The 120 kilometer (75 mile) trail around Torres del Paine in southern Patagonia is one of the world’s best treks. It attracts all types. For those seeking comfort there are lodges, guides, restaurants, and even horses. That’s not really our style though and, as usual, we skipped having a guide and carried all of the food and shelter we needed on our backs.
Common advice suggests booking campsites for the trek months in advance. In typical fashion we showed up with nothing reserved. It was shoulder season so luckily a few office visits took care of all of the bookings, but we would have been up a creek in high season.
We were delighted to find stores specializing in dehydrated fruits and nuts in Puerto Natales. There were ample supermarkets for the rest of our needs and the paila marina (fish stew) will linger in our memories forever. We bought our bus tickets, set an alarm for 5:00am, and were ready.
Our first day was an easy jaunt up to the public campsite (free) near the towers themselves. Most people wait until the end of the circuit to savor the spectacular view of the towers. The campsites were closing for the season however, which dictated that we would have to go counter-clockwise and see the towers first. The forest was beautiful and we were happy to find ourselves mostly alone on the trail.
On our second day we got to enjoy the iconic view of the towers. It was a short boulder hop up the lake just below them. I spent many hours admiring and photographing a place that I had been dreaming about for decades. Valerie was finally able to drag me away and we hiked back the way we had came in and made camp where we had started the trek the day before.
Day 3 and 4
Most people hike the “W” circuit of Torres del Paine, we opted for the full circuit that circumnavigates the massif. It’s much longer and more difficult to do it this way but offers views that many visitors never get to see, including the massive glacier grey that is part of the Patagonian ice sheet. The campsites on the backside shut down seasonally, in fact, refugio Seron had already shut down. This meant we would have to make it all the way to Refugio Dixon in one day. This would be the longest single day of trekking in our lives and took us 34 kilometers (20 miles) in just over 10 hours. Our spirits were high after the first nine hours, we were almost there and it hadn’t been so bad, then it started to rain. Suffice it to say we were never so happy to see our campsite when it finally appeared. The good news was that we had planned the next to be a rest and recovery day and this was the most beautiful campsite of the trek.
Our rest day was indeed glorious. We washed down a few very strong painkillers my mother furnished us with (from shoulder surgery) with most of a bottle of Havana Club rum. It may have been a terrible idea for our health, but my oh my did we have fun! A group of trekkers showed up midday and gave us a free yoga class which helped immensely with our sore muscles. The view was extraordinary, and we were treated to a beautiful sunrise and sunset – our hard work paid of in spades.
Our fifth day was an easy jaunt up to Los Perros camp. The trail passed through the nicest forest on the circuit and we were treated to watching a Carpintero (giant woodpecker) hunt for prey on the beautiful trees.
It was a big day up and over Paso John Garner but worth every bit of effort. As we reached the top of the pass glacier grey spread out before us. The patagonia ice sheet it the third biggest piece of ice on earth after Antarctica and Greenland. We were also greeted by the famous winds of Patagonia. As you can see in one of the photos Val and I were able to lean into the wind and have it support us – it was quite a sensation. The wind quickly made us cold and we dashed down to Paso campsite for the night.
Our seventh day turned out to be our last full day on the circuit. The pathway was beautiful as we walked along the side of glacier grey. However, by midday large clouds had rolled in and by the time we reached refugio grey the heavens had opened up and released a deluge upon us.
We had hoped the storm would break by morning but as we got out of the tent we saw the clouds had grown even more ominous. The French valley was the last part of the trek we had not seen (the middle of the “W”) and unfortunately it will have to wait for next time. The rain never let up and we made the agonizing decision to hop on the ferry and head back to Puerto Natales. We met a few people later that week who had made the decision to go for it anyway and they had received a fury of wind and rain from mother nature and barely saw anything – it’s nice to know we made the right call.