Southern Descent: The Journey to Patagonia

    The adrenaline and stress of an adventure are better than a thousand peaceful days.

    -Paulo Coelho

    I knew my Spanish was rusty when I couldn’t retrieve the words, “Please step aside quickly, I need to throw-up!” Four hours into our longest flight for this continent–New York to Santiago, Chile–my stomach decided to board its own rollercoaster. I stayed in denial as long as possible. This can’t be happening. It’s our FIRST day of fifty-two. I hate airplane bathrooms. No, I will not stoop to throwing up in one.

    Six hours later we had landed and, with the plane taxiing, I was still at it—pushing past the aisle of people to get to the bathroom one more time. Due to landing, the airplane stall had been locked but two basketball-player-looking American men busted open the door for me. They could see the look on my face and they had watched as I made twenty or more trips back and forth while the rest of the plane was dark, quiet and sleeping 30,000+ feet above Central and South America.

    One more flight, Susie, you can do this. One more flight and then sleep. One step at a time, just follow Chris. I began using my ultra-marathon mental tactics as we passed through customs. Chris kindly guided me, dragging as much luggage as humanly possible and pulling out his best Spanish to hunt down plain Pringles to soothe my empty disturbed stomach. When I wasn’t searching out “just one more” family restroom, I followed in line like a baby duckling.

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    The storm in my stomach and intestines finally began to lift, after its eleven-hour glory ride, as I slept atop my luggage at the gate to board for Puerto Natales. A few hours later as we descended down into the Patagonian mountain valley, everything looked extra sparkly and so crisp. I had renewed vigor and we had finally made it–inside of this dream-come-true-place, near the bottom of the Earth, I had imagined so many times throughout my life.

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    In a single day, Puerto Natales, the gateway town to the iconic Torres del Paine National Park, charmed us with its laid-back mountain vibes, cafes painted bright orange and yellow, hidden courtyard gardens, wood-slatted and tin-roofed shacks, historic estancias (ranches) and salmon fisheries.

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    I felt myself quickly click back into slow-paced latino-style living during our night-time tranquilo paseo down the main drag. (Chris and I lived in Valencia, Spain for study abroad and again later in 2005, during the second year of our marriage.) I could’ve watched the interesting mix of people for hours on end. To our surprise, we passed very few Americans, hearing only a handful all day (based on our eavesdropping). The 18,000 Puerto Natales residents are a mix of weathered-face grandfathers fully styled in dress pants and drivers caps with young adventurers driving diesel pick-up trucks and wearing bright puff jackets. Chilean tourists can be spotted in tall over-stuffed backpacks and hiking boots—more comfortable than us with the language and, from the looks on their faces, equally unsure of, and thrilled by, the journey that lays ahead in the wild Torres National Park.

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