December 26, 2015
Our 5:30 bus came after 6 am. I guess that gave us a little more time for our breakfast that the hotel provided to us early. The company blamed the snowy weather. I could see why…we boarded a freezing cold bus with only one windshield wiper. Bundled in our puffy jackets and hats, we thought this will be a long ride to Puerto Natales. Just as we reached the outskirts of El Calafate, however, we met up with another bus and transferred. We gave up our front row seats for heat. I was OK with that trade!
Our bus took us past fields of snow that blended with a white sky. Sheep, guanaco (llama), rheas that look like ostrich, cows and horses peppered the fields that slowly turned green over our five hour drive. The sheep made me laugh because they ran away when the bus passed. They seemed so surprised, but they had to be used to it given all the scheduled bus transportation. On our way, we stopped at Hotel La Esperanza for our rest stop.
We arrived at the Argentinian border, got our passports stamped and then continued on to the Chilean border. In Chile we removed all our carry-ons from the bus, declared any food and passed through customs. The dog sniffed out fruit in our bags and helped agents search the bus baggage storage. The X-ray machine was somewhat useless because the agents only looked at the monitor half the time. We were ready to cross the border, but the bus driver didn’t have his papers! We were stranded 45 minutes away from Puerto Natales. What was funny, is this was the major piece of transportation I was most concerned about going as planned.
We waited a while because the driver said it would be 20 minutes. But after 45 minutes or so, we noticed a guide leading a tour group on our bus started looking for alternate transportation. When they ditched, David went in search of a new ride. A taxi had just pulled up to the border. $30 later, we were racing off the bus, crossing the border and jumping in a cab. It was pricey relative to the buses, but we needed to get cash, stop by the CONAF office, buy our camping food, get our bus tickets to Puntas Arenas upon our return from the W in Torres del Paine, find a park map, and come to find out buy another hat since I grabbed all of David’s stuff off the bus but managed to forget mine!
We checked into Kau Lodge around 1pm, got our room, and reimbursed our hotel $33 in cash for the Bus Gomez tickets to the park that they purchased for us in advance to guarantee us a space during the high season. As much as we would have liked to enjoy their awesome coffee shop, errands called our name. Once again, we had no problem getting cash, despite arriving on a Saturday, so I feel like the Fodor’s book is incorrect given we were visiting over the high season. The CONAF office posed more of a challenge. Our hotel staff guessed its location and was a few blocks off, but it didn’t matter as it is closed on Saturday (but of course it was open on Christmas). We needed to make reservations for some free campsites operated by the park, but it was required to make the reservations in person. We hoped we’d be able to make the reservations upon arrival in the park.
We checked the hours of the grocery store which remained open until 8, so we walked up the hill to the bus station where we purchased our bus tickets to the airport in Puntas Arenas for next week. We actually got to use a credit card for this bus! It seems Puerto Natales is far more equipped for credit cards than El Chaltén. We headed back down the hill for the grocery store. We spotted a few fellow bus mates who told us they were stuck at the border for another hour…not too bad, but aggravating none-the-less. We stocked up on cheese, sausage, pasta, and oatmeal. Outside the grocery store, we picked up some dried fruit and nuts from a street vendor. Next to him, we purchased a hat from a young girl, and then we went in search of a map.
It was just after 5, and we found many stores had closed. Fortunately, we happened upon a hostel that had what we needed. Not only did we find a map, we met an Aussie couple that had just returned from the W route. They said it dumped snow (2-4 feet), it was freezing, two of the routes were closed (Britanico and Torres del Paine), and that people were fleeing to the ferry to leave the park. YIKES…not what we wanted to hear…especially since we opted to leave our microspikes behind in Denver!
Oh, well. After five hours of wandering around town which was much larger than I expected, we returned to Kau Lodge for a coffee and a view of the lake and mountains across the street. We didn’t want to be out too late, so we chose a restaurant mentioned in Fodor’s called Kosten just a few blocks from our lodge. I wouldn’t recommend it. The king crab appetizer that we both wanted wasn’t available, and the service was extremely slow. Our entrees were tasty, though rather small in portion compared to the amounts of food we have been getting everywhere else. At least it had a nice view.
Back at the lodge, we packed up and got ready for our adventure in Torres del Paine with both excitement and nervousness. ETB