“Year end reveling… still in pilgrim’s cape must I roam my endless road.” – Basho
It’s noon and I just caught the bus going north out of Villa Cerro Castillo, lucky that it wasn’t full. As I climb aboard a group of hitchhikers run towards it, carrying enormous backpacks. A few fortunate ones get seats and by some very strange twist of fate there is an empty seat beside me in an otherwise crammed bus. I’m headed to the starting point of the 36 mile trail through Cerro Castillo National Park, only about 12 miles from town on the Carretera Austral. The bus stops about 3 miles north of town to pick up a hitchhiker who has waved it down (it’s that easy). The driver piles his huge backpack onto the existing mound at the front of the bus and I stand next to my aisle seat to let the guy know there is a seat next to me. He makes his way back and I feel sorry for him because he’s kind of tall and the seat can really only fit a sardine but he squeezes in. He’s fair complected with short red hair and beard and doesn’t look Chilean but you never know and I ask him in english where he’s headed and he is also on his way to the trailhead. The twist of fate begins here, as we soon become best friends. He’s 34, from Glasgow, Scotland and has that strong brogue that you can’t mistake as anything but Scottish. The driver pulls over where the trail meets the highway and we unload our packs and the bus continues on, leaving us standing on the side of the road at the Las Horquetas trailhead, looking into a long meadowed valley with steep mountains on each side and a clear stream babbling it’s way through it and a series of glacier clad crags at the far end. Andy and I introduce ourselves to one another and instantly decide to hike the trail together and so set forth into a warm summer day along a trail that winds its way through meadow and forest and across streams towards the distant peaks. The first campsite is ten miles away and we talk almost continuously, stopping occasionally for a water break or to take a photo or admire the jaw-dropping reality that encircles us. The way up the valley is fairly easy going and we make the first camp by 4pm and set up tents amongst the few others that are there. At about this time a tall, blonde haired, bearded character enters camp coming from the opposite direction, which is unusual because it is common knowledge that making the ‘loop’ hike (I’ll explain the loop later) in the clockwise direction is very difficult. Anyway, we introduce ourselves to Rayne from Estonia. He, like Andy, is a world traveler and speaks English with a unique Estonian, Russian sounding accent. We break out our food and share a dinner and dessert and Andy and I listen intently as Rayne gives us details about what the trail is like ahead and then he tells us about his travels and Andy talks about his and I mostly listen because the conversation takes me to India, Nepal, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Portugal, Morocco and several other fascinating places. Rayne is a unique gent, about 35, 6′-6″, healthy, sure about where he wants to be, and just a real character. After dinner we walk through the forest to the edge of a large meadow and let the sight of sunset on the high peaks silence us for a while and then make our way back to camp and call it a day.
Day 2 on the Cerro Castillo Trail.
I awaken from a dream filled slumber to the sound of cooking pans rattling about and golden sunlight grazing across the top of my tent. Hikers are preparing breakfast on their tiny camp stoves (we all carry one) and chatting quietly. I make a cup of instant coffee and cook up a pot of muesli with raisins and nuts and eat and break camp and Andy and I give Rayne fare thee well hugs and we are off onto the trail again. I’m touched by the bonds that are created in such a short time. The traveler has a way of knowing when she or he has met a kindred soul, right? The path quickly breaks out of the forest and onto a wide dry riverbed of sand and stone and the morning light surrounds us and warms us (it was a cold night) and we walk in it and on it for about a mile, next to a glacier fed river that gladly refills our water bottles. (Side note: I have a great water filter with me but haven’t used it yet. All my water has come from streams flowing down flanks of volcanoes or from glaciers). We enter a forest and begin a slow ascent up the valley that we’ve been in since day 1, then leave the forest as the valley takes on a ‘V’ bottom and becomes the base of two rock slopes. Near the top, in a saddle between two high peaks, we cross hard packed snow and are then up and over the crest and descend past the snow towards another valley. Time to stop next to a stream that pours out of a glacier that is directly above us and have lunch. It’s noon and skies are deep blue and it’s about 70 degrees out and there is an enormous hanging glacier to our right that is spewing out waterfalls that are plunging down a wide, steep rock face and we can see our trail threading out about five miles ahead of us. We begin a steep descent on a rocky, gravelly, slippery slope that takes about an hour, then onto another wide, rocky, sandy river bottom that is flanked on both sides by steep glacier clad mountains, then up another forested valley which eventually reaches a wide sloped meadow near the crest of the valley. This is La Tetera campground and it is already almost full. The first person that I see is Ullrich, the man that mentioned this trek to me when we met in Coyhaique. We are happy to see each other. He and I are the same age and people our age are kind of rare on the trail in these parts. Besides that minor detail I will come to learn that he is an amazing person! He explains to Andy and I that there is a volunteer group camping here tonight and so we hike about five minutes further up trail and find an isolated spot on the crest of the trail with the most incredible views in the entire camping area. It’s been another rigorous nine mile day and we pitch tents and make dinner and take a five minute walk further up trail to lake Cerro Castillo and try to comprehend the immense beauty that keeps opening like a flower before us. The sound of water roaring from several glaciers in the peaks that tower above almost drowns out the words that we can barely speak to describe the scene. Then it’s off to our tents to rest exhausted bodies, prepare for another day. I step out of my tent in the middle of the night to a sky filled with stars, shimmering like sparks from a fire. I stand and watch the southern cross turn in the heavens for a while, then return to my dreams…
To be continued….