After way too much relaxation at Erratic Rock in Puerto Natales, Chile, I finally headed to the park. Torres del Paine is a National Park in southern Chile and is the biggest tourist destination in these parts. This locale is also a part of Patagonia, which is an area covering a big chunk of South America, south of Buenos Aires and Santiago, the vast majority of which is Argentine soil, but a sliver of which is Chilean.
From Puerto Natales, you can take a bus to the park which will drop you off at any of several points therein, or you can rent a car and drive yourself. I rented a car, since I knew I would want to stop at about 375 spots along the way to take pictures. Once in the park, you can camp, hike, stay the night at a refugio—basically a lodge, and there are several in the park—or, as I did, sleep in the back seat of a teeny-tiny car. I knew it would be an uncomfortable night, but it was only one night, so I also knew I could tolerate it.
About half way to the park—it's a 2-to-3-hour drive—the pavement ends and the gravel and dirt begin. From here on in, it's all washboarding and a bit slower going. Before entering the park, you can either split off to the left and drive toward the ferry, which transports you between two areas within the park, or you can stay right and come into the park from the East, if you're interested in going straight to "the towers." That's the way I took, but I didn't know exactly where I was, although I had a map with me that I had purchased in Puerto Natales.
I paid the 15,000-peso entrance fee—just over $33—got a small, paper park map, and proceeded into the park. I drove for a while, actually feeling a bit depressed, feeling lost, and not knowing where I was going. I finally pulled over when I saw a small tour bus on the side of the road—the kind for photographers, based on all the guys standing near the road with tripods and SLRs—and asked where I was, as I couldn't pinpoint my location on the map. The driver showed me where we were and where a couple good spots would be to spend the night in preparation for sunrise, if I wanted to shoot the towers.
With that, I turned around, went back to the entrance, asked the ranger if I could get back into the park in the morning without having to pay again, and, upon receiving a "yes," proceeded out of the park entrance. Shortly thereafter, I hung a left and headed toward Cascada Paine, a set of rapids along Río Paine. I pulled over at the rapids, shot for a few minutes, then continued onto Laguna Azul, where I spent the night, overlooking the lake and rocky peaks of the park.
After arriving at the lake, I built myself a sub with ham, cheese, and mustard, ate some Kryzpos—think of them as Latin American Pringles—and gulped down a bit of the Coke from my previously-opened one-and-a-quarter-liter bottle. Be warned. After you open a bottle of Coke, driving on washboarded roads ruins it. Whatever zip my Coke had, it had no longer.
By this time, it was dark out. I was feeling a bit restless, but couldn't quite muster the discipline to write in my blog, which had been my plan. So, I read a story from The Best Travel Writing 2006 and then watched an episode of Family Guy on my beloved laptop. I was getting cold, so I crawled half-way into the sleeping bag I had rented from Erratic Rock—they rent all the gear necessary to hike and camp in the park—and watched a couple more episodes of Family Guy, while sitting up in the small back seat. Even though it was a bit early when I finished with the Griffins, I turned out the lights and crawled all the way into the heavy bag. I had brought a full-blown pillow from the hostel, so my head had a nice place to rest—necessary insulation from the steel wheel well.
A few times during the night, I woke up, feeling rather uncomfortable being forced to sleep in the fetal position for eight hour straight. Rolling over onto my back and lifting my legs forward and up toward the ceiling helped me to stretch them out. This drill happened repeatedly during the long night, but I awakened in one piece when the sun began to illuminate the landscape through the clouds. I started the engine to get some warm air and get rid of the condensation on the inside of all the windows, then fixed another sub, ate an apple, and put the sleeping bag away.
It had rained some during the night, but never rained during the daytime for either of my two days there. I heard many good reports from other travelers during my time in Puerto Natales about favorable weather in the park. I experienced the same thing. Although some people might consider clouds bad for photography, I think they added some nice atmosphere in my shots. The viewer can form his own opinion.
After shooting for a while near where I slept at the lake—both up on the small cliff overlooking the lake and down by the shoreline—I climbed into the car and headed down the road which had brought me along the shore the night before. Within about a hundred meters, I saw a really cool tree and stopped to take more photos. This kind of thing can make for really slow going. Unfortunately, the sun wasn't quite what I wanted, so I hopped back in the car to keep warm and read another story from my book, waiting for the sun to hit the tree and grass in front of me just so. When the sun peeked through the clouds, I jumped out and got the shot.
On the way back to the park, I stopped at Cascada Paine again and took a few shots, went to another spot along the river that I couldn't resist and snapped the shutter several times there, then proceeded back into the park. After showing my receipt from the day before, the ranger let me back in without a hassle.
At this point, I just drove through the park and stopped where I saw good shots. At one point, I saw a heard of guanacos with the mountains in the background. I hopped out, and shimmied down a hillside to get in a better position, then started shooting. The problem, again, was that I wasn't getting the light I wanted. I had left my cap and gloves back in the car, so after about ten minutes of waiting for better light, my hands were going numb. High winds were a contributing factor. Eventually, the sun came out and I got a few really nice shots with the animals and mountains. Well worth the brief suffering.
One thing I should mention here is my photo situation. My camera bag got stolen in Buenos Aires, so I'm missing a bunch of photo gear that I used to have with me.
I'm currently missing the focal length range from 24mm to 70mm which is a range that I would be using a lot. It's a royal pain not having it. I'm currently shooting with a Nikon 14-24 f/2.8 and a Nikon 70-200 f/2.8—both great lenses, but not covering the entire range I want and need. Any photographer that just says to use your legs to zoom is just ignorant, possibly from smoking too much crack. In many cases, zooming with your legs is impossible, and besides, it changes the perspective, which is the first thing you establish when getting a shot.
I also lost the quick release plate that attaches the camera to the tripod. The only option I had was to buy a new tripod head in Santiago, Chile. It's the Bogen/Manfrotto 486RC2. I paid about $122 for it in Santiago. In the States, it goes for $68.95. Although it doesn't compare with my Arca Swiss B1, it is sufficing for the D40x. When I mount the 70-200 f/2.8 on the camera, it is marginal.
Also, the Nikon D40x doesn't have a cable release socket, so I'm having to use the timer frequently, which, on the D40x, is a pain. You have to go into the menu to set it for every single shot for which you want to use it. And, in general, the D40x is just a much more difficult camera to use than the D3. The D3 is a very natural, easy to use, responsive camera, with a wonderful user interface. I guess you can't really compare a $500 body with a $5,000 body. Hey! At least I brought the D40x as a backup body! Things could be much worse.
By this time, the car was getting very low on gas. I was told I could make it to the park and back on a tank, but that wasn't going to happen, so I headed out of the park, continuing to stop where I saw a nice view in the rear-view mirror.
I had driven through a town along the way, Cerro Castillo, and hoped I would make it back that far and that they would have a gas station. Running on fumes, I got to the little town. There was some roadwork going on nearby, so I asked the flagger if there was gas in the town. He pointed down the hill leading into the town, so I headed that way.
After driving down what appeared to be the main street—all the streets were dirt—I was wondering if I was going to find gas. This was a seriously small town. Eventually, I saw a sign with a picture of a gas pump on it mounted on the fence next to a house. I pulled through the gate, turned off the car, and knocked on the door. A little girl answered. I asked if I could buy gas here, and she pointed to a couple little shacks about fifty meters away. I pulled over to the first one as the mom walked over to it. She walked around to the back of the shack, opened a little door on the front—about twelve inches square—and poked the nozzle through. She then proceeded back around front and pulled the nozzle out and over to the car, where she pumped me some petrol. I told her I needed enough gas to get to Puerto Natales and she asked if ten liters would be okay. She said it would cost 7,900 pesos and I said that would be fine. I'll do the math for you. It's about $6.65 per gallon. I paid about $17.50 for the ten liters, but that got me back home easily. Not a bad price for peace of mind and for not running out of gas in the middle of nowhere.
Down the road a ways, there was a guy standing on the side of the road with a backpack, sticking his thumb out. I hesitated, then slowed to a stop. As he walked up to the car, I began to transfer my things from the front seat to the back—camera, lens, laptop, food.
Juan grew up in Santiago de Chile but moved to Puerto Natales in the '70s, where he met his wife. They have two kids, 13 and 15, the older of which has heart problems. Every three months, the government flies them to Santiago for treatment. Juan travels out into the boonies each Monday to work with guanacos and sheep, then returns home on Sunday, only to head back the next day. His employers feed and house him during the week and also give him meat to take home to his wife and kids in town.
During the high season, the buses run more frequently, but this time of year, he resorts to hitchhiking to get home on Sundays. Today, I'm his ride, which works out fine. I'm going that way and desperately need to work on my Spanish. He spits out Spanish though his partially missing teeth at a pace that is difficult for me to keep up with, but we do manage to communicate at a first-grade level.
I dropped Juan off after pulling into town, then felt my way back to Erratic Rock.
It was a good and interesting couple days. I'm happy with my photos, I didn't run out of gas, I had good weather, I didn't get eaten by any wild animals—there are Pumas in the park—and, ultimately, I didn't get lost. Welcome to Patagonia.