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Torres del Paine – One Couple’s Patagonia Trekking Odyssey

Image Title: MIrador Base Los Torres (Base of the Towers). [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
MIrador Base Los Torres (Base of the Towers). [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: Chilean and Magallanes Flags with Los Cuernos Mountains. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
Chilean and Magallanes Flags with Los Cuernos Mountains. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: Foxegloves along the W Trek Trail. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
Foxegloves along the W Trek Trail. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: Mirador de Grey Glacier. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
Mirador de Grey Glacier. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: Domo Frances Refugio on the W Trek. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
Domo Frances Refugio on the W Trek. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Image Title: Suspension bridge on the W Trek. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]
Suspension bridge on the W Trek. [Photo: Open Door Travelers]

Trekking in Patagonia is pretty serious bucket list territory for anyone who has ever climbed or hiked and seen pictures of the iconic towers called the Torres del Paine (Pronounced: Toray del Pinay and commonly called “The Towers”) in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park. Paine is the native Tehuelche Indian word for the azure blue of the many glacier fed lakes inside the park. We decided to do the classic “W” Trek from East-to-West in five days and to stay in the Park’s Refugio Dorms each night in a package booked through Chile Tour Patagonia

The hiking is pretty straightforward. Head down and knees up for 4 hours on the shortest day and 9 hours on the longest day. The trails are well traveled and well marked with plenty of hikers doing the trek both East-to-West and West-to- East. West-to-East has the advantage of hiking with the prevailing wind, East-to-West doesn't rely on the Ferry to start. During our time on the trail, we saw around 100 people each day of varying ability and aptitude. Most of the fellow trekkers we met were reasonably fit and reasonably kitted out for a week on the trail, but there were definitely a few Tourons – part tourist/part moron – that you just know to stay clear of so you don’t get caught in whatever catastrophe they eventually bring on themselves.

The biggest weather concerns are more wind and rain than cold temps in the Patagonian summer. Daytime temps for our trek stayed in the low-teens Celsius (50’s Fahrenheit).  The wind on the gustiest day blew a steady 50km/h (30mph) gusting to 100km/h (60mph) and can be a serious problem.  We saw two people with wind related falling injuries that were thankfully not life threatening but did require medical attention. There are two defenses for the wind – first, bring trekking poles and use them for balance; second, in a big gust sit down before you get blown down. Although the wind is a nuisance to hike in, with good wind gear like a Gore-Tex shell and a wind-tech beanie cap, it’s really not so bad. Now when the wind combines with a hard rain to really give you “Sportin’ Conditions”, that’s when you may have trouble convincing your partner what a great idea it was to go trekking in Patagonia.

There are a few essential pieces of kit for trekking in Patagonia. In addition to trekking poles and quality shell jacket and pants discussed above, good fitting approach shoes or trekking boots will keep your feet chugging along. If your feet aren’t happy the rest of your body won’t be happy either.  It’s also worth putting a little bit of money into a quality pack with a good suspension system.  Pro Tip: Pack your kit into a nice, tight, clean package.  If you have to hang things off the side of your pack, you either need a bigger pack or to take less stuff.  As a side note, it is a completely OK strategy to pack empty going down and plan a day for outfitting in Punta Arenas or Puerto Natales. There are a dozen or so outdoor outfitters with great Brand Name gear like Arc’Teryx, Marmot, Rab, Berghaus, Mountain Hardware, North Face, Mammot, Uppi, and of course Patagonia, at pretty good prices.

The Refugios and Campgrounds along the trail are all independently operated by private hospitality contractors for lodging and meals. For the most part you can count on a hot meat and potatoes meal for dinner, a hot shower, hot breakfast, and box lunch as well as clean sheets or a sleeping bag and a mattress in a dormitory style bunk room with 3 to 7 of your new BFFs. You can also buy beer, wine, cocktails, and sodas and maybe purchase Wifi in ½ hour increments. Most of the Refugio operations offer dorm style bunks, pre-set tents with sleeping pads and sleeping bags, or spaces for pitching your own tent. We carried silk sleeping bag liners and used them the one night in Domos Frances where we were provided sleeping bags instead of clean sheets. Given the nature of sharing a dorm room with 7 other people, we also brought ear plugs, sleeping masks, and melatonin to really slam the door on any sleep distractions after a long day of hiking. We had pretty good experiences with all of the Refugios we stayed at but be warned that your-actual-mileage-may-vary with the individual rooms and staffs. Pro Tip: Don’t try to make your own reservations - this is one case where the various tour operators know what they are doing and can put together the right package with lodging, meals, and transportation working with the Refugios and the other operators for the same or better pricing. We used ChileTour Patagonia and were very pleased with their pricing and their services. Another Pro Tip: Many of the Refugios have stickers from all over the world on their walls.  If you have a sticker from your local climbing shop or even your university, bring it along to add to their collection. 

It's not really fair to say the park operates on their own version of "Island Time", but . . . .  it is fair to say you should travel with some flexibility, a positive attitude and a Plan B. During our trek, our planned Ferry at the end from Paine Grande Refugio to the Pudeto Landing broke down on the next passage stranding East to West Trekkers who had finished at Paine Grand which meant missed flights and West to East Trekkers at the Pudeto Landing which meant starting a day later than planned. Similarly, the park bus contractors operate on more of a guideline than a schedule.

Getting to Torres del Paines is relatively simple.  Most people outside of South America end up flying to Santiago and then onto Punta Arenas where they board the 3 hour bus to Puerto Natales. The Puerto Natales Aeropuerto started receiving daily flights from Santiago in December 2016, but they have a medium chance of getting canceled.  Another option if you have the time is to take the Patagonia Ferry. The ferry leaves Puerto Montt at noon on a Friday and arrives in Puerto Natales at noon on Monday.  In addition to a cool add-on trip, you will meet a number of people that you are likely to see and greet as old friends during your trek. Once in Puerto Natales, there are plenty of places to stay including half-dozen hostels and several hotels. We stayed in the Chile Tour Patagonia guest house as part of our package.

So that’s our story and we’re sticking to it.  We spent two weeks in Patagonia between the Ferry Trip and the “W” Trek with a few travel days on either end. Our next adventure is Antarctica on a ship disembarking from Ushuaia, Argentina, but you’ll have to read about that in the next Blog Entry.

 

Phil & Diane

Arakur Resort & Spa

Ushuaia, Argentina

 

Beta for our “W” Trek

Total Days: 5

Total Mileage: 64km (40mi)

Gross Elevation over 5 days: ~ 2,000m (6,500ft)

Hardest Day: Base of the Towers, 19km (12mi) and 750m (2,500ft), 9 hours

Altitude: 100m to 800m (330ft to 2,600ft)

Total Cost for 5 nights lodging, Full Board Meals, and Transportation Vouchers: $1,200US per person

High Season: December through February

Red Tape: You have to have your passport and your PDI visa to enter the park along with $21,000 Chilean Pesos (CLP) ($32.00USD).  You may also need to show proof of your reservations before being allowed in and you can count on the refugios and campgrounds being fully booked by the various tour agents.  You really don’t need a guide, but it doesn’t hurt to have some local knowledge of the park and the logistics particularly if your espanol es terrible.  Most of the refugios accept credit cards and US Dollars but Chilean Pesos (CLP) are preferred.

Typical Refugio Costs:

  • Beer or Wine, $3,500CLP ($5.00US)
  • Bottle of Wine, $15,000CLP ($23.00US)
  • 30 min WiFI, $6,000CLP ($9.00US)

Our Route:

  • Day One, Los Torres Central Refugio to Base of the Towers and Back
  • Day Two, Los Torres Central to Domos Frances Refugio
  • Day Three, Domos Frances Refugio Camp Italiano; French Valley to French Viewpoint; Camp Italiano to Paine Grande Refugio
  • Day Four, Paine Grande Refugio to Grey Glacier Refugio
  • Day Five, Gray Glacier Refugio to Paine Grande Refugio

 

[Disclosure: Chile Tour Patagonia provided us with a modest professional courtesy discount as professional travel writers]