When I traveled to Chile, hiking in Torres del Paine was something which I was really looking forward to. After spending a couple of days in Santiago, off I flew to Punta Arenas, way down south. Punta Arenas itself was a rather non-descript port town, but spent a good couple of days in Tierra del Fuego. I made my way to Puerto Natales, a short bus ride from Punta Arenas. It should be no surprise to you to know that practically every traveler in town is here to soak in the grandeur of the Patagonian Andes. I attended a brief orientation session being offered by one of the more popular hostels in the area, to familiarize myself with the routes, the conditions, and other practical suggestions. There are three popular multi-day routes in the park: the W, the circuit or the O, and the Q, named after the letters they trace, each taking progressively more time and allowing access to more and more beauty. I had 5 days to spend in the park before I started heading up North again, so I ended up doing the W, the most popular of the options. I spent a day in the town renting my hiking equipment – tent, camping stove, utensils. All of this is available for rent at a very reasonable price. I had lost my lovely lightweight one person tent on the way to Chile, so I had to rent a moderately heavy(which I was to realize as days passed by) 2-person tent.
Arriving at the Torres del Paine: Day 1
Book your bus from the town to the park a day in advance –although there are lots of operators serving the park. Buses leave early morning and later in the afternoon. A 3 hour bus journey, followed by the park formalities, and we were soon in the park. A short walk from the entrance, I took a catamaran to traverse the Lago Pehoe.. Impossibly turquoise owing to the minerals, the catamaran ride was a lot of fun. First introduction to the ferocious Patagonian winds – the wind sprayed the water several feet up in the air. The advice during the orientation to hike with poles made a lot of sense – just that I had blatantly ignored it. The boat ride lasted for about 45 minutes, and then I started off for my first night’s campsite at Grey Glacier. Wind-carved landscape, amazing hues of blue, floating blocks of ice which were once part of Grey glacier is what marked the day 1 of the hike. Backpack at its heaviest with all the ration on my shoulders, didn’t seem too difficult owing to the gorgeous landscape I was surrounded by. Day 1 ended up by camping at Refugio Grey – there is a nice Refugio for getting your fix of wine if you desire to. Some wonderful company on the first day of the hike. With such long days, it still left me with some time to be able to get closer to the glacier.
A couple of operators are permitted in the park to organize glacier walks/ kayaking trips. I was excited about being able to kayak right next to this massive glacier, passing a few icebergs on the way. I managed to get hold of a few other travelers who were interested and off we took the next morning. Although the waters were choppy and the conditions overcast, we managed to get on the water – 6 of us with 3 guides – 2 of them from Chile, and a Canadian working in the Patagonia for the past year or so. An hour long passage to reach the base of the 300 Km. long Grey glacier. We parked our kayaks by the base of the glacier, disembarked and explored the surroundings a bit, before starting on our way back. I would highly recommend the Kayaking tour to the glacier – priced at 80$ it isn’t the most inexpensive affair, but well worth it.
Day 2 of hiking the W:
I started for my next campsite Campo Italiano later in the day. This was to be a really long day on the trail, and the fact that this was a basic campsite with no food or refugio didn’t help the cause. Some gorgeous scenery on the way, surrounded by the towering Cuernos, some jaw-dropping lakes – but the highlight of the day was arriving closer to the campo Italiano, and being able to get a glimpse of the famed Valle Frances.
“The mighty Cuernos”
The campsite site is by the Paine river, and has a beautiful backdrop. The small sheltered area for cooking is always brimming with people, since it is so windy outside that it is almost impossible to keep a fire going, and moreover, it is illegal to cook/light a fire outside the designated areas. No surprise since the park has witnessed two devastating accidental forest fires in the last decade.
Struck by the beauty of Valle Frances and Patagonian weather:
I spent the next morning exploring the Valle Frances – it is perhaps the most beautiful part of the hike, the Torres del Paine which I were to visit on the last day would come a close second. This stretch gives a great perspective of the shimmering Turquoise lakes from multiple vantage points as you gently climb up. The Paine river gently runs along the valley, guarded by the towering, glacier-clad walls.
“The winds get increasingly ferocious, to the point where I could not walk against it without it throwing me off”
The weather started to turn a little bad as it started to drizzle, and I was on my way back after spending a good 3-4 hours on the trail.
Back to the campsite, I packed my bags and set off for Refugio Cuernos. What started off a beautiful day on the trail, turned out to be a dreaded walk under pouring Patagonian clouds. Whatever was waterproof ceased to be so in no time. Heavy boots, heavier backpack, I trudged along against a very gloomy landscape. The strong winds ensured that every drop of water hurt.Every encounter on the trail now was comforting. When I arrived at the campsite, I rushed to the refugio – it was a maddening scene. All the cabins were long gone – dearth of enough flat ground meant that I didn’t feel like pitching my own tent. I compromised and secured a pitched tent, on a wooden platform – 30$ for that hurt, but I soon forgot about it as I sipped some delicious Chilean wine by the fire inside the refugio. I stayed warm and cozy and all that wine throughout the evening meant that I couldn’t find my tent when it was time to head back – it was hard enough to locate when I was sober.
Another beautiful day: hiking to the Torres camp
The next morning was beautiful: the sun shone high, there was nice breeze, and everything smelt great after the rain. I was looking forward to seeing the famed Torres. The trail was gentle, but rather long – and the final hour from seeing the campsite to actually making it took a while – primarily because of the strong headwinds and loose gravel on the trail. The campsite was beautiful – next to a river, the three Torres looming large in the background, occasionally revealing themselves from the veil of clouds. The evening hours were spent bonding with fellow hikers over a good bottle of carminere.
Shooting for the Torres and back to Puerto Natales
This was the final day of the backpacking journey, before I would head back to Puerto Natales. The campsite was abuzz with activity at 3 in the morning, with hikers getting ready to leave for a ‘sunrise’ view at the base of the Torres. I started to make my way to the base, a moderately strenuous climb, with a headlamp, and met all the early starters who were heading back after having seen the sunrise. The crack of down, the mellifluous sounds of the birds and the streams made for an enjoyable hike up.
“The gentle trail turned to a rocky one, before leading to a boulders strewn landscape as I got closer to the cirque”
When I struggled against the ferocious winds to the base of the Torres, there were only a couple of other travelers, and the rest had all already started to make the descent. Having no gloves meant that I could not click as many pictures as I would ideally liked – my fingers were numb in no time. The clouds constantly shifted, but one of the three Torres never completely revealed itself. A couple of tra2velers from New Zealand and I hanged out for a bit, before the winds forced us down.
The descent to the camp and then later outside the park was rather uneventful. I caught a bus back to the sleepy town of Puerto Natales later that afternoon. It was Christmas eve, businesses were shut, and everyone was celebrating with their families. I had to wait another day before I could get a hearty meal. Feliz Navedad.