Patagonia Looms Ahead

Turmoil in Chile Once Again Makes Our Travels Plans More “Interesting”

This will hopefully be the last post where I have to show you other people’s pictures of Patagonia. The next time we post about it, we’ll (hopefully) have our own.

We didn’t take this picture, but we wish we had. By RobertTarantino

As Brian writes this we are in the final stages of preparation. Almost everything we will need on this hike will go with us most of the way; this is especially true of the W Trek, during which our base of operations will essentially be our backpacks. There will no hotel or hostel (for the W part anyway), no suitcase full of city clothes, no stash of extra gear, no guide and no helpful pack mule. We will be hiking overseas, fully independent, for the first time. This in itself would make this trip a formidable challenge.

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Annotated satellite photo of the Paine Massif. The ‘W’ route follows the outer perimeter of this maze of peaks. Image By NASA – ISS006-E-42196, Public Domain

However, there is also the added challenge of the Patagonian weather. We expect the trails to be no great trouble, though there is a lot of walking and some long days to get from point to point.

Lago Pehoé. One thing these stock pictures all have in common is uncommonly clear weather for Patagonia. By Phil Whitehouse from London, United Kingdom.

We expect the hikes around Fitz Roy to be a little harder, especially the long and grueling ascent to the Lake of the Three — or Laguna de los Tres. However, here we do have the aid of a fixed base of operations, since we will be hiking each day directly out of strategically placed El Chalten, and each evening returning to our base. That’s important; we get to pick and chose what gear we take, and there is no need to set up camp each night.

Cerro Fitz Roy…By Marianocecowski, own work

Note that the current weather forecast, prior to the trip, indicates the weather both in Laguna Amarga, the entrance station to Torres Del Paine, and El Chalten to be much the same as it currently is for Raleigh — except rainier. The forecast for almost every day we are hiking is ‘showers’ with winds between 10-15 mph. Night time temps will reach the mid thirties. Our chance of good weather appears to be slightly better at this point for our hikes around Fitz Roy…but we are not expecting stable weather in either place.

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Weather forecasts from weather.com

One of the things that we did NOT expect is the current political situation in Chile. For those of you not up to speed on current events, the normally stable country has been wracked by weeks of political unrest, with almost daily protests against rising inequality and government austerity measures.

Demonstrators protest against President Sebastián Piñera’s economic policies in Santiago, Chile, on Oct. 21.
Protesters in Santiago, Chili. From Foreignpolicy.com…MARCELO HERNANDEZ/GETTY IMAGES

At least 20 people have been killed in  the violence, and many more injured. As recently as October 26, an estimated one million people — one out of every twenty Chileans — took to the streets to protest.

While the center of the protests has been the capital of Santiago, unrest and violence has spread to other cities, forcing the government to enact states of emergency and curfews.

The protests have not targeted outsiders, and recent travelers to the country have reported no real animosity toward tourists. But the unrest has sparked closures of roads and businesses, the cancellation of flights and other transportation, and the cancellation of some important events. The US Department of State has published a ‘travel advisory‘ for the nation, typically considered to be South America’s most prosperous and stable. The Level 2 advisory warns travelers to exercise caution, but stops short of warning against travel for any purpose. This is the same level of caution urged for travelers in France, Belgium, Denmark, Germany and even the UK.

Sylvia and Brian are obviously very concerned with the news from Chile. We were especially alarmed when news came that Punta Arenas was under a state of emergency. We are not actually leaving the airport in Santiago, so our main concern there was that the plane arrives and takes off sometime close to when its supposed to. News that unrest had spread to destinations closer to where we will be staying and hiking was however very disconcerting.

sant_and_BA
This Google Map shows just how remote an area this is — 32 hours by car from Santiago, comparable to a drive from Raleigh to Phoenix, AZ.

However, we are confident at this point that conditions for travel in Patagonian Chile are not very much more risky than normal. The ‘protests’ in Punta Arenas turned out to be mostly small, peaceful gatherings; the state of emergency has since been lifted, and no further cancellations of flights have been reported in many days. Generally, it’s safe apart from Santiago, far as we can tell.

Of all the things we expected, political unrest along the Straits of Magellan was not one. By Fredlyfish4 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

If circumstances change and the unrest worsens, we may be forced to change our plans. The main concern apart from physical safety would be mass closures of roads, airports and other transportation options that would make it problematic or even impossible to travel within the country, or get back home. If that happens, our best bet would probably be to re-shift our itinerary entirely toward the Argentinian side. But it’s a bit late to make that happen.

This all hearkens back to July of last year when a Transportation Strike nearly, ahem, derailed our plans to hike the Tour de Mont Blanc. The amount of stress that caused almost can’t be overstated, as Sylvia and Brian pulled in out every stop over the final few days before our flight in a desperate attempt to salvage our itinerary. Fortunately, the planned strike came to nothing, and we had no issues apart from the usual ones reaching our destination.

We hope that our Patagonian Adventure is like our Alpine one…not smooth exactly, but devoid of any complications bar the typical ones involved in international travel.

In the meantime, Minister of Expedition Planning Brian is busy trying to figure out how to get our backpacks through the airport without the aid of suitcases or travel bags of any kind, Here’s the fruit, however bitter, of his genius:

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Brian’s Osprey 65 liter pack, poles, Therm-a-Rest and equipment completely cocooned in an old Marmot sleeping bag storage sack.

This adventure promises to push us much further beyond our comfort zone that any that came before. Will we be up to it? Only one way to find out…it’s out there, and so we’ll go.

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