On the first day of the hike, we woke up at 5am, finished packing quickly, put our hiking boots on and got ready to fly. We were downstairs by 6.15am. Our booked taxi wasn’t there, but they ordered us a new one that soon came. We checked our suitcase and other luggage with the hotel to store and helped ourselves to the coffee and pastries in the lobby. This was where the calorie loading started!
We got through the security pretty easily. We had checked our backpacks so only had the bare essentials with us in small waterproof pouches. Then we hit up Starbucks and McDonalds. Not our usual holiday airport choice, but we were going for simple things that could get calories into us before we started walking later on. We also used our Priority Passes to check out the lounge and have some coffee & cake. At Starbucks, we bought some chicken & avocado sandwiches for that day’s lunch and bought a couple of litres of water too.
We boarded the plane on time and couldn’t get over the number of people on the plane and the amount of luggage and freight that they were loading onto this tiny plane! We ended up being delayed as they had an issue with a screen in the cockpit. All things considered, they fixed it pretty quickly. It actually gave me some time to do some writing and download a couple of Pablo Neruda (a Chilean Nobel Prize-winning poet) books on my iPhone Kindle app.
Hiking in Cerro Castillo Day 1: Into the wilderness we go!
Sky is a no-frills airline in Latin America. This was an older plane that we were on and we were squished into it. We had more coffee and a Snickers on the plane. It was like I was prepping to hibernate for the winter with the amount that I was feeling like I needed to eat! The flight landed in Balmaceda airport only about an hour later than planned. I popped to the loo (last bathroom for a while!) and we got on the road with Federico from Villa Cerro Castillo. We ate our sandwiches in the car and then just got dropped in the middle of nowhere. He literally just turned off the highway and into a clearing and let us out.
We were surrounded by green and mountains. I was feeling equal parts of excited and terrified. I had absolutely no idea what lay ahead. Federico told us to just survive (!) and drove off. We put our backpacks on and set off walking.
We hadn’t gone far before we encountered a guy asking us for money. He gave us some spiel about how since 1st December (i.e. a week before), they had been subcontracted to take 23,000 pesos (about £25) off people at this gate – which wasn’t quite a gate to be honest. I mean… he was literally a guy in a field with a half-built garden shed and a baseball cap. I translated what he was saying to Rob who was a couple of metres away from me. We weren’t going to be taken for fools after the taxi driver the day before. Rob said ‘Ok, no thanks buddy. Sorry.’ And we walked off.
He started calling after us, but we just left him and he soon gave up.
Or so we thought. We actually got a little bit further down the path when we started being shouted at and a man in a red beret was running after us and shouting very aggressively with the guy we’d spoken to just behind him holding a walkie talkie. They finally caught up to us – we weren’t about to stop. And this man was furious and shouting, flitting between Spanish and very simple English. He said it was a huge lack of respect to just walk away from someone. He said it was unacceptable. That we had to pay on this private land and that he was going to throw us out.
I noticed that the walkie talkie didn’t appear to be switched on which made everything a bit more suspicious. Rob was asking him to calm down and said ‘Where’s your ID?’, ‘Where’s your official sign?’, ’Show me your id.‘ I didn’t say anything at first as I wasn’t sure I should let him know that I was understanding every word he said. I asked Rob in English quietly if I should respond and he agreed. So I started to attempt to explain in Spanish that we didn’t understand, that nothing looks official, that a guy in a field with his hand held out doesn’t warrant handing over £50. Explaining didn’t help. Tthe guy just upped the reasons as to why we needed to leave now that he knew I understood and why he thought Rob was not respectful.
I should note at this point that he looked pretty much like a Che Guevara wannabe – red beret, military-style shirt and a green gilet.
It was like a fancy dress costume of an official guard but with no ID and no badges. We weren’t sure he wasn’t armed to be honest. And we realised that we were going to have to pay either way. I felt 80-90% sure that we were being done. But 100% sure that we wouldn’t be able to go any further without paying. Even when we said we were in fact going to pay, he seemed to want to keep up the act. Ranting at me the entire way back to his half-built hut. I was translating various bits for Rob and I actually at this point was getting pretty fed up of the repetition.
‘Yes, yes I know,’ I was saying, because not bothering to reply only seemed to rile him up more. I asked him if this was a problem that had happened a lot. And he said that yes this week had been terrible. And that the national park service CONAF needed to put up signs & explain more, which did make me wonder why he’d be so angry when it was a common issue?! That’s what made me think he was lying and hamming it up. I did say that he needed to understand our side – the taxi driver the day before, the lack of official signs or info – we had read that we pay at the entrance to the park further on – NOT in this field. That we hadn’t understood and he didn’t need to keep ranting at me.
He continued regardless, even whilst we were in the hut paying and writing down our (edited) information
I was NOT about to show them my passport or give them my real ID number. So we just wrote down a bunch of numbers in the box. They had a dodgy photocopied map and a book with people’s names and ID numbers in it and a safe box with cash in it. We paid, we left and we tried not to look back too much. But we were a little worried they may follow us and somewhat concerned that they may turn up in the night when we were camping in the wild. But we wouldn’t be able to know that for sure either way. And so we just tried to shake it off and walk on.
NB. In my travel diary I actually didn’t write a whole lot of that down that night because I didn’t really want to relive it as it was actually quite unsettling and I remember just being so angry and vulnerable all at the same time. Writing it out a couple of months later has been easier.
The rest of the day got warmer as we walked through the countryside. We tried to remove layers but we did start to get disturbed by horseflies. So walked like we were marching with our arms swinging back and forth so that they couldn’t land and bite us. We both ended up with a couple of bites on our arms, but generally we were ok. We had read about these and so were concerned for the rest of the trip. Especially at times when we were going to be standing or sitting still.
I had my first pee in the wilderness. (doing that whilst shaking my entire body wasn’t easy – let me tell you!)
It was so peaceful and the views were so beautiful – just total nature for miles.
We found ourselves crossing quite a few rivers on this day – more than we had anticipated using our GPS map. But we knew they had recently had a lot of snow in the mountains. So it was probably small streams that we overflowing as that was melting and coming down the mountain sides. Each time, we knew we had to take off our hiking boots & socks and wade across. The water was as cold as a glacier which was painful at first. But then actually quite nice relief for our warm hiking feet.
At times, it seemed impossible to cross.
At one point I fell backwards (with my backpack on!) into the freezing river whilst walking on sharp rocks on the river bed. Miraculously, nothing in bag including my sleeping bag was wet. And I was wearing my running leggings that dried really quickly.
It was a pretty flat day. We passed a few cows on the way and eventually found the entrance to the national park where the campsite ’Camping 1’ is located. I was so pleased to see that. We instantly felt safer. There was nobody there in the gate house. Just a couple of picnic tables and surprisingly and wonderfully a toilet hut. It was basically adunny, like on ‘I’m a Celebrity’ – a full toilet cubical built out of wood with a long drop into the ground. And it had quite a few tissues etc dropped into it too. Which seemed to us that it was maintained in some way.
It wasn’t a luxurious situation but it felt like it, when we had thought we would be going in the trees for four days. We decided to stop for a loo break and a protein bar before continuing on to ‘Camping 2’ for the night.
The walk between the two campsites really made us feel like we were in Patagonia.
It was breathtaking scenery. We were closer to snow covered mountains that towered over beautiful blue rivers surrounded by lush greenery. All we could keep saying was “It’s like a screensaver!” – a very millennial response, but it was like it wasn’t real. Seeing these scenes live was something else. We finally located the 2nd campsite called ‘Rio Turbio’ and were thrilled to find a German couple there already. We said hi and started to set up camp.
Suddenly, my fears from earlier were gone. We felt far away from the men we encountered. We were on an actual tourist trail with actual tourists on it. There was once again a couple of picnic tables and a toilet. We pitched our tent in a kind of campfire-type circular area. Although you can’t actually start fires in the park – we had a gas camping stove instead. I’ll detail what we actually had in our packs in a future post.
First up, we made a cup of peppermint tea and had it with a protein flapjack sitting on a log looking at the view.
We had changed into warm, dry clothes. As we stopped walking and it got later in the day, we felt cold in our sweaty clothes. And so had brought other thermals to put on. Then Rob started on dinner, just as other groups started to arrive in the campsite. Including a big family group – a dad, 3 young guys and a teenage girl who seemed to be very skilled and set up really quickly.
They had a lot of stuff with them though – including a machete, which just made me think of ‘Wild’, the movie with Reese Witherspoon where she packs everything plus the kitchen sink and ends up dumping it all at a campsite because it’s useless. We had brought a fresh green pepper with us and some chorizo. And fried them up to eat with some tortilla wraps and mayo (delicious, thanks for asking…!). We washed and tidied up as it was starting to get dark and headed into the tent. The intention was to read and/or write my travel journal but we crashed pretty quickly after a really long day.
Day 2 will be up tomorrow!