Travelblog SA#38: Chiloé Island – Chile

17th-20th January 2019

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In many ways, Chiloé reminded me of Wales, my home back in the UK. Although it is an island, it is so close and well connected to the mainland it feels more like a peninsula, and it is a domain of grassy hills and cows and sheep, with intermittent forests and quaint towns and villages, where time seems to pass a little slower than the rest of the country.

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I spent my first day in Castro, its biggest city which wasn’t actually very big, wandering its streets. I soon saw some of its famous palafito houses, perched over the water, and also paid a visit to its church which is of the distinctive Chiloéan Jesuit style, built from wood.

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I also made a little trip in the afternoon to the islet of Quinchao and walked around the village of Achao, which also had churches and views of the mainland.

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The following morning I ventured out to the island’s west coast for a hike through Chiloé’s National Park.

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For any other travellers thinking of going to this area, I will quickly explain how to get to the Cole-Cole beach trail, for both the Lonely Planet and websites like Wikitravel do so quite poorly. They make it sound like all hikes around Cucao region begin from the same place, whether you are heading to Laguna Huelde or up the coast to Cole-Cole, but this is not actually the case.

When you catch the bus to Cucao, the bus driver will likely try to coax you to get off at the entrance to Chiloé National Park headquarters, because that is where most of the gringos who come to this area go to but, if your destination is not Laguna Huelde but actually Cole Cole, stay on the bus because you do not need to pay the entrance fee to the park for this particular hike and the bus can drop you off a little closer to the trailhead, saving you a good hour of walking down a concrete road.

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I will be honest, the first hour or so of this trail was not awe-inspiring, but I have been spoilt recently, spending the last month hiking some of Patagonia’s finest parks. The path begins along a rather flat beach. You do have a fairly good chance of seeing some interesting birds and there are little hamlets along the way, but it is very samey for a long time and you soon get bored.

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There are also the bugs. I believe they may by some kind of breed of horsefly, but this particular kind are huge and much more annoying than anything else I have come across before. I am used to things like mosquitoes and leeches from my travels but these things, whatever they are, are truly one of nature’s worst abominations. They are very noisy and I didn’t actually realise they bite at first, as it seemed that they lacked any other purpose but buzz around you, clumsily and aimlessly, but eventually I discovered that if you stay still for too long they do bite and it’s painful. On some occasions I had over twenty of them chasing me down the beach. After over an hour of it, I threw a tantrum and went into a rage, swinging my hat in the air around me and screaming curses.

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Once I reached the village of Huentemo, I crossed a bridge and the trail became much more enjoyable. I entered a series of hilly woodlands with coastal views.

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The flunts, as I named them, were a little less in number, but continued to be an annoyance. At one point I smacked one with my hat and it fell to the ground, dazed. I crushed it with my shoe, and it was the most satisfying moment of my entire day.

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When I reached Cole-Cole, I set up my tent by the beach and I actually felt a little wistful. I realised this was my last overnight trek in Patagonia. I guess it was a great way to finish it, with a view like this.

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The sunset was pleasant too.

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In the morning, I wandered outside and there were lots of interesting birds out on the beach, including this group of (what I believe to be) curlews (video here).

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I finished off my time in Patagonia by spending a couple of days in Chile’s Lake District. Puerto Varas was the place I based myself. It was perched upon the shore of Lago Llanquihue and, although it was a bit touristy and there wasn’t actually too much to do there, it did have stunning views of the Volcanoes Osorno and Calibuco.

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This area is an old German colony so it has lots of interesting architecture. The following morning I went for a day trip to the village of Frutilla to walk around its neighbourhoods before I caught a night bus back to Santiago, where I would spend a few days shopping and seeing friends before I crossed the border into northern Argentina.

 

For more photos from Chiloé, click here, and for more from Puerto Varas, click here.

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Travelblog SA#36: Perito Moreno, El Chaltén & Ruta 40 – Argentina

4th-10th January 2019

Fresh from trekking the Torres Del Paine circuit, I began to head north. The Antarctic region of Chile is disconnected from the rest of the country by road so I was forced to cross over the border into Argentina in order to continue my journey. This was something I was not upset about at all, as there are many awesome things to see in this region of Patagonia.

 

Perito Moreno

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It did feel a little bit like I was cheating, being able to get right up close to such a marvel without doing any of the work. All it took was catching a bus from El Calafate and then I found myself at a park which had a series of boardwalks from which I could view a huge glacier from all angles.

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As I walked around, every now and then I heard a rumble as chunks of ice fell from the wall of ice and into the lake. I managed to catch the aftermath of one on my camera which you can watch if you click here.

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I also saw a pair of condors which suddenly, out of nowhere, swooped over me. I saw them from much closer than I did when at Cruz Del Condor in Peru, all those months ago. I was too awed to get my camera out to capture them. I just enjoyed the sight.

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For future travellers to this place, here is a tip; you can enter the park for half price if you manage to find a ticket from the previous day, so ask around your hostel when you arrive in El Calafate. I was a little worried they would clock me as the tickets state your country of origin and mine said ‘Brasil’, but the woman who came onto the bus when we entered the park didn’t say anything when she was collecting money. It was quite hilarious though when she got back on a few minutes later with the printed tickets and asked everyone from Brazil to raise their hand and I – probably the whitest dude in the entire carriage – raised mine. She did look at me a little funny when she gave me my ticket but I just said, “Vivo en Brasil pero soy de Gales.”

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If you are hesitant to do this, just remember; they charge foreign visitors 700 Argentinean pesos (not much shy of $20) per person whereas Argentineans only pay 100 and they receive hundreds of visitors a day. When they are taking in that much money you know only a fraction of it is going to the preservation of the park and the other 95% is just gringo tax. To sum up how guilty I felt, here is a picture:

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El Chaltén

A few decades ago Argentina sensed a land dispute coming up so they threw a few houses and a street at a frontier to lay claim. It just so happened to get very close to one of Patagonia’s most stunning landscapes and thus, over the years, it has grown.

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The day I arrived it was very windy, so I claimed a dorm bed into a hostel and had a wander around town, buying provisions and getting all my camping gear ready for the three-day trek I intended to embark upon known as the Fitz Roy & Cerro Torres Loop.

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The weather cleared up quite nicely by the following morning and I set upon the trail.

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It didn’t take me long till I began to start seeing stunning panoramas. When I reached the top of the first hill outside of the town, I could see the valley.

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And, to the other side, the iconic Fitz Roy Mountains were in the distance.

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They loomed before me for most of the day, as I got closer and closer, passing through forests, meadows, hillocks, rivers, and Lake Capri.

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It was a gentle hike – certainly after doing the Torres Del Paine just a week ago – and I reached Poincenot campsite within just a few hours, where I set up my tent, made dinner, and spent the evening reading a book in my tent, feeling very content.

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I woke up at sunrise and began my climb up to Laguna de Los Torres. It was steep but not too long and it only took about an hour to reach the top. When I first arrived it was cloudy, obscuring the view of Fitz Roy, but I waited and eventually, the sky cleared and the sun illuminated the peaks.

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I walked back to Camp Poincenot and dismantled my tent. I was walking along a trail towards Laguna Torres that day. I passed through forests and several lakes – including a pair known as Madre and Hija – on my way.

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It was as I was walking the final stretch to Camp Agostini that I bumped into Benjamin, a Swiss guy I had met a few weeks ago in Punta Arenas. We had a quick catch up and realised that we were both, over the next few days, heading in the same direction and he just so happened to have a car. We decided to meet up the next day to do the journey together.

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I walked around Laguna Torres for a while, which was fed by a glacier of the same name and had icebergs floating across its surface. I was camping nearby that night so I also returned in the morning just after sunrise, but to be honest I thought it looked better in the afternoon so I didn’t take any more pictures.

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When I returned to El Chaltén, I treated myself to lunch, collected my backpack, had a shower, and sat in a café for a while, waiting for Benjamin to come and pick me up.

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I enjoyed the Fitz Roy & Cerro Torres Loop very much. The actual hiking itself is very easy and the days are short. It has a very relaxed pace so you can take your time and it feels more like a languid series of walks with camping in between then a proper hike but you still get to see many views along the way. Ones which you would usually need to venture much further from civilisation for. I would recommend it as either a warm-up for those about to do the Torres Del Paine or for those who, like me, have just done the Torres Del Paine and fancy winding down with something easier.

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It is also great for wildlife. I saw Andean Foxes (videos here), Falcons (videos here), an austral parakeet (click here), and also a couple rabbits (which I didn’t quite manage to capture before they scarpered away, so you’ll have to take my word for it).

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Ruta 40

When Benjamin came to pick me up, it was late in the afternoon but, with it being Patagonian summer, we still had plenty of daylight left. His car was huge, with four spacious seats and a bed at the back which he sleeps in most nights. He bought it in Ushuaia and intends to drive it all the way up to Colombia over the next few months.

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We left El Chaltén behind and entered the Patagonian Steppe. A flat, windy, barren landscape covered with little shrubs which seemed to be the only thing which grows there, and the guanacos which fed upon them. Most of the road was fairly good but there was a good hour or two of gravel which – combined with the wind – made for a bumpy ride.

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It seemed that Benjamin was not the only old face I would see this week; when we stopped at a gas station I bumped into a girl I met while in Sucre in Bolivia almost two months ago and we had a quick catch up. She was hitchhiking but going the opposite way to us, towards El Chaltén.

When it got dark, we parked up by some trees by the side of the road and I set up my tent for the night. I slept, and in the morning we got up, ate, packed away and got back on the road.

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We saw a couple of rheas that day and some foxes. The landscape became less flat and we eventually saw white-capped mountains in the distance, a sign we were getting closer to Chilean Patagonia. We reached Los Antigos by the afternoon and there was a cherry festival going on with live music, rodeos and other things, so Benjamin decided he wanted to stay there for a while. I was more pressed for time though so he dropped me off at the border of Chile and we went separate ways.

 

More more photos click to see the following albums: Perito Moreno and El Chaltén.

Travelblog SA#35: Torres Del Paine – Chile

24th December 2018 – 3rd January 2019

I spent Christmas in Puerto Natales, a little town by the banks of Señoret Channel where the Magellan Strait begins to ford. After months of staying in dormitories (and on occasion, my tent) I treated myself to my own a room and spent a few days drinking wine, watching movies and catching up with friends and family, as well as taking occasional walks along the water front. It was a time of recuperation, but I also prepared for my upcoming trek, the Torres Del Paine Circuit, an eight-day journey through Patagonian forests, mountains, lakes and glaciers.

 

Day 1

It was a two-hour bus journey to reach the headquarters and then I had to queue for ages while the rangers checked everyone’s reservations and documents to make sure all was in order. They are very strict and spaces are limited. The park’s growing popularity has caused it to become infamously difficult organise if you want to stay there overnight, and the situation is not at all helped by the fact that the campsites are privately-owned and have separate (and confusing) booking systems. I reserved my spaces several months ago and even then the process was so hair-tearingly frustrating that I almost gave up.

But I was glad I didn’t. I had to wait behind a French guy for twenty-minutes because he had a night missing from the bookings he needed for the three-day trek and thought he could just make do, but they were having none of it and wouldn’t let him in. It made me realise that I was very lucky, for I had a full eight day to explore this natural wonder.

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Despite how many people were at the headquarters, once I began on the trail I found myself almost completely alone for most of the day because most of the visitors to this park are only here either for day trips or a shorter trek known as ‘The W’. This northern region I would be spending the first few days in is quieter.

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My backpack was heavy. Carrying not just a tent, sleeping bag, stove and all my other gear, but also eight days worth of food. Luckily this first day was fairly short, taking me just four hours, and the terrain was reasonably flat. I passed through meadows, intermittent patches of woodland and snaked along the side of the River Paine for a while. There were strong gales, but I had expected that. This area is famous for the bitterly cold winds which peak during the summer months.

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I reached Serón by the mid-afternoon, set up my tent, prepared dinner, and started getting to know the other people who were also trekking the same route as me. It is called ‘The O’ and it circles around the quieter regions of the park before joining up with the more trodden ‘W’.

 

Day 2

I slept well that night and was awoken by rain. I waited for it to break before I started to get ready but I was still forced to pack my tent up wet.

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It was a tougher hike that day. The terrain wasn’t as flat and there was intermittent rain. The gloomy light created an eerie atmosphere and, a few hours in, I reached Lake Paine and the sky cleared, revealing ice-capped mountains in the distance.

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The highlight was at the end when I curved around the side of a mountain to find myself looking down upon Camp Dickson, where I was staying that night. It was beautifully perched upon a peninsular jutting out onto a lake of the same name.

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Day 3

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This was my favourite day so far, waking up in Camp Dickson to sunshine and a backside view of the Torres. Finally, we had good weather. I lingered for a while, taking a walk along the lake after breakfast.

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The air got colder as I reached higher climbs and the bitter winds returned in the afternoon. The trail went through lots of different kinds of forest and I saw many wonderful views.

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Not just of Lake Dickson, behind me, but glacial mountains and Los Perros ahead, which I reached just after lunchtime.

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I took some photos but didn’t linger for too long as it was very windy. As I walked away, I heard a thunderous roar of ice breaking from the glacier into the lake.

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Of all the campsites, Los Perros was not my favourite. Despite how close it was to the lake, you couldn’t actually see it as there was a huge mound of earth in the way, but I guess it was sheltered from the extremes of the weather, clustered within the trees. A good thing, as not long after I settled it began to rain.

I was, weather permitting, crossing Paso John Gardner the next day. It is the most challenging part of the entire trail and it is not uncommon for the park to close it if it gets too windy.

 

Day 4

I woke up at 5am. As it turned out, it was windy that morning but none of the rangers came out to stop me and the other early birds as we left the campsite.

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So far, during this journey, I had hiked alone and enjoyed solitude. The lack of noise meant I saw lots of birds, but I had been getting to know some of the other trekkers during the evenings and that morning I decided to walk within the company of a group of Americans I had befriended.

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The first hour was uphill, through wetlands and alpine woodlands, but as we got closer to the peak it was rocky, exposing us to winds. The trail was slippery and, combined with the winds, you had to be careful to maintain balance. I could see that it would have been quite easy to slip, but it wasn’t anywhere near as dangerous or difficult as the Rangers made out.

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When we reached the top we were rewarded with a breathtaking view. We had reached the Patagonian ice field of Glacier Grey.

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According to the rangers the trek was supposed to have taken us six hours that day but it actually took us not much longer than four – and that is including plenty of stops along the way to admire the ice-field. When we reached Camp Paso, our destination, it was still morning so we ventured to a nearby viewpoint for a while but otherwise spent the rest of the day chatting and relaxing.

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I ate dinner early that evening and went to my tent to read a book. In some ways, I actually like the way I had to book all the campsites in advance and follow the park’s strict rules because it forced me to take my time and enjoy the experience. I have, in the past, had a tendency to rush through treks.

 

Day 5

Much of this morning was spent trailing alongside Glacier Grey. There were several viewpoints along the way so I got to see it from all angles as I got closer to where it merged with the lake.

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I was hiking alone again that day and saw lots of wildlife, including a caracara and even a giant woodpecker, both of which I have videos you can watch. For the first few days of The O Circuit, everyone stays in the same campsites but once we across the pass it joins up with The W where we have more options. That morning I said goodbye to some of the friends I made.

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As I passed Lake Grey, with all of its icebergs and views of the glacier, the wind picked up. It became so strong by the afternoon that I actually felt it pushing me along the top of hills. I felt sorry for the people heading the opposite way, having to fight against it.

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It began to rain too shortly before I arrived at Paine Grande. I saw a rabbit which I managed to catch for a few seconds on my camera but as the downpour got worse I rushed to the registration desk where I sat for a while waiting for the winds to calm down so I could set up my tent. They never eased completely and the day transitioned to a blustery evening. I did manage to set up my tent in the end though, and then I had my first shower for three days.

It turned out that some of the friends I said goodbye to that morning were at Paine Grande too, using the ill weather as an excuse to not venture further. Despite having strict rules concerning reservations before you enter the park – as well as several check-points along the way – the actual campsites themselves can actually be quite flexible, particularly when it comes to safety concerns.

We were on ‘The W’ trail now, and it was much busier than the northern reach of the park. The Refugios were bigger and more modern. Most of them even had hotel rooms and restaurants.

But those weren’t the only changes. There was a different energy in the air. There were a lot of people wearing trainers and tracksuit bottoms and carrying just small day packs. I hate to be snobby, but there was a greater sense of comradery between people who trek The O circuit, there being so few of us and most being quite experienced hikers, whereas a lot of the people who trek The W seemed a little out of place. Many of them were – for reasons which I will never understand – walking through the park with earphones in (or in some cases, rather annoyingly, playing their music on loudspeakers) instead of enjoying the sounds of birdsong and the wind stirring the trees.

It was New Year’s Eve and the communal kitchen was packed with more people than I had seen for while a while and, after days spent on The O trail, I found it jarringly loud. I and some of The O People sat in the corner together and I think some of us missed the serenity we’d become accustomed to.

 

Day 6

I was woken up a few times that night, both by strong winds and drunken people stumbling around the city of tents. I couldn’t really afford to binge at the prices the campsite was selling their beers so I just had a couple of and went to bed early. It was very quiet in the morning because most of the people were hungover. I spotted an Andean Colpeo fox wandering through the campsite, looking for food.

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The wind calmed a little since the previous day and I had the trail mostly to myself. It only took a couple of hours to reach Camp Italiano and, once there, I set up my tent and ate a quick lunch before setting on the trail into Valle de Franco. I got to leave my backpack behind and just take a bottle of water in the pocket of my jacket, which was heaven after six days of carrying the thing.

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An hour in, I reached a viewpoint for Glacier Franco. I have not just photos of but also a video (which can be viewed by clicking here) to appreciate it in its full glory.

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It was another hour or so to reach Mirador Britanico, climbing through rough rocky terrain and patches of woodland. It was snowing, and the wind, which I had become all too familiar with by now, was persistent.

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Unfortunately, because of the clouds, I didn’t get the best view of it, but the Britanico range was very impressive. I took a panoramic photo, but it doesn’t quite capture its full majesty or the awe you feel seeing it surrounding you from all sides.

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Day 7

By this day, I was spoiled. And I knew it too.

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I had reached a point where I had seen so many breathtaking sights that the azure waters of Lago Nordenskjöld, with views of Bader Valley along the way, woodlands, and everything else I saw that day did not awe me as much as they would have a week ago. Magical, surreal landscapes had become the norm for me.

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This was one of the longer days and the last couple of hours were a bit of a slog. For some reason, despite the fact I had eaten most of my food by that point and it had been getting lighter, my backpack felt heavy. I was happy by the time we reached Central for my final night of camping. My friends and I sat and made ate dinner together one last time.

 

Day 8

My alarm went off at 2am, and I started to get ready for my walk up to the Torres. I met my friends outside and we left, lighting the trail by torchlight as we made our way up the valley. It was steep, but we were quite fit after a week of hiking and this day we weren’t carrying our backpacks.

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First light was at 5am, and by then we were at the final part of the ascent. When we reached the Torres they were partly obscured by clouds. We waited, and it was very cold. I found a little niche within all the rocks which was sheltered from the wind. A French guy who had brought his stove with him gave me a little bit of his coffee to warm me up. The clouds began to clear and, later on, sunlight hit the rocks, illuminating them.

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For more photos and videos from the Torres Del Paine, click here.