Patagonia has been a place that we’ve dreamed of visiting for years, but the seasons and our budget haven’t allowed it to happen until now. While we were in Canada I realised October would be Spring time in the Southern Hemisphere and therefore the shoulder season which is what we needed because in peak season you usually need to book at least 6 months in advance! We hate travelling with set dates and we also hate crowds so October was looking promising for us. We wanted to see both the Chilean and Argentinian side of Patagonia so we started with Torres Del Paine National Park in Chile – A legendary place where multi-day hikes is the best way to experience the park. There are options for day tours too but we decided we would hike the popular ‘W trek’ named for the shape in which you walk. There were refugio’s along the way but the price was outrageous so our cheapest option was to rent camping gear and sleep in a tent for the 5 day/ 4 night trip. I’ll add a separate post on the logistics of organising this trip independently as this post will be our experience of the trip and it started with the most scenic plane ride of our lives….
The sky cleared as we headed south to Punta Arenas, the end of the road in Chile. We were passing gigantic ice fields, glacial fed lakes where we could even see the icebergs floating in the turquoise water and mountain peaks rising above snow-covered plateaus. But the best part was witnessing Fitz Roy and it’s surrounding peaks – an area we will be heading to after Chile where a cluster of spikes rise out the ground. It was unreal, there were normal mountains all around and then these spires standing like a set of knives pushed together with tips pointed towards the sky. Wowee – this is Patagonia!!
After the flight we had a three hour bus to Puerto Natales where we spent one night and rented our camping equipment. Our hostel owner assured us she’d checked our tent that morning…Luckily I’m a paranoid human being that checks everything so when we got up to our room we unpacked the tent to ensure we had all of the necessary poles etc. It was then that I discovered the front zip was totally jammed. It was unusable so we took it back downstairs and the lady gave us a different tent – which had two rips in it. She assured us she’d patch them up but when she returned it to us we were doubtful of the quality, she’d literally used tape – we were about to be camping in a place renowned for its wild weather, a place where you can experience four seasons in one day and winds can easily reach 100kmh, and we had a tent with two major weaknesses. It wasn’t worth the risk after paying so much for the campgrounds so we got our money back and rented a better tent elsewhere.
* Bus Puerto Natales to the Welcome Centre
* Hike Welcome Centre to Chileno camp 5.7km
* Extra hike to The Towers 8.5km return
* Total 14km
Finally – it was time to go to Torres Del Paine and the weather couldn’t of been better. We only booked our campsites five days before so we were able to adjust our itinerary with the weather and therefore we opted to travel east to west unlike pretty much everyone else on the W trek.
We passed dozens of llama style Guanaco’s and Lesser Rhea’s (similar to an emu or ostrich) who ran at lightning speed. The bus dropped us off at the park entrance where we paid our fees and were told it was a two hour hike to the Welcome Centre near Hotel Las Torres or a shuttle could take us there, for a fee of course. We were spending so damn much already and we already had a long first day planned so we opted for the shuttle along with everyone else. The park office checked our documents to ensure we had booked a place to camp and then the nice lady directed us onto the start of the W trek, saying “it’s easy to follow and there will be many people around”. As soon as we started walking a loved up city couple with small handbags asked us to take their picture. We had over 15 fucking kilos on our backs and your asking me to stop and take your photo?! I should of reversed the iPhone and taken a photo of my angry face instead.
After we took their photo everyone else dispersed and we couldn’t seem to find the main trail – which we laughed about because we were lost within five minutes of hiking. We were between the road and random tracks but we managed to rejoin the correct route and as we veered up a little slope Craig said “what’s that looking at us?” I have quite bad long distance eye sight but we both knew what it looked like and neither of us wanted to say it out loud and get our hopes up. So instead we threw our bags down and Craig frantically grabbed his binoculars while I kept asking “well – what is it? Shall I change my camera lens, what is it?!” “IT’S A MOUNTAIN LION LAUREN”. We couldn’t believe it, I quickly put my zoom lens on and there he was, a MASSIVE puma sitting on the hillside right under the parks legendary towers. This park has a very healthy population of mountain lions (also called pumas or cougars) since they banned hunting a few years back but the chances that you’ll witness one is very slim…unless you know where to look. So people pay thousands of dollars for professional guides to take them to see these wild animals.
The puma was almost posing for us, he was holding his chest right out, showing his tremendous muscles. We could easily see why they are called mountain lions though, his face was just like a big African cat and we were so overwhelmed with the lucky sighting. We weren’t afraid at all, the pumas in this park don’t have a reputation for attacking humans as they are the top predators and have so much available prey. But we knew what to do incase the puma approached us, don’t turn our backs, keep our eyes on the animal while waving our arms up and down to appear big and scary basically, and make a loud noise if need be. One German couple we met misread the information about Puma encounters though and they gave us a demonstration on what to do and this huge bearded German guy put his arms straight up in the air and wobbled them around like he was doing a Mexican wave, actually he looked like one of the blow up tubes that sway outside car dealerships! We didn’t have the heart to tell him to wave his arms up and down to make yourself look wider…we figured a puma would appreciate his little dance anyway.
The puma eventually moved away, around to some bushes and we managed to spot him hiding amongst the shrub. We left him be and had huge smiles across our faces for the rest of the day. The trail became fairly busy as it’s part of the W trek that can be done as a day trip. It was a tough first day for us, with a relentless uphill slog and our heavy bags weighing us down. We hadn’t anticipated warm weather but with the sun out we were having to take all our layers off. It was at this point that Craig realised he’d only packed long johns and no boxers, so he was stuck in his thermals the whole trip. The trail took us along the edge of a valley with distant views of the towers.
We eventually descended into the valley and crossed the river to reach Chileno Campground. There was a lovely refugio with a roaring fire inside and when you pay to stay in the campground your also entitled to sit inside the warm refugio and even enjoy a hot shower. We sat on a bench outside and had some cheese and bread for lunch (yes we packed 1 kilo of cheese for the trip!).
After lunch we left our backpacks behind and decided while the weather was good to head up to the Towers. We were going there the following morning for sunrise but seeing as it was only 12pm and the weather could be bad the following day we opted to hike to the towers twice…brutal but worth it. It’s 4.5km each way with almost 500m elevation gain. The trail was a bit of a muddy mess but it soon turned into a mass of rocks to hike amongst. The final one kilometre was seriously steep and my calves were burning, but with every step the towers revealed more of themselves like a bizarre striptease.
After two hours we made it to the top and were standing on a rocky ridge with a frozen lake almost encircled by shear mountains and of course the three prominent towers which had a peachy colour to them. It was phenomenal. The edges were still covered in snow but the ice was slowly defrosting with slabs breaking up and the aqua blue colour shining through the gaps. The mountains were so steep around the lake that parts of them would suddenly crumble down and we’d hear loud roars as rocks tumbled down the slopes, crashing onto the ice.
We eventually had to tear ourselves away from the incredible view and head back down to the campground. For our first night we were actually unable to book a campground because they were ‘full’ so instead we had to pay double the price ($75!!!) for a ‘fully equipped campsite’ which basically meant a site where a tent was already erected for us. It was our only choice though so we checked into our tangerine coloured tent and to be honest I was pretty stoked to find it had foam mattresses inside! Annoyingly it seemed to just be a corrupt company though as many camp sites remained available and they weren’t even half full!
The park has strict fire regulations – campfires aren’t permitted and you can only use your camping stove in designated cooking shelters at the refugio’s, oh and for smokers you also have to wait until you reach a refugio before you spark up. The park was severely damaged by a human caused wildfire a few years back and it’s a area of the world that doesn’t get wildfires naturally as it never gets that hot in summer nor does lightning strike much so it’s not used to that cycle of burning and regrowing like other forests in the world. So with that said we wanted to cook some dinner but when we asked where the cooking shelter was we were informed there wasn’t one at this campground. What?! The meals at the refugio’s were out of our budget so we were wandering what we’d do when a staff member offered to provide hot water for us. We had a meal that only needed hot water so we were sorted but they did offer to cook it for us. The staff were really lovely actually, maybe because they’d only been open two days and were still enjoying the novelty. But the manager was quite insistent that it was no problem to get his chefs to cook it for us and kept asking what we were having. I literally couldn’t bring myself to tell him it was powdered mash potato and gravy and hand the ingredients to a chef so I just mumbled the meal and said just hot water would be fine for us.
We filled up our thermos flasks and took them outside to make our meal on the picnic tables. A lot of other campers also didn’t know about the lack of cooking shelter so they either paid for a meal or the chefs cooked their meals for them. But not us, we were outside watching the sun dip behind the peaks while pretending we were on a ‘Two Minute Dinner’ tv show. We combined a carton of peas with the powdered mash and then added the hot water. With some vigorous stirring a delightful smash was prepared. We quickly served it onto our plastic plates, using spare plates as lids to keep them warm while Craig reused the pan to make some packet gravy. I don’t want to toot my own trumpet but I was quite impressed with the outcome.
We then moved into the warm refugio, took a hot shower and were reunited with our Canadian friends who’d given us a ride on Chiloé island a couple weeks before. We actually didn’t have much energy to chat though, we were shattered and had to be up at 4:30am for our sunrise hike so by 9pm everyone was heading to bed. We opted for some super warm sleeping bags, Craig’s was -15° while mine was -26°!! Ok they took up most of our backpacks but we spoke to some people who were freezing cold all night while we were as warm as we would be in a house.
Even though we felt warm and snug we barely slept a wink. I don’t know why, maybe not wanting to miss our alarm clock.
* Sunrise hike to The Towers 8.5km
* Hike from Chileno camp to Los Cuernos camp 12km
* Total 20.5km
With our head torches on we headed up the trail to the towers, again. But this time it was below zero degrees and all the mud had frozen solid which was good, but in other areas the streams flowing over our rocky path turned to ice and became very dangerous. There weren’t half as many people at the lake for sunrise as there had been the previous afternoon and we had clear skies so I couldn’t wait to see the towers glow. The staff at the refugio had no idea what time the sun hit the peaks and we got so many different quotes, my favourite was “at 7am….or maybe 6am, around 6 or 7am” well which one is it buddy? The consensus in the camp seemed to be depart at 4:45am, for sunrise at 7am.
It hit the peaks at around 7:07am so we had a chilled thirty minute wait as we arrived early. The sky was a lovely twilight blue though and a mist rolled over the frozen lake. But it was hard to stay warm, it was freezing cold and without gloves on my hands were numb. We found a big boulder to sit on and Craig used the space to walk circles around me to keep warm while I used the Norwegian fisherman technique of swinging my arms around my chest to get life back into my hands.
The sun finally hit the top of the peaks and from then on it only intensified as it moved down the slopes. The sandstone spires were glowing orange like the desert rocks in Utah. It was stunning and I’m glad we made the effort to see this sight on two separate occasions, plus the weather was bloody perfect!
As we headed back down we passed our Canadian friends and the guy was seriously struggling. He’d damaged his knee and could barely take a step before collapsing. We offered to help him down but he was determined to try on his own. I really didn’t think he’d make it back to camp, so when we arrived I enquired with the staff about what the procedure was if someone was injured and needed help. They said they’d call for a horse to see if one was available, just incase he needed one and they also radioed a ranger to notify him. But our friend miraculously made it down on his own, not without shedding some tears along the way but I think it was the big boulders that he was really struggling with. He did successfully make it down though which was a relief for many of us as they were such a nice couple and had made lots of friends on the trail who were awaiting their arrival.
We enjoyed a hefty bowl of porridge, covered in sugar, coconut and raisins and a strong cup of coffee before setting off.
We followed the same route out until we reached a shortcut path to Los Cuernos campground. It was an open trail gradually declining in altitude and passing plenty of streams and boggy areas. We had views of a big snowy mountain to our right and large lakes to our left but it wasn’t outstanding scenery. The nice thing was that hardly anyone else was on this trail, it was so peaceful! We spotted a few people coming our way though, but then one lady veered left along a large river bed. It was mostly dry, just a small stream running through it but we knew what that lady was doing. She had toilet paper in her hand and she was trying to get some privacy (on a ridiculously quiet trail) to take a wee. So when we reached her two friends who were waiting I couldn’t help myself and spoke up because there are such simple rules to follow in nature and pissing (and shitting!) in or near water sources is a huge NO. Patagonia is renowned for its pure water, they say you can literally drink from the streams like a dog sipping from a bowl of water. But people like this lady are contaminating the water. They were locals from Chile so I spoke in very broken Spanish and asked if their friend had gone to the baño (toilet). When they said yes I went on to explain how bad it was, that she needed to be 100m from a water source and that she was contaminating drinking water. They seemed to be surprised, which is even more frustrating, how can people be so clueless and ignorant.
Anyway, after a few not so interesting hours of hiking we made our way beneath the peaks of Los Cuernos. These mountains are another typical image of Patagonia with unusual shapes and black tops from a different rock type on the tips of each peak. Behind these unusual spires was a bulky mountain covered in hanging glaciers. Occasionally a chunk of ice would fall down a couple hundred meters and create a roar that sounded like thunder.
After a long day we finally arrived at Los Cuernos campground at around 4pm. The ground was rocky so they had wooden platforms for the tent and tonight was our first time putting ours up…lets hope it’s functional! Because we couldn’t use pegs on the wood the rental company provided us with hook screws which we could hand-twist into the wooden platform to secure our tent. It was much smaller than the tent provided in the previous campground and we barely had room for our bags in the tiny porch.
This refugio provided a nice cozy room with roaring fire for campers to cook their food. A staff member seemed to be in charge of music and treated her role like she was a dj in a city bar, bit of a strange environment I thought but she obviously took it seriously as she proudly had a tip box on the counter. We had a very tasty dinner consisting of cous cous and a boil-in-the-bag paneer curry that we brought from Canada. Soooo worth it! We moved into the refugio to sit beside the fire until it was bed time. This night was on a flimsy sleep mat instead of a mattress but I guess we had to get used to it at some point…