Day seven of our twelve-day trek found me standing breathless at the top of a mountain pass after having climbed over a kilometer in elevation from the valley floor. Among shards of shale I bent down to discover the fossil of a seashell and realised that where I stood, at 4600m above sea level, was once under the ocean. The Cordillera Blanca - the white mountain range - is made up of an impressive collection of glacial peaks, many of which reach close to, or higher than 6000m in altitude.
The Alpamayo Circuit begins on exactly the same route as theSanta Cruz trek – one of the most popular treks in the Cordillera Blanca. However, about 3 or 4 days in the Alpamayo Circuit branches off to the left and leaves the Santa Cruz route behind, along with the crowds of hikers. It then continues around, as the name suggests, making an almost full circuit around Alpamayo, a mountain whose name in the native language means “earth river”.
The trail is one that has been used for hundreds and even thousands of years and along the way are stone walls that date back to pre-Incan times. The local people also use this land for grazing so there are hundreds of livestock roaming the valleys covering the otherwise picturesque landscape in their droppings.
There are a few optional detours that lead to milky turquoise coloured lakes cradled at the foot of Alpamayo. From those lakes it is likely you’ll hear the rumble of an avalanche being unleashed, and if you’re lucky you might get to see one.
The trek weaves up and over enough steep mountain passes to make you pretty tired of walking uphill, but the views are well worth it. In such a steep landscape, trekking is hard going. The thin air at high altitude makes breathing difficult and exhaustion easy.
For us, the end of each day was greeted kindly with a hot cup of tea and as the cold settled in for the night we curled up in our sleeping bags and went to sleep with an impossible amount of stars hanging above us.
Torres del Paine National Park, Chile (Towers of the Paine)
Located in the South of the Chilean Andes, the Torres del Paine National Park occupies 2,400 km2 of pristine valleys, crumbling glaciers and epic mountain peaks. The park is open year round, however the summer months of December - March make for manageable conditions and breathtakingly clear views. This is not to say that the elements offer comfortable hiking conditions during this time. Be prepared for the likes of torrential rains and gale force winds.
The ‘W Trek’ (named due to it’s topographical shape) is generally a four day hike with the option of an additional day to walk into the park itself. Our Patagonian posse, consisting of two Australians and two Germans, opted to take advantage of the additional day. This allowed us to acclimatise, break in our gear and take advantage of the surreal panoramic views of a place regarded as ‘the jewel of the Andes’. Refugio’s and campartmento’s can be found at convenient spots along the general route, with roughly half of campsites being free of charge. I highly recommend that you bring a compact stove, cooking pots and plenty of high carb foods to keep your energy levels up. Note that five consecutive nights of tuna pasta and orange cordial is not always a bad thing. Also note that the water you are drinking is fresh from glaciers and mountain ranges, therefore it is not only drinkable, but some of the best, most untainted water in the world.
Days 2, 3 and 4 are tough, lengthy days where eight hours of walking becomes almost second nature. The blisters and sweat drenched clothes become all but forgotten when you finally reach the likes of Glacier Grey and Mirador Britanico. Glacier Grey offers an incredible opportunity to relax and watch as large portions of ice break off the glacier and crash into the frozen waters of Lago Grey. Mirador Britanico is one of the top spots to marvel at the surrounding mountain ranges of the park.
Day 5 is arguably the most enjoyable day. Wake up early and make the 45 minute walk through pitch black to experience the Torres as the sun comes up. If you’re lucky you’ll witness the mountains glow red as the morning sun reflects off the tower like structures. It’s a rare occurrence, that I unfortunately didn’t get to see. So if you’re lucky enough to catch a glimpse of it, make sure that you send me a photo. Beware that the wind at the Base de Las Torres can be overpoweringly strong. We witnessed one mans sleeping bag get blown out of his arms and in to the near by lake on day one of his hike. A mistake that would have lead to a few frozen nights.
The Torres del Paine National Park is full of incredible scenery and a diverse range of hikes for all skill levels. It is also something that can be experienced on a relatively limited budget. Lastly, keep your eye out for an Andean Puma. Very few people will ever spot one, but National Geographic has taught me that they are a sight to behold.