Listed number one on my Must-Do-Or-Feel-The-Pain-Later list of things to do in Chile was hiking in Torres del Paine National Park. Located in the Chilean Patagonia north of Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas, the National Park is a natural wonderland of sights and sounds, and is breathtakingly flawless save for the effects of a scattering of burnings occasioned by careless tourists.
I scooted on down in mid May to hike the “W” trail, feeling dubious as to my ability to withstand the weather I’d been assured would be bitingly cold, but excited to see the splendour so many had told me of. Six days awaited me, as well as much colour, emotional highs and lows and the best and worst of all of the four seasons…
Leaving from Puerto Natales at 8.00am, I was simultaneously bolstered and frightened by the lack of people traveling to the park itself, but not planning on hiking the “W”. Upon hearing that this was just what I was planning to do, comments ranged from:
“Wow, you’re so brave, I’d never hike alone!”
“You absolute tool, you know hardly anyone’s hiking now. What if you sprain an ankle and die by the side of the trail before anyone passes by?”
…which are really the same sentiment, if you think about it.
Regardless, there I was moments later dropped off with two day hikers – a Canadian girl and an Indian guy – ready to walk the 18 kilometres to Refugio Lago Grey against the gale force winds which helpfully pushed us one step back for each two steps forward. We arrived well enough, although our Indian friend had been rendered a human sauna by the plastic lining created by his disposable waterproofs worn over blue jeans. He quickly learned from his mistake, and was found whimpering only slightly as he dried out his jeans by the fire that night.
I absolutely detest paths which require you to return via the exact same trail, and so on Day Two, I decided to leave my pack at the refuge and head off to Glacier Grey with Narcissus from Barcelona and his Taiwanese counterpart Fiona.
The benefits were two-fold: Not to lug a pack to Los Guardas campsite and back, therefore, returning one day to sleep another night in the relative comfort of non-heated Refugio Grey, instead of outside with the wind and quickly advancing frost.
The plan was fantastic, but the execution poor…as with 30 kilometres to walk and more than one hill to scramble in the process, our 8am departure time was not nearly sufficient. Hence, we were found high-tailing it home in winter’s premature darkness of 5.30pm, thankful that city-girl Fiona had an iphone with a torch application. Even the white blazes were not visible during a new moon.
Tagging along with Montreal’s Alex – the only other hiker continuing in my direction – we left early the next day for Campamento Italiano. The morning was crisp and clear and the sun egg-yolk yellow, a clear indication of fabulous weather…at least by normal standards.
However, Day Three would quickly teach us that weather in Las Torres cannot and will not be predicted. Snow began threatening to fall as we approached the campsite, and after we continued on to complete our afternoon walk to El Valle Francés (one of the most beautiful sites in the park), it was falling with rampant abandon. Very soon, our bemused contemplation of beautiful snow flakes…
…ended in us crouching under an old shelter while a blizzard-white like sky clouded our entire view of the Valley and the snow fell enthusiastically. Alex waited there, freezing and vigil-like should the skies clear; while I got the hell out. I made it back to Campamento Italiano with half an hour until night fell, while Alex, running like a banshee, arrived an hour after sunset (and not unentirely thanks to being able to follow my footprints in the cloudy darkness).
This day shall forever remain in my mind as The Day of the Douchey Park Ranger.
Having decided that I simply could not match his Speedy Gonzalez pace, I left Alex and began plodding rather than walking to Campamento Los Cuernos. My sad plod was due to a flutter in my hip flexor which had been threatening to rain on my parade and had now finally decided to throw a pain party and invite all its friends.
Crossing some of the shortest and easiest terrain of the trail was no mean feat this day, as each step felt like a cheese grater was getting busy with my right hip. Needless to say, when I finally crawled the 4 kilometres to Los Cuernos, and saw the first and last park rangers stationed at the park during the off season, I would have leapt for joy if I could have. As it was, I fell in a heap at their door.
Good Cop and Bad Cop – the two rangers – were comically tall and sweet and short and mean looking, respectively. Good was willing to provide me with a bed or at least a warm place to cook, whereas Bad (sadly also the boss) would have none of that.
Hearing that I needed a day to stretch before continuing, he responded to my request that he radio out for my bus to arrive a day later with a snort and refusal so rude that I am unable to describe it without resorting to expletives.
Bad claimed that he had no radio, and even if he did, did not know the frequency through which to contact the final refuge. My ability to master the Spanish language was so clouded at this point by pain and anger that I could not muster the strength to suggest that this was a blatant lie: As how would he himself receive help if he got hurt while stationed out here. In winter. In the off-season. Without phone reception. Or barely anyone passing?
Thankfully, an afternoon spent stretching, eating the salty pasta broth that I had been calling dinner, and breathing deeply (so as not to spear Bad with a tent peg) was enough to refill my tank for the next day’s work: Making it to Las Torres themselves.
A curious day of abundant energy, Day Five saw me soar past Campamento Chileno where I’d planned on staying the night, and continue right up to Las Torres’ base camp itself.
While the day itself was generally spectacular, some unfortunate discoveries included:
- Becoming acquainted with the immense amount of mud I needed to cross
- Noting that a mouse had eaten much of my dark chocolate
- And that the wildberries I’d picked while rendered lame the day before (you can apparently eat any plants or berries found in the park) had made my dried fruit mix stickily moist and gross…
However all this meant nothing, as I felt as energetic as a colt.
I made it to Campamento Las Torres, and far from having the campsite (and a fresh mischief of mice) to myself, I was soon joined by two Frenchmen and a guy from Tokyo.
Much conversation was shared, and Xavier’s contribution of pisco made the night and tired muscles flow muuuuch more smoothly.
As well as being a lover of pisco, Xavier was a lover of early mornings; and to that end had volunteered to wake us all up at 6am to hike to Las Torres for the sunrise.
This idea sounded wonderful the night before; ludicrous and possibly slightly mentally unhinged upon beginning walking; and then wonderful again as we watched the day break around us, up there in the mountains.
The landscape surrounding the Torres is a mess of huge boulders, perfect for scrambling up and down before picking your way back down the icy slick leading its way to the look out.
And that was it: After saying goodbye to my final hiking companions (still frolicking happily up and down the rocky slope), I began the 16 kilometre walk through the last leg of the park, and to the bus stop where I’d be taken back to the comfort of flushing toilets and refrigerated cheese in Puerto Natales.
Some of the most spectacular scenery of the trail awaited me (along with a few guanacos, distant relatives of llamas) and before I knew it, I was back in Puerto Natales, listening to my hosts’ exclamations of surprise that I had survived the cold and relative isolation of the park in May.
The “W” and much longer “O” trails are highly recommended for hikers traveling in the south of Chile. A backpack, good shoes, food, hardy spirit and several spare camera batteries and you’re off!
- Las Torres del Paine National Park is accessed via transfer from Puerto Natales in the Chilean Patagonia. Mini buses leave daily from a variety of tour agencies and will cost between $20 000 – $30 000 Chilean pesos return.
- Camping equipment (tents, sleeping bags, gas stoves, roll up mattresses…even boots and backpacks!) can be rented at Puerto Natales. Shop around for the best deals.
- Hiking is recommended between December and February, as the weather is milder and there are many more daylight hours. However, for this reason the park is very full at this time and you must make good time each day in order to arrive before campsites fill up.
- Camping is only allowed at designated campsites and no fires may be lit (only gas stoves are allowed).
- The popular “W” trail (which this post is based on) takes an average of 5 days, where as the full “O” will set you back 8 – 9. The “O” is closed during winter months, as there are no park rangers stationed there for emergencies or information.