Torres del Paine is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful national parks on the planet, and so despite it being so far south we knew we had to make the effort to get ourselves there (51° S, 73.4° W).
After taxi’s, buses, walking, a flight and a coach, we arrived in Puerto Natales, a town which acts as the gateway to the national park 2hours away (Still!) by bus. We arrived around 1am and were met by our hostel owner, Alejandro, who greeted us with cold beers and so things were already off to a strong start.
We used our first day in Puerto Natales to get a clear plan from our host as to how best cover the park in the days we had, stock up on food to take, and sort out renting the tent with super extra double thick sleeping bags at Emma’s request. We had one stove, one pot, one small kettle and one flask, so we tried to plan some basic meals around this. This ended up being lots of pasta, grade 2 rice (more on that later) plus beer and wine to provide warmth in the evening, purely thinking from a survival point of view. The park is most famous for the ‘W-trek’ (4-5days) and the ‘O-circuit’ (10-12days) due to the shape the routes draw on a map. However, sleeping inside the park is insanely expensive as this place has become more popular with international tourists, with one campsite quoting us around £100 a night for a tent! Therefore, the plan given to us by our hostel host, was his alternative way to get the most out of the park, with a little more effort, but significantly less money. Basically, camping in the areas surrounding the park, and trekking/hitchiking to it each day.
Seeing as we spent a few days here with some bigs treks and incredible scenery, we’ve divided this post into days. Therefore it’s a bit of a long one so you might want to make yourself a cuppa and settle in…
Day 1: Las Torres
The two hour bus from Puerto Natales to the park dropped us off around 9:30am, and we had managed to convinve the bus driver to let us out 2km early, where we would be setting up camp for the night, at a much more reasonable £12. On the bus journey, excitement was building, as the scenery came into sight and we started to see wildlife, such as Guanacos (like a wild Llama) and Rhea (like an Ostrich). Once our basecamp was set, we managed to hitchhike our way to the main gate of the park, and then again with another car to cover the 7km to where the trekking paths began.
Initially, the mountain was welcoming, with blue skies and a rainbow to start our trek. However, throughout the course of the day we experienced rain, sleet, hail, snow, severe winds before working our way back down to sunshine by the time we finished.
The aim of this particular route is to reach Las Torres (The Towers), three granite spires towering over a blue lake, which have become the poster picture for Torres del Paine. Nearing the view point, the weather was coming in, becoming heavy snow with thick cloud and obscuring the view. We started to worry that after around 4 hours of walking up steep rocky mountain side, we would be having a repeat of Puerto Varas, with a view of the inside of a cloud. We made it there, sat down, and started having lunch. The towers were slightly obscured, but we had a good view, and you really couldn’t miss these enormous granite structures… until after 10 minutes of eating sarnies Alexz mentioned how amazing they were to Emma, only for her to turn around and say “Ohhhh that’s the towers, I’ve been looking over there at that blank bit!”
After our lunch we thought we would make the most of the photo oppotunity- just like the other visitors. Alexz asked a man if he would be able to take a photograph of us on top of a well positioned rock. Emma carefully climbled the two large rocks leading to the posing spot. Alexz, ever the aspiring athlete, decided that unlike everyone else cautiously climbing the rocks for their photo’s, he would jump… Needless to say, this didn’t work out as imagined, failing to make the huge distance between the rocks and clattering his shin straight into it with an audible thud. Alexz, as there were so many onlookers, had to play it cool and hide the obvious pain he was in. Emma, on the other hand, did not hide her fits of laughter.
Thankfully the way back passed uneventfully, and between some extra walking and a little more hitchiking, we made it back to our tent for lentil curry (sounds better than it was) and red wine from a carton (tasted as bad as it sounds).
Day 2: Moving base-camp and Mirador Condor
The aim of day 2 was to pack down and move base camp to the west side of the park from which we could base ourselves for the next 3 days. We caught the bus to an alternative park entrance, from where we had a 7km trek along the lakeside to our new temporary home. Doesn’t sound to bad in practice, however when you have a pack full of kit, food and foolishly a crate of beer, a bottle of wine, plus another wine carton, it’s not easy. Add in a few hills, strong winds and heat, you’ve got yourself a particularly unpleasant way to spent 2 hours. This was the first time hitchhiking had truly failed us. The less said about this part the better.
After finally setting up camp, we head out for a short walk to some waterfalls, but most importantly Mirador (viewpoint) Condor. From here, we caught some great views of Andean Condors riding the powerful wind currents, before tucking down into the cliff side to take shelter when it got too strong. Upon reaching the top of the hill, we found out why even the birds had given up on flying that afternoon, as we nearly took off for the first time. Other trekkers we met mentioned the winds had reached up to 160km/hr at times and they had been advised not to park their vehicles in the car parks as the wind had been known to shatter windows. It tested the loyalty of the remaining hairs on Alexz’ head (not all were found to be faithful) and allowed Emma to impersonate Michael Jackson in smooth criminal, walking at 45 degrees.
Dinner that night was tuna pasta, cooked over our fire, with a few cold beers. Much better than the previous night.
Day 3: Valley de Frances
On this morning we awoke to find a colder outside, the strong winds from the previous day having carried in clouds and a chill. At this point, if you made a cuppa at the start of this, it’s probably about perfect sipping temperature. And that is exactly what we fancied on this bitter morning, to use one of the precious 12 yorkshire teabags we carried to South America to make a flask for the cold summit overlooking the glacier. Emma forgot the teabags, they were back in the hostel.
We set off with our bags full of layers, lunch and a flask of cheap instant coffee to walk, but hopefully hitchike, the 7km to where we could catch the (extortionately overpriced) catamaran across Lago Grey to the start of our trek. This was the second time hitchiking failed us but thankfully this time our packs were about 25kg lighter and we strolled along the lakeside to the boat.
The trek was beautiful, taking around 4 hours to reach the lookout, overlooking the Glacier de Frances, where we stopped for lunch. On the way up, hidden in the trees, we had heard the ominous rumbles of thunder and prepared to get drenched, but this never materialised. Now sat, with a flask not of tea, looking out onto the mountain and glacier we heard the rumble again. It turned out to be parts of the glacier melting and tumbling down into the valley, causing avalanches as it went. During our half an hour break we got to watch five avalanches thunder down to where the glacier became water and was sustaining the rivers during summer.
Sadly on the route home, we had to make a couple stops as Emma’s boots had started to cause some nasty blisters, which we did our best to sort out but meant she had to limp tip-toe on one side. The positive of this was that after the boat back toward home and before our 7km return leg, a couple driving past took sympathy on the walking wounded and offered a lift all the way back to our campsite, and our faith in hitchhiking was restored.
Dinner that night was a rice Jambalaya, made with veg stock, tomato passata, carton veg and grade 2 rice. Having never seen grade 2 rice for sale in the UK, and trying to get back on track with our already blown budget, we opted for grade 2 rice. If given this option again, we would not go for grade 2 rice. It’s looks like rice, but seems to be filled with gravel, and so never goes soft. So far 1 out of 3 for good camp meals, but bettered by the rest of our cold beers.
Day 4: The Grey Glacier
During the night, we had both woken up to question whether the tent could survive the hurricane raging outside, or if we were perhaps already airborne. The winds had ramped up another level, and the temperature sunk further. What was worse, Emma couldn’t walk on her blisters as they were too painful, and so had to stay at the tent. We discussed whether to both have an off day but decided after travelling all that way, it was best if Alexz persevered on alone. That meant a late start, and so a jog/march so as not to miss the boat, literally.
Hiking to Mirador Grey once gave you a view over the top of the glacier, however with global warming, the glacier has retreated back, leaving you a view of some ice in the distance. To get to this point is a 7 hour round trek from the boat, but if you can press on you get to cross two wooden suspension bridges and get up next to the glacier and where it is dropping ice bergs into Lago Grey. That meant a very tiring day for Alexz, jogging/marching around 27miles, to ensure he did not miss the last boat back but it was well worth the effort.
Meanwhile, back in camp, Emma named her day a “campsite spa day” to make herself feel better. This consisted of luxuries such as braving the cold to have a shower, napping and reading in the tent with every layer on possible, including a hat, snood and gloves! Later on she headed over to the campsite restaurant to treat herself to a beer, and watched on jealously as large tour groups tucked into hot food. After getting kicked of the table due to a large group of Chinese tourists arriving she made her way over to the campsite reception and had a hot chocolate next to the fire before retreating back to the campsite to await Alexz’s return.
Tea that night was pesto pasta with parmesan, saved the best till last. Hungry and cold, we both looked forward to this one, and once the pasta was ready Alexz started to drain the pasta from the pot using the lid. However, cold hands don’t work so surely, the lid slipped and half the pasta fell onto the muddy floor. What remained was the best meal so far, and left us both wanting more, to the point Alexz continued to spoon pesto into his mouth. Final score, 1.5 out of 4 for camp meals.
Day 5: The Exit
On our final morning we packed down, made some coffee and boiled a couple eggs for breakfast. However, a couple of eggs quickly became one when a cheeky Caracara decided he fancied it for his breakfast and swooped down to rob us. We managed to hitchhike half of the final 7km journey, which was particularly good as the wind was now so strong it had taken Emma off the path, off her feet, and into the gutter.
Back in Puerto Natales we had a bus booked to take us onto our overnight flight, heading all the way from the South of Chile to the North, a distance the same as Norway to Nigeria and with it a huge change in climate. While awaiting our bus, we looked around for some food, and both had a craving for McDonalds. A quick google maps search revealed the nearest one was only 1,250km away, which shows how remote this place is!
Overall, despite the sarcasm written here and the mishaps, we both had an incredible time here and those things just made us laugh. We saw so much wildlife, including Condors, Rhea, Fox, Guanaco, Caracara, brown hare, Huemul along with so many other beautiful birds which we’ve kept a list of. We had no phone signal, stunning landscapes, our sturdy little tent and actually really enjoyed getting to experience such extremes of the elements, particularly standing at the top of Condor point leaning into the wind, arms outstretched. We think this place has beauty that is hard to match but we still have a while left to keep looking!
In reference to the 7km trek from hell…