Saturday, December 22, 2018

Patagonia: Prologue

Now I'm running to the end of the earth.
Everywhere I turn all the beauty just keeps shaking me.
 --The Indigo Girls

Almost as soon as I got off the Inca Trail more than two years ago, I wanted more: more Andes, more trekking, more all-encompassing, breathtaking beauty. I'm not the only one for whom the Inca Trail was the gateway drug to the W trek in Torres del Paine National Park. I'm also not the only one who thought it the W would be "easier"--as we were coming down the east end of the trail, we overheard a woman going up saying to her partner, "you told me this would be easier than Macchu Pichu!"

So once the urge was in place, we we had to make it happen? Who's we? As with the Peru trip, I wanted this badly enough that I was willing to do it on my own, even though that wasn't my preference. As I started drawing up the trip, I asked everyone who might be up for a lot of trekking. Kiera (see: Balkans) was the first to come close to committing, but ended up dropping out. She nevertheless influenced the trajectory of the trip for the better by insisting on Tierra del Fuego (I was considering dropping it for more time in Patagonia itself) and pushing us into November rather than more crowded December. Jay was noncommittal for a while but ultimately dove in, so we ended up being Jason and I, later joined by Alex for a post-Patagonia week in and around Santiago.

It was a complicated trip, a heavy logistical lift—you can see that it didn’t happen immediately—and the reservations had to be made many months in advance. In fact, when we were reserving refugios in June, a couple had already sold out and we ended up in a pre-set tent our second night of the trek. I initially preferred tents, but Jay wanted the much pricier refugios (bunk beds), and he was right. The tent was uncomfortable and exposed us to the sounds of the late-night revelers.

As I plotted out potential itineraries, it seemed so complicated that I wanted to give up and sign onto a tour. There looked like a lot of inevitable backtracking and epic bus rides. It also looked like it would have to be very expensive, with or without a tour. The least unreasonable tours did not include any trekking, and being driven around national parks rather than trekking them would have made me lose my mind. I tried to get a sense of what the tours were giving you for so much of your money, and it turned out to be not much. They were essentially overpaying themselves for making the bookings, which we could more than handle ourselves. We debated which way to go and opted for Argentina-to-Chile because it was exorbitant to fly into Santiago on our dates.

I booked my flights for a reasonable amount of miles, and booked some internal ones that I later comped with points. Argentina had just recently walked away from a two-tiered flight-pricing system, and one no longer had to fly between countries to avoid getting ripped off. Lodging was pretty reasonable, and food wasn’t cheap, but it also wasn’t unaffordable. The ferry from Puerto Natales to Puerto Montt as well as the newish airport in Calafate--which enabled us to fly rather than bus there--eliminated a lot of the backtracking we were worried about. The ferry was our single biggest expense, but it was a bargain compared to the cruises. Because we made most of the arrangements in May and early June, the trip was largely paid for by the time I had to redo the kitchen in July; it would’ve been irresponsible not to go.

It was a tight itinerary, without much give for delays or other snags. I originally planned to leave on Black Friday but, in light of my experience two years ago, opted to skip out on Thanksgiving to give American a full day to get me to Buenos Aires before I’d have to catch a plane to Ushuaia on Saturday morning (I even opted for a three-hour layover because the just-over-an-hour one scared me). Jason couldn’t leave earlier and would meet me in Ushuaia Saturday night. I’d have loved more than a day in Ushuaia, but we didn’t have a day to spare: the ferry leaves Puerto Natales once a week on Mondays (well, technically Tuesdays but you have to board on Monday), so we’d have to get off the W the same Monday, meaning we’d have to get on on Friday and get everything else in before that. We were entirely mentally prepared for glitches and delays, and were pleasantly relieved when only insignificant ones--those that didn't upend the itinerary--came to pass.

Between the summer, when the trip got real—i.e., booked and paid for—and the run-up, I was largely distracted by work, by the kitchen, and even by the logistics themselves, I’d dreamt of this for so long that I couldn’t believe it was real even when it was time to pack. I prepped the backpack (my REI disaster of a year ago ultimately yielded the best, most ergonomic backpack for petite women) and stuffed my ultralight sleeping bag into its sack. I consulted my extensive packing lists—nothing could be left to chance—and indeed I forgot nothing. The immediate run-up to the trip was my usual frantic: haircut the weekend before, followed by lots of cleaning and packing. A half-day before the trip, with the second half at the dentist and chiropractor and then more cleaning and packing, with only the last-minute stuff left to the day of the trip.
It was worth all the planning and preparation and scrambling, all the dreaming. 

It started in Buenos Aires.

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