be told that Tristan and I needed to go get in another line to pay a $140 "reciprocity fee" for U.S. citizens. John, traveling on a passport from his native Sweden, did not have to pay that fee. So, off Tristan and I went to pay the fee, the receipt for which is good for the life of the passport. Then we came back to the original line, to find out we needed to fill out another form, which we did, returning to find out we should have filled out not one but two copies. Off again.

Finally through immigration, customs proved to be a snap, and off we went to board our new flight - which proved to be departing from a different gate than we were told checking in to the flight. We boarded an Airbus A320 for the flight to Puerto Montt, and thought we might be through with surprises. That turned out not to be the case.

There was to be no end to surprises on this trip, right up until we boarded the aircraft in Santiago for the trip back to Miami. People who insist on being "in control" will be, to be kind, very uncomfortable on a trip like this. Viktor Frankl, a survivor of a WWII death camp, noted in his book, Man's Search for Meaning, that all we really have control over is our interior experience of what the world brings us, and I cannot imagine a more authoritative speaker to that point. Navy SEAL Richard "Demo Dick" Marcinco famously said, "You don't have to like it — you just have to do it," and there was a lot of that.

We arrived in Puerto Montt, and took a bus to the main bus station downtown, only to find out that there were no more buses to Bariloche that day. (There turned out to be a reason for that - the border station between Osorno, Chile, and Bariloche, Argentina, closes that time of the year at 8:00 P.M. local time, so the buses must leave in time to return from Bariloche before that station closes.) We didn't know that, so we took a bus to Orsono, hoping to find a bus to Bariloche there. No luck. After trying without success to hire locals to take us to Bariloche, we spent the night in the beautiful 5-star Hotel Sonesta. This hotel, with both a casino and a disco, was virtually empty, and we tried but failed to think of a reason for the hotel to even exist in Orsono, which was not a very impressive city. John and Tristan went back to the bus station and booked tickets to Bariloche for the next morning.

The bus ride to Bariloche turned out to be very interesting. The buses are luxury coaches of European manufacture, with two decks, toilets, and coffee bars. The one we rode was similar to the one below.

The ride through the mountains between Orsono and Bariloche winds through beautiful cattle pastures and farmlands, as well as along a lovely mountain lake. Entering the mountains, it climbs up to an impressive pass, and just past an area devastated by the eruption. Ash in that area was feet deep, and keeping the road open was an impressive feat. There was a large area of dead trees, killed, we were told later, by the heat from the falling ash. In this shot taken from the bus window, you can see piles of ash, and behind them, dead trees in an impressive landscape.

The border crossing from Chile into Argentina involved stops at both country's facilities, but was facilitated by our arrival in a bus — private automobiles were stacked up, but the bus went right to the front of the line. That was probably made easier because the driver had a complete list of all riders with their passport numbers and other information, which we furnished when purchasing the tickets. We were glad that we had not succeeded in hiring a private ride, which would likely have taken much longer. Soon our passports had the appropriate stamps, and we were back on the bus, headed down toward Bariloche.

The village of Angostura was strongly affected by the ash. Piles of it were everywhere, and the tourist industry must have been devastated.

Arriving in Bariloche, we took a taxi to the Hotel Tirol, run by a German family. Our room was small, but nice, with a splendid view of Lake Nanhuel Huapi.

View from the Hotel Tirol

Bariloche is a beautiful city, with a mixture of modern architecture and architecture from a number of traditions.

The main square in Bariloche
© Tristan MacDonald

John called Jeremy, and we set up dinner at El Boliche de Alberto to discuss the hike. Arguably the best steakhouse in town, the restaurant cooks grass-fed Argentinian beef on a grill in the dining room. Over a long dinner, Jeremy gave us some advice on the route, and declared it to be his favorite hike. Coming from a man who has climbed extensively, including Aconcagua, the highest peak in South America, his recommendations carried weight. For dinner, we had chorizo appetizers, salad, a huge mountain of fries, large lomo or filet cuts of beef, and several bottles of excellent wine. The bill for the four of us was less than a hundred U.S. dollars. Then we went out for dessert at an ice cream shop. Bariloche may not have the best ice cream on the planet, but it would be very close.

It's an easy place to like.

Note: See Gear Notes for comments on the equipment I carried on this hike.

The next morning, we packed our hiking gear. Our traveling bags and clothing we left in the room, at the instructions of the staff. There weren't a lot of customers in the hotel in this off season, and I suspect the room was not rented in our absence. We got a cab to take us to the starting point for the hike, at a campground near the northeast end of Lake Mascardi, marked by an "S" in the map.

Day One Route
Day One: Start to Laguna Llum

Below is the view from the starting point of the hike. Our first destination was the beach, Playa Leone, which can be seen just to the right of the point of land sticking out into the lake, marked by a dot and labeled on the map.

The walking was pretty easy, though the trail, which was easy to follow, sometimes climbed above the shoreline, then descended again. When we arrived, we found this lovely beach, said to be popular with both hikers and boaters. There are camp sites behind the beach, obviously frequently used.

From the beach, the trail went a bit further south, then started climbing to the east toward Laguna Illum. The elevation change was not great - Laguna Llum lies about 340 feet above Lago Mascardi. The trail was easy to follow. There were beautiful flowers like these along the way up.

We found a campsite above the west end of the lake, and quit for the night.

Day Two: Laguna Llum to Northwest End of Lago Mascardi

The next morning, we started down the trail toward the other side of Lago Mascardi, as shown on the map below.

The trail rose quite a bit, giving us some exercise, and offering fine views. When we reached the top of the ridge, we saw Heart Island.

Moving down trail, we eventually reached the lake, and headed north along the trail near the shore. Where Arroyo La Volteada reached the lake, also denoted with "Beach" on the map, we found a splendid place to eat lunch with views to the west of Mount Tronador.

Mount Tronador and Lago Mascardi

Los Viejo Mochileros: Tristan, John, and Lindy
© Tristan MacDonald

After lunch, we headed out again up the shore trail, finding lots of elevation change as the trail moved away from the lake, then back down again, and lots of deadfall trees to maneuver around and over. Eventually, we reached the point where we would spend the 2nd night, noted on the map as "2". There was a fine beach there, and people playing on the beach and in the water, so after erecting the tents, we went swimming before Happy Hour. The water was quite cool, but refreshing after our walk up the shore.

Day Three: Lago Mascardi to Laguna Azul

The rising sun brought a splendid view of Mount Tronador across the lake. A little later we got a nice view of the Hotel Tronador across the lake. I suspect that the boat shown on the water is used to ferry guests to the hotel, as the road which leads past the hotel and up to Pampa Linda is reputed to be rough and slow.

Hotel Tronador
© Tristan MacDonald

We crossed the Arroyo Casalata, and headed up the trail. We crossed the Rio Manso on a suspension bridge constructed by the Club Andino Baraloche, which maintains many of the trails and other facilities in the area. The peak behind the bridge is Cerro Bonete, which rises about 4700 feet above the level of Lago Mascardi.

There was, though, a little problem. We should not have crossed the bridge. What we should have done was to turn right after crossing Arroyo Callvucu/Claro, but we followed what we thought were the instructions in the trail guide. They were misleading, and after taking some photos of horses on a side trail on the wrong side of the river, we got to cross the bridge back across the river, and finally found the correct trail to Laguna Azul.

And thus began the climb. For two days, we had been changing elevations in relatively small increments. This day, in a few miles, we would climb about 2300 feet to reach the level of Laguna Azul — and, of course, since the trail sometimes went down before ascending again, we climbed a lot more than that. We found a nice spot for lunch along the trail, with an intersecting stream across the Arroyo Callvu.

The trail continued along the arroyo, and, finally, ended. The rest of the way up to the lake was up the outflow of the lake, marked with cairns.

John and Lindy climbing the stream bed
© Tristan MacDonald

We reached the level of the lake — and found out why it is called Laguna Azul, although on the map above it is denoted "Laguna Callvu."

On the western side of the lake, we found a party of nine people in the largest camp site. One of the party who I think was a hired guide, told us that there was a nice campsite along the eastern shore — and so there was, so we set up camp. We climbed a bit above our campsite, and looked long at the lovely lake as the sun descended. The rock walls on both sides of the lake are quite steep, as we would find out the next day climbing out.

Day Four: Laguna Azul to Valle Mate Dulce

We started to follow the recommendation of the guide book to climb out up the western walls above the lake. As we passed through the camp site on that shore, we stopped to chat with the fellow I took to be a guide, and he told us there was a much easier trail to follow which went up the eastern shore. After getting instructions to reach that trail, we recrossed the outflow stream, and headed up.

The trail was pretty easy to follow, and not too difficult a climb. It afforded us several spendid views of the lake as we ascended.

John and Lindy climbing up the east side of the Laguna Azul bowl
© Tristan MacDonald

© John Tesdorpf

We reached the ridge above the lake. We could see Laguna Creton below.

John wanted to follow the trail north up the ridge, then to the east down to the lake. I could see what I thought was a pretty easy descent straight down to that lake — and it was. Tristan followed me down, and John went north. Tristan and I walked around the east side of the lake to the north shore. John came along shortly, and we refilled our water bottles and ate lunch in preparation for the 800+ foot climb up to the ridgeline between Cerro Bonete and Cerro Cristal.

While we had been in some tricky spots on this hike, where a mistep could have sent one on a serious fall, this climb was the first time I had been seriously in fear for my life. We could not find a clear trail, so we started climbing slabs of loose granite ranging from a foot or so in size to ones substantially larger. They shifted constantly under our feet, raising the possibility that a step could start a serious rockfall. As I was below John and Tristan, this made me increasingly nervous. Looking over to the south, I thought I saw a gentler slope with smaller rocks, and started edging that way to get out from under John and Tristan as well as to find easier going.

It was a lot farther than I thought, but I finally reached it. I climbed up to the ridge, and had to clamber back across some of the same kind of loose granite on the way back north to get to where John and Tristan were waiting on the ridge — but at least there was no one either above me, or below me if I kicked off a slide. On reaching John and Tristan, I apologized for taking off to the right, and they said they understood perfectly. I'm still not sure if that was the smart thing to do.

The picture below of me descending after my diversion to the south shows the kind of rocks we were picking our way over and across on that ridge.

© Tristan MacDonald

At least they had a spendid view of Mount Tronador while waiting for me to show up.

We crossed to the east side of the ridge, and followed the trail as best we could. It was marked in some places with red splotches of paint, and in other places with cairns. It was not difficult hiking, just difficult route finding. We encountered an area of snow, which fortunately we did not have to cross. This was the only area on the hike where we saw significant signs of volcanic ash fall - and it wasn't deep, just an accumulation in cracks and low spots.

We descended down ridgelines toward "Valle Mate Dulce" on the map, and camped in the area marked by "4". We didn't have a good route down to the bottom — at one point, I was hanging on to a big almost flat rock near the stream with my fingertips in a crack.

Valle Mate Dulce
© Tristan MacDonald

It was a nice camp site, when we got there. That afternoon was the last time we saw the sun on the hike. The wind blew all night, foreshadowing weather to come, and we got quite a bit of dirt blown into the tents.

Day Five: Valle Mate Dulce to Arroyo La Chata

The next morning, the weather had deteriorated. It was colder, and windy, though not yet raining. We crawled up the ridge to the east of Cerro CAB.

Lindy and John climbing out of Valle Mate Dulce
© Tristan MacDonald

The view down the valley off to the east was impressive, if not conventionally beautiful.

We finally reached the top of the ridge, and looked down on Laguna CAB. The outfall is marked in the photo. If you look at the surface of the water in the photo, you can see the effect of the wind, which was blowing the water in several different directions — it was amazing to watch from the ridge.

We descended the trail, and angled around to the west or left side of the lake. We stopped for lunch near the southwest side of the lake, then walked around the shoreline of the east side of the lake to the outfall, where we picked up the trail. It started raining on the descent down toward Arroyo La Chata. It didn't stop except briefly for three days.

The descent was steep in places, but through some flowers and bamboo on the way down to the arroyo.

That night we slept on the south bank of the arroyo.

© Tristan MacDonald

It rained all night. It probably sounded heavier on the roof of the tent than it was, but it was still quite a bit of rain.

Day Six: Arroyo La Chata to Refugio Italia at Laguna Negra

We arose, had some coffee and breakfast, and packed up. The arroyo was rising. John got across the stream with his boots on, but Tristan and I, failing to find a way across that would have kept our feet relatively dry, took off our boots and waded. The Shimano fishing sandals I wore gave me good traction in the stream, and the crossing was a problem only once when my pack shifted on my back and almost unbalanced me into the stream.

The guidebook says, "The trail now climbs very steeply eastwards away from the stream..." That is an egregious understatement. Not only was the trail very steep, and consisted of muddy dirt, but it was now in places a watercourse. It is the stuff trekkers nightmares are made of. We planted our trekking poles, inched our feet up a few inches, and repeated, trying not to slip backwards, often vainly. At times we were able to pull ourselves up by grasping trees. I have always resisted using trekking poles in favor of a single hiking staff — but this climb simply could not have been made without the poles. I won't hike again without them except on flat ground.

Once out of the trees on that steep slope and up on the rock, we found that the wind was howling and the rain was heavier. Tristan was blown off his feet once, and I was nearly so several times. Onward and upward we struggled, following the trail markings as best we could. We were completely soaked.

We finally achieved the top of the ridge, and descended below it. I was not dressed for these conditions. It was near freezing, and we were getting some small hail or graupel snow with hurricane-force winds. I had to do something, so I got my Patagonia fleece sweater out of my pack. I stripped off my jacket and nylon shirt, and put on my fleece sweater and then my jacket. John, seeing me standing barechested in those conditions, thought I had succumbed to hypothermia — hypothermic people have been known to strip naked, and then die. He was relieved to see me resume the descent.

From the ridgeline, we could see the refugio built by Club Andino at the north end of Laguna Negra. But we still had to get there. From the ridgeline, the 2-story structure, described by the guidebook as "palatial", looked to be about the size of an outhouse — it was a long way away. I wish I had a picture from up there, but conditions made getting a camera out a ridiculous idea.

According to the map, the trail led around the western side of the lake, but we couldn't see it. The walls around the lake looked nearly vertical right down to the water. We headed that way anyway. About two-thirds of the way around the lake, we ran into a rock wall about 10 feet high with a knotted rope hanging down from it. Clearly we had to pull ourselves up the rope — but we had no idea what lay on the other side. John went up the rope to reconnoiter. He came back to report it looked difficult but possible. At that point, the only other choice we had was to ditch our packs, get into the water, and swim, which, given the water temperature, was near suicide.

To complicate matters, Tristan and I were standing at the base of the rock in a waterfall, getting wetter and, if possible, colder. To make it easier for Tristan to get up, we threw a line up to John, who hauled Tristan's pack up. Then Tristan struggled up the rope.

I haven't mentioned to this point that Tristan, who is 75 years old, has had both hips replaced, one twice, and has had one knee replaced. The cold made those joints stiff and hard for him to move. I have no idea where he found the strength to climb that knotted rope. But there is no "quit" in Tristan — it simply doesn't exist.

Up he went, and John gave him a hand over the top.

I cinched up my pack straps and waist belt so the pack wouldn't shift, and climbed up. I was wearing Nomex aircrew gloves with calfskin palms, so I had good traction on the rope, and my Northface GTX trailrunning shoes had good traction on the rock. I planted my feet on the rock, leaning back on the rope, and climbed up.

Once up, we faced a long scramble across boulders, frequently using both hands and feet to pull ourselves up. The trekking poles by this time were collapsed and fastened to the packs.

Finally, we reached the end of the boulders, and emerged onto a trail, which we followed around to the outfall. We crossed the outfall on a path made from rocks encased in wire baskets to reach the refugio. I can't remember ever being as glad to get anywhere. We entered the door of the refugio to shelter and warmth.

Once inside, we found the staff, Lucas, and Julia. Lucas is an Argentinian rock climber who has a 4-year contract with the Club Andino Bariloche to staff the refugio with his partner, Julia, who is from Belgium. Both spoke English very well, and we had no problem communicating.

Lucas, Julia, Tristan, and John
© Tristan MacDonald

They made coffee to warm us up, and we stripped off our wet clothes and put on dry ones. They had electrical power from a hydroelectric turbine to feed a heater, and there was a wood stove. After a while, they made us something to eat, and we opened a bottle of wine. The refugio offers full meal service, including a bar, and they make their own beer. The prices for all that are quite reasonable — and I could not have cared less what they were. The lower floor is the kitchen and dining room, and the upper floor is bunks. Under the conditions, its existence at that spot constituted a miracle to me. Everything in that refugio, including food, wine and spirits, firewood, 40-pound propane bottles for the stove — everything — has to be hauled up the 10-mile trail from Colonia Suiza which ascends 2500+ feet.

After we had been there a while warming up, a trio of young Argentinians struggled in — one man and two women, Gaston, Chanel, and Julianna. If I have their names wrong, I expect that I'll hear shortly, as they are on Facebook. They have a scouting background — yes, as in Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, but maybe a little different: see the link. They had come up from Colonia Suiza, with the intention of spending the night, and going to Refugio Lopez the next day.

They changed clothes and warmed up. There being not much else to do, we chatted, ate, drank wine, and made new friends. They made some mate, a tea, and shared it with us. They also shared a drink new to us — Ferna Blanca and Coca-Cola. We shared wine with them. They are very nice young people.

The kitchen and wood stove, with Gaston on the left and Julia in the kitchen

The refugio cat, a ferocious hunter of mice, in the best spot.

Drying gear and clothing was hung wherever a spot could be found.

That evening, we had dinner prepared by Lucas and Julie, pasta with an excellent meat sauce, more wine, and even a dessert of crepes with dulce y leche — while the storm raged unabated outside. There was a little party after dinner...

If we always seem to have a glass of wine in hand, well, it's Argentina, and the wine is excellent. Really...

The mochileros in the refuge
© Tristan MacDonald

After the exertions of the day, I had no trouble sleeping, although I was wakened several times by the wind buffeting the refugio. The rain continued.

Day Seven: Refugio Italia Out to Colonia Suiza, Monday, January 30

Some sort of alarm went off at 6:30 A.M., bugle calls. Tristan and I, the only ones with military backgrounds, rose immediately. Others were slower to respond. The storm continued unabated outside while we breakfasted and prepared to face the descent to Colonia Suiza. Gaston, Chanel, and Juliana decided to abandon their plans to make for Refugio Lopez, and instead descend to Colonia Suiza. We left before they did, and I hope they got down OK.

To get out, we had to cross the outflow stream of the lake — the path across which was now under water. There being no point in trying to stay dry, I put on an UnderArmor long-sleeve shirt, then my Patagonia fleece sweater and my Marmot jacket. I had on expedition-weight Patagonia Capilene long underwear under my pants. On my feet were nylon socks under REI Merino wool socks. That worked - during the whole descent, I didn't get cold even though there was not a dry spot on my body.

John went first across. The baskets were under several inches of water. Just as I prepared to start across, a very high wind gust blew down on me. I stopped, braced my trekking poles, and hung on until it passed. Had that gust started while I was crossing, I have no doubt it would have flipped me right over the safety line to a quick end. The gust passed, and, walking carefully over the baskets covered with water, I crossed the outflow. Tristan followed.

The trail descended steeply for the first mile or so, but the route was obvious and not too difficult, although slippery. And below the ridgeline, we were shielded from the worst of the wind.

You may note a symbol for a waterfall on the map near the refugio symbol. This day there were many more than one. I wish I'd had a waterproof camera, as the view was magnificent of multiple cascades pouring down the forested slopes of the mountain from three directions.

Once past the initial steep descent, and across the outflow stream down below, which was a bit hairy, the trail widened and became relatively easy to follow. The trees grew bigger and darker as we hiked toward Colonia Suiza. Near the end of the 10 mile trail, it started to look like a groomed park.

We emerged onto a road, and, after consulting my GPS to determine which way to turn, headed for town. We found a nice restaurant, which welcomed us despite our sodden condition. We ordered lunch, with wine of course, and asked them to call a taxi to take us back to Bariloche - in an hour. I was a little embarrassed to be eating lunch in a nice restaurant while sitting in a puddle of water, but I guess they are used to such things in Patagonia. They brought us a towel to wipe up the floor with. We had excellent empañadas.

And that was the end of the hike - but not the end of the story. Our taxi driver, Eduardo, by chance spoke excellent English. I asked him how he learned, and he said he had a couple of years in school, but after that learned on his own. I commented on how few Americans know a second language, a deficiency of my own which I am in the process of correcting, as I suspect that the future holds more trips to South America: why endure winter in the U.S., when it's summer there?

Getting back to the hotel, we had our clothes and the contents of our packs to dry out. We spread what we could around the room, and got the hotel to run what we could through their clothes dryer. We called Jeremy and set up dinner again, to debrief the hike for him, because we were grateful for his help, and also because we were seriously hungry.

Tuesday morning, we arose late, and had breakfast at the hotel. We still had a lot of gear drying in the room. We took the tents out on to the back lawn of the hotel, and spread them out to dry. Tristan and I went to lunch at a natural food restaurant down by the Cathedral. All of us went out and did a little shopping and wandering around. We found an agency of the bus line which would take us back to Puerto Montt on the main street, and purchased our tickets. The agency was very efficient - we had reserved seats. Dinner was at Las Brasas, another excellent restaurant. We had lamb, for a change, grilled, and it was very good.

Wednesday was departure day - the bus didn't leave until 1:00 P.M., so we wandered up to the Club Andino de Bariloche, and did some more shopping. The bus ride out to Puerto Montt was uneventful, and naps were taken. We got to town, and checked into the apartment-hotel John reserved. We went to the Club de Yates for dinner, a beautiful restaurant on a pier over the harbor. I had salmon ceviche, king crab thermidor, and spinach baked in cream. If you note the focus on eating, it's because we were hungry. Despite all the pigging out, when I got home the scale told me I had lost 5 pounds in those mountains. I'm not going to find them again. Being lighter in the mountains is better.

Our flight on Thursday didn't leave until evening, so we wandered around town. Puerto Montt, a stop for several cruise lines — a Holland-America line ship was in the harbor that day — has a vibrant street scene. There are little shops and bigger markets all over the place. We just wandered around, and had lunch in the Cafe Dresden, named for a German cruiser from World War I, which hid from the allies on the coast nearby. We even found a store selling wood-fired stoves like the one on the right.

There was some kind of street demonstration going on. I have no idea about what, but it was being escorted by police officers. They disrupted traffic enough to draw some automobile horns.

Just south of the town square was a huge shopping mall, with five stories which rivals anything I've seen in the U.S. It also had a Holiday Inn Express in it. We walked around the mall after lunch, marvelling at the quantity and variety of the stores. It is said that the economy of Chile is doing very well, and the traffic in that mall would seem to confirm that.

Street scenes in Puerto Montt — pictures are linked to larger versions. L — R: the street demonstration, and two views of the mall.

The hotel called a car service to take us to the airport. The surprises on this trip were not yet over: the flight out to Santiago was about a half hour late, which gave us a tight time schedule to make the flight to Miami, as we had to clear outgoing immigration from Chile. After some anxious minutes in a long immigration line, we got through in time to make the flight, which was boarding as we arrived at the gate.

Clearing Customs and Immigration at Miami was a snap. John and Tristan headed off to rent a car to take back to St. Augustine. I checked in with Continental/United, and got an earlier flight back to Houston and then Corpus Christi for a small additional charge.

And so ended the trip — and what a trip it was! Would I go back? You bet! There's a hut-to-hut hike that you could do in the park on which you'd only have to carry clothes and a sleeping bag, with meals served in the refugios. But that would be too easy...

Patagonia is an area with a range from break-your-heart beauty to break-your-ass-and-kill-you rugged terrain. I've never been anywhere like it. I intend to return.

There's a classic trek further south in the Torres del Paine region, and that may be on the schedule for next year. I see no reason to spend all of the U.S. winter in flat country suffering from mountain withdrawal, when it's summer in South America — and I just ordered Spanish language lessons from Rosetta Stone...

The Mendoza region further north is known for Malbec grapes — an Argentinian and Chilean wine tour, anyone?


Text © 2012 by Linden B. (Lindy) Sisk
Photographs © Linden Sisk, Tristan MacDonald, and John Tresdorpf

All Rights Reserved