land of ice and wind
|The famous stone towers of Torres del Paine National Park, in the evening|
On the last day of my trek in Torres del Paine National Park, I fell in love with the place.
I'd come to the end of the trail, and I was resting my aching feet, like many other hikers around me. We were all waiting for the daily catamaran that would carry us across the lake to the nearest park exit, where we would depart for Puerto Natales, the gateway town to the park.
Before me were dramatic mountains of granite, with sharp peaks that looked like they had been whipped into their current form by the wind. The late afternoon light was golden, the air was fresh sharp. I watched thin wisps of cloud blow across the clear blue sky. The turquoise Lake Pehoe glittered like a jewel as it caught the light.
I can still hear the murmurs of other hikers' conversations, the rustling of the grass. I can see myself sitting there, rubbing my feet, watching a fox tentatively step into the path before me, before disappearing into a bush with a swish of its tail. I remember looking at the imposing mountains, and thinking of what I saw in the previous days. The forests ablaze in red and yellow, announcing the arriving of fall. The rushing blue-grey streams. The grey, solemn mountains, flanking the landscape everywhere you turned. The icy blue lakes that seemed almost luminous. And the massive sprawl of Glacier Grey, part of one of the world's biggest ice fields, cold and almost silent, save for the distant 'plink plink plink' of melting ice dripping onto the ground.
Torres del Paine isn't exactly a secret - it is one of Chile's top tourism draws, and there is no lack of information on where to trek and how to get there. One of the most popular options is the four/five-day "W" circuit hike within the park, which is book-ended by Glacier Grey and the Torres themselves. It's a hike that can be done by most reasonably fit people, and easier than the "O" circuit (also called the Paine circuit) which takes the form of a full loop around the park, and can be done in about eight to nine days. It is also possible to day shorter day treks on various trails around the park, including to the iconic Torres.
Seeing photos and reading about the place was one thing, being there was a whole different matter. On my W trek, I was blessed with perfectly clear, mild weather - many people experience otherwise - and the crisp light cast everything in a hyper-real glow. I felt like I was walking in a landscape too dramatic to be real.
- Attempting the W and O circuits require some advanced planning, mainly because if you plan to use the private campsites or guesthouses (called refugios) run by two operators in the park, you need to book in advance to secure a spot. These option can include meals (dinner, breakfast, a packed lunch for the next day's trek). There are strict rules governing where you can camp so turning up at the last minute can be risky.
- The nearest town to Torres de Paine is Puerto Natales (about 3 hours away), and while there are supposedly direct flights there from Santiago and selected cities in Chile, these do not appear to run daily or year-round. A more readily available and commonly used option is to fly to Punta Arenas, and then take a bus (3.5 hours) to Puerto Natales.
- The W can be trekked in an East-West or West-East direction. I trekked it East-West, which means I saw the towers on the first day, but I think some people prefer it to the their final stop, as a kind of climax to the trip. I don't think it's a big deal, because the rest of the park is pretty stunning, plus ending with Glacier Grey as your last big stop is hardly a letdown. I plunked extra money to do an ice hike on the glacier, and it was an incredible experience - the glacier is massive, and the hike up (about 40 minutes) is a nice workout too.
- Both the W and O are very popular, and I read reports on the trails being pretty crowded at times. I trekked end-March, which is considered the shoulder season before winter sets in, and the crowd level was fine with me - many times I was trekking completely alone and there weren't many choke points, except at the French Valley. I would definitely avoid the peak season as I think it could be unbearable.
- I'm not especially fit - my exercise routine before I left comprised of yoga about three times a week, and no hard core cardio whatsoever. I'm also a trekking neophyte - previously I trekked with guides and hired porters for the more intense trips. My friend and I did the W with neither and found it very manageable. Yes, it's no joke walking over 20km a day on average, but it's pretty easy once you find your rhythm. The trails are also very well-marked, and I think the risk of getting lost is pretty low, unless you're hit by heavy fog or something
- The weather in Patagonia is notoriously unpredictable, and I've heard tales of crazy 70km/hour winds that knock people off their feet, to say nothing of rain. I was extremely lucky I think to have 4 days of perfectly clear and sunny weather, but I would advise bringing along some good rainproof gear in case the worst happens. It's very cold at night (I'm a girl from the tropics after all) and I can't imagine the hell of being both cold and wet.
Some blog posts I found very helpful in planning my trek:
- Miss Tourist
- Adventure Alan
|A glimpse of the towers on the road leading to the start of the W trail from the east end.|
|The trail leading to the towers|
|Clambering over rocks on the last stretch of the trail|
|Camping at the Chileno campsite|
|Views of the lake below the French Valley, one of the park's highlights|
|The French Valley|
|The French Valley|
|At the lookout point leading to Glacier Grey|
|Hiking up to Glacier Grey|
|Crevasse on Glacier Grey|
|Views from the Paine Grande campsite and refugio|
|A fox on the path leading to Lake Pehoe|