Four Reasons to Get Off the Couch and Go Travel

Inevitably in the life of a traveler, you are having a glass of wine with a friend, talking about where you’re headed next, and they will pop the question:

“But why do you need to travel?”

Or some variation thereof.

As if it’s a choice, I always think, followed immediately by — I am so incredibly lucky. Travel is an incredible privilege, and of course it’s a choice.

But I think once you cross a certain line — maybe it’s a number of days abroad or a surprise experience or your first foreign friend — it also becomes a part of who you are, and you can’t stop traveling any more than you can stop getting older.

San Juan de la Costa, Chile
I travel for stumbling upon beautiful moments like this, in San Juan de la Costa, Chile.

When I’m the U.S., I can be in my city of residence for maybe one month before I start to itch to be somewhere else. At two months, my leg starts to twitch and I’m booking a flight, and by three months, I’m on a plane.

I remember once in the last five years being asked where I was going next, and responding, to my own surprise, “I have no trips planned.”

Which immediately set off a major internal panic attack and frantic Kayak search for flights.

Entirely accurate self-portrait of how I get when I don’t have a flight on my calendar.

But the best way to answer this question of “why travel” is to recount one of the many, many amazing days exploring a new place.

#1: Travel for the taste and feel of a new place.

Last month in Chile, I spent a day in Bahia Mansa, this tiny fishing village on the Pacific Ocean, rugged cliffs and forested hills.  The one road into Bahia Mansa dead ends at the pier’s dusty parking lot, framed by wooden seafood stalls. At the entrance to the town is a sweet cove of a beach, where I sat in the sun, eating blueberries and cherries I bought from a family at the weekend-only market one town over.

Savoring the slight sweet-tart of the blueberries on my tongue, I watched a puppy wildly chase seagulls along the sand – only to wildly run away whenever the water broke a little too close to his paws.

Bahia Mansa Chile
I totally wanted to run after this puppy that was chasing gulls and then save him from the waves he was running away from.

#2: Travel for the lazy discovery of something new.

I had gone to Bahia Mansa with the plan to see penguins by boat, lured by a flyer left in my hostel. On the pier, a man came up to me with the same flyer, and I said I was in. Vamos!

But no, he explained, he needed a minimum of five people, and we were now just three. So, in about 30 minutes we would go, he said.

Having played this game before, I clarified: “Are we going in 30 minutes or when you get five people?”

He smiled. “Five people.”

So I settled into life on an active fishing pier, watching the bartering between fishermen and buyers. Two fishermen pulled up nets full of crabs. People approached, jumping back with squeals and laughter when the claws moved. Families came and went, heavy bags of fish in hand.

This little guy was fascinated by the just-caught crabs.

After an hour, the penguin guide hurried to me with his thumbs up —good to go, we were now five. I hustled to the boat launch with three other tourists — and it’s clear we are still definitely not five.

The guide goes back to search for his missing No. 5. We keep waiting.

This person supposedly shows up, because the guide comes back and says, “Vamos!”

Only now he checks the boat and realizes we are missing our illustrious captain. The guide goes in search of El Capitano, and we can see the outcome at the end of the pie: He is found eating a leisurely lunch at one of the stalls.

We wait some more.

#3: Travel to meet wonderful people.

The day before coming to Bahia Mansa, I was two towns to the south on a beautiful but ginormous-fly-filled beach. I spent my quick 30 minutes there fending off attacks from kamikazing flies like a crazed person with a branch — imagine the sound of bees, but twice the size.

I was not the only one battling the monster flies on this beach.

A kind family offered me a ride back to my beach town, so I took it to avoid another hour walking with these aggressive flies. (Which apparently only plague this town for three weeks in January, so avoid those few weeks if you can!)

I arrived at my hostel, and within seconds realized I had lost my phone. I was sure it had fallen out in this nice family’s car, and I was hopeful they would bring it back.

Now waiting in Bahia Mansa a day later, as I spied the penguin guide and our now-satiated captain coming back up the pier, a couple approached me, asking if I speak Spanish. Thinking they wanted to chat, I was slightly tripped up when they ask if I was at a beach yesterday and lost something.

Yes, I answered hesitantly, because this was not the people of the van who gave me a ride.

“Where were you yesterday? Were you batting flies with a branch?”

I laugh, happy my crazy performance made me recognizable as it clicks into place — this couple has found my phone!

They found it in the sand, they explained. They saw me get into the family’s car, they’d been waiting for me to call the phone to find it, and they even went to the police station to see if anyone had reported it missing.

They were so happy to find me, and me them. I exchanged big hugs with the woman, and we exclaimed over and over how amazing it was that we found each other (as the penguin guide was tapping his foot in the background, as if I had kept him waiting for hours).

We said goodbye, and I sent a big thank you to the universe for the incredible kindness of strangers.

#4: Travel for the thrill of adventure.

I have an awe- and terror-filled relationship with the ocean.

I love to be on the beach — at least 30 feet back from the waves.

I love the sound of waves crashing from my room window at night above the tsunami hazard line.

And I love the idea of body surfing, but there is no way in hell I am going in to try unless it’s crystal clear and there are at least 5 people around me creating a perimeter for sharks to bite first.

But penguins!

I will brave this shark-infested body of likely death and drowning for a look at penguins.

As we exited the harbor, I kept a white-knuckled grip on the bar under my boat’s seat as large swells rocked our tiny boat. We hugged the jagged rocks — a little too huggy for my comfort.

The guide asked the captain if we could make it through the rocks in the swells.

“I’m going to try,” the captain said. (Sometimes it’s better to not speak a language!)

By the time we got to the penguins, I was feeling quite green and had decided against my odds for making it to land safely if we were smashed against the cliffs.

Do these penguins realize their adorableness will not save them from being shark stew?

With my eyes closed half the time and a forced breath at least twice every minute, we made it back to the pier. I wobbled back to the beach and collapsed to the sand, digging my feet and hands into its warmth.

The next day, the local news reported massive irregular swells along the Chilean coast of up to 5 meters (16 feet). We had been just ahead of the storm.

Bahia Mansa Chile
The view of Bahia Mansa from a path to a lighthouse in San Juan de la Costa, Chile.

I finished the day in a hammock with a glass of wine. Seriously, traveling is the best.

Why do you travel?

When Your Choices are the Known and the Unknown, Choose Adventure

One of the many reasons I travel is for the heart-pounding moment of choice: Do I follow a known path or take the plunge into the unknown?

At home, I often follow a routine. The same route to and from work. The usual places for lunch. A standard grocery store. Knowing these places, and being known by others at these places, is what makes them home.

Abroad, that comfort and quality of being known is stripped away, and so the field of “known” is much narrower. You know where you get off the bus, and where your hotel is. That’s often it.

Abroad, I end up exploring further and pushing my limits, even in tiny ways.

When traveling, I would totally ride into the sunset for parts unknown.

Case in point—in northern Chile last month, I set out in the morning from my hotel thinking “walk,” which nearly immediately turned to “bike.” The man at the rental store assured me a lovely little town awaited just 9km up the valley with only a “more or less” hard up-hill slope.

Sold, I looked at my half-full water bottle and thought, “this should be enough.”

Now this is a rookie mistake anywhere—why in the world would you not just take the two minutes to go back to your room and fill up the water bottle? I literally passed by my hotel again on the way out of town.

But this is impatient me, who can’t wait to explore a new place, even if it means just two more minutes.

Backtrack for water? No way! I’m 100% sure there will be shops along the way where I can stop if I need it. And there are some clouds in the sky—no problem!

So let me step back now and describe where I was when I made this brilliant decision.

Pisco Elqui is in the heart of the Elqui Valley in the middle-north of Chile, in the high desert foothills of the Andes.

The average temperature in January is around 74F at 1300M (4265ft), with a whopping .2mm of rain that month. In a year, Pisco typically gets only 107.5mm (4.2in) of rain.

This clear, arid climate makes for stunning star-gazing, so Elqui Valley is home to some of the world’s most important observatories.

It is a desert nearly empty of many types of vegetation, other than an occasional cactus and some low-lying bushes. The valley is framed tight in steep shades of tan and pink-rock slopes. Improbably green pisco vineyards cover the skinny valley floor, pressed for water the last few years as snow cover has declined by 60 percent and reservoirs depleted by 80 percent.

The beautiful Elqui Valley, as seen from Pisco Elqui, where — you guessed it — Pisco vineyards abound.

The key word in all of this is, of course, desert.

I started my bike ride, which quickly turned into walking with my bike up the “more or less” hill (read: mountain.) Beautiful views framed every direction, and even though January is the height of tourist season, I felt completely alone in this beautiful place.

DSC_0965 (1)
Pisco Elqui gets about 4 inches of rain per year.

Of course, after some time of continuing to walk my bike, I started to get quite hot.

Those few clouds somehow decided it was time to move on.

And I had about two sips left in my water bottle.

With at least 5km left to my destination, I had a choice. I could:

A) Turn back. It was downhill, and a shorter, known distance back to the hotel.

B) Keep going and hope for the best.

A planner by nature, I went through the various scenarios within Option B.

I pictured myself passed out on the side of the road, lips cracked, barely able to breathe from lack of water.

I squinted at the cactuses on the side of the mountain, trying to decide if I had any idea how to get water from them (I didn’t).

I frowned at the valley floor, trying to decide if I could scale the loose-dirt slope to the river that had to be down there somewhere. Not that I could drink that water, but at least it would be cooler, and I could wait until dusk to walk back without passing out from heat.

Totally likely Scenario B: I faint southern-belle-style from lack of water and some very kind but confused (next town only 5km away) strangers find me.

Shaking my head, I looked at the road ahead.

Yes, I decided, I can go on. 5km (I really need to learn the conversions!) can’t be more than a 30-45 minute walk, and with two sips of water, that’s totally doable.

Really, I thought, the chances of me passing out of thirst were probably 1 in 50, at best.

Fear, you are not winning today.

I am woman, and I roar.

Even when slightly thirsty.

My reward: a little convenience store with ice cream and water not 30 minutes away, and very pretty town.

And a super fun downhill (read: mountain) bike ride back to my hotel, where a pristine pool awaited.

Pretty sure this was heaven on earth.

Hiking the W in Torres del Paine, Patagonia, as a Solo Female Trekker

Note: This is a day-by-day technical guide to trekking the W in Torres del Paine, Patagonia. For a related read, check out my previous post on what I learned about myself doing the W as a solo hike.

YES, you can hike the five-day “W” in Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia, Chile, with no problems as a solo female trekker.

I start there, because I searched for that clear answer before deciding to head there anyway. On the trail, I felt completely safe, physically challenged by the hike, and in awe of every spectacular curve of the path. I never had the slightest concern of getting lost.

So go do it. Go now.

CONAF’s map of the W trek, which you can get in full here:

This was my experience, with the huge caveats that a) everyone (of course) has a unique experience, so mine doesn’t guarantee anything; b) I went during high season in mid-January;  and c) I had sunny, nearly no-wind weather the entire five days.


Reading and Planning: I spent maybe an hour over the course of a few months reading about the W trek vs. day-hike options. But by far the most helpful pre-trek information was from a free orientation session at Erratic Rock Pub in Puerto Natales, which I attended the day before my trek. This session served as my Gospel of the Trail, and henceforth will be thus referenced.

Direction of Hike: The main decision you’ll need to make before you arrive to the park is which direction you want to go. I went east to west and loved every minute. This meant I did the hike to the base of the Torres the first day—by far the most challenging and crowded day—and everything felt easier from there. Some people say west to east is prettier, but when every curve of the trail reveals a view that makes you say “WOOOOWWWW,” I think you’re in good shape.

Training: I aimed for 30-60 minutes of cardio and strength training three to four times a week for about three months ahead of my trek. Totally worth it.

Alone vs. Group: As a solo female traveler/trekker, I initially thought I would need to do this trek with a tour group, but I found enough blogs before booking to understand that in high season, you’re not isolated on the trail at any point. This was definitely true. I was alone for maybe one wonderful hour at a time one of the days, but otherwise, I passed at least one or two people every 15-30 minutes. The campgrounds felt safe at night, and there is no way you can get lost—there is only the one, extremely well-marked trail. There were plenty of trekkers who also arrived alone if you do want to pair up with someone for a day or few. I passed a few tour groups on my last day, and by then, it felt absolutely silly to have even considered a tour group might have been necessary.

Reservations: I rented a site, tent and mat at four separate campsites along the trail, which was great in keeping my backpack light. Every ounce less helps if you don’t do this kind of thing often, which seemed to be the case for a lot of people on the trail (including me!).

Trekking Poles: Not having trekking poles was my one and only regret of the entire experience. They definitely would have helped on the steep, slippery descents.


DAY 1: Hard. Arrive to park plus Torres Central Camp to Torres Base and Return.

  • KM: 18, HOURS: 7.5, Elevation variance: ~750M / 2460ft
  • Reservation: Torres Central Camp
  • Hiked with Backpack: No

I hopped onto one of the many early buses from Puerto Natales to Torres and arrived at my campsite around 11 a.m. with the plan of relaxing in a gorgeous place, taking photos near the campsite for the afternoon, and then hitting the trial early in the morning. After a quick chat with one of the campsite workers—he said the weather was predicted to be bad the next day—I quickly packed a daypack and set out for the Base of the Torres.

Torres del Paine Chile hiking the W as a solo female hiker
The clear-skies day meant great views and intense sun. Re-apply sunblock liberally.

Following the Gospel, albeit with skepticism at first, I filled my water bottle with water from the glacial-fed streams. But I had no problems the five days in the park, so I count this a miracle of nature that a park with 115,000 visitors a year still has clean, drinkable water.

I kept nuts in my pocket and snacked frequently as I walked (per the Gospel again), speeding past all the folks who were sweating under massive backpacks. There are two campsites up the trail toward Torres, which is where you would stay if you want to make the red-rocks sunrise.

The last slog up to the Base was HARD—36% of the full day’s elevation gain of 2296ft was in just the final 45 minutes of ascent. I gave myself a kick in the behind when I passed a 70-something-year-old woman descending.

Torres del Paine Chile hiking the W alone
A tiny ledge, steep slope and slippery dirt is ripe for slipping—of which I saw enough to go very slowly. And yes, your path is in this photo.
Base of the Torres, Torres del Paine Mirador
I sat at the Base for a while, writing, eating, and convincing myself I could totally do the return hike. Also, I had to.

Going down was harder than the climb up, given the slippery slope plus gravity—I can’t imagine doing this in the rain and driving wind that usually batter the mountain. An hour out from my campsite, I had just three thoughts, playing on loop: Bathroom, Beer, Shoes (off).

I more or less crawled back into my site, drank the most amazing warm beer in the history of beers, cooked my first-ever cookstove meal with no burns and only a small eek!, and slept like the dead for 10 hours.

DAY 2: Anything seems easy after that Day 1. Torres Central Camp to Cuernos Camp.

  • KM: 12, HOURS: 5, Elevation variance: 150M / 492 ft
  • Reservation: Chileano, changed to Cuernos easily
  • Hiked with Backpack: Yes

I had passed the riverside campsite of Chileano on my hike up to Torres the day before, so I had nothing to gain from going back up—this time with my pack. The company that owns the campsites, FantasticoSur, very kindly checked for space, confirmed its availability, and so my plan changed—onto Cuernos for the day.

Despite the poor weather predictions, only a few clouds hung in the sky, and the wind was nonexistent enough to see reflections in the lakes.

Torres del Paine hiking the W solo glacial lake reflections
The wind picked up just minutes after I arrived and started snapping photos of the reflections in the glacial lake. You can see the wind just starting to disturb the calm lake here.

Even with my 25ish-pound pack, I loved this day’s hike. I had nice 15-30 minute stretches alone, and every turn revealed new surprises.

I wasn’t in love with the crowded Cuernos campsite, but the location was hard to beat—just under the looming Cuernos peaks. Here, I re-met a trail buddy, Zackary, a hiker from the Bay Area who was also doing the W alone. We had first met speaking Spanish (badly) in a hostel the day before in Puerto Natales, before we realized we were both native U.S.-ians. We made plans to hike together for a bit the next day.

DAY 3: Easy, then kind of hard. Cuernos Camp to Frances Glacier Mirador to Frances Camp.

  • KM: 11, HOURS: 6/7, Elevation variance: ~400M / 1312ft
  • Reservation: Cuernos, changed to Frances with a little of a hard time
  • Hiked with Backpack: 2 hours only

Over ramen instant soup for breakfast, I met trekkers hiking the 10-day “O” circuit at the shared cookstoves table. A solo female trekker from Germany, Julia, and I started chatting, and by the end of breakfast, Zackary and I had a third co-hiker for the day.

“But I’m veeery slow,” Julia warned. I assured her it would not be a problem.

We met up with Zackary, and my two hiking companions immediately launched into a slow-off, each determined to convince the other they would be the slower hiker.

As we were leaving camp, the campsite worker nowhere to be found, I decided at the last minute to collect my gear in the hopes of finding a space for the night at Frances Camp, two hours west on the trail, to save me having to backtrack to Cuernos for a  second night.

The hike from Cuernos to Frances was (again) stunning, hugging the glacial lake with distant rumbling of glaciers calving.

Hiking the W in Torres del Paine as a solo female trekker
Yet another gorgeous view on the W.

At Frances Camp, I arranged to change my reservation with just a little bit of a hard time from the camp worker (no, I did not bring a printed email of my reservation with me, and no, no one else had asked for this), and dropped my big bag in exchange for the daypack.

Just 30 minutes more, and we reached Campo Italiano, where everyone leaves their bags for the hike up into Frances Valley.

My hiking crew started up the trail and within 15 minutes, we arrived at a plaque that said Frances Mirador—thus spurring a debate between Zackary (a lawyer) and Julia (a journalist) if we had indeed arrived already at the point that should have been an hour hike in. I half-heartedly weighed in, but was itching to keep going, so Zackary and I moved on, bidding farewell to Julia.

Within seconds, descending hikers confirmed that we were not insanely fast, but in fact did still have at least one hour until of hard up-valley hiking to the Frances Mirador.

At 3,050M (10,007 ft), the Paine Grande mountain is an impressive sight face-to-face at the Frances Mirador. We avidly watched avalanches off the Frances Glacier, sounding for all the world like thunder.

Frances Mirador in Frances Valley Torres del Paine
Fun fact: Paine Grande mountain is very, very tall. 10,007 feet is like 8 Empire State Buildings or 66 Statue of Liberties stacked on top of each other. (Zackary, I win that round, but you win the Mirador debate.)

When you can tear your eyes from the falling ice, you have a spectacular 360-view.

Frances Mirador view in Frances Valley Torres del Paine
I kept forgetting this view was directly behind me. Watching for glacier avalanches is that mesmerizing.

Zackary and I decided this Mirador was beyond amazing enough, especially given the three-hour-roundtrip the next lookout would require, and headed back down. Frances Camp is a newer facility, and a lovely place to spend the night.

DAY 4: Long, and I saw icebergs! Frances Camp to Glacier Grey Mirador to Paine Grande Camp.

  • KM: 19.5, HOURS: 7.5, Elevation variance: ~200M
  • Reservation: Paine Grande
  • Hiked with Backpack: 2 hours

I decided that for Day 5 I should follow the Trail Gospel’s advice for the earlier boat to the bus, so Day 4 was going to be a big one. At 8 a.m., I hit the trail, blessedly all to myself for nearly a full hour.

I wasn’t sure if I was that much stronger or the hike was that much easier, but I sailed along the trail, halting only when the trial crossed a stark line from green full trees into stripped-bare trees.

In December 2011, a fire started by a 23-year-old trekker in a non-approved campsite raged for over a month in Torres National Park, consuming 40 percent of the park. Four years later, the return of life is reassuring, but it’s hard not to feel bone-deep anger at the carelessness that led to such a disaster.

Torres 2011 Fire Boundary
You can see the clear line on the mountain where they were able to stop the fire that ravaged 40% of the park starting in Dec. 2011.

I arrived to Paine Grande Camp energized. A backpack lighter and a lunch fuller, I set off on my last leg of the W toward Glacier Grey.

The trail felt solitary and fierce today, with the wind whipping off my hat when I wasn’t careful. Hiking along a ridge, I could see across the iceberg-dotted lake that sharp peaks were covered in towers of snow and ice—so deep that even at a distance I was intimidated by the raw menace of the place and its power to make me feel like a tiny speck on the planet.

At the Glacier Grey Mirador, I sat and wrote until my fingers froze in the icy wind. Given my worsening blisters and the extra 3-4 hours the next destination would require, I headed back to camp, nearly dragging myself in by the end of it.

Glacier Grey torres del paine national park
Glacier Grey is spectacular, and one of the edges of the Southern Patagonia Ice field, the second largest nonpolar ice field on earth.

I bought a cold beer from the camp store and promptly passed out for a few hours in my tent.

Drained but happy, I watched the sun set and moon rise over the peaks I had finished “W”-ing.

Paine Grande Campground in Torres del Paine National Park. I did all this!

DAY 5: Sad to leave. Boat from Paine Grande to Pudeto, Bus to Puerto Natales.

I had some time before the 10 a.m. boat to the bus stop, so I hiked up a path and wrote for a while. The 30-minute catamaran ride provided yet another satisfying view of the park that allowed a deep sense of accomplishment. I hiked to the waterfall near the Pudeto bus stop and sat in awe of these amazing last days.

Waterfall_View Salto Grande Torres del Paine National Park
View from Salto Grande, a short walk from the Pudeto stop off the catamaran and bus. So happy to have been able to do the W!

Just go. In fact, go now.

I wish I was back already.