Torres del Paine Circuit Experience

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. IMG_6832This 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. DSC04583After 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. DSC04639Then 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.IMG_7363

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.DSC04678

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!IMG_7644

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.IMG_7123 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.

IMG_7110Be sure to read our Guide to Hiking in Torres del Paine before you go!

 

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Torres del Paine National Park Guide

Dubbed the “8th Wonder of the World,” Parque Nacional Torres Del Paine was Chile’s first National Park (created in 1959) and is also its most visited attracting more than 100 thousand visitors a year. Because of this, I thought it would be a good idea to write a guide to hiking in the park based on my personal experience.

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Why go?

  • It’s a unique hiking experience where you can do an 8-day “hardcore” backpacking trek or stay in lodges and not have to carry much.
  • Amazing scenery. Glaciers, condors, jagged pillars, green lakes, gigantic flat rock faces, not to mention a look at the world’s third largest ice field.
  • Torres del Paine is very far south.
  • Experience 4 seasons of Patagonian weather in 1 day.
  • Everyone can do it: from the veteran mountaineer to the first time backpacker to the day tripper, the park has something for every level.

To begin the guide, here is a map for all you planners so you can locate the points I reference in my post. This is the same map you will receive as you enter the park. There are many out there, but I found this one to be the most helpful – plus it was free.

Map:

map2014

Before you go:

  • Summer is High Season. That means that from December through February, the park is very busy. November & March are a little colder, but have less people.
  • Make it a priority to go to the briefing talk at Basecamp (next door to Erratic Rock Hostel) which happens everyday at 3pm. It lasts for about 1.5 hours, and they are very real with you. They give you some of the most valuable information you will recieve and go over everything from the different routes (W, O, Q), getting to and from the park, what clothes you should wear, what food to bring, what to expect about the weather, and answer any questions you might have.
  • Make a plan. Though things might change depending on the weather or other circumstances, it is best to start with a well thought out plan of where you will stay each night, even you do not follow it.
  • Make a grocery list to plan your food.
  • Renting equipment can be expensive, especially if you are planning on doing the whole circuit, but it is better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it.
  • Stay at Erratic Rock Hostel the night before you leave for the park because they cook you an amazing breakfast (omelette, homemade bread, peanut butter, cereal, yoghurt, real coffee).

Getting there:

  • The best way to enter the park if you are looking to do a multi-day trek is to take a bus. You can buy your bus tickets for between $10,000-$15,000 Chilean Pesos (CLP) from the bus terminal.
  • Most buses leave at 7:30am or 7:50am. There are also a few buses that leave in the afternoon during the high season.
  • All forms of transportation in the park (bus, micros, catamaran) are synced so one will not leave until all the others get there.
  • Upon entering the park, EVERYONE is required to watch a safety video and pay the park entrance fee ($18,000 CLP for foreigners).
  • After you watch the video, you have three options on where to begin. Use the map above for reference.
  1. Your first option is to transfer from the big bus that took you to the park entrance and hop on a microbus that will take you from where you pay the entrance fee (1st bus stop) to Hotel Las Torres for $2,500 pesos each way.
  2. Your second option is to stay on the big bus for another 30 minutes and get off to take the catamaran at Pudeto. This is the most popular option in summer, but also the most expensive. The catamaran cost $12,000 pesos each way unless you buy a round trip ticket ($19,000) right away. The 20-minute catamaran ride takes you from Cafe Pudeto to Refugio Paine Grande. Some people like this option for the return trip to relax, but it offers many of the same views as from inside the park.
  3. The third option is to take the big bus to the third and final stop, the Visitors Center & Administration. From here, you can do the tail of the “Q”. This is the cheapest option because it entails a 3-5 hour hike across the flat plains in towards the park instead of taking transportation. It is cool to walk in and see the whole park in front of you. This is the route we took.

Routes:

The “W” (~4 days) “The W” is by far the most popular route. It is named that way because of the rough shape the route takes on the map. The trek takes you to see the highlights of the park. The “O” (6-10 days) “The O” or the Circuit, is “The W” plus the backside of the park. Many people say that the backside is the more beautiful part, and there is also less people. The “Q” (7-11 days) “The Q” is the Circuit plus an extra 3-5 hour hike from the Administration office (third and last stop on the bus) to Refugio Paine Grande. What we did:  The “Q” in 8 days/7 nights Day 1: Puerto Natales – Administration – Refugio Paine Grande (16km, 3.5 hrs) Day 2: Refugio Paine Grande – Refugio Grey (10km, 3.25 hrs) Day 3: Refugio Grey – Campamento Paso (6km, 3.5hrs) Day 4: Campamento Paso – John Gardner Pass – Refugio Los Perros – Refugio Dickson (20km, 8.5 hrs) Day 5: Refugio Dickson – Refugio Seron (18km, 5 hrs) Day 6: Refugio Seron – Hotel Las Torres – Campamento Las Torres (21km, 5 hrs + 1hr break at Hotel Las Torres) Day 7: Campamento Las Torres – Refugio Cuernos – Campamento Italiano (24km, 4.5 hrs) Day 8: Campamento Italiano – Refugio Paine Grande – Puerto Natales (7.5km, 1.25 hrs running/walking in rain)

Equipment:

  • Backpack. Duh! If you are doing the Circuit, I recommend at least 60L so you can carry everything and share the weight of community gear and food.
  • Two pairs of shoes. I hiked in tennis shoes, but many people wear hiking boots. Regardless, they will get wet even if they are waterproof. Some comfortable sandals are recommended for camp.
  • ONLY two (2) changes of clothes – One “stink suit” that you will hike in EVERY day & one clean/dry outfit to be worn only once you have reached camp.
  • Trekking Poles are optional. Winds can be strong, hills can be steep, but not everyone likes carrying the extra weight. I did not bring them.

Our Costs (per person)*:

$10,000 CLP – Transportation to and from the park
$18,000 – Park entrance fee
$4,800 – Camping fee for Refugio Paine Grande
$4,000 – Camping fee for Refugio Grey
$4,000 – Camping fee for Refugio Dickson
$4,000 – Camping fee for Refugio Seron
$12,000 – Catamaran from Refugio Paine Grande to Pudeto

Total: $56,800 CLP (~$114 USD / 8 days = $14.25 USD per day) + food & gear

*Prices in low season (March 2014)

My Recommendations & Tips:

  • The “W” is the highlights trail which means there is always a lot of people. The back side of the Circuit is much less crowded.
  • In my opinion, the catamaran is way too expensive and not worth the price.
  • The free campsites are: Campamento Italiano, Campamento Las Torres, Campamento Paso, & Campamento Las Carretas. All others are paid sites.
  • If you can, bring all your own gear. Renting gear can get expensive. Depending on your length of stay, you might be able to save money by buying the item instead of renting (sleeping pad, rain gear).
  • The park is beautiful, but I never felt like I was in unexplored wilderness.
  • If you want to get up before sunrise to see the Torres del Paine turn red, it is better to camp at Campamento Las Torres than Refugio Chileno. First of all, because it is a much shorter hike from Campamento Las Torres, and second, Las Torres is free and Chileno is paid.
  • If you need to skip a campsite on the circuit, I recommend doing it on a different day then the day you go over Paso John Gardner. For example, skip Refugio Dickson and go from Los Perros to Seron if you need to make up for lost ground.
  • As a safety net, try to plan an extra day into your trip (this means food too) in case the weather conditions are terrible, a section of the trail is closed, you get sick, etc.
  • Be prepared to encounter 4 seasons of weather in the same day. I’m serious!
  • Useful Websites: National Park’s Website, WikiTravel, WikiVoyage, WindGuru

Read Our Torres del Paine Circuit Experience.

The Future Patagonia National Park

After our fun trip to little Rio Tranquilo, we planned to head to Valle Chacabuco, a piece of land designated by Conservacion Patagonica to become one of three parts of the future Patagonia National Park. Dubbed the Serengeti of South America, this park will also include Chile’s Reserva Nacional Tamango, just north of Cochrane, and Reserva Nacional Jeinemini, fifty kms south of Chile Chico. In between these two natural reserves lies Valle Chacabuco, a former grazing ranch (estancia) which is currently owned by Doug Tompkins, a co-founder of The North Face brand. At present, this private park is free for visitors, but has limited infrastructure and no access via public transport. For us this was just a small issue, nothing a little hitchhiking from Cochrane (17 kms) and a little walking couldn’t overcome. We had heard of a three or four day trek from Chacabuco up to Laguna Jeinemini, but from Jeinemini to the next town would mean an additional two or three more days walking, relatively expensive private transport, or hitchhiking in a remote area – we heard only four families live on the road between Jeinemini and Chile Chico. In light of realizing that is probably not the best trek for us, we decided on camping for a few days in one of the park’s two designated campsites and to do a day hike on the Lagunas Altas Trail.

The hike of about 13.5 miles started with 2 hours of switchbacks uphill skirting a few forested areas and leading up towards Cerro Tamanguito in the Tamango Reserve. It provided many views of the valley below. Then the trail wound through a variety of startlingly turquoise and blue mountain lakes and through forested patches before descending through the Patagonian steppe back towards the administration buildings. From there, one can either take a short 1.7 mile trail or the gravel road back to the West Winds campground where we had pitched our tent.

The lakes and snowy mountains bordering Chile’s Northern Ice Field made for great scenery, while an abundance of roaming guanaco, on the trail and at the campsite, added the wildlife element. Having the trail almost exclusively to ourselves for the entire day wasn’t a bad thing and coming back to hot solar powered showers didn’t hurt the experience either. On a more political note, the future Patagonia National Park is right near the place where there is a proposed dam that has sparked many heated debates over the future of Chilean Patagonia. For more information on this, we recommend checking out SinRepresas.com.

Tips for the area:

  • There is a two day hike which begins in Reserva Tamango and connects with the Lagunas Altas Trail in Valle Chacabuco. The friendly people in the Cochrane’s CONAF office can help with a map and details.
  • Bring all of your supplies unless you plan on eating all of your meals in the park’s single restaurant.
  • There are stops for water from the lakes along the trail so don’t worry about carrying water for a full day.
  • Though entry into the park is free (for now), camping in the West Winds campground is free only to citizens of Cochrane, but cost $5000 CLP per person for everyone else.

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Puerto Rio Tranquilo, Capilla de Mármol, & Glaciar Exploradores

A little ways off the beaten path, but totally worth the side trip, is the pueblito of Puerto Rio Tranquilo. This tiny town on the Northwest coast of Lago General Carrera may be one of Patagonia’s hidden gems. Though not exactly completely unknown, most travelers seem to skip this spot for various reasons and head either further south or into Argentina. In my opinion though, it is well worth a visit.

As a town, Rio Tranquilo is not much more than a 4×4 section of streets, 2 minimarkets, 1 sports field (with a bush in the middle), and about a half a dozen tour agencies operating out of trailers or sheds right on the lakefront. The lake that it sits on is a gorgeous turquoise of cold, glacier water that is brushed by swirling wind and lined with Patagonian mountains. Lago General Carrera as it is called on the Chilean side, is located on the border between Chile and Argentina where it is called Lago Buenos Aires. It is the second largest lake in South America behind Lake Titicaca. This beautiful lake also hosts the reason for our coming to Puerto Rio Tranquilo: marble caves.

Those little tour agencies operating out of tin cans can organize tours to a series of marble caves about 15 minutes away by small boat. The caves look much more impressive in person than they do in the photos, especially when the water brings out the colors because of the sunlight. There were about 9 of us on this rocky boat trying to take as many photos of the marble caves as our boat driver slowly maneuvered past them. Though he did not tell us a ton of information about the caves, he did explain to us that they were formed because of the combination of the type of rock, the consistent pounding of waves, and the lack of wind on this side of the lake. Our driver also pointed out the shape of what looked like a St. Bernard’s head at the end of the peninsula. Next, we made our way to some more formations and towards the most famous formations; the Catedral & Capilla de Marmol (Cathedral & Chapel of Marble).

I think it is best if I let the photos do the talking. I would rather show you 34 pictures than type 34,000 words. Check out the photos!

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Another reason to go to Puerto Rio Tranquilo is to walk on one of Patagonia’s many glaciers! Though we did not plan to or even know about this opportunity before we came to Rio Tranquilo, we were able to work out a deal with one of the tour agencies to have one full day of adventure; starting with the Marble caves in the morning followed by ice trekking on Glaciar Exlporador in the afternoon. We compared all the agencies to find out which one offered the best price, allowed for the most time walking on the actual glacier, and had certified guides. Since it was out both Anna’s and my first time walking on a glacier, we wanted to go with someone who knew what they were doing and could teach us about the moving ice block we would be walking on. After a 3 hour van ride, we were ready to start our hike. We needed to walk for about 1 hour over rocks and through forest before reaching the “dirty ice”, a mixture of rock, dirt, and glacier. Our guide, who was a man of few words, explained to us that what we were actually walking one was part of the glacier. We could not believe it. It just looked like dirt. However, as we walked further and further towards the distant glacier-covered peaks, one of which is the tallest peak in all of Patagonia, we could see the ground slowly change into the type of ice we were more familiar with. For being our first time walking on a glacier, we did not know what to expect. A glacier is an always moving, always changing frozen feature and we needed to wear crampons (the spikes on the bottom of your shoes). After we were strapped in, we walked around the ice exploring the caves, canyons, hills, and crevasses while taking photos after nearly every step. Though Glaciar Explorador may not be as famous (yet) as some of the other glaciers in Patagonia, it was still an amazing experience. It was one long day going from the boat ride to the marble caves then to the ice walking on an actual glacier. Unfortunately, I was only able to take 600+ photos, but I will surely always remember this amazing opportunity in the tiny town a little ways off the beaten path.

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Tips for Puerto Rio Tranquilo:

  • All tour agencies are lined up on the street closest to the lake. The green trailer is the oldest of these operators.
  • It is also possible to kayak across the windy lake to the marble caves.
  • Though we did not have an opportunity to check them out for ourselves, the marble caves near Puerto Sanchez are supposedly equal or better than the ones in Rio Tranquilo.
  • You may be able to work out a special price with the tour agency if you want to do both the marble caves and glacier.
  • If hiking on the glacier, ask to see the guides certifications.

Parque Nacional Queulat & Ventisquero Colgante

After a 24 hour bus ride from Puerto Montt to Coyhaique, two border crossings and another five hour bus ride on which our bus blew a tire, we finally arrived in Puyuhuapi, Chile. A town just north of Parque Nacional Queulat and just 50 km south of La Junta, Chile, Puyuhuapi was where we had been one week earlier before our excursion to Chiloe.
Our bus arrived to the small town just before dark, so we found a campsite to set up our tent before picking up dinner from the “supermarket”. Similar to other supermarkets in the small towns in southern Chile this place was stocked with 5 choices for fruits and veggies, two cereal options, empanadas, and only a few other things. We did find what we needed and food for the next day as we planned to go hiking in the national park.
In the morning, the tourist office was closed so we enquired about transport to the park from a guy renting bikes and selling bus tickets back to Coyhaique. He informed us there was no public transport so we could pay approximately 50 usd for private transport and try to get a group together which was unlikely because one had just left or we could hitchhike. So we did the latter and were walking up to park headquarters just over an hour later.
The park ranger was awesome! He explained all of the trails answered everyone’s questions and helped people decide which trails to take. Since we had all day and none of the trails were longer than 7km in our section of the park, we decided to just do them all. Each new trail gave us a different view to the park’s famed hanging glacier, Ventisquero Colgante. My jaw dropped the first time I saw the glacier and again when we watched a chunk of it crack off and crash onto the rocks below causing a thunderous sound to roar through the valley. The forest covering the river valley floor was very much like the jungle on Raul Marin and we even saw more giant beetles flying around. Besides the glacier itself, the waterfalls cascading into the green lake and the fast-flowing turquoise river zigzagging through the park also made for beautiful scenery. Despite being on the Carretera Austral, there did not seem to be many other gringos in this neck of Chilean Patagonia. Nonetheless, the small town experience of Puyuhuapi and the scenery made Parque Nacional Queulat worth the visit.

Tips:

  • Try to book buses to and from Puyuhuapi as far in advance as possible during summer months to avoid having to wait days for the next bus.
  • If you’d like to camp in the park, the bus to/from Coyhaique can drop you off at the road 2 kms from the park entrance. Just let the driver know you’d like to get off there when you board.
  • Bring the majority of your food from Coyhaique as choices are limited and more expensive in Puyuhuapi and the park has no dining options.

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