Posted by: Bert and Tania | January 20, 2011

Escape from Chile

Bert here reporting on how Tom and I escaped from Chile:

Tom’s been over visiting for three weeks and we planned to do the ‘W’ trek in Torres Del Paine National Park in Southern Chile. We flew from Buenos Aires to El Calafate in Argentina as planned on Monday 10th Jan. El Calafate is a small town in the middle of nowhere next to Lago Argentino, an incredible turquoise coloured lake, the colour coming from extremely fine particles ground by the Upsala and Perito Moreno Glaciers which feed it.

On Tuesday 11th Jan, we’d booked a bus to Torres del Paine. At the border, the queue for passport control was so long that we missed our connecting bus from Puerto Natales into Torres Del Paine by 15mins. So we had to book into a hostel in Puerto Natales and rebook the bus for the following morning. At this point the receptionist warned us that there was a fuel price rise protest about to start. The protestors, opposing a proposed 17% increase in gas prices, were planning to block roads to Torres del Paine and out of town and our bus might not be able to get into the park. This is exactly what happened, so we were trapped in Puerto Natales unable to go trekking or leave. There was also going to be a general strike so we stocked up on four days worth of food in the supermarket. Many others were doing the same as we’d got there just before the supermarket was about to close indefinitely. A lot of the shelves were emptied as people scrabbled ‘supermarket sweep’ style to get the food they needed.

On Wednesday we hung around in Puerto Natales wondering what was going to happen. On the news we saw that two girls had been killed as someone tried to drive through the road block and 34 people had been arrested. All businesses were closed and protestors were driving through the streets beeping their horns with black plastic bags tied to their cars.

By the following day, we realised that it was unlikely we were going to be able to get into Torres Del Paine to do our trek. 1500 tourists were trapped inside the park unable to get out. If our bus had not been slow going through customs, we would have been amongst them. 25km North of Torres Del Paine, just over the border, is the ‘Glaciers’ National Park of Argentina which has also got amazing trekking and we decided to try and get there instead.

We had heard that tourists had successfully got out of Puerto Natales and into Argentina by walking 25km through the road blocks to Rio Turbio in Argentina. We packed up and at 2.30pm walked along the main road out of town towards the first road block. We got a lift the last km or so. It was easy to walk past the block and we asked the Police on the other side how to get to Rio Turbio and were filmed by a journalist. We carried on walking for about three hours out of town towards the border. The roads were almost completely empty of course but the Police picked us up and took us a short distance while they were out of sight because of a dip in the landscape. They asked if there were many other tourists trying the same thing and I said only a few – we’d seen around ten.

After a few more kilometres, we got picked up by some of the protestors themselves in a camper van and taken to the second roadblock on the Chilean side of the border. They were very friendly and posed for a photo so we got through that blockade pretty easily too.

We’d made it to the border and walked through passport control. Our hitch-hiking on empty roads was going very well (better than it would have done in the UK) and we got another lift for the few hundred metres to the Argentinian border control. After that it was a short hike to Rio Turbio where we were able to actually buy things for the first time. We bought a coffee. A German couple who had driven down from El Calafate that day to go trekking in Torres del Paine stopped and asked us about the situation and we recommended they turned back. We made hiking signs saying ‘El Calafate’ and stood by the side of the road. After 10 minutes the couple, who had obviously taken our advice, picked us up and drove us the 350km to El Calafate. We arrived by about 10pm, having cut 80km off the distance by driving over a gravel track and immediately went for a beer. The hostel we stayed in before had space in a dorm so we stayed there again, playing drinking games with Americans until 4am to celebrate our escape.

In the end, we got to do some amazing trekking from El Chalten in the Glaciers Park (details to follow) and only lost one day of trekking compared to our original plan. When we got back we heard that tourists trapped in Torres del Paine had been running out of food. The Red Cross was there and the Army had been sent in to get people out. This story has now reached the BBC and the dispute has been resolved with the Government agreeing to reduce the rise to only 3%. It seems that people in Chile are as vocal as the Argentinians when they’re not happy with what the Government is doing. Obviously sometimes, it works.

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Responses

  1. wow, beats falling off my horse, did you want an adventure by any chance?

  2. Well, yes Ali, we DID want an adventure, but if we had not done this then firstly we wouldn’t have got to do ANY trekking, and secondly we would probably have missed our flight back to Buenos Aires and Tom could well have missed his flight back to the UK. The resolution to the issue was only 24hrs before our flight from El Calafate to BA and we would have struggled to make it. Rob.

    And falling off a horse is certainly up there as far as travel stories go!


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