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Travel

How to Hike Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park

Sunrise at Torres del Paine.While traveling through the Patagonian region of South America, I encountered many a befuddled traveler who was a bit miffed by the planning process required to enter Torres del Paine National Park. I will go ahead and include myself in this stack of confused, well-intentioned hikers.  For years I have fawned after photos of Torres del Paine, but it wasn’t until I actually started the process of researching how exactly to pull off a visit, did I meet the gut-sinking moment of “Oh, no. I’m too late.”

It’s really an awful feeling to have as a traveler. The stars have finally aligned in life, and you are on the cusp of departure, only to stumble across this one little detail that has the potential to derail everything. Reservations? You need reservations? I simply was unaware. Now, with that said, the 2016-2017 season is the first year to see the implementation of  required reservations prior to entering the park. I was not the only one caught in the crosshairs of a new system.

Torres del Paine National Park is one of the premiere hiking destinations in all of South America, and with the influx of new visitors, restrictions on how many people can enter the park are being put into effect. It is understandable, and long term, definitely a good thing to protect the fragility of the park. I am hopeful that as word spreads, more travelers who wish to enter the park will be aware of the requirements, and less headaches will abound for everyone.

With that said, I was able to finagle dates in the tail end of February to make my “O” trek a reality. Below I’ve put together a guide that will hopefully streamline the leg work required to visit such an incredible destination. Take a gander, and hopefully it will allow you to spend less time planning, and more time enjoying your visit!

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Getting Connected in Cuba

People queue in line for Cuban internet.While standing in “line” to purchase an internet card, I was reminded that this particular arrangement of humans is but a distant figment of my imagination, in a different world. Here, the art of squashing together serves as both a defensive and offensive mechanism. By eliminating space between yourself and your neighbor, entry is prevented from others, and your own position is advanced at the same time. No take a number and have a seat here, folks.

Coupled with misunderstandings of language, I slowly began to wriggle my way towards the front. This goes against all feelings of learned patience I have conditioned myself to have. Blast! Defeat! The most petite and unsuspecting damsel has usurped my position by politely pushing me out of the way. My mind wanders back to Japan where a form of queueing exists in its most distilled, pure form. Cual es el ultimo?! Cual es el ultimo?!

Up until this point, I had been purchasing overpriced internet cards from nice, entrepreneurial gentlemen and their cohorts in the park for an unspecified, marked up price. In a way, it’s almost worth it to not have to deal with the line, and the early AM pushing and shoving. I had mixed success with this method. One time I was sold a card that where the code had not been scratched off (think of the gray bit on lotto tickets), but upon trying to use it, there was zero time left on the hour clock. A reminder to myself to do things the right way. Anyways…

Finally! Entry into the hallowed grounds of the state owned internet provider. Again, the pleasant feeling of what-do-I-do-now-anxiety creeps over me. Perhaps I will stand here, I think to myself. I will be out of the way! Incorrect again, but inching closer. Then, our eyes met. I could read it on her face. Not another bumbling transaction with a haphazard Spanish speaker. She signaled for me to approach the counter. I read somewhere that you should stock up on cards when given a chance. Having learned the hard way the past few days, I struck. “Cinco, por favor.” The most scathing “Please, honey” espanol eyeroll was offered to me. I lowered my bid to three. Success! The most beautiful 3 hours of internet was purchased for a hefty 4.50 CUC.

Having experienced the fledgling internet services of Cuba, I have garnered a deeper appreciation of the connectivity available at home. No lengthy queues, or uncertainty if I’m going to be able to send or receive news to a loved one far away. It’s easy to romanticize a world where people are not on their phones all day and wifi is not present in the home, but I would point out that not having access to information is anything but romantic. With wealth and government connections, certain Cubans are immune to the current system.

My understanding is that hotspots in some Cuban cities have been around for 2-3 year, and certain homes are currently being equipped with routers on a trial basis. When you are walking around, and suddenly see everyone’s face lit up by their mobile device, you have likely stumbled across a hot spot. I remember being in Playa Larga, and a hot spot was available, but there were no cards available for purchase. I asked when they might become available again, and was only told “mas tarde,” aka later. The cards never arrived, and I ended up in a 4 day black hole of connectivity. Sometimes it’s nice to be able to unplug, but in this particular moment, it was quite unwelcomed.

Communication is changing rapidly in Cuba. It will be interesting to visit in the future, and see how it has changed people’s lives.

Jose Fuster’s Fusterlandia

I’m not entirely sure where I first stumbled across Fusterlandia. It was most assuredly online somewhere, and immediately my interest was peaked. For a while now, I’ve been so intrigued by large scale, outdoor art spaces. Traveling the United States, I’ve been fortunate to encounter a number of them: Leonard Knight’s Salvation Mountain, Joe Minter’s African Village in America, Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden, Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, to name a few.

Fusterlandia

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Primeras Impresiones de Cuba

For a passerby to accurately attempt to summarize Cuba would be fool hearted. It’s a complicated country with many layers that requires a deeper understanding of events current and past. “Why are things the way they are,” is a question that I often found myself asking. Why are there two currencies? Where are all of the advertisements? Why are all of the classic cars still in use? Why haven’t I been able to come here until now?

For most Americans, Cuba has been thought of as an unattainable destination that floats a mere 90 miles south of the United States. Undoubtedly this has enhanced its allure and luster, especially for the American traveler. With policy changes between the two countries, there is a misguided notion that one needs to come here before things change. What does that even mean? I am guilty of uttering this sentiment prior to departure, and I’m still better trying to understand it.

The idea of a switch being flipped in which things are suddenly Americanized, is a misstep of the American paradigm. With no doubt, the relationship between the two countries is storied, and things are in fact, changing. With recent and upcoming elections, things do feel in many ways, in a state of flux. What will happen in 5 years? 10 years? No one can say for certain.

You should visit Cuba not for the fear of missing out on a time gone by; rather, you should visit Cuba because it is a country that is in possession of a vibe unlike anywhere else. It’s a vibe that runs deep; in the people, in the landscape, and in the way of life. It’s something that has to be experienced first hand. The only crime being committed is not allowing yourself to arrive here sooner, rather than later.

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A reminder before departure.

What is it about those first steps onto soil that your feet have never met? That feeling of the familiar unknown, ever so distant in grasp. The rush of stimuli that overtakes your being; sounds, sights, smells. The moment of pause, when you realize that through a series of events, you have arrived; you are here.

For me, the vision of what a place might be is always slightly out of focus leading into a trip. It’s this abstract concept that floats around my mind. I can look at any number of guides, or photos, but it isn’t until I am there, that I begin to have the most neophyte of understandings as to where exactly I’ve landed.

It’s quite an intoxicating and disarming feeling to suddenly be immersed in a world much unlike your own. The experience lends itself to thoughts and ideas that otherwise remain inaccessible. Try hard as one might, these moments can not be replicated, or reproduced. When you find it, relish in it.

A reminder that through departure, arrival is granted.

Travel Ideas for 2017

Forever and always, I have travel ideas floating around in the furthest recesses of my mind. Sometimes they collect dust in a corner, sometimes they come to fruition with a bit of foresight. For most of us, the struggle is finding that proverbial sweet spot where the rivers of time and money coalesce, and we let their sweet brackish waters wash us over.

Someone once told me, that if you write something down, you are more apt to stay the course, and complete/accomplish it. In keeping with the whole, New Year, rebirth, phoenix rising from the ashes (I don’t think anything burnt down?), huzzah this year is going to be different mentality, I have compiled a list of destinations that have rattled through my mind at some point or another.

For those that are curious, here is my list from last year. And here are some of my personal highlights from what actually happened in 2016. It’s neat to look back, take a breath, and say, “Wow, that did happen.”

Enough staring at the clouds, let’s talk travel!

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Japan: Tokyo, Kyoto, Mt. Fuji, Osaka, Hiroshima

Somewhere in my mind, I’m able to return to that window seat on the Shinkansen. Gazing outward towards the countryside, I can still see it all, feel it all. Entire systems and a way of life, moving past me in haste. The understanding that I am but a visitor, passing through something that is much more complex than I will ever be able to comprehend.

With departure and distance, a certain perspective is granted. For some reason or another, despite thoroughly enjoying my visit to Japan, it’s taken me quite a while to sit down and revisit the brief sliver of time I spent there.

I’ve found myself frustrated in how to best describe the experience. So many of my favorite moments happened during the in between. The moments where the camera is no where to be found, and you are simply present. It’s an odd feeling to sense a moment slipping by, and the desire to capture is there, but something else says, wait, pause, savor this.

This concept does not bode well for the fledgling documenter, especially in an online world that is driven by visual stimuli. Sometimes it feels like a futile effort to take photos, as it will never entirely capture the true essence of what is there. With that said, I continue to try. I encourage you to visit Japan.

Tokyo

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A Year Spent in Motion: 2016.

As this whole passing of time thing continues its unfaltering march towards infinity, I figured why not take a minute to reflect on what all has happened this year. A little notch made on the metaphysical tree bark, if you will, that perhaps some future version of myself might one day find curious.January – Cadillac Ranch – Amarillo, TX – Fledgling memories with a new troop of troubadours.February – Rialto Beach – Forks, WA – If I was looking for powerful, I found it.

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Hiking Mt. Fuji’s Yoshida Trail

Prior to booking my ticket to Japan, I had no desire to hike to the top of Mt. Fuji. I had seen photos of it on travel programs, thought the snowy peak looked quite nice from the comforts of my warm abode with functioning amenities, but never really thought to myself, “I need to be on top of that.” Proximity sure is a son of a bitch.

Once I realized where the mountain was, and the seemingly smallish effort it would require to attain this summit, the seed had been planted. There was no turning back. “I enjoy hiking,” I thought to myself. This will certainly be a grand way to spend two days in Japan. Travel and outdoor adventure. What a perfect pairing of things I enjoy! Oh, even better, the hike is rated as moderate. In hindsight, this statement does contain a smidgen of accuracy when looked at through a glass full of vision distorting oil.

Hiking path on Mt. Fuji's Yoshida Trail.

Mist covers the volcanic rock of Mt. Fuji.

My journey began leaving out of Tokyo. Feeling a bit citied out, I found myself on a train bound for Kawaguchiko, where I could catch a bus up to the 5th station to begin my hike. It was my first train ride of any sizable distance, and I was enjoying being able to utilize my JR Pass for the first time, and watch unfamiliar countryside zip by. I had checked the weather report before departure, and I knew that there was a chance of encountering rain. Approaching the mountain, this chance imperceptibly morphed into a gray certainty of hovering precipitation. It was going to be a wet day for walk up a mountain.

Arriving at the 5th station, there was already limited visibility. Having condemned myself to lugging boots and a heavy jacket around for this specific endeavor, there was no way I was going to back out of this. I prepared my gear, worriedly purchased water (did I have enough?!), and bid adieu to the dry warren of the station buildings. Helllloooo, Mt. Fuji!

A cornucopia of volcanic colors.

Aside from the moisture, I didn’t think the beginnings of the hike were all that bad. In a way, the mist and rain was pleasant (I told myself), because I became so scorchingly hot inside the shell of my jacket from labored physical activity. Watching people pass in the opposite direction, I wondered what they knew, that I didn’t.

I opted to hike up the Yoshida trail, which by and large is the most popular trek. I had arranged for overnight accommodations at a mountain hut at the 8th station. Leaving around 3:00p, my only goal was to arrive before sundown, which thankfully I did. That’s where things kind of began to take a turn.

Vantage point from the 8th station mountain hut.

In my mind, once I reached the 8th station, I had 30 minutes left beyond that to make it to the summit. All of the articles I read talk about staying overnight to acclimatize, and give yourself a rest and warm meal, in order to pleasantly continue to the summit to watch sunrise. Arriving to my hut around 5:30p, I was proud of what I had accomplished; albeit, a bit soggy. I had found my lodging despite rain and language barriers, and I was able to watch the shadow of Mt. Fuji grow against the horizon as the sun went down. When double checking what time I needed to leave in the morning to catch sunrise, I was told 1:30am. Wait.

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