This is a rather epic blog post about both just getting to and then exploring a rather incredible place even more so in the depths of winter;
Torres del Paine National Park in Chilean Patagonia. Torres del Paine needs no introduction to most. It truly is one of the greatest national parks in the world. The majesty of the granite monoliths rising near vertically from the flat steppe of Argentina in the east shadowed by the vast whiteness of the utterly wild southern ice field in the west.
Before we left I found limited information about winter hiking in Torres del Paine, however the park is especially wonderful in winter with a dusting of snow giving extra contrast for the stunning vistas. The infamous Patagonian wind is much more gentle this time of year, the temperature rarely gets too low and with the hiking being in the east it has a dry climate so there is limited snow. However as a word of warning the weather can be atrocious, think blizzards in howling winds, with far less chance of consecutive days of sunshine. We struck gold with the perfect window of four sunny days so at least that went smoothly…..
26th September – we roll off the 28 hour bus from Bariloche into Rio Gallegos, this place is not on your tourist trail and rightly so. We wanted to get out ASAP, we spoke to the various people at the bus station and discovered a bus in 30 minutes to the unusually named mining town of Rio Turbio, on the Argentine/Chile border. The rickety old minibus rocked up on time as we loaded our snowboard bag into the back. We were then speeding across the flat steppe ranch land, fences, sheep, cows and nothing much else, we spied our first Nandu/Rhea an Ostrich like bird that seemed to like hanging out in the grassland among the sheep. About an hour into the journey the magnificence of the snow capped mountains began to rise up, then we dipped down into Rio Turbio, a satanic valley lined with old but still working coal mine workings, a new power station was being completed at one end, linked by railcarts that would seem more at home 100 years ago. We get dropped off at a garage and ask about the bus to Puerto Natales in Chile: the Torres del Paine start point. We follow directions but find no bus stop. We ask in the tourist info centre, (why the place has a manned tourist info centre is another discussion!) the lady is clearly not used to tourists but gives us simple directions, the bus leaves at 2.30 with Bus Sur. One block down, one left, easy. We see no bus stop or offices, we ask again, same response. It is now 2.25 no sign of a bus, I wander around town to see if there is a central bus station, I ask a policeman, he asks where I am from, I hesitantly say England, his facial expression changes and makes a handcuff gesture…..he insinuates I have to follow him, this is not ideal, Marion is left with the bags and I am following a policeman, who clearly hates the English, to some uncertain fate. Maybe he is taking me to the bus station I decide, it becomes apparent he isn’t, as we a police station. I make my excuses in English about my wife waiting and I back away then jog off after some protests from him I am free.
This town is becoming worse than Osorno (see my previous posts), I genuinely feel we may never leave. On the way back to Marion and the bags I pass the offices of a bus company it clearly says buses at 3pm and 5pm to Chile, so we drag the snowboard bag and our other junk across town to these offices, but there is no one about. We wait, nothing shows at 3pm. As we wait for the 5pm bus, my favourite policeman shows up, he starts laughing at me, it seems the earlier stunt was a practical joke, with him pretending to have arrested me, he finds it hilarious, I am just generally confused about him and life in general! What to do in such situations? We discuss football; Maradona, Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero at Man City, then Wayne Rooney, if you can’t understand Argentines just praise Argentinean footballers and disrespect English ones and they will love you!
Finally at 5pm the bus rocks up. We are on our way to Puerto Natales. The Chile border is greeted by a large sign declaring the Falklands to be Argentinean, a nice touch, subtle. No mention of, ‘welcome to’ or ‘goodbye from’ Argentina. Welcome back to Chile!
Puerto Natales is a colourful array of wooden houses on the side of a large sea inlet, that is encircled by snow capped mountains. The bright houses provide stark contrast to the grey skies, the town is pretty much shut down for the winter as it pretty much rains all winter! The only noise in the town comes from creaking signs in the wind and the odd dog howling. As we approach the centre a few more hostel signs appear and we call into an open looking place called Nancys. A young girl opens the door. Her mum, funnily enough called Nancy, then appears, we book in and then discuss that we want to hike the W trek in the park. Apparently we have a rare winter weather break for the next few days, so we quickly arrange everything with Nancy’s help. To be fair the entire town is set up to help people hike the W trek so it isn’t difficult. From booking the bus to renting a tent it takes 5 minutes and we are ready to go.
A quick trip to the supermarket for 5 days worth of food is the final preparation. With multi day overnight treks we always go light as is safe, for 5 days we had 45 litre packs, light down sleeping bags, smallest lightest tent we could find, small therma rests, one pan, small light stove, sporks, and emergency kit, first aid and survival blanket. We are tight on food but we always allow one extra meal for emergencies. We used bread rolls and salami for two days lunches, then crackers and soft cheese (due to lack of our normal go to of tortillas, bagels or pita bread), we took our staple back country dinner; cous cous with spices and dried sultanas and dried veg, then 250gms pasta and dried soup for 2 days. Always include vitamin C sources for longer treks is my other tip, either tablets or dried fruit. People always take too much stuff, you really only need a couple of changes of clothes. The increased enjoyment of bouncing along with a light pack, against a spare T Shirt or some trainers and hair straighteners is in my opinion, infinite!
The W trek is the famous hike in the park, it unsurprisingly follows a w shape around the east side of the park, the spikes of the w take you to view points the first being Los Torres, then Vallee Français and finally up to Grey Glacier. We plan to camp for 4 nights and walk for 5 days. This is a pretty average time some take a day longer, or it can be shorter, but part of the attraction is camping in the different spots to see the sunsets, stars and the spectacular sunrises over the mountains. I would therefore plan your route to involve camping at the more remote scenic spots; Torres Camp, Camp Britanico and Glacier Grey refugio, yes more effort but these places are just stunning and unique spots to overnight, who wants to camp next to a hotel like at Paine Grande or Hosteria las Torres? In winter overcrowding is not an issue, no booking needed at all, it really is the perfect time. I think the experience of solitude and remoteness was pretty different to the crazy busy summer. I guess I just don’t like sharing my wilderness with too many others!
6.30 on 27th September we awake early for a quick breakfast, Nancy gives us a lift to the bus station, to catch the only bus into the park, more regular buses start in October. The park fee is much cheaper in the winter which is another bonus, it is double at about $40 in the summer. With backpacks ready, walking poles at hand we transfer to the start point of the hike. The flashy hotel at the drop off is the last washroom I will use for a few days. We head up the first valley to the Los Torres camp site and the first viewpoint looking over the famous Towers of Paine. After a few hours walking we arrive at the campground, the weather is rather pleasant, long trousers with a rolled up thermal top is a pleasant temperature. We do cross patches of snow but very little. We pass quite a few day hikers but just one other group with camping kit.
At the campsite we dump the heavy stuff and scamper up the now snowy path, stopping to admire soaring condors and the stunning views, the picture below is what greets us at the top.
The lake is still frozen but only just, the thawing process is releasing huge rock falls that crash down the lateral moraines and crack the thawing ice below. What the pictures and even the view in person struggles to get across is the scale of these granite spires, they are insanely big, at over 1500m of vertical rock. We watch the sun dip behind and the shadow creep across the glacier. I also took a cool time-lapse on the Patagonia video I made. The temperature rapidly drops as on the way back we overtake a group of loud and obnoxious Australians throwing rocks about and generally being, well Australian. They must have had a long walk out as the campsite is empty bar one other tent belonging to 2 random guys. The campsite is OK but the epic amount of crowding and use these sites must get in the summer are illustrated by the litter and worn down vegetation.
Due to a British camper burning half the forest down in 2005 the park has super strict rules on fires and camp stoves, using camp stoves out of the right zone that leads to a fire can result in a total of 3 to 7 years in jail!! We carefully cook a meal before I climbed a few of the huge trees around the campsite to get a comfy seat. However the cold means an early night is in order.
We go to bed early and set our alarm for sun rise. The alarm is an hour out due to the time difference from Argentina! So we rush up the hill to the viewpoint just as the most spectacular colours are in view. The shot below still shows that we weren’t too disappointed with the result!One of the big surprises of the hike was the beauty of the sections in between the main viewpoints. With so few winter campers and the hostels being mainly closed most of the visitors were day trippers just up and down to the towers viewpoint. The linking sections of the W trek were blissfully quiet so we could enjoy the remoteness and beauty as it should be. On the walk down I developed a tooth ache, it was pretty uncomfortable but it went away when I sloshed water about. I assumed it would just go….
The walk to the camp site took in some stunning views across the lakes to the icefield in the distance, the shot below was on this stretch of the path. The next campspot was Camp Italiano, a pleasant spot next to a suspension bridge with great views up the Italian valley. The fast flowing stream was alive with wildlife, torrent ducks dashing under the rapids before re emerging in unexpected places, (no not unexpected as in the trees or our tent just upstream).
As we arrived into the campsite my tooth ache was pretty painful, I had luckily included ibuprofen in our first aid kit and this had taken the edge off, but it really was getting bad. (Note that I will now always carry pain killers in my first aid kit, didn’t always take them!) The water we were drinking was untreated and taken direct from the streams so it was icy fresh and tasted great, they don’t lie when they say Patagonia has the freshest water on earth (whoever they are?). The coolness of the water acted as a temporary relief to my tooth, this also told me it was an infection of some kind. Views like the above are great anaesthetics from the Paine (first pun of many).
The next morning it was decision time. After hiking in the morning, my tooth was now inflicting some of the worst pain I had experienced in my life. We had headed onwards to Refugio Paine Grande, (the irony of being in somewhere called Grande Paine had not passed my by….) during the peak season there is a boat to this place so we enquired if there was any chance of a lift out. No luck. Nothing was moving today, I didn’t think a tooth ache required chartering an exit option so on we trudged, with the bitter sweet sense of being in possibly the most beautiful place I have hiked with the most perfect weather, while experiencing the most perfect pain, ying and yang and all that I guess! The picture below is looking back over the stunning Lago Peho, note the bottle of water at my side to constantly cool my tooth!
We sadly opted to miss the glacier grey view point and headed out along the stunning, often overlooked trek following the river out. This trail leads to the CONAF admin centre, we opted to keep walking but sadly still got to the admin centre after the bus had left. Luckily there was a mini bus with the engine running, we tried to get on but it was a staff bus and no one else was allowed on under any reason, a tad harsh.
Despite explaining the situation we were told to hitch hike or walk back up the trail and camp for the night. We tried hitching on the quiet road. After about 20 mins we got a lift to the parks boundary, with a friendly French family, they were super nice as we managed to squeeze in with packs on laps on the back seat. We tried hitching from the Rio Serrano park boundary, however there was just no traffic, we soon realised the road was closed! We had no real option but to camp at Rio Serrano for the night and get the bus out the following day. There was no one else at the campsite just a camp manager sat a desk surrounded by pictures of large salmon, I don’t know how he passed the time sat at his desk with probably only a handful of campers a week!
We left the next day after a spectacular sunset viewed from the Rio Serrano camp ground. The beauty of things not going to plan is the places and experiences you hadn’t planned often turn out to be way more memorable than those you intended! That is what travel is all about. Both the final hike out which looks long and dull on the map and the final camp spot had great views back over the Torres massive that in the blue sky created reflections like above or sunsets like the picture at the top.
From the bus stop back in town we hastily walked with packs to a dentist I had noticed before in Puerto Natales. We walked in, the dentist agreed to see me straight away. I left Marion watching soap operas with the receptionist for what turned out to be 1.5 hours.