Torres del Paine National Park

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January 26th 2016
Published: January 27th 2016
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Torres del Paine

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After Antarctica (See Antarctic Cruise Blogs) we head straight to El Calafate, Argentina, and check out Los Glaciers National Park. This is a beautiful place, but the crème de mint of our Patagonia plans is Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. We take an early morning bus to Puerto Natalas, Chile on the first Wednesday of the new year. This is our home base for hiking in Torres del Paine. Walking to our guesthouse we are really disappointed by the condition of the town. It is really run down, not attractive at all. The parks are dilapidated and dirty. Garbage is on the side of the road. Shaggy stray dogs wander around everywhere. For a place that gets as many tourists as this I was expecting a lot better. Oh well, we aren’t actually here long in town.

Our guesthouse is owned by a local and his American girlfriend. Finally someone who speaks English. She helps us plan our trek around the park, which we plan on starting tomorrow morning. We were originally planning on doing the full “W” trek, the most famous hike in the park that 95%!o(MISSING)f the visitors choose to do (there is also a full “O” trek that is twice as long and takes over a week to complete), but we decide we have seen enough glaciers and figure we will do a four day, three night trek that skips the Glacier Grey, more of an “F” trek. One thing about hiking in Torres del Paine is that unless you are going with an organized tour you have to carry all of your own stuff. There are a few lodges called “refugios” that have dorm rooms and food, but these book out way in advance, mostly to tour companies, so that is not an option for us. They are also incredibly overpriced. We do have the option of eating meals there too, but it works out to about $70 USD per day per person for food. Not worth it, so we decide we will carry all our own food.

We reserve a free campsite for the first night and then a paid campsite for the next two nights. The paid site has the added benefit of having hot showers and real toilets, among other perks. We also have to rent a tent, sleeping bags, and some cooking supplies, which we do from a nearby hostel. For food we pick up a few bags of pasta with sauce and some apples, nuts, and cookies. Since we have to carry all our own food we don’t want to be taking anything too heavy. Even for four days it’s a decent weight of food for two people. I don’t want to imagine what the full “O” circuit hike must be like in terms of carrying food.

We have one large trekking backpack and one smaller daypack backpack. This is sufficient to hold our clothing, food, and camping equipment. One nice thing about this backpacking trip is that we don’t have to carry much water – all the water from the streams and rivers is fresh potable spring water. This is a huge advantage, as we can carry just a single 1.5 liter bottle and fill it up constantly with cold water. Other than that we will leave everything else at the guesthouse for when we return in four days. We want to get to bed early but our neighbors are annoyingly loud until almost 2:00 AM, breaking hostel etiquette rule #1. Hopefully we will be so tired from hiking that sleeping in the tent won’t be any issue at all.

Day 1:

We awake at 6:00 for breakfast. The bus leaves at 7:30 and it is a decent walk to get to the bus station so we want to be ready. All packed up our bags are completely full. There is not much room to stuff anything else in either of the bags. Hopefully the load will get lighter as we eat the food. The bus station is chaotic but we find our bus and load our gear. The bus is full of backpackers, most likely all doing the W trek. This is one of the most famous hikes in the world so we know it will be crowded on the trails.

The drive to the park is remarkably unspectacular. I was expecting more. We see a few herds of vicunas on the way and it is the highlight of the drive. I am surprised that almost the entire drive is on a horrendous dirt road. This is one of the most visited national parks in the world and they don’t even have a decent road that goes there? More to come on this later…. Finally, as we approach the park the rolling hills give way to a gorgeous mountain range. This is what we came to see. From the bus we can see the tops of the torres, the three giant rock pinnacles that are the park landmark. Now we are in business.

We stop to pay the park entrance fee of about $26 USD per person. It makes me long for American national parks that are anywhere from free to $25 per vehicle for a 7-day pass. Not so much in South America. At least this entrance fee is good until you leave the park, as people doing the O-track will be here for at least 10 days. After paying the fee we hop on a little shuttle that will take us to the hotel (which cost about $1000 per night). This is where we will start the trail though. We have decided to go east to west after looking at the weather forecast the day before, which has called for clear skies the next two days followed by rain so we want to start with the torres on the first and second day.

We have about 10 kilometers to go today, mostly uphill. In terms of elevation gain today will be the toughest day. After a quick snack at the hotel we head off. The weather is not exactly clear, but it’s better than normal here. The wind is light and there are patches of blue in the sky. It only rains for about 10 minutes and even then it’s pretty light. We are so out of shape from the cruise that we are a bit worried about our fitness on this hike. Luckily the low levels of the park are at sea level so we won’t have to deal with altitude. Still, after 18 days of no exercise and eating our faces off hiking up this hill with a huge backpack is considerably difficult.

We stop a lot, but we are still making decent time. Lunch is cold-cut chicken sandwiches with a variety of snacks. Dinner will be plain pasta with some crappy sauce. Yeah, camping cuisine is not my favorite. As we approach the Italianio Refugio the skies start to clear a bit and we are high enough to get a great view of the valley we are in. It’s very green, but rocky and rugged at the same time. The refugio is on a river that flows through the valley, providing us with much need fresh, cold drinking water. Glacier water is freezing cold and it tastes really good when you are hiking around. We stop for a bit at the refugio and rest up before beginning another climb to our free campsite.

As we hike upwards the skies start to clear even more. There is blue sky over the torres as we pass a little clearing that gives us a view of the top of the peaks. We decide that we should hurry up because this may not last long and we speed towards the campsite to setup camp. It’s a decent campsite in the woods and we get our choice of spots still available. We find a nice quiet spot by a flowing stream and pitch our tent. It’s an easy one to setup and we are ready in no time. We ditch my heavy pack and load everything we need for our climb up to the torres in the daypack Nimarta has been carrying. It’s only about a kilometer to the end of the trail but from what we have heard it is literally straight up. It will feel good not to have to carry the huge pack.

The trail does not disappoint. It is straight up at about a 30-35 degree angle for nearly 45 minutes, including stops. Luckily it’s not hot so we manage to make it up okay. As we exit the trees we approach a rocky area and get our first view of the torres. At this point, however, we still can’t see the glacier lake, so we keep on pushing up the rocks until finally we are on top. The view that greets us is breathtaking. A steep cliff rises from a turquoise glacier-fed lake before splitting up to form the famous three peaks known as the Torres del Paine. On either side of the torres are more dramatic mountains. The sky is mostly clear, save a few friendly looking clouds that move fast over the peaks. I have wanted to come to this park for about the last five years to take in this view and now that I am here it does not disappoint.

We spend a decent amount of time at the lake, taking in the 360 degree views. There are few people up here at this time, nearly seven in the evening. The sun doesn’t set down here till well after 10:00 though, so we have plenty of daylight to work with. We take pictures and hop around the rocks for different angles. As we are preparing to finally leave we spot a fox wandering through the rocks. But this is not your typical American fox – it’s more the size of a coyote. It’s one damn big fox. He is sniffing around trying to find some food. He pays no attention to us whatsoever, which is relieving, because he looks like he can take us. We wave goodbye to the torres knowing that this will not be the last time we see them. We plan on coming up here again early in the morning for tomorrow’s sunrise.

Back at camp we start to prepare our dinner. Camping food is not my thing and we have a small bag of pasta for dinner. There is one little area in the campsite that is for cooking and it is crowded as hell around 8:00. We manage to find a spot and cook our crappy pasta. After a long day of hiking it doesn’t taste too bad. We are in the tent before 10:00, in need of immediate sleep. Tomorrow will be an incredibly long day.

Day 2:

The alarm goes off at 3:40 AM. God damn this is early. Here at the bottom of the world the days are incredibly long this time of year. Sunrise is about 5:00 AM and we have to hike back up the mountain first. We pack out day pack and grab a sleeping bag and we are off just after 4:00, our headlamps leading the way. Sunrise at the torres is very popular, and there is no shortage of spotlights on the trail as everyone hikes up as fast as they can to get the best possible view of the sunrise. It’s a bit chilly but I sweat pretty good on the way up. By the time we arrive at the rocks I am hot as hell. I know this will soon fade to freezing though, so good thing I am prepared with multiple layers.

There is light in the sky by the time we see the lake and the torres but the sun has not risen yet. It is a perfectly clear morning – not a cloud in the sky. And to make it even more pristine there is no wind at all, something that almost never happens up here. There are plenty of people up here already so we have to wander around to find a good rock to set up on, but we find one that is relatively flat and has a great view of the mountains in front of us. We take off our boots and lay out the sleeping bag. It’s a bit small for both of us to fit into so we decide to use it as a blanket instead. The sun has risen by now but the light has not started shining on the mountains yet. We sit back, relax and enjoy the beautiful scenery as the crisp morning air chills us down.

After a while of laying on the rock I notice that the top of one of the torres is a different color now. It’s like a brick red. Was it always like that? No, that is the sun shining on the rock! The beam of light slowly moves down the torres as the sun rises to the east. The sunlight on the mountain is spectacular and everyone is up now taking photos. After a while we decide to head down to the lake for some different views. Down here is possibly even better: we can see the entire reflection of the torres on the lake. We feel incredibly lucky to be up here with no wind. As I’ve mentioned this is incredibly rare. There is always wind and it is usually strong. So a reflection in the lake is a rare occurrence for sure. We take it in and capture the moment in photos. After a while at the lake, though, a light wind starts to blow. The reflection is gone, but we have the photos to prove we saw it.

After being up at the torres for nearly two hours we decide we better head back to camp. We have a really long day today and we want to get a quick nap in (we still have about 22 kilometers to go from the campsite). We are back at camp in no time and settle in for a short nap. The short nap turns out to be about two hours and after packing up we get on the trail at about 10:30. We have a long way to go!

We stop for lunch at the Italiano Refugio. And by lunch I mean tiny cold-cut chicken sandwiches again. But this is the backpacking life. We fill up our water in the river and hit the road just after noon. The miles pass as we head down the valley. We are heading for the Frances Rufugio today, where we will spend two nights before heading back to Puerto Natalas. The sky is still completely blue and the wind is very light. It’s a lovely day in the park.

As we head west we get different views of the park. The mountain that has been in front of us all day is now behind us, and we see meadows of yellow and white flowers with snow-capped peaks in the distance. Eventually we see the turquoise blue water of Lago Nordenskjolf. We walk on the edge of the lake for a long time, as the trail meanders through forests and meadows and up and down hills by the lake. As the afternoon progresses it starts to get really hot. The sunshine that was so beautiful earlier is now a menace, burning our necks and making us desperately thirsty for fresh glacier water. Luckily there is no shortage of that in the park. The cold water is just what we need to get us through this very long hike today.

As we roll into a clearing in the late afternoon we spot some people we know. Team Hong Kong from our Antarctica cruise is here doing the W Trek. They are camping in preset tents at the rufugios and eating their meals so they have considerably less stuff than we do. They are still working hard though. After a few photos with the ladies from Hong Kong we trek ahead, as we are a bit faster than them. We are really starting to get tired as it approaches 5:00 in the afternoon. And we haven’t even made it yet to Cuernos Rufugio, which is a solid hour before the one we are staying at. Luckily, according to the park map, it looks like we won’t have to be going uphill much anymore….

We roll into Cuernos just after 6:00. It is so hot now and there is no shade at all at this place. We were planning on stopping here for a bit of a rest and getting some food, but there is no point. We need shade. So we decide to power through the last 3 kilometers and get to our campsite as soon as possible. Putting the backpack back on is tough, but I manage and we head off. We find some shade on a little pebbly beach and relax for about 10 minutes before trekking on. It’s almost 8:00 when we finally arrive to the Frances Refugio campsite. Thank goodness we are finally here – it has been one hell of a long day!

But little do we know our hiking is not done today. Some genius decided to put the check-in reception 300 meters down a steep hill from where the campsite is. Bloody hell! At least we could take our boots off and set up the tent first. This site had wooden platforms to set your tent on. And it’s a damn good thing they did because somewhere along the line the pegs for the tent went missing. We search all around but cannot find them anywhere. We must have left them at the previous campsite. Good thing all we need here is a hammer and nails provided by the campsite staff, who, ironically, lived in Te Anau (New Zealand) for a year!

After setting up camp and having a shower (the have nice showers here) we head down to the refugio reception. It’s quite a ways down the hill but we eventually find it. We have brought our cameras to recharge as well, but after checking into our campsite we find out that there is nowhere to charge electronics at this refugio. I think back to the girl at Erratic Rock Base Camp in Puerto Natalas that said that all the refugios have places to charge cameras. Lies! Luckily for Nimarta, she finds some nice people who let her charge her phone in their dorm room, which has working power outlets. We watch the sunset from here. As mentioned, sunset is late. It’s past 10:00 now and I really want to get some sleep, but the sunset over the mountains and the lake is spectacular. Afterwards, I head back to the tent while Nimarta waits for her phone/camera to charge a bit longer. The walk back uphill is strenuous, especially after this incredibly long day. Before I fall asleep I look at my iPhone distance tracker. I have walked over 37 kilometers today! No wonder I’m exhausted. And I had a feeling the distances given on the park map were not entirely accurate (which claim we should have only walked about 22-23 km). It seems they must be direct distances, as the crow flies. The trails themselves are considerably longer though. Either way, I’m exhausted. Sleep comes easy.

Day 3:

Today will be an “easy” day, mainly because I don’t have to carry that huge backpack. We are sleeping here again tonight so we don’t have to break down the tent. Today’s goal is to make it up to the Frances Valley Lookout, about 8 kilometers up the valley (or so they say – it turns out to be about 10.5). The weather looks decent but there are some dark clouds on the mountains. We almost set off without the rain cover but I go back to get it soon after hitting the trail. This will prove to be essential later.

We just have a daypack for today with some food, water bottle, and jackets. It is so much easier than carrying that huge backpack with all our stuff it feels like I’m carrying nothing at all. It’s a bit chilly this morning but I quickly get hot as we pass the free campsite and start heading up. We are in a valley but it will be straight uphill till the viewpoint. To our left is a rugged mountain with a clean white glacier protruding from it. Unfortunately by now the sky over the mountain has become considerably darker. Photos don’t look that nice. I tell Nimarta to not waste her battery taking photos of the glacier with the dark skies, it may come back to haunt her.

As we progress up the trail it finally begins raining. At first it is light and then it picks up. Luckily for us we are hiking through and area of dense trees though, so we decide to take a little break under some heavy tree cover to see if the rain passes, which it usually does down here with the ever-changing weather. We use this opportunity to have a makeshift lunch of dried fruits and nuts. After not too long it stops pouring but it is still drizzling. I throw the rain cover on the backpack and we decide to head off. We are still getting cover from the trees so it’s not so bad.

When our tree cover ends, though, a totally new sensation engulfs us: wind. We are in a clearing now with a 360 degree view of the valley and it is windy as hell. The gusts must be over 100 kmh. We have to fight to keep our footing. And it’s still raining – horizontal rain flies into our faces. This is not cool. Looking around the skies look pretty dark. I’m ready to head back and call it a day, as I totally hate rain, but Nimarta convinces me to keep going, hoping the rain will pass since directly ahead it seems to be clearing. Reluctantly, I give in and we move forward through the valley.

We get some more tree cover for the next half hour or so as the rains stops and starts, stops and starts. We come to another clearing in the forest and are immediately engulfed by catatonic winds again. This is the Patagonian wind we have heard about. It’s like Wellington wind on sterioids. We are almost ready to head back now, but then we notice that the skies seem to be clearing over the mountains in front of us. We press on and are rewarded when blue sky appears over the rocky peaks to our right. The sun casts its glow on the mountains and we feel a sense of relief. It’s clearing up!

We continue up the valley as the rain stops and the skies begin to clear. We can now see almost all the tops of the mountains around us. We are in a valley that has mountains on three sides. Only behind us is the lake. It seems like we have been walking forever but we are not there quite yet. There is a final push up a steep hill and we finally come to the viewpoint. It was questionable for a while there but now it all seems worth it. It is nearly all clear and the views of the mountains and lake in the distance are amazing. There is ever barely any wind up here. It’s a truly spectacular place. I can see why some people say that this is their favorite part of the park, though I am still partial to the torres.

We spend a decent amount of time at the viewpoint, as we worked hard enough to get here. By the time we leave Nimarta’s phone battery is almost completely dead. “I told you not to take too many pictures of the cloudy skies” I say. The walk back is far easier, with no rain, and better views all around. Even the mountain with the glacier is all visible now, as the skies have nearly cleared around it. Nimarta curses her dead phone and steals my camera and phone to take more photos of the beautiful glacier. When we get to the big clearing near the glacier again, somehow the wind is even stronger than before. We have to really fight to keep our footing as we pose for a few pictures in front of the glacier and the lake. Amazing scenery but this wind is too much. We have to get back down the valley!

The walk back to the campsite is quick, even with a 15 minute stop on some rocks to watch the raging river, and we arrive back at our tent before 6:00. Once again, the distances quoted by the park are misleading and we clock about 23 km even though it was supposed to be just 8 km each way. The pathetic distance estimates make me doubt the elevation gains as well. Either way, we did a lot of hiking and we are tired. We decide to cook the remaining pasta we have after a nice hot shower. The good thing about this campsite is that we can cook at our tent. Our food is almost gone now, but that’s OK since tomorrow we head back to Puerto Natalas. Most people would continue on to Grey Glacier tomorrow, but as I mentioned before we are doing a modified W (“F”) trek as we have seen enough glaciers already. We still have about 10 km to go tomorrow (questionable given the aforementioned distance estimates the park gives). It will be good to have some real food for a change when we return to town. Again, sleep comes easy on our last night in the park.

Day 4:

In order to make it to the Paine Grande Refugio on time for the boat departure at 12:30 we have to get on the trail pretty early. We awake just after 7:00 and pack up the tent and all our gear for the last time. It was so nice to not have to carry the huge pack yesterday, but at least today is mostly flat. It’s a bit windier this morning than the past few days, but we are pleased with the blue skies all around. At least we won’t have to worry about rain.

As thought, the trail is mostly flat and the miles come easy this morning. We are making really good time so decide to slow down and enjoy the views a bit more. As we stop for a sandwich, though, the wind picks up. It is gusting quite hard now. We enter an area of dead trees by a small lake and the wind is really blowing hard now. If it was raining this would really, really suck. Luckily it’s still clear and we have amazing views everywhere we look. The dead tree forest is eerie. We try to figure out why it’s like this and decide it must have been a fire. The dead trees stretch up the mountain and to the edge of the lake. Then all of a sudden they just stop and the forest is lush and green again. It’s really weird, but it must have been a fire. We vow to look it up when we return (but of course we don’t).

Our legs are starting to get tired as we pass the small lake and get our first view of Lago Pehoe. This is the glacier fed lake where we will catch the boat back to the bus stop. Before we know it we are at the refugio and enjoying a nice cold celebratory beer. We have walked a total of 95 kilometers. Sitting down and having a beer feels so good. Especially since we still have amazing views of the mountain in front of us. The boat arrives on time and it is absolutely packed going back to the bus stop. We are a bit shocked that the 20 minute boat ride costs about $24 USD, but what can we do? It’s either that or walk back. These guys must be making bank!

After a bumpy bus ride we arrive back in Puerto Natalas just after 5:00. After a big burger at Grey Dog we drop of the gear and head back to the hostel for a well-earned rest in a real bed. After 3 nights of sleeping on hard ground I am so thankful for a soft bed (even though it’s really not that soft). We have one more day to relax here before taking the bus to Punta Arenas and flying to Santiago.

The Torres del Paine hike is absolutely stunning. It can be made difficult by extreme weather, but the days of pleasant weather will surely make up for any bad weather you may get. Everywhere you look are jagged peaks of granite and white glaciers. The lakes are turquoise blue and still on a mild day. The entire park is just beautiful and even if you don’t do the full W hike you can do a day hike to the torres from the hotel. It will be more than worth your park entrance fee. But as I have mentioned the majority of the people who enter the park opt for the W trek.

There are a lot of people in the park hiking around but we never felt overwhelmed by other humans. We had plenty of time alone just the two of us. There is no wildlife in the park so it is safe to wander alone. The only down side, in my opinion, was the state of the infrastructure in the park. There are many pedestrian bridges that look very dangerous and prone to collapse in a strong wind or overloading. Whatever the park entrance fee is used for, it is clearly not for the park itself. The bridges over the rivers look like they have never had maintenance and it did worry me a bit. One day, one will collapse and a tourist will be injured and it will lead to some change. It seems kind of dire, but this may be the only way the government decides to do something about this problem. I do plan on writing to the Chilean park service when I get time and letting them know my opinion about the state of the park infrastructure (I should know I am a structural engineer after all). I doubt anything will come of it but at least I can say I tried. The dirt road is also not in good condition. With the amount of tourists that come here they could make a lot more money (in gained bus productivity) by having a simple paved road. The animals would probably like this better too, as they would not need to breathe as much dust.

In the meantime don’t be turned off of the park just because of that. Be careful crossing the bridges and make sure to do it one at a time and you will be fine. It’s an amazing place and I’m sure you will love it just as much as we did!


16th March 2016

Torres del Paine
The most beautiful place in the World in our reckoning. With pics like this do you agree?
16th March 2016


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