Now that you have all the information you need after reading our Guide to Hiking in Torres del Paine National Park, I thought I would give you a more subjective perspective of our actual experience in the park.
Let’s start with some small talk about the weather. After hearing the briefing talk by one of the owners of Basecamp before entering the park, we were fully prepared to encounter the typical Patagonian weather which may or may not consist of 4 seasons of weather in one day – sun, wind, snow, sun, rain, back to sun again. This sort of thing is not unheard of in the southern cone and should probably be expected basically year round, but for the most part, we had decent weather during our eight day hike.
During the first 4 days of our trek, we had absolutely fantastic weather -not a drop of rain, mostly clear skies, and low wind. Because we got sick, we took it slow for these days to enjoy the weather and try to recover quickly. The nice weather was especially good news on our fourth and longest day, when we hiked from the free Campamento El Paso to Refugio Dickson by way of the John Gardner Pass. Paso John Gardner was the most intimidating part of the trail for me. During our travels, we heard several stories of people not being able to complete the Circuit due to bad weather and consequent closures of “The Pass” making it impassable. The wind is the biggest factor, sometimes causing closures of a couple of hours, and other times closures for days. As you can imagine, this makes planning a lot more difficult. It’s not only the closing of the Pass that makes this section intimidating, but the physical aspect of getting there. When hiking from West to East on the back side of the “O”, it was a steep 2.5 hour climb up the highest (1200m) and possibly windiest part of the trail with a few ropes to help climb and poor footing towards the top of the forest. After we broke through the upper border of the forest, we were greeted with strong sunshine and a slight wind, making us lucky enough to have nearly perfect weather to go over the pass. At the top we were even able to break and take some fun photos. Just like every mountain, the fun eventually ended and we had to follow the laws of gravity because as they say, what goes up, must come down…
Note: To remedy the steepness, some people choose to go the opposite way. This way has its own issues. Though not as steep, you still have to climb up to 1200 meters over about 5 hours. (Personally, I prefer the short and difficult route instead of the long and drawn out method.) For those that choose this way, the major problem then becomes what if you hike 3 days to get to the pass and it is closed for a few days. Then you may not have enough food to afford to wait until it opens before continuing which means you are forced to hike 3 days back to the east side of the “W” on the same trail. Not the best situation to be in since you will be risking not seeing part of the highlights on the “W”. Some of the refugios have a small shop to buy food if you are running low, but it is mostly cookies and snacks instead of what I like to call “food with substance”.
After making it over the pass, it was all downhill from there, pardon the pun, as we hiked past Refugio Los Perros, the first refugio on the other side of the pass, until we arrived at Refugio Dickson. In total, it was 10 hours of hiking – our longest and most difficult day, but what I learned is that I would not recommend climbing the Pass and skipping a campsite on the same day. Despite these difficulties, I am very happy we did the whole Circuit instead of just the “W”. There were much less people on the back side and we met some really nice people that were hiking the same route. The next morning when we woke in Dickson, we could tell it was going to rain, which was fine since we had already made it over Paso John Gardner. Patagonia, bring it on.
Well, it did. It rained/snowed/sleeted on and off in between periods of sun for the next two days. As we hiked past the glaciers, lakes, forests, and seasonal swamps on the backside, we followed the advice we got from Base Camp and avoided putting on our warm, waterproof clothes, instead choosing to change hiking speed to regulate our temperature. From Dickson, we hiked to Seron where we awoke to snow the next morning then continued hiking through the muddy trails destroyed by the rain and horses which frequent the east side of the Circuit. We cheated a little bit by stopping for 2 hours in Hotel Las Torres where we ordered hot chocolate and french fries next to a crackling fire. Once we noticed how comfortable we were getting, we decided to keep hiking towards our next destination.
Anna and I hiked up to the namesake attraction, the Torres del Paine, on our 7th morning. Most people went up before sunrise to see the towers turn red, but since we waited an extra hour, there was a lot less people when we were up there. When the clouds started to cover up the three torres del Paine, we went back down to our campsite, packed up, ate, and hiked to Campamento Italiano at the entrance to Valle Frances. We tried hiking up the middle part of the “W” (Valle Frances) on our final morning, but the downpouring rain prevented us from going all the way. In the heavy rain and wet clothes, we packed up the wet tent and literally ran the majority of the 7.5km from Campamento Italiano to Paine Grande, where we started. What was supposed to take 2.5 hours of walking, only took us 1.25 hours running through the flooded paths and rivers in our soaking wet clothes like we were in military training. Towards the end of the run, we also got a nice taste of the notorious Patagonian winds, which were almost blowing Anna over. It was quite fun, but I was glad it happened on our last day!
For us, the front side, the “W”, was very crowded compared to the backside, so I did not feel as isolated as I did on the back side. The easy accessibility to the park is also one of its biggest downfalls in my opinion, because it makes for a crowded trail. However, the amazing scenery, giant rock formations, and glaciers make it worth visiting. Overall my favorite part of the hike was our last day running through the rain, mud and wind to our final destination. Anna even found her favorite spot in all of South America on the backside of the circuit, peering out over Glacier Grey and into Chile’s Southern Ice Field at the mirador just before Campamento El Paso. After visiting the park, I’d still recommend everyone to go despite the weather and crowded trails, because no matter what, it will be an unforgettable experience.
Be sure to read our Guide to Hiking in Torres del Paine before you go!