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.

Trekking in El Chalten & Mount Fitz Roy

Imagine going to sleep to the sound of a howling wind whistling across the jagged, snowcapped, and cloud-covered mountains while you huddle inside your sleeping bag fully clothed- jacket, hat, mittens, the works. Then it begins to rain. Its okay though because you have already brushed your teeth and gone to the bathroom so there is no need for you to get up until the morning. You just hope it stops raining by then.

When you wake you`re delighted! It has stopped raining and the wind has stopped as well. So you unzip your sleeping bag only to find that it is snowing: snowing and the mountains are still obscured by the strangest clouds you have ever seen, but, at the moment, its too cold to stop and take pictures of those marvelous formations of rock and cloud anyway. You and your crew need to pack up the frozen tent and get on your way to your next campsite. So you do, and after hiking through a beautiful, fluffy snowfall, you are rewarded with the sun again, a magnificent ancient forest to hike through and later a view of one of the most famous mountain ranges in all of South America – the Fitz Roy Range.

If you haven’t guessed it already, this is kind of how our trekking in the north end of Argentina´s Parque Nacional Los Glaciares went. We took a bus from El Calafate to El Chalten, in search of some multi-day wilderness adventures. The town of El Chalten is located within the boundaries of the National Park and thus, our bus stopped at the park office so the passengers could get a safety talk as well as maps, and information about the treks in Argentina’s trekking capital.

Mount Fitz Roy is the major draw for the visitors to the town. It is perhaps Patagonia’s second most famous mountain range and it is only several hours away from the trailhead (it can also be seen looming over the pueblo). We began a three day, two day hike the same day we arrived in El Chalten and needed just over 3 hours to hike to our first campsite. Most of the hiking that we did in Los Glaciares National Park was the same difficulty level as a Saturday afternoon walk through a forest preserve in Illinois. The trails were also marked just as well as a forest preserve`s might be, and the number of people on the trails was about the same. In fact, we probably did not even need a map other than to tell us how long the distances were between campsites. The only major differences were the landscape and the unpredictable weather for which Patagonia is famous.

Although there are many different paths to see Mount Fitz Roy, some which need registration, some which require a guide, and most that only require a few hours, what we ended up doing was a hike on our first day to Campamento Poincenot, passing Laguna Capri, a great mirador of the Fitz Roy Range where we stopped for a lunch break. This first day we saw the famous Fitz Roy Mountain for just a few minutes before it was shrouded in a foreboding accumulation of clouds unlike any I had ever seen before. At night, the wind howled through the Poincenot campsite at the base of the trail up to a closer and more impressive lookout of Fitz Roy. In the morning, the weather was great while we climbed to Laguana de Los Tres and had fun taking pictures, but the mountain range was again quickly covered by the ominous clouds that swirled around it, so we hurried back down the mountainside to pack up our tent and continue on to Campamento De Agostini. This campsite was much better sheltered from the wind, and was at the base of the lookout to another of the famous mountains in the park, Cerro Torre.  Unfortunately, however, the clouds never left the area, and the cold and snow started to set in so we headed through the Patagonian steppe and forested mountainsides before returning to El Chalten to spend the night in a hostel we had reserved in advance.

Despite being Argentina’s trekking capital, we were suprised with the hiking in the area. Though the mountain range was magnificent, the hiking was not as rewarding as we wanted. Too many people, too short of trails, too few of options. Because of this, we took off on a different trail the next day to Laguna Toro, a much less hiked trail than those we had done in the previous days. This trail took us through ancient forests, marshy wetlands, more Patagonian steppe, and descended into a wide open river valley where we encountered the laguna and a very windy pass (Paso de Viento). The campsite was located in a little mountain cove, where we were protected from the strong winds just around the corner. That evening though, we had fun playing in the winds of the Paso and scrambling the mountains on the other side to get a glimpse of the glacier on top.  The following day we returned to El Chalten by the same trail and were rewarded with a sunny, almost windless day. On this beautiful trail, there were much fewer people, less trail markers, and more of the kind of hiking we were looking for.

A word on El Chalten: the town is located within the national park limits, where residents need to follow the same rules as campers, regarding washing near the rivers and streams in order to guarantee that they remain drinkable for future hikers. There are also problems with stray dogs hunting the endangered Huemul deer, so it is necessary to make sure that no dogs tag along on any of the trails outside of town. Inside the park all of the campsites are free and basic. This means that what you carry in, you must carry out, including and especially trash. All buses entering El Chalten stop first at the park´s information office before continuing to the bus terminal to insure that all tourists know the rules of the park before they head out on the trails.

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El Calafate & Perito Moreno Glacier

Patagonia is the home of the world’s third largest ice field (Antarctica is #1, Greenland is # 2). This means there are many miles of ice and tons of glaciers in the area, but few can match the jaw-dropping ability of the Perito Moreno Glacier which is located 2 hours outside of El Calafate in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. If any glacier was made to be a tourist attraction, Perito Moreno is the one. First, imagine a 35 kilometers long tongue of ice that is 60 meters tall spilling out into a lake. Next, imagine all of it coming closer to the edge of a perfectly placed peninsula that juts out in the middle of the lake towards the glacier. After that, place metal boardwalks all along the front of the peninsula so that tourists from all over the world can snap photos of this wonder. Though it does not move very fast, this massive glacier is as mobile as a glacier can be. That’s right, glaciers move. In fact, the Perito Moreno glacier moves about 2 meters per day. All this movement and the sheer weight of the ice (glacier snow is much denser and therefore heavier than regular snow) combine to create a truly fantastic spectacle. After hearing so much about this beast, we had to see it for ourselves.

Since visiting the Perito Moreno glacier outside of El Calafate (not to be confused with the town called Perito Moreno), I feel that visiting this behemoth of a glacier is a must for anyone on a Patagonian adventure. It was really cool to stand on the boardwalks and stare at this gigantic piece of ice for hours. You are close enough to it to take really good pictures, but far enough away so that you feel safe from the falling ice. The coolest part about going to see this glacier, however, is (hopefully) watching enormous pieces of ice calve off into the lake below. It is not only the visuals of truck-sized chunks of glacier ice falling into the water, but the accompanying sounds that come from the cracking and shifting of the glacier that makes it quite impressive to see and worth every cent spent on getting there.

Though not always guaranteed, we were fortunate enough to be there just as the tip of the iceberg… I mean glacier broke off creating huge waves that disrupted the tranquility of the lake. Check out the video I took!

Let me remind you that you just watched the equivalent of a 20-story tall building falling into the water. It was pretty cool to see it live. Several other pieces fell during the time we were there, but this one was by far the most significant. I took pictures until my camera battery ran out just before we had to leave. After we returned to El Calafate on our scheduled bus, we talked to some other people staying in the same campground as us that said they did not see any large blocks of glacier fall off. This made us feel even more lucky that we saw what you just watched in the video embedded above. Surely, visiting Glaciar Perito Moreno will be one of my highlights of Patagonia.

And while we are talking about highlights of Patagonia, let me tell you about the feast we enjoyed in El Calafate. Our campground, Camping Ovejero, is actually a campground, a hostel, and a restaurant. Every night starting at 7pm, the restaurant opens its typical Argentine barbeque called a parrilla. Just as I feel it would be wrong to visit Patagonia without visiting the Perito Moreno Glacier, I also feel a trip to Argentina would not be complete without partaking in a parilla. For anyone familiar with the Spanish language, you should know that the double-L (like the one found in parrilla) normally makes the same sound as a “y” in English, but in Argentina, the “ll” sounds like a “j”. So, we are at this parilla (pronounced par-ee-ja) at the restaurant associated with our campground and it is an all-you-can-eat for the equivalent of about $12 US dollars. I am in heaven! We even splurged on a bottle of Argentinian Malbec to go with our appetizers of garlic bread and lamb tongue and the rest of our meal. After about 2 hours, we had eaten our fill of all-you-can-eat salad bar, chorizo, blood sausage, and chicken, but we especially enjoyed the patagonian lamb that had been slow cooking over an open fire for hours. Once we finished one plate of meat, the waiters would bring out another plate overflowing with meat. At the end of the meal, we had for sure eaten more than our money’s worth and I was a happy man, that is, until I got up from the table and had difficulty walking back to the tent because I was so full. Oops!

Tips for El Calafate and Perito Moreno Glacier:

  • El Calafate is a fairly large town (pop. 22,000) and has many of the things that smaller villages do not have. i.e. a proper supermarket, gas station, chocolate shops, airlines offices
  • Definitely check out one of El Calafate’s newest attractions, the Glaciarium Museo del Hielo Patagónico, a well thought out museum that explains everything you want to know about glaciers, but emphasizes the ones in Patagonia. They also have a “Glaciobar“. There is a free shuttle too.
  • Make sure to visit all of the different observation decks when at the glacier because each offers a different view from different angles or distances. Closer is not always better.

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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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