January 16, 2006
Torres del Paine National Park is probably the most beautiful park in all of Chile, and indeed all of Patagonia. Its main attractions are, not surprisingly, the Torres del Paine, which are a series of jagged mountains located in the middle of the park. "Torres" means "towers" in Spanish, and "Paine" means "blue" in a local native language. (Some people contend that Paine was the surname of an early Welsh explorer of the region.) The other major attractions of the park are its numerous glaciers, the biggest and most stunning of which is Glacier Grey.
Here is a link to a map of the park. You may want to refer to it when reading this blog entry. By far, the most popular trek people do when they come to the park is the "W," so-called because the trek is shaped like a "W," as I have crudely illustrated here. The "W" is popular because those who hike it get to see the highlights of the park, and it only takes 3-5 days to do so. I chose to go on the complete circuit, a 7-8 day trek that includes the "W," but also loops around the back of the park. I went with John and Tony, two Englishmen whom I had met previously in my travels. We carried all of our own gear during the trek. We stocked up on food the day before leaving, and we got our water from the numerous glacial streams we crossed along the way. We went without a guide, but one wasn't really necessary because the trail was easy to follow for the most part. This map shows where we went on each day of our trek.
Whenever I state that a certain part of the trek took a certain amount of time to walk, I'm quoting from the map we were given when we entering the park. The times listed on that map are just wild guesses because they are listed for people moving in both directions, regardless of how fit they are and whether or not they are carrying gear. We found that we usually beat the times listed, but I didn't keep very close track of our actual times, so I'll go with the map times instead. The total distance of the trek was 123 KM (76 miles).
I was up late last night packing, and had to get up early today to catch the 7:30 bus to Torres del Paine. I was tired, but I tried to make the best of the situation. Still, it's hard to be positive when you lift your backpack for the first time and it weighs 16 KG (35 pounds) because of all of the food you need to carry. I knew buying 80 slices of cheese was a mistake! Still, there's really no way to buy enough food for eight days had have it be light.
We bought the cheapest bus ticket we could find, which meant that we had the most ghetto bus available. It was old, rickety, and packed full. The worst part was that there was no storage area underneath so all of our backpacks were piled up to the ceiling in the back. Still, most of the road was gravel, so the ride would be bumpy even if it were a brand new bus. After two hours of being thrashed around while trying to sleep, we got to the national park. The ride did have one highlight: we saw a rare ostrich (or a very similar species) on the way.
The bus dropped us off at Guardaria Laguna Amarga. The trek technically didn't start there, but we decided to get a warmup by walking an hour and a half to Hosteria Las Torres over a gravel road. Along the way, the Torres del Paine were visible, but they were obstructed by clouds for the most part.
Next, we walked to Albergue, a hostel/camp site. Camping there costs $7 per person, and it includes hot showers. You can also get a bed at the hostel for $38, but I'll explain the numerous options for would-be trekkers later. We quickly learned that the park has several of these hostels, which are expensive for Chile, but give people who don't carry any gear a place to stay for the night.
After a short break, we continued on to Campamento Torres, a free campsite. There are a number of free campsites in the park, which don't have any facilities other than a clear patch of ground to pitch your tent and usually a pit toilet. There aren't enough free sites in the park to camp for free every night (unless you walk 12 hours per day), but even the pay sites aren't outrageously expensive, so even people with tight budgets can enjoy the park.
When we reached Campamento Torres, we set up camp and cooked dinner. It turned out that John was an amazing cook. He started cutting up vegetables and throwing various spices into a pot. Before we knew it, we were eating a delicious soup that was really a whole meal. I don't even eat that well when I have a full kitchen at my disposal, so I'm glad we brought John along. At least when you have a heavy backpack for a trek like this one, it will get lighter as you eat your food. We made sure to eat some onions, carrots, and potatoes tonight because they were some of our heaviest items.
Despite having to get up so early, today was pretty easy. We only hiked 4.5 hours and had plenty of daylight to set up camp and eat. Tomorrow, we won't be so lucky because we'll have to get up before sunrise to see the Torres del Paine at their finest.
The photo album for this entry is here.