IN FOCUS: TORRES DEL PAINE – HIKING THE W

Patagonia had been one of the first places on our mind when Chile became part of our itinerary. The rising snow-tipped mountains from photographs and the brilliant blue lakes were enough to persuade us, but we also read about spectacular trekking and wildlife. However, as usual, we left the fine-tuning of actually working out how to get there until the last minute. Our flight from New Zealand arrived in Santiago on a Wednesday. I had naively taken a look at a map of Chile and decided one must be able to get a bus, an overnight one perhaps, down to the South. Unfortunately, not only did I hugely underestimate the length of Chile in this plan, I was also forgetting the actual terrain of Patagonia. It turns out the buses, glaciers, fiord-lands and mountains don’t really mix too well. It actually is technically possible to get to Patagonia via bus from Santiago but it requires crossing through to Argentina, a lot of time, and apparently doesn’t actually really save a huge amount of money. 

 

the three torres at first light
 
So, after a few hours of googling from our hostel in Santiago, and talking other travellers who were on their way or had just returned, I decided that it was going to be worth buying some plane tickets to get to Punta Arenas- the closest you can fly to Torres Del Paine. From there you still had to take two 3 hour buses, but it was certainly a lot easier than going overland the whole way. We knew that we wanted to trek ‘the W’- a very popular 4-6 day trek that has some amazing views of the three ‘Torres’, so we set aside seven days in total – we flew on a Wednesday and returned on a Tuesday. If we’d had more time it probably would have been safer and more sensible to leave a few more – the buses are sometimes full and if the weather is a wipeout certain legs of the trek are closed – but luckily we had great weather and managed to get spaces on all the buses we needed. However, we did talk to a guy who had awful weather two weeks before us, couldn’t see anything, and wished he had left a bit longer as it was clearing up by his last day. 
When I was planning, I deliberated for quite a while about whether to camp or stay in the regugios, and whether to bring food or eat at the refugios. Refugios are sort of like very expensive dorms which are in the middle of the park, at most of the major check points of the W. In the end I decided it was a better option on our budget, and considering we had a tent, to camp the whole way. When I added up the prices of all the meals, I also decided to buy all of our food. This actually meant that whilst in Santiago we had to invest in a pot + pan set – if anyone is in the same boat there is an excellent Chilean camping equipment shop called Doite, and they have a shop in the giant mall. Our cooking set was only about £20 and comes in a neat zip up circular bag. Every other Chilean we met on the trail had one! 
A friend had recommended Pucon to us, and because I don’t like skipping out too much of a country by plane, I booked plane tickets from Puerte Montt to Punta Arenas for about four days time, and we made plans to reach PM overland via Pucon. The tickets were also a fair bit cheaper than from Santiago, but we did still have to spend money on the bus to get there. It turned out to be a pretty nice way of doing it. We took one overnight bus from Santiago to Pucon, where we had lots of fun exploring waterfalls and hot springs. Although we didn’t have time to do it there’s also a great looking volcano you can hike, too. The town is very tourist oriented but still has some charm: it feels a little bit like a skiing town with its wooden buildings and bars. 

 

Pucon Volcano
 
We then needed one more bus to Puerte Montt, which was around six hours. There isn’t a huge amount going on in PM apart from a fish market which is quite fun to look around and an average artisanal market. We only had one night here before our flight, and we found a lovely eco B&B called ‘The Pink House’ which I would definitely recommend- good value, wifi, lovely friendly couple-owners. They also let us leave a few things here which we didn’t want to hike with which was really useful, as we carried our packs the whole way in TDP. 

So, the next morning we boarded the much anticipated flight to Patagonia. Everything went smoothly and I was absolutely stunned by the views. If possible, try to request a window seat on the left hand side of the plane on the way there. On a clear day it’s possible to get an amazing birds eye view of Patagonia; a gorgeous white and blue patchwork of glaciers, rivers, mountains and lakes. It definitely justified the price of the ticket a little for us! 

  
Once we arrived in Punta Arenas it wasn’t hard to find a bus to Puerte Natalas – the last town with hostels and restaurants before the Torres and the place most people stay before their trek. We got ours last minute from the bus station but if you prebook then you can get straight on a bus at the airport rather than traipsing into the town first. We arrived before dark and made our way to The Singing Lamb hostel (something I had pre-booked!), which was very comfortable and had a great early breakfast – a good way to start a five day trek! We booked our bus for the next morning through them too, which is another three hour trip to take you to the actual park. You also need to take a catamaran either at the beginning or end of your trip. Make sure you have enough money! It’s around $30 USD each (yes, more money! Patagonia isn’t cheap, but the beauty is worth it!)  We had decided to do the trek from East to West, which meant that we took the catamaran first, rather than on the last day. It also meant we saw the Torres on the last morning which was a really nice reward at the end. Because we were camping the whole way so we hadn’t booked anywhere as it isn’t really necessary and gives you more freedom. The only place you need to book is Camp Torres if you want to see the sunrise over the Torres. It’s the only one which books up in advance, but you can do it at Campimento Italiano if you’re doing East to West like us, or at the entrance to the park. (Don’t forget this though! We did!)

 

the view from the catamaran
 
By the time the catamaran had dropped us it was early afternoon so we only walked one leg of the W on the first day. The catamaran arrives at the lowest point of the first V of the W, so we walked all the way to the top left, which is marked by Glacier Grey. The weather was a bit gloomy and the rain was spitting, but it turned out this was actually the worst weather of the whole trip, which wasn’t bad at all. We arrived at the campsite, set the tent up at the foot of a snowy mountain and cooked an early meal. The next morning we were able to see glacier grey in all it’s glory- the skies were a crisp clear blue and the icebergs shone white against the grey waters.  We watched as the sun rose above the mountains, drawing the glacier into the light and turning the dark rocks a gentle pink. We knew we had a long day head of us so we set off around six, doubling back on ourselves but taking in the views that the clouds had hidden. We got back to the catermaran port for an early lunch, and continued up along the other side of the V. Campimento Italino lay in the very middle – the meeting point of the two V’s. We collected fresh water from the river, warmed ourselves in the cold evening with soup, and fell asleep quickly – our bodies beginning to ache and our minds peaceful. 

 

this campsite’s drinking source was the glacial ice cold stream
 
The next morning we woke even earlier, planning to tackle French valley first thing before continuing back down and beyond. French valley continues up above Campimento Italiano, and because we were going up and down it In one morning, we were able to leave everything but a light day-pack at the camp. It was steep and fairly difficult at times, and I was definitely glad not to have a hiking pack. But it was a rewarding climb with incredible vistas and atmospheric clashes of what sounded like thunder, but were actually parts of the glacier breaking free and cascading down the mountain to the river below. 

  
We made good time and were back well before lunch, so continued along the sunny, exposed path to Los Churros, along the shore line of the brilliant blue lake we crossed in the catamaran. The white pebbled beaches and the gushing waterfalls that meet it meant that this was possibly one of my favourite legs of the trip. However, there were quite a few ups and downs, meaning that both our knees were slightly struggling by this point, especially after the steep descent of the French valley in the morning. We arrived before four o clock, which meant we had time for some yoga before dinner and bed. We both agreed that we much preferred the pattern of waking up before the sunrise and reaching somewhere, even after eight or nine hours of hiking, in the afternoon. Lots of the tracks close at six too, so we didn’t have to worry about at all. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so exhausted in such a satisfying way – each evening I was barely able to close the zip on my sleeping bag before my eyes started closing. 
     
 The next day was the last but one, and it turned out to be the most tiring & eventful. We made it to the bottom right corner of the W before lunch, before making the challenging, extremely steep ascent to the Torres. This was definitely a mind over matter section for me. The sun was relentless, my feet were sore and my legs were burning. But with lots of water and encouragement from Karl I did eventually make it. However, when we reached Camp Torres, the campsite closest to the Torres (remember, the only one I told you you have to book) we were informed for the first time that you couldn’t stay there without a reservation. No amount of pleading was going to persuade the warden, so we returned dejectedly down the mountain back to Chileno, another two hour walk, placed approximately half way between the place we’d reached and the place we had been at lunch time. This mean that if we wanted to catch the Torres at sunrise we would have to wake up at around two am, and walk for around three hours. And yes, we were mad enough to actually commit to this. So after our worst day we sat down to our worst, leftover meal (we’d been carrying all of our food, which of course meant that I’d eaten all of the nice food within the first two days), and settled down to our least amount of sleep. 

I woke up in surprisingly good spirits. “At least we already know the way!” We left our bags at the camp and set off with our torches. We weren’t actually the only crazy ones doing it – we saw a number of others, who nodded at us in solidarity. We put on such a pace, being keen not to miss it, that it was actually so pitch black when we reached the Torres (we only knew because of the sign), that the stars were still out. We found a good spot sheltered by a rock, huddled together and waited. I became slightly deliriously happy when I found that I still had some skittles left at the bottom of my backpack, and for some reason decided that it would be a good idea to eat them at five in the morning. Then we had a slight argument/reasoned debate over what sunrise actually means (is it when the sky starts getting light or when you actually see the sun!?), and finally, eventually, the light crept up on those three special rocks, and they loomed above us in all their glory. Slightly misted by cloud, but we could see them rising above the milky blue lake, and it was pretty spectacular. 
And that meant our trip was nearly at a close! Having entirely ran out of food we let gravity pull us back to the base, and trudged the last metres to the hotel (yes, there’s a hotel!! If you’re reading this and you don’t like hiking then there is an option to stay at the hotel and just so the last hike up to see the Torres. Or you can even do it on horseback). 
If you didn’t want to read all that but still want to find out my key tips for trekking the W, they are:

  • It’s up to you to decide before you go if you want to stay in a refugio or camp the whole way. On our budget the camping was a much better option. It was quite cold but only in the middle of the night, and with a good sleeping bag you’d be fine. I also enjoyed staying so close to nature the whole time, peeking out of my tent to see the stars and hearing the birds in the morning
  • By far the easiest way to get there is to fly. You can go from Santiago or Puerte Montt to Punta Arenas, the closest place to which you can fly to Torres Del Paine. From PA you’ll need to take another 3 hour bus to Puerte Natales, and then another 3 hours from PN to the park itself and the beginning of the trek, so bear this in mind when you book your flights and hotels. Our flight arrived in the afternoon, we got the bus straight away to PN and spent the night there. Then we got the bus in the morning and then the catamaran. 
  • We got flights from PM and made our own way down overland from Santiago via Pucon. This was a great way to do it for us but a lot of bus time
  • We took all of our own food and cooked on our mini stove. Standard hiking food – pasta, noodles, couscous, soup. We bought our food from Punta Arenas from a big supermarket but there was actually one in Puerte Natales. But we arrived late and left early morning so we are glad we did!
  • Puerte Natales is a nice town with plenty of nice restaurants and shops. You can hire hiking equipment from here if you don’t have your own. We stayed in the Singing Lamb which I definitely recommend. Although it’s a hostel everyone went to bed early. I assume they were either preparing themselves for hiking or wiped out after finishing 
  • I was worried about how hard the trek would be. It’s not a walk in the park but it’s definitely do-able for anyone with a decent level of fitness and working joints. 
  • Yes it’s expensive, but when people ask me for my highlights of our trip, it’s always one of the top. It’s a once in a lifetime place, and it’s magical. Don’t think about the money. 
  • Hiking poles are a good idea. We also bought these from Doite in Santiago and they were lifesavers on the downhill for our dodgy knees.
  • Prepare to get sunburnt, hailed on, snowed on, rained on and swept over all in one day. 
  • You need hiking boots, I really wouldn’t recommend doing it in trainers.
  • Take as little as you can, ask your hotel in PN or PA if they can keep some stuff for you, most offer this service as standard. Believe me, your experience will be infinitely more pleasant if your back and shoulders aren’t hurting the entire time

I hope this post has been useful, and I hope you enjoy yourselves as much as we did if you manage to get there! Feel free to email me rebecca.kathryn1@gmail.com with any questions.
xo

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