PATAGONIA

TORRES DEL PAINE NATIONAL PARK

Approaching Torres del Paine National Park, we had our first taste of the scenery that would surround us for the next five days – bright blue lakes surrounded by large mountains and threatening snow covered peaks with clouds looming in the sky above them.  Whether prepared or not, we had arrived and soon enough began the ‘W’ trek.

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After reading and talking with other people, we had decided to trek from West to East, the less traditional but increasingly popular direction.  Day 1, looking dorky with our hiking poles and with our way too heavy backpacks loaded up we set off on the path to Glacier Grey, our second glacier of South America.  To begin there was a quick catamaran ride across Lago Pehoe (Lago = Lake – see you can learn Spanish too!) and then an 11km walk to Refugio Grey, our first campsite for the trek.  We walked with Andreu and Elena from Spain and enjoyed the beauty of Lago Grey and the distant Glacier Grey that feeds the lake.  Icebergs floated throughout and at high points you could certainly feel the chill off the water.  We watched as a woodpecker smashed its beak into a tree (those things are crazy) and sighed when we asked returning hikers “how much longer do we have to go?” with conflicting answers.

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Arriving at camp there was a quick high five as we had somehow survived our first day hike.  We set up our tents and walked 10 minutes to a nearby Mirador (lookout) where we could walk down to the lake’s edge and we watched the sunset over the glacier and lake.  Large icebergs floated in the water with smaller bits close enough to pick up and touch – the water was ice cold!  We cooked chicken burritos for dinner much to the dismay of fellow hikers on their last can of tuna or plain pasta.  We savoured every bite knowing very well the food we had to follow for the next few days was going to pale in comparison.

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Day 2 and we left our tent and backpacks behind as we continued a few kilometres higher to another lookout over Glacier Grey.   Hiking without all of our gear felt amazing and we moved quickly to the viewpoint and back.   Returning to our campsite we had our first experience packing up in the rain before continuing back on the same track as the day before to our next campsite – Paine Grande.  Highlight of the trek back out was stopping for a break near 3 wonderful girls who gave Will a hard time about his complaining about me going too slow.  I sat back enjoyed the view while they gave him a serve about making sure he looked after me!  Approaching Paine Grande we had talked about pushing through another 2 hours to make a further campsite however once we saw everyone with their tents set up relaxing on the grass near Lake Pehoe watching the sun go down, that motivation to continue was surpassed by setting up our camp and drying out in the sun.

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Day 3, we set off on a cloudy and slightly rainy morning for Camp Italiano where we were to leave our bags before continuing up into the French Valley.  With each day, the scenery was so different and it was hard (especially for me) not to take a photo every time you looked up – it was all so incredibly beautiful.  We arrived at Camp Italiano in good time however many hikers on their return from deeper inside the valley had said there was poor visibility as you inclined.  Nevertheless we set off, hiking over large rocks and through some of the greenest areas we had been to so far.  As we hiked, you could see the clouds lifting and by the time we arrived at Mirador Glacier Frances, the clouds had cleared and we had a perfect view of the glacier and its surrounds.  At this point we chose not to continue any higher as there seemed to be a lot more cloud so instead continued on to our next campsite Los Cuernos to set up before dark.

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On Day 4 we were prepared for what many people had said would be the hardest day – almost all uphill for approximately 15 kilometres to Campsite Las Torres.  I am not sure if we had just prepared for the worst and therefore were pleasantly surprised, but the hike was not too bad and we were once again surrounded by different scenery, which probably also helped take the focus off those gigantic hills!

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We arrived at Campsite Las Torres by 4:30pm and as the sky was clearing we decided to hike up to the Mirador Las Torres, in hope of seeing the sun shining on the Torres (Towers) that the park is so very famous for.   While the hike up to the towers is only 45 minutes, it is a gruelling climb to the top.  In some respects it was best not to look ahead as tiny human specks on the cliffs above you indicated just how far you still had to go.  The view at the top however was worth every knee-buckling step as the clouds cleared and we were able to appreciate the beauty of the towers, backlit by the setting sun. Had it not been so cold we could have stayed up there all evening but we needed to ensure we walked back down the track before dark.

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It was a cold last night at camp and we awoke to rain pouring down on our little tent.  We had discussed getting up to see the Towers once more at sunrise however the sound of rain and the cold air somewhat discouraged us.  I think we were also more than satisfied with our view the night before as well so instead at first break in the rain we packed up and continued on the path not only out of Valley Ascensio but out of Torres Del Paine National Park.

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It was hard to believe that our trek had come to an end.  It really was an incredible journey, challenging and downright painful at times but also rewarding and inspiring.  We met more wonderful people along the way and spent the whole five days surrounded by some of the most beautiful landscapes we have ever seen.  Would we do it again?  Yes, I think so however as much as carrying all of your own gear gives you a great level of satisfaction, it is also met with a desire to get to the next camp as quickly as possible so perhaps on round two, one of those nice warm wooden cabins would be considered!  Nevertheless, we had survived the park (and each other) and can share our stories with those who have also experienced or perhaps will experience Torres Del Paine in the future.

PUERTO NATALES

We arrived in Puerto Natales after 4 days aboard the Navimag ship and it was refreshing to be on land once again.  Unfortunately along with a couple others, we had booked our hostel online and failed to record its name outside of the confirmation email so our first hour was spent looking for somewhere with Internet so we could look it up.  I can’t imagine that was a problem travelling many a year ago!

Puerto Natales is best known as the gateway to Torres del Paine National Park.  For the most part, the whole town survives on the business of tourists visiting the park and you would be hard pressed to bump into someone who isn’t “about to do the ‘W’” or “just finished the ‘Circuit’”.  That being said, it is a quiet and cute little town with a handful of nice restaurants and a great microbrewery – so small that on our first night we drank them entirely out of their own beer!

Our second day consisted of getting ourselves organised for hiking the ‘W’, named due to the similar shape you follow as you trek through Torres del Paine.  We attended a briefing at Erratic Rock, which is held daily to prepare and somewhat intimidate avid hikers and afterwards we joined the numerous backpackers at the supermarket buying our packets of pasta and instant mash – fuel to survive the 5-day trek.

At our hostel – Backpackers Kaweshkar, owner Omar prepared us with all of the essentials: tent, sleeping bags, mattresses, cooking utensils and most importantly, what was most likely going to be my saviour – hiking poles!  By the evening we had checked most things off of the list, unfortunately physical fitness wasn’t as easily determined but satisfied we had one last hearty meal and were off to bed.