“Are you doing the W or the O?” we were constantly asked on our way down through Chile. We knew we wanted to do some hiking in Patagonia, but this trekking alphabet was new to us. Before much longer, the Q came into question as well. It was time for us to set our route – and a visit to the free talk at Erratic Rock was just the medicine we needed.
The Low-Down from Erratic Rock
We can recommend anyone intending to hike in Patagonia's Torres del Paine National Park to listen to the tips and tricks at the Erratic Rock talk. It's a free talk given by the hostel in Puerto Natales, and while some of it is overkill if you have some hiking experience, there are still some handy hints (rucksack raincovers and Patagonian winds are not a good mix!) and sound advice for those people who have never even pulled on a hiking boot. The hostel also hires out equipment, and a permanent sight for Puerto Natales residents are perplexed trekkers figuring out how to put up and take down the rental tents.
Our talk takeaways were the dangers of “gore-tex dancing” - yes, those outdoor enthusiasts who become all a dither and rummage for their waterproofs at the first sight of a grey raincloud – and how to combat this with “gore-tex management”. It was also sobering to find out that there was no search and rescue service. This wasn't the place to be getting stranded!
By the end of it all, we decided we'd plump for the O-Trek (wenn schon, denn schon!) – a circuit taking in the sights of the W-trek (named so because, wonder of wonders, the trekking route resembles the shape of a W) as well as the backside of the peaks. We'd be in the great outdoors for eight days (no shower – eek!), and we needed to prepare.
Pre-Trek Prep and the Quest to find the Snickers
First up, there was the kit. Then the food for eight days plus an extra day's emergency tucker looked like this – oh yes, we were making room for the Erratic Rock homemade peanut butter and trailmix from the most amazing dried fruit and nut store ever:
As for the water – leave the big water bottle at home. You only need a cup to fill up on the freshest, tastiest glacial water that crosses your path every 20 minutes or so.
Our shopping trip wasn't without its challenges as we nearly had a Snickers crisis. The supermarket was out of stock, and all the family-owned stores along the high street were shut as it was Sunday. Determined to find the king of mountain snacks, we walked to the bus station where – hurra! - our luck was in at a tiny kiosk. “Doce, por favor” (twelve, please), we asked timidly. Clearly thinking we were insane or that our Spanish was totally mixed up, the kiosk owner kept repeating “Doce??”, “Doce??” as he counted out twelve bars so slowly in front of the growing queue that it was incredibly painful.
Still, we were triumphant! And with our twelve Snickers bars secured, the trek could begin!
The Night Before
Knowing that we had an eight day pasta-fest ahead of us, we went for a final pre-trek beer and pizza at the local trekkers' hangout. “Have you just got back?” someone asked us as we sat down. We must have looked knackered for a question like that, but in actual fact we'd only packed our bags! That Snickers hunt must have taken it out of us. How would we fare after eight days in the great outdoors? Well, stick with us (it's a bit of a long post) and you can find out...
Day 1 – Puerto Natales to Campamento Italiano
The 6:15am alarm clock was a toughie, but one hour later, we had joined all the other trekkers in their outdoor clobber on the bus to the Parque Nacional Torres del Paine. We were trying to figure out where everyone hailed from, and you can normally hazard a guess from the brands; the Deuter-toting Germans, the Brits sporting Berghaus/Karrimor, it's a fairly safe bet that the Kiwis and Ozzies will be wearing Kathmandu, and as for Lippi/Doite – gotta be a Chilean. After two and a half hours, we arrived in Pudeto at the entrance to the National Park and took the catamaran across Lago Pehoé. This is where we had our first encounter with the wind! We were pretty drenched from the spray from the lake (“let's sit outside,” said R!), but managed to sneak a peek at the Cuernos mountains...
...before arriving at Paine Grande. The sight of blown down tents and people running after tent bags wasn't encouraging – is this what was in store for us?
Our first camp would be 7.5km away at Campamento Italiano, so off we trekked with more than the odd break to admire the gorgeous colour of Lago Sköttsberg behind us. And who should we bump into? A couple of Israeli friends who we'd met numerous times on our Chilean galavants. It's a small world when you're on the gringo circuit.
The weather was on our side today, which is a rare thing in this region – “expect four seasons in one day”, we were told – so we took advantage and scooted up the Valle del Francés to the Lookout Británico where we think you'll understand why we were walking around with our mouths open in awe at the scenery:
- Number of blisters: None
- Kms trekked: 17.5
- Rain: None – hurra!
- Hours trekked: 7
- Feel-good factor: Feeling great :-) Rucksack not feeling too heavy.
- Dinner: Tortellini, dried kiwi, and a tipple of rum
Day 2 – Campamento Italiano to Campamento Chileno
It rained in the night. It rained when we got up. Believe me, there is nothing worse than packing away a wet tent. And our rucksacks felt heavy today, even though the 300g of pasta we ate last night and the 200g of porridge for breakfast must have made things lighter, right? To top it off, I felt unfit. But don't you find that with any kind of sporting activity? You set off all eager on day 1, feeling fitter than you thought. Bring on day 2, and your body feels like a lump of lead. You look at your watch and tap it to check it's still working when what feels like half an hour is - sigh - only ten minutes. That's how day 2 began.
But it wasn't all doom and gloom. We soon got our hiking mojo back, and after being hit by a flurry of hail and gusts of wind that tested our balance, the sun decided to make an appearance and we had great views of wind-whipped Lago Nordernskjöld.
At Campamento Chileno, the campsite was a little on the crowded side, and a few cheeky Germans were hogging all the space in the cooking hut, but on the positive side of things, there were showers. And they were hot :-)
- Hours hiked: 8
- Kms trekked: approx. 20
- Nails broken: 3
- Sporks broken: 1 (it seems that titanium is the way to go)
- Dry cracked thumbs: 1
- Red wind-blown cheeks: 4
- Annoyance of the day: Having to say “hola” far too many times to every approaching trekker
Day 3 – Campamento Chileno to Campamento Torres
“Marcello, get up...,” boomed a loud American voice at 4am as he woke the entire campsite, but sadly, it seemed, not his Brazilian friend, to make the early morning trek for sunrise at the “Torres” (towers). It had a been a cold night with interrupted sleep and we'd zipped our sleeping bags together to try and keep warm. So the early morning American wake-up call wasn't appreciated. Still, we had an easy day ahead of us. Would that rucksack feel lighter though?
The day started as usual with “porridge à la Hagemann” with honey, almonds, and cranberries. It was then only 5km to the gorgeous woodsy Campamento Torres with a stream running through – the closest campsite to the Torres del Paine, the impressive pinnacles that gave the National Park its name. This was the only campsite we had to reserve as numbers are limited due to an unfortunate (but mildly amusing) incident involving mountain waste management. Let's just say that the sewage tank couldn't cope with the masses and gave a couple of trekkers a few years back an unwanted shower.
Speaking of unwanted showers – that just about summed up the weather today. Still, that's Patagonia for you, and rain or no rain, we were going to check out those Torres. At least the clouds cleared for us to see the 2,850m granite towers. How kind would Mother Nature be to us for that sunrise tomorrow though?
Kms trekked: 7
Day 4 – Campamento Torres to Campamento Serón
Oh, the joys of sunrise photography! We were up at 05:20am and armed with our sleeping bags, mats, and that all-important breakfast Snickers to hike the 45 minute route to the Torres mirador for sunrise. Behind us, a line of head torches marked the small army of people hiking from the Chileno campsite where we spent the previous night. It was pretty warm, so we guessed it was cloudy – darn! Guess that was our red sunrise gone, then. We found a nice flat rock, snuggled into our sleeping bags and waited for the sun to show its face – which it didn't, damn it – but that view wasn't half bad in the blue hour either:
That Outdoor Brochure Shot
For years I have flicked through outdoor brochures and gazed at intrepid adventurers wrapped up in their sleeping bag, camping mug in hand, as they sit on a mountainside and gaze out at the views. Really? Does this ever happen? I thought. Well, let me praise that Erratic Rock talk again. “Take your sleeping bags and mats up for sunrise,” they said. And that's just what we did :-) So here's our take on that outdoor catalogue shot, complete with breakfast Snickers:
The walk back down took us via Hotel Torres, where we said goodbye to our Dutch friends who had just completed the W-trek. There was something mildly satisfying about sitting in the posh hotel with our sweaty outdoor gear on. From here, we left the W-trekkers behind and continued with the circuit to Campamento Serón along a completely different path to the previous days. How many views could this National Park pack in? We walked through grassy fields, along the Rio Paine, and saw more horses than people. And it was that evening, at Campemento Serón, that we met some fabulous people, who would become an important part of our Patagonia experience.
- Blisters: 1
- Thorns in fingers: 4
- Kms trekked: 23
- Rucksack comfort factor: Still not feeling lighter – warum?
Day 5 – Campamento Serón to Campamento Dickson
Four days down, four to go...
It was an eventful night. A group of campers arrived in the middle of the night and somehow started a fire with a campstove. After a lot of noise and cries of “Agua, Agua”, it all calmed down and seemed like a dream by morning.
Today's destination was Campamento Dickson, 19km away, and once again, the Patagonian scenery didn't disappoint:
After another day in the great outdoors, we spotted where we'd be spending our fifth night. Campsites don't get much better than Dickson where killer mountain views and a glacial lake fed by the Patagonian ice field provided enough distraction from the mozzies - guess you can't have it all.
- Kms trekked: 19
- 1 fall in the mud
- Mosquito bites: Too many to count
- Rucksack comfort factor: Finally feeling lighter! Hurra!
- Time spent in glacial lake by R: 30 seconds – apparently it was really cold
Day 6 – Campamento Dickson to Campamento Los Perros
What a beautiful day! We woke up to sun and blue skies, which called for our morning porridge to be eaten at the lake.
I think it was about now that we finally understood the concept of “being at one with nature.” It felt so good to be in the outdoors for so long and away from traffic and technology. We hiked about four hours today through the forest and wondered if we would ever cease to be amazed by the mountain scenery in this National Park.
En route, we spotted more evidence of what we termed the “Christmas tree packer”, and gave ourselves a bit of a pat on the back for our packing efforts. It wasn't uncommon to see trekkers with their cups, Crocs, and battered saucepans dangling from their backpacks, complete with swinging rubbish bag. Nightmare!
It was cold at Campamento Los Perros, and from reports from a certain skinny-dipper in the party (nope, not me or R) I believe that it was even colder in the glacial lake.
We had the much talked about John Gardner Pass to tackle tomorrow, so it was an alcohol ban this evening ;-) but the pasta-fest continued.
Kms hiked: 9
Day 7 – Campamento Los Perros to Campamento Grey
The alarm went off at 06:15am, and by 07:50am we were off. It was a tough uphill over the Paso John Gardner – from 600m to 1,200m – and balance proved a bit of a challenge with the wind coming at us from every angle. It was strongest at the top of the pass, so strong that I could have easily choked, but I think these were still relatively mild winds for Patagonia.
And then something else hit us – that view! Go on, click on it. Although, you'll find a better shot here in the album.
Talk about being rewarded for our efforts. Stretched out in front of us was the incredible Glacier Grey – our second view of a glacier branching off the Southern Patagonia Ice Field. (Remember the other glacier over in Argentina?)
After lapping up those glacier views, it was then a knee-jarringly steep 1,200m downhill to Campamento Grey, which took its toll on my wee legs. At 17:30, we arrived at the final campsite, and I flopped into the tent, certain that I would never walk again. Drinks in the refugio bar were a very welcome end to the day and to our last night with our Torres del Paine chums. Tomorrow, we'd be back in civilization.
- Kms hiked: 22
- Blisters: 1
- Achy knees: 2 (K)
- Achy feet: 2 (R)
- Pulled thighs: 1
- Pulled calves: 1
Day 8 – Campamento Grey to Puerto Natales
It rained hard in the night and the winds were strong, but we were pleased as punch with our bombproof tent. Our Torres del Paine trek was the most fantastic experience, but there comes a time when you're ready for a shower, bed (and perhaps a beer). It took three hours to reach the fittingly named Paine Grande – my knees were experiencing a “pain grande”! On the way it was sad to see a vast area of destroyed forest, which was set alight by an illegal campfire in 2011. It's not hard to understand why cooking is now restricted to the campsite huts as the forest will take centuries to recover. We had our last lunch with the Torres del Paine crew, who were continuing on to the W-trek, and then waited for the catamaran, from which a bunch of fresh-faced, raring-to-go trekkers descended. It seems we were so tired that we didn't even manage to take any photos this day!
As for that shower, clean clothes, and a proper bed – bliss!
- Kms hiked: 11
- Satisfaction: Off the scale!