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.
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?
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”
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.
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.
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”
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.
How to Book Your Campsite
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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 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
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.
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
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.
1:00pm Administration Office
2:30pm Laguna Amarga.
4:30pm Arrival to Puerto Natales
6:30 pm Administration Office
7:45pm Laguna Amarga.
10:00 horas pm Arrival to Puerto Natales
Trip Prep Day in 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!
In 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 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.
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.’
Passport: You are required to show your passport at the Rangers Station at each campsite
Chargers: there are places to charge phones/cameras at many of the campsites
Underwear (some would argue that this is optional LOL)
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
Cash/credit card (You can buy food/booze/supplies at refugios)
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.
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
Sometimes 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.
I hope the woman sitting beside me can’t smell my feet.
But I had to take off my hiking boots because my feet were swollen and sweaty and I have a 3.5 hour flight followed by 3 hour bus ride before I make it to Puerto Natales, the gateway to Patagonia, and my destination.
If I make it tonight.
I arrived in Ottawa around 7pm last night, about 24 hours earlier, to catch a flight from Ottawa to Toronto (I had spent Christmas at my family cottage in Norway Bay, Quebec). My flight from Ottawa was delayed more than an hour due to freezing weather conditions which required the plane to be de-iced and the engines reset.
So when I got to Toronto, I had to sprint through Terminal 1 at Pearson Airport to catch my connection to Santiago. RUN! The lady at the gate urged me.
When I arrived at the gate, I learned that the flight to Santiago was overbooked and would be delayed more than an hour. Once we finally boarded, we waited on the runway for more than an hour for more de-icing and for the runway to clear.
When we finally took off I knew I was going to miss my connecting flight in Santiago to Punta Arenas.
The plan was to meet my friends in Puerto Natales just after midnight (a 3hr bus ride from Punta Arenas). We were going to spend the following day planning our food, gear, and route to hike the popular and rugged “O Loop,” an 8-day trek in Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia, Chile.
Anyone with common sense would have spent the night in Santiago and given themselves a bit of a buffer in case there were delays, and to avoid a stressful travel day of plane, plane, plane, taxi, bus, taxi. But I was itching to meet my friends and get started on the big adventure.
As time passed, it seemed like my travel itinerary was a little too ambitious for the Christmas rush and record breaking cold temperatures in Ontario.
I was sure I was going to spend the night in Santiago alone. I had been mentally calculating how much it would cost. I figured it would be a minimum 250$ US to re-book my flight to Punta Arenas and another $50-100 US for a last-min hotel room near the airport. Plus meals. I had a Costco-sized pack of protein bars in my bag, so maybe I would skip dinner to save a bit of money.
It took about an hour for me to get my collect my bags and go through customs. I tried to calm myself down, reminding myself that’s there no point beating myself up for buying a cheaper ticket with another airline which meant that the airline I had traveled with from Toronto had no responsibility to ensure I would make my next flight. They were completely separate bookings. Being cheap and thrift can sometimes have consequences. Luckily, I could speak a bit of Spanish now and the agent who is in charge of managing delays tells me I have to go upstairs and hope that the next airline will re-book me. Probably for some exorbitant fee.
I email my friend to tell her that I will be spending the night in Santiago.
Instead, the next agent tells me if I hustle I can make the last flight to Puerto Arenas which will leave in 45 min. I run towards the Domestic Departures area with my nearly overweight bags.
El hombre me dijo que necesito traer mis maletas allí.
A bit of broken Spanish comes out as I try to catch my breath.
The woman nods, hands me my ticket, and gestures towards security.
When I get there I’m dripping in sweat. I’m smelly from 24 hours of wearing the same clothes and stressed from the uncertainty of the journey. I’m so thirsty because I didn’t even have time to buy a bottle of water. Remind me again why I choose to spend my vacations in a stinky state of panic and chaos?
Importantly, I’m excited to begin the next adventure, unsure as to whether I will be spending the night alone in Punta Arenas or if I will catch the last bus from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales where my friends have booked a room in a hostel.
So far this adventure has gotten off to a stressful start. But I’m learning how to accept things I can’t control, to surrender to the unknown, to stay calm in stressful situations, and to advocate for myself in Spanish.
If I don’t get to Puerto Natales tonight, I will get there tomorrow. It doesn’t really matter because the adventure’s already started. (And the women to my left hasn’t said anything about my stinky feet.)
When I was in Grade 2 a teacher at my school gave me the children’s novel, The Secret Garden, as a gift.
As I was quite the avid reader, I read it in less than a weekend. It’s a story about an orphan, Mary, who is sent to England to live with a a grieving uncle. At first she feels isolated and neglected, but eventually finds solace in a rose garden she discovers. Being in the secret garden is a magical experience for Mary and transforms her into a healthier, happier version of herself.
Maybe it was my love of nature, the outdoors, and summers at the cottage, but I instantly connected with the story of a girl who is transformed by the power of nature.
I was also enchanted by the idea of secrets; the playful privilege of holding onto information that others would never know about.
So after reading The Secret Garden, I did something that seemed like the obvious next step: I created a fake cover in the book and hid a couple of crisp $2 bills inside (which had recently been discontinued from circulation), thinking that they might be worth something someday. They are still there.
More than 20 years later, I was reminded of that childhood secret I created–the discontinued 2$ bills hidden in a secret cover inside The Secret Garden, bills which are now valued at more than 20$–when my friend, Michelle, recommended that I visit The Secret Garden Cotopaxi. “It’s literally the best hostel I’ve ever stayed at.”
Two months later, The Secret Garden Cotopaxi became my favourite hostel as well.
When I arrived it felt like I’d stepped into a fairytale. The landscape: golden grasses of high Andean tundra, rolling green pastures, and clear blue sky contrasted against the snow-capped peaks of Cotopaxi (which means the neck of the moon in Kichwa, one of Ecuador’s Indigenous languages), was enchanting. It was like I’d stepped into Mary’s rose garden, the majestic Eden I’d read about as a child but that I knew didn’t really exist in real life. It was beautiful. Enchanting. Real.
The hostel itself was as magical and special as the surrounding landscape. As soon as I stepped off the bus, I felt like I’d become part of a family. There’s no WIFI, so travellers are forced to talk to each other, share dinners together, play cards, and relax in the hot tub, basically, a kind of summer camp for adults.
During the day, we could opt to go hiking, mountain biking, fishing, horse-back riding, or even summit the volcano (this option was not available to me as Cotopaxi was closed due to recent volcanic activity).
Even though I met many amazing people from all over the world at the hostel, I appreciated being able to take time to myself to write, read, and reflect.
For me, it was a time of transitions.
I was moving back home after living in Colombia for nearly a year, and I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to leave. Part of me wanted to stay. There was so much more of South America that I wanted to discover. I wanted to improve my Spanish. I would be leaving behind a special community of friends that I had made. The story felt, in a way, unfinished, and I wasn’t ready to write the ending just yet.
But I knew I needed to go back to Canada, at least for a little bit, to publish my first novel, to spend time with my family, to gain a little bit of stability before the next adventure (Patagonia: Dec 2017!!!).
I’m thankful that the mountain air of Cotopaxi helped me to find some peace and clarity about moving forward at a time when all I wanted to do was take a u-turn and go back.
The thing I’ve learned about journeys and paths from traveling is that they don’t have to be linear. Mine is winding and twisted, with just as many u-turns as straight stretches. I’ve learned that just because you leave doesn’t mean you can’t, or won’t, ever go back.
My parents are celebrating their 30th anniversary (a few years late!) in Ireland. One of their first stops was the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin, where my Mom, who’s not much of a beer drinker, enjoyed her first pint of fresh Guinness.
This made me nostalgic for the first time I sampled Guinness in its ‘homeland.’ I originally published the post below in 2009 on Bangers ‘n Mash, my blog about teaching and traveling in London, UK. Since it is my most viewed blog post EVER, I thought I’d republish it here.
“Guinness tastes so much better in Ireland,” I had been told before my trip to Dublin. Intrigued as to how a mass produced brand could taste distinctly different in one country, I felt obligated to sample “a few pints” of the famous brew in its homeland. Prior to the trip, I had only tasted Guinness a couple of times, and was not a huge fan. I found the beer bitter and was worried that its heaviness would do damage to my dainty waistline (haha). I had also perceived it to be more of a ‘Dad drink’ so wasn’t inclined to order it at pubs (as weird as that sounds). Thus, I did not expect to enjoy the notorious perfect pint of Guinness that I would be served in Ireland.
The production of Guinness began in December of 1759 when Arthur Guinness bought a 9000 year lease on an old brewery (which had been on the market for 10 years!) on St. James Street in Dublin. The purchase was quite a risk, as the location was very popular for competitors. More than 60 small breweries had already established their business in Dublin due to its excellent water supply from the rivers Liffey, Dodder and Poddle. Through hard-work and perseverance, Guinness was able to surpass the competition. A dry stout, Guinness has just four ingredients: barley, hops, water, and yeast. Through trial and error, and pure craftsmanship, Arthur Guinness combined these ingredients to create what is now often referred to as the “perfect pint.”
By 1833, Guinness had become so popular that the St. James Gate Brewery was the largest in Ireland, and by the 1880s, it had become the largest brewery in the world. As a side note, I have a soft spot for the Guinness Brewery because I played on the St. James Gate (an Irish pub in Banff) basketball team when I lived in the wonderful little mountain town, although I never drank Guinness while I was there…
Today, 35 countries brew Guinness worldwide. However, each brewery must include the famous secret ingredient, a flavoured extract that is still brewed exclusively in Dublin and sent to international breweries so that the flavour of the perfect pint is consistent.
My first sip of Guinness in Dublin was at the Brazen Head, Ireland’s oldest pub. Dating back to 1198, The Brazen Head had been serving alcohol well before official licensing laws came into effect in 1635. A neat bit of trivia is that the pub is featured in the James Joyce novel, Ulysses: “You get a decent enough do at the Brazen Head.”
It was the perfect venue to sample the perfect pint: its “medievally, tavern-esque” dark, cozy atmosphere and cobble-stone courtyard create the Irish pub that I’d envisioned. All that was lacking was the music, which was to start in a couple of hours (we went for dinner, the traditional Irish pub food- stew, chowder, fish and chips, so were there a bit early).
When I put the ‘liquid gold’ (as Guinness is known due to its flawless flavour and profitability) to my lips, I was surprised at how smooth, creamy, and delicious it was. The thick creamy head is the result of the taps injecting nitrogen gas into the beer as it is being poured. With aftertastes that hinted flavours of rich coffee and dark chocolate, Guinness was not at all the bitter black stuff that I remembered. I am not sure if it was the beverage itself that I was enjoying, or merely the excitement of drinking Guinness in Dublin, but I was hooked. I literally began to crave the beverage’s distinct malty, mocha flavours. Thanks to Lululemon and stretchy denim I was able to put all of my waistline anxieties aside and continue to contribute to Ireland’s economic growth (in truth, at 198 kcal per pint, Guinness actually contains less calories than most non-light beers).
The next day, we visited the Guinness Storehouse, where you can go on a self-guided tour of the brewery, learn how to pour the perfect pint, and purchase Guinness merchandise. The tour was really interesting, well-organized, and informative. At the end of the tour, you receive a freshly brewed pint of Guinness. Actually, you have the option of learning how to pour the perfect pint, or enjoying a pint poured for you at the top-floor Gravity Bar, which is walled with windows and offers a 360 degree view of the city. It is worth going on the factory tour simply to see this fantastic view of Dublin.
Pat and I opted to enjoy our pints on the top floor, while our friends earned certificates of mastery in Guinness pint pouring. Did you girls remember to update your résumés?
The slogan, “It’s alive inside” is used to advertise Guinness.
Although this is not literally true, there is something magical about drinking Guinness, especially drinking Guinness at the St. James Gate in Dublin.
The pint I had in the Guinness Storehouse was pure perfection. It tasted smoother, creamier, and more delicious than the pint I had at the Brazen Head (and at subsequent pubs…). In terms of its physical composition, I doubt that the beer poured at the St. James Gate is in actuality any different than the beer poured at any other pub in Dublin. However, the allure of drinking Guinness at the Guinness brewery definitely adds to the richness of the experience, and makes you feel like you are consuming an extra special recipe.
One sign that caught my eye in the Guinness Storehouse read “There is poetry in a pint of Guinness.”
I thought a lot about what this means. I suppose I would define poetry in an English class as a “written expression of human emotion”. But another interpretation could be that, poetry is, essentially, life. Therefore, the poetry is not the pint of Guinness itself but the life experiences created by the pint: sampling Irish pub food with my brother and friends, discovering that musicians in Irish pubs seem to only play American covers and U2 (I guess I had expected the fiddle??), the feeling of panic when I looked in my wallet and realized I had spent more on a night at the pub than on my return flight from London to Dublin (alcohol is ridiculously expensive in Dublin- I literally spent 7 Euros on pints at some pubs), meeting other interesting travellers, and of course, the memory of tasting my first sip of Guinness in Dublin.
It is interesting to note that despite the love of Guinness that I developed while I was in Dublin, I haven’t had a drop of it since I got back a couple months ago*. Perhaps this is because I subconsciously know that it just won’t taste as good as it did at the St. James Gate? Although I am sure that I will order the odd pint of Guinness every now and then, I doubt I will ever choose it regularly over other options that I would, of course, drink responsibly.
Since my perspective of Guinness consumption in Dublin came from a tourist’s point of view, I am interested in learning more about whether Guinness is actually the drink of preference for most Dubliners, or if that is simply a stereotype. I suppose the commercial success of Guinness suggests that people do, in fact, drink it quite often, but do Irish people link Guinness with part of their cultural identity? Or is its Irishness simply the brand image that Guinness promotes to the world?
I’m sure I’ll sample many more pints in the future, but none will have quite the same ‘magic’ as my first Guinness in Dublin!
*Since I published this article in 2009, I have consumed many more pints of Guinness. Yet none have been as tasty as that first sip of Irish magic!
The first draft of my début novel, See What Flowers, was written in Toronto, after I’d returned from just over a year of teaching in Nunavut, Canada. (Check out my interview in Shedoesthecity for details on how living and working in the Canadian Arctic influenced the writing and research for my novel. )
In addition to Vancouver and the Arctic, much of See What Flowers is set in Toronto, particularly on Dufferin Street and Bloordale Village. Landmarks such as Christie Pits Park, the Baldwin Steps (Spadina stairs by Casa Loma), Snakes & Lattes, Toronto Western Hospital, High Park, and the #29 Dufferin bus are described in the novel.
Not only is Toronto featured in See What Flowers, but various locations in the city also inspired the writing of it. Here’s a few Toronto landmarks where See What Flowers was written:
1. Boxcar Social (Summerhill)
Boxcar Social is my favourite café in Toronto. I love the ambience, the lattés, and the back patio. One Sunday afternoon, I even saw Andrew Coyne, one of my heros in Canadian writing, there. He was writing too. I was writing. He was writing. I thought, maybe one day, we’ll both be Canadian writers. Maybe one day.
Boxcar will always have a special place in my heart because that is where I finished the first draft of See What Flowers.
It was a Saturday night in October 2015, just a few weeks before I left Toronto for a year to teach in Colombia. I arrived at the café at about 7pm intending to stay for a couple of hours. The café turned into a nightclub and I didn’t even notice. At midnight I was still writing. Some guys came over to ask me if I was freezing and if they should close the back door. I didn’t even notice that the back door was open. I didn’t even notice that it was dark out. I didn’t even notice that the café had turned into a bar. It was like I was in the zone on a long run. All I could focus on was what I was doing right then. The writing.
The last thirty or so pages of the book contain the strongest writing. They are also the most autobiographical and get as close to the truth of life as I know it. I’m really proud of them. So thank you, Boxcar Social…maybe it was the music, maybe it was the coffee, maybe it was the beer, maybe it was the crowd, but you certainly inspired something in me the night I finished the first draft of my first novel.
In 2015, I took almost a year off teaching high school to write. But I kept my job as a fitness instructor at Goodlife Fitness Clubs and taught lunch time classes from Monday to Friday at the Yorkville, Manulife Centre, and Bloor Park locations. My days usually involved writing at my aunt and uncle’s Forrest Hill mansion (where I was living) in the morning from about 8:30am-11:30am, then I would go teach my class from 12:15-1;15pm, and in the afternoon, I would go to the nearby Toronto Reference Library from about 2:00-5:00 pm.
Luckily, my good friend, Keira, was writing her Master’s thesis at the time, so we would often meet and write together at the library. This enabled us to take coffee breaks together and support each other in what can be a very isolating process.
One thing I loved about writing at the Toronto Reference Library was that I was surrounded by thousands of books. The books were written by humans. Maybe I could write a book, too. It was also great to have a free space to use for the afternoon during a time when I had very little income.
All of those afternoons spent writing at the Toronto Reference Library made for many, many coffee breaks at Balzac’s. I often brought my laptop with me and stayed there for an hour or two for a change of scene. Balzac’s coffee is some of the best in Toronto. They even have an Atwood Blend, named after Canadian literary icon, Margaret Atwood. So perhaps Balzac’s coffee contains some secret ingredient to inspire great writing.
Since she lived in the west end at the time, often my friend Keira and I would meet at Saving Gigi a hip café on Bloor at Ossington. It serves coffee, beer, brunch, and amazing salads and sandwiches. The part I loved most about writing there is that it attracts the staring artist type. I was always surrounded by others working on screenplays, articles, blog posts, graphic design, and other creative projects. Their work made my own creative venture seem less of a silly fantasy and more of a worthwhile venture.
I was inspired and motivated by others struggling to pursue their dreams at a time when social pressures were encouraging me to develop a sustainable financial plan and settle.
Just west of Saving Gigi is Bloomer’s, a homey vegan café which serves coffee, tea, beer, whiskey, salads, sandwiches, and delicious home baked goods. It is an amazing space to write, especially in the summer. It has big booths and tables, a positive vibe, and a garage-style open window which allows you to write while people watching the passerby’s on Bloor Street.
Bloomer’s is the only café in Toronto that I wrote at which is actually featured in the novel, See What Flowers. Adam and Emma’s basement neighbour, Jess, describes a terrible Tinder date experience that she had at “Bloomer’s, you know, that great vegan café at Bloor and Ossington?”
Most of my writing happens when I’m not writing. I get ideas when I’m walking or running or biking or thinking or staring into space. Or reading. I get inspired by ideas that were written by other authors and incorporate them into my characters and plot.
So when I get an idea in the midst of doing another activity, I often stop and write it in my phone. Then I email it to myself and incorporate it into the draft of my writing.
In March 2015, I marked the OSSLT (Ontario Literacy Test), which is a great opportunity for teachers to gain experience in assessment. But it is also a bit soul crushing. It is like an assembly line for grading essays. I marked the same answer from thousands of students across Ontario for two weeks straight! It took me over an hour to travel to the location of the OSSLT at the Toronto Congress Centre. I had just started writing the first draft of Parts 1 & 2 of See What Flowers, and much of it was written on the 52 Lawrence West bus as I worked a little creativity into an extremely monotonous work day.
Where I Wrote It: Outside of Toronto
While I wrote the first draft of See What Flowers in Toronto, much of the editing happened outside of the city.
See What Flowers is available as an eBook and paperback on Amazon. Thank you everyone for all of your support.
During my Spring Break from teaching, I was lucky to have had the chance to visit the Grand Canyon, Arizona, one of the seven “Natural Wonders of the World.”
It is stunning. Beautiful. Inspiring. Terrifying.
Nature has the power to stretch the limits of the imagination. When we witness the unimaginable, we are able to dream bigger and see the world through a new lens of possibility.
Bearing witness to one of the World’s Natural Wonders left me with a new perspective of how small and insignificant I am and how silly my “issues” are.
Meaning only exists inside of my own mind–what I believe to be true, real, possible. I’m only one small, speck on this Earth so I may as well create meaning that actually matters and let go of the shit that doesn’t.
“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”
“Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.”
“Curiosity is the one thing invincible in Nature.”
“If we admit that human life can be ruled by reason, then all possibility of life is destroyed.”
“In the long run, we only hit what we aim at.”
-Henry David Thoreau
“It’s not always necessary to be strong, but to feel strong.”
“I’ll never know, and neither will you, of the life you don’t choose. We’ll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn’t carry us. There’s nothing to do but salute it from the shore.”
-Cheryl Strayed, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar
In the final scene of La La Land, Sebastian (played by Ryan Gosling), plays a heartbreaking salute on the piano to the ghost ship of his life. The life he didn’t choose flashes before his eyes. It’s an idyllic life, the one where he achieves his dreams AND ends up with his great love.
Sebastian will never know the magic that could have been his other life. None of us can. When we go in one direction, we are also choosing NOT to go in another. Our lives are defined as much by the choices that we make as the ones we don’t.
All choices have consequences, even the ones we don’t make.
In North American consumer culture, we seem to have forgotten that our choices have consequences. We are constantly surrounded by an abundance of options: not only can we buy barbecue chips, we can also buy ruffled, wavy, baked, or kettle-cooked; and in spicy, hot, chipotle, tangy, mesquite, hickory smoked, and sweet flavours (to name a few). We are non-committal, sampling the various flavours without making a real decision to go one way or another.
If you are lonely on a Friday night, all it takes is a couple of swipes on Tinder to find a range of prospective dates. Then we break up with each other by ‘ghosting’ and move onto the replacement as quickly as we left, or often it seems, before we even left at all.
As the world becomes more and more globalized, it is becoming easier for many of us (especially if we have Western white privilege) to travel and work abroad. This results in an endless list of possible career paths and destinations to add to our bucket lists.
Instead of being liberated by the many options available to us, many of us become paralyzed by choice. As Barry Schwartz, the author of The Paradox of Choice emphasizes, this culture of “over-choice” has detrimental outcomes as it prevents us from contributing to society in a meaningful way. We fail to choose because we don’t want to feel the pain or regret that’s associated with making the wrong choice. But we aren’t helping society or ourselves by doing nothing.
We only need to look at the recent US election, where nearly half of all registered voters didn’t vote, to see the consequences of the choices that people don’t make (read: Trump).
It’s important to “own” our choices.
Instead of being non-committal, we need to own the choices that we make. This allows us to continue making subsequent choices: either to correct mistakes that we made or continue in a similar direction. By making a decision, even if its the wrong decision, we put ourselves in a position to do something about the consequences if necessary.
In the last decade, I’ve worked as a teacher in three different countries and five different cities. Now that I’m back home, I’m feeling envious of friends who chose to stay in one place. As Facebook and Instagram constantly remind me, they now have stable careers, happy families, and financial security.
This has left me wondering: should I have stayed home too?
Maybe then, I too, would be where they are. Maybe I would have the job I’m seeking now. Maybe I’d have savings instead of debt. Maybe a man I loved wouldn’t have chosen someone else. Maybe I’d be happier. Maybe none of these things would have happened. Maybe all of them would have.
Importantly, though, the choices I have made have led me to who I am now.
I’ve trekked through expeditions in the Andes, Alaska, and the Arctic. I can speak English, French, and Spanish and a few phrases in Inuktitut. I’ve learned to understand and forgive myself more. I’ve met incredible friends all over the world. I can reconcile with the fact that I lived authentically, and made the decisions that I thought were right at the time with the information I had. So any thoughts of regret or feelings of envy are connected to a sense of entitlement over the path I didn’t choose.
By “owning” my choices, I’m better able to appreciate that I chose a different path, the one that was more authentically me. Just because my life looks different than some of my friends’ right now, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have its own unique value.
Fear and unworthiness lead us astray.
There have definitely been a few occasions in my life where I’ve made decisions knowing that they were wrong for me. While I have tried to be self-compassionate (I’m human and make mistakes), I’ve realized that in these situations, my inability to make the right decision was blocked by one of two elements:fear or unworthiness.
Here’s one example:
When I was in university I didn’t try out for the basketball team. I went to the training camp, saw how competitive the tryouts were going to be, and decided that I probably wasn’t good enough to make the team. I spoke to the basketball coach after the training camp and he told me that he wasn’t sure if I would make it. He couldn’t say yes or no. He would decide at tryouts.
But I never went to the try-outs. I was afraid of getting cut, so I didn’t go.
I chose to play rugby instead, which ended up being a great experience overall and connected me with an incredible group of lifelong friends who I still hang out with regularly. So everything worked out and in many ways I feel grateful for the choice that I made. But there was always this nagging desire to play basketball. I even spent the whole summer after first year training to tryout for the basketball team the next year. (I didn’t.)
In hindsight, it would have been much better for me if I would have tried out for the basketball team and let the coach decide whether or not I was good enough. At the end of the day, the person who put a value on my worth, the person who decided that I wasn’t good enough, was me.
My fear of getting cut had two negative consequences.
The first is that it prevented me from succeeding. I didn’t try so I didn’t make it.
The second is that it held me back from embracing the path that I’d chosen: rugby, whole-heartedly. I could have spent my summer after first year devoting myself to becoming a better rugby player, which would have been a more valuable contribution to the rugby team. But I didn’t. This taught me that when we fail to choose authentically, we don’t only hurt ourselves; we hurt the people around us as well.
Similar scenarios unfold all of the time in relationships.
Someone I loved very much told me that we couldn’t be together because he “wasn’t good enough for me.” This made me very sad because he was the person who decided he was not worthy of the relationship, not me.
It was very difficult for me to accept when I learned that he had chosen to be with someone else, because it made me wonder: Is he settling for less because he doesn’t feel like he is worthy of what he actually wants?
In the end, I realized that I can only control the choices that I make, and with time and tears (lots and lots of tears!), I worked on letting go, even though it was not what I wanted. While I chose him, I had to learn to accept that he didn’t choose me, whether or not I agreed with his justifications for not doing so.
Back to Sebastian and La La Land.
When the life Sebastian didn’t choose flashes before his eyes, he doesn’t try to fight it or change it. He doesn’t act entitled to it. He accepts it with tragic grace.
Sebastian made a choice to follow his dreams and he pursued that path with everything he had. He made a commitment to live authentically, and didn’t hold himself back due to fear of failure or regret or a sense of unworthiness. He went all in, and embraced his choice wholeheartedly.
The choices we make will define our lives, as well as the many versions of the lives we don’t have. So when we make choices, we need to be prepared to salute those ghost ships from the shore as they pass us by.
This means being able to ask ourselves two important questions:
Can I accept the choices I’ve made?
Am I living the life I imagined?
Since we can’t predict the future, we will never know the outcomes of our choices before we make them. Being able to answer “yes” to these two questions is the best that any of us can hope for.
The only life to which we are entitled is the one we are living right now, so we owe it to ourselves to choose the life we want to be living.
I wasn’t in Times Square when the ball dropped, but arrived a few days later to kick off 2017 in what’s arguably the world’s greatest city.
Other than a quick jaunt into the city during a 12 hour layover to Toronto from Ecuador, this was my first time in NYC. All I can say after my short visit: 4 days, 3 nights, is that I want to go back. Many, many times.
From 2009-2010, I lived in London, UK, another one of the world’s great cities. Even though I lived and worked there, met some lifelong friends, connected with locals, and even played on a rugby team, I still don’t feel like I really KNOW London. I’ll never be able to go to all of the pubs, cute little cafés, bookstores, or visit all of the unique neighbourhoods. No matter how many times I go back, I’ll never really know London. New York felt the same: every trip will be filled with new discoveries, new adventures, new possibilities, new mistakes, new lessons.
Maybe this is what makes a city great: a combination of sameness and newness, predictability and adventure, traditional and modern, stale and fresh. It’s nodding to the past while looking to the future.
There’s the awe and nostalgia of walking in the theatre district and imagining all of the stars who performed there. Or spending nights in gritty comedy clubs, wondering which celebrities once got their big break in the same run-down bars, likely hovering over the toilet seat because it was too disgusting to sit on, just like you did. There’s the fascination of staring at fancy cars with tinted windows, imagining that they might be escorting A-Listers, or picturing the cute barista who served your Grande Bold at Starbucks as the new McHottie in the next season of Grey’s Anatomy. It’s where dreams are made but also interrupted.
While in New York, I was reminded that everyone starts somewhere, and that what we are doing right now doesn’t make us who we are. It was also a refreshing lesson that life is full of surprises, from stumbling upon inspiring street art on the High Line, to discovering the most delicious pizza I’ve ever tasted in Midtown, to practising my Spanish at 2am in Greenwich Village, to reconnecting with friends in Hells Kitchen.
New York helped me realize that greatness doesn’t come without struggle, and that the struggle always takes us somewhere, even if it wasn’t where we thought we’d be going. So I guess there’s no other option than to accept the struggle, to stick with it, and not to beat myself up if I ate too much pizza or drank too much beer along the way, as tomorrow will always be a new adventure and New York will always be there.