Hiking Torres del Paine was everything we hoped it would be and more.
The minute you fly into Punta Arenas you have a feeling you are near the bottom of the world, and with the winter sun not getting much higher than 17 degrees in the sky – rising at 9am and descending around 5pm – you have a sense of abandonment. Abandon from the rest of the world as you sit on what feels like a little island in a forgotten land.
When we stepped outside Presidente Carlos Ibáñez International Airport, it was noticeably colder, by about 20 degrees, from the “warmer” city of Santiago. However, we were committed to tackling the famous Torres del Paine (TDP) circuit, which we had originally planned on doing 3 months ago.
What stopped us then was what we were told about the masses of people – 150 tents in campsites built for 70. Mile long lines of trekkers going from point A to B, taking in nothing, missing everything only to put that TDP notch on their belt.
Kate and I prefer as few people as possible when trekking so we had decided to go back to TDP in November of 2016 before the crowds came back. That plan changed when we met an Australian in Valparaiso, Chile. She had just returned from TDP and informed us the park was essentially empty as winter was approaching, but the weather wasn’t too bad.
The next day we booked our flight to Punta Arenas. We arrived on May 11th and from there took a bus to Puerto Natalas, a small town of about 10,000 people that laid 2 hours North on Route 9. Puerto Natalas serves as the gateway to TDP. We were told as many as 50,000 people pass through this town each week during the busy season, October – April, which is spring and summer in the southern hemisphere.
The Australian recommended Erratic Rock, a hostel in the middle of town. Since they don’t take reservations, we felt lucky to get a private room in this cozy hostel. Next door is a place called Base Camp where rented two warm jackets and a pair gloves. After that we acquired 7 days of food and white gas for the stove and found ourselves on a bus to the park the very next morning.
There are many ways to experience the park, we opted for the ever popular “W” circuit starting at the CONAF Administration building. Now that it was the off-season, the back side of the loop was closed, so this became our only option.
Day 1: It was a cold, dreary, miserably wet morning, which became wetter as the rain increased the closer we came to our start point. There were about 25 of us on the bus, nary a smile to be found among the group. Once we arrived at the trail head, we all settled in on our initiation to the park, a 17.5 km hike across the muddy wet pampas.
Kate and I took off feeling strong with our newly adopted daughter Mikaela from Vancouver. We soon connected with Greter from Iceland and his German girlfriend Katarina. Our group was now 5 and we would be spending the next 6 days together.
Greter started a museum 3 years ago in Reykjavik dedicated to the Northern Lights called Aurora Reykjavik. He met Katrina while she was volunteering in Iceland. They’ve been a team ever since. Both are excellent photographers and currently working toward opening a hostel together south of Reykjavik.
The trek to the first campsite, Refugio Paine Grande, took about 4.5 hours. It would be the only site with an open refugio. A hefty sum of 21,000 CLP was charged for 2 of us to camp. With this came a cooking shelter, inside toilets and a room with a fireplace.
Although the cooking shelter can get quite cramped, they are necessary, as the park, now a UNESCO site, has suffered three major fires in the past 10 years.
The first was in 2005, when an inferno that lasted 10 days destroyed more than 13,000 hectares (32,000 acres), approximately 7 percent of the park. It was sparked by a gas stove used by a Czech tourist in a grassland area where camping was not authorized.
The second was in February 2011, started by an Israeli tourist who lit a bonfire in an unauthorized area. Luckily, it did not have the same catastrophic consequences because rain helped control the flames.
The last one was started December 29, 2011 by another Israeli who was trying to burn some toilet paper. The fire destroyed 16,000 hectares (nearly 40,000 acres) and brought in volunteers from all over the world, including Australian firefighters.
I prefer my space when camping but understand the need for confined cooking shelters to protect the world from inexperienced hikers and other idiots out running about.
We took full advantage of the fireplace, dried our boots and bodies as best we could, sharing chocolate and making new friends. Sans WiFi, the ancient art of conversation was soon reborn.
Our new group of 5 agreed we would hike to Glacier Grey the next day and camp another night at Refugio Paine. Our international agreement between Canada, Iceland, Germany and the United States was then sealed by the sharing of chocolate.
Day 2: The day was overcast but no rain, we were up by 6 am, not because we wanted to be. The plan was to be up at 7 and head out by 8:30 (German Time – which, according to Katarina, means 8:30). We awoke at 6 am because the time rolled back an hour at midnight and responsibility was given to our adopted daughter to set the alarm on her smart phone. What she didn’t know was you need to be connected to WiFi for your phone to know to change time for the zone you are in. So, we got up an hour early and left 30 minutes late. This, Katarina called “Dutch time.” She said the Dutch are always late because they all arrive on bicycles – I’ve never heard this but I found it funny.
The hike to Glacier Grey was a 22 km round trip hike along Lake Grey. The trail was covered in clouds in the morning, but once cleared we found ourselves surrounded by amazing snow covered mountains and a lake dotted with icebergs from the glacier.
Of course the glacier was amazing with deep blue ice millions of years old finding its final stopping point in Lago Grey. This second day we experienced how fast the sun sets this far south and this late in the season. After 15 minutes of viewing the glacier and feeding on a well deserved snickers bar we high tailed it back to camp, arriving just in time to watch massive sized Patagonian jack-rabbits bounce around the pampas while darkness closed in around us.
Day 3: We actually did leave on time after spending a few moments watching 2 foxes play in the morning mist along the lake.
The goal was to hike to Italiano Camp then move on camping at Los Cuernos 2 hours further down the trail. Once at Italiano, we strung up our packs in some trees. We had been told of a mouse infestation at this site. Trekkers told stories of waking up with mice chewing through tents and backpacks to retrieve food and nest building materials. Mice didn’t appeal to us, but Italiano was the starting point of a side hike up to Britanico lookout, a valley between Olguin Glacier and Cuernos del Paine. Kate and I hiked up about 2 km, sat down on a rock and watched chunks of glacier fall to the terra below.
Returning to Italiano we had lunch, grabbed our packs and finished the day’s trek 2 hours later, camping at Los Cuernos. We cooked up dinner, met some new trekkers, and I shared some cognac with Christian, our new friend from Germany.
Day 4: We awoke to another rain free day. This was our “big day.” The plan was to hike to Torres camp, about 21 km with 700 meters of elevation gain. Everyone had planned on an 8 hour day. We managed to arrive in 5. Our first arrival at a campsite with the sun still in the sky.
Katarina, Greter, and Ryan took off to make photos of the Torres, we opted to save the experience for sun rise, risking the possibility of low clouds and no visibility. Ryan was the other half of Alecia, a couple from Steamboat, Colorado taking in a few weeks of what South America has to offer.
After dinner and another bit of cognac, we were in our tents and asleep early to prepare ourselves for an early morning hike up to the Torres.
Day 5: At 6:30 am we started our 1 km hike straight up a gnarly trail that turned into scree and then boulders, all under the clear skies and bright stars. It was a cloudless morning and offered a spectacular view of the sun rising upon the Torres. There were only about 30 people, 25 of us had been together, traveling at our own pace, for the past 5 days.
It was time to say goodbye to many, but Greter, Katarina, Mikaela, Kate and I decided to camp one more night at Los Torres campground, situated 8.7kms away near the park entrance.
Los Torres was a cold, unattractive campsite but we had no other options as the bus had left for the day. After dinner, we crawled into our tents for the last time and fell asleep to the sound of 20 horses grazing around us in a misty meadow.
Day 6: The sunrise was amazing the last day, the sky clear and from camp we had a wonderful view of the Torres. It was our last breakfast together. Just as the bagualeros (Patagonian Cowboys) came to collect the horses, we started our final 7.5 km hike to the park entrance. We spent our last hike together talking about each of our future plans. The immediate and most important plan was to meet for a big warm dinner not prepared on a camping stove and served with beer and/or wine.
The trek, along with amazing scenery, presented us with giant rabbits, fox, Nandu, guanaco, condor and our last day a little skunk waddled past us at the park entrance. The puma, however, eluded us.
It was a perfect trek with a great group of people. We came away motivated, educated, enlightened, awe struck and refreshed with some new life long friends.