We did some last minute shopping in Puerto Natales for some extra layers of clothing, a camp stove and some food for hiking before heading off for the park. We got on a 2 p.m. bus for the Torres del Paine park, and arrived under dark clouds and light rain at the park entrance. We planned to do the ‘W’, since the weather seemed nasty and we didn’t have much time (you can also do a 10 day circuit around the whole thing). On the way to the park we saw guanacos (like llamas) grazing on the pampa and some pink flamingos that looked out of place on a lake with snow-capped mountains in the background. We took a quick shuttle to the first refugio and campground (Hosteria las Torres).
The refugio is pretty fancy (they offer spa treatments, $4 power bars, etc.) and was crammed with trekker types, like some kind of bad MTV Spring Break party in Patagonia. Hiking the ‘W’ is very popular and it is not a solitary experience by any means. There are hikers of all abilities, and many just do it with a small day pack since you can sleep and eat at the refugios. We retreated to our campground and cooked spaghetti by the bathrooms to stay out of the wind. Since it was overcast and blustery, we didn’t hike up to the Chileno camp to pre-position for the pre-dawn hike for the views of the towers. With the overcast skies, we figured we’d be lucky to see them at all, and we didn’t see any reason to get up and start hiking in the dark to see some clouds where there should be towers at sunrise.
DAY 1- We left our packs and gear down below and hiked up the steep gorge of the Rio Ascensio to get to the Torres del Paine lookout. It had snowed the night before and we could see the fresh dusting of snow on the mountain sides above us. We were glad we bought the extra clothing layers before we left Puerto Natales. The wind was gusty in the gorge, but we made decent time before the final scramble up the rocky scree to get to the final view of the towers. As we climbed, the skies had breaks in them and we eventually had our first views of the towers and mountains around us. The clouds lifted as we did the final climb, so we had some great (albeit windy and cold) views of the towers above the small glacial lake below them. On the way down, the winds were really gusty (up to 60 mph) and there were snow flakes in the air. When we got back to our camp, our tent looked a little funny. The gusty winds had snapped one of the poles. Fortunately, the refugios in this park have tents you can rent.
DAY 2- Hiked along Lake Nordenskjold to the next refugio (Los Curenos) with some more great views of more mountains. The hills around the lake have some very stark sedimentary geological patterns. In general, the rock formation of the towers is granite (light colored rock) from ancient sub-surface volcanic magma intrusion. This is in stark contrast to the sedimentary layers (darker rock) that have been warped by tectonic movement, which has been weathered away by glaciers and wind leaving behind steep crags. As we hiked, we heard periodic rumbling and saw avalanches up in the high, steep mountains.
DAY 3- During the night (at the alberge los cuernos campground) the wind was really strong. You could hear individual strong gusts approaching our camp from over the lake, rattle the trees overhead, and then roar up the rocky mountainsides. Fortunately, the rental tent didn’t break. In the morning we woke up and you could see the gusts approaching over the lake, as they stirred up waves and mist, right before they blasted by. We hiked to the entrance of the Valley de Francés where we dropped our packs for a quick side trip. The valley had some awesome views of the back of the Torres del Paine, and the many other mountain peaks in the park. Went back out to the main trail to put our packs back on and continue to the next refugio.
DAY 4- Hiked out under blue skies to the glacier Grey and Grey lake. The strong Patagonia winds blow icebergs from the glacier down the lake, and bluster you around as you stand at the lookouts. You can see the massive Andes mountains, and this large river of ice emerging from the snow covered mountains. It is an awesome sight. On the circuit trail, you climb this pass and emerge at the top with a great view looking down on the glacier (or so we’re been told by those who did the whole trek). That would be an awesome sight to see and a good reason to come back and do the whole circuit some day. Then we came back and caught a 6:00 p.m. catamaran that took us back to the buses via Lake Pehoé. We had great weather and blue skies for the boat ride, and had some of the best views of this awesome park. It was a great finish to be able to see the whole park with great weather.
Logistically, we should have gotten a direct bus from Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas, then bused to Puerto Natales. The buses between Chile and Argentina don’t interface very well, and while many of our stops have been geographically close and in logical order from north to south, the buses don’t act that way. For example, it would be much easier and cheaper ($75) to bus from Puerto Montt to Puerto Arenas. Instead, we lost a few days and paid much more (a total of $150) by stopping along the way in Argentina (Bariloche and El Bolsón), which required we go to Rio Gallegos, then cut over to Puerto Natales. The same goes for connections to El Calafate. It may look closer on the map, but the separate bus systems for the two countries aren’t well interconnected. It seems best to bus between locations within one country, not go in and out of the two as you work your way through the sites.
<click on the photos to enlarge them>