This is entry nine of an ongoing travel journal. Click here to read the first. April 20-May 1 The reality of my dwindling time in Chile was setting in. Part of me felt content with the mountains I’d seen, the people I’d met, and the experiences I had, but a louder part of me screamed […]
April 20-May 1
The reality of my dwindling time in Chile was setting in. Part of me felt content with the mountains I’d seen, the people I’d met, and the experiences I had, but a louder part of me screamed for more. Up until then, I had spent all my time in the central region of the country, in Santiago, the capital, and other destinations within a ten-hour bus ride of Santiago. But there is much more to experience than just that middle region. Chile is the longest country on the planet, running north to south through several different climates, with the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Andes Mountains 150 miles inland, the culmination of these factors creates some of the most unique and bizarre landscapes on Earth. With under two weeks left, I figured, why not travel to the two most extreme ends of the country?
My journey began in the far north in the Atacama Desert, the driest non-polar desert on Earth. But being in Atacama hardly feels like being on Earth at all. The landscapes are jagged, dry, colorful, salty, and enormous—not to mention shockingly diverse. Drive down the same stretch of road for one hour and you will see expansive black and white salt flats, massive and jagged salt dusted deep red pillars shooting straight out of the ground, vast green and yellow rolling hills, and mammoth sand dunes, with the snowcapped volcanic Andes as a constant backdrop. Atacama is so otherworldly in fact that a number of sci-fi movies have been filmed there.
Adding to the otherworldliness of the Atacama Desert is the fact that it has the best stargazing on the planet. The 8,000-foot elevation provides little atmosphere to look through, along with the arid climate, the lack of light pollution, and the endless horizons in the desert, standing outside at night literally feels like being in a planetarium.
I ventured with a few friends and together we drove 1,100 km through that desert in just three days. We spent a majority of the time being lost, jamming to the radio, chewing on coca leaves to fend off altitude sickness, and not believing our eyes. I would get lightheaded stepping out of the car due to the thin atmosphere and feel a spinning and woozy out-of-body high that made the picturesque multicolored mountain ranges all that much more intense and unbelievable. They were the type of landscapes that you think only exist in the imagination and Hollywood CGI.
After Atacama I spent three short days back in Santiago, recuperating and preparing for the next outing, the grand finale and crown jewel on my Chilean adventure: a solo trip to Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia.
Staying in a hostel the night before I went to the park, I met travelers who had just returned from their trek and told me that the weather was atrocious – nonstop rain, wind, and fog – the majority of the landscapes that they came to see weren’t even visible.
When I arrived the next morning to commence my four-day backpacking trek, what I was told about the weather couldn’t have been truer. The wind was whipping so strongly it nearly knocked me off my feet, and the rain felt like pellets hitting my face. All I could think was, “Well, this is what I signed up for. This is Patagonia.” Both pairs of socks that I brought got wet that first day (and would remain wet for the remainder of the trip) and my morale was taking a hit.
But waking up before dawn the next morning and stepping out of my tent, I found my luck began to change. There was not a breath of wind and the skies were clear – weather unheard of for late season in Patagonia. I was lucky for a few other reasons as well. I knew I was traveling during late season, but I didn’t realize before I left that it was actually the end of the season – my final day was the day the park closed – if I had arrived three days later I would have been turned away. There were also hardly any other trekkers in the park because of this; each day I would pass maybe three or four other people total, leaving the sweeping and breathtaking panoramic views completely unobstructed in serene peace. Additionally, it was late fall in Patagonia, and the changing leaves painted the mountainsides bright red, yellow, and orange, a spectacle that few are lucky enough to see.
Even without the vibrant colors, the landscapes of Torres del Paine are almost as otherworldly as Atacama. The only word I can use to describe the frightening beauty of Torres del Paine is sharp – the mountains are sharp, the intense blue of the glacial lakes are sharp, the trees are sharp, and the deep autumn colors are sharp.
The pain of trekking 20 km a day for four grueling and sweaty days with wet socks was far outweighed by the astonishment and glory of Torres del Paine. When I returned to civilization, every muscle, bone, and joint in my body ached, burned, and screamed like never before. But finally, after ten days of rigorous travel and nonstop adventure, I felt a sense of conquest and enough satisfaction to return to the States with contentment.