The Explorer docked overnight in Puerto Natales, where early the next morning we disembarked, boarded a couple of buses, and had a 2-hour bus ride to Chile's famous national park.
Having seen a lot of water in recent days, it was nice seeing the rural countryside on the drive to the park.
We spotted from the bus this big group of condors feeding on a carcass...
...as well as some rheas roaming freely across the extremely windy landscape.
Lots of livestock farming in this area, raising mostly sheep and cattle...
We were still several miles away, but we were beginning to glimpse the magnificence of Torres del Paine.
Wow. Just WOW!!!
Arriving at the park and looking around, I started getting nervous. This was going to be challenging....
The night before, each of us had had to decide if we were going to be "hikers" or "bus riders" and sign up accordingly. The hikers would be doing a 7 km hike in the park while the riders would be driven through the park stopping at various sites. Once we committed to a group, we couldn't change our minds as the bus with the hikers was dropping us off and then leaving, so we wouldn't have the option of turning back. I debated my decision all day long...I wanted to be a hiker and I knew Kim definitely wanted to hike, but I wasn't sure I could do it. Kim is in much better hiking condition than me, walking several miles nearly every day. Kim left the decision up to me, and I talked myself into signing us up as hikers.
I mean...just 7 km, a little over 4 miles...surely I could do that. After all, I do play a lot of tennis and I'm in decent physical shape for my age...how difficult could a mere 4 miles be???
Oh, Honey, I was soon to find out!
Our hiking guide was from the park service and she emphasized we would be going at a "leisurely" pace and we were all to stay together.
And then she took off, charging uphill on the trail like a mountain goat with a fire to fight on the other side of the mountains!
I wanted to take photos along the way, so Kim and I quickly ended up at the tail of the first hiking group.
Always playing catch-up. For the next 4 hours! Yes, it would take 4 hours for us to hike this trail, which I'm quite sure was longer than the 7 km we were told.
About 10 minutes into the hike, I was already breathing hard and had the sinking feeling I had made a terrible decision. But there was no turning back and I certainly was not going to complain to Kim, so I kept putting one foot in front of the other and tried to keep breathing.
We knew there was a chance of seeing pumas in the park, and we came across one in the first half hour of our trek. He was hunkered down in the brush several yards from the trail, keeping a close eye on us.
I was just thankful for a good excuse to stop hiking and refill my lungs.
Oh, and take a few photos of the puma between breaths....
It truly was beautiful!
Up, up, up we go....where we'll stop nobody knows!
And I haven't even mentioned the wind! Patagonia is one of the windiest places on earth, and no matter which way we turned it felt like we were hiking into a wall of wind.
During this hike, my 9-year-old granddaughter Kassie kept me going. She was not keen on hiking up to a waterfall while they were in Yosemite this fall, but her family kept encouraging her that she could do hard things. And she did it and was so proud of herself!
I kept telling myself, "If Kassie can do hard things, so can her Gramaw." And I just kept on going...
It was springtime in Patagonia, so there were some wildflowers in bloom along the way...
And we began to see the wild guanacos, which are in the alpaca/llama family...
And with each photo I stopped to take, we got further behind...
...but seriously, we will probably never pass this way again and wanted to savor the moments and the views.
Not to mention BREATHE!
I'm not even kidding when it felt like at times we were going to be blown right off the mountain! Brutal wind!!!
FINALLY we reached the spot our guide was taking us...a rock overhang where the indigenous people, the now-extinct Aonikenka tribe, had spent considerable time. They were one of the tallest ethnic groups known in the world, with average heights of 6.5 feet. The Aonikenka were nomads, hunters and gatherers, who likely hung out under this rock ledge in times of bad weather or just to shelter and rest for a few days.
Our guide (in blue) was giving her whole history spiel and I was just so grateful to stop climbing.
There are handprints and other paintings left behind from the Aonikenka people.
What a spectacular landscape!
Thankfully, the worst of the hike was over. The rest of it was basically downhill with the wicked wind at our backs most of the time.
I stopped to take a photo of the dandelions along the trail. Just because it seems so strange to see such a familiar plant in such an alien land. As I was taking this photo, a man behind me asked very kindly if he could offer some photo advice.
That man happened to be Tommy Heinrich, a National Geographic photographer famous for mountain-climbing (he was the first Argentine to climb Mt. Everest) who happened to be part of the expedition staff for our trip.
Uh, yes...OF COURSE you can give me photo advice! Who am I to turn down photography help from a real-life National Geographic photographer?! It was our first real encounter and over the next couple of weeks we had several conversations with Tommy and learned so much from him. A very nice gentleman and so accomplished! Tommy HAS DONE lot of hard things!!!
An unexpected sight...
I always associate flamingos with tropical areas, but Patagonia is anything but tropical!
We came across some gorgeous birds along the trail. A meadowlark...
A buff-necked ibis...
And several guanacos...
Stunning landscape views all around us!
This lapwing was not very happy with our presence.
...and we realized they had a nest of chicks nearby. See that fuzzy little white head sticking up from the grass?
Thankfully Kim was my personal alpaca, carrying most of my stuff and helping me with my cameras.
And we kept getting farther and farther behind....
But a girl's gotta stop and take pictures of cute little black-and-rust birds when she sees them....
We are just walking along this trail that followed a fence, pretty much by ourselves at this point. We were way behind our group and behind us was the second group of hikers who was catching up with us.
And then Kim casually said to me, "There's a puma."
I thought he was kidding. But lo-and-behold right there on the other side of the fence, not 20 feet away from us, was a huge furry cat!
Seeing a puma in the park is a highlight for visitors, and our guide had walked right past this big one right next to the trail without even seeing it. We pointed it out to the folks behind us, and their guide radioed our guide so several of our group back-tracked to see the puma.
Pretty proud of my puma-spotting man!
But the puma never raised its head, only twitched its ear a few times. I tried to convince Kim to walk up a little closer, just enough to get its attention and raise its head so I could get a better photo, but he wouldn't do it. Some lame excuse about the possibility of getting mauled to death by a puma not being the way he wanted to die. But, I told him, it sure would make him a legend back home! No amount of persuasion would convince him to help me out, all for the sake of a photo-of-a-lifetime....
So we trudged onward...
Guanacos were everywhere, and very curious about us...
We saw oodles of these big black beetles on the trail. I took this photo to send to our guide friend Nicolas who lives in Peru...he's a beetle expert!
A rufous-collared sparrow posed for me...
And then, oh glorious sight....our buses were just at the bottom of the hill!
But on the way down, after successfully hiking through some very treacherous terrain, I lost my footing at the end of the trail and fell forward into a thornbush! My hands took the brunt of the thorns and were sore for a couple of days (I dug out yet another thorn I had missed just this week!), but my ego was bruised even more.
Kim just shook his head and, after being sure I wasn't seriously hurt, shrugged his shoulders and walked on. At least he knew better than to voice what his mind was thinking.
We got back into the bus and drove through some other areas of the park. The wind had picked up ferociously and it was impossible for us to get out some places, but I did grab a few photos from the bus.
Our bus drove to a very small picnic area for us to eat our sack lunches.
This fox was hanging around to clean up the leftovers...
Our bird-nerd guide Javier was excited to point out a rufous-tailed plantcutter, the first time he's ever seen one.
What a great day, but we were exhausted!
Memories made in one of the most stunning places on earth...
...Torres del Paine National Park.