Contrary to what it seems, I’m not that huge a fitness nerd. I make it a point to stay fit enough to be able to run a comfortable 10km anytime I want to because, apparently, I’ve learnt that I’m quite vulnerable to spontaneous calls to adventure. That is the story here.
Casually-placed mountain on the trek
While in South America, I had plans to make it to Ushuaia which claims to be the southern-most city in the world. Somehow, I ended up on Puerto Natales where every vaguely outdoorsy person sojourns to trek the Torres del Paine. The W-trek, a 5-day circuit that covers most of the scenic spots, is touted as one of the most spectacular treks in the world. After talking to a bunch of people, I found myself caught up in their excitement and decided that since it’s not every day I’m in Patagonia, I should definitely be trekking too! Carpe diem!
Everything that I would need could be rented or bought in town. I bought a fleece jacket from a thrift shop for $5 because it never occurred to me that Patagonia could be cold and the supermarkets had all sorts of dry or long-keep foods. This was supposed to be my last stop before heading into Argentina so I was running quite low on Chilean Pesos and park admission, lodging and meals are quite expensive. Luckily for my penchant for spontaneity though, the lodges with warm beds and covers were sold out months in advance and my option was to indulge in the full camping experience.
SAVE SAAVE SAAAAAVE!
I’ve never gone self-supported camping in my life nor have I ever trekked ever but hey, that’s the magic of it, no? I have however walked a lot with a backpack before (when I’m classically lost) and from that, I’ve learnt that I want to pack the bare minimum. In fact, I went further and thought it was a great idea to complete the trek in 4 days instead just so I don’t have to lug additional food around. My entire packing list was something like this:
- Breakfasts – Cereal, milk, nuts. Protein, fiber and carbs to get me on the road.
- Lunches – Bread or biscuits, ham and cheese. I want something light and stuff I can eat while walking. Also I’m going to be snacking a lot so this isn’t an important meal for me.
- Dinners – Instant mashed potatoes, nuts, milk, chicken stock (for flavor). Carbs, some protein. I know I’m going to be starved but I didn’t want food that took a long time to cook or require lots of cleaning up(ie pasta, rice). Also, I wanted lean foods that would keep me filled to the next day because I’m not an early breakfast type of person.
- Snacks – Nuts, pureed fruit (the type for babies), dried fruit, chocolate, biscuits. I’m usually a pretty big eater but I’m also deathly afraid of carrying too much weight. I wanted motivational food that is high in sugar and also I needed vitamins and more protein to work my way through the day.
- A container of vodka – to make friends, to keep warm, to sleep well and to forget how awful trekking in the cold is.
- Clothes – a fleece jacket, an outer shell for rain, 3 tees, a pair of comfy pants, underwear, flip-flops, an extra pair of socks, shorts for nights, towel, paracord bracelet <- If you haven’t been bringing this on your trips, you should because they can be used for everything, from securing your slippers to hanging your clothes in the shower.
- Toiletries – shampoo, bar soap, facial foam
- Rented tent
- Rented sleeping bag
- Rented gas cooker
- Gas unit, portable pot, mug, spoon – all for cooking dinners and breakfasts
- Torch and batteries
- iPhone 5 as a camera
If you’re wondering about the lack of water, you’ll be walking through glacial streams every half an hour or so and you’ll never be short of quality water. My backpack weighed in at about 12kg which is quite incredible since rented gear isn’t exactly the lightest.
Heroes in a Half Shell
The first day started with an early morning pilgrimage to the bus terminal followed by a bus ride, then a ferry ride to a drop-off point. The entire scene reminds me a little of some survival movie where the ‘fit’ folks would be doing their stretches and warm-ups while indulging in their healthy breakfast of apple and PB&J. There’s the occasional stressed-out person who would mumble about how he/she thinks he/she’s over or underpacked and then there’s people like me who’re trying to figure out how to stay awake with the wind gently caressing our faces. Well, ok, ‘gentle’ is kind of comparative.
I couldn’t get on the first boat which delayed my start by a couple of hours. After setting up camp at the foot of the mountain, I packed some snacks, my mug and a jacket and bounded up the mountain. Like I’ve said, I’ve never trekked in my life so everything was new to me. Every few kilometers greets you with new sights of glaciers, mountains and misty green lakes. It’s spell-binding.
I think I got back to camp just before 9 and scrambled to cook some dinner before crashing for the night. Some of the guys who I met along the way stayed a bit too long and found the kitchens closed.
Just the odd scenic point
Day 2 was horrid for me. It was the longest day with lots of climbs and sights paled in comparison to Day 1 AND it started raining just before lunch. I tagged along with 2 other guys who were moving at a much slower pace than I’d like so that might have made things worse for me. It wasn’t their fault, I’d later find out. They shared a tent but were carrying something like 20kg of load each because they really like food. I could totally relate and am glad that I like food less than I like lugging 20kg of food around. They’d later stop at an earlier camp site and I trekked an additional few kilometers to save me some pain for Day 3.
I’d put my face into the stream and drink it all up
Even a fallen tree looks artistic
There was quite a bit of rain during the nights. Rainy nights are horrid because it means you’ll be lugging tent and mud along with wet clothes around in your bag and this adds a LOT to the weight. It rained too during the day and the camp site on Day 3 had a weighing scale which registered my back as somewhat close to 13kg still, despite having finished the bulk of my food. It’s depressing. Day 3 also involved gaining a lot of elevation along the side of a mountain face (I see this is a recurring theme in my travels…) on a dirt-and-loose rocks track. I walked with a very cheery teacher from Santiago who was travelling with his dad. I hope I still have knees when I’m 60.
No matter how many days you intend to do the trek in, your first and last days are certain to be half-day affairs. On the first, you’ll be at the mercy of the ferries and how familiar you are with your equipment when you’re setting up and on the last, the only bus leaving the area leaves at mid-day.
The ultimate destination of your trek is really to view the Torres; the Towers. When you google for how they look like, you get spectacular pics like this.
If only my eyes had Instagram filters built in…
That’s not necessarily far from what you’ll see though. I’ve seen some photos from fellow travelers where the Torres are bathed in warm golden sunlight and I daresay some of that is more beautiful than what you’re seeing on the Google results. However, if you’re like me and are trapped in the middle of rainy weather – which I hear is very common and that it’s highly unlikely you’ll not encounter rain during your short trek – you’ll be rewarded for your hours spent walking with this beautiful sight.
The Torres… if you squint
That is the story of how I trekked the Torres del Paine.
You might have heard of this particular route that’s touted as the World’s Most Dangerous Road(tm). Also known as the Yungas Road, the road is thus named for the 200–300 travellers who die yearly travelling along it as well as the steep drop into nothingness.
You’d start off from about 4650m above sea level and end at 1200m. That’s almost 3.5km of altitude change over the 65km route. Well, around 65km — I’ll explain.
I didn’t go to Bolivia intending to ride the route. In fact, I didn’t even know if it’s possible since I was riding a 24″ unicycle which I’d estimate myself to go at about 10kph max, offroad. That all changed the moment I got into my La Paz hostel.
The most visible tour option advertised was an MTB experience through the World’s Most Dangerous Road(tm). All over the tourist agencies were plastered with itineraries about the same. I inquired at 3 of the main agencies offering the tour and was told the following
- If I had my own equipment, I might as well go on my own
- It’s VERY touristy
- It’s quite safe — the route is well-covered by a LOT of tour groups
While the tour agencies offered tours that cost roughly US$80–150, going on my own would cost something like US$6 for the return ride. Most tour agencies will offer a bike with front and/or back suspension from a reputable brand, a standard/full-face helmet, rain jackets, full body armor or knee/elbow guards, food/water and the promise of a support vehicle that can ferry all the crap you want to bring with you on the ride.
I had with me shin/knee guards, a unicycle, a backpack with a day’s food, a rain jacket, a warm jacket, a change of clothes and about 2 liters of water. With a 10kph speed and a 70–80km ride total (including the roads to/from the Death Road), I expected a 10h ride including breaks and knew I couldn’t make the last public transport in the late afternoon. My plan was to stay the night in Coroico which is really an interesting town with lots of diversions on its own, well worth the visit even if you’re not riding the route.
On your own, you’d take a mini-van from La Paz to the tourist checkpoint near La Cumbre, make your way to the start of the Death Road (that’s about 7km?) and then ride towards Coroico.
Start of the Journey
I started my day late, mostly because the journey to Villa Fatima, where the bus terminal was, took longer than I thought. The mini-van fits about 10 people and doesn’t leave until it is full so I had to wait over an hour before it would leave. That brought me to well past noon when I began my ride.
All smiles because I haven’t started riding
It’s not all insanity on my part.
- I’ve been told by both the agencies as well as by drivers that the route is perfectly fine if I travel on foot so I know that if things get rough, walking is fine.
- Bicycles travel at much much faster. It’s way easier to bail from a unicycle than on a bike and you usually land quite close to where your uni lands so chances of you flying off a cliff isn’t that high if you keep close to land.
- I don’t have a helmet or elbow guards but I know that if I do get to the point where I risk falling on my head or tumbling all over, no amount of armor is going to save me.
- Tour agencies tell me that the route is VERY TOURISTY so if I run into trouble, I would probably be able to get a ride to town relatively easily.
Well, the good news is that the first three points are true. Cup, half-full please.
The day I went, as luck would have it, has the worst weather in ALL my days in Bolivia. It rained crazy and at the top of the mountain, visibility was shit.
En Route to La Cumbre
In the buses, both locals and drivers would ask about my unicycle and in my very halting Spanish, I’d chat about my plan to ride the route, what I was doing in South America, etc. I’d learn new Spanish vocabulary like ‘peligroso’ (danger) and ‘cuidarte’ (take care of yourself) from them along with advice about how I shouldn’t be travelling alone much less on a unicycle.
After the initial clearance where I had to pay a small fee (I think it was like US$5) to an office for a ticket to traverse the route, I had to ride a highway segment (as in first picture) before reaching the very obvious start of the Death Road. I rode about a km perhaps before concluding that the fog is too heavy to ride without the risk of cars running into me. So I walked.
About 10 minutes after that, some locals in a car stopped for me and drove me to the start of the proper road (along with the same precautions about ‘PELIGROSO!!’, etc).
The start of the road looked like this. It was about 1pm.
3km drop into nothingness on the left
Like any rider starting a ride, this was really cool and exciting for me. The fog was so thick I couldn’t see 5m into the distance or where the drop on my left would have led. I had been told the roads were narrow but I didn’t feel the narrowness for sure. Perhaps the fog helped.
When I could FINALLY see trees past the fog
I had met some cyclists and a guy I knew from a previous hostel at the checkpoint but they were nowhere to be seen at the start of my ride. I had assumed they were way ahead but it was still early noon and the view was breathtaking. My intention was to ride half the route and then hitch a ride to the end point. 30km would be ideal for me. I can start panicking at 3pm.
The drizzle had turned into a bit of a downpour an hour into my ride. I had my rain jacket on and whoever told me it was cold at the peak obviously wasn’t riding intensively enough. I was sweating buckets into my jacket and the outside was soaked from the rain. I didn’t have my hood on because it was blocking my view of the cliff so I was generally wet.
My tourist map had indicated an overhead waterfall. The first one I saw was spectacular. If you’ve never ridden or walked or ran through a waterfall before, I can assure you that it’s so magical, you’ll forget that you’re on the good side of a 3km drop.
This is about 2h in and there’s a noticeable number of grave markers and crosses at the edges of the roads. I had seen a number of them marked in Hebrew and dated rather recently. I also remembered a news feature of a cyclist who rode off a cliff when she took a pic with a selfie stick while on a bike. That explains why most of my pictures look like this:
It’s really difficult to take riding pictures when you’re soaked and there’s no one around to take pictures for you. I didn’t have money for a GoPro (if you’re reading this, GoPro, thanks). The only reasonable attempt at a riding picture was a selfie when I was at a non-hazardous part of the route.
The good thing about being on a unicycle is that your hands are free enough for you to fish out your phone to grab a quick pic. However, since it WAS raining and i had nothing dry on me, it’s impressively hard to have your cold wet fingers register properly on an iPhone. I gave up quick.
The terrain thus far had been manageable. Whatever ‘rough bumpy roads’ I had been warned of by hostel roomies was really nothing more than slightly-rockier gravel road and nothing even close to some of the single tracks you’ll see on intermediate MTB paths. I think the bad weather also played a good part in distracting me from whatever roads were there but I had been very exceedingly cautious with the road, what with it being crazy foggy and all.
When I finally saw the fog lifting, it was almost 3pm. It was about that time when it first occurred to me that i saw all of ONE mini-van passing me in the last 2 hours and that was the support vehicle for one of the tour groups.
That was about when I stopped taking as many photos and began riding faster. Whatever the tour agencies told me about the route being touristy was probably for the start of the day. I had but the tourist map with me which marked something like 3 main points in the WHOLE 65km of trail.
I did pass some houses over the next few km but none of them seemed occupied. Again, the trail was empty and I didn’t know if it was the weather that was keeping people indoors — it didn’t seem appropriate to knock and say hi and then go ‘ah, bueno!’ and then leave.
The next time I saw civilisation was when two cyclists rode by me sometime at about 4pm. I would meet them again a short while later at the ‘tourist checkpoint’ which is little more than a wooden barricade and a small shelter with a map.
I went so fast in the last hour that I felt like death at this point (the muerte part of ‘Ruta de la Muerte’) and it’s also the first break I took for the day. I stuffed what remained of my empanada in my face (I ate as I rode) and had to fight off the resident dog for it too. The two cyclists were apparently a guide and a tourist who was frustrated at having waited too long for his companions to take photos of the route and decided to ride on ahead. I chatted with the latter for a while and then left ahead of them.
The next section was probably the easiest part of the trail. The rain had stopped; the gradient was gentle and the gravel gave way to a smoother soil surface. I walked most of the remaining 15km or so because my legs had died.
When the duo caught up with me some km later, the guy I had been chatting to asked if I ‘could ride downhill’. I didn’t have the energy to be sarcastic about how I made the past 50km.
The death road really stops at Yoloso, a small town at the foot of the hill and also, YOLO, so. Whatever assumptions I had made about being able to grab a cab in a nearby town vanished fast when every vehicle I saw there had no extra space. This was almost 7pm.
From Yoloso, it was about a 6–10km walk to Coroico, specifically the hostel I wanted to head to. Sunset was slated for 7:30pm and the rest of the walk was uphill so I had to get started.
I probably waved at no less than 20 cars and vans before stopping one about half the walk in. It was about a US$4 ride which was probably the best value for money ever.
Somehow, I managed to finish the 65km + whatever before and after distances in about 7 hours. On a 24″ wheel. With 150mm cranks. With no breaks.
My thighs cramped for the rest of the day and I couldn’t walk properly for the next 3 days.
In retrospect, I can see why the road is touted as dangerous. A lot of the cyclists on the road are not experienced with trails. Some of the folks I spoke to can cycle but have never ridden offroad in their lives. I don’t know why anyone would want to start learning to mountain bike on the side of a frickin’ cliff with a top-end bike with controls they got acquainted with 15 minutes before riding.
From what I’ve overheard at the tourist offices too, it seems that most of these people don’t really know what they should look for in a ride. A couple had remarked they felt safer with full body armor and more than a few chose a tour because it offered ‘full suspension bikes’.
If you’re thinking of going for a ride bike, unicycle or foot, here’s REALLY what you need
- Familiarity with your shoes, bike or unicycle. Or puma. Or sleigh. Or whatever you’re using as transport.
- Fitness. If you haven’t the endurance, you’ll feel like shit. ANY endurance activity you choose to undertake that you’re not fit enough for or don’t have the stamina for is going to cause you to feel like shit.
If you’re intending to go on a unicycle, it’s highly recommended but maybe opt for a larger wheel than what I went for. I think a 29 is ideal for going slow on foggy sections and going faster everywhere else. Anything bigger would be a pain to lug along on the transportation.
I chose to stay at a camp site on Easter Island for a couple of reasons. There’s privacy in a tent of your own for one; the stars would be perfect and able to be appreciated only by camping for another but most importantly though, I figured the island would be so remote, camping would really be the best way to understand all it has to offer.
The whole island is a nature reserve and camping is sort of prohibited but regardless, highly recommended is Camping Mihinoa which provides a tent, sleeping bag and mattress for 6,500 Pesos (that’s < US$10). I picked a spot that’s sheltered from the sea winds by the ornamental rocks but which is smack in front of the ocean. Beautiful.
I’ve read that Easter Island is expensive. Food in general is slightly pricier than the mainland. I bought my food from Santiago just in case so I lived off fresh produce (which is definitely pricier on the island) and some tinned items in my 5 days stay. Still, food isn’t as expensive as claimed – you’d get a restaurant meal for about what you’d pay in the US or Europe and the most expensive groceries you’ll buy is probably water for about $3 a bottle. You can drink tap water anyway (it tastes a tat metallic but it’s drinkable).
Your other expenses are likely to be a car ride (or tours but do rent a car). That’s another reason why it’s great to stay on a camp site where you can group up really easily. Cars are expensive but rental is for a full 24h rather than the ambiguous ‘day’. Our rental + gas cost us something like 60,000 pesos in total but we drove to the ends of the island so it was still cheaper than tours. Also, I’ve never driven offroad before so it’s quite an experience.
I had intended initially to ride across the island on my uni. Distances are not great. There are 3 main loops – 20, 30 and 6km one way. It would take probably take a full day on the longest loop which isn’t too bad but the main reason why I didn’t choose to ride the longest loop is that there are no street lights after sunset and there’s no traffic outside of the main town. The island is apparently small enough that everyone knows each other and you can easily hitch a ride back to town but I didn’t feel confident enough to do that from my first day so I didn’t want to risk it.
On the days I did ride though, I think it wasn’t too bad an idea i decided to go by car. My first riding day was down south to the volcanic rim and Orongo National Park area. It was the shortest route, 6km but it was 6km of perpetual gradual uphill which was killer to say the least. Having not ridden properly for a couple of months, I didn’t actually realise I was falling sick so I just thought the hills were worse than usual. I walked most of the way uphill but rode most of the downhills.
The next day – and my last day, I took an easy day and rode just 2-3km just outside of town where some Moais are. There’s a huge plain and some offroad tracks that’s perfect for some quick fun. In general the roads are riddled with potholes and even the main parts of town have irregular roads so the terrain does make for some fun riding. There are some caves a short distance away from town that would be amazing to ride in as well. The paths are not long enough for mountain bikes but for unicycles, perfect. I didn’t get to trek in any of them on that day though since it was raining and the floor gets very wet and slippery when that happens.