Today, I slept in until the late hour of 10am, at which point I arose, ate the healthful hostel-provided breakfast, and stuffed all my things into my giant backpack. The bus to Torres del Paine was scheduled to pick me up at the hostel at 2:30pm so, with time to spare, I went for a final walk in lovely Puerto Natales.
It was not raining this afternoon, although the roads were still damp from an earlier rain shower. The air had the same feeling of winter as it had on Friday, traced with the scent of distant smoke. I tagged along with L. to a grocery, intending to buy bananas but finding none. Then, I ambled towards the town square. I browsed an artisanal souvenirs store, which I enjoyed. (I find window shopping just as satisfying as actual purchasing: it’s nice to get a feel for the “typical” goods of an area, especially when they are arranged in an aesthetically pleasing manner, as at this shop.) In addition to artisan crafts, they also sold a wide range of Chilean- and Patagonian-focused books, including a Torres del Paine flora field guide (the same one I’d seen yesterday at the Chilean border, but still too pricy). They also offered an elegant book of macro photographs of Patagonian flora (well-priced by Chilean standards, so I caved and purchased it). Remind me to show it to you.
I strolled back to the hostel, still quite ecstatic about the wintry air. The hostel kitten was gallivanting around the living room, so I played with him as I waited for my van to Torres del Paine. When the van showed up, I hefted my bags and gave the hostel one last fond stare (I would gladly have stayed longer there). Then, I galloped out to the van.
The ride was about three hours long. I slept during the first half, and awoke when we stopped at another souvenir shop, for bathrooms and a stretch of the legs. Then, I stayed awake for the rest of the ride, watching as the mountain-plains scenery changed into Torres del Paine’s spectacular vistas. Alongside the road, I saw many ñandu and guanacos (or vicuñas? Heck, I can’t tell them apart). I also saw my first guanaco babies: wobbling, fluffy little dears. We stopped at Laguna Amarga to take some pictures, and I stared closely at all the weird, rigidly bristly plants.
Our van continued onto the official park entrance, where we paid our entry fee (steeper for foreigners, but worthwhile). I was delighted to discover they had free brochures on common Torres del Paine flora and fauna; I grabbed one of each brochure and clasped them tenderly to my bosom.
From the entrance, I switched from the van to a smaller local transfer van, headed to Las Torres area. They seated me in the very front, and then, as more passengers boarded, piled up a huge wall of other people’s backpacks behind me, so that I was trapped (but with a nice view through the front window, anyhow). I chatted with the Uruguayan driver as we drove through wild hills interwoven with glasslike streams. He dropped us off near one of the refugios (cheap, basic lodging for backpackers), and told me to follow a wee path in order to find my lodging. I followed his instruction, but the path petered out, so I stopped at the refugio to ask for better directions. The woman directed me to a gravel road behind a red house off in the distance, which I followed. As it sloped up a hill, I began to get nervous, as I could not see a single person, nor were there any signs to indicate if I was on the right track. Nonetheless, it was beautiful country, so I appreciated that whenever I paused to catch my breath.
Eventually, a car passed by, and I waved it down to ask the two women in the front seat if they knew if this was the right road. They told me that it was, and that they were going to be camping nearby. Without prompting, they opened their door and squeezed me and my giant backpack inside, with two of us wedged into the passenger’s seat. We drove a little further, and parked beside a stone house. However, nobody answered our calls, and it appeared deserted; perhaps this was the wrong place? We fought our way through undergrowth until we found a promising barbed wire fence, which we scaled, before we finally found the administration office for my maddeningly well-concealed lodging. After having helped me arrive safely, the women disappeared back off down the gravel road.
The place where I had reservations was the Ecocamp Patagonia, where I would stay for the next three nights. I had discovered their website when I first started researching the trip, and thought it looked incredibly cool. However, the only prices they listed were for an expensive tour package that included daily tour excursions throughout the park, as well as full board and transport. I only wanted to stay there, so I wrote and asked… and as it turned out, they had three nights available during the precise timeframe I was seeking, and they had a good rate for lodging-only. I had been excited about my stay there ever since.
The Ecocamp consists of a network of domes: some smaller (Standard), some larger (Suite), and a few extra-large ones for dining and common areas. Their aim is to provide a place for people to stay inside Torres del Paine while having a minimal impact on its delicate habitats. As such, everything is sustainable and eco-friendly: no electricity in the rooms, no Internet, special composting toilets, biodegradable soap, solar panels, etc.
I checked in at administration, and the woman showed me to my dome (one of the standard ones). All of the domes are linked by raised wooden paths, so that the native vegetation around them is left to grow freely. They are covered with waterproof green canvas, with three plastic windows in the roof (two small and circular, and one large and trapezoidal with a view of the mountains). My dome has a pentagonal door which I have to crouch to enter; beyond that is a tiny entry hall with a doormat, with one more step up to the dome-interior. The walls are insulated by a layer of tan quilted canvas, and there are two beds, a single chair, and a low bedside table. Most of the wood is rustically rough-hewn, with the natural shape and mottling of the wood showing through remnants of sanded-over bark. Everything smells faintly of aged pine. It’s like staying in a hobbit-house!
After settling into my dome (and I don’t think I could ever get tired of being able to refer to “my dome”), I headed to the main area to check out the common domes. There is a dome with books you can read and comfy couches (the Resting Dome), a fancy dining-room dome, and an adjoining dome with a bar, a woodstove, and more couches. While the ceiling and uphill side are covered with opaque canvas, the other full half of each core dome is made of large, angled plastic windows, which enable soft, peaceful light.
There is also a patio area, nestled in a hollow near the edge of the hill, between the resting and dining domes. I settled out here with a book, but soon fell into conversation with the other guests. There was an interesting range of people: from a variety of countries, and everything from teenagers with their families to couples in their 80s. The norm seemed to be middle-aged folk traveling in small groups. As we chatted, the Ecocamp staff distributed pisco sours and hors d’oeuvres. Then, the others headed into dinner, while I retreated to my dome for a gourmet peanut butter sandwich and some banana cake (since I had elected not to order full board with my dome).
We are in a choice location here: nothing within sight but our domes, prickly alien shrubbery, and vast craggy mountains (including the torres, or towers, for which the park is named). A condor flew over us as we sat on the patio. I keep taking multiple pictures of the same views, just because it’s so damn stunning.
When I tucked into bed in the evening, I found another reason to approve of the Ecocamp. The sheets are fuzzy fleece, and it’s like sleeping in a nest of solid joy. I lay awake for several hours, wriggling my feet against the fleece and listening to tiny raindrops and gentle winds brush against the dome’s canvas, making soothing noises. I am delighted that I managed a reservation for this place.