Half a month of travelling through Patagonia from Pucon to Puerto Varas to Chiloe and we still had half an adventure ahead of us! Next up was Torres Del Paine, the highlight of our trip. We had been looking forward to visiting Torres Del Paine from the moment we decided to move to Chile. Torres Del Paine is a very special spot in the world, there aren’t many places like it these days. It’s become a Mecca for hikers, trekkers, climbers, and outdoorsmen. People come from all over the world to play in this stunning park, and some never leave. Which is why the closest town, Puerto Natales, is not only full of gringos but also full of interesting shops and restaurants selling foreign goods.
After a quick plane ride from Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas and a short bus ride from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales, we settled in for the night at a hostel in Puerto Natales. But not before we took a leisurely walk along the waterfront and enjoyed this breathtaking view of the lake and Torres Del Paine on the opposite shore.
Standing there on the cold shore that evening looking across at the wildness and beauty that would be our proving ground for the next 5 days felt like staring into the heart of darkness. Breathtaking beauty and savage wilderness joined to create an adventure unlike anything I had ever experienced before. A bit dramatic? Perhaps, but this really was unchartered territory for me, and I had no idea what to expect. You see it all started a few month before when Tom casually (yet, as I would find out later, seriously) suggested that we complete the “W” trek in Torres Del Paine. The “W” trek is a five day, 60+ kilometer, hike through the park. We had no experience with this kind of multi day hiking and in addition we were both terribly out of shape. So naturally you can see why standing there on that shore that night looking across a dark lake covered with dark clouds at a dark, foreboding, and very mountainous opposite shore caused me to leap to some slightly dramatic conclusions.
But, true to our intentions, we got up bright and early the next morning, boarded a bus, and set off into the unknown. This is what we found
[Looking up into the French Valley]
[Looking down from the top of the French Valley]
Words cannot begin to describe the journey. It was challenging, I will say that. But by the second day of hiking I couldn’t wait to keep walking just to see what was around the next bend. I couldn’t wait to climb up a mountain just so I could see what was on the other side. This park inspires rigorous activity, and turns an otherwise unlikable chore (exercise) into a joyous, discovery filled, treat.
Torres Del Paine was everything we’d hoped it would be and so much more. We are already eagerly planning a return trip to the park so that we can complete the even more challenging 9 day circuit trek that goes around the back side (and from what we’ve herd the more beautiful side) of the park. Although looking back at our pictures I really can’t imagine anything more beautiful. I guess we’ll just have to find out!
Next up on our adventure is a trip through Tierra Del Fuego to Ushuaia, the Southernmost city in the world. Stay Tuned!
**This next section is for those who are planning a trip to the park**
A few tips about the park. We decided that since this was our first time doing anything this physically strenuous, and since we really had no idea what to expect and were unable to find much information online, that we’d just use a booking agency to set up our trip and we’d just stay in refugios (cabin-hostels) rather than try to camp. Not that we don’t love camping, camping rocks! But carrying camping gear plus out of shape lazy couch potatoes plus 60+ kilometers sounded like a recipe for disaster. The booking agency we ended up using was not so great. But never fear, I have the information you need.
First off, you can complete the “W” one of two ways. You can go east to west or west to east. We went west to east, which means that we started at the Grey Glacier side of the park. I don’t know anything about moving East to West so I’ll just stick with what I know. To enter the park you must pay a park entrance fee which was about 15,000 chilean pesos per foreigner (5,000 pesos for people with a Chilean identification card). Then you have to board a boat to cross the lake to get to the start of the trail which is another 12,000 pesos per person. Both of these fees are only accepted in cash and there is no way to get cash once you leave Puerto Natales. You also cannot use a card to buy anything in any of the refugios (except at Las Torres Central, which is the last refugio if you go West to East), so if you plan on buying food or drinks from the refugios you must bring cash. And let me tell you, after an 8 hour hike that box of wine behind the counter looks pretty darn good. I’d say each person should bring about 40,000 pesos in cash if you have already paid for a meal plan at the refugios. Some people opt to stay at the campground but eat in the refugios to avoid carrying the extra food weight. In this case you would need additional cash for meals at the refugios. The company that we booked through set up the refugios and the meal plans for us so we just paid a large lump sum for everything and we only needed cash for park entrance fees, the boat, and wine, glorious wine :)
A word on food. Refugio Grey was wonderful! Definitely eat here. Refugio Paine Grande was awful. This was not worth the money. If you can avoid eating here I’d say do it. Unfortunately the campground is closed due to the recent fire, so there is no place to cook your own food, but even a good ol’ PB&J would have been better than the food they served us.
We went in March which is technically the end of their season. The best times to go are in January and February. These are also the most crowded times. The refugios can be difficult to get during these months because they fill up so quickly, so book well in advance if you are planning on going during these months. We actually had wonderful weather while we were there, but March can be rainy. Also important to understand about going late in the season is that some of the refugios will be closed. Refugio Chileno which is at the base of the Torres closes around March 17th. Because of this and (and because of our booking agency’s poor planning skills) we were unable to make the climb up to the Torres. You can still make the climb without staying at Refugio Chileno, but you have to plan to stay two nights at Refugio Las Torres Central because the hike to the Torres is a 9 hour hike.
If you are moving West to East on the trail you will get off the boat at Refugio Paine Grande and spend your first day hiking 7 km (4 hrs) to Refugio Grey. You’ll spend the night in Refugio Grey. On day two you will hike back on the same trail another 7 km (4 hrs.) and spend the night at Refugio Paine Grande. On day three you will walk to Los Cuernos Refugio via the French Valley. This is about a 22km (10 hrs.) walk. On the forth day you will walk from Los Cuernos to either Refugio Chileno (if it’s open) or Las Torres Central (11Km, 4 hrs.). There is a shortcut from Los Cuernos to Refugio chileno which shaves off an hour or so. You can pick up the shortcut on the trail between Los Cuernos and Las Torres Central. The shortcut is clearly marked on the trail (not on the map) and easy to find. If you take the shortcut from Los Cuernos to Refugio Chileno it takes about 3.5 hours, however it is a mostly uphill hike. On the fifth day you will either start from Refugio Chileno or Las Torres Central and walk up to the Torres and then back down to Las Torres Central. If you started at Refugio Chileno and you got an early start (7am) you can catch a shuttle bus at Las Torres Central that same day back to Puerto Natales. If you got an early start (7am) from Las Torres Central you can catch the later shuttle bus at 7:30 back to Puerto Natales. You will pick up a shuttle at Refugio Las Torres Central which takes you to the bus which takes you back to Puerto Natales. You need a few thousand pesos per person for the shuttle.
Bring rain gear, including rain covers for your packs. We didn’t have any covers for our packs, and suffered the consequences when we had rain almost our entire third day (15km).
Bring toilet paper. Gross, yes, but bring it anyway. There are toilets at campgrounds but they don’t come equipped with toilet paper.
The park has a strict pack it in pack it out rule. this applies to EVERYTHING from human waste to candy bar wrappers. Even the refugios will not allow you to leave trash behind. Bring a bag for trash.
Pain relievers are good. Muscle relaxer might me nice.
Ear plugs are necessary. The refugios are hostel type situations. You are assigned to a room with a bunch of bunk beds and a bunch of other people. Los Cuernos was especially interesting, I felt like a book on a shelf. Earplugs!
Layers! You might start out with a scarf and heavy jacket, but give it twenty minutes with a heavy pack on your back and you’ll be stripping down to that t-shirt.
Stainless Steel reusable water bottles. These are perfect for Torres Del Paine. The river and stream water is clean enough to drink here. All you need is a reusable water bottle and you have an endless supply of delicious, icy cold, glacier water. Seriously there are streams everywhere!
There is no cell phone service, no wireless service, and no place to charge any electronic devices. The refugios will not allow you to charge any electronic devices. Some refugios do not have lights at all in the rooms and those that do are turned out pretty early, so bring a head lamp or a flashlight for late night activities in the rooms. Head lamps are also good for midnight bathroom runs, since they also turn the lights out in the bathrooms at night.
Okay so there’s a few tips to get you off to a great adventure. Have fun and be safe!