Monday, February 2, 2015

Trekking in Torres del Paine

I've returned to connected civilization in Buenos Aires so now it's time for a recap of five days and four nights in Chile's Torres del Paine national park. The short response to how was Torres is - it was awesome. Plain and simple as that. The scenery is unbelievable - there's lakes with water in colors I've never imagined before, mountain peaks covered in snow, grassy hillsides, rocky beaches, and glaciers. I also got lucky again with the weather and it was perfect - no real rain while walking and never too cold.

Over the four days of walking I completed the W trek from East to West which is the most popular route. I booked everything through a company called Fantastico Sur so all I really had to do was show up. They own a number of the refugios (like hostels) and camp sites in the park. I had a bed and meals for each day and they'd booked my tickets for the buses and boat to get in and out of the park. After the camping, no showers, and questionable bathrooms on the Inca Trail the refugios felt incredibly luxurious! Hot showers, a real bed, and wine every day, not too shabby! The food was not great and didn't compare to what we had on the Inca Trail, but I didn't have to cook it or carry it so it was fine by me. I was initially worried about doing it by myself but after talking to people and then within one day in the park I knew it would be no problem. There were loads of folks doing the same route I was and since I wasn't camping but rather staying in the refugios along the way I saw and ate with the same people day after day. There was a great group of folks so it was quite nice to hang out and chat after the day of walking.

The highlights were viewing the Torres (towers) on day 2, sitting on the rocky beach at Refugio Cuernos on day 3, and first seeing the unbelievably blue Pehoe lake on day 4. I'd become obsessed with one view or one area each day and then the next day have a new one take over. If I am to compare it to the Inca Trail in general I'd say that the Inca Trail is about the experience and the awe of thinking about how the Incas built the trail, the various buildings along the way, and then ultimately Machu Picchu. The landscape of the Inca Trail is beautiful but Torres del Paine blows it out of the water with it's diversity and stunning mountains and lakes. I'd go back and do the full circuit trek in Torres and see more that Patagonia has to offer in a heart beat!

If you want to cut to the chase and check out all of the pictures they're all posted here. It's pretty much a study in landscape so enjoy! The day by day details and recollections are below.

Staring at the Torres

Day One

The first day was really just travel from Puerto Natales into the national park and settling into the first refugio for the night. I would have preferred to have gotten there and just started hiking, but it was totally fine. The bus from Puerto Natales departed at 230 and took about two hours. There were some nice views along the way but I didn't really know what I was looking at. When we arrived at the entrance it was like a cattle call. Everyone got off and headed into a building to pay the entrance fee (18,000 CLP which is roughly $60 - not cheap! It is much cheaper for Chilean residents) and watch a short video. After paying I hopped on another little bus to the first refugio. I could have walked but it was just along a dirt road and I'd already paid for the bus as part of the package so I figured I'd just ride.

I arrived at Refugio Torre Central and checked in. Upon being shown my room and bed I dropped my backpack and headed out for a much needed walk after sitting all day. The initial views were great - the Torres were visible from the refugio so it was my first semi upclose view.

Dinner was served at 730 and it was fair. Not atrocious but definitely not like the Inca Trail. I picked a table and chatted to the other folks. These would become the people that I'd eat with for breakfast and dinner most days. We'd see each other along the trail and then regroup in the evening. Following dinner it felt like time for bed but given how much further south I was the days were even longer than in Santiago. There was still light past 10 PM! With the ear plugs in and eye mask on I headed to sleep around 10 with a plan to get up around 7. Day two would be the first real day of hiking and my first time having to really carry my larger backpack for a portion of it.

Leaving Puerto Natales - let's get this thing started!

Day Two

Successful day of hiking! In all it was about 15k total. I had to go the first 5.5 with all of my stuff so the backpack felt quite heavy, I can't even imagine what people carrying the massive backpacks with all their food and camping gear feel. No thank you! I did realize that I likely didn't even need as much stuff as I brought but the idea of wearing and hiking in the exact same thing, as many people did, for 4 days straight was not appealing to me at all. The distance covered today could have been done as the first day and cut the number of nights down, but it was fine to just wake up, have breakfast and start walking around 830.

I got to the next refugio (Refugio Chileno) after about 90 minutes and was able to check in and drop my large bag. Then with just water, camera, and lunch on my back it took me about 90 minutes to get up to the Torres lookout area and same back. As I was climbing up to the Torres I could tell that the skies were starting the brighten and the clouds lifting - I had hope for excelled weather at the top. And sure enough I got up to the view point and it was gorgeous! The granite peaks of the torres against the blue sky and then blue glacial lake at their base was stunning. Lots of pictures were taken! I watched a few people jump into the water. I passed on that given that it was freezing. One guy did a cannon ball off a rock and was then back out of the water so fast.

I sat and ate my lunch for about an hour and a half just soaking in the views and then headed back down to the refugio. I'd gotten a bag lunch from the first refugio (as I'd do each morning) and I was happy to eat part of the sandwich because man the thing was like a brick in my bag. I've never seen something so large and heavy when it was primarily bread! Just some mystery meat and cheese. The granola bar, trail mix, and chocolate bar were the highlights of lunch each day. The downhill as always was definitely tough on the legs and the path was a mix of dirt, rocks, and boulders. Only one almost wipe out during the course of the descent - good thing for the trekking poles :)

Back at the refugio I sat outside soaking in the sun and watching the people going by before showering and prepping for dinner. Checked out the map for the day three distance and seems pretty short, but I will have to carry everything the full way.

Torres view from down by the water

Day Three

The walk on day three was beautiful. It was only about 11k so I was finished in just over three hours and had a lot of down time at the next refugio. This was OK though because Refugio Cuernos is at one of the lake's edges so there's a rocky/boulder beach down at the water and just gorgeous views all around. When I arrived I immediately went down to the beach area, sat to eat my lunch, soak up the sun, and take some pictures. There were some hills across the water that I was obsessed with.  They looked completely windswept and very different from the landscape of mountains with ice and snow behind me.

One of the gals I met in the refugios had been reading Into Thin Air and finished it so I grabbed it from her and during my down time at Cuernos I started to read it. I'd made it about 100 pages in before I saw anyone I knew arriving at the refugio. I'd brought a book with me but then left it in my other bag in Puerto Natales, oh well. Into Thin Air is an easy enough and interesting read - I certainly have zero desire for an Everest climb, but it's fun to read while I'm out hiking myself.

Rocky beach view

Across to the wind swept hills

Day Four

Woke up to rain and I thought for sure this was going to be the day that I'd have to pull out the full rain gear and be wet. Well luck was again in my favor and the rain stopped so there was no need even for the rain coat. I wore it about 20 minutes in the morning and took it off - there was never anything substantial. It was a good thing there wasn't rain because today was the longest distance and time - it was over 20k total.

The route today took us up the middle part of the 'W' to a lookout point where you see the backs of the towers, other peaks, and glaciers. The walk was nice and heading up to the Britanico view point (well almost to it, the trail was closed .5k from the actual end but still at a giant rock lookout) was good but at the top it wasn't nearly as spectacular as being at the Torres look out. Maybe if it was totally clear and not windy I would have enjoyed it more but I got to the top and was only there for about five minutes before heading back down. The weather looked like it was going to start raining and it was getting windy. I stayed enough for a snack and a few pictures. On the way back down I met a nice Scottish girl so we chatted all along the way so it made it go much faster than heading up.

Once back down from the lookout point I picked up my larger bag and headed off for the 7k towards the final refugio at Paine Grande. These 7k felt ridiculously long. I think it was a combination of having already gone like 15k, the larger pack on, and for the first time real Patagonia wind. The views were stunning and I think some of my favorite walking of the trip. The sun was out on the mountains behind me and then the most amazing blue turquoise lake (Lake Pehoe) came into view as I approached the refugio. The color of this lake is like nothing I've ever seen before.

About 3 or 4k from the refugio the wind started to really pick up and felt like it was going to blow me over. Apparently this was mild but sure felt strong to me! I was glad that today was the only one where we experienced the wind because I can see how it could be brutal and would make the hiking much less enjoyable. There were also a few rain drops when the wind came on so I started booking it as fast as I could move - which was like a mini jog speed walk trying to get my butt to the refugio. I was ready for the day's walking to be over! I finally made it to the refugio around 330, had a shower, a wander around to check out the views and the late, and then sat with some folks for wine and chatter until dinner.

In prepping for the final day five I was debating whether to do the full hike up to Grey Glacier and then back to Paine Grande to get the boat to the bus and back to Puerto Natales. Or to just do about half of the walk up to Grey to a look out point towards the glacier, call it a wrap on the W, and get an earlier boat and bus back to Puerto Natales. I figured I'd sleep on it and see what was going on the with the wind in the morning.

View from the top of the middle of the W

Approaching lake pehoe - stunning blue

Day Five

Woke up to rain and very strong winds. Looking out the window of my room over the campsite outside the tents were blowing like crazy. I heard that apparently people's tents were being picked up by the wind in the middle of the night - yikes. From the comfort of my bed with ear plugs and coziness I didn't hear any of that!

Given the wind and having heard that the view from all the way at Grey Glacier isn't all that different from what you see at a closer lookout point I decided to cut the day short. I did about a 75 minute hike up to the view point through ridiculous winds, took pictures while bracing myself to not be blown off the rocks, and headed back down. The glacier was quite cool to see - it was different than in New Zealand. This one stops right into a massive lake so it's crazy to be hiking along the lake and then you come around a bend in the trail and all of a sudden you see where the glacier and lake meet. There were also icebergs floating in the water which I've never seen before. They were such an interesting blue color themselves. If I'd been staying another day and up at another refugio at the glacier I would have definitely done the whole walk, but I was more interested in seeing it and getting out of the wind. Taking the earlier boat would also get me into Puerto Natales some time after 4 rather than 10. I was looking forward to getting into some other clothes, doing a little browsing/shopping, and finding somewhere for a good meal.

Because the end of the W is at the other side of the park from where we started the return to Puerto Natales started with a boat ride across Lake Pehoe to then get on the bus and head off. There were quite a few people lined up for the boat and it was packed. Once all on the pile of backpacks from everyone was massive. The ride itself was beautiful and provided additional views of the mountains from a slightly different perspective. It was neat to watch out the window and look back thinking where among the peaks I'd been over the previous days.

Made it back to Puerto Natales and walked from the bus station down to my hotel for the night at Kau Lodge. Was a great little hotel with a nice coffee shop/cafe and store on the first level and then a few rooms on the second with beautiful views out across the lake towards the mountains. I was most excited to shower and get out of hiking shoes, running leggings, and dry-fit tops. Never did I think putting on jeans would actually be so exciting!

I wandered into town to check out one of the shops I'd eyed a few things in before starting the trek and grab dinner. Made a few purchases and then sought out a restaurant called Aldea that I'd researched. I was finishing up my starter and a family that I'd met on the trek and ate most of the meals with walked into the restaurant. The daughter Veronica had been working in Santiago for the last two years and a lady she knew there recommended this restaurant as her son was the chef. I was already very excited about the restaurant and then got more excited about the courses to come - I was going all out, starter, main, dessert, and wine were definitely planned. I ended up switching my table to join the three of them to finish off the meal and chat. The food was fantastic and hit the spot after only fair food in the refugios.

After dinner it was time to pack up my bags again (which looked like they'd exploded across my hotel room) and head to bed. My bus back to El Calafate was at 7AM the next morning, ugh, and then a flight back to Buenos Aires pretty much directly after. Long day of travel, but it all worked out despite sitting at the boarder to get out of Chile and back into Argentina for an hour.

Exploration Buenos Aires post coming next...

Bracing the wind for a glacier pic

Pretty amazing to see the edge of the glacier

No comments:

Post a Comment