Hiking the “O” in Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia

Hiking over pass
Coming over Paso John Gardner towards Grey Glacier

Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia, Chile, is one of the world’s most beautiful places.

The landscape is stunning: jagged mountains, seemingly endless glaciers surrounded by crystal blue lakes, snowy mountain passes with Andean condors flying overhead, and green mossy forests straight out of a scene from The Lord of the Rings.

condor 3
It was very exciting for me to spend time photographing the Andean Condor, the largest flying bird in the world.

During our time in the park, my friends and I continually redefined our vision of paradise. Comments like, “Wow, this is my dream place” were quickly replaced with “Oh, wait, THIS is my dream place,” followed by, “No no, THIS is my dream place.”

Torres del Paine is so breathtaking that it pushed the boundaries of what we imagined to be possible, not only in nature but also in our own lives.

It inspired us to dream bigger, feel stronger, and become more at peace with the choices that we have made that led us to such a special place at this point in our lives.

The “O” Circuit, the longer, more difficult of the two popular treks in Torres del Paine, was both physically and mentally challenging.

Our packs never seemed to feel lighter, despite dropping food weight as we progressed. At the end of each day, my legs were exhausted, my blisters were juicier, and I often felt like I would not have been able to take one more step. However, I enjoyed the physical challenge because it helped clear my mind,, and was a welcome opportunity for personal growth reflection.

Focussing on my  physical pain helped me to let go of silly stresses:

Did I do the right thing turning down a teaching job at a school I liked?

Should I be investing energy into a relationship that is in many ways unrealistic?

Am I being too selfish and entitled to make time and space for writing in my life, when it probably will never translate into a full-time career?

Am I being irresponsible by taking time off to travel when so many BIG LIFE questions are up in the air and I have deadlines for my PhD that I’m falling behind on… and I don’t even have a permanent job?

Shan Grey Glacier
In front of Grey Glacier near Los Perros campsite

Being on the trail helped me focus on the present, and reminded me to just let life unfold as it’s meant to, without worrying too much about what the future will look like.

The choices I have made thus far brought me to Patagonia, so I must be doing something right, even though it sometimes feels like I’m far behind from where many of my friends, who have stable careers, marriages, and families, are.

Planning Tips for Hiking the “O”

Jill
Hiking through wildflowers towards Las Torres, the towers for which Torres del Paine is named

Hiking Patagonia’s “O” Circuit requires an extensive amount of planning, research, and advance decision-making…which is hard to do when you’ve never traveled to a place before. (Most of this was done for me by my friends Jill and Katelyn–thanks ladies!)

Hopefully, the following will help future trekkers with the trip prep needed to have an amazing experience in the mountains.

Make Reservations BEFORE You Go & Book Early

One of the most important things that you will need to do before you even think about heading to Torres del Paine is to make reservations.

I can’t emphasize this enough. MAKE RESERVATIONS.

It is essential to have reservations at each campsite before you start your trek. Fortunately, the friends I traveled with are currently living and working in Colombia, so were in contact with colleagues who had already done the hike and knew that they had to make reservations well in advance.

Being more of a spontaneous traveler, I could easily have seen myself arriving in Chile without having made any reservations in the park at all.

Unfortunately, camp sites book up very quickly. We saw several hikers being turned back by park rangers at various points on the trail because they didn’t have reservations for upcoming campsites.

My friends made reservations in October for our trip in January and some campsites were already booked. This required them to modify our itinerary based on availability of campsites.

When making reservations, you also need to decide whether you are going to sleep in tents that you bring yourself, tents that are already set up on platforms at the sites, or in refugios.

It is not mandatory to hike with a guide in Torres del Paine, but it is a great option for travellers with less backcountry experience, for those interested in learning more about the landscape, and for additional safety.

My friends and I opted to carry our own gear, including our tent, camping equipment, food, clothing stove, etc in backpacks and organize the trip ourselves without a guide. This is definitely the cheapest option and since trails are so well-marked for the most part, it was fairly safe.

We camped in a 3-person tent which we had rented in Puerto Natales for 5 of the nights and stayed in hostel-style rooms with bunk-beds in ski-lodge-esque refugios for two nights.

Our packs were quite heavy (especially mine–I definitely need to invest in a lighter sleeping bag!) and it rained a lot, so it was a nice splurge to sleep in beds a couple of nights. This was quite a bit more expensive, though, so staying in refugios every night wasn’t really in our budget.

If we were to do the hike again, we would consider reserving tents at campsites to avoid having to carry our tent throughout the trek as this was not much more expensive and would help to reduce the weight in our packs.

Choosing “The O” vs. “The W”

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For more info, check out this Torres del Paine Map

Before you book your accommodation at campsites, you need to decide on your route.

There are two main treks in Torres del Paine National Park. The “W” is shorter (76km) and much more popular. The trail follows a “W” letter shape taking tourists to spectacular miradors (look-out points) to see views of the French Valley, Grey Glacier, and the infamous towers, Las Torres, after which the park is named. It takes between 4-6 days to hike the W depending on weather conditions and how long you want to spend at each site.

We opted to hike the Paine Massif or “Big Circuit,” the “O,” which is a longer and more challenging route of 110km that takes between 8-10 days to complete.

It is less busy and more remote, which was more appealing for my friends and I as we were craving a physical challenge and an opportunity to be fully immersed in the wilderness.

coming over pass
The “O” has some challenging sections like Paso John Gardner

To complete the “O”, hikers follow a counter-clockwise loop around the backside of the mountains before hiking the entire “W” route.

We hiked the “O” in 8 days, since we were more limited with vacation time and planned to travel to Valparaíso and Santiago afterwards.

In hindsight, we would plan to do it in 9 or 10 days to allow for a recovery day (perhaps at Grey Campsite where we could opt to kayak or hike with a guide onto Grey Glacier). Also, the views at the miradors are very weather dependent, and more time could increase chances of being able to see the French Valley or the Torres on a sunny day.

Where We Camped on the “O”

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My friends made reservations for our trek (December 31-January 6) in October and several campsites that we wanted to stay at were ALREADY SOLD OUT. Therefore, we had to modify our itinerary slightly to adjust for the campsites that we were able to book.

This was our itinerary for hiking the “O” in Torres del Paine.

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 How to Book Your Campsite

Camping Los Perros
Camping between the tree as Los Perros

There isn’t a central reservation system for Torres del Paine, so if you are planning the trip yourself, you need to make reservations at campsites run by one of the three companies below.

As previously mentioned, my awesome friends made the reservations for this trip. They expressed having had some difficulty/frustration with the reservation process. Many people we met on the trail also said they had some problems communicating with some of the campsites and securing their reservations.

Everyone agreed on the importance of BOOKING EARLY. 

Dickson
We celebrated New Year’s Eve amidst the stunning scenery of Refugio Dickson

Fantastico Sur:

Fantástico Sur is a family business that has refugion, cabin, and campsite accommodation located along the W Circuit in Torres del Paine National Park.

Each Refugio has a restaurant, which offers breakfast, lunch, dinner, beverages and boxed lunch options to carry while hiking. It’s also possible to rent camp equipment such as sleeping bags, insulation mats and tents.

Camping seron
Seron was the first campsite we stayed at.

Vertice

Vertice provides accommodation as well as guided tour packages along both the “O” and “W” trails. They offer shelters at Paine Grande, Grey, and Dickson, and campsites at Paine Grande, Grey, Dickson, and Los Perros.

grey refugio
Refugio Grey feels like a ski lodged nestled into the mountains

Conaf

The National Forestry Corporation (CONAF) is a private law entity under the Ministry of Agriculture whose main task is to administer Chile’s forestry policy and promote the development of the sector.

The online reservation system http://www.parquetorresdelpaine.cl/en/ is for the free campsites authorized by CONAF: Las Carretas, Italiano, Paso, and Torres.

Paso campsite
Paso was the simplest campsite we stayed at.

How to Get to Torres del Paine National Park

Torres del Paine

I traveled from Toronto to Puerto Natales all in one day because I was meeting friends who were already in Southern Argentina and we wanted to get started on the hike as soon as possible since we were limited by our vacation time.

While I did end up making it to Puerto Natales as planned, it was quite stressful as my original flight was delayed and I missed my connections. This being said, I would recommend spending a night, or even a couple of days in Santiago, instead of trying to do it all in one journey.

1. Flight from Santiago–> Punta Arenas

Puffins Punta Arenas
We weren’t organized enough to take a trip to see the penguins on Isla Magdalena, but we saw a lot of puffins and cormorants in the harbour in Punta Arenas!

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I flew Air Canada direct from Toronto to Santiago (10 hours) and booked a separate ticket through Sky Airlines to Punta Arenas. There is also an airport in Puerto Natales, which is closer to Patagonia (saves the 3.5 hr bus from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales) but flights were much more expensive than our Sky Airline flight option to Punta Arenas.

Sky Airlines is a low-cost Chilean airlines that operates domestically in Chile as well as to a few international cities in South America.

Unfortunately, my flight from Toronto was delayed by more than 2 hours so I had already missed my Sky Airlines flight by the time I picked up my luggage.

Since I basically just didn’t show up for my flight, I anticipated having to buy a new ticket out of pocket, but luckily the Sky Airlines agent allowed me to get on the next flight without any hassle (which saved me at least $250 US, possibly more if I would have had to stay in a hotel).

On the return trip, my friends and I spent a night in Punta Arenas. It’s a gritty, seaside town and the entry point to Antarctica.

I’d recommend spending a whole day there and take a trip to Isla Magdalena where you can see penguins in the wild. I had hoped to do this but we didn’t plan enough in advance and weren’t able to make time for it (it requires at least a half-day).

2. Bus Punta Arenas–> Puerto Natales

Screen Shot 2018-01-24 at 2.18.11 PM As mentioned above, there is also an airport in Puerto Natales, but prices were substantially more expensive and less frequent than flying to Punta Arenas and taking the bus to Puerto Natales.

The bus from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales is 8, 000 CLP and takes 3.5 hours.

I reserved my ticket in advance through Bus Sur. Busses leave about every 1.5-2 hours between 7am-9pm.

I had planned to take the 9pm bus, the last one of the night, which was tight given my flight change. Luckily the travel Gods were on my side, and everything worked out.

As my ticket said that the bus leaves from “Terminal Bus-Sur” in Punta Arenas, I took a 25 min taxi ride from the airport to the bus terminal (10 000 CLP) to catch the bus. It turned out that the bus stopped at the airport after leaving the terminal…so I could have saved myself time, money and stress by staying at the airport. Oh well. I was happy to have made the last bus of the night, meaning I would arrive to Puerto Natales late that evening as planned.

3. Taxi Puerto Natales Bus Terminal–> Yagan House Hostel

Yagan House.jpg
Yagan House Hostel was a great place to stay in Puerto Natales pre/post Torres del Paine

When I arrived at the Puerto Natales Bus Terminal at 12:15am, I took a taxi to Yagan House Hostel, which cost 1, 500 CLP and took less than 5 minutes.

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Despite missed flights, I arrived in Puerto Natales on time!

Jill and Katelyn were relieved that I arrived safely in Punta Natales and on time. Jill had received a few panicky “Not gonna make it to Puerto Natales!!!” when I was dealing with missed flights and tight connections, so they had thought they might not be seeing me until sometime the next day. We shared a bottle of Chilean wine (the first of many during the trip!) and made a plan for a busy day of trip prep.

4. Bus Puerto Natales–> Torres del Paine

From October to April, several bus companies perform regular daily trips from the bus terminal in Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine.

The bus costs $ 7500 Chilean Pesos. It takes about 2 hours and 15 minutes to travel by bus from Puerto Natales to Laguna Amarga (where you have to pay $21 000 Chilean Pesos as a foreign tourist to enter the park).

From there you can take connections to the Pudeto catamaran at Lake Pehoe or transfer to Base Torres (which is where we started the O. Tickets cost $ 3000 Chilean Pesos).

Information about routes and fares is available directly from the companies offering transportation of passengers.

Buses JB : Departs from Puerto Natales at 7:30am and 2:30pm

Buses Gomez: Departs from Puerto Natales at 7:20am and 2:30pm

Buses Maria José: Departs from Puerto Natales at 7:30am and 2:30pm

Return to Puerto Natales

The regular buses from Torres del Paine National Park to Puerto Natales have 2 schedules, and it is possible to take them from three different places of the park, Administration Office, Pudeto and Laguna Amarga Gate.

Schedule 1:
1:00pm Administration Office
1:30pm Pudeto
2:30pm Laguna Amarga.
4:30pm Arrival to Puerto Natales

Schedule 2:
6:30 pm Administration Office
7:00pm Pudeto
7:45pm Laguna Amarga.
10:00 horas pm Arrival to Puerto Natales

Trip Prep Day in Puerto Natales

Puerto Natales

It took us an entire day to do last minute trip prep like renting equipment and buying food for the trail.

I would highly recommend planning to spent at least one full day in Puerto Natales to do this.

While we met a couple on the trail who had arrived in Puerto Natales in the morning, and only spent two hours getting last minute packing before getting on the 2:30pm bus to the park, they said that it was very rushed and stressful. (They had also brought freeze-dried with them from the UK so didn’t need to get much in terms of groceries).

Also, many stores are closed in the early afternoon (1:30-4:00pm) for siesta, so we ended up taking a lunch break to coincide with the few hours in the afternoon where we wouldn’t have been able to do any shopping anyways.

Make a Pit Stop to Frutos Secos!

frutos secos 1.jpgIn the morning, we went to the grocery store to get snacks, coffee, and lunch items for the trail.

I had brought freeze-dried backpacker dinners that I purchased at Mountain Equipment CO-OP for our meals. However, I discovered that you could buy these same meals at most gear stores in Puerto Natales for about the same price that I paid for the meals in Canada.

Then we made a trip to Frutos Secos, which was definitely a highlight of the trip for one of my friends.

Frutos Secos is a tiny dried food shop in Puerto Natales where you can buy snacks like dried pineapple, apple slices, blue berries, craisins, raisins, etc, chocolate covered coffee beans, nuts, trail mix, spices, and freeze-dried meal packages. These treats certainly added some much needed flavour and variety to our daily breakfasts of oatmeal and provided us with sweet and salty snacks at the end of a long day on the trail.

Go to the “Three O’Clock Talk” at Erratic Rock Hostel

Erratic Rock Hostel.jpg

Erratic Rock hostel offers free Torres del Paine trekking seminars daily at 11am and 3pm.

We found the guide’s seminar to be helpful, informative, and entertaining and gave us a thorough and informative overview of crucial details that better prepared us for the trek. He talked about everything from getting to the park, equipment and food prep, hiking times, what to bring and what not to bring, weather, terrain information, permits, camping, and gave us a chance to ask questions.

The guide was obviously very experienced in Torres del Paine and had some fantastic advice for making sure we had a positive experience in the park. He was also hilarious and taught me some important tips like:

  • Don’t wear a rain poncho unless you want to become a “flying tortilla”
  • The mice in Torres del Paine speak English and have generations of experience in tourism (ie. don’t leave crumbs in tent).
  • Don’t trust a stone when crossing rivers. Instead, get your feet wet!
  • Avoid doing the “Gortex Dance” by keeping your rain jacket in your backpack while hiking. You will get too hot hiking in Gortex and will get wet anyways.
  • You can drink the water from the lakes and streams in Torres del Paine and at all campsites.
  • Bring your passport and make sure you have reservations. Rangers will be checking passports and reservation receipts.
  • Mosquitos are bad at Seron and Dickson (They actually weren’t too bad).
  • Leave early from Perros to Paso because Paso John Gardner closes at 11am. It takes 1 hour 40 min to get to the pass.
  • When there are high winds, lean into the mountain!
  • You can leave your pack (at your own risk) at the Ranger’s station at Italiano to climb to miradors in the French Valley without a heavy pack
  • There are very difficult sections of the trail where you will ask yourself “Why am I doing this?” but it will be worth it in the end!

You can rent gear at Erratic Rock Hostel as well and don’t need to make reservations to do this.

Clothing Essentials

Day 1 hiking
Day 1: In our “Wet Uniforms”, hiking clothes that can/will get wet

Once we rented all of our equipment and purchased all of our food (and some wine!) for the trail, we went back to Yagan House Hostel and packed our bags. In terms of clothing, it is important to stay light, and avoid packing things you don’t need.

Here’s what you do need: a ‘wet uniform’ and a ‘dry uniform.’

Wet Uniform:

  • Rain gear (not poncho)
  • Hiking pants (track pant, yoga pant, lightweight cargo/hiking pant)
  • Base Layer hiking shirt (dry fit longsleeve or t-shirt that wicks away sweat)
  • Thermal/fleece layer for hiking
  • Wool socks (2 pairs)
  • Hiking boots
  • Optional: hiking gloves
Day 3
Wet Uniform–Day 3
Katelyn and Jill hiking
Wet uniform Day 4 with Thermal Layer
Shan wet uniform
Wet Uniform Day 5 with Thermal Layer

Dry Uniform

  • Base Layer: Long underwear top & pants, preferably Merino wool
  • Thermal layer: fleece/down jacket
  • Outer layer: rain gear
  • Wool socks (2 pairs)
  • Dry shoes (running shoes, Crocs, outdoor slippers, etc)
  • Warm hat/toque/headband
  • Mitts
Jill Dry Uniform
Jill in her dry uniform on Day 1
Dry uniform 2
Dry Uniform Day 3
Cooking in dry uniform
Day 1–Jill and Katelyn cooking in their dry uniforms inside a cooking tent.

Other important items:

  • Passport: You are required to show your passport at the Rangers Station at each campsite
  • Sunglasses
  • Flashlight/headlamp
  • Waterbottle/Nalgene
  • Sunscreen
  • Bug repellent
  • Camera
  • Chargers: there are places to charge phones/cameras at many of the campsites
  • Book/journal
  • Underwear (some would argue that this is optional LOL)
  • Toilet Paper
  • Camping towel
  • Biodegradable shampoo/soap (there are several places to shower along the trail)
  • Hiking Poles (I didn’t bring these and my kneed regretted it on the steep descents)
  • Ziploc bags/dry sack/garbage bags
  • Lighter
  • Cash/credit card (You can buy food/booze/supplies at refugios)
TRIPOD
I enjoy photography so opted to bring my DSLR camera and tripod even though they added a lot of extra weight to my pack

Camping Essentials

tent
We rented the yellow 3-person tent from Puerto Natales. Another option is to book tents that are already set up on platforms at each campsite (orange tent at right) to avoid having to carry your tent on the trail!

We traveled during the Christmas holidays, which is high season in Patagonia due to it being summer there, and didn’t make any rental reservations in advance. We had no problems renting all the gear we needed, although we had some difficulty tracking down a three-person tent (most places rent one or two-person tents).

I would suggest renting as much as you can while you are there in order to travel a little lighter.

I brought my MSR Whisperlite camping stove, empty MSR fuel bottles and pot, spoon, mug, and bowl for cooking with me from Canada. Since it was so cheap and easy to rent gear in Puerto Natales, I would leave the stove behind the next time around and rent one there. It was also somewhat tricky to find the white gas (Benezina Blanca) that my stove requires (we found it in a hardware store).

We each brought our own sleeping bags and sleeping pads, which I would do again since I prefer sleeping in “my own bed” than in a sleeping bag previously used by someone I don’t know.

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These are the prices in Chilean pesos for equipment rental at Erratic Rock.

There were many other places to rent gear in Puerto Natales (such as Yagan House where we stayed) with equivalent prices.

I had packed my dry clothing in a dry sack and sleeping bag in a waterproof compression sack that I brought from Canada.

These items were key as it rains a lot in Patagonia and your gear is bound to get wet. That being said, put any dry items like journal, maps, books, camera, phone, into Ziploc bags and line your pack with a garbage bags. My friends and I also had waterproof rain covers for our packs which we found to be helpful in keeping our gear dry. It can get very windy in Torres del Paine so it is important to secure the rain covers to your pack so that they don’t blow away in high winds.

Gear I Didn’t Need

packing up

Before I went to Torres del Paine, I had this vision of it being very remote and wild, like a previous camping trip I had taken in Alaska.

While Torres del Paine is remote and feels wild in some sections (especially along the “O”), there is actually quite a lot of amenities and camping infrastructure that I hadn’t anticipated. There is even an option to pay to use Wifi at many of the refugios, especially along the W (although I was happy to take a break from cyberspace).

Here are some of the unnecessary items that I packed:

Lots of Extra/Emergency Food

If you aren’t on a budget, you don’t need to pack much food to hike in Torres del Paine. The refugios sell hot meals, as well as beer, wine and other alcoholic beverages (much more expensive than what you could bring yourself though). You can even buy packed lunches to take with you on the trail.

NOTE: On the “O” it isn’t always an option to buy food. Some of the campsites are a little more basic (like Los Perros and Paso).

Poop Shovel

I hadn’t realized that there would be bathrooms with flush toilets at each campsite (the simplest at Los Perros being a drain hole in the ground) and even hot water for showering at the refugios.

Water Filtration Supplies

You can also drink the water at each of the campsites and don’t need to filter the water from the streams. I put water filtration tablets in my water for the first couple of days on the trail, but stopped once I realized that the water was safe to drink and tasted great.

Bathing Suit

I had packed my bathing suit thinking that I might take a quick swim at some point to freshen up. However, the lakes contain icebergs and glacial water and I was often cold on the trail due to wind and rain. There are hot showers along the trail so if you want to get clean, you don’t need to freeze in order to do it.

Wilderness Wisdom

Shan Hiking over pass

Peace & Inspiration

I feel very grateful that I was able to take the time to travel to Patagonia and hike the “O” in Torres del Paine National Park with my friends.

The trail inspired reflection, calm, and future travel plans, and helped us feel at peace with the choices we have made that have enabled us to embark on such an amazing adventure.

Shan Torres del Paine
We woke up at 4:45am to complete the 8 hour return hike to Mirador Las Torres in order to catch the 2:30 pm bus.

The Importance of Taking Time Off

I made what felt like an irresponsible decision to take unpaid weeks off work to travel to Chile (and later Ecuador).

I don’t have much money or a permanent job: shouldn’t I be working towards more stability and certainty in my life, rather than gallivanting around the globe?

Wasn’t it time to buckle down, grow up, and start taking life more seriously?

time
Viaja. El dinero se recupera, el tiempo nada.

At one of the ranger’s check-in stations, there was a sign that translated to “Travel. Money can be recuperated, time cannot.”

This quotation helped me feel more at peace with my decisions to take time off, despite the social pressures in North America to work, work, work and never give ourselves a break.

While it is a privilege to live in a country and work at a job where I am paid fairly, which enables me to have some disposable income to travel, I returned home feeling proud & grateful that I gave myself some time off, rather than irresponsible.

My trip to Torres del Paine has made me stronger, and has helped me to gain a greater sense of clarity on my personal and professional goals.

When I went back to Toronto, I realized that nothing was lost professionally by taking time off. I jumped right back into work as I left it, and actually, my bank account is not suffering as much I had anticipated.

Live at Your Own Pace

shan hikingSometimes on the trail my friends and I felt frustrated that we were hiking much slower than the recommended hiking times.

We thought that we were pretty fit and would be ABOVE the average hiking speeds. But we were also stopping a lot to take photos of the scenery (especially me!) and took breaks to have some deep conversations that were inspired by the sense of peace that the wilderness had instilled in us.

We decided that it didn’t matter what speed we were hiking at, as long as we got to our intended destination eventually.

In Patagonia in January the sun doesn’t set until close to 10pm, so there is really no rush to get to the campsites early. This helped me to realize that, like hiking, life doesn’t need to happen at anyone else’s speed but your own. I guess my pace is the right pace if it works for me…even if it means that I haven’t started making dinner when everyone else is washing their dishes.

Stay tuned for an upcoming post about my daily reflections and more wilderness wisdom that the “O” inspired for me.

If you have more specific questions about the hiking in Torres del Paine, don’t hesitate to contact me.

Why I go back to a place I’ve already been

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During my 9 months in Colombia, I went to Salento four times and each time I “glamped” at La Serrana Eco Hostel  (#happyplace)

When I travel, I often feel overwhelmed by how much of the world I’ve yet to discover.

I meet people along the way who reveal hidden gems they’ve stumbled upon, and think I want to go there too.

My “bucket-list” just keeps getting longer and longer: Hike in Patagonia. Visit friends in Israel, New Zealand, and Australia. Trek in the Himalayas. Walk the Camino de Santiago. Camp in Northern Ontario. Drive across Canada.

But I have no intention of traveling for the sake of checking items off a bucket-list. For me, the wonder of travel lies in opening myself up to new places and cultures so that I can develop a deeper understanding of the world and of myself. Much like Andrew Evans of National Geographic Travel, I cringe at the idea of “DOING” a country.

“Last summer, I DID Colombia. Next vacation, I’m going to DO Morocco.”

Yuck.

Like a one-night stand, doing someone/somewhere implies CONQUEST: traveling to boost your “likes” on Facebook/Instagram (ie. your ego). It misses the true beauty of an intimate moment, the magic of possibility which comes from a deeper and often unexpected connection.

Even though I know that I’ll never have enough time to travel to all of the destinations I want to visit, I’ve found myself GOING BACK to places I’ve ALREADY BEEN.

When I was 16 my family took a ski trip to Banff National Park that changed my life forever. As we drove from Calgary airport to Banff in our jam-packed rental car, I was struck by the danger & beauty of the Rocky Mountains, and said something I will NEVER live down amongst my family:“I’m overwhelmed by the magnitude of the mountains,” as though I was a character in Road to Avonlea (which at the time, I probably wanted to be).

Less than 6 years later, I went back and spent nearly a year working at the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. My reasons for going back weren’t rational: I went back because something about the energy of the place took my breath away. I went back because I had to. I went back because I knew that the story of “me there” wasn’t over yet.

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Me, the ant, on top of Rundle Mountain in Banff National Park

Since Banff, I’ve gone back to many other places for many different reasons. The land. A person. A challenge that wasn’t complete. A relationship that wasn’t over. A sense of ALIVENESS that I’d never experienced before. Something that made me think: I’m a better person because I’ve been here. 

Five months after my teaching contract ended in the Arctic, I went back to take the junior boys basketball team that I’d coached while I was working in Pond Inlet, Nunavut, to a tournament in Iqaluit. I had applied for a grant from the government to build the program and provide more opportunities for the team of grade 7-9 boys to engage in school & basketball.

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Matthew & I at the Nunavut Territorial Basketball Tournament in Iqaluit

Shortly after I’d returned to Ontario, I found out that I’d received the grant. I’d invested so much of myself in the team, that I couldn’t just decline it because I’d moved back home. Even though my contract at the school had ended, my responsibilities as a coach hadn’t. I needed to go back to finish what I’d started.

Much like life, travel is a journey, not a destination. Sometimes the story isn’t finished in time for the return flight.

Sometimes we stay.

Sometimes we have to go back to read the next chapter.

 

 

Las lecciones: What I learned from teaching & traveling in Colombia

Around this time last year, I accepted a temporary teaching position at a bilingual international school in Colombia. Now I’m back in Toronto, surrounded by familiar faces and the comforts of “home.”

In some ways, it feels like I’m in the same place I was before I left. But travel is an incredible teacher, and my experiences in Colombia have taught me some valuable lessons that I hope will help me live a healthier, happier, more meaningful life in Toronto. Here are some of the lessons that I learned from teaching and traveling in Colombia.

 Lesson 1: We are not our past.

Amigos.jpg
Colombia went from having one of the world’s most violent countries in the mid-90s to the “Happiest Country in the World”

The class sat around in a circle while ‘José’ told his story.

Everyone was crying including me. José told us that he had been bullied since Grade 2, especially by three other boys in the class. He couldn’t take it anymore. Due to the stress he’d experienced at school, he was acting out at home, being rude to his parents and mean to his sister. He was thinking of switching schools so he could have a fresh start. But he didn’t want to. He liked the school and the teachers and his friends and the extra-curricular clubs he participated in there.

After he spoke, each student told José something they appreciated or admired about him. The bullies apologized. José forgave them. Everyone cried some more. A group hug ensued.

A group of ten year olds had committed to starting over. They rose above their past and the identities of “bully” and “victim” they’d been living in for years.

A similar process has occurred in the political landscape of Colombia, but at a much larger scale.

After nearly four years of peace negotiations, the Colombian government is on the brink of finalizing a deal with the FARC guerrillas it has been fighting since 1964. According to the United Nations, the conflict has left more than 220,000 dead and driven nearly seven million Colombians from their homes.

The peace accord is an opportunity to formally end decades of violence. As the New York Times writes, “Victims of the conflict, many of whom have supported the process fervently, deserve recognition for their willingness to forgive. By facing down an enemy across the negotiating table, they set a laudable example at a time when so many of the world’s armed conflicts appear intractable.”

Thus, an important lesson I took away from living in Colombia is that clinging to past identities does nothing but cause more pain, more suffering, more violence. It is never too late to forgive, accept, more forward, re-build.

Lesson 2: Growth occurs through struggle.

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It wasn’t easy to learn a new language, teach at a different level, or live in the mountains, but overcoming these challenges made me stronger.

I tell ‘Natalia’ to go to the office. She’d just thrown an eraser at ‘Elizabeth’ and I’m on the verge of breakdown. Five other students are already staying in for detention at recess.

I just want them to stop talking and listen.

I want them to learn math. I want them to WANT to learn math. I want to be doing a better job right now. But I’d never taught math before. I’m trying my best. Sometimes my lessons suck but I’m learning.

‘Martin’ walks up to me while I’m in the middle of teaching a strategy for multiplying fractions. He shows me his Hatchet quiz and asks me why I’d taken a mark off for #5. You’re unfair. It’s Friday and we are supposed to be playing. We are just kids.

I know you’re kids but the class’ behaviour was terrible today and you didn’t earn your free time. We didn’t cover what we were supposed to cover in math. 

Fernando’s on the couch! ‘Monika’ yells from the back of the class. He’s not sitting in his seat. You’re unfair. It’s Friday and we are supposed to be playing. I don’t get fractions!!!

I take a deep breath.

I’m about to lose my shit. I knock on the teacher’s door beside me and ask him to watch my class. I walk around campus for two minutes, look at mountains, remind myself that life is beautiful and everything is going to be okay, then I go back to teaching math.

*

I avoid looking to my right at what looks like a 50 foot sheer drop into the dense jungle below. My heavy pack, filled with my tent, camping gear, and remnants of a week’s worth of food, throws me off balance as I carefully place my hands and feet on tree roots to pull myself up a steep, muddy cliff face. My body’s shaking, cold from the rain and terrified by my irrational fear of heights. All I can think is: Get me the fuck out of here.

We’ve been hiking for over 6 hours after a week of camping in Los Nevados National Park, and I just want to get home. But then getting home will involve another 4 hour drive in a jeep in my wet, smelly, camping clothes, and my family’s all back in Canada, enjoying the rest of their Christmas holidays, sitting warm and dry by the fire like normal people while I’m bushwhacking through the high-altitude cloud-forest in the Colombian Andes, so where’s home anyways?

*

It smells like gas. I say. The man looks at me blankly as I wave my hand in front of my nose and point to my gas tank by the washing machine.

He gestures towards the gas tank and asks me an onslaught of questions in Spanish. I don’t understand anything.

This continues for a few minutes. I’m feeling incompetent and incredibly helpless. What am I doing here? 

I type: “There’s a gas smell” into Google Translate and show him on my phone. He reads it and then types something himself.

Carbon Monoxide. I read. Is he telling me that there is a carbon monoxide leak in my apartment? Am I going to die in my sleep?

I call my friend, Jill, and ask her if she can speak to the contractor in Spanish over the phone. I hand the contractor the phone and he explains the situation to Jill. A valve was open. Some gas did leak. I’m not going to die. Keep the windows open. The smell should go away in a couple of hours.

Gracias. Gracias. Gracias. I say because it’s all I CAN say.

*

Colombia’s been ranked as the “Happiest Country in the World” twice in the five years, according to the WIN/Gallup International Association’s annual end of year survey.

So I found myself reflecting a lot about whether or not happiness is something I should be aspiring towards. (I wrote this blog post about this dilemma when I first arrived.)

During the year, locals often asked me if I was happy. Si, si. Estoy muy contenta. I’d say, after I learned enough Spanish to be able to do so. In some ways I was.

But there were definitely many low moments.

Life was really hard for me at times. I cried ALOT (especially at the beginning). During these moments, I’d beat myself up for not being “happy,” as I thought I should be. Look at all these incredible pics my other friends here are posting on Facebook about their amazing adventures. What’s WRONG with me??

Because I stuck it out during hard times, I learned some great teaching strategies that I can apply to future jobs. I can now speak broken Spanish, and decided to register for a course in Toronto so that I can continue to improve. The physical challenges that I undertook in the mountains taught me greater patience, discipline, and the importance of living in the moment.

While I don’t think I should seek out opportunities for sustained unhappiness, living in Colombia taught me the value of struggle. Many aspects of living and working in a foreign country were challenging. I often thought of quitting and coming back to Canada where people spoke my language and life was a little easier. Yet these struggles provided opportunities for incredible growth, which helped me become a stronger, more balanced, and tri-lingual (ish) person.

Lesson 3: Live in COLOUR.

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Chiva party. 8:00 am. Staff Appreciation Day in Salento

In Kanata, a suburb in Ottawa, Canada, just minutes away from where I grew up, there’s a city by-law which regulates the colours of homes and garage doors. Basically, if you paint your exterior doors purple, you will get fined. In contrast, the Colombian towns of Guatapé, Salamina, and Salento, look like a giant package of Skittles exploded and painted the whole town in rainbow. Colour is EVERYWHERE.

I’m not blaming Kanata’s bland garages on my shyness or how I’ve often placed limits on my own potential. But Colombia’s colourfully warm and vibrant culture inspired me to live bigger, brighter, and more passionately. It reminded me to embrace opportunities for love and adventure, even when they seemed like silly fantasies.

So when my friend and teaching partner, Matt, introduced me to the “20% Percent Project” which he had done with his class for the last couple of years, I quickly jumped on board. It’s a project which is inspired by Google’s mandate that its employees spend 20% of their time at Google to work on a passion project, something not covered by their job description.  This allows innovative ideas and projects to flourish and/or fail without the bureaucracy of committees and budgets. As a result of Google’s 20% Project, its employees created Gmail, AdSense, Google News, and the Google Teacher Academy.

Following Matt’s lead, I required that my students devote 20%(ish) of class-time learning about something that they are passionate about, something that adds colour to their lives. For their projects, they needed to choose a topic that they were excited to learn about, where they could apply research to creation and innovation.

They wrote weekly reflections on a blog that they shared with their classmates and presented their projects to their parents and school community in a TED-style 5 minute presentation at the end of the school year. The results of this project were unbelievable. My class of grade five students invented board games, wrote cookbooks, created craft books, created stop animation movies with characters and sets made out of LEGO, and built a model “Future House” using sustainable materials. It was amazing.

This project also inspired me to devote 20% of my own time to exploring my passions. As a result, I started the Inspiring Women Series podcast. I prioritized writing, travel, and living according to a healthy, active lifestyle. I spent five weeks traveling in Colombia with my parents, my brother, Brian, and my friend, Ashley. Then I spent most of August getting my novel ready for publication.

By learning to see the world (and myself!) through a more colourful lens, I was able to see greater possibilities for my life, and inspire my students to do the same.

Lesson 4: It’s okay to take care of yourself.

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My friend, Katie, takes time out to read a book during a long weekend in Salento

A few days ago Hillary Clinton took time off from the campaign trail to recover from pneumonia. She received much criticism for this decision, from people who condemned her for not being able to “power through” her sickness, to others who blamed her for not being more forthcoming initially about her medical condition. This criticism came to no surprise to me, as North Americans perceive taking time off as weakness.

My first couple of years of teaching, I never called in sick out of fear of being judged. When I was in university, I played rugby games with serious injuries because the culture of the sport promotes an invincibility complex. Needless to say, when I was required to take more than two weeks off of teaching after being attacked by a wild dog in Colombia, I felt very stressed out. A committed employee persists despite the pain, right?

Instead of making me feel pressured to come back to work, people from my school community came to visit me at home and in the hospital and even had food delivered to my house daily. They helped me to realize that my health was more important that my job, and that I don’t need permission to put myself first.

In Colombia, the attitudes towards self-care and rest are strikingly different than in North America. Colombia has the second highest number of national holidays in the world (after Argentina), with 18 public holidays and an average of 15 paid vacation days. Comparatively, Canada ranks third last in paid vacations. It’s hard to feel anything but lazy when you take time off in a culture where productivity is valued over health.

Living in Colombia helped me realize that taking care of myself is not a sign of weakness. In fact, it takes a lot of strength to say: I need help. I need time off. I need a break.

Lesson 5: Paths aren’t always linear.

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Maybe life’s a series of switchbacks, taking us up, down and around the mountain, instead of a straight path to the top.

There’s an underlying pressure in North America to follow a linear path. Go to school. Get X degree. Get Y job. Find husband. Buy house. etc. We are uncomfortable with living in the moment, allowing life to unfold organically. It feels stressful/ silly/ irresponsible to even consider opportunities that aren’t a tangible stepping stone to something else (especially if they don’t come with a pension or benefits!).

So when an opportunity for me to teach in Colombia presented itself to me, my immediate reaction was “well, maybe this would have been great a few years ago, but it’s time for me to ‘settle down.'”At the time, I was intending to stay in Toronto, and start building my life there. I wasn’t seeking out positions that would take me away from the city.

Since I’d never been to South America, I decided to apply for the job despite the rational side of my brain telling me not to.

A few days later, I had a great interview with the director of the school.  While I felt positively about the position, I was booked to fly to Johannesburg for a trip to South Africa later that day, and figured that seeing wild beasts on a safari in Kruger National Park would satisfy my thirst for adventure. I told the director thank you for the interview, but it is probably best if you interview other people as I’ll be offline for the next two weeks.

When I returned from South Africa, the director of the school requested a second interview. I panicked and ignored his e-mail for a day. It would have been much easier for me if he’d hired someone else. I could tell myself that going to Colombia to teach was a nice idea. But an unrealistic one.

I went for coffee that day with my cousin, Jenn, who was pregnant with twins at the time. I told her about the job prospect, and about my plan to tell the director that there was no point of going through the interview. I didn’t want the job anyways. She suggested that I go through the interview, and then decide. Keep my options open. Darn hormones!

After the second interview, the director offered me the job. I had the weekend to decide. I made pros and cons lists. Talked to my friends and family. Convinced myself that I would be better off not going. When I sat down to write the director the e-mail, thanking him for the offer, and telling him of my decision not to come, the e-mail somehow transformed into a “thank you for the offer and I’ll accept the position.

A few days later, I was offered a teaching position with the school board in Toronto. Of course. After four years of applying for jobs in Toronto and hearing nothing, I get offered a job NOW. The logical, rational, choice would have been to tell the school in Colombia about this unanticipated change in plans, and continue down the path I had intended for myself.

Teaching in Colombia was something I’d stumbled upon, not something I’d planned. Instead of finding the job, the job kind of “found me.” This experience taught me that sometimes it’s best to accept the gifts that life gives us, even if it takes us in an entirely different direction. I feel so grateful that I did.

Los Nevados: My week ‘out on the land’

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Camping by a secluded laguna in Los Nevados National Natural Park, Colombia. My carpa (tent) is the white dot in the bottom left corner.

I just spent the last week without my iPhone. I know what you’re thinking: How did I live without the daily dose of selfies from my fave Instacat? #Olivegram

@justoneolive
@justoneolive  How pretty is this kitty? #Model.

Even though I make a conscious effort to detach when I can, it’s been years since I’ve gone without the Internet at my fingertips for more than a couple of days. Many places of quiet solitude, like my family cottage in Quebec, and some of Canada’s National Parks, my ‘refuges’ from the stresses of city life, now have Wi-Fi hotspots. With so many distractions, so much pressure to squeeze in a status update, respond to an e-mail, or scroll through a database of potential dates for Saturday night while riding the subway or running on the treadmill, it’s hard to make time these days to stop. think. breathe.

Los Nevados National Park, Colombia
Los Nevados National Natural Park, Colombia

But last week, on a week-long camping trip in Los Nevados National Natural Park, I was finally able to unplug and disconnect. Los Nevados (Spanish for ‘snow covered peaks’), is a protected wilderness high up in the Colombian Andes (over 3500m in altitude), where conditions are wild and rugged, reminiscent of previous trips I’ve done in the remote Alaskan backcountry and northern Canada.

At least in the regions of the park where we were, there is no electricity or running water, no designated campsites or marked trails, and certainly no Wi-Fi. It is a place that is difficult to access, even for local Colombians.

I hope this jeep can handle lava! Driving past Nevado del Ruiz, an active volcano in Los Nevados National Park.
I hope this jeep can handle lava! Driving past Nevado del Ruiz, an active volcano in Los Nevados National Natural Park.

Luckily, I was camping with locals who knew the land really well, as cloudy conditions and gnarly terrain resulted in us losing the ‘trail’ multiple times. On several occasions, the clouds had created such a whiteout that I felt like I was standing at the top of Tremblant, the ski resort that my family often went to when I was a kid which often has blizzard like conditions at the summit.

Following a trail in a cloud forest is like a game of 'Where's Waldo' at the top of Mount Tremblant!
Following a trail in a cloud forest is like a game of ‘Where’s Waldo’ !

Since the ultimate purpose of our trip was to fly-fish for trucha (trout), we had a goal of locating a laguna (small lake) that my friend’s boyfriend had previously heard about from some campesinos (local farmers). It took us two days to find it, which involved bush-whacking through thick jungle, crossing swamps and streams, summiting mountains, hiking across tundra, and getting lost then re-routed several times, but it was certainly worth the struggle. The elusive laguna was nestled in a secluded valley surrounded by mountains and was a gold-mine of trucha. Originally, we planned on traveling overtop one of the mountains to another river, but rainy weather and great fishing convinced us to change plans and camp at the laguna for four nights.

Smoking trout for dinner!
Smoked trout for dinner!

I was pleasantly surprised by how refreshing it was to be forced to slowdown and be still. I enjoyed being able to read a book without being constantly distracted by texts or e-mails, and having real conversations with friends who were truly paying attention to what I was saying, rather than half-listening while scrolling through Instagram.

Trucha (trout)
Trucha (trout)
The sun did make some brief appearances! Good thing a 5am need to pee forced me out of my tent to see this beauty of a sunrise.
The sun did make some brief appearances! 5am sunrise over the laguna.
Frailejones, a cacti-looking plant that is exclusive to the Andes of Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador. It grows only 1cm/year, so the one in the right corner is likely 800-100 years old!
Frailejones, a cacti-looking plant that is exclusive to the Andes of Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador. It grows only 1cm/year, so the one in the right corner is likely 800-1000 years old!
Apparently the trail goes through here.
Apparently the trail is this way.

My week of being ‘out on the land’ (a phrase I often heard used by Inuit when I lived in Pond Inlet, Nunavut, to describe being in nature) forced me to truly live in the moment, which according to Buddhist and many New Age philosophies, is the pathway to happiness.

I loved being able to read without distractions.
I loved being able to read without distractions.

(Okay, so maybe one of the books I read in my tent during a monsoon was Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, which further reinforced the idea that showing up, being present, letting go of the past and our expectations for the future, and living in what he calls ‘the NOW’, is essential for spiritual transformation and whole-hearted living).

I guess my challenge NOW that I’m back in the city, is how to live without distractions in a world that is full of them. I haven’t even been able to write this post without pulling out my phone to see if my friend’s messaged me on WhatsApp or compulsively checking Instagram for @justoneolive’s latest status update.

Maybe I should start by–gasp!– turning my phone off.