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Published: April 1st 2018
March 18 - Adventure to Torres del Paine National Park. This park encompasses 181,414 hectares of mountains, lakes, glaciers and rivers in the area known as Chilean Patagonia. The simple version of the geology is layers of metamorphic rock and granite which the glaciers then carved up into the iconic peaks of Los Cuernos (the horns) and Los Torres del Paine (the Towers of Paine). The typical visitor to the park is planning to hike either the 4/5 day W circuit (the trail is shaped like a W) or the 7 to 10 day O circuit. The real hard core hikers carry all their own food and camping equipment. The lesser option is to camp but to get all your meals at the Refugios ( shelters) along the way, or the easiest option of all is to book a made up bed at the shelters with full board. It is possible to get to Basse las Torres as a day hike from Puerto Natales with a 2 hour bus ride to and from the park. As we also wanted to go to Grey Glacier, we decided to stay in the park and so booked two expensive nights in the Refugios which
gave us three days of hiking to and from each end of the W. Probably the most challenging part of organising any of these hikes is actually booking spaces at the Refugios or campsites (access to these hikes is not permitted without proof of accommodation) as they are run by different companies and the booking process is sketchy, to say the least. In order to do the full hikes, booking months ahead is advised.
We were up at 5:30am and heading to the bus station by 20 to 7 for a 7:30 departure. Prior internet research had advised that booking the bus in advance was not necessary but that had proved to be incorrect as we found out the previous day. The first bus at 7am was already fully booked so we moved down the counter to the next bus company - hence the 7:30am departure. It was a relatively uneventful 1.5 hr trip to the park, apart from the heater hose breaking and the subsequent cloud of steam causing everyone in the back of the bus to scream “fire”. Wild life spotted included lots of Guanaco (a wild, protected cousin to the domesticated Llama).
Once we arrived
at the Laguna Amarga entrance to the Park, everyone piled out of the buses (there were a lot of them) in order to purchase entrance tickets. We thought we were OK as we had bought ours the day before in town but we still had to line up to get them validated - and then everyone had to watch a short video of park rules. Other countries should impose the same tough sentences on idiots who cause forest fires - up to 20 years in prison PLUS a hefty fine.
The first leg for us was hiking to Glacier Grey, so after the entrance formalities were completed, we were back on the bus for a 30 minute trip to Pudeto which was the starting point of a 30 minute catamaran trip across Lake Pehoe. As we progressed into the park, the windy conditions became very apparent, with spray being lifted off the water surface (a dust storm on water) and the bus was really being buffeted. Standing in line waiting for the catamaran, we were hit with some really strong gusts - hiking is going to be interesting.The boat ride itself was relatively smooth considering.
After docking at
Paine Grande, most of our fellow passengers headed straight for the Refugio that was located there while we headed off on our 11 km hike to Refugio Grey. The 4 hour hike itself was pretty easy except for bucking 80 kmh headwinds, especially on the exposed high points. It was a relief to finally get to the Refugio as it was just starting to rain (as predicted by Windguru). We had no idea what to expect at the shelter other than knowing we had paid a lot of money to stay in a dorm room. What an amazing place! We were in a 2 bunk dorm, the beds were super comfy and the bedding was more than adequate with a fluffy comforter. Downstairs there was a lounge and bar (great pisco sours) with a large dining room. Heat was via wood burning stoves and they became in high demand as hikers came in later, very wet and the only way to get their clothes and boots dry was in front of the two wood stoves. After settling in, we took a brief jaunt to the Mirador (lookout) to see some icebergs up close, but the increasing rain sent us scurrying
back inside.the primary reason we had come to Grey Glacier was to go kayaking among the icebergs. However when we tried to book the kayaking trip we were informed that Kelly was too old (the Spanish word for senior is anciano which does sound a lot like ancient). Needless to say, we were disappointed but as it turned out, the weather prevented any kayaking anyway.
Dinner was corn soup, chicken with mashed potatoes and apple torte. Talking to our fellow hikers I started feeling a bit inadequate as they were all just starting or finishing the W circuit or midway through the O. Both trails had recently had snow or rain - maybe that is why none of the hikers we had seen during the day had looked very happy. Most of the Refugios are miles from anywhere and any garbage carried in has to be carried out. In order to conserve electricity, there is none at night - thank goodness our room was right across from the bathrooms as it was DARK in the middle of the night and I did not have my head lamp handy.
March 19. Breakfast started at 7am which is a bit
later than I expected but as it did not start to get light until 7:30, it all worked out. Cereal, eggs, toast etc and then we picked up our boxed lunches. The sandwiches were huge (and heavy) so we gave one back. We hit the trail by 8am for the return hike which was so much easier with not much wind. We passed many of the hikers who were on the boat with us the day before. There are limited catamaran trips and even fewer connecting buses so if we did not make it back to Paine Grande by 11:30am, we would miss the 11:35 boat - the end result would be a lot of waiting and arriving late at night to our next Refugio. In addition, yesterday there had been too many people for the cat so we wanted to ensure we were near the head of the line. We made the sailing in plenty of time and with the clear skies were able to appreciate the views that we missed the previous day of Cerro Paine Grande and the spectacular Los Cuernos.
There was a bit of a delay leaving Pudeto as we were 1km down the
road when a tourist realized he had left his phone plugged in back at the little cafe. The driver made him run back! Once back at Laguna Amarga, it was a short shuttle trip to Refugio Torre Central - what a fabulous place! It is relatively new and the huge glass windows in the dining area look out onto an expansive view including Las Torres. There was 24 hour electricity and garbage cans! Probably the only downside was that the top bunk was REALLY high and getting into it was an adventure in itself. Dinner was a well organized affair with everyone being seated by staff to fill tables - this made their serving a lot easier. I have never had such delicious salmon!
The following morning we were treated to a spectacular sunrise on Las Torres. The more hardy hikers had got up at 4am in order to hike in to the base of the towers for sunrise. As we would be returning to the Refugio, we left everything but essentials in storage as we wanted to carry as light a load as possible for the 16 km return trip. After grabbing our boxed lunches we headed out
- and being smart enough to suss out the beginning of the trail the afternoon before, were able to give directions to others who had no idea where to go although the trail was very well sign posted once you reached hotel Los Torres (10mins away). The first part was up a long incline and then down before reaching Refugio Chilleno. After that it was an easy stroll through the trees until the last km - which was a long, steep climb up a pathway on a boulder strewn, screen slope. But the view of Base Las Torres at the top was mind blowing. A welcome break for lunch and photos and then time for the return journey - it seemed to take forever to get down the last long downhill slope to hotel Las Torres and we were surprised that it only took us 4.5 hours for the return. It had taken us quite a while to get back down the boulder slope as there were so many people coming up in the afternoon we had to stand aside for them. (Hikers etiquette).
Our bus back to Puerto Natales left from Laguna Amarga at 7:30pm so we lined
up with the masses to get the shuttle to there - what a gong show. Most people bought their tickets from the kiosk but then while they were putting their packs on the bus, other people were buying tickets at the bus door - end result being more tickets than seats sold. Kelly was not feeling very well so erred on the side of caution and took a plastic bag with him on the bus. Just as well!!!!
March 21 was a rest and get re organized day - clothes went to the laundry (which was an improvement over us washing them in the hand basin) and some last explorations of the town and it’s waterfront. Every town we had been in (3 so far) had either a B. O’Higgins Plaza or street (or both). Despite the Irish last name he was a Chilean independence leader who freed Argentina from Spanish Rule in the early 19th century. That was the days trivia knowledge. And after having an ice cream cone, I can now add the Spanish words for regular and waffle cone to my growing vocabulary. And last but not least two more birds were added to the bird spotting list - the black necked swan in Puerto Natales and the Crested Caracara - a scavenging bird of prey that we saw at Refugio Torre Central.
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