Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Day 1 -- On which we enter the Park

We walked a mile and a half before Peggy hooked us a ride: a late model, double-cab pickup.

Peggy smiled that big, heart-melting toothy smile of hers and we jogged to the vehicle, its cab full of smoke.

"He's a smoker," I warned.

"I don't care. Let's get out of here."

I pulled open the door and tried my favorite Spanish phrase on the driver.

"Hablas usted Ingles?"

"No," came the reply. I breathed deep. This used to be fun. When I was younger. Now it was just a hassle.

"Vamanos Torres del Paine?"


We threw our stuff in the back and hopped in.

The driver sped over the gravel roads, making Peggy nervous. She and I spoke boldly in English. There's no way she'd let me drive that fast, she said. I told her, I knew that, but couldn't ask him to slow down.

Somehow, between drifting through corners and fishtailing down straightaways, the driver and I exchanged names and professions -- Bernardo operated an outboard motor tour down the Rio Serrano, a big river forming the southern border to the Park. The only other packrafters I'd heard of here -- a German couple on a round-the-world bike-tour -- had paddled the 10 km down the Serrano and around the edge of one of the lakes. We planned to hike and raft the 150 km around the Paine massif, paralleling the classic Paine Circuit.

Bernardo dropped us at the bridge over the Serrano, pointing out three Andean condors soaring over the river. We stepped into the weather, an overcast sky wanting to rain but seeming unable to with such an unrelenting wind. The famous peaks were obscured by cloud.

It was three miles of more gravel, into a head-wind to the Park gate. The rain finally made it to the ground when we ducked inside the guard shack. Met by humorless Chileans in uniform, we discovered that the Paine Circuit was closed. We would have to do the much more popular, shorter, and un-packraftable "W".

One guard spoke very good English, and said that the route was closed because there were bridges out and avalanches.

"OK," I lied, "we'll do the 'W'".

We paid our $50 entry fee (as you approach, then enter Paine, all things become more expensive), headed out into the blowing rain, and hiked up the trail toward the first camp, Carretas, about 10 km away.

Pairs of Magellan geese, as big as our Canada geese but colored like a nesting ptarmigan couple -- he in rust and white front, she in rust alone -- whistled like kids blowing through reed whistles. Noisier were the giant plovers, the lapwings that screeched and wheeled over us every 100 m or so.

"So, what are we going to do"" Peggy asked, knowing the answer. I hadn't planned this trip for over five years, nor spent an extra $2000 on our round-the-world tickets for this, our sixth continent, to follow a bunch of Euro-hostel crawlers in their drunken binge tour from refugio to refugio along the "W" trek.

"We're going to do it anyway."

"What if we get caught?" Peggy had visions of us fined or thrown in a Chilean jail for walking a closed track.

"Hablas usted Ingles? No comprendo Espanol, senior, permisso."

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