Dientes de Navarino

19 Apr

We crossed the Beagle Channel on a zodiac boat from Ushuaia, at the very Southern tip of Argentina, to Puerto Navarino, in Chile. After clearing immigration in a waterside hut, which also sold coffee and cake (if only all government interactions could be so smooth), we travelled on by bus down a gravel track to Puerto Williams, a small settlement, naval base and point of entry for sailing ships bound for the fearsome Cape Horn and onto Antarctica.

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The landscape had a raw, end of the world feeling about it – trees along the shoreline almost bent double with the ferocious polar winds that fortunately didn’t blow that day, and horses wandering wild through the main square.

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The colourful single storey houses were made with wood and corrugated tin and the smell of wood burning stoves filled the air on the streets.

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The locals were really friendly and we spent the evening with a warm, welcoming lady called Patty Pusaki who liked nothing more than to cook fresh king crab and free-range lamb in her kitchen.

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Despite all of these promising signs, we couldn’t shake our feeling of apprehension…for the next day we would start on our first Patagonian trek, the Dientes de Navarino circuit. Described as a trek ‘not for the faint hearted’ and one where ‘self-sufficiency’ and keen ‘navigation skills’ would be key, we were sure that the Dientes (‘Teeth’) would be our baptism of fire!

Day 1 – Puerto Williams to Laguna del Salto

It was raining heavily when we woke in Puerto Williams so we delayed our departure until 2pm. Along with a girl from Belgium, who would join us for the trek, we took a taxi to the start of the trail – cheating so soon (!) but saving ourselves nearly an hour of walking with little to see. The initial ascent is a popular day trek that can be made from Puerto Williams which led steeply up through lenga forest onto a windy hill covered with spongy grass and moss-covered rocks. Various paths headed upwards to a plateau containing a huge Chilean flag and spectacular views down to the Beagle Channel and the tiny settlement of Puerto Williams.

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Low hanging, wispy clouds danced around snow-capped Argentinian mountain tops across the water in front of us, constantly changing our views.

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From our high vantage point, the Club de Yates Micalvi, a once grounded German cargo boat which has been turned into a floating bar, now looked like a toy boat floating in a bath. The evening before, we drank Austral beer aboard the boat and admired the many different flags adorning the walls certifying that a crew had made safe passage around Cape Horn.

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After a short rest, we joined the trail again, following piles of stones called cairns and the mark of the Dientes (stripes of red, white and red) glowing faintly on larger rocks. We passed through a boulder strewn, barren landscape and over a small river. We followed the winding path which was dotted with daisies and thick green moss with small yellow and red flowers (like the weed from ‘Day of the Trifids’).

We walked for several hours above the tree line, with an increasingly steep drop to our right hand side and as the low-level cloud began to disperse we glimpsed the first of many lakes we’d encounter. Luguna Robalo was completely calm and the colour of slate. A chain of smaller lakes stretched out behind, each one slightly lower than the last and all feeding into one another by tiny streams and waterfalls. In the distance we could see the outline of the almighty Dientes – a whole row of craggy, rugged, spiky dentures enticing us to take a closer look.

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Here, as with many parts of the trail, we found it hard to follow the cairns, which were now made up of tiny bundles of rocks and we had to tread very carefully so as not to stumble. Our legs were very tired after 5 hours hard walking as we finally traversed down loose rocks and scree towards our first camp for the evening at Luguna del Salto.

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Just as we arrived, the first rain drops started to create ripples on the lake and we hurried to put up our tent (on its first outing back in Ushuaia it took us 40 minutes to erect and here we had it up within 10 minutes). We bundled inside, taking off our damp gear and layered up with dry, warm clothes for the night ahead. Unfortunately, it rained all evening so it was ham and cheese rolls in our sleeping bags before lights out at 9.30pm. It was a good job we’d secured our tent pegs with large rocks because throughout the night strong gusts of wind came out of nowhere and violently shook the tent back and forth. We didn’t fancy going sailing on the lake!

Day 2 – Laguna del Salto to small lakes after Passo Ventarron

We had a patchy night’s sleep – it was really cold and the incessant rain pounding on the roof of the tent felt like Chinese water torture. However, the new morning seemed brighter and we fetched fresh water from a cascading waterfall for a hot cup of tea.

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Unfortunately, as we were only carrying one pot with us (which we cooked and ate from), the tea tasted of the spicy noodles we’d eaten a few days before – quite vile and the end of our tea drinking for the entire trek – boo-hoo! As we packed our cooking stove away, we saw a grey shadow of what we thought was more rain descending above us. We were wrong – it was a fresh dusting of icy snow -brr! We jumped back in the tent and waited until it subsided. The mountains around us now looked like they’d been sprinkled in icing sugar.

The first climb of the day started straight from the lake. The route ran directly up through a stream and due to the rain the night before we found ourselves walking on half-submerged rocks and slipping on thick mud which threatened to engulf our shoes. Once at the top, it felt like the mountains were surrounding us and snow drifts crossed our path.

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Paso Australia up ahead took us up close and between the jagged Dientes. The gigantic rock formations were rich brown and red with layers of sediment built up over millions of years. The sharp, jagged spires towered above us and close up we noticed deep grooves and protruding formations running down the mountain sides.

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Just over the pass we were rewarded with an excellent view of Luguna del Paso. The watery sun peeking out from behind the clouds picked out a rim of light blue water around the lake’s edge.

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Onwards past the surreal sight of 15 bright orange tents laying empty in the desolate landscape, which must be used for organised expeditions, but looked more like the final resting place for tents past their prime.

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We passed around the shores of a series of smaller lakes and we met trekkers coming in the other direction, returning from Lake Windhond. They looked weary and we agreed it was a sign of things to come for us.

Climbing another small ridge, we started to circle around to the back of the Dientes. Here again, we had views down to the rolling hills and the Beagle Channel, reminding us that the sea is never far away in this part of the world.

Luguna de los Dientes is an impressive sight – crystal clear water and one solitary towering stack of rock at the head of the lake.

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Beavers introduced to the area from Northern America have caused havoc. Swathes of trees have been decimated and neat rows of wood bundled high to dam the streams. Nature’s drainage system has been ruined and large boggy areas have built up around the lakes. Bright white and grey dead wood, lays twisted and redundant on the shoreline making an arty landscape for any photographer.

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We walked on through undulating terrain and stepped cautiously over large boulders piled on top of each other, our weary legs working hard as some of the rocks shifted beneath our feet. Luguna Escondia was enclosed on three sides by Cerro Gabriel, a natural bowl sheltering the waters from the wind.

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The fresh patches of snowfall on the mountain tops were reflected in the calm waters below. There were some flat, sandy camping spots here but we pushed on over Paso Ventarron with its excellent views of the Dientes behind and Cerro Clem in front of us.

We set up camp by a series of smaller interlinked lakes.

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Much of the area was peaty and quite sodden (thanks to our furry friends, the beavers) so it took us a while to find a suitable dry spot. We pitched our tent by the edge of a small but picturesque lake, in-between two trickling streams, cooked some rice and vegetables on our camping stove and turned in for the night.

Day 3 – Small lakes to Laguna los Guanacos

The unpredictable Patagonian weather struck during the night and we awoke to find our tent frozen on the outside and three inches of snow lying on the ground.

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The sky was bright and the scenery looked even more beautiful than before.

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We packed up quickly with numb fingers and set off after eating cereal bars and biscuits for breakfast.

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However, we were soon lost as the cairns we had previously followed were completely covered in snow. It took us nearly an hour of slipping and sliding in circles to find the trail again which took us up over Passo Guerrico and to beautiful Luguna Hermosa which literally translates as ‘hidden lake’.

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Moving onwards, we followed the kidney-shaped shoreline of Laguna Martillo. The tall, spiky mountains overlooking the lake looked like a paper crown from a Christmas cracker but our spirits were far from festive as our muscles ached and tiny drops of hail began to blow into our faces.

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The Dientes trek is growing in reputation and popularity but is still only completed by approximately 2000 people per year so it can offer days of trekking without any contact with others. However, at that point in our trek we met a very energetic, young French couple who had been trekking throughout Patagonia after finishing University. After a short chat, they passed us at high-speed and left us feeling hugely jealous of their fresh faces and strength as we struggled on with one of the most physically demanding challenges we’d ever faced!

We passed flat marshy areas around Laguna Zeta and Rocallosa, cursing the beavers as our shoes began to take on water.

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The last gruelling challenge of the day would be Passo Virginia, the highest summit of the trek. A layer of mist shrouded the top of the pass now and threatened to obscure our views. The first part of the upward trail consisted of steep, muddy, slippery paths. Footprints where trekkers had walked before us now lay full of murky brown water. We tried to avoid the mud as best we could but it was impossible and our trekking shoes became sodden with water and thick mud. We befriended the trees and bushes, grabbing wildly at branches and foliage to stop us from slipping backwards but occasionally we’d take a tumble and plunge a hand and then an arm into the muddy waters to steady ourselves. Looking like commandos in a post-apocalyptic war film, we pushed on.

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Rather than a peak at the top, we were met by a plateau of smooth slate shale. As if by magic, the hail had now stopped, the mist had lifted and the wind was calm. We’d heard stories of trekkers being blown off their feet by the wicked Patagonian wind and crawling on hands and knees to cross sections of this circuit so we were very grateful for calm conditions. After a 40 minute walk across the summit we reached a precipice and stopped dead in our tracks as the view unfolded below us.

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Snow and ice clung to the mountain rim and our eyes were drawn down a near vertical drop of several hundred metres to deep glacial Luguna Guanacos and out to the Beagle Channel.

Our passage down to Luguna Guanacos, where we would camp for the evening, looked near on impossible. A faint trail led around to the right of the rim and zig-zagged down across loose scree and shale. We took small tentative steps, digging our heals into the dirt and standing sideways on to the drop before us. Carrying such heavy backpacks, we were convinced that one foot out-of-place would start a small landslide and take us down with it (a cheery thought!)

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After what felt like a very long time, we neared the bottom of the slope, our legs burning and our heads aching through undivided concentration. We were grateful to find a dry and sheltered spot by the side of the lake just before dusk fell.

Day 4 – Laguna los Guanacos to Puerto Williams

We awoke to glorious sunshine pouring into the valley and rays of light dancing on the lake’s surface. The sun warmed us and lifted our spirits. Our shoes were wet and caked in mud but still we smiled as we knew that evening we would take a hot shower, eat some good food and sleep in a warm bed – hoorah! Looking back at the route we’d climbed down the night before, we couldn’t help but wonder just how we’d made it down there!

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The journey down took longer than we’d expected. It was a slow walk through dense forest, thick with tree roots and slippery moss-covered bark. We became lost on several occasions when the trail markings simply disappeared but eventually the forest gave way to daisy covered fields. Then, down and down we went through coarse thorn covered bushes towards the small fishing boats bobbing on the Beagle Channel.

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After 2 more hours we eventually made it back to the gravel road we’d travelled down 4 days previously. Looking at the sweeping blue bay in front of us there was only one thing for it – we threw off our trekking shoes and socks and charged into the refreshing water to soak our tired feet – ultimate refreshment!

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After a short rest, we started the 1.5 hour long walk back along the seafront road to Puerto Williams. A lone, black horse greeted us on the road and gladly accepted a rub on the nose. We were very tired but filled with a huge sense of achievement. We’d earned a beer or two to celebrate!

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