Warning: long post coming at ya here again!
Still glowing from our Antarctica trip, we spent a couple of days in Ushuaia (Ushuaia post) and then started working our way back into Chile to hike the famous 5 day W Trek in Torres del Paine National Park. We were excited for the hike, but were worried nothing could really stand out following the Antarctica cruise. We were unexpectedly and gladly mistaken.
Our full day bus ride/ferry combo north from Ushuaia took us across the Strait of Magellan, over the border into Chile, and into Punta Arenas, where we spent only 1 night. We arrived the next day, Christmas Eve day, in Puerto Natales, the closest town to the national park. We were eager to get going on the trek, and tried to pull everything together to leave the morning of the 26th. But the holiday slowed us down a bit and we wound up delaying our trek a day. It turned out to be an amazing stroke of good luck, as the timing aligned our hike with Laura and Ross, two travel-aholic Brits we befriended on the Antarctic Cruise, and aligned the last day of the trek as New Year’s Day, on which we took an unforgettable sunrise hike to bring in the new year.
Before going into the details of the trek, a quick shout out is in order to the Erratic Rock Hostel (which I naturally call the Erotic Rock). They have daily info sessions and provide invaluable insight as to what routes to take, what supplies are needed and how to deal with and dress for the crazy weather you will hear about in the post. We followed their suggested route which is detailed below for those of you trying to plan a trip (surprisingly, it was difficult to find good tips and maps when we started planning our trek). And our favorite tip they gave us was not to bring any water; as we hiked we just filled our bottles from the glacier and snow melt-fed creeks we were constantly crossing. Best water ever!
For those of you not familiar, the W trek gets its name because the overhead view of the trek is in the shape of a W. I included the map below for reference. The trails in the park actually expand beyond the famous W route (we actually did one extra leg of these trails and added a day onto the traditional W; see Day 2 below). You’ll see references to both Refugios and Campamentos. The Refugio’s are privately owned lodges that serve dinners, have private rooms, showers and rooms for you to cook food, and most importantly charge you a decent fee to camp on their grounds. The campamentos are simple campgrounds, most of which are owned by the Chilean government, that have a little wind shelter shack for you to cook your food, no showers, at best very basic bathroom facilities with no running water, and are either free or cost very little to stay at. All in all, we pushed ourselves to trek 93.6 kilometers/58.2 miles, with most day hikes being longer than any hikes Lindsey and I have ever done as just one offs. We carried all of our own camping gear and food, and camped all of the 5 nights of our trek. Just getting through it physically was quite a challenge and a personal achievement for ourselves, and accompanied by the scenery, it’s a trip we’ll never forget.
Day 1 – Lodge Paine Grande to Refugio Grey (11km/6.8mi)
Lindsey and I got up early in Puerto Natales, bussed the two hours into the park and took a quick Catamaran ride to Lodge Paine Grande. Purely by chance, Ross and Laura, having arrived in the park the night before to hike the portion of the park we bypassed with the Catamaran, strolled right on up to us, 10 km already under their belts, the hiking machines we’d soon learn that they were. And thus began our epic 6 day journey through Torres del Paine together. The park was incredibly merciful while Lindsey and I broke in our trekking legs with full packs (and no food yet eaten to lighten the load), giving us a beautiful, sunny, low wind day. And the first hike was beautiful, starting off through a shallow arid canyon, climbing to an incredible viewpoint of Glaciar Grey, and then descending a bit to a forested ridge line next to lake Lago Grey until arriving at camp. Needless to say, by the time we all reached Refugio Grey, we were exhausted.
- The amazing feeling of taking off those hiking shoes and changing into sandals is hard to describe in words.
- We began what would be our normal routine for the next 5 nights of setting up camp, cooking dinner, downing a little bit of rum, and trying to stay awake past 10:00 PM.
- There was beautiful sunset light illuminating the mountainside towering over and next to our tent.
Day 2 – Refugio Grey to Campamento Paso and back to Refugio Grey (20km/12.4mi)
Leaving our gear and packs in the tent, Lindsey and I set out on a great day hike (this was the extra day hike we tacked onto the W, giving us a second night camping at Refugio Grey). The weather decided to be kind for one more day, sprinkling us with a little drizzle when we stopped for lunch, and here and there as we hiked back, but otherwise staying relatively clear. The hike led us high above, but alongside Lago (Spanish for “lake”) Grey eventually overtaking Glaciar Grey from above. Much of the hike was difficult and uphill, but it was well worth it for the views.
- We ascended and descended two sets of steep, rickety metal ladders. While traversing one set on the way back, we came across a couple who were appalled by the ladders, explaining to us they were structural engineers. Even though they crushed our bliss of ignorance, the ladders held together, and that’s all that mattered.
- As we broke for lunch, we saw an Andean condor flying below us which proceeded to start circling us four or five times, eventually flying directly overhead until presumably deciding Lindsey was too big to pick up and fly away with (glad we ate as much as we did on the Antarctica cruise).
- Lindsey and I went on a spur-of-the-moment hike at dusk to a mirador 15 minutes from camp. We had a small rocky hilltop to ourselves, with an amazing panoramic view as we caught the tail end of sunset and the final day’s views of Glacier Grey.
Day 3 – Refugio Grey to Lodge Paine Grande to Campamento Italiano (18.6km/11.6mi)
We heard you can get all four seasons in a day on the W, but didn’t really understand until Day 3. A steady rain soaked the four of us for the first couple of hours as we hiked with all of our gear, while a steady wind accompanied it to make sure we didn’t get too comfortable. We later were able to figure out that the bad weather was caused by me optimistically having my sunglasses out, so I put them away, and believe it or not, the sun started shining shortly thereafter; it was hot. Unfortunately, it was a quick summer as the clouds along with intermittent rain came rolling back in and that’s when things really started getting crazy. We had heard that it’s not uncommon for the wind to be so strong it can knock you and your backpack over; but it’s one thing hearing about it, and it’s another thing actually experiencing it. And we certainly experienced it. Random gusts continued to make us walk like a bunch of drunks, sometimes stopping us in our tracks to avoid getting knocked over. The wind was literally visibly whipping water out of and across the lake we were hiking along. It was surreal. The power of the wind really hit home when we were crossing a creek and a gust of wind literally knocked Lindsey off balance and into the bridge handrail (which we should note was luckily the only side of that bridge that had a handrail). Thankfully, it didn’t snow even though Ross was begging for it. We’d end up saving that for our next camping excursion which will be our next post.
- We met our soon to be new Atlanta buddies Chris and Matt at camp.
Day 4 – Campamento Italiano to Mirador Britanico to Campamento Italiano to Refugio Los Cuernos (16.5km/10.3mi)
Lindsey and I left our tent and packs at Campamento Italiano and set out early for a hike up and through Valle Frances. The weather was great, and the hike, which is known to be one of the top hikes in the park, lived up to the hype. On one side of the valley were beautiful hanging glaciers regularly calving mini avalanches down the mountain side, and on the other side were the stars of the park, the mountain peaks called the Torres (Spanish for Towers) del Paine, our side view of them constantly evolving. We hiked back, picked up our gear and made our way through a foresty path along glacier fed Lago Nordenskjold to Refugio Los Cuernos. After we set up camp in Cuernos it started raining and didn’t stop all night.
- We met our soon to be new German buddies Sebastian and Oliver on the Valle Frances hike.
- We took a break to dip our feet in, and skip rocks across, Lago Nordenskjold near the end of the day’s hike.
- We got hot, hot showers at Refugio Cuernos.
- Rather than cooking our own dinner, we treated ourselves to dinner at the refugio which led to drinking a little too much wine at our table with a loud and motley crew from Brazil, Chile and Spain.
Day 5 – Campamento Los Cuernos to Campamento Torres (17km/10.6mi approximated due to use of shortcut with no distance provided)
New Year’s Eve day. We woke up early to get a jump start on our longest day of hiking to the rain continuing to fall, the outside of our tent soaked, along with a little seepage on the inside under our mattress pads, and a little on the foot of our sleeping bags. For those of you that have done it, you know packing up a wet and muddy tent in the rain is no fun, but we took care of business, donned our hiking clothes, ate a quick breakfast and headed out with Ross and Laura by 8 AM. Despite the unpleasant start, our luck changed for the better within the first hour or so of hiking as the clouds cleared and the sun starting shining down on us, drying our wet clothing and reminding us why we were there. After another hour or so, making great time, and wary of the unpredictable weather, we decided to take a break and dry everything out, tents included, which we pitched alongside the trail. Brilliant move (shout out to Ross) as all of us were not looking forward to the prospect of sleeping in a wet tent later that night. The sun continued to shine as we finished off our hike to Campamento Torres, smiles on our faces, as we came in way sooner than we thought we were going to. Since it was New Year’s Eve, Ross, Laura, Lindsey and I basked in the sun on top of a hill by our camp for a while, finished off our rum, made some dinner, and drank a little wine. We were able to stay up long enough to celebrate the German New Year with Sebastian and Oliver, but by 9:30 PM we were out cold. Our alarm was set for 4:00 AM for a pre-sunrise hike to the stars of the park, the Torres del Paine, and we fell asleep praying to the weather gods to hold the rain, wind and clouds at bay for our last stop on the trek.
- We took a memorable break about three or four hours into the hike where I finally broke out the local jerkey I had bought for the trip. The guy who sold it to me in Puerto Natales told me it was carne seca, “dried meat,” with the label Churkey on it, which I naturally assumed would taste like beef jerky. Now before giving away the punchline here, I think it’s important to describe the Churkey a bit. It was the color of hay and very dry and stringy, not completely dissimilar to the older dryer specimens of the horse manure we were periodically coming across on the trail. Anyway, I took a bite or two and it was terrible, like chewing on ground up dead weeds. I finally took the time to read the ingredients and it turned out the dried meat was specifically carne de equino, horse meat. I guess the looks weren’t deceiving. Of course I ate the rest, as who can pass up such a good source of protein and calories. The looks on Ross, Laura and Lindsey’s faces were priceless. Not to beat a dead horse here (pardon the pun), but an interesting side note is we that asked some Chileans about an hour after, and they really like the stuff.
Day 6 – Campamento Torres to Mirador Torres to Campamento Torres to Hotel Las Torres (10.5km/6.5mi)
New Year’s Day. We didn’t hear our 4:00 AM alarm, but we got lucky. I’m not sure if it was the anticipation of the morning hike, the uncomfortableness of the tent, or the fact that we went to sleep at 9:30 PM, but we incredibly just woke up on our own anyway only a few minutes past 4:00 AM. The sky was beginning to lighten up just enough to see that it was clear. We excitedly rolled out of bed, quickly heated some water to bring along for coffee, ate a quick snack and started our 45 minute steep (and I mean steep) ascent to the Torres Del Paine in the dark with our headlamps. We arrived with huge smiles on our faces as we could not have asked for a more perfect, clear morning for sunrise, with low winds and not too cold. We sat with Laura and Ross, made some coffee, snapped a boatload of pictures and soaked in the scenery for a couple of hours. And just to emphasize how lucky we were, by the time we got back to camp, broke down the tent and cooked breakfast, the Torres were enveloped by clouds, and there were probably a couple hundred people headed to the Torres that we passed on our four hour hike down to leave the park that were unfortunately not going to see much at the top of their steep hike. Needless to say, we felt extremely grateful this was how we got to end our trek and bring in the new year.
- A crazy big shout out needs to be made here to Laura who injured her knee right before leaving Campamento Italiano on Day 3. She hiked 33km/20mi on that knee, as it got a little more swollen and painful every day, while still leading us at a pace Lindsey and I had trouble keeping up with. By Day 6, she was climbing up and down boulders to catch the Torres del Paine sunrise. And it turned out it was a sprained knee! I have some heavy doubts whether I could have been that tough.
- Once we got to the end of our trek, we had a celebratory beer at Hotel Las Torres as we waited for the bus out of the park with Ross and Laura, as well as new friends from the trek, Chris, Matt, Sebastian and Oliver.
- That night back in Puerto Natales, we carbo-loaded with Ross and Laura on more pizza, beer and garlic bread than I thought we were capable of eating. Oh, and Chris and Matt happened to be two seats down from us at the long communal table, chatting us up and another step towards us all hanging out later in the trip.
To see our full album of Puerto Natales and W Trek photos click here.
You guys rock. I just googled “New Years Day Sunrise at Los Torres” and guess who is the top result! Hope you guys are having a good time…
That’s amazing!! Last few days in South America, we will miss it!
That is awesome! Can’t wait to see pics from Galapagos!
Amazing pictures!! Again, I want to frame some for my house!! I am so jealous of your hikes, keep having the best time! We miss you two:)
Love the write up! I remember my trip there in 2007. It was the same week. xmas-new years. But I walked the opposite direction. Had the same crazy weather plus a little snow in Valle Frances. Pretty wild for middle of summer. And I also remember the sun set so late, like 11pm, that I forgot to stop walking and I’d set up camp just before sunset. Oops!
OMG…there is something wrong with me…I wait with baited breath for your posts and pretend I could still do this…another Incredible adventure….and the photos…WOW! We are vegging in Rome…not doing much as the weather has been cool and rainy but we leisurely walk everyday somewhere. It’s a great place for us old folks to be and miss the miserable weather in the northeast and the food here is unbelievable….that’s why we have to walk everyday! Have fun with S and G in Equador…I await the next posts from the Galapogus……. Much love, Aunt Nancy
You two are insane. I am insanely jealous. Looks/sounds amazing!!!!