Trekking in Torres del Paine

Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
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Trip End Jun 08, 2006


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Thursday, February 16, 2006

Torres del Paine has for years been a place I have longed to visit. Flick through any travel brochure on South America and you are confronted by images of the park´s towering granite cliffs, sparkling glacial lakes, and pristine alpine forest. And so in Chile we finally have the opportunity to visit and spend some time in the park.

From Punta Arenas, we take the bus to Puerto Natales, 3 hours north, which is our base for trekking in Torres del Paine National Park. The journey passes through some stark Patagonian landscape where the flat land seems to stretch for miles into the distance. It is a landscape which encourages dreaming to pass the time.

From the distance, Puerto Natales has the same desolate look as Punta Arenas, but once we get into the town it seems to be a little more intimate and friendly, although it is clear that it is full of tourists and not locals. It has a backdrop of some massive Andean Mountains that make the town feel almost alpine, despite it being on a navigable sea channel.

We grab our bags off the bus and wander down to Erratic Rock hostel, a place recommended to us by other travellers (6,000 Pesos or GBP6.00 per bed). We meet the enthusiastic owner Bill, an American from Oregon, who makes us welcome and shows us round the place. It seems to be full of friendly young travellers either going to or returning from Torres del Paine park.

Rachel and I eat lunch in the Alhambra restaurant a few doors up the street. Rachel´s soup is definitely from a packet and my burger is tasteless and too chewey. Its also expensive and makes us wonder if the food in Chile is going to get better or still worse as we head north.

In the afternoon Bill gives all those who want to listen to it a little talk about trekking in the park. Many of the people who come to the park are first-time trekkers, so this seems like a good idea. Bill covers a range of topics from trekking routes to what to eat. Questions from the guests include: ´should I take waterproofs?´, and ´how much money do I need?´. I can see how novices might easily get into trouble on a multi-day hike into the wilderness.

We spend the rest of the day shopping and preparing for our trip. We decide to go fairly light on the food knowing that there are Refugios en route where we can buy a meal or some supplies if necessary. Its also really hard to find appetising but easy to cook dishes in the the small understocked supermarkets in town. However we do manage to find some favourites like porridge and noodles (Oh no, not noodles again says Rachel).

We have been told that our bus will arrive in the morning at the hostel to collect us between 7.15am and 7.40am. Having been given such a precise time window, its strange that we get picked up at 8am, but at least we are on the busy bus and heading to the park. The cost of the return ticket from JB buses is 12,000 Pesos (about GBP12.00) and the bus is a pretty ancient brute that struggles to maintain a decent pace on even the slightest incline. Every seat is taken up with excited (mostly) young trekkers heading to the park.

On the way we keep stopping, apparently unneccessarily, so that it takes until about midday before we are at the park entrance just 112km from Puerto Natales. We hand over 10,000 Pesos (about GBP 10.00) each for entry to the park and in turn get a little map, an extremely heavy rubber key ring, and some information on preventing forest fires. Everything but the map is discarded in the name of saving weight.

Back on the bus we continue to the second stop at Guarderia Lago Pehoe, where we board a catamaran leaving at 1pm to Refugia Lago Pehoe. The half hour boat trip costs an expensive 10,000 Pesos (about GBP10.00), but we do enjoy wonderful views of the Cuernos Del Paine rising up from the lake (not to mention a free cup of luke warm Nescafe).

The boat seems to be packed full of trekkers all starting out at the same time as us. I count that there are a good 60 on board. This is a contrast with the last trek we did in Tierra del Fuego where we met just three people on the 5-day circuit. In Torres Del Paine, we have decided to do ´the W´, a 5 day trek through three main valleys of the Paine Massif. After much deliberation we decided that given time constraints this would be better than the full circuit which can take anywhere between seven and nine days to complete. I remind Rachel that we are now behind schedule and so we have to try to catch up a little.

We get off the boat and there is a huge queue of people waiting to get on for the return trip. There are so many crowds as we start the walk that I am saying ´Hola´ at least once per minute as we walk along the path meeting other trekkers.

Today its dull but dry, and the peaks of the mountains around are partially cloaked in mist and rainshower clouds. I remark to Rachel that the path seems very dry and dusty, probably an indication that there isn´t really substantial rainfall in the lower lying parts of the park this time of year.

As we walk on we eventually meander out of a small valley to a viewpoint where we can see the expanse of Largo Grey and Glaciar Grey. As its a dull day and the glacial waters are loaded with silt everything looks monochromatic dirty grey in colour. There are slight tinges of white and blue in the distant glacier, and a few blue tinged icebergs floating along in the pale afternoon light. The glaciar itself looks to be an enormous expanse of snow and ice that dissappears over the horizon and into a wild no-mans land.

The walk takes us along the side of Largo Grey to a privately run campsite near the snout of the glacier where we will spend the night. We arrive at the campsite feeling quite tired even though we´ve only walked 11km or so. We are dissapointed to find out that the site is overcrowded and noisy, and doesn´t have a view of the glacier. We pay 3,500 Pesos (about GBP3.50) each for camping fees and find a small patch in the corner to put up our tent. Rachel feels quite depressed by how busy and noisy the campsite is, and within an hour there are two more tents filling up the small spaces we had between us and adjacent campers. There are only two toilets for about 100 customers and they are both broken. In the Refugio nearby, Rachel tries to get some hot water and the staff are quite rude. As we eat dinner that night we wonder whether its worth continuing with the trek or trying something different where there will be less people.

After dinner we walk round the corner from the campsite to take some photos of the glacier and look at the icebergs. We pass two hours playing like little kids on the shoreline pushing huge lumps of ice in the water with our feet and trying to work out what the shapes in the melting iceberg forms resemble. Theres no one else around and soon we feel in good spirits again, and emotionally ready to tackle the throngs of trekkers and the rest of the proposed hike.

In the morning we cook up our luxury breakfast of porridge and tea before retracing our steps back down to Largo Pehoe. There we eat lunch at the campsite and comment that it looks much more spacious and clean than the one at Largo Grey. We eat inside a large tall ceilinged round wooden building especially for campers in bad weather. Outside there´s a brutal showery squall moving through and we feel fortunate to be inside. Rachel comments accurately that walking a trek thats shaped like a ´W´ means that there is a fair but of walking over the same ground twice.

In the afternoon we continue out trek over new ground to Campamento Italiano hidden in the woods at the bottom of the middle valley - Valle de France. We find a quiet spot at the top end of the camp and set up the tent next to a German couple. This campsite is run by the National Park and so its free. The facilities are similar to those in Grey except here the toilets do work. However from our end of the campsite down to the toilets is at least a 10 minute walk and I can see from the scattered remains (white flowers as one American puts it) over a small hillock behind our tent in the woods that lots of people don´t bother to take the trip.

That night we hear many roars like thunder every hour or so as we lie in our sleeping bags. It sounds like ice breaking off the high glaciers in Valle de France, and we look forward to finding out more in the morning.

Next morning we don´t have to take the tent down immediately as we are hiking up Valle de France to a lookout and then coming back to collect our tent before heading on to Los Cuernos. Its a beautiful sunny day as we head out, and after less than an hour the views open up to reveal spectacular views of Glaciar Frances and Lago Nordenskjold. Soon we see the reason for the loud rumbles in the night as another avalanche from the high glaciers in Cerro Paine Grande loudly echoes through the valley. So much ice and snow tumbling down the valley looks like a gigantic waterfall has been switched on.

We hike further up the valley until we are near Campamento Britanico where we climb up some boulders to get a view of the mountains that now seem to enclose us on every side. The peaks are over 3000m and generate their own strange-looking clouds and air turbulence. We take loads of photos and enjoy the view of the spires for about 1/2 an hour whilst eating lunch of crackers and peanut butter, before heading back down the valley. We agree that this truly is a spectacular place.

Back at Italiano we take a powernap in the tent before brewing some tea, packing up and heading off to Los Cuernos. As we walk along, we pass the shores of the sparkling blue Largo Nordenskjold where waves lap on a long stretch of the pebble beach.

In Los Cuernos we get the tent set up and pay for the camping fees (3,500 Pesos or GBP3.50). We have met many people on the trip and in the evening we eat dinner with Ali, Savannah, and Danny, all from the USA.

As we´re heading off to bed that night we see two new tents set up right in front of ours and there are some noisy meal preparations going on. As we settle down to sleep the noise level outside the tent gets louder and louder, until during a singing bout at about 11pm I ask them politely to be quiet. This doesn´t seem to have any effect whatsoever, so I find a pair of earplugs and eventually get to sleep. Rachel tells me that they are still at it at 1am in the morning.

We get up at our usual time of 8am and I am delighted to see that the occupants of the two tents are fast asleep. I tell Rachel that we will make breakfast on the picnic table outside the two tents as noisily as possible. After as much pot banging and clattering, and loud shouting to each other as we can muster up, I say hello to a group of Israeli trekkers passing by the camp. Much to my delight they have already been going for two hours that morning and sit down beside the picnic table to take a rest. Soon they are singing Israeli trekking songs right outside the two tents and I can hear people inside complaining to each other, before emerging bleary-eyed and annoyed. Revenge is sweet.

The fourth day of the hike is a long tough one, all the way to Campamento Torres 19km away at the top of the third valley, beneath the famous Torres del Paine. Knowing its a long day ahead we set off at a strong pace and try to maintain it as best as we possibly can. We are fortunate that the track is well graded on this section for horses, so its quite easy to walk quickly without having to worry about falling over rocks or down steep slopes. For the first time we actually manage to walk to our destination within the recommended walking time, it takes us 5.5 hrs to do 6 hrs worth of hiking. On the way I am amazed by the diversity of birds that keep cropping up in the park. We spot Andean condors, harriers, black headed ibis, upland geese, and large collection of friendly finches that seem quite happy to pose for photos.

As we walk on the dull day turns increasingly more sunny, so after setting up camp in the cold dark woods in Campamento Torres, we decide to hike the extra distance up the boulder scree to the Torres lookout. By this stage I am complaining about a stiff left knee and Rachel is complaining about her right knee feeling a bit wobbly. So we walk really slowly going up the steep rocky slope above the woods. On our way up I see a lady wearing high heels struggling to climb up some particularly large boulders. Its good to see that there are some people still slower than us. Our hard effort is rewarded as we get to the top of the moraine pile and gaze in awe at the three monstrous pillars that are the Torres. The top of the tallest is brushing the clouds and occasionally dissappears from view. The scale of the towers makes me wonder how people can possibly climb them - but they do - an amazing feat of bravery and madness.

Back at the free campsite we prepare for a cold night by boiling up a litre of water each for our plastic water flasks to keep our feet warm in the sleeping bags. Ali, Savannah, and Danny try to persuade us to get up at sunrise for a second veiw of the towers but we politely decline, knowing that we´ll need our strength to get back down to the park entrance in the morning.

In the morning as we´re eating breakfast, the three early risers return from their foray with a dissapointed look because the towers are shrouded in cloud. Rachel and I feel doubly fortunate that we made the effort the previous day.

We hike back down the mountain with a French girl, Rheanna walking beside us. She has been sick all night and wants some company as she heads back down the mountain. On the way down we meet the German couple hiking up who inform us that they have been sick after staying in Campamento Italiano. Rachel has also complained of feeling a bit nauseous. In some ways its not surprising because of what was seen behind our tent and the lack of facilities for the overcrowded campsite. With urgency, the Park should either provide sufficient facilities or limit the number of people entering.

We are soon back down at Camping Las Torres and we lounge around on the large grassy lawns waiting for a minibus to take us back to the park entrance. Only five minutes before the scheduled departure time we find that we are in the wrong place and we hurriedly hike over to the Refugio where the bus is leaving from. There is a bit of a melee as 100 hikers see only two little minibuses heading back to the park entrance. Fortunately Bill has informed us that there will always be enough minibuses, and as if by magic more and more appear from behind the Refugio until we get into the fifth and last one, paying our 1,000 peso (GBP1.00) fee.

Back at the main parking lot there is more chaos as there is not room on our bus (JB) to fit in all the returning trekkers. The bus driver is waving his hands and telling frustrated trekkers that there will be another bus in 5 hours. Again, wise words from Bill at Erratic Rock - he has informed us that the different bus companies will see to it that everybody gets back to Puerto Natales. I show the driver our two tickets and he tells me to wait for a moment. Two minutes later another driver appears and offers us the last two seats on his small bus.

The drive back to Puerto Natales is very enjoyable as I have been given the up-front seat beside the driver which gives me a great panorama of the country we pass through. I shift in and out of conciousness as I alternately sleep and take in the big country unfolding in front of me. When awake I see vast herds of hereford cattle grazing in green flat bottomed valleys that extend for miles and miles before ending ubruptly in lines of jagged mountains. I spot guanacos and a large ostrich-like bird, the rhea, grazing on the rougher brown hillsides. The clouds are puffy white perfection in the azure blue sky. They seem lower to the ground than they should be adding to the uniquness of this vast open space.

We get back to Puerto Natales an hour ahead of all the other buses - apparently we went with the company that had the fastest buses and didn´t stop at all the souvenir shops en route.

We take a quick shower each and fill 3 bags full of dirty laundry, which I take over to the Laundrette Milodon across the road. Apparently its named after a large cave dwelling monster whose remains were found just outside Puerto Natales. I wonder what the inpiration was to name a laundrette after it.

In the evening, we go out for pizza and beer at El Rincon de Tata with Ali, Danny, and Savannah, who we met during our hike. The company is excellent and we have a great evening chatting whilst sitting along huge bench tables the length of the room. They have a real fire inside a large clay oven which they use for cooking the pizzas. The meal comes to 11,000 Pesos (GBP 12.00) for us both including drinks and puddings.

Back at the hostel we collapse into bed to the sound of an extremely chatty and grating English girl who keeps calling everyone ´darling´ and talks loudly and unintilligently in her red-wine fuelled posh home counties accent. At times like this its nice to have earplugs.

We sleep well and in the morning take time to enjoy Bill´s home cooked breakfast which includes cereal, milk, yoghurt, eggs, fresh coffee, homemade bread, butter and jams. We say farewells and jump on a bus to Argentina.
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