I arrived in Puerto Natales yesterday evening, after a pretty comfortable three hour bus ride through some beautiful Chilean countryside. For the first time I started seeing men wearing boinas, which look like berets but these guys ain't French (and they look way cooler in a sheep rancher kind of way).
After the bus pulled in at dusk, I made my way to the info booth of the bus station to see where my hostel might be. In a planned world I'd have arrived with at least the address of where I was staying, but I figured I was doing well by just having a reservation. And it was fine, because we're talking about a town that is the jumping off point for the most popular park in Chile. These people are used to touristas, for better or worse.
I eventually found my hostel, and yep it's a hostel (run by Americans and everything). Not so typical is the awesomeness of their breakfast, which includes eggs, homemade bread, coffee, homemade peanut butter... you get the idea. And nice fellow travelers to chit chat with. Like Cheri, the 60 something (?) Canadian from Vancouver on a solo trek across Patagonia for a month, leaving her husband at home. Or Neil and Lisa, a brother and sister from South Africa on their one week trek for the year.
Hostels are funny places, mixing personalities, ages, nationalities, genders into one place and making it work. This probably has a lot to do with the type of person that gravitates here, whether it's for the cheap lodging, communal atmosphere, or both. No locks on the rooms except from the inside, but there's a safe if you want it. The bathrooms are shared (though not at the same time), as are the kitchen and hangout spaces.
Yesterday, I decided to sleep in a bit after a late night fighting the wifi, and though the heater in my room wasn't working I had so many blankets it didn't matter. I could hear the violent winds outside, joined by rain later on. It was very cozy, though it made me wonder what things were like in Torres del Paine...
After wandering around town a bit to get familiar, I started noticing a few differences from Punta Arenas. To start, Puerto Natales is much smaller. It also carries a subdued vibe of hostility towards the tourists who've taken over and dramatically changed the town. When I rented a bike in the afternoon to explore the outskirts, I found friendlier drivers the more remote I got. I don't get the sense that safety is a big issue, rather a distinct lack of warmth. I get lots of long deadpan stares as I walk about town, and I'm by no means the only gringa in gortex.
Today, I decided to make a longer adventure by renting another bike and heading to the Milodon caves about 24km from town. If I hadn't time to kill I probably wouldn't have thought to go, because if you check the website it looks a little kitsch. But fortunately for me it was far from it! More natural history with some archeology and anthropology mixed in, I was pleasantly surprised at both the educational side and the beautiful trail network. The sun finally making an appearance and the wind NOT blowing me over helped immensely. It felt great to get a little physical activity, and overall probably the best day I've had so far!
Tomorrow Lora and Mike will arrive and we'll commence the final preparations for our trek...Today there was snow on the largest pass we'dll be hiking, closing it to passage. Hopefully it opens up again soon!