08 March – 11 March, 2018
The one national park we refused to strike from our “can’t do it all” list was Torres del Paine, Chile’s premier park, located about 70 miles northwest of Puerto Natales. I’d seen photos of her iconic towers bathed in golden sunlight and had vowed to see them for myself one day.
The stunning centerpiece in this UNESCO Biosphere Reserve national park is the Paine (PIE-nay) Massif, an eastern spur of the Andes, which consist of several main mountain groups: the dramatic Torres (3 Towers), incisor-shaped spires of smooth grey granite; the Cuernos (Horns), often mistaken for the Towers, ragged peaks capped in dark sedimentary rock, contrasting with a pale igneous base; and the tallest mountain in the park, the Cerro Paine Grande, towering ~ 9200 feet above the park floor. It is these iconic spires, along with glaciers and glacial-fed lakes of varying hues of blue that attract 250,000 visitors annually, half of them international travelers.
Torres del Paine has an extensive network of hiking trails, day hikes and backpacking trips as well. Many come to trek the 4-10 day ‘W’ or ‘O’ circuit, named for the shape of the routes.
Our initial thought was to do the ‘W’ circuit, the 4-5 day trek, staying at refugios in the park along the way. Even months before our arrival I wasn’t able to get all the lodging we needed, so if you are going and don’t plan to tent camp, get on those reservations early (dependent upon time of year you are going, of course).
Day 1 of our park adventure was a rainy one, so we opted for a shorter hiking day, particularly because we were staying in Puerto Natales and looking at a 2-hour bus ride to the park, standing in a long line to fill out paperwork to pay our entrance fee, and watching a safety video. Since I really wanted to photograph the Salto Grande waterfall, we opted to be dropped at Pudeto and hike to the falls and on to the Mirador Cuernos to see the horns, if the weather gods were kind, but they were looking rather grumpy.
As Terry and I were preparing for our hike, a young German woman approached, asking if we were hiking to Salto Grande. We said yes and invited her along. Even though the rains never subsided, we enjoyed getting to know Johanna, who was on holiday from her studies as a medical engineering student.
The horns were ever-elusive during our hike and only peeked out after we were finished and ready to board the bus back to Natales. Temperamental weather is what Patagonia is all about!
Torres del Paine is probably one of the more expensive parks to visit, particularly if you are staying in Puerto Natales. You’ll pay for a bus to get there, a shuttle to many of the trailheads, and a pricey park entrance fee. The entrance fee does allow for three consecutive day visits, however.
If we had only one memorable hike in the park, we were hoping for Mirador Las Torres, a demanding hike up to the base of the towers. Since it is estimated as a 7-8 hour hike, there would be no dawdling, in order to catch the last bus of the day out of the park. We chose a day that looked promising weather-wise and went for it.
Breathtaking scenery unfolded before us as we traipsed up the mountain.
Unfortunately, as is often true of Patagonia, clouds moved in and before we reached the last half-mile boulder hop up to the towers, the rains came. Terry had a bit of a knee problem so after much maneuvering over large boulders he decided to turn around, to preserve his knees for another day, and I continued my push up to the top.
As I got above tree-line I soon discovered the unrelenting winds for which Patagonia is famous. I was blown away, literally, by a gust of wind as I stepped on a boulder. Luckily, I landed forward as backwards could have been disastrous for my camera or my head. As I stood I felt pain in my hand and a strange orientation to my digits. Gingerly removing my glove, I was shocked to see a finger at a 90-degree angle, turning blue at the second joint. Without any more thought I snapped it back into place, the pain immediately subsiding. I then realized Terry had the first-aid kit with him (oops).
Tegan and Dale appeared and generously provided supplies so I could tape my fingers together. I was ten minutes from the top; it was raining; and the wind was howling but the towers were calling to me. Just then hikers descending from the top said the window had closed and the towers were hidden. My decision was made…down I headed. 😦
Two guardian angels in the form of Pauline and Anton from Holland arrived and would not leave my side the 5 miles back down the mountain. My protests of “you can go on; I am fine” were soon answered with a smiling “oh shut up” from Pauline. Their generosity knew no limits. My faith in humanity is never more restored than by those we have met during life’s travels.
NOTE: Credit goes to Anton Vinck for the next three photos. I would have had no photos of the Towers if not for him. Thanks so much Anton!
A bit about Puerto Natales…
We liked the vibe of this bustling tourist town, formerly a sleepy little wool and fishing port. It caters to the backpacker set, with hostels tucked away on many streets and several outdoor gear stores lining the walkways. Although the sun was elusive for much of our stay, the old pier, Muelle Historico, is still a good place to visit, even if I wasn’t able to get that acclaimed sunset shot. Hard to capture without the sun.
Mesita Grande is the place to go for gourmet pizza and Café Kaiken is a wonderful little café if you are looking for a more sophisticated meal. It is where we had our first pisco sour, popular in this region of the world. And the Dried Fruit Guy is the only place in town to go for hiking snacks.
Next Up: Early bus to El Calafate where a glacier awaits!