Puerto Natales, Chile
We went to Puerto Natales to prepare for our nearby trek in Parque National Torres del Paine (TDP). The little city was bigger then we expected, but did not offer much other then shops to assist in your hikes. We went to the Erratic Rock Hostel where a guide gives a free talk every day on what to expect on the trails. It might have made Taylor even more nervous rather than making her feel more prepared. But in retrospect it was extremely helpful. They talked the route, what to eat, and warned of the famous Patagonia weather that would beat you up for the coming days. Afterward, we walked around for 30 minutes searching for a dehydrated food store. I think we passed it three times before we finally saw it. We stocked up on food for our trek and stopped by the bus station to buy tickets to TDP as well as the city transfers we would need for our remaining time in Patagonia. It was a huge relief to have everything booked ahead of time for once.
We did the "W Circuit", the major five day hike through TDP. There is also the nine day "O Circuit" and day hikes available. We booked this back in October because availability is extremely limited, and camp site reservations are required in order to start the hike. So our entire trip to South America had to fall into line so that we arrived in TDP on February 8th. It was super confusing to figure out where to be each night along the trail. The internet information is still limited or in Spanish, but our itinerary worked out pretty well. Now we feel like experts on this park! We apologize for getting a little heavy into the logistics, but hopefully we might help someone else plan their trip.
Day 1: Refugio Grey 7.5 miles
We woke up early and caught the bus to the park. It was a 2 hour drive to the park and when you arrive you wait in an incredibly long line to pay your entrance fee. You would think they would figure out a better system! After paying the fee we hopped back on the bus to ride to the catamaran port. It's a 30 minute catamaran ride to Paine Grande where we started our hike. The boat ride offered amazing views of the mountains we would get to know so well in the following days. If not for being so removed from the world, the catamaran ride alone would be considered a top tourist destination.
We landed and started hiking up to Refugio Grey. It was slightly windy but sunny and warm. The trail was gradually uphill with a few steep climbs until we reached the first viewpoint of Glacier Grey. Grey is impressive on its own, but seeing Perito Moreno a few days earlier kind of lessened its impact. After snapping some pictures we started the very steep and rocky climb down to the Refugio. We could see the glacier most of the way down which was a welcomed distraction.
The Refugio's were way nicer than what we expected. They were very nice, like little ski lodges. We realized TdP can be as luxurious or rugged as you want, as long as you make your bookings when there is still availability. We dropped our stuff in the dorm room we had for the night and hiked another 30 minutes to the second lookout. We scrambled along some rocks and got a great up-close view of the glacier and iceberg without another hiker in sight.
Day 2: Camping Paine Grande 10.5 miles
We woke up refreshed, made some breakfast and hit the trail back to Paine Grande. It was the same route we had taken the day before so we knew what to expect: a steep uphill climb to the viewpoint then gradually downhill back to the valley. It was a little more overcast but we never got hit with rain or heavy wind. Where was the crazy TDP weather we were supposed to be fighting against?
We made it down to Paine Grande and setup for our first night of camping. Refugio Paine Grande is twice the size as Refugio Grey with a huge field surrounding it. The campers setup at the base of two hills that surround the Refugio. We setup our tent and tied it down tightly, then set out on a quick day hike to the Pehoé lookout about an hour from the Refugio. It was a really pretty hike along the side of lake Pehoé across from the mountains. The wind picked up as we hiked and the clouds started rolling in as we headed back to camp.
That night it never rained but the famous Patagonia wind showed up. Our poor little tent didn't stand a chance despite many "experts" telling us we would be fine. Halfway through the night the fly ripped at the seams, the hooks on the tent were ripped off and the poles collapsed on us. Needless to say we didn't get much sleep and started packing up around 5:30am. As icing on the cake, the bag for our now useless tent was whipped away in what must have been an 75 mph gust of wind. We now had the pleasure of stressing about our shelter for the final two nights.
Day 3: Camping Los Cuernos 12 miles
Before we left Paine Grande, we were able to confirm with the next camp that they had a tent rental available. We set out on the trail a bit tired but happy that we would have a place to sleep once we arrived. The wind was still howling as we started for the middle part of the W, the French Valley. As we walked along a lake we could see the wind picking up the water and forming waterspouts. We ducked behind some trees every few minutes to make sure we stayed dry. It was a fairly easy hike to the valley despite the never ending wind. We crossed a rickety suspension bridge and dropped our bags at Camp Italiano to do the out and back valley hike. The hike up was the hardest part of the trail we faced so far. It was incredibly steep and at times we were rock climbing up instead of hiking. We were thankful we ditched our packs! As we climbed out of the trees the wind hit us at full force. We could barely stand up without it knocking us over. We huddled against some rocks to take in the view of hanging glaciers and valley below.
We reached the bottom, ate a quick lunch then started the two hour hike to Los Cuernos. The landscape changed to more shrubs and greenery as we made our way downhill to a rocky beach. The water was the cloudy turquoise blue as the other lakes and was pretty cold. It felt great to splash some water on our faces before heading down the rest of the beach to the camp.
Los Cuernos and Chileno require you purchase full board, meaning you cannot cook at the campsites. While they are more expensive than the other camps, it was pretty nice to be able to relax and not prepare a meal. The food was also way better than the rice meals and salami we had been cooking. The camping area is hidden among the trees to help with wind protection. Our rental tent was already setup and after sitting in it for five minutes you could already tell it would hold up way better than our tent did!
Day 4: Camping Chileno 8 miles
We both slept like the dead since we didn't have to worry about the tent collapsing on us. After a quick breakfast we took off for what we had heard would be the toughest day of the trail. We started climbing up along the hill beside the lake for about an hour before turning north for the final leg of the W. The forest changed to an open meadow at the foot of the mountain. We became complete exposed to the wind and the uphill started to our final camp. The trail wasn't hard, but you are completely exposed to the elements with nowhere to stop and rest. We were hit with 50-60 mph winds that never stopped. It was brutal. Without hiking poles we definitely would have blown over. It felt like we were being beat up by the wind. Everything hurt. We kept climbing up and every time we reached the top of one hill you would see the next one we had to face. It felt like it would never end. Taylor was starting to question her sanity and why she ever thought we should do this hike.
When we hit the final stretch of the day, I didn't think it was possible but the wind was even stronger. It's the most popular trail in the park and it was surprising to us that it had no safety measures built in. The trail was barely one person wide and you are 300 feet above the raging river below. There were no railings or even wooden planks to stop the trail from eroding. We were walking into the wind and kept getting knocked over. In the US we would have probably been cabled in to the mountain. It was by far one of the craziest things we have ever done. As we walked around a death defying corner the winds finally started letting up and the trail widened as it started downhill into a valley. Refugio Chileno is at the bottom of the valley with the camping area among the trees. We got the last tent rental they had and it was already setup (yay)! While we only hiked 4.5 hours that day, we understood why it is considered the hardest day and were completely exhausted.
Day 5: The Torres and Finished 10 miles
When we had gone to the Erratic Rock Talk before starting, the girl gave us a rundown on how to see the Torres at sunrise. Taylor was at a low point after day 4 and was pretty convinced that we were going get all the way there and it be raining or covered in clouds. Never the less we decided to give it a go and woke up at 4 am to hike 2 hours in the dark. The map says the last hour is the steepest and most difficult part of the entire trail. You climb over 400 meters in elevation 1 km. We were dreading it, but it really ended up not being that bad. As crazy as it sounds, hiking in the dark made it easier. We could only the 5-10 feet in front of us. When you rested you couldn't look up and see how much further you had to go or how much more climbing we had. Sunrise was at 6:52, and we made it up the Towers by 6:20. It was starting to get light as we reached the top and we could finally see what we had climbed. It was definitely better that we couldn't see it before we started!
It was very cold at the top with a couple snow flurries. Luckily we had followed the advice from the guide talk and brought extra layers and a sleeping bag to wrap up in. We found a big rock to shelter us from the crazy Patagonia wind but we still had a spectacular view of the towers and got comfy while we waited for sunrise. The sun finally started to come over the horizon and as it cast the first rays on the rocks they started glowing pink. It was stunning. We snapped more pictures in 10 minutes then we had taken probably the entire trip. Once the sun was all the way up and the pink glow faded away we started heading back to camp hoping to make it before breakfast ended. We made it just in time to grab some coffee and toast and then packed up the bags. We started back down the death defying trail we had taken the day before. Only this time it was ideal conditions with practically no wind. The part we thought we might die on the day before now had people standing around taking photos. It was a completely different experience, and the trail was actually really pretty and enjoyable.
It took an hour and a half to get down to Hotel Los Torres, the end point of the W. It was surreal finishing the trail and we grabbed celebratory beers in the hotel bar while we waited for the shuttle to pick us up. Our time in the park was amazing. If you are a serious hiker, put TDP at the top of your bucket list. At least a day trip is a must if you visit Patagonia!
Chris & Taylor
Read our travel blog as we visit three continents in 2017.