Like all good dreams, we eventually came back to reality (if you can call it that) and rejoined the backpacker circuit. We flew from Santiago to our first stop in Patagonia, the town of Puerto Natales, from where we would set off to explore Torres del Paine National Park. The park is on the Chilean side and is one of the most popular trekking destinations in Patagonia. We only spent enough time in town to stock up on groceries and realize just how many other people were there to do the exact same thing. A lot.
The national park is blessed with numerous jaw dropping sights and caters to almost every type of hiker. For better or worse it has refugios around the main mountain massif allowing hikers to explore the park in a series of day hikes or a multi day trip with or without a tent. The most popular option is the “W” circuit which traverses the park and explores several impressive valleys along the way (the route forms the shape of a letter, guess which one).
The W is notoriously busy so we opted for a longer route known as the O circuit which avoids the crowds for a few days and travels around behind the massif before joining the W.
We woke up early on our first day to catch the 730am bus to Torres del Paine and it was raining cats and dogs, and then the wind was blowing the cats and dogs sideways. Fortunately the storm let up just as we finished breakfast and walked to the bus station. As we neared the station we began to see more and more backpack laden figures emerge from the dark streets and alleyways, all trudging in silence to the same place. More or less a zombie march to the bus station.
Two hours later we arrived at the start of our wilderness getaway to enjoy nature and solitude, and got to stand in a line for 20 minutes.
After an orientation video and a lop sided trade involving a piece of paper and a stack of Chilean Pesos we were finally on our way. The trail to our first camp avoided the central camping and hotel area and veered off the road to join up with Rio Paine. It was a mellow day to start our week and we made our way through grassy hills, scarred from an old forest fire, following the green river waters to Campamento Serón.
We were some of the first to arrive into camp, just as it started to rain, so we had front row seats to watch everyone else arrive. And as the numbers piled up we learned what an offseason crowd looks like on the “quieter” loop in Torres del Paine park. Thirty or so people eventually filled the camp and set about the same camp tasks, slowly getting to know each other around the cooking areas or queues for el baño. Common topics included whether they were doing “the O” and in how many days, or commenting on how expensive a Gatorade from the kiosk can be (yes and $14 Canadian dollars were the answers by the way). Randomly we did run into a fellow Canadian who had volunteered at the same hostel as us in Peru, so we got to regale about the incredibly strange yoga class we experienced there.
We woke to clearer skies on our second day and got our first glimpse of the mountains we would be hiking through, which were hidden by clouds the day before.
We followed the river for a bit before ascending a small pass which gave us beautiful views of Lago Paine and a snowy mountain range off in the distance. We hiked along the lake and through some very swampy sections as we made our way towards Lago Dickson. Jumping small streams and avoiding muddy patches kept our eyes focused on the ground and before we knew it we were confronted by views of Glacier Dickson as we neared Campamento Dickson.
Dickson was definitely the nicest camp we visited. It had ample room to spread out the groups tents, offered meals at some ungodly price, and was a short walk to the shores of Lago Dickson where we spent most of the evening relaxing in the sun and staring at the glacier off in the distance.
Our third day started with a steep climb right out of camp, through another different landscape as the trail worked its way through an old growth forest. Even if we hadn’t reached the famous views the park is known for yet, we were still being treated to different terrains everyday which kept things interesting.
A nice but steadily ascending path took us up to Lago Perros with another, considerably smaller, glacier tumbling down into its waters. The camp was located just past this lake next to a river, sheltered amongst tall trees.
It rained that night so we cooked in the communal area and got to meet more of our fellow hikers. Swapping stories as everyone subtly eyed each other’s meals and camping techniques. Most of camp turned in early as the next day was a big one, requiring an early start.
Camp stirred early and people fumbled to get organized and set off for Paso John Gardner before the sun came up. The climb began right out of camp and didn’t let up until we reached the pass. It was brisk to say the least so we kept a quick pace and gained the treeline just as the sun began to illuminate the valley behind us. A nice trade off to combat the winds we were exposed to for the unsheltered and rocky ascent to the pass.
We gained the pass just as the sun was reaching the icefield below, casting sharp shadows onto it from the rugged peaks above us. This was by far our favourite view of the trek, looking down onto Glacier Grey which filled up an entire valley and more before eventually touching the shores of Lago Grey.
We sat and enjoyed the views until we were close to frozen before starting the steep descent to Campamento Paso. We reached that camp around 11am and cruised right on by, following the glacier to the shores of Lago Grey and eventually working our way down to Refugio Grey. It was a big day but with nonstop views of the glacier, several suspension bridges and the sounds of ice chunks tumbling into the lake it went by relatively fast.
Acampamento Grey was where we would join up with the masses, many people start the W trek there and many others just come for the day by boat to see the glacier, go on kayak excursions or ice walks. After setting up our tent in an open field we enjoyed a short siesta. Short, but long enough for half of Patagonia to arrive and set up tents on every spare blade of grass within 10ft of us.
While the views were amazing it was a little different to be surrounded by so many people. However it did provide ample entertainment and people watching. This hike attracts people of all experience levels from thru hikers who hike for weeks on end, to people who are camping for the first time and lugged their entire bathroom and kitchen up with them. 6 kilo bag of rice? Throw it in the pack. An entire head of lettuce? Toss it in there. A sack of potatoes? Bring it along. Blow dryer? Sure why not. We saw it all.
Our fifth day started off with some daytime TV quality entertainment. While making breakfast in the cooking quarters we were treated to a colourful dispute between two couples, mediated by the park ranger who definitely doesn’t get paid enough to play Dr. Phil. Couple A had showed up at 11pm and set up camp amongst a cluster of tents and then proceeded to party until the wee hours while Couple B shouted and complained only to receive replies of “No hablas ingles”. Once Couple A finally passed out, all was good except for one tiny detail…they had set an alarm for 6am which went off constantly and resulted in multiple groups shaking their tent to no avail. This entire ordeal was a great side to oats and coffee but we were definitely happy to leave this camp behind as we set off for Campamento Italiano.
For the second straight day we were skipping a camp and proceeding onto the next. We stopped for lunch at the Paine Grande camp and then continued along the shores of Lago Sköttsberg beneath Cerro Paine Grande towards Campamento Italiano, one of the few free camp sites not owned by a private company. This day didn’t have nearly the vertical gain/loss as the day before but it felt way harder and longer. Once we finally reached camp we still wanted to do a short walk up to a lookout in the Valle del Frances so we dropped our packs and dragged ourselves up another hour. Thankfully it was worth it to see some hanging glaciers and two toned peaks.
After two long days, we had separated from everyone that we had started the O Circuit with and joined up with a new, smaller group which we would camp with for the final two nights. The free camp site was much more along the lines of what we would call “camping” and hanging out around the cooking area at night was much more pleasant with a small and social group.
Our final big day consisted of hiking up and down along the shores of Lago Nordernskjöld towards our final camp.
We traversed the front side of the Torres del Paine range with clear skies and stellar views of the calm lake waters before heading up a valley to Campamento Torres as the weather began to turn.
At this point in our trek we passed the majority of our miles by daydreaming about food. Camping alongside so many people had us eyeing everyone else’s food each night and of course this was the trip where we had decided to pack as light as possible (pasta with veggie soup mix for sauce hits almost all the food groups right?). And so as we passed Acampamento Chileno we broke down and decided to treat ourselves to an exorbitantly priced pack of cookies. It was the carrot on a stick we needed for the final push up to camp on weary legs. Thank god we waited until reaching camp to open them up because it was a crap carrot. I’m pretty sure half of our $7 went towards paying the evil genius who managed to fit so much plastic in between each cookie.
Campamento Torres is another free camp site situated an hours hike below the infamous Torres del Paine, the crown jewel of the park. After setting up camp and waiting for the rain to cease we hiked up to the lake but found the towers still hidden by clouds so we headed back to camp for dinner with plans to return for sunrise. A good chunk of the people who visit the park do the sunrise hike “to the towers” to get their Instagram worthy photos proving they did the W circuit.
Our final night was spent chatting around the cook shack, which was left relatively empty after one hiker turned her fuel canister into a spicy Molotov cocktail and sent everyone scrambling for the hills. Nothing like a bit of dry chemical fire extinguisher to give a bit of extra flavour to your noodles.
As mentioned we were up early on our final day to hike back up to Torres del Paine to catch sunrise over the stoic towers. Unfortunately my camera was back at camp in my tent so we don’t have any pictures. The views were incredible though. At least that’s what I’m told, we were warm and cozy in the tent right alongside my camera. After waking up and getting dressed for the hike we saw clouds still surrounding the towers, and the moment we felt a rain drop we were easily convinced to head back to bed. Eventually those clouds cleared, but the folks who had the patience for that clearly don’t understand that rainy mornings are meant to be spent in a sleeping bag, finishing off your coffee and oats supplies.
The hike back to Las Torres Lodge, the central point of the park, was quick and easy, nothing but downhill as we passed many people heading up from the main camp. We eventually did get a view of the towers as we walked down, and then an even better view on the bus ride back to the front gate.
7 days and 106km later we were done the Torres del Paine “O Circuit”. We caught a bus back to Puerto Natales, showered some very different smells off of us, cooked up the feast of burritos that we had been dreaming about since day 2, and then hobbled over to the Base Camp pub to meet up with the group that we had finished the trek with. Everyone looking much different after a shower and shave, and wearing something other than the single outfit they had spent the last week in. We enjoyed a few too many pints and reminisced about how good we all are at putting one foot in front of the other for multiple days. Great walking everyone!
Our sore ________ (insert body part here) didn’t have much time to heal because after 1 more night in town (yes, the beer and pizza at Base Camp were too good to not go for a second night) we boarded a bus to El Chalten where we would tackle two more multi day treks to see the classic Fitz Roy massif and the Southern Ice Field.
Don’t worry, less words and more pictures are in the forecast for the next few posts.