I landed in Punta Arenas with a group of 10 at about 3:00 am on February 14th, 2010. My lethargic and borderline depressed mood I had felt in Santiago, due to a combination of heat, sickness, work overload, and eagerness to escape the city to the wilds of Patagonia, had immediately been replaced by the childish glee that comes when one sees his own breath condensing as he exhales. Quickly forgetting that it was still summer, the contrasting climate forced me to be surprised not to find snow on the ground. This excitement allowed me to overlook the sheer dismalness of Punta Arenas. By the end of the first (and only) day, the bottle caps strewn across the dirt sidewalk, the plastic bags scattered amongst the bushes, and the sheer filth of the river began to materialize in my vision of the area. I had expected to see human impacts on the environment, but these were completely different. Rather than an overdeveloped tourist town with high end shops selling international brands, Punta Arenas is a small, grey town. Most of the money seems to pass right through Punta Arenas on to the rest of Patagonia. As I was soon to find out on meeting Eric in Puerto Natales, this is almost 100 per cent true. Most tourists who come seeking the wilds of this land fly into Punta Arenas, but immediately pass through on their way to the true adventures. Some of them stop for a day to see the penguin colony like I did, but many do not even give the town that much consideration. Yet why such a small town with such few visitors can be covered in so much filth is beyond me. A mystery that will remain in the back of my head as I rush towards the bus that will take me to Puerto Natales where I will break off from the main group and rendezvous with Eric.
After a three hour bus ride through the Pampas, watching sheep run outside and Ram speaking Spanish in a dubbed version of “The Wrestler” on the inside, I was relieved to find myself in the small town of Puerto Natales. Although not spotless, Puerto Natales is much cleaner than Punta Arenas. This is the town to look for the effects of tourism. If Punta Arenas is the gateway to Patagonia, Puerto Natales is the gateway to Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, one of the most visited national parks in Patagonia. When I checked into the Erratic Rock hostel, I was both relieved as well as disappointed to find that everyone there, staff and guests, were all foreigners. Contrasting from the hostel in Punta Arenas, which was more like a home-stay, as well as with any other hostel I have stayed in, which tend to be more of a bed with a locker, Erratic Rock had a strange yet welcoming atmosphere to it. It almost felt like that one mountaineering store you went to as a child, that was actually a bit small but it was packed with the most amazing gear you had ever seen, and your imagination runs wild as you picture yourself using the ice ax and crampons to ascend a frozen waterfall, or the sleeping bag to keep you warm at the base of Everest, or the loads of mountaineering food which is way more expensive than a simple package of pasta. That same feeling of wonderment and excitement for the possibilities in the near future is awakened when you walk into Erratic Rock. A shoe rack by the front door is packed with muddy boots. To the right is a round, wooden table on which sits the large guest book, where a traveler inscribes her impressions with a large quill. Further back in this first room is an elbow couch tucked in the corner on a slightly elevated platform, facing a television and shelves lined with books. The friendly staff member leads you through this area to show you the kitchen, the sorted recycle bins, the compost bin, then up the narrow staircase and more books to another common area with a Franklin stove above which hang the clothes of backpackers as they dry off the rain. On a chair sits a fat, orange cat. With the fitting title of “Chairman Meow”, he will accept your friendly strokes and then quickly turn around and bite your wrist. Both the guests and the staff here seem to bond quickly, creating an extended family of climbers and trekkers. I had only a combined total of probably less than two days’ worth of contact with these people, yet I feel if I am ever to cross their paths again we will catch up with each other as if we were once close friends.
After dropping off my bag, Eric and I head out into the town armed with the reusable shopping bags provided by Erratic Rock with the mission of supplying ourselves for our trek across one of the most notorious national parks in this rugged land. The town is set up on a grid of one-way streets. With ample sidewalk space, this town is easily navigable by foot. I was surprised to find that this town had more dimensions than the main tourist strip. A generous mix of mountaineering stores, grocery markets, restaurants, normal stores one would find in any town not geared toward tourism, and of course, the two narrow stores about 5 feet wide and 12 feet deep, filled with dried fruits and nuts and blasting classic rock. After an afternoon of eating, shopping, and getting “lost” while looking for tent rentals (it is impossible to get lost in this town, we simply could not find the hostel which we were told rented tents and thus circumnavigated the entire town, stopping to soak in the view at the port) we finally returned to Erratic Rock to stuff our bags with gear and our stomachs with carbs in preparation for the next day’s journey.
Eric described the town perfectly. “This is a tourist town, but it doesn’t feel like a tourist trap”. At the time I didn’t know exactly what he meant but agreed with him nonetheless, for I too saw the tourism aspects of this town and recognized that tourism was a large part of its economy. However, it seems as if Puerto Natales is not completely dependent on tourism, with its many dimensions throughout the town. Yet only after experiencing the national park and returning, as well as talking with more people from a variety of perspectives would I be able to fully understand the mysteries of this issue. Yet for the moment we concerned ourselves only with stuffing all of our gear into our bags which were obviously not made for backpacking.
Photos from this portion of the adventure can be found on my Picasa account.