Posted on March 26, 2020
While I am about to finish writing this journal, we humans find ourselves engulfed by a global pandemic. It’s not only our health that is currently under threat, but our whole humanity, sanity, jobs, freedom of travelling, and so many more aspects of our lives are put to test. We’ve been deeply and suddenly shaken from the roots and pretty much have no idea how to make heads or tails of this situation. However, on a more positive note, out of most experiences of the kind there will also be something to be grateful for, if we manage to grasp it, learn from the experience itself and act in consequence.
At the moment, all planned holidays and any other kind of unnecessary travelling are indefinitely postponed, if not cancelled, while our Planet is having a well deserved break. One of the consequences I long for and hope for is that we rethink and reinvent the way we perceive nature and how we choose to travel in the future, becoming more aware of and taking responsibility for our own actions. Who else shares this thought with me?
A new continent for us and a bucket full of excitement. A craving for the unknown.
We’ve been gratefully exploring the world quite a lot in the recent years and so I’ve learnt (the hard way) to lower my expectations a little and to avoid falling in the trap of comparing experiences. This applies not only to travelling, but to people and situations in general. Is it even possible to be overly enthusiastic yet to keep one’s expectations grounded? I think it’s a challenge but still possible, as long as we stay open and curious to otherness, and to the endless possibilities that we may come across.
Fast forward to the day we were scheduled to fly locally from Nairobi to Maasai Mara National Reserve. I remember what a struggle packing up for this trip was. And what a lesson has it been, too. This was, for sure, my most thought-through and frugal luggage so far. To be more exact, we brought along two big backpacks (a 90L and a 60L) and a small cabin one, where we kept most of our photo gear. A total of around 35kg altogether, out of which 12kg was of heavy gear (2 cameras, wildlife lenses, binoculars, external chargers and everything related), which meant giving up on many worldly “necessities”. All this for a 13 days trip to Kenya. So please give me some credit here! No trolley bags this time either, after feeling pretty awkward during our trip to the Philippines, where I looked like Cameron Diaz in “The Holiday”.
Why so much fuss around this topic? Well, mainly because we’ve had clear guidelines before the trip that we would only be permitted 15kg each on the domestic flight. If not, we were to pay for an extra seat! Imagine the turmoil with those extra 5kg, where Ștefan was easy about letting go of more stuff while I was insisting I had already done enough of that. After packing and repacking, I won. Que sera sera, we’ll keep the extra 5.
The struggle was in vain as nobody checked the weight at the airport. However, making an effort to cut down on the unnecessary was liberating. Not only did I survive on less, but I’ve had the opportunity to use my imagination in mixing the clothes I had with me into cool outfits, or to make good use of every drop of cosmetics. No waste whatsoever. We’ve also had the option to wash our clothing so I am pretty certain now we could have done with even less. Wilson airport is really tiny, but so cosy and clean and has everything you need. I thought I could almost read the word “adventure” into peoples’ smiles and glances. Or maybe it was, as they say, beauty in the eye of the beholder.
Then off into the next challenge. On our way to the plane that was about to take us to the reserve, I could only see things I would rather call toys, not real planes. I kept on hoping we’ll reach a regular sized one but—take a guess—no, that was it! A miniature vehicle with only 12 passenger seats and no separation from the cockpit. The journey was expected to last for one hour and—guess what—we also had a stop in the middle of nowhere, of course! I have this bad habit of sometimes imagining the worst scenarios, and so it was in this case. “Oh boy, is it going to make a lot of noise? Is it safe enough? Will I get sick?”. Proven wrong for the millionth time, I absolutely enjoyed the experience—dooh! Little noise, kids excited to try spotting animals from above—I couldn’t really see many myself as I have such a poor eyesight, but their enthusiasm was very contagious—, a smiling pilot sharing candies with the passengers. Everybody was so chilled. In a very short time we became a big family united through a little dream that was about to come true: exploring the Kenyan wilderness.
We landed not on a typical airport runway, but straight into the middle of action because… why not? We were immediately greeted by James and Elianto, who would be our personal driver and spotter during our safari experience at Speke’s Camp. We didn’t have much time to come to terms with the new environment; everything seemed to happen so naturally and so quickly that we adapted as we went along. The two of them invited us into our game drive vehicle (that we would soon become very attached to) and while we thought would be heading to the camp first, they suggested we go in search of the animals and have a picnic lunch. Keen on a little bit of adventure, we said “yes”. I was quite overwhelmed and agitated with the whole experience happening a little bit on fast forward, but then I took a deep breath, laid back and surrendered to the environment. I made a promise to myself to try and be aware of and present with everything around me, and I remember how good and refreshing the breeze felt to both my skin and my mind. The outside temperature was pleasant and I was feeling so relieved I wasn’t going to be too hot as I imagined before getting there.
Talking about expectations, I don’t know why I had this idea that animals will be scarce and hard to find. In my mind, I could easily count the ones we would be able to see. But just after we set the wheels in motion, the whole animal kingdom unleashed before our hungry eyes. Not even Attenborough’s documentaries can prepare you for this experience in the wild. Within half an hour into our first journey, I had to grab my notebook as it was really hard to keep track of all animals we were seeing. James and Elianto had a name for every species of deer and birds we encountered, which I rigorously noted down. But even writing down was hard to keep doing, so I gave up on it after the first day of safari. There is something so emotional, almost spiritual, to find yourself in the middle of all these beautiful creatures. I felt so lucky to be there, to be allowed to enter their world and notice their behaviour, not in an enclosed space, but in their natural habitat, as it should be.
I was woken up from my reverie by a pride of lions doing their siesta in semi shade. I took a few pictures, then I swapped the camera for the binoculars and just sat there observing. They were not doing much—cats being cats—but it was exactly their state of enjoying doing nothing that made me copy it. I wish I allowed myself this more often, without the inner pressure that I’m doing something wrong. We spent a couple of good minutes in that particular spot and, while Ștefan was testing his ginormous lens, my eyes fell on Elianto’s feet, so I started photographing them insatiably. The different colour shades, the wrinkles, the contrast with the rugged nails—I found it fascinating. They looked like elephant feet to me, or like a map of the whole Maasai lifestyle.
After a couple more encounters with a giant lizard, elephants, zebras, giraffes, hyenas and hyena poo (which is white, in case you were wondering) we drove into our first lunch spot, one of the many delightful picnic spots carefully chosen by our two guides. We entered straight into an enchanted forest, which was more like a patch of trees that seemed endless due to its sudden position in the middle of a vaster raw savanna. If you remember the scene where the kids in “The Chronicles of Narnia” go into the wardrobe on one door and exit into a magical world of snow and trees, this is exactly how I felt then, the main difference being that we didn’t have snow but lush green trees and a view with a pool of hippos! While we were pleasing our senses with the surroundings and photographing the lazy shiny hippos, James and Elianto prepared the lunch for us. I don’t know if it was because of the place, the delicious food, the whole experience or all of the above, but that felt like one of the best lunches I have ever had.
The plan was to go to the camp to get rid of our luggage and have a break before we would go on a game drive again later in the afternoon. The first contact with the camp was no less of a treat. I am so glad we chose Speke’s—it made our first encounter with the African landscape one to write about. We’ve been welcomed with a warm smile by a couple of Maasai people and a cold refreshing ginger drink. The main tent, with the bar and the lounge area, is pure delight. One of those places where time finds itself standing still. If it weren’t for our afternoon game drive, I would have lingered there forever photographing the exquisite handcrafted objects and browsing through the impressive collection of books in the library. Or just sitting there in awe with the otherworldly view.
The second journey throughout the animal kingdom was as thrilling as the first one, the highlight being the encounter with the majestic and elusive leopard, who is most likely to show off at dusk when in search of prey. I couldn’t get my eyes off him. The pattern on his fur is so so beautiful and intricate at the same time, while his gaze is almost hypnotising. There is this duality in his eyes that amazes me and amuses me altogether: the fierceness and the confidence of a wild cat, and the hilariousness of a domestic one, to the point of looking clownish.
We ended a wonderful day with dinner at the camp. The table was set in the best decor possible, outside the main tent, in plain fresh air, with the sole light coming from a nostalgic candle and the nearby campfire, and the only noises one could hear were those coming from the wild animals roaming free around the site. I felt like I had lived 1 month in a single day. Everything seemed like a dream and sweetly overwhelming. And as if all that we experienced wasn’t enough, two warm water bottles were expecting us under the bed sheets. The sleeping tents were huge and so welcoming. Everything we needed was there, and more. The comfort of a cosy and stylish home, set amidst the wildest of the wilderness—the perfect balance. Although the tents had this luxury character to them—there was a toilet, a desk, a wardrobe corner and a stylish sink inside—I loved the fact that there was no running water and that the standard shower was replaced by a bucket shower. This, and the fact that there was no fence around the site to keep the animals away, made everything be in perfect harmony with nature.
Waking up amidst this decor, even at 5am when the sun would still be asleep, felt like a hug from a velvet blanket of colourful butterflies. It’s these little moment of peace and joy that make me realise that I am exactly where I need to be and give me the curiosity to explore that particular day to its fullest. No alarm needed there, nothing could beat the birds chorus. All genres and tonalities permitted. And for an even more enjoyable awakening, at 6am sharp our main Maasai caretaker brought us hot tea and biscuits, and filled the buckets in the room with hot water for washing up. This same ritual continued throughout the whole safari experience and we loved it. Despite the anticipation, we would wait for it with the same joy and curiosity every day.
James and Elianto were waiting for us in the car and at 6:30am we took off. We kept this schedule for the following days, which reminded me how a little routine—an early start after going to bed early, fresh food, plenty of wild nature, the encounter with animals—can reset everything in one’s mind and body. I was missing that.
The second day of safari was for me the best one. There was an abundance of things and experiences that made it so, but mostly our utter delight and excitement at the thought of exploring this new world without the overwhelming feeling from the first day. Another advantage of setting off early in the morning was the beautiful light playing hide-and-seek on our sleepy faces and warming up our whole bodies, still only half awake. Plus everything was so alive in the morning—it all looked like a rebirth. And somehow, to some people’s surprise, I felt so safe and peaceful among all the animals, predators or not. I was in a car, that’s true, but it was not only that, but rather a particular serenity and spontaneity embedded in nature, especially during that time in the day. Perky giraffes peeking through the bushes, having their full vegan breakfast, eating and moving as if they were in no rush. Wildebeest play fighting while kneeling to the ground, stopping only to give us a cow’s gaze. Not impressed, they looked too hilarious to mistake them for being dangerous. The shy and fearful dik-dik, my favourite antelope in Kenya, with his beautiful eyes and funnily moving nose, making his way through the woods. This eerie was only interrupted by a cheeky jackal dragging his prey towards a safe place. Or that is what he thought, at least. Then the real action started. Soon after, we spotted the hyena, so-called “the opportunist”, who caught a glimpse of the jackal and stole his prey with such an ease. As you might have guessed it, the sneaky hyenas rarely hunt themselves, but feed on others’ efforts. Some sort of delegating, some would argue. From that moment on, with the heat starting to make its presence felt, the pace slowed down. Most animals we kept on seeing, if not still indulging in a late breakfast, were in a siesta kind of mood. And we adapted our rhythm to theirs, observing every little detail in their stillness.
After a delicious lunch at the camp and our own siesta in the cosy shade of the lounging tent, off we went again for our afternoon drive. It was the afternoon of the big cats. Our first spotting of the majestic cheetah lying in the shade of a beautiful old tree—a queen. Further up in our journey, more lions, cubs and adults, with the same lazy behaviour on display.
While trying to process the sight of so many animals, some of which I didn’t even know existed, and feeling that ball of warm light going up and down my body, as a sign of both joy and gratefulness, I hear the word “Crocodile!”. Shivers down my spine even before catching a glimpse of it myself. If I had eventually come to terms with the hyenas, with their hysterical laugh, well… I can’t say the same of the crocodiles. They freak me out. The one we saw down the river was in freeze mode, mouth wide open, which made him look even less appealing. We lingered in that spot for about 20 minutes and he didn’t move a single scale. As James, our walking dictionary, explained, that is how they cool down. Brrr…
As the sun starts its descent towards the horizon, the animals become active again. Our safari culminated with a pride of two lion mothers and their adorable cubs grooming one another and playing as if there was no tomorrow. Don’t you find it strange that we have the tendency to take sides with the one being chased, and associate the predator with the bad guy, whereas, in moments like these, of genuine and natural tenderness and familiarity, our senses melt and we feel like petting the same chasers we used to dismiss in a hunt for survival? Isn’t it always our interpretation of things that makes us have a certain attitude towards them? We stayed there with the lions for a while and indulged in their allowing us to be observers of their world. We couldn’t have ended the day in a more special way than with a sundowner with bubbles and popcorn, while being amazed by how glamorous the sun dresses up before going to bed.
Third day into our safari journey and everything was already settling in. The familiarity with the Maasai people, the animals, and the whole environment made us feel at home. We had complete trust in our guide and spotter, and we were especially fond of the wise and thoughtful James who was very knowledgeable about the animals and anticipated their behaviour so well. As for the guides, they would know by then what our preferences and pleasures would be. The fact that we weren’t obsessed with seeing the popular big fives but, on the contrary, we were rejoicing at every colourful bird we saw or any ancient tree we came across, I think, made them feel more relaxed. Sometimes, I would still notice their acquired impulse to please us, and their disappointment when we weren’t able to see something specific. We tried to reassure them that for us it was not about that, and that we actually enjoyed a slower pace. We were so appreciative of everything we were seeing, which was more than we expected anyway. Plus neither us nor them wanted to invade the animals’ territory more than necessary, as we saw many people already doing it.
As James had suggested the previous evening, we were to embark on a different route on the third day. We would go further from the camp, into the Mara Triangle, in search of the endangered and elusive rhinos. Rumour had it that they hadn’t been seen in the past 2 weeks, so we were excited to try our luck, though still keeping our expectations low. On our way we passed through a town, which for me looked more like a village, and we were struck again, just like in the Philippines, by the poverty and the acute rubbish situation on the streets. But then we saw the colourful kids on their way to school, which is, in the end, a sign of progress, no matter how small it seems to us.
We spent about 1h searching for the rhinos, but no sign of any. My body needed a breakfast break, so we went for a picnic spot. As usual, James and Elianto found the most idyllic one, on a little hill overlooking a beautiful, infinite valley. The picture perfect place, straight out of Africa. The rhinos didn’t show up during our second attempt either, but we came across, amongst many other animals and birds, of an overwhelming herd of wildebeest and zebras altogether, who were gathering for a spectacular annual crossing from Maasai Mara to Serengeti, in search for greener pasture—the great migration that usually occurs around the end of October. Some of the zebras put on a funny show in front of us, rolling in the dust, as if photobombing the big herd of wildebeest.
The lunch spot our two accomplices prepared for us on that day was my favourite throughout our safari adventure. As a consequence we spent a lot of time there observing, hugging and photographing the majestic trees, some of the most special trees I have ever seen.
Last day in the safari and we were starting to feel a little sad to be leaving that place, as we got pretty attached to both the animals and the camping site, but we were also really excited about our next experience, hiking in the Loita Hills. The morning went by smoothly, with a multitude of herbivores peacefully cohabiting and eating grass, and a leopard looking for a shade. Now you see him, now you don’t. Talking about cohabitation, this is what we did during our last picnic breakfast in the savanna with a swarm of bees. We were on the verge of packing up before even starting eating, as the army of bees suddenly became very agitated and headed towards us like a tornado. Just as we were about to leave, we noticed they were getting back to the tree where they had the nest, so we decided to stay and eat our breakfast, as well as photograph their noisy dancing.
The highlight of the day was our short afternoon trip to one of the nearby traditional Maasai villages. This was also the most disappointing experience throughout the whole trip. We had heard that some village visits could be quite commercial and exploiting of the tourists—the so-called tourist traps—so we tried to make sure we didn’t end up plunging into one of the kind. We told James we would like to see a Maasai village just the evening before, so we thought this wouldn’t give the villagers the time to make too much fuss out of it and that it would be an authentic experience. Plus, we trusted James and Elianto would pick something for our taste. However, right as we set foot on their doorstep, our expectations were blown off by the fact that the head of the village asked for an entrance fee of 30USD each, which was a lot in that context. The whole situation was a little bit awkward as James didn’t get off the car until we left the village, while Elianto seemed uncomfortable with the situation, as if he hadn’t been aware of that tax. We did accept to pay it in the end, just not to stir up things even more. We were greeted with a welcoming dance by the women in the village, who summoned me to enter the game, while the men showed off their skills as Maasai warriors. It was really interesting to observe them, their rituals, clothing and way of living, but in many ways I felt really uncomfortable, an intruder. It was clear they staged everything in a rush, having in mind the false image of a Westerner’s whim, who likes to pay money to add things to his bucket list. We didn’t say anything to our guides on our way back, but I’m sure they must have guessed our discomfort.
As if trying to compensate for the trouble, they set on a last hunt for the leopard before getting back to the camp. We did find him, but when we got to the place there were tons of cars ostentatiously invading his territory, with lots of people desperate to catch a front row seat for the show. We took a step back. As James, who once again showed his discretion and knowledge of the animal behaviour, suggested, we waited. We waited until the leopard made his way down into the valley, and we waited some more until the other people got bored and left. James was amazing in anticipating where the animal would show up with his prey and we went straight to that spot, where we could peacefully observe him. Soon after he became quite distressed by the approaching pack of hyenas, so he abandoned the prey and left, making room for the scavengers. Such a treat!
The easiest way to say goodbye to one place you’ve become so attached to and where so many things have happened in a relatively short amount of time is when you know a new adventure awaits. We were to embark on a journey into a territory more familiar to our feet and senses, heading southeast from the Maasai Mara National Reserve, to the beautiful Loita Hills. Speke’s Camp had arranged for a driver to come pick us up and take us to a spot at the base of the hills, where we would start walking towards our first camping site. The car journey through the bumpy savanna roads was utterly long and windy, thus uncomfortably dusty. Most of the cars there don’t normally have windows—some have a sort of rolling canvases—so as to allow ventilation and to make it easier for photographers to pull their cameras out. Long live the shukas, though—how come I haven’t mentioned them so far?!—that kept us relatively warm and sort of protected from the dust. I wouldn’t have imagined I will be cold in the savanna. I was prepared to sweat most of the time, but it was pretty chilly, especially during the mornings. We were wrapped up from head to toe, yet the wild dust managed to break through. I could strongly feel it everywhere.
After 4 or 5 endless hours, we’d been told it was time for a lunch break. Hallelujah! My body was numb and my hair weighed triple from the dust that it managed to attract during the drive. All our discomfort went away, though, once we got off the car and stepped into an enchanted clearing, gently caressed by the golden sun rays. The familiarity of this type of green lush landscape transformed me into the happy child I become each time I am surrounded by trees. I gave in to their charm and relaxed. It was on this particular spot where we also met David, our lead guide through Loita.
After lunch we drove for about 1 more hour to where we were to start using our feet as transportation means. Finally hiking! We were greeted by what would be our helpers throughout the whole hiking trip—literally an army of Maasai (10 in total, including the cook), plus another army of donkeys whose mission was to carry all equipment (mobile tent, toilet and bucket shower) and food. I am always on the edge with these kind of things, feeling sort of guilty for having others carry the weight for me, but also thinking about the fact that we were offering them jobs, and that, if they are paid and treated accordingly, everybody is happy. The Maasai team that was about to guide us along the hike was employed by a company in partnership with the manager from Speke’s Camp. This also meant that the camping layout was pretty similar, though more basic, as the tents and everything else were mobile this time, as opposed to Speke’s fixed ones.
Though an easy 2h hike, my legs felt quite stiff after a few rather passive days in the savanna, coupled with the recent long hours sitting in a car. But just walking through that fresh scenery that I love so much, while paying attention to nature’s sounds, was good enough. We arrived at our first camping spot, the river camp, a bit before sunset. The donkeys and the rest of the Maasai team followed along. Priorities first: the Maasai set the bucket shower, which was now out in the open, behind a huge bush, next to the river. Full on wilderness. Such a wonderful feeling, showering in fresh air, taking off all that dust that became like an extra layer of clothes on my body. One need fulfilled, our stomachs would start demanding their rights, so we gathered around the fire that the Maasai lit for us while we have been setting in our own tent. We have probably never been so spoiled with such food while on a hiking trip.
We woke up to a blissful foggy morning, whose energy I tried to breath in to the fullest. I love forests! I feel so connected and alive whenever I’m amidst them, and I find it way easier to give up the standard comfort. As usual, we started the day with a good breakfast by the fire, inside the improvised lounge tent, waiting for the fog to rise a little so that we can have better visibility through the forest on our way to the impressive waterfall. Oh, the familiarity of the forest trails, now with a pretty humid twist! Side note, the hiking boots seemed so overrated amongst the Maasai people! It was a highly muddy hike, and we found it fascinating, if not hilarious, how the Maasai walked in some sort of flimsy rubber sandals all along, no care in the world. Another fun fact, but still related, was that whenever we were coming across a deep large swamp that we so carefully avoided, they were going straight through it, washing out their feet and sandals, that by then must have weighed a ton from all the mud attached to them.
For the third and last night we were to move our camping gear to a different spot and a different climate. Long hike they said and long it was, about 7-8 hours in total. Halfway through and we were starting to feel the heat. The closer we were getting to the camping spot, the hotter it got, which contributed to our tiredness and sweatiness. We were dusty from head to toe all over again. But once we reached the destination, the energy was slowly coming back, as we were rejoicing at the new kind of landscape, very different from what we had experienced that far. We had been walking for so long through barren land—it was a pure delight to enter that forest in miniature.
We woke up to one of the most intense and peculiar sunrises I have ever seen. The reddish gold light, which looked more like a sunset rather than a sunrise light, didn’t last very long, but it invaded the whole camping site and the senses altogether. Under its spell, the electric red of the shukas stood out even more. This was our last day with the adventurous Maasai people. We started our 2h descent quite early in the morning and we arrived in Nguruman village where a car was waiting for us. A 4h drive to Nairobi followed, which piled up even more dust on us. As much as I couldn’t believe our experience into the African wilderness had come to end, I was so craving for a long shower and a good night sleep.
Our 3 nights accommodation in the city, Ngong Tree House, is probably the most beautiful Airbnb place we stayed in. Secluded and with a luxurious feel, the tree houses emerge on many acres of private land boasting of lush nature and colourful birds. The restaurant belonging to the same site is also a must try. The food is so yummy and healthy! The neighbourhood itself, Karen, is a suburb of Nairobi, and stands in high contrast to the poverty and chaotic lifestyle of the rest of the city, which was difficult to explore and digest even for two people who are open and pretty used to cultural extremes. We’ve spent our last days in Kenya mostly eating (Tatu restaurant was our favourite), enjoying the cosy luxury of the accommodation, browsing through the quirky and colourful African handmade objects in various shops, and paying a short visit to the Giraffe Centre.
It was a wonderful experience that taught us so much about a new culture, the animals and ourselves. A powerful incentive to explore the African world in more depth. I can’t not end this story without mentioning the wild cats again, whose behaviour reminds me a little bit of us humans in isolation during this pandemic, spending most of the time indoors, as if saving energy for when we’re out for the kill (supermarkets in our case). And while I know we are striving to be as productive as possible, we should as well learn from the best and take this time to rest. Meow!
Posted on January 15, 2019
One of the few moments when I succeed in being fully aware of the surroundings and the emotions that come along is when I take my first steps off the airport into a completely unknown territory. And no matter what I experience, good or bad, I am as excited, as curious and as present as a child. All my senses start working at their full capacity. With 18 hours of almost no sleep, jet-lagged and panicking about how I will be feeling the 30+ humid degrees (25 degrees more than in London), I couldn’t but rejoice at the first sight of this new world and culture I was about to explore. I remember the first surprise factor of our trip was, to the point of making us feel slightly uncomfortable, the way the hotel’s personnel (and most people working in the tourism business) were treating us, as if we were their queen and king. Everything one could imagine was in one way or another facilitated. And oh my gosh, I have never seen such a redundancy of employees! One driving us, two opening the car’s doors, one on the stairs welcoming us with a big smile, another one two stairs up welcoming us again, one opening the hotel’s door, minimum 3 carrying the luggage, and the list can obviously go on forever. Everything is taken care of. Oh, and everybody is smiling and greeting you. I do believe it’s a genuine, inherent smile in most cases, but can become overwhelming even for the most smiley Europeans.
The second surprise, which came quite as a shock actually, struck us when we got in contact with the huge, really upsetting at first, discrepancy between the way locals lived in the city (Cebu city), the extreme poverty, the pile of garbage, on one hand, and what they offer to their tourists, on the other. Maybe it was the unbearable heat as well, or the fact that I was very tired, but the whole urban scenery revealing itself before our eyes was very hard to take in. It was not only the ongoing noise, traffic and horns, but everything looked like a ruin and felt like a reservoir of infections. Stray dogs all over, looking bone-skinny and very ill. Canals covered in trash (I have never seen so much trash in one place). And the smell was intolerable, a mixture of dead bodies, poo and other similar olfactive treasures. I couldn’t convince myself to walk through the city for more than 30min, too much to handle at once. Dystopian reality is an understatement. As much as I hate going to the mall, and as much as I love spending as much time outdoors as possible, we spent our 2 days in Cebu (the first 2 days of our trip) going back and forth between the hotel and the mall, using the local “Uber”. I have never appreciated the air conditioning so much and I have definitely never spent so much time in a hotel. A hotel which seemed like a total luxury, with its cleanliness, spa facilities and decent food, as compared to what we have experienced in the real world, outside its walls. It’s not as if I hadn’t been aware of the level of poverty in some Asian countries, the Philippines included, and I always do a lot of research, going way beyond Pinterest or Lonely Planet, but what I have seen there was below expectations, to say the least. It’s funny, right, how we always get stuck with a particular image that we construct in our head based on others’ opinions or on a couple of catchy pictures we see on the internet. And when it comes to experiencing it with ourselves, we are often taken by surprise. We do the same with people, by labelling or idealising. Wouldn’t it be a complete relief to just let go of all these expectations, good or bad, and just experience things as they are in that particular moment?
Bear with me (and the text) for a bit though, as the tone will soon change once we start adapting and turn the volume down to this initial impact. 🙂 Just as it’s usually the case in life itself, a bad one (or what we label as “bad”) triggers or is followed by a good one: our next 3 days in the Philippines make for one of the most beautiful and revealing moments I have ever experienced. As we knew it will take time to make peace with the jolly jet-lag and to adapt to the country’s particularities, since we only had 2 weeks to explore it—including travel—we had decided to take it slowly and to only explore the Palawan province, with several stops in El Nido and Coron. The quickest way to travel inside the Philippines is by taking a local flight. It’s not very expensive and I really enjoyed every flight of this kind. The planes are quite tiny but the whole trip is cosy and relaxed. Moreover, El Nido has the quirkiest airport I have seen so far. It doesn’t actually look like an airport, so this is probably the first thought that comes to one’s mind: “Where am I?”. A small room where you get your luggage back—in an unusual way, of course, don’t expect anything to be or happen in a “normal” way there! You exit this room into a long, half outside corridor, while your senses are exalted by the lush greenery that stretches along this passage.
We always like to find the homiest and quirkiest accommodations, with good value for money, no matter how much research we have to put into it, so we chose the spots where to spend time on the islands based on those. We started with Plumeria Eco-Resort, a place that, once we got there, we wished we had never had to leave from. Unfortunately, they only had 2 nights available at the time we booked. But, for now, let me tell you a bit about the little adventure we had to go through in order to arrive there. We had arranged beforehand, with help from the owner of Plumeria, to take a private car (which is one of their recommended transportation means, the other being a jeepney, a tricycle or a private van) from El Nido airport to the Teneguiban village. From there we were supposed to get a boat to a remote beach. Our plane was delayed by a couple of good hours (we had been notified of this some weeks in advance, though), so by the time we got to the village it was already dark. Which meant, yay!, sailing through the darkness. We had been previously told by the owner of Plumeria resort that we are to pay a fixed price for the car and boat, but when we asked the drivers how much it was, they asked for a higher price—which we agreed upon as it was our first experience of the kind and it was getting quite late, so the only thing we wanted was to get there as soon as possible. However, in these situations, do stick to the original price if you can and don’t let them convince you to pay more, which some will try to do. It’s not as if it costs a fortune, since everything is cheap there anyway, but in my opinion this whole negotiation game shouldn’t be encouraged as it is in no one’s real advantage on the long term. These being said and done, our young sailors, two local children with the most indigenous features pointed us to our boat. And in that moment my jaws dropped—not only it was a tiny wooden boat, but it was “parked” quite far away from the shore. In parenthesis, for those of you who still don’t know this about me, not only that I don’t swim at all, but I also panic a lot when it comes to deep water, waves and so on. Oh, yes, and it was dark, have I mentioned this before? 😄 Plus the big luggages we had with us (including a so not useful trolley bag!), which made the situation look even more hilarious, if not completely absurd.
Me to Ștefan: Are you kidding me? This is not happening, I’m not doing this!
Me to the indigenous girl: Is it deep?
Meanwhile, they took most of our luggages and started carrying them on their back (!) through the water. The indigenous girl, with an almost unintelligible English and a certain look on her face that, to me, said something like “What’s with this strange people?”: No ma’am, it’s no deep.
And of course I was wearing jeans, as I was coming from London (5 degrees Celsius!), so obviously I got wet. But that was the least of my worries, anyway. The water was indeed pretty shallow and warm, which melted my anxiety for a bit. Our luggages barely fitted in the boat, but at that time I was happy to have the trolley bag as I used its handle as a second thing to hold on to. And there we were, on this miniature boat in the middle of the ocean, with no life jackets, shaken and splashed by the waves. The journey lasted about 30-40 minutes but I felt it like half a day. The land kept on seeming sooo far away. I was so tense and panicked and all the related, and I was holding to the boat so tightly that my hand went numb at some point. I was seriously questioning whether we were going to make it alive. And then I saw the girl standing on her feet and crossing the boat from front to back and vice-versa, walking so naturally on those wooden beams, like a true gymnast. I thought of her lightness of being and of my heavy chaotic breathing—”Laura, stop being such a drama queen! What’s the worse case scenario? If you do fall from the boat, these two Mowglis will have no issue whatsoever in getting you out of the water—piece of cake”. A bit of breathing in and breathing out, trying to practice some awareness and to direct my thoughts into a sort of floating, and I managed to calm myself for a while. I know it’s different for different people, but what (almost) always seems to work for me during these intense anxiety moments is to make fun of my own thoughts. But then it started to get even windier, hence wavier, so by the time we arrived I was completely exhausted.
The moment I set foot on land, everything started to fall into place and feel so natural, as did our whole stay there. Still a bit shaken by the short but intense boat trip, I was expecting the people who greeted us to ask how it was, if we were okay etc. (DRA-MA QUEEN!), but nothing of this sort happened. And it was then when self mockery knocked at my door again: “Chill, Laura! Of course they won’t ask you that, it’s nothing out of the ordinary for them to sail in the middle of the night in the middle of the ocean without a life jacket, dooh!” That thought, together with the feeling of lukewarm sand under my bare feet brought me back to a softer and calmer reality, though it was dark and I was a bit uncomfortable with stepping on something weird. (Where did that fear come from, by the way, as I remember walking barefoot a lot—and enjoying it—as a child? When did I become so precious?). After being shown our “room” and the eco toilets and showers, we were brought to the so called bar and dinning “area” where we were greeted with a warm big smile aaand (surprise!) a refreshing coconut. Yum! We couldn’t see much of the place, in its entirety at least, as they didn’t have electricity (except for the bar area, where they were also serving food), but there was something so intrinsically peaceful in the air that could tame even the noisiest mind. The homemade food was absolutely delicious, healthy and very tasty. And to my utter delight and excitement, they had no less than 5 dogs and 7 one month old puppies. What more could I have wished for? Oh, yes, and the friendliest and zen-like cat I have ever met, who was more like a dog than a cat, if not more like a human. She was with us everywhere: on the bed, when we went to the toilet, when we showered and when we were exploring the beach. She was like a fluffy warm glue and we fell in love with her.
We went to bed very early, as you couldn’t do much there without electricity, but I was far from falling asleep. I actually don’t think I have slept more than 1-2h in total that night, as I was so overwhelmed by that place, in a good way though. We had but two wooden walls, so we were basically sleeping half outside. We were so immersed in nature and so close to the ocean that we could hear an orchestra of sounds. There was a tight competition between the waves breaking into the shore and the playful crickets. The noise kept me awake, indeed, but I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else in the world. There was something so magical about that place that at times I had to pinch myself—I couldn’t believe I was actually there. I was half awake, half transported to one of those fantasy books that you don’t want to end reading because you know, somehow, reality will follow. I usually make a very big deal when I have insomnias, hence I cannot sleep, I twist and turn, I make it worse than it is. But not then. I was feeling very light, very emotional, grateful, and so at peace with myself and the surroundings. Lots of thoughts were floating in my head, but they were not the usual worrying or messy thoughts, but the kinder and softer ones. I don’t really use the word “epiphany” very often as I find it a bit pretentious, or maybe because I cannot (yet) 100% identify with it, but judging by its definition, maybe this is what happened to me that night. I am generally a control freak, a person with lots of fears, finding it quite hard to let go, but over that night, while being lost in thoughts and daydreaming, my whole body was inundated with warmth, having this consistent thought—which prevailed throughout our whole trip in Asia—that I should trust everything will be okay, that I should trust myself more.
From time to time I was petting the cat, who was taking turns by changing her sleeping place from my side of the bed to Ștefan’s . And she was sleeping so peacefully—nothing seemed to disturb her. At one point I got bored with laying in bed, so I woke Ștefan up (oups!) and we went closer to the water and sat on the sand, getting our feet wet in the ocean from time to time. Never have I seen such a starlit sky. The cat came along, of course, and sat beside me, quiet and peaceful. We went back to bed after a while, but I was very excited for the sunrise and for seeing the whole place in daylight as well. And when the sun rose I couldn’t stop exclaiming. The magical feeling continued while the sweet rays of sun were warming up everything in their way, allowing us to explore every little corner of that remote beach, inhabited by ourselves, only a couple of locals and their animals. It was even more beautiful than I had imagined it will be. We were exactly in the same place like the night before, but it looked so different in daylight. It started to look more and more like Robinson Crusoe’s island. The moment I thought of that, four cheeky goats showed up out of nowhere, having their breakfast and climbing trees as if it was their home (which it was).
The most difficult part on this beach was not surrendering to the lack of phone signal or internet for 3 days, but adapting to the slow pace of the Filipino life and to literally doing nothing at all. Time expands in this little corner of paradise. You wake up at 5am or 6am, not because you have to, but because this is the most beautiful moment of the day, when everything seems even more surreal. You check the time at some point later in the day expecting to be lunch time or even afternoon, only to notice, with big stupor, that it’s only 9 o’clock. We are so busy being busy in our daily lives that an image of this kind of living has been almost erased from our memory. It’s getting more and more blurry, to the point that what we have now and how we rush things has become normality. Some don’t even know it exists. I urge you to force yourself into doing something similar. It doesn’t have to be big, it doesn’t have to be very adventurous. And it will probably be tough at first, for some, but I promise you it’s so much more rewarding.
When I was not eating, sleeping, laying in a hammock or a swing, petting the animals, or exploring the beach, I loved watching the local children play. I was fascinated by them. Not only they are really beautiful and have unique features, but there is such a freedom and sparkle in their eyes and laughs that I have rarely seen in any other child. What made me quite sad, though, was the fact that they frequently asked for money whenever they encountered a foreigner… Please stop perpetuating this, stop giving them money or sweets as you are not doing anyone any favour, not to them, not to yourselves. They are doing just fine, and if you really want to be generous and help them in some way, just get in contact with the local authorities. Call me naive or idealistic, but I think that encouraging them to ask for money just spoils the magic of the place.
Plumeria Eco Resort was possibly the most beautiful place we have ever experienced in our travels, but with no doubt the most meaningful and idyllic. I felt like stranded on an island, but with no intention to change that.
Our second accommodation in El Nido was closer to El Nido town and definitely less isolated, in a quirky small resort called Lio Beach. A really lovely place with many restaurant options—our favourite was the vegan one with the best matcha pancakes ever (I’ll let the pics speak for themselves)—as well as independent clothing and souvenir boutiques.
To our extreme satisfaction, there weren’t many tourists around. The Philippines, in general, are not (yet, at least) a very crowded travel destination, as opposed to similar countries like Thailand or Indonesia. Don’t miss the Kalye Artisano shop in the area, a treasure box of handmade objects to fill your suitcase with. By the way, we had never returned home with so many beautiful and authentic souvenirs, with a very good value for money, too. I couldn’t stop myself from buying. We stayed 4 nights in the area and our main activity was renting boats for tours of the beaches and lagoons of El Nido. And there I was again, making waves with my dear old friend, Water. We’ve been on the boat for so long that by the end of our trip I was starting to feel better on the sea than on the land where, if I closed my eyes, I was seeing waves and I was feeling dizzy. My fear of water was slowly starting to subside to the point that I had also convinced myself to get into a kayak on a biiiiig lagoon, which I wouldn’t have done before. It might be a small thing to you (yes, you who swims like a fish!), but for someone like me who doesn’t swim at all and who, on top of that, has a deeply rooted fear of water, that was quite a win. With so many adventures involving water (including a real life threatening one in Norway) I can hear a voice inside mocking me: “I think it’s time for you Laura to learn to swim, don’t you?”
We booked the tours very last minute (the day before) and we managed to find something, but don’t be like us if you plan to go there in full season (we were there at the end of November – beginning of December, which is the beginning of the season). You are more likely to find a private tour if you won’t book in advance, which is obviously more expensive (double the price), but definitely worth it. Most of the tours start in El Nido town, where you are again hit by the tumultuous life, the noise, the dust, the garbage, the poverty and the chaos. Somehow, however, halfway through our holiday, we were starting to get used to it and to realise that we attributed it higher proportions than we should have had. It’s not as if the reality was another one, but when I was noticing the locals during their daily lives, they seemed quite at peace with what they had. Realities become more of a burden (I am excluding here the atrocities some people are exposed to, like wars, illnesses or natural disasters), I think, when we start to compare.
Needless to say that all the islands, beaches and lagoons we set foot on during our island hopping tours were pure paradise, but my favourites were, by far, Small Lagoon, Cadlao Island and Secret Lagoon Beach.
Of course I missed part of the fun because I couldn’t swim nor snorkel, hence no glimpse (with my own eyes, at least) of living corals or Nemo fish, so when the boat wasn’t anchoring near the land I had to stay on it. The icing on the cake of these tours was the food, which was also probably the best food I ate in the Philippines. It generally consisted of grilled chicken and fish, steamed vegetables and rice, and the exquisitely delicious mango, pineapple and bananas. It wasn’t necessarily the taste itself, nor was it very sophisticated, but it had an emotional quality attached to it, as they were preparing it on the boat and we ate it as a picnic lunch on one of the beaches.
Coron was our next destination and we spent 3 nights there. By then we were already not only adapted but deeply immersed in the whole rhythm of the country. To the point that I was starting to think — I couldn’t help it — that going back to reality to London will be quite difficult to cope with. And I was right.
I utterly dislike the bustle, chaos and crowds, especially in the European cities, but the very same things had a different vibe in the Philippines. It’s full of noisy and dusty tricycles (which look more like converted motorcycles) playing the role of taxis, and there is not much staying in lane on the road, plus the continuous honking. But everyone was okay with it — no one was swearing or showing egos. It was one of the most fun things we did actually.
It was in Coron where we decided to go for a private boat tour for a change and it was so worth it, as it allowed us to customise the places we wanted to see and linger more on the ones we loved most. Not to mention that we avoided the crowds. Such a warm feeling waking up very early in the morning for this. We started the journey with a visit to the local market to buy the foods we were to cook for the lunch on the beach. Which gave us the opportunity to mingle with the local colours and feel like one. Our local guide Log, a scrawny boy with broken teeth and a squeaky voice, but with the most sincere smile and light heart, had connections at the market, so of course we got the freshest foods.
Another moment of revelation for me was triggered by one of the dialogues with Log:
Me: “Oh God, oh God… oh God!” (when I had to jump from one wobbly boat to the other to get to ours, which was at the end of the row). And of course the water was very deep.
Log, with a cheeky contagious laugh: “Ha ha ha, no ma’am, it’s ‘Thank God!’ not ‘Oh God!’.”
This put me in a contemplative state again, similar to the one I experienced at the Plumeria Resort. By the end of the day I was starting to say more “Thank God!” than “Oh God!”, in an exchange of giddish laughs with Log . It’s not that I am a religious person, not at all actually, but this served rather like a reminder to be thankful and to appreciate what I have, what I am experiencing. As well as learning to trust more, to trust myself more first of all. Without further ado, the places I loved most during our private tour were, by far, the Twin Lagoon and Banul Beach.
The next day we went for a group tour again (a group of 8 including us, which was not bad at all). Though it was a bit more rushed than the private one, and less personal, we set foot on Coco Beach, which was most probably my favourite beach out of all I came across in our boat tours. I don’t know if it was because we were the only one there (yes, just us, our private beach for a couple of hours!), or the freshly baked rice cakes we got from a local lady, or the many swings and hammocks hanging between giant coconut trees, or all of them together and some more, but it put me in such a relaxed and joyful state that I rarely experience otherwise.
I loved both Coron and El Nido, but I found El Nido better when it comes to variety—a variety of places to eat, independent boutiques with locally handmade items and, last but not least, a variety of beaches, islands and lagoons one can explore. However, the beaches in Coron felt more special and intimate due to, in part, the fact that there were fewer tourists, even none at all on some of them, and also to their unique and remote beauty. I have not included Plumeria in this comparison between the two, as it was a completely different experience, one that has surpasses them all.
Our mind and heart grew lighter following this trip and almost everything was above expectations. It was, at least for me, more than anything else, a spiritual journey where I have learned more about trust and how liberating it can be to let go. I know this is an ongoing and difficult process for someone who has been in an unhealthy relationship with being in control for such a long time, but I am very grateful for this experience that has opened my heart a bit more.
Thank God for this! 🙂
Updated on February 8, 2017
I remember that my mother used the expression ‘To Patagonia!’ quite often when, as a child, I was kind of bothering her with repetitive and silly questions: ‘But wheeere are we going?’ or ‘Wheeere are you going?!’. Later in life (actually not that long ago), I found out that Patagonia is not at all something fictitious, but an extraordinary beautiful and isolated (that’s where the expression comes from) place on Earth. As Bruce Chatwin famously wrote, Patagonia is “the farthest place to which man walked from his place of origin”, and to this day many adventure seekers and landscape photographers are lured by its remoteness and uniqueness. Seekers of remote experiences ourselves, we decided to see it with our own eyes and hearts.
Our initial plans to explore it during autumn were delayed, hence we bought the plane tickets for the end of spring. We did our best to plan most of the details ahead, knowing that it’s going to be a challenging trip, especially when it came to logistics. It may be that the national parks have become quite touristy in the past years, but in between, there lies a giant Nothing where you will barely find human presence. Don’t expect any gas stations, restaurants or supermarkets (what’s that?). Even after putting a lot of thought into the trip, not everything went according to plans. I guess this is what makes it an adventure, right?
If you are on a lower budget (as low as one can be in such an expensive place…) and if you also fancy a longer layover, in order to catch a glimpse of something different from Patagonia itself, a good idea is to check all the combinations of plane tickets. We managed to get 6 flights for approximately 700 GBP / person, which is quite a reasonable price. It will take some time to do a bit of research and match prices, but it is definitely worth it.
Taking off from London, with a short layover in São Paulo, we stopped in Santiago de Chile with the intention to spend two days exploring the artsy Valparaíso. First thing to notice, in an array of similitudes to my native country, Romania, was the aggressiveness of the taxi drivers, strategically placed inside the ‘Arrival’ area. Just say ‘No, gracias’ and look for a sign that says ‘Official TAXI’, where you will be paying a fair price. After the slalom between the mad drivers, we rented a car and off we went, 1.5h to destination. We had an Airbnb accommodation in Viña del Mar, a coastal resort city. We noticed an interesting and poignant contrast between cosmeticised boulevards along the beach with altitude competing palm trees and modern buildings, back quiet neighbourhoods with elegant houses and blooming trees, and a noisy and less aesthetic city centre. If you are a vegetarian, but not only, don’t miss out the delicious food at Le Bistrot Merci. And I would definitely recommend a sleepover in Nina’s ecological house, with top view over the city. Though less popular than Valparaíso (which is, in our opinion, almost always a better option) this city deserves your attention. In opposition, Valparaíso is a burst of authenticity through its cliff top houses, vibrant colours, street art and poetry. I loved it so much, I couldn’t get enough of it; there are drawings everywhere you look. I bet the Chilean artists can’t really make a living out of their work, however, I could grasp the passion blending in with the graffitis on the almost living walls. You can easily get the feeling of wandering through a large and vivid open-air museum. Its poetic decadence, the mixture of poverty with touristy treats, large amount of stray dogs (a second similarity with the streets in Romania), smart and aesthetic use of colours, make the city a charming mess.
After two days spent in these neighbouring cities, we headed to the airport to return the car and catch the plane to Punta Arenas, where we were to meet our friends and trip companions, Victor and Sînziana. Remembering the episode from the car return, it is worth mentioning that speaking a bit of Spanish (even the basic vocabulary, you don’t need much) in both Chile and Argentina, will prove extremely useful in specific situation, like this one. A vast majority of the locals won’t speak English at all. When we got to the place, there was absolutely no one there from the car rental company to pick up the car, though we agreed with them beforehand that we would be bringing it back at a certain time. The only person we could find was a gatekeeper who was as surprised as we were by the fact that we needed to return the car. He just gave us a chaotic explanation for why the right people were not there. We agreed, in Spanish, that we can leave the car there and that he would take care of it, though I am not sure he had more information than we had. However, the fact that I could communicate with him in the local language saved us from missing our flight. And this was not an isolated case during our trip… One of those very few moments when I find a meaning and use of my degree in foreign languages. :))
Punta Arenas, one of the largest cities in Patagonia, located on the legendary Strait of Magellan, is, like many other places here, a mixture of wild landscape, shabby neighbourhoods and recent prosperity brought along by tourism. The city is a convenient base for travellers heading to Tierra del Fuego, Torres del Paine, or Argentina. In another train of thoughts, there seems to be a strong connection between people living in a 3rd world country, where opportunities are a rare privilege, and their over the top good mood and sense of community. Which reminds me of a book I am currently reading and which I strongly recommend called ’Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’, that, among others, brings solid arguments sustaining this theory.
We’ve had one of the most delightful conversations with a taxi driver, a local guy, on our way to the accommodation. I felt my Spanish was improving while chatting with him on a wide range of subjects. I was so proud of myself that I even understood the local anecdotes :)) ; such a storyteller he was, cheerful, and kind, and present, like many other people we met along the way. A car ride that made us feel more like home in this country. Punta Arenas was the place where we rented our campervans, which in the end proved less useful, thus less cost effective than we had initially thought. First of all, we couldn’t make them a sleeping option due to lack of space (it proved way too tiring to optimise the space for both luggage and bed each evening, after a long day of either hiking or driving) and due to the thick sticky Patagonian dust. There was no air conditioning in the campervans, which wouldn’t necessarily be a big thing if it weren’t that warm, whereas the dust insisted on getting (literally) everywhere as we had to keep our car windows open. If not a B&B, refuge, or hotel, we definitely preferred the tent to the campervan, where we could smell and feel fresh air and nature. Well, except during one night when the wind was that strong that it got into our tent as well. Secondly, we could feel every bump in the road, and there are not few crazily long off-roads in Patagonia. Other than that, life inside the campervans, Batman and Candy, as their stage name indicates, for roughly 2 weeks, was quite fun and added to the adventure.
250 km northwest from Punta Arenas via Ruta 9 or Ruta del Fin del Mundo (not very far from the actual truth) there is Puerto Natales. It is the capital of the province Última Esperanza, name given by the first European to discover the area where the city is located, Juan Ladrillero, a Spanish explorer, who was looking for the Strait of Magellan during his voyage in 1557. Although the city has flourished in the past years, mostly through reaping the benefits of serving as a gateway to Torres del Paine National Park, I found Puerto Natales way more charming, cosier and more hospitable than Punta Arenas. Going forward, as strange as it may seem, the restaurant where we ate the best was a vegetarian one, ‘El Living‘. We left with the misconception, or better said, with the resignation, that food in Patagonia will be a big minus during our trip (disclaimer: not only that 3 of us are vegetarian, but we are also healthy eaters, which makes us quite picky when it comes to food), and ended up being pretty impressed by their menu. Beside the fact that meat is not necessarily their most popular dish, you have quite a wide variety of tasty and healthy dishes to choose from. And by the way, guanaco is not their traditional cooked meat, as I had thought, but lamb. Puerto Natales is also a port city, with lovely views over the mountains, so do take a stroll along its shore; it’s a delight.
The best accommodation we stayed in that was not a camping site was ‘Viento Patagonico‘ in Puerto Natales. Although it has the status of a hotel, we didn’t feel like being in one at all (we are not very big fans of hotels, they are way too impersonal, especially if linked to trips like this one). Clean, comfortable, spacious, very good buffet breakfast, friendly hosts, and one of the loveliest attics I have ever been in, overlooking the mountains. Very good value for the price.
As we slept in a different place every single night, we headed to Torres del Paine the following day, with the intention to start the ‘W’ circuit. The 4-5 days hike is the most sought after in the park, and can be done in either direction, from west to east or vice versa. Our not so usual plan was to dedicate 4 days to the trek, do the whole east side of the ‘W’ on the first day, come back to the base and sleep at Hotel Las Torres, then leave one of the cars there and drive the other to the west base near Hotel Grey, in order to continue the hike from the Refugio Grey and finish it back to Hotel Las Torres. I know, complicated, and not everything went according to plan. Not because of how we structured the hike, but mainly because of the fact that we didn’t allow more days for it. Which was also the main reason, I think, for not being able to enjoy the landscape, photographically speaking, to the fullest. We got it a bit wrong from the start, as we scheduled driving (from Puerto Natales to the park) and hiking in the same day. The actual drive from one place to the other is not that long, approximately 1.5 – 2 hours, but we didn’t take into account that the road would be less dull than what we encountered that far. Thus, the fact that we were constantly stopping to take a breath of the surrounding landscape, photograph guanacos and flamingos, added at least one hour to it.
Oh, yes, and on top of that, we underestimated the time it would take us hiking from Hotel las Torres to Mirador las Torres and back, which is roughly 8 hours! We managed to do less than half of it, reaching only the first point of this side of the ‘W’, which is Refugio El Chileno. They say that the Patagonian realm got very touristy in the past couple of years, which may be the case, in some respect, but don’t imagine that you will get to see an image similar to that of the popular ski resorts in Europe, Yellowstone or the Great Wall of China. There are a couple of camping sites, refuges, or even luxury hotels, but the parks are not suffocated by their presence. The demand is still way higher than the offer. Most probably, the locals try as much as possible to preserve its wilderness, which is in the end Patagonia’s loudest treasure. One downside of this is that there isn’t much information you can find, anywhere, on its routes, roads, gas stations, or anything else that you might be needing at some point. Another downside, which is more disturbing than the first one, is the expensiveness of the place, especially of the ‘W’ circuit. There are a few refuges and cabins along the hikes (which you will find available only if you book well in advance), but they are horribly expensive. I won’t even mention hotels, or the price for one night in that luxury. We slept in the tent for 3 nights, alternating with one night in a refuge with beds for 8 people, and we paid 90USD for one night per person. And this was one of the cheapest in the area!
Our first close encounter with the Patagonian nature, along the hike from Hotel las Torres to Refugio El Chileno, was not as rich as we expected. The light is quite harsh at this time of the year, while the vegetation seemed too lifeless, where there was one. This fact, was, however, compensated by the abundant wildlife we had the chance to see along the road to Torres del Paine. Never have I had the privilege to experience so many random encounters with such a wide variety of birds and animals.
One of the highlights of the trip, as well as one of those little moments of pleasures, was putting the tent in the camping sites (it’s illegal to camp outside these areas, anywhere in Patagonia), followed by an in-house exquisite dinner and/or breakfast cooked on the camper van’s stove. And the most sought-after item of any meal was the perfectly ripped avocados! If the local fruits in both Chile and Argentina profoundly disappointed us, at least we had plenty of avocado, the best I have eaten so far!
The second day, we left one of the cars, Batman to be more precise, in a parking space near Hotel las Torres and the 4 of us squeezed in Candy until Hotel Grey, in order to return from the hike following a different path. Despite the annoying off-road, we found the view on this side of the mountain much more refreshing and spectacular than the one we experienced the day before. Keep in mind that once you park the car there, you need to be sparing another 45 min for buying the tickets and for walking for about 20 min ‘till you reach the boat. It was on this shore surrounded by magnificent glaciers, that I felt the Patagonian wind in one of its most intense moods. Once you get to Refugio Grey by boat, you can either continue the trek up to see the glacier up-closely, or, as we did, continue the hike to Camping Paine Grande or Camping Italiano, depending on how much you want to walk.
It takes some time to get used to the landscape, as the heat and the scarce vegetation can get quite overwhelming, but little by little we started to adapt to its specificities. One of the most peculiar and fascinating elements to observe is how nature, the wind in particular, shapes the landscape. Most of the trees are left leaning almost to the ground, as in a solitary bow. They are a poignant reflection of how powerful and domineering the wind here can be. Another particularity of the landscape are the marks left by the regular fires, with the wind being again the main character. In December 2011 Torres del Paine National Park was ravaged by a fire that destroyed 17 thousand hectares of forest. As strange as it may seem, and as devastating as it is for the landscape, the mixture of fallen and rotten trees inflicts a fascinating amount of drama and dynamism altogether. The now lifeless and solitary trees create an image of outstanding beauty, which, paradoxically, communicates life rather than death.
As we went along, the heat started to remind me of the amount of warm clothes we carried with us, as unprepared as we were for that type of weather. The lack of vegetation and the heavy backpacks made us get even angrier at the burning sun. By the time we arrived at Paine Grande, we were already dead tired and decided to camp there, instead of walking another 2.5 hours until Camping Italiano, as we had initially agreed upon. No luck, however, the lady at the reception made it clear, with barely raising her eyes from whatever she was doing at that moment, that ‘we don’t have any availability’. My trick with doing the puppy eyes and putting on a warm smile on my face, didn’t work this time. Which left us with no other option than to continue our journey until Camping Italiano. Don’t make any hopes to eat there either without a reservation or preordering the meal, as it seems their portions are numbered and probably served only to people overnighting there. We ate a bit from our own backpacks to regain some energy and off we went, hoping to arrive at the destination before dark. The view from Paine Grande is, in my opinion, one of the best of the ‘W’ circuit. Here, the majestic silhouettes of Los Cuernos, or ‘The Milk Chocolates’, as Victor branded them, start to stand sharp against the sky, while the vivid red of the Chilean Firebush stands in an almost surreal contrast to the rest of the lifeless vegetation.
The last 1.5h were pretty exhausting, but we were once again brought to life by one of the most mesmerising natural elements I witnessed in Patagonia, namely a small silver forest, as I used to call it, with its array of noisy white trees, a species related to the birch trees. After a whole day of walking in the sun, it felt like entering (at least visually) the realm of Narnia. As the sun menaced to go down fast, we rushed to the camping site, and promised to get back and photograph the place in more detail.
And we kept our promise. The initial plan was to do the middle side of the ‘W’ the following day, going up the French Valley. But the tiredness and the heat convinced us to have some rest that day, wake up later and head to our next destination, which was Domo Frances (only 1h distance from Camping Italiano), skipping that side of the ‘W’. Instead, after leaving our stuff inside the dome, we excitedly went back to the winter forest. And we didn’t regret it, as we had more time to linger on it and quietly observe its details. Though uniquely beautiful, the scenery was, just like most of the Patagonian landscape, extremely complicated, which makes it hard to visually detangle it. At the same time, this is exactly what stretches the mind and widens the heart of someone who likes to photograph details and small worlds.
We had a good night’s rest at Domo Frances and in the morning we began our way to Batman, along another of the most beautiful landscape in Torres del Paine. Until you reach Refugio Los Cuernos, which is almost middle point to Hotel Las Torres, it’s the deserted beaches overlooking the mountains that will steal your heart. The serenity and infiniteness defining this place will seduce you to lie on the shore, under the shadow of one tree, and observe its beauty in awe.
As compared to the calmness and freshness of the first part of the hike, the second one was extremely hard to tolerate, as we walked in full sun again, along a desert that felt interminable, with not one tree or bush where to rest for a while. My back never hurt that bad.
After we had some good food at Hotel las Torres and got back the second car, we decided to go to Camping Pehoe and spend the night there. This was, in my opinion, the camping site with the most stunning view in the park. Actually, it’s worth mentioning that we were overall very impressed by the quality, location and cleanliness of the camping sites.
While the boys were busy repairing the flat tyre (Batman modo chill got in trouble), me and Sînziana spent the time admiring the peaks in sunset light and trying to take a photo of the local caracara (an eagle looking like a chicken) and of the funny but elusive armadillo.
The next day we said ‘goodbye’ to Torres del Paine and ‘see you soon!’ to Chile. Before crossing the border to Argentina we made a detour to Puerto Natales, as we were sure to find a gas station there and a vulcanizing shop for limping Batman. With both cars healthy and fuelled, we headed straight to the border, through Cerro Dorotea. Our next aim was to reach El Calafate in order to explore Perito Moreno, the majestic glacier. One of our biggest mistakes during the whole journey in Patagonia, was to take an off-road from Tapi Aike, thinking that we would take a shorter way to El Calafate. If I remember correctly we made 65 km in approximately 2 hours on a terrain that fried each and every neuron. We called it ‘the death road’, as we were inspired by the terrifying ‘scarecrow’ waiting for us with a big grim at the end of the road. Needless to say I recommend, with my whole being, taking the ‘long’ road through Esperanza! Tired as hell, we slept like babies in a lovely accommodation in El Calafate, ‘Kau Yatun’, with the best buffet breakfast.
Perito Moreno, located in the Los Glaciares National Park, is within easy reach from El Calafate, however, keep in mind that the last entrance in the park is at 6pm (during summer days). Once there, it’s hard not to be impressed by this gigantic block of ice. Measuring 30km long, 5km wide and 60m high, Perito Moreno is constantly moving. It inches forward up to 2m per day and is one of the world’s few glaciers that is still growing. Hearing and observing how pieces of ice start cracking and falling in the water like an earthquake of ice is frightening and breathtaking at the same time. Do have some patience to sit in one place and let yourself be captivated by its majesty, so that you will be able to catch one of these moments from head to tail.
Our last stop in Patagonia before going back to Santiago de Chile was Monte Fitz Roy, also located in the Los Glaciares National Park. If driving through Chile was made tolerable by some vegetation now and then, a rock or two on either side of the road, funny encounters with rabbits or guanacos, driving through Argentina was as boring and dusty as hell! Whereas the wind can blow with more than 100 km/h. There were times when I couldn’t have gotten out of the car and walk around without a bit of help from Ștefan. The only elements that woke us up from our reverie and brought some curiosity into our eyes were the uncanny roadside shrines surrounded by overwhelming empty bottles. Most of these shrines are built in memory of Difunta Correa, a woman who, as popular legends say, headed to the desert together with her baby in search of her husband, who was forced to join the military forces in 1940. Due to lack of water she died of thirst, but managed to save her baby by setting him to her breast. Now, Argentinians build these shrines and leave these bottles of water for the woman, in order to ‘calm her eternal thirst’.
The village of El Chalten is a gateway to trails surrounding the peaks of Cerro Torre and Monte Fitz Roy to the northwest. Near Fitz Roy, a path leads to the Laguna de los Tres viewpoint, which the one we decided to take. It was love at first sight with this colourful village. It takes merely 15 min to walk from one end to the other, but it’s enough to be enchanted by its picturesque vibe. The village is full of hikers going up and down the mountain, which will stir up your energy to follow their path. If you are going to overnight here, Spa y Cabaña Yaten is the best indulgence you can treat yourself with. They have a very cosy apartment for 4 people, plus one spa treatment, which is included in the price – a much needed whim after a couple of days of hiking.
We planned to reach Laguna de los Tres before sunrise, so in order to be closer to this point we hiked first until Campamento Poincenot. I enjoyed this park more than the one in Torres del Paine, not necessarily because the hike was way easier and shorter, but because we hiked mostly through a forest that I absolutely loved. The whole landscape finally started to look more like spring, as compared to the one Torres del Paine where almost everything reminded me of the desert. The trees shaped the same intricate nature story, but their thickness kept us from feeling that warm. It was a delight to walk through this kingdom of lively nature that offered windows to glaciers, waterfalls or mountain peaks from time to time. The camping site gave as good as it got, with its tall and strong trees serving as valuable shields against the fiery wind during the night.
We woke up at 4am and went on climbing to Laguna de los Tres, hoping we could see the mighty Fitz Roy sunbathing in the morning sun. Cerro Fitz Roy means ‘peak of fire’ or ‘smoking mountain’ – an appropriate description of the cloud-enshrouded summit. Explorers Perito Moreno and Carlos Moyano later named it after the Beagle’s Captain FitzRoy, who navigated Darwin’s expedition up the Río Santa Cruz in 1834, coming within 50km of the cordillera. Hard-to-get Fitz Roy didn’t honour us with its presence, but a spectacular sunrise over the valley and the lake, together with the subtle rainbow, made the steep climb to the top, while we were not yet fully awake, 150% worthwhile.
With this we ended our adventure throughout this far far away wilderness, called Patagonia, and went back to Santiago de Chile, passing again through Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas. With the desire to explore the city a bit, we spent one night in Santiago. With a growing economy, yet still imprinted in many ways with marks of a 3rd world country, the city is an amalgam of nuances and tones. Cosmopolitan, shabby, colourful, energetic, poor, sophisticated – it’s hard to describe it in one single word. While we weren’t at all impressed by its popular city centre, our senses were exalted by the walk along the artsy and vibrant Bellavista neighbourhood, with its sideways cafes and painted walls. Also, in Santiago we ate the most flavoured local fruits in the country. Mercado Central is the best place to find such fruits. We couldn’t have ended our journey in a more flavoured way than with a full glass of fresh cherimoya.
The Patagonian realm can be quite hard to digest for people like us who are not particularly friends with the desert, hence with everything that comes along with it: heat, thick dust that gets everywhere, harsh light, less or lack of vegetation. In between the national parks, there lies an overwhelming Nothing. However, if you can get past this, you will discover a unique type of landscape and a very rich and diverse wildlife. In Patagonia, nature grows barren and beautiful, while the solitude can make you feel both mesmerised and disoriented. On a micro level, Patagonia offers a wealth of experiences and sceneries.
Photographic equipment used: Nikon D7000 and NIKKOR AF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR II and Nikon D800 with lenses NIKKOR AF-S 50mm F/1.4G and NIKKOR AF-S 70-200mm f/4G ED VR