Moving on from Punta Arenas was surprisingly easy, it’s one of the few bus routes around here with a decent amount of competition, so there are numerous departures and the prices are low, a one way ticket was only 6000 Chilean Pesos (£6) with Bus-Sur, and about the same with the competitors Buses Fernandez and… The other one (forgive my lack of detail…) 3hrs, mas o menos, and it also stops at Punta Arenas’ airport if you’ve flown in. Ideal.
So, to Puerto Natales. I don´t want to do the town a disservice, I am sure it’s lovely, however as a traveller you’re only here for one reason, and that reason is the Torres del Paine National Park.
I was staying at Erratic Rock, one of the best-known and longest-established hostels in the town and so popular that it doesn’t take bookings. Luckily a personal recommendation from a friend as ‘the best hostel in the world’ got me through the door. Erratic Rock is very much climbing and trekking oriented, with a friendly staff who know what they are talking about. Cosy sitting room with resident cats and gas fires, and an excellent breakfast- That’ll do. Oh, and a huge selection of cheesy 80’s VHS videos…
Erratic Rock also has a very useful 3pm talk every day from one of the staff which covers exactly how to ‘do’ Torres del Paine. I’d slightly winged it coming here and didn’t have a clue so this was immensely useful, although did lead to a stressful evening as I frantically tried to collate all of the stuff and arrangements for the next morning…
I wasn’t in possession of any camping gear. There have definitely been a few times in Patagonia and New Zealand where I’ve wished that I had it, but the plain truth is that it simply isn’t compatible with a long round the world trip, with an emphasis on lightweight luggage. It adds a huge amount of bulk. Luckily though, Erratic Rock also have a hire centre which dishes out everything you need for a decent price. I ended up paying about £20 for 3 days hire of rucksack, tent, sleeping bag and sleeping mat.
I made the decision to spend 2 nights camping and 3 days hiking in the park. There are loads of different circuits you can do, including the “O”, the “W” and the “Q”, so named because of their relevant shapes, as per the park map here:
Basically, I wasn’t remotely prepared for 5 days camping and wanted to get going as soon as possible to use the most of my limited time as gainfully as possible. So I decided that cooking for the duration was a non-starter, and that also carrying an entire week’s supplies and tent on my own wasn’t going to be much fun…
…however, whilst every travel blog and boastful gap yearer going might make out that you have to do the circuits, this is nonsense. The park is immense and beautiful, and you can have just as much fun basing yourself at a campsite and heading out for daily walks. I found the added bonus of this to be the fact that you can reserve cooked food at the larger refugios, removing the need to muck around with cookers, pasta and the like. All I needed was 3 day’s worth of lunches…
And so, the next morning I was up distressingly early (After a late night sorting stuff out) to catch the 7.30 bus from the bus station to the park, joining hordes of other sleepy travellers… It’s a flat fare of £15 return.
I had been chatting with some Americans the previous night so endeavoured to get the same bus as them. Stupidly though, I hadn’t realised that they were on the slightly later bus… Not a problem in the great scheme however slightly annoying when it meant I missed the first catamaran later in the day, despite having been ready at the bus station from as early as 7.15 for a 7.30 bus.
The bus to the park takes 2 and a half hours. Whilst Tierra del Fuego is extremely close to Ushuaia permitting easy day trips, Torres del Paine is an entirely different proposition and you really do have to have an overnight stay in the park to make it worthwhile.
The weather en route was not promising. In fact, from the bus it seemed eerily similar to a disastrous weekend in the Brecon Beacons as a young lad on his Duke of Edinburgh trek. Patagonia is a harsh place! Nonetheless, we rolled into the park entrance an annoying distance behind every other bus, but with improving weather.
First step once in the park is to register and pay the £20 (approx.) entrance fee. You then have to watch a fire safety video. Fire is absolutely, completely taboo within the park, and there’s the constant sense too that Israelis aren’t particularly welcome. These diverse facts can be explained by the recent forest fire which devastated 40% of the park and which was caused by an Israeli visitor mucking around with lit toilet paper… He was jailed, then deported.
It’s the winds, you see… In the above photo you can see the queue to register, and behind the desk, the somewhat conservative weather forecast. It got a lot, lot worse than the above predictions! But needless to say, the combination of occasional hot sun, large wooded areas, tinder-dry grass and winds which frequently reach hurricane force means that it’s a forest fire waiting to happen.
So, suitably registered and paid up, it was time to get back on the buses for the trip to Pudeto, the second of the stops within the park. You can, therefore, start and end your trek at various points, which helps to reduce the ‘return mileage’ on tired legs. At Pudeto you have the option of boarding a catamaran (£15, approx.) for the 30 minute trip over Lago Pehoe towards Grand Paine campsite and lodge.
Unfortunately, as we were the last stragglers the first boat was full, meaning an extra 80mins wait for the one catamaran to go and return. Thankfully in the sun, if you managed to successfully hunker down away from the biting wind. Pehoe itself is pretty beautiful as well.
After setting sail, and cranking the catamaran up to a pretty good lick, we were treated, from the top deck, to the first views of the iconic Torres and a frankly Arctic wind… The former definitely made up for the latter. Although I did have to dress up like an absolute numpty to fend off the frostbite.
Upon landing at Grande Paine, I quickly retrieved my pack from the enormous pile in the boat and scooted off in order to get a decent camping spot. I needn’t have worried too much. Of all of the campsites, Grande Paine is one of the biggest and you really don’t need to worry about reserving a spot (7500CLP/£7.50pppn approx.) although if you’re intending to hire camping equipment or stay at the lodge you definitely do need to book.
So, with a bit of difficulty after the brief introduction in town, and a complete meltdown when I thought I’d lost the tiny but vital middle pole, my tent was up and ready for whatever the wind could throw at it. I had been advised that you really did need to weight down the corners and guy lines with rocks, and I did so extravagantly.
Tent all set up, it was time to hit the trails. The aftenroon’s plan was a walk up to Campamento Grey, one of the points of the W, with a view over Glaciar Grey, part of the immense Patagonian ice field. This starts off sedately enough, with a steady climb up through forests and foxgloves into the wider open upper reaches of the trail.
Before long, you reach the lake, and the first signs of the approaching glacier with a couple of rogue icebergs. The whitecaps on the lake are an early indicator of the rapidly increasing wind.
Reaching the Grey viewpoint, and particularly on top of its rock slab, the wind was making its presence very well known. I took about 20 pictures and only around 3 managed to be in focus due to the twin effects of freezing hands and howling gusts trying very hard to knock the phone out of my hand….
Glaciar Grey is an incredible sight, particularly in this kind of light. It’s part of the immense Patagonian ice field which stretches for thousands of kilometres over the mountainous South of Chile and Argentina. By this point though, the weather was deteriorating rapidly, with the cloudbursts over the glacier approaching with alarming speed.
CONAF had helpfully placed a marker board at the viewpoint indicating the height profile of the trail. Campamento Grey was another 6km further, and going by the sign seriously hilly, so discretion being the greater part of valour, I decided to return. On the way back I was treated to a few welcome glimpses of nature in the form of small hawks and also a woodpecker which landed about 2ft away from my water break and started going big style on the carpentry…
It was a relief to get back to the campsite and out of the wind as a torrential band of rain hit. Luckily with the wind, it passed quickly and I headed to the lodge for dinner. This proved to be a canny move- With limited time to sort my trek and given the fact I was flying solo it wasn’t practical or desirable to carry a stove and loads of food, so the lodge meal made a lot of sense. It’s not horrendous at Grande Paine, about £12.50- Although I think the more remote lodges charge more.
Hearty if not haute cuisine, it did nonetheless fill the gap. Sadly it means you also have to come into contact with the hordes of tour groups staying in the lodge, bunches of generally older folk with a deep sense of entitlement and terrible attitude whilst completing their guided strolls. The first night I was treated to being pushed out of the way in the queue by several muppets in order to keep their precious groups together, and the second night completely ignored by a particularly odious group of Americans whom I was sitting at a table with (Note- I actually really get on well with Americans on holiday and generally the section of the population with passports are the good ones, however these utter valves were an exception!) Groups do nobody any favours, and it’s a great policy of Erratic Rock to actually ban them from staying! On the trails too, one is frequently steamrollered out of the way by groups of grim-faced pensioners coming the other way.
So, after a surprisingly comfortable night under canvas- Possibly due to the first decent sleeping bag I have ever used, which actually did match its cold comfort rating- I was up at a reasonable hour to put together some breakfast and lunch (Both bread-based, neither terribly inspiring) and to hit the trails.
My plan was to leave my tent and stuff at Grande Paine and to hike up to the French Valley and back, roughly a 10 hour round trip. Renowned as one of the most beautiful areas of the park, sadly I was not going to be lucky on this occasion…
The morning was fine and clear, but before long I emerged onto the exposed trail running alongside the lake towards Campamento Italiano. Here, frequent gusts would announce themselves with a mighty roar down the lake, and the water would then quite literally be lifted a hundred feet into the air and then flung down the valley. Quite incredible, I’ve never seen anything like it- I actually managed in this photo to capture the exact moment the gust hit and knocked the hiker in front of me to her knees!
Along the trail you find forests of white tree trunks. A striking sight, but also terribly sad to see how the fire created so much damage which simply won’t repair itself any time soon. A ranger explained to me that the landscape isn’t used to the burn-and-bloom cycle you see elsewhere, so recovery is a long time coming. But, it is there.
I reached the bridge over the river, only to be directed by the rangers fixing up the planks and handrails to another temporary one. Well, basically a home-made wooden ladder laid over the torrent. I thought ‘that was interesting’ having got over and then noticed that everyone else was just waiting. Oops.
The remaining bridge wasn’t much better… A 2 person limit was observed by everyone, when you experienced how wobbly it was and how much the gusts of wind could topple you, it was easy to understand why. A tourist from one group got terribly annoyed with the guide from another group, whom I was chatting with, for not letting his group over first. I laughed.
And so, onwards to the first major deal-breaker of the day. The French Valley was CLOSED! I didn’t realise until I got back into town how rare an occurrence this was, nor the extremity of the weather situation leading to this decision. In the immediate term though, I decided to have some lunch and consider the options. As well as filling my bottle from the beautifully cold glacial torrent. It’s a real privilege to be somewhere like this where you can drink the water from every river and creek without reservation or filtration/treatment.
It was not until I got back to civilisation that I realised exactly how extreme the weather had been on my second day in the park. Winds of hurricane force, exceeding 140km/h with much higher gusts, had given the park a real battering, and the Valley Francaise was one of the most dangerous areas in exposed parts.
The same winds were responsible for this occurring, which made international media due to the 8 tourists who were badly injured:
The force of wind required to topple a 52-seater coach is quite something. All in all, I’m grateful for having had a safe day in the park. The Valley Francaise will still be there when I come back some day.
So, revised plan was to head a couple of hours up the lake path and then turn back to Paine Grande and (hopefully) my still-intact tent. This proved to be a good plan, the lake is consistently beautiful.
The path twists and turns through the thankfully intact forest, with some steep drops and rocky scrambles in places. I really wish however, that some of the vast sum which CONAF receives every year from admissions was funnelled into better trail management. Given the numbers of visitors on the trail, side trails were in evidence everywhere, and are something which will really scar the landscape if left unchecked. For my part, since I had loads of time, I blocked off quite a few with some of the vast amount of wood hanging around. Every little helps.
The weather over the Torres again started to show its presence, and I turned back to Paine Grande with the occasional glimpse of bright sunshine to light the way, and indeed the Torres themselves, which had been completely obscured by mist and cloud on the way out.
The next day was home time. Returning from Paine Grande, you can either take the catamaran or take the 17km walk to the main Park administration building. I chose the latter, mainly because I hadn’t bought a return on the boat and didn’t fancy paying another £15 one way ticket! But it also felt good to be able to get another long hike in. The only slight issue being that the bus left at 1pm. So, I left at dawn, stuffed the tent into my pack and got moving. A great move, as it turned out.
The first part of the hike to Administration is seriously challenging, you seem to go straight up and then across the cliffs- A bit nerve wracking with a full pack on. However, soon after it levels out and you’re hiking across the beautiful open plains, a real contrast to the jagged rocks of the lakeside trails. Birds and hares scatter as you press on. Absolutely magical.
I reached Administration a little under the suggested 5hr time frame for the 17km trail, with soaking feet but a great sense of achievement. The very best part of the whole morning was the fact that I hadn’t passed another soul, apart from possibly the slumbering occupants of the solitary tent. Torres del Paine does suffer somewhat from the weight of visitors during the short season, and the park authorities are already starting to limit daily numbers on the ‘back side’ trails around the other side of the park. I can clearly see it moving to a limited-permit system like the Inca Trail, which will be a shame.
The return buses from the park leave at 1pm and 6pm. I gratefully climbed aboard and fell asleep not far outside the park gates, albeit not until after we passed the sobering sight of the overturned coach. Back to Puerto Natales, the warm fire at Erratic Rock and a well-earned pizza and beer.
So then, Torres del Paine- A fantastic place and somewhere I’d like to spend more time in the future. I’d echo the Erratic Rock guy’s sentiment that ‘If you get lost, you are an idiot”- It really is very well way marked. By the same token, I really don’t see that you need a guide either- If you want to do it in comfort then lodges can be booked on line via the two companies Vertice and Fantastico Sur (Although I’d do so a good week in advance in high season). Just get yourself there, get some kit and get hiking. You can fly cheaply from Santiago to Punta Arenas, or alternatively from Buenos Aires to El Calafate.
My final note is a cautionary one. If you’re planning to go, do not use the services of Turismo Zaahj. For the first time in over 6 months of travelling through some of the most scam-ridden countries in earth, Puerto Natales marked my first downfall, whereby I was massively overcharged for an onwards bus ticket despite ordering and querying the price in Spanish, and being openly lied to. I’d been tempted to give them the benefit of doubt, or to blame the lone actions of a rogue employee, but given that their office in El Calafate wasn’t remotely interested and they haven’t answered any of my emails/social media messages, I’d say that they are probably just a company to avoid. Turismo Zaahj… Remember the name!
Next episode: Onwards and upwards, back onto Argentine soil and another spectacular glimpse of the Patagonian Icefield.