February 21, 2024 | Rome, Italy


By |2018-03-21T18:44:19+01:00April 21st, 2011|At Large & Sports|
The Torres del Paine. Photos by Julianne VanWagenen.

n the third day of trekking through southern Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park we began to hear a rumor that no one could leave. The truth of the rumor was a strike: An end to subsidized natural gas for residents of the Magallanes region of Chile was expected to jack up prices by nearly 20 percent. Local businesses had joined the protest. So had cab and bus drivers. Blockades had been set up on every road leading out of the region. There was no transport between the park and the nearest city, Puerto Natales, also the capital of the appropriately named Última Esperanza province — or Last Hope.

John from Virginia, who’d come to hike with his daughter on her winter break, said their guide was looking into ways of getting out. We all stood huddled in a three-sided lean-to around a tiny camp-stove flame. Outside rain poured, soaking out tent, and the famed torres — jagged spikes of vertical rock — were two-thirds shrouded in mist and clouds.

So what if buses weren’t running, we thought to ourselves. We’re more resourceful than the others. We’ll find a way to leave the park at the end of the trek. After all, we’d found our way into and out of stickier situations on three continents. We’d walk the 60 kilometers to the port of Puerto Natales if we had to. Why not? We were here to walk.

When the trail ended up on the foothills near the park’s entrance, we saw a sea of multicolored tents pitched on the meadowed lawn at the five-star hotel at Las Torres.

We’ll just walk out, we thought confidently. Then came reality. “Two hikers were beaten up at the picket lines when they tried to walk out,” said someone at the hotel reception desk.

Suddenly we were in no hurry. Our friends from the trail spontaneously converged at the hotel bar. We ran into John and met his daughter, Deva. We asked to shower in their room.

After spending part of the night in the hotel lobby and moving to a field outside the hotel before dawn, we awoke to the announcement of an agreement: the strike was still on but buses would be allowed through to take us to town.

A few days earlier we’d fallen in with Wonder Boy, a tall Norwegian with the Chinese year of horse tattooed huge on his calf, and Jan, a small Polish-Canadian with an ambiguous accent and the voice of an orator. But suddenly they were nowhere to be found.

What to do? We decided to escape with or without them and stood in a long rainy line, breaking off pieces of fresh bread I’d bought for $16 from a cook taking a smoking break at the hotel’s restaurant.

Off the bus in Puerto Natales, we found filed into a local elementary school where the Red Cross had set up camp. The lawn and gym were full of familiar faces from the trail, from buses between Argentina and Chile, from our trek weeks earlier at Fitz Roy National Park. Israelis, Americans, and Europeans had all come to Patagonia for the southern hemisphere’s January summer. We’d been crossing and re-crossing paths for a month.

Now, we waited in line for a cup of Red Cross coffee or to put our names on a waiting list for potential flights and buses out of the region. We wished each other luck and said formal goodbyes.

But when the strike didn’t end the goodbyes became redundant.

Wonder Boy and Jan reappeared in the Red Cross soup line. They’d escaped the park on the back of a truck. We took the last beds in a hostel owned by a hippy from Oregon and watched 1980s VHS films from his personal collection. Bedraggled stragglers wandered in and were turned away looking more slumped than before.

The next day the same people stood in the same lines for the same buses that never came. The French were manic, the Israelis sullen, the young Americans bemused. The older Americans had started cursing. We ate leftover dehydrated rations from our packs and wandered around the closed town. Puerto Natales, population 1,000, was overrun with well-dressed and well-fed gringos. They called us the Gortex refugees.

On our third day opportunity knocked in the form of a plane flight to Punta Arenas. We were told to bring our own toilet paper — the airport was packed with waiters. Flights were booked for the next two days. We decided not to chance it.

In the end we escaped in style. By boat, headed north into the Señoret Channel and Puerto Montt. We sailed out at 2 a.m., about the time the port protesters headed off to bed (the strike ended a week later when the government agreed to limit price jumps and continue subsidies to poorer families). It was strange leaving days of haunting familiarity. The next day at breakfast we looked for the inconvenienced faces we’d come to know but saw none.

We’d survived our time in Última Esperanza Province. Now were back to being North American backpackers with nothing between us and the next stop but credit card information.

About the Author:

Julianne VanWagenen wrote the "Wonderland" column form 2008 through 2014.