Day 0: The Email

14 February 2007
12:00 AM

Torres del Paine — Day 0
December 2006

Like many dangerous plans, ours began with something innocuous: a series of emails. My longtime friend Amanda had already booked a flight to Chile, and through messages back-and-forth we were trying to decide on an itinerary for her visit. I suggested some sight-seeing in the Lakes Region, a typical Chilean destination during the summer. It would be something relaxing, easy to plan, laid-back; we would see penguins and snow-capped volcanoes while traveling in comfortable buses. I told her to look at the Rough Guide to Chile at a bookstore and let me know what she thought. A few days later I received a reply: “You may regret recommending that book. What do you think about a backpacking trip in Torres del Paine?” Uh-oh.

Whenever I had gone camping as a child it was Dad who picked the destination, planned the trip, and packed everything into the car, as I was reminded on occasion. All I had to do was show up and burn marshmallows. I was somewhat apprehensive about arranging a multi-day trip in which we were responsible for all the logistics, equipment, know-how, and cooking. When it comes to outdoor knowledge, I am a veritable Socrates: all I know is that I know nothing. As for food, I can barely feed myself in my own kitchen. How could I possibly do it in the middle of nowhere? On top of all this—almost literally—we would have to carry everything we needed on our own backs. I bare strikingly little resemblance to a pack animal, and I had certain doubts about myself, specifically in the strength and endurance departments. Amanda runs marathons; I just run out of clean clothes and have marathon laundry sessions. I sent a non-committal message back saying I would think about it and try to have my housemate Emily convince me.

Rough Guide to Chile
Insight Chile
Lonely Planet Chile
Torres del Paine appeared on the cover of all the Chile guidebooks I saw.

Emily played the part well. Her first reaction: “That’s incredible! You have to do it—you have to go!” The guide books I consulted tended to agree. In fact, the very guide book I had referred Amanda to said in its list of 26 things not to miss in Chile, “#1. Torres del Paine National Park. One of the highlights of any trip to Chile. A sight that does not disappoint even after all the photos and build-up.” Later it added, “one of the world’s stunning geographic features.” The Insight Guide Chile had gorgeous pictures of the park, which it called, “by far the most impressive sight in the Chilean south.” Upon closer inspection, I realized that both books feature Torres del Paine as their cover image. My dad, much more the outdoorsman than me said the trip sounded fantastic and that he wished he were going. That was easy for him to say since, after all, he had been the one packing the car all these years. All the same, it sounded like a unanimous opinion everywhere I looked, so I wrote Amanda back saying I was on-board for the adventure.

Our agreement was that Amanda would plan our time inside the park and I was in charge of getting us there. Torres del Paine National Park lies deep in southern Chilean Patagonia. To get there we would fly from Santiago to Punta Arenas at the southern tip of the continent. Once in Punta Arenas we would take a bus north to Puerto Natales followed by a second bus farther north to the park itself. If I could manage that, Amanda would take care of the rest.

I nearly failed as soon as I had started. I looked for tickets with LAN, a popular airline in Chile, through the English version of their website. The cheapest fare I could find was $650 roundtrip. At that price, I wouldn’t have to worry about my backpack’s weight because we wouldn’t be going. Out of curiosity I tried again, this time on the Spanish version of LAN’s site. Suddenly a slew of fares that were previously invisible appeared, including a $120 roundtrip to Punta Arenas. Sure, we had to depart at midnight and return at 4:00am, but at least we would be going. The price was right for our lightweight budgets. In early December I booked the flight for our trip. We would depart on the last day of January.

At that moment I filed our trip away in the back of my mind, scheduled for some vague point in the future. December and January turned out to be the busiest time of the year for me. I kept myself occupied with a few major projects and I scarcely gave Torres del Paine a thought. Weeks flew by. Before I knew it, I found myself at the airport picking up Amanda. It was time.

Read more tomorrow as this series on Torres del Paine continues with our arrival in the park.