Torres del Paine 3N/4D

After 4 hours on the bus from El Calafate, we arrived to the Chilean border, where the customs officers were on strike (taste of home!) We sat in a nearby cafe until the customs agents arrived to open for 1 hour. Luckily we all made it through – third time sneaking my meat past the border, phew – and the bus continued to Puerto Natales, which serves as the tourist base for the Torres del Paine National Park.


Puerto Natales is a quiet, windy town full of camping equipment stores and not much else; these happily took my money as I rented a tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping mat, and bought a camping stove, walking sticks, and sunglasses (as my old ones accidentally found a new home in the lake near El Calafate). I spent a couple days shopping / panicking / shopping some more, then spent a relaxed Shabbat reading in my hostel. Luckily, my hostel had a homey atmosphere with a living room, shared dining room table for all, tv area, etc, which was perfect for those few days.

Saturday night I packed and repacked my backpack – food, equipment, and one change of clothing – and Sunday morning I was off to the national park.

Day 1 (10 km)

After a couple hours on the bus, we arrived to the park and caught our first glimpse of the imposing “towers” for which the park is named. We were forced to listen to 17 speeches about not starting fires in the park, and then we headed to a catamaran which would take us across the lake to the other side of the park. We would spend the next 4 days basically walking back along this lake, coupled with outings up mountains/valleys alongside it.

The catamaran arrived at the campsite around noon; most people continued to the next campsite, for an extra night in the park, but I stayed and immediately went to go put up my tent, something I’ve done a hundred times before, right?

Well.

Putting up a tent in Sataf and holding on for dear life to your tent in 60km winds is not exactly the same experience. After desperately tossing rocks atop various parts of my tent, and staking it with one hand while throwing my body on top of it to keep it from flying away, I looked at my tent flapping in the wind and had little to no hope of it staying in place. After repositioning and restaking it not once, but twice, my tent looked slightly more stable, an hour had passed, and I was exhausted but ready to start my hike up to the glacier.


The winds were not any better along the hike, whipping me in all directions as I slowly trudged up the hill. After 5km, I arrived at the first view point of Glacier Grey, barely able to see, using all my energy to stand in place, my mind registered that I was seeing a glacier, registered that it was beautiful, registered that I should take a picture, took out my phone, snapped a picture, upon which I decided that this was surely a good enough view of the thing, and I turned around to head back to the campsite, skipping much of that day’s walk. I was done with that wind.

Back at the campsite, I entered the shared “kitchen and dining room” (a big room with tables, benches, and a sink) to prepare dinner on my camping stove (pasta with tuna, if you’re curious). A few of us went into the refugio (basically a hostel) next door to grab a beer. By 6:30pm, I was back in the tent, feeling a bit lonely but lucky to be inside, because a few minutes later it started to rain. I lay there, feeling a bit ill, unsure if the tent would hold up in the wind or keep out the rain, wondering what exactly I was doing there. Finally, I fell into a restless sleep, woken up regularly by the wind, the rain, the hard ground, the cold, until the early hours of the morning.


Day 2 (19km)

I could barely lift my head in the morning, and it took my until day 4, when I was feeling better, to realize that this was not “what it feels like to wake up in a tent” (duh) but rather “what it feels like to wake up in a tent with a fever.” I made breakfast (oatmeal), packed up the tent, hoisted up my pack, and started off toward the next campsite. After a couple of hours I arrived at the base of the French Valley, where I left my pack before heading up the mountain. This was a beautiful hike alongside a gushing stream and below a glacier, from which we constantly heard the thunderous sound of avalanches. Unfortunately, the last kilometer to the lookout was closed, so we just sat at the top eating our lunches in some combination of rain/snow/sun, but luckily mostly sun.Back at the bottom of the valley, I grabbed my pack and walked the last 30 minutes to my campsite for the night. This site didn’t have a room for us to cook in; instead, we were each given a platform on which to set up our tents (nailing them into the platforms, what?!) and do our cooking (with wooden windshields for our stoves, seriously, what?!) I had met someone in the French Valley who was staying in the campsite and also hiking alone (his friend had backed out after the first day, a girl after my own heart), so we hung out and cooked our dinners together. But still, by 7:30 I was back in my tent, and an hour later I fell into a restless sleep, interrupted throughout the night by the insane winds around us.


Day 3 (13km)

Despite the fact that I was carrying my pack all day, and despite the fact that I was still pretty ill, the third day was the most beautiful and relaxing day of the hike. After another morning of oatmeal, we set off to the next campsite to pick up another girl who was hiking alone. The three of us walked along a beautiful stone beach and stunning vistas of mountains and lakes, keeping a pretty intense pace but stopping occasionally for snacks/pictures/shmoozing with other groups of English speakers. After a lunch break all together, I split off from the rest of them, headed to a different site at the bottom of the mountain.

The last part of the hike was a bit of a bummer – it was in the vicinity of the park entrance, and the walk was along the road, with cars passing by and sleet coming at my face. When I finally got to the campsite, giving my shoulders a relief, I found a couple of Americans I had met the day before, and we headed to the refugio for some drinks and Jenga before coming back to the campsite to prepare dinner in the rain (surprise, pasta!). It was a fun, relaxed evening, and I went to sleep super late that night (read: 11pm).

Day 4 (16km)

The last day is the climax of the trip, with a climb up to the base of the “towers.” Most people start the day at one of the campsites partway up the hill, often hiking up to see sunrise at the towers, but we were staying too far to do this – supposedly a 5 hour walk.

I headed out a little after 8am with a Canadian couple, Nicole and Brett, with a plan to head up and back down in time to catch the 7pm bus. We walked pretty quickly up to the top, partially to get out of the wind, partially Nicole and I trying to keep up with Brett. The last kilometer was a beast, basically climbing straight up a bunch of big rocks, as everyone coming down kept reassuring me that “it’s worth it.” Finally we got to the top, to the base of the towers, where we took the requisite pictures (though they were somewhat hidden by the clouds).


After the pictures, we looked at our watches – it was 11am. After a quick debate, we decided to try to make it down for the 2pm bus, which would mean doing a supposedly nine hour hike in five hours. We booked it. We hopped down the boulders, jogged through the forest, took a 90 second bathroom break, and basically ran down the last hour to the campsite, where I still had to pack my tent. It was nuts, but invigorating, and I arrived at the campsite by 1:10 – plenty of time to pack, drink water, and acknowledge the fact that I could barely feel my legs. I got on the bus at 2pm, feeling accomplished and satisfied and ready for a change of clothes.

That evening, back in Puerto Natales, a bunch of us that had hiked together over the last few days met up for some beers (and pizza for them), happily showered and in clean clothes and ready to sleep in a bed.

El Calafate & El Chalten

I landed in El Calafate among snow-covered mountains and sparkling blue water, indicating my arrival to the Lakes Region of Patagonia. That afternoon I did some food shopping and drank delicious coffee, and registered for an excursion to Perito Moreno, the glacier that brings people to Calafate in the first place. 


The next morning I set out on a bus to Glacier National Park, where we embarked on a ferry across the glacier lake, passing blue chunks of ice along the way. After 20 minutes we arrived at the enormous glacier, where we strapped on crampons (still my sworn enemy) and headed onto the ice for 1.5 hours of trekking. This was beautiful and unique and really just pure fun. As we walked, we could hear the thundering sound of the ice cracking into the lake below. The glacier, however, is in equilibrium, receiving enough snow each year to counteract the melting/breaking. After the trek, we headed to the other side of the glacier where we viewed its gorgeous face from above. It was, all in all, a fun, glorious day in nature. 


The next morning I headed to El Chalten, a three hours’ drive from Calafate. El Chalten is a tiny village in the middle of Glacier National Park, built purely for tourism (and apparently because of some border dispute with Chile). Full day hikes begin and end in the town, providing plenty of activities for trekkers.

El Chalten in its entirety


I arrived on a Friday, popped into the sparsely stocked supermarket, made a couple challot and some soup for dinner, and headed out for a quick 2 hour hike to a lookout. As I arrived, I saw an eagle/condor above. While I’m not generally a huge fan of birds (hence the label above), this birds are pretty incredible to watch as they soar over the Andes. 


Shabbat was….let’s just say I read three books cover to cover while everyone else took advantage of the gorgeous weather outside. 

Sunday I headed out to the most popular trek, Laguna de Los Tres, which is surely a misnomer as I counted at least six lakes along the way. This was a pretty leisurely walk through a forest, accompanied by the sounds of birds chirping overhead and avalanches sliding in the mountains to the right. It ended with a climb up to a frozen lake in front of Mount Fitz Roy, an impressive peak that towers over the village. 


Chag was pretty similar to Shabbat, and after finishing all the English books in the hostel (recommended: Looking for Alaska) I packed a picnic lunch to enjoy at a nearby overlook. 

My last day in Chalten was overcast, creating a gorgeous, gray, gloomy background for my hike that day. The mountain view was obscured, but the mist over the forests and lakes was a great alternative. 


I left Chalten a day earlier than planned, and when the bus company asked for an obscene amount of money to change my outrageously priced ticket, I decided to catch a ride back to Calafate instead. With a single bank that runs out of notes, and two markets with sparsely stocked shelves, the residents of Chalten regularly make the three hour drive between the towns, and I easily found a ride back that morning. 

Back in Calafate, I wandered down to Lake Argentina, and on the way back passed a tiny museum. Heading in, I learned about the geological and anthropological history of Patagonia, ending with (as always) the European conquest of the natives; however, as opposed to the story in Peru and Bolivia, this was quite recent, having taken place in the 20th century. 

That afternoon I popped into a hair salon to say adios to my roots. 

“Ohh, mucho cabello.” “Si.”

Finally, I headed back to the hostel just in time for the daily town-wide power outage, during which we started a card game that would last five hours. After a few hours in bed listening to a cacophony of snoring and dog-barking, I was up and ready for my 5:30am bus – time to return to Chile. 

Buenos Aires

BsAs, I will be back. I arrived after Yom Kippur, stayed for a week, and loved it all, despite the 4 days straight of rain (and the first rain I had in my entire trip). 

I spent the days walking around the city, looking at gorgeous architecture from a time when Argentina had incredible wealth, and built their cemeteries to show it. I walked from monuments in plazas to sculpture gardens to parks filled with picnickers. 

The Jewish community in BsAs was incredible. On Shabbat, I went to two different shuls and was hosted by local couples who I was introduced to via friends in Israel. Their hospitality was unparalleled, and I found myself having to reject invitations as they poured in. By coincidence, I booked a hostel a block away from the local Chabad, and so I ate there the first night of Sukkot. We sat and sang and carried conversations in some mix of Spanish/English/Hebrew/French. I walked to a beautiful Sefaradi shul on chag morning, which was followed by a community lunch in their enormous sukkah. It was perfect. 

Also, there are so many kosher restaurants. I fit in as many as possible – steak, sushi, bagels, pizza, ice cream…. However, I had a hard time finding kosher wine. The South American Jewish community does not seem to be particularly interested in wine, which is a definite stain on their record. 


Motzei chag I found myself at a tango class, where I lamented the distance between myself and my heels (only 7500 miles…) Though I was the only beginner, I thoroughly enjoyed myself. 

I also finally got around to planning the last part of my trip, 2 days in Patagonia, and after nearly a week in the warm, energetic, crazy city that is Buenos Aires, I headed to southern Argentina. 

48 Hours in Uruguay

Unlike La Paz and Santiago, Montevideo did not manage to capture my affection. To be fair, I really didn’t spend time downtown, and so perhaps that would have been more appealing, but I was anxious to move on out. This was primarily for two reasons: (1) The people I encountered in the street were rather cold, and (2) the going rate for a tiny styrofoam cup of coffee was $4. So. 

Montevideo was a blur of:

Airport > hotel > salon > seudah mafseket at the rabbi/shaliach > shul > walk on the beach > shul > shul > shul > dancing outside shul > 282725 bowls of cereal > bus to the border > ferry to Buenos Aires. 

the ferry, obviously


Shalom, Uruguay. 

Chile

We crossed into the north of Chile, at the Atacama desert. Shabbat was spent in a little town in the desert called San Pedro – a cute little tourist town that did not quite appeal. On motzei Shabbat we took a tour to the desert to see the stars, which was incredible. We learned that the constellations rise backwards – for example, we could see Orion’s feet and belt above the horizon but his arms had not yet risen. The guide brought a telescope and we saw breathtaking star formations. 

The next morning our airport shuttle was 45 minutes late, and we panicked, certain that we would miss our flight to Santiago for Rosh Hashana. It turned out that everyone had overstated the time to the airport by 45 minutes, and we made it with time to spare. 

panicking, but not too panicked to appreciate the view

Miriam’s cousin had many Chilean students in her midrasha in Jerusalem, and she set us up with a place to stay and meals. Chag was lovely. We joined 4 warm families for the meals, including the rabbis of both shuls, and enjoyed the davening in the main shul. Santiago is a pretty interesting community, because all of the religious people are baalei tshuva – up until 10-15 years ago, the city did not have a frum community at all. 

still working on the selfie skills

We enjoyed chag in the suburbs, spent a day touring the city center, and then off I went to the town of Pucon, the seat of adventure in central Chile, where I was lucky enough to hit perfect weather for climbing the most active volcano in South America. 

the view from the hostel NBD

I didn’t really know what I was getting into when I decided to climb Villaricca, which was probably for the better. The tour company gave us backpacks and boots, and we began zig-zagging across the black rocks at the base, remnants from last year’s eruption. Soon we hit the snow, and continued to climb, but we found that it was covered by a layer of ice – so out came the ice axes and on came the crampons. These were pretty painful, but I forgot about them when we started walking through snow a foot deep, and all I could think about was lifting my feet to take another step. Finally, after 5 hours, we reached the top, where peering into boiling lava (lifelong dream!) ended my misery. 


We started back down the steep icy hill, but slowly the sun began to melt the ice, and we found ourselves in beautiful powder. The rest of the group grabbed plastic discs to sled down the mountain. I turned to one of the guides who I had paid to be a porter of a pair of skis, strapped them on, and off the two of us went down the mountain. It was AMAZING. 


Shabbat was cold and rainy, a perfect day for a book, and on Sunday I went for a hike in the nearby park before getting on the 12-hour bus back to the Santiago area. 


I spent my last day in Chile wandering the streets of Valparaiso, a city on the shores of the Pacific filled with amazing street art. 

Salar de Uyuni

Part II of the Week of Sitting was in a new vehicle – a Toyota Landrover (hereafter referred to as, “the jeep“). 


Our bus arrived to Uyuni around 5am, and before our feet hit the pavement, women had surrounded us, hawking their trips to the salt flats. We had been endlessly warned about choosing a safe company, so we sidled away from them to do our proper research before choosing. Miriam and I each chose different companies, and off we went in our respective jeeps with 5 other people and a guide. 

These tours are pretty amusing, because they all take pretty much the same route for three days, which means you drive for hours in the middle of absolutely nowhere, and suddenly find your jeep parking along a line of 20 or 30 other jeeps. 


The first day was the salt flats, and these did not disappoint. We drove across the wide white expanse, stopping to take the classic salt flat pictures, to climb a hill covered in massive cactuses, and to watch the sunset while we stood in the cold winds. 


That night we stayed in a salt hotel with the other jeep from our company. After dinner we were offered to go out to “see the stars” which it turns out was a euphamism for some reef grottoes (pretty boring) and an ancient cemetery in a cave (pretty cool). 

On day 2, we drove through the gorgeous desert, stopping to see a semi-active volcano, large rock formations, and many lagoons with flamingos, though they were not as interested in us as we were in them, so getting close was a bit of a challenge. 


For anyone considering a trip to the Salar, take note – on the second day, there are NO BATHROOMS to be seen for a good 7 hours. And to be clear, my definition of bathroom includes holes in the ground and bushes; it almost included behind-the-van until crisis was averted. You have been warned. 

That night we slept in an unheated hostel, relying on our coats, some alcohol, and each other to stay warm through dinner. 

The next morning started at 4:30am in freezing temperatures, when we headed out to… actually we had no idea where we were going – our guide was not particularly informative. But it turns out that we were going to an amazing field of geysers just as the light came in. These were awesome because they were 1) very beautiful and 2) warm. 

After the geysers the guide dropped me at the Chilean border, where I was thrilled to be done with the jeep, and boarded a bus to head to the next country. 

The Pampas

This was a week of sitting. First, three days in the Pampas – marshes in the Amazon Basin – where we sat on a tiny motorized rowboat for hours on end. Then three days of sitting in Salar de Uyuni, but that’s the next post. 


To get to Rurrenbaque, the main village in the Bolivian Amazon, we took a 45 minute plane ride over mountains and rivers, landing in the tiny one room airport among lush jungle. We stepped off the plane and… it was warm! We stripped off the coats and fleeces we were wearing in La Paz and headed to start our 3 hour car ride to the Pampas. 

Our driver was apparently going through a breakup, as far as we could tell by his mix, which included such hits as “Mi Corazon Seguira” (My Heart Will Go On), “Pudo Ser Amor” (It Must Have Been Love), and “Yo Siempre Te Amare.” On repeat. For three hours. There and back. 

We stopped for lunch in Santa Rosa, a village just outside the national park, and our guide disappeared to buy our park tickets. This was the first sign of things to come – we finished lunch, then lazed about in hammocks for a while as we awaited his return. 

Upon entering the park, we found a few other groups awaiting their arrival of their rowboats. Our guide, Gary, arrived and began loading all of our baggage as well as food and gas for the week, all onto the tiny rowboat. Gary, it turns out, does not speak much English – but he knew a ton of Hebrew! Animals, food, directions, how not to get eaten by an alligator – all in Hebrew. 

We embarked on our three hour boat ride down the river, stopping to see all of the wildlife that lives there – alligators, capybaras, turtles, even bigger alligators called Caymans, and some gorgeous birds. 


Our lodge felt like being back in camp, sans electricity, plus mosquito nets. In the evening we rode down the river for “happy hour” (magically scheduled for our arrival as well as the arrival of all the other groups) and sunset. Riding back in the dark, we shined flashlights at the shore, and tiny dots of red shined back – hundreds of alligator eyes. 

Back at the camp, we met the chef of Fluvial Tours lodge, who was a queen and a hero. She understood kashrut, had a separate kosher pot, set aside food for us to cook at every meal, had us turn on our own fire, kept separate spices and special packaged pastas, and for the next 2.5 days we ate pancakes, spaghetti with pasta sauce, rice salad, and lots of fresh fruit and veg. 

mischievous look before sneaking into our bunk


The second day in the Pampas we rode upriver for anaconda hunting (?!) which amounted to traipsing through mud and reeds, trying to keep our footing and not at all looking for anacondas. We didn’t find one, and I can’t say we were particularly displeased with the result. 


We came back for lunch and siesta.  Yes, this trip includes forced naps. I think we can all agree that it was not planned with me in mind. 

In the afternoon, we were back in the boat for piranha fishing! I caught a piranha and a catfish; the piranhas were dinner, though we weren’t sure if we could partake and so opted out. (Are those really fins?? Yes, it turns out they are.)

Our last day included the activity we had been anticipating and dreading – swimming with pink dolphins in the river. At some point we realized that there was no special section for swimming… the same river we had been driving up and down – catching piranhas and spying on alligators – is where we would be swimming. And so we said our prayers and jumped into the cool water, eyeing the wildlife all the while. 

Later we headed back to Rurrenbaque for our flights back to La Paz. From the airport, we headed to the bus station for our overnight bus to Uyuni.