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Patagonia

CHILEAN PATAGONIA - W TREK

If you've ever dreamed of finding yourself entrenched in the mysticism and beauty thought only captured by the imagination and brush of the late Bob Ross, do yourself a favor and put Patagonia at the top of your "Places to Visit Before I Die" list. Located in the sparsely populated southern end of South America, Patagonia harbors natural beauty and grandeur I thought was only made possible by highly paid Hollywood graphic designers. Shared by Argentina and Chile, Patagonia comprises the southern section of the Andes Mountains. While this wild, remote and sometimes difficultly accessed wonder of nature is large enough to explore over a myriad of lifespans, we decided to at least get a taste of it by taking on the popular 4 day, 3 night "W" Trek in Torres Del Paine National Park in Chilean Patagonia.

Torres Del Paine is one of the largest and most visited parks in Chile and is part of the National System of Protected Forest Areas of Chile. The Park is abounding with mountains, glaciers, lakes and rivers, not to mention an array of native wildlife. The mountains are dramatic and majestic enough to make the Rocky Mountains look like foothills. The glaciers loom large like "The Wall" in Game of Thrones. The Rivers are so pure and abundant one need not even bring more than a water bottle as the water is direct runoff from the glaciers. Despite the Park's popularity, once inside dealing with hoards of other adventurers is really a non-issue. Access to the park can be quite daunting - think multiple flights and bus rides; however, the hours spent on various modes of transportation were easily forgotten once the Torres del Paine (three distinctive granite peaks and probably the most photographed feature of the park) come into view.

There are several ways in which people can explore the park ranging from day trips to several days worth of trekking. Every option requires visitors to follow a strict set of guidelines in order to keep the park pristine and natural. As previously mentioned, we opted to hike the W Trek. This is the most popular of all the routes and is the best option for exploring the park if you are limited on days. While strenuous at times, the W Trek is truly accessible to most ages and fitness levels. The most notable aspect of the trek is that it allows visitors to see arguably the most beautiful features of the park. Overnight visitors to the park are required to stay in refugios or designated camp sites. We opted to stay in refugios as each one had all the required camping and eating supplies which greatly reduced the amount of supplies we needed to hike with.

Day 1 was spent hiking from the park entrance to Refugio Chileno. The trail was a steady incline but nothing too daunting. The only thing that slowed us down was my wanting to take pictures every five steps. The views are awe inspiring from every direction. After arriving at Refugio Chileno we ate a quick lunch and then embarked on a short yet steep hike to the base of the Torres del Paine. As the Torres are unlike any geographic feature in the world, it was imperative that we made the hike. From the Refugio the trail meandered along a stunning turquoise glacier river and through a dense, lush forest before opening up to a steep but easy scramble through a boulder field. Upon ascending the final part of the boulder field we were met by the breathtaking awesomeness of the three massive Torres and the pristine glacial lake that sits at the base. Despite the heavy sustained winds, we couldn't help but be completely mesmerized by the overwhelming grandiosity of it all. We were very fortunate to visit the Torres on a clear day as they are often socked in by clouds. After taking a million and a half pictures and soaking in the moment, we made our way back down to the refugio. The hike down was no less marvelous as we got to take in views we had missed on the way up. The rest of the evening was spent at the refugio drinking beer and tea and sharing stories and a meal with other campers.

Day 2 started early as the summer days this far south begin early and end late. We were treated to a delicious breakfast at the refugio and then made our way to the next refugio. This day's hike was definitely the longest; however, it was most rolling hills and not very strenuous. Once again, the scenery along the entire route was nothing short of spectacular. On one side of the trail ran Nordernskjold Lake, one of the many beautiful glacier lakes in the park. On the other side were towering peaks and glaciers that often sent down a thunderous echo from the pounding of ice avalanches in the glaciers. Surrounding the trail was a variety of flora. It was almost surreal being in so many different geographical landscapes all at the same time. After arriving at our refugio for that night, Refugio Frances, we, of course, delighted in some tea and beer and retreated to our tent for the night as a cold rainstorm made its way in. Luckily Lisa is always prepared with great books to pass the time!

Day 3 started much the same as day 2; however, this time we woke up to light rain and mud. The short walk down to the camp restrooms was certainly not an undertaking meant for sandaled feet. Despite this very minor inconvenience, we didn't let it slow us down as the skies had cleared and we were getting ready to hike through Frances Valley to the Britanico Lookout. I honestly hadn't done much research into this part of the hike but knew it would be nothing short of amazing based on what we had already seen. Like the hike to the Torres, this trail stayed along a glacier fed river almost the entire time. It was a bit steeper and longer than the Torres hike but the difficulty is easily ignored when surrounded by such beauty. One really unique aspect of this hike is took us around the backside of the Torres del Paine. It was very cool seeing the Torres from such a different perspective. At the end of the trail you come upon the Britanico Lookout which is essentially a large boulder the give you 360 degree views of the Frances Valley. Opposite the backside of the Torres are Castillo Hill, Cathedral Hill and Punta Negra - an astounding mountain range within a mountain range that Lisa says looks very similar to the Dolomites (I've never been). Either way, our jaws were dropping at the sheer magnitude of what we were seeing. Once again, the weather favored us - apparently this particular trail closes often due to rain and flash floods. We hiked through nothing but sunshine.

Following our Frances Valley adventure we spent about 2 more hours hiking to our final refugio, Paine Grande Lodge. While we didn't exactly rough it in any of the refugios (tents were set up for us, meals prepared, showers, etc.), the Paine Grande Lodge had a lot of creature comforts of a modern ski lodge. It had a gift shop, cafeteria, reading rooms, showers, and, of course, stunning views. We spent the remainder of the afternoon and evening, you guessed it, enjoying beer, tea, food and good books!

Day 4 started a bit slower than the previous three days. Not because our legs were tired, but, and I'm afraid to admit this, we spoiled ourselves and slept in bunk beds the previous night; thus, there was no early sunlight beaming through the tent to alert us to the day's beginning! This wasn't the end of the world, though. The weather was not playing nice with us for once and a cold rain mixed with some mild wind gusts was dampening our motivation. Regardless, we were determined to not waste our final day in the park. Our goal for the day was to hike to Grey Glacier (6 km wide and 30 M high) and possibly to a suspension bridge next to the glacier. Well, we made it to the glacier after a moderate and I must say it was one of the most dramatic geological features I could have imagined. It's an absolutely massive ice wall that seems to just disappear into the abyss. Unfortunately, due to my poor trail finding and the fact that we had to make it down to catch a ferry back to the park entrance we never made the suspension bridge. Oh well. I guess that's just another excuse to go back! Upon returning to Paine Grande we had a quick bite to eat and boarded a ferry that took us back to where we started the whole adventure.

As sad as we were to leave such a majestic piece of this Earth, there was still excitement knowing that there is so, SO much more left out there for us to explore and enjoy. I left Patagonia feeling like there could never be another place so beautiful and mystical. Then again, I feel like that every time Lisa and I leave a place. Every time we travel there is something so special about wherever we are that is truly unique to that one spot and it inspires feelings and forges memories that can never be replaced nor replicated.

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Tiger’s Nest

Exploring Tiger's Nest

Tucked away on a steep Cliffside in the majestic Upper Paro Valley of Bhutan, Paro Taktsang (also known as Tiger’s Nest) is an absolute must for any adventurers preparing to embark on a trek through Bhutan’s Himalaya Mountains. This Himalayan Buddhist sacred site was constructed in 1692 around a cave (also called a “tiger’s lair”) where, legend holds, Guru Padmasambhava meditated for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours in the 8th Century.  Padmasambhava is credited with introducing Buddhism to Bhutan and is the tutelary deity of the country. 

The Tiger’s Nest is a roughly 6.2 mile one way hike from the Paro Valley bottom through gorgeous forest with about 3,000 feet of elevation gain.   A moderately difficult day hike, many trekkers spend their first day in Bhutan hiking the out and back to the Tiger’s Nest in order to acclimate to the high altitude. 

Unless you are a citizen of Bhutan or India or have a special permit, those wishing to visit the Tiger’s Nest are only permitted to do so with a local guide.  We were lucky enough to be accompanied by Bhutan Native and guide, Ugyen, who has spent his whole life trekking through the Bhutan Himalaya.  Ugyen has probably hiked to the Tiger’s Nest hundreds of times, yet his passion and enthusiasm for the area and history is unwavering.  Luckily for our lungs and legs, Ugyen would stop periodically to give us little history tidbits and answer any burning questions we came up with. 

The hike, while strenuous at times, is almost as breathtaking as the temple itself.  We were either walking through a beautifully dense and lush forest or taking in views of the stunning Paro Valley below.  About one mile prior to arriving at the Tiger’s Nest we were treated to some delicious tea and biscuits at a small outpost selling treats and souvenirs.  Here we had the opportunity to catch our breath and get our first visual of the Tiger’s Nest from across a steep and deep box canyon.  The last mile or so of trail was narrow and had several moderately steep up and down sections but the Bhutanese government has spent a lot of money building steps and erecting guardrails to ensure the safety of locals and visitors alike. 

Upon arrival at the temple we were required to remove our shoes and turn in cell phones and cameras due to the Tiger’s Nest being a sacred site.  Visitors are allowed to quietly tour the temple with their guide, so we followed Ugyen through the plethora of rooms and narrow staircases, each serving a different purpose.  While the Tiger’s Nest is a popular and frequently visited tourist site, it is still an active temple and we had the privilege of seeing several monks in the middle of their daily meditations, hence the need to be quiet during the tour. 

The Tiger’s Nest harbors so many awe inspiring qualities – the history, the hike, the sheer beauty, etc.  Most striking, however, is probably the architecture and engineering that went in to constructing this seemingly impossible structure on the side of a mountain in the 17th Century.  The fact that, aside from a freak electrical fire in 1998, this amazing feat of human ingenuity has withstood the test of time should strike reverence in anyone who has the opportunity to visit.

The Tiger’s Nest should undoubtedly be included on every world traveler’s bucket list. 

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