Week 19 – Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine, Chile
Hi everybody! I finally have a decent internet signal again and am writing this blog post from Santiago. This week we crossed into Chile and went on a multi-day camping adventure in the beautiful Torres del Paine National Park. Argentina may have some competition when it comes to stunning views!
Today we woke up horrendously early to catch our bus across the border. We managed to sleep a bit on the bus until we reached the border crossing between Argentina and Chile. It was quite a funny point at which to cross – the bus turned off the main highway and onto a bumpy road through a field before coming to a building in the middle of nowhere. We all filed off the bus and joined the queue to get our Argentina exit stamps. We then boarded the bus, drove for another few minutes, and arrived at a small town and the Chilean immigration. I’m not sure where we technically were for those few minutes – possibly in some sort of international limbo! The Chilean immigration was very efficient, except their bag scanner had broken. They’re supposed to screen for any organic material entering the country, such as fruits and plants. They compromised by opening random side pockets of our bags to check for contraband vegetables and then letting us pass.
Puerto Natales is apparently a city, although it’s very small (population 19,116 according to the 2002 census). It was initially founded as a port for the local agricultural industry (in particular sheep farming), but now is an important tourist town due to its proximity to the Torres del Paine National Park. It’s very far south in Chile, and lies on the shore of one of the Patagonian fjords.
It was pretty chilly when we arrived, which in a way I was glad about because it meant I got to use my winter coat again and so justify bringing it all this way. We checked into our hostel and then went to explore the town. There were one or two main streets, with the majority of the shops selling or hiring camping and outdoor equipment. It was all quite expensive, so we were glad that we didn’t need to buy anything.
In the afternoon we went to a talk by the Erratic Rock hostel. This is one of the hostels in Puerto Natales, and they’ve made a name for themselves by hosting a free daily talk for anybody preparing to trek in Torres del Paine National Park. They give advice about the route, the rules of the park, what to take and how to pack to minimise everything getting wet. It was really useful, although we didn’t find their descriptions of the weather very encouraging. Apparently it rains, it snows, but also the famous Patagonian winds can blow at 100km/h and pick up water from the lakes to soak you with even when it isn’t raining! We spoke to a few people at our hostel who had just finished the hike, and they said that they’d been rained on most days. We decided we’d better prepare for the worst, and that evening we bought a roll of bin bags in order to line our rucksacks and try to keep everything dry.
I haven’t written anything about yesterday because we literally did nothing all day! It was very relaxing, but doesn’t make for very good blog content. Today was fairly similar, although we did go for a walk down by the waterside. We’d read about a boat trip that took you around the fjords, but we balked when we saw their crazy prices. The walk was lovely though. We saw some geese bobbing on the water, and also along the path there were loads of cool sculptures. There was the ‘Monumento de la Mano’ (monument of the hand) – a large hand rising from the ground. This is by an artist called Mario Irarrázabal, who also created the more famous ones in Uruguay (La Mano de Punta del Este) and the Atacama Desert (Mano del Desierto).
There were also some really cool sculptures of people swinging from the lampposts, looking like they were almost flying. Finally, there was a huge statue of a Mylodon, an extinct giant ground sloth. Mylodon lived around 5,000-10,000 years ago, were up to 3m tall and weighed around 1,000kg. This region of Patagonia is famous for the discovery of some preserved skin and bone samples of a Mylodon around 120 years ago, and so there’s a picture of this animal on all of the road signs in Puerto Natales.
Today was a drizzly day which we spent preparing for our camping adventure! We bought some snacks and lined our rucksacks with multiple bin bags, so much so that I’m pretty sure they took up almost as much space as our clothes! We have chosen to hike Torres del Paine in semi-luxury; we will be sleeping in a tent every night, but rather than having to carry it with us, we’ll be hiring tents and sleeping bags at each campsite. We’re also paying to have our meals provided at the campsites too. It’s more expensive than it would be if we carried our own equipment and food and cooked for ourselves, but we figured that we’d rather pay a bit more and not have to carry such heavy bags.
And so it begins! Today we boarded a bus to the Torres del Paine National Park, to begin our 4 day hike of the W trek!
Torres del Paine National Park is located in the south of Chile, and encompasses mountains, lakes, glaciers, rivers, forest and open plains. It’s around 1,814 square kilometres and is home not only to hundreds of keen tourists, but also to guanacos (essentially wild llamas), lots of species of birds, and even pumas. You can visit the park on day trips, but some areas are only accessible if you go on a multi-day hike. There are 3 common trails through the park, known as the W, the O and the Q, after their shapes on a map. The O is a huge 110km loop, the Q is very similar but adds on another day. The W trek is shorter (70-80km depending on how you do it) and only covers the lower half of the loop, although this includes a lot of the highlights. Most people choose to do the W as you can do it in 3-5 days, rather than the O which takes 7-10.
We had decided to trek the W from west to east, simply because of campsite availability. The number of places at the campsites are limited, and often fill up months in advance. When we booked in February one of the campsites was already fully booked, meaning we had to adjust our itinerary to accommodate this. We met some people who had managed to get last minute bookings, presumably because of cancellations, but we felt lucky to have got in at all, considering that we booked it relatively late.
We checked in to our first campsite, Camping Central, and were able to leave some of our things in our tent, because today was a ‘there-and-back’ day. Our destination was the Mirador las Torres (view of the towers), one of the most iconic viewpoints in the whole park. The hike was around 9km each way.
After an initial ascent where we quickly gained a lot of height and some beautiful views, the majority of the walk to Las Torres was quite straightforward. We walked along the side of the mountain, looking down into a river valley, before dropping down to the level of the river for a while. Part of the walk was through the woods which was really pleasant. Before starting the hike I’d been worried about being too cold, but I very quickly took off my jumper, which was nice! The trail was fairly busy but people were spaced out enough so that it didn’t feel crowded. As we got towards the final ascent, the view widened out to an incredible vista of the mountains and the valley running through. It was beautiful.
The final hour of the hike up to the Mirador was fairly steep. We’d seen some sparse snow on the trail in the previous few kilometres, but now we climbed up to a point where the whole ground was covered in snow. This wouldn’t have been a problem, except there were so many people following the trail that all the snow had turned to ice! Everyone was slowed down as they tried to navigate the slippery trail near the precarious edge of the mountain, which meant that everybody backed up and queues formed. It ended up being quite difficult to get past each other. We had decided that we didn’t need hiking poles, but everybody who had them seemed to fare better with the snow than we did, so possibly that was a mistake.
We finally made it to the viewpoint, and felt very well rewarded. Las Torres are a set of three jagged peaks, and they rise up from behind a beautiful lake. I felt quite lucky that we got a view of the peaks as I was expecting them to be covered in cloud. The lake was lovely, but with all the snow on the ground it was pretty cold at the top. We huddled together on a rock to eat our lunch before starting the descent.
As much as I’d feared it, going down wasn’t actually too bad, mainly because some of the queues had cleared. It was still very slippery, but we got used to finding the rocks or fresh snow that would provide some grip. Ben did have to help me down a few particularly icy bits – what would I do without him?!
It felt funny to go down below the snow line and find ourselves back on a normal path! The walk back to our camp was again fairly relaxed, although my memory had tricked me into thinking that it would be downhill all the way (spoiler alert: it wasn’t!). We got back to our camp in time for me to shower before dinner. Ben decided not to pack his towel and turned down the offer to share mine – he’s going for the rugged manly approach to camping, whereas I decided that the extra weight of a towel and some shampoo was well worth the benefit of not smelling for four days!
Dinner was actually really nice. There are refugios (hostels) at some of the campsites where you can have a bed indoors, and our meal was served in their dining room. I did feel a bit guilty about not ‘doing camping properly’, but it was very nice to sit in the warm and eat a proper dinner, instead of crouching round a trangia outside and eating pot noodles.
Day 2 of our W trek began bright and early. After a nice breakfast we started out on what would be our easiest day of hiking. We only had around 11km to go until our second campsite, and the terrain today was also fairly level with no major ascents or descents. We decided to take it fairly easy, and stopped multiple times along the way to sit and enjoy the view. We were walking along with the mountains on our right and a huge lake on our left. It was beautiful. We were also really lucky with the weather – for the second day in a row we had no rain! (Last night it rained all night and stopped about 10 minutes before we got out of our tent – how lucky is that?!) We made it to Camp Cuernos at around 2pm, and had the rest of the afternoon to relax. In some ways it was almost a bit frustrating – we knew that tomorrow would be a longer day and we had the energy to go further today, but never mind. We indulged in some hot chocolate and sat inside in the warm refugio reading our kindles. We met some of the same people who we’d seen on the previous day and at our hostel, and it was nice to chat with them for a bit.
Cuernos is a campsite where nobody is allowed to cook outdoors because of the risk of fires. Torres del Paine has had two huge fires in the past twenty years, in 2005 and 2011, and as such their rules about cooking or lighting any sort of fire in the park are really strict. The nice thing about this was that it meant that the dining was full and there were lots of people to talk to. We met a friendly group of English people who were revisiting the park 20 years after their first visit, and a man from Santiago called Felipe. I quite enjoyed practicing my Spanish while I chatted to him, although he spoke insanely fast which made it difficult!
Today we woke up super early as we were anticipating it being a really long day. We had breakfast as soon as they started serving at 7, and were on the trail by 7:45! It was actually really nice that we started this early because we got to catch the end of the sunrise, lighting up the mountains with a pink glow.
We had 5.5km walk to a campsite called Campamento Italiano, and we made good time. There was only one other person on the trail that we saw, which was quite nice. We did encounter our first rain shower, although it only lasted for around half an hour and then the sun came out again. At Italiano we emptied most of our things into our large dry bag, and left it by the ranger station. The middle of the W is a hike up to a viewpoint and back down, so we could hike up with light bags and then pick up our stuff again before continuing on.
There are two viewpoints along the middle arm of the W. The first is called Frances lookout and gives you an amazing view over to the Frances glacier, which hangs off the edge of the mountain opposite. The second viewpoint is called Britanico. It’s a further 1.5 hours up the valley, and it gives you a panoramic view of the mountains. When we arrived at Camp Italiano, there was a sign outside the ranger station saying that the Britanico lookout was closed. It was a bit of a shame that we wouldn’t see the view, but at the same time we were secretly pleased as it cut 3 hours off our long day of walking.
The walk up to the Frances lookout was quite steep, but that meant we got absolutely incredible views when we turned around and looked back down over the Park. It was gorgeous. When we reached the viewpoint we got an awesome view of the Frances glacier. Every so often a piece would break off. We’d hear a large rumble and see a mini avalanche of snow coursing down the side of the mountain opposite. We saw one that was a bit larger and it almost looked like a waterfall of snow – it was amazing.
As we continued on to our next campsite, the trail was still relatively empty and the sun was still high in the sky. I even ended up taking off my thermal base layer and continuing in just a t-shirt. This part of the trail was quite flat, and went alongside another lake. It was really beautiful. We stopped to have a rest looking back at the mountains and the Frances Valley – it was lush.
It was around 7.5km from Italiano to our third campsite, Paine Grande. This campsite was run by a different company to the previous two, and we noticed the difference when we were given thin foam camping mats rather than the plush thick ones we’d been treated to before. This was actually more what I’d been expecting – the previous two days had felt like a luxurious treat.
As we were getting ready for bed tonight the stars were amazing. The sky was clear and we could see the Milky Way. It was awesome. I tried to take some night-sky photos with my camera. I’ve been reading some blogs about the correct settings for this. Sadly, even though I knew the theory I couldn’t seem to figure it out on my ever so fancy camera! It kept refusing to take the photo and I couldn’t work out why. This is the problem with having technology that’s cleverer than you!
I normally write a Friday-Friday blog, but it seems silly to cut off the W trek half way through. Today was our last day of hiking. When we’d been planning our W trek we had wanted to stay at the final campsite, Refugio Grey, for our final night. Unfortunately it was fully booked, so instead we booked two nights at Paine Grande. That meant that we had a long day today as we walked to the Grey campsite and viewpoint and then back again. We would have had to walk back to Paine Grande anyway to finish the trek, but it would have been divided over two days instead of one. Fortunately, our ‘there-and-back’ plan meant that we got to leave a lot of things in our tent again, and walk with light bags.
The hike from Paine Grande to Refugio Grey is 11km each way, which isn’t too bad except you basically walk up one side of a huge hill and then back down the other. As we started the walk we realised just how strong the wind was today. We were finally experiencing the famous ‘Patagonian wind’, by walking straight into its path! It was a bit of a struggle, and it brought the temperature right down too. We both wrapped up with our scarves around our ears.
As we crested the hill we were rewarded with a beautiful view down Lago Grey (Grey lake). We couldn’t yet see the glacier that we knew we were walking towards, but we could see some large icebergs dotted about on the lake. It was a promising sign of sights to come (have I mentioned that I love glaciers yet?!).
We continued on and over the hill and finally started to get some glimpses of the glacier. Glacier Grey is 270 square kilometres, 28 kilometres long and its end wall is 30 metres high. That actually makes it larger (in area) than the Perito Moreno glacier we visited last week! As it nears the lake the glacier divides into three branches, which makes it extra interesting to look at.
The downhill part of the hike was nice, except we knew that it meant we had to climb it again on the way back. As we were nearing Camp Grey the craziest thing happened. We were nodding ‘hello’ to hikers coming in the opposite direction, when I suddenly recognised one of them! It was one of my old school friends. What a weird coincidence! It always is funny meeting somebody that you know on holiday, but it felt especially crazy when we were right at the bottom of Chile, in a remote National Park, halfway along a wooded trail!
After catching up for a bit we bid them farewell and continued on, still amazed by the chances of such a meeting. We soon arrived at Camp Grey, and from there it was just another 10 minutes to the Mirador (viewpoint) over to the glacier. The view was gorgeous. There were some absolutely massive icebergs in the lake which had broken off from the glacier – literally huge, and a beautiful blue colour. It was incredible. We sat and had our lunch there admiring the view.
This was technically the end of the right arm of the ‘W’, although the trail continued on. People hiking the O were coming down towards Grey from further along. We had heard that if we followed the trail for another 30 minutes we’d reach a hanging bridge with a view of the glacier. It was quite a pretty trail through the woods to get there. When we did, we had to climb a ladder to get onto the bridge! It was quite high but it did give us an amazing view, so it was definitely worth it.
The walk back to Paine Grande was quite tiring, made worse I think by the fact that it was a ‘back-again’ rather than a completely new path. The wind had died down though and we made it in relatively good time. It was nice to get back to the campsite and lie down! After dinner we went to the Refugio’s bar to celebrate and played cards. The bar had a beautiful view out over the mountains, it was really nice.
As well as completing the W trek today, I also finally finished ‘Harry Potter y la Piedra Filosofal’. It only took me about eight months!
Next week, we’re leaving Puerto Natales and travelling north to Santiago. We’ll catch up then!