Backpacker

You know that game ‘two truths and a lie’? Just in case the self-explanatory title wasn’t enough, I will give you a brief summary here:

Basically, two truths and a lie is the classic get-to-know-you icebreaker game. The gist of it is, you are in a circle of complete strangers and you are supposed to share 2 obscure facts about yourself, along with one ‘fake’ fact about yourself. Then all these people who you have never met in your life are supposed to guess which one of the three statements is false.

So here we go! Time for two truths and a lie, Heather Smaby edition. The only twist? If you are reading this blog, I am pretty sure you already know me, so you should be at a definite advantage. Here are my three statements:

#1. I have been closer to Antarctica than most people in the world ever will be.

#2. 3 minute pasta is my new favorite food.

#3. I have slept through a rainstorm in a tent with a rain tarp that was not covering half the tent.

All right, make your bets- the answer is about to be revealed. And…… the false fact is….. #2!!!!

In case it wasn’t obvious from the clues, these three facts all have to do with my recent (and by recent, I mean back in December… my blog posts have gotten a little delayed) trip to Torres del Paine- one of the most beautiful national parks in all of the Americas.

I will start at the beginning. The game plan was, my friends Sara (also from Wisconsin) and Natalia (from Santiago) would fly to Punta Arenas, one of the southern-most cities in Chile. There is really only one other city in Chile that is farther south, and that is where many Antarctic voyages leave from (hence, #1 is definitely true). According to my trust Lonely Planet guide book, voyages (yes, they are called voyages, not trips) to Antarctica generally cost around $10,000, BUT if you are willing to take the risk of not getting a voyage, you can do the EXTREMELY cheap (please note the sarcasm here) package deal that only costs around $3,000. What a bargain…. I guess.

But anyways, we were going to fly to Punta Arenas, stay one night there, take a bus to Puerto Natales, a different city a few hours north, and from there take a bus to enter the national park. From there, our plan was to do a 5 day backpacking trip on the W trek- a hike that shows a little bit of everything the park has to offer- lakes, mountains, glaciers, etc.

Our flight to Punta Arenas left around 7 in the morning, so we had to leave for the airport around 4:30. Which is quite tricky in a city like Santiago where the metro stops running at 11:00 pm and the buses are unsafe and unreliable at that time of the day. The good news was, Natalia lives super close to the airport, so Sara and I were planning on sleeping over that night, and splitting a cab to bring us to the airport. Sounds easy, right? Good try.

11:00 pm on the night before we left arrived, and I found myself standing alone, on a dark street corner in an area of Santiago that I didn’t know, with a dead phone battery, and $6 to my name. Not exactly an ideal situation, I would say. How exactly did this happen to me? Well, my phone charger had been dead for quite some time, so I had just been sporadically borrowing other people’s chargers, and it just happened that I had forgotten that week. Strike 1. Natalia was meeting me at the metro station, but I was confused about exactly where we were going to meet up, so I was pretty much just wandering around aimlessly. Strike 2. And, worst of all, my debit card had suddenly decided to stop being able to withdraw money from ATMs. I was leaving for a week-long trip the next morning, and I had no way of getting more money. Strike 3.

Well, long story short, I finally managed to find Natalia, but I was still super stressed about the fact that I only had $6 to survive the entire week! Even if I skipped the bus trip to Torres del Paine and didn’t pay to enter the park, I still had to have enough money to eat! So needless to say, I was a little panicked. Scratch that. Completely panicked. As soon as we got to Natalia’s house, she let me borrow her computer to email my parents. But my parents were not online and I had literally no other way to contact them because I couldn’t remember my skype password and I had no idea how to use the international calling card my dad had given me before I left. Best case scenario, I know. So, I did the only thing I could think of. I went on facebook and looked to see if any of my friends in Wisconsin were online and would be willing to call my parents and tell them to check their email because their daughter was in trouble! One of my friends was seriously about to call my house, when (shock and disbelief) my parents finally emailed me back! WOOHOOOOO!!!!!

After some long and very confusing communications with my parents and the bank back home, we finally figured out that the reason I could no longer withdraw money was that my debit card had actually expired in November. The last time I had withdrawn money must have been right at the end of November, so I didn’t notice any problems, and had no idea it was about to expire. Thankfully, Sara lent me some money to get by until I could figure out how to withdraw more, and I learned how to do a cash withdrawl with my credit card, so everything turned out ok in the end. But let’s just say it was a pretty exciting night in Chile… especially when we got up 3 hours later to leave for the airport!

Fast forward 2 days later. We had already survived the flight to Punta Arenas*, crashed in the hostel for a few hours, made dinner with our new-found friends from Israel, explored the city and the Straights of Magellan, arrived at Puerto Natales, took a bus into Torres del Paine, and had began our hike!

*We barely survived the flight to Punta Arenas.  Let’s just say Sara had a little trouble getting to the airport on time and ended up having to get a ride from her host brother at 5 in the morning to make it on time! What awesome host families we have!

Hiking the W trek in Torres del Paine was incredible. There is simply no other way to describe it. My friends Sara (also from Wisconsin) and Natalia (from Santiago) braved the W trek- a 5 day backpacking/ camping hike through some of the craziest landscapes I have ever seen. Only in the Patagonia can you hike for 2 hours in the middle of a forest, round the bend, and come out of the trees to a view like this:

view 1

But the crazy thing is, that wasn’t even the prettiest part of the park! Literally every time we stopped, we would just stare, awestruck, out at the lakes, mountains, and glaciers surrounding us on all sides.

That is Glaciar Grey in the distance- my personal favorite part of the park!
That is Glaciar Grey in the distance- my personal favorite part of the park!
Me in front of Las Torres del Paine- the park’s namesake.
Me in front of Las Torres del Paine- the park’s namesake.

So from the pictures, it is quite obvious why Sara, Natalia, and I were willing to endure the intense 5 day trek, but trust me, it was definitely not always easy! 5 days of crappy food, a tiny 2-person tent for 3 people, and a huge backpack strapped to your back at all times sounds like a good idea in theory, but trust me, after a few days it begins to get a little rough…

So here is the summary of the “high” points:

Day 1:

The first day of our trip featured Sara, Natalia, and I starting our hike at 5 pm. Yes, that’s right. We STARTED our hike at 5 pm. It seems crazy, but during the summer, it normally stays light until around 11:00 in the Patagonia- just goes to show how close I was to the south pole. Unfortunately, we must have either overestimated our hiking skills or underestimated how quickly it would get dark, because we ended up still hiking by the time it got dark. Which is all good and fine… or so we though. Nope, turns out a few hikers who were super speed-demons and had literally run past us on the trail had told the ranger at the campsite we were going to that we were still coming and they didn’t think we were going to make it. Good to know people have so much confidence in us. But I guess they knew what they were talking about, because when darkness came, we were still trekking through the woods, no end in sight. We were just starting to get a little frustrated, wondering how much longer it could possibly be (we had been hiking uphill for over 5 hours), when a park ranger showed up who had been sent out to round us up and keep us alive! The embarrassing thing? We were actually only 5 minutes away from the campsite, so I think we would have been able to make it on our own. But hey, I guess we now know they are very safe and protective of their hikers in the Patagonia!

Oh, as an extra bonus, Sara and I had bought a huge pre-cooked rotisserie chicken for lunch that day before leaving and hadn’t been able to finish it all, so we brought it with us. We felt pretty cool when all the other campers were eating their pasta and sandwiches and we were able to just reach into my backpack and whip out an entire cooked chicken!

chicken

Day 2:

Overnight= RAIN. I could feel my feet and parts of my legs getting really wet in the middle of the night, but I figured that the tent was just really damp because it was downpouring. Around 3 or 4 in the morning, Sara woke me up and told me something I didn’t really understand about the tent and getting wet. I told her, “Yes, Sara, I KNOW we are getting wet- there is really nothing we can do about it!” And casually went back to sleep.

I then got a very pleasant surprise when I woke up in the morning from sunlight streaming in from all sides. Literally. Because guess what? We had been in such a rush to put up the rain tent the night before when we arrived late that we didn’t notice we had completely forgotten to cover half the tent with the rain tarp! It had been so dark that we didn’t see a thing. Apparently Sara had realized what was happening in the middle of the night as we were getting drenched, but when she tried telling me we should fix it, I was in some type of daze and just told her we should go back to bed. Which meant some very wet sleeping bags for us…. And some intense rain tarping the next night!

Day 3:

Did a whole lot of hiking (probably around 12 hours). Made a bunch of new friends from around the globe. Happened to meet up with some of our other study abroad friends from Santiago! Had lunch with a couple of professors from elite universities in California. Learned how to cook pasta on this tiny little portable camping kitchen. Cooked extra pasta because we were so hungry from hiking all day. Counted how many Snickers bars we had left (our breakfast food for the week). Became very upset when we realized how very few Snickers we had left. Relaxed with some pretty awesome views. Overall, a pretty good day.

chillin

Day 4:

This is the point in the trip where we started to run out of steam a little bit… not to mention food! After a long day of hiking, we finally got to our campsite around mid-afternoon. Instead of being normal people and setting up our tent, Sara and I instantly ran over to the fancy lodge that was also there, and (I kid you not) lay down on the front steps and took a nap. Did people judge us? Probably. Did I care at that point? Most definitely not!

I will also mention that by this point we had literally eaten 3 minute pasta, or a soup version of 3 minute pasta on average 2 times a day for the past 4 days. It got to the point where even thinking about eating another scoop of that pasta made me feel sick. So I finally caved and bought a $5 can of Pringles… which seemed really expensive at the time (everything there was way over priced) but which thankfully ended up giving me the energy to get home!

P.S. We camped on the side of a glacier!

Day 5:

WE FINISHED THE TREK!

(Let’s be honest, that is really the only thing that matters from Day 5!)

All in all, the best backpacking trip of my life. Ok, so I will admit I have never actually been on a backpacking trip before. But still, it was a pretty fantastic end to my stay in Chile! To sum it up, here is what I learned:

1)     There are still places in the world that are so clean, so undisturbed, like the Patagonia, that you can literally drink water right from the glacial streams without any type of purification—definitely nice so that we didn’t have to carry any water with us!

2)     The more people in a tent, the warmer it will be!

3)     There is nothing quite as rewarding as seeing beautiful places by foot, carrying all your things along with you.

4)     Never, ever eat 3 minute pasta for more than one meal in a row!

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