To trek or not to trek
A major difference between going on vacation and traveling long(ish)-term is this: when you go on vacation, you have already carefully researched and chosen your destinations (and possibly tour providers) before ever stepping foot on the plane. When travel is your lifestyle – okay, when WE travel – you let destinations come to you. In other words, aside from the main stops, the decision to visit certain destinations is made after talking to fellow travelers, being won over by posts on other travel blogs and studying guidebooks for more detail.
When we announced our trip to South America, we heard over and over again “You have to do the W Trek.” What is this trek about, we wondered? It turns out that this is one of those great hikes in the world, regularly appearing in The World’s Ten Best Treks’ lists in magazines across the globe. So obviously we considered tackling it as we neared the Torres del Paine National Park in southern Chilean Patagonia.
What makes the W Trek such a remarkable hike? It turns out, this is a multi-day hike whose trials form a cursive letter W throughout the park and although it much of it is ranges from intermediate to difficult levels of hiking, the experience is supposed to be the pure essence of Patagonia. In those 4-5 days you experience glaciers, massive mountains, crystal blue lakes, waterfalls and exotic wildlife like Guanacos (part of the Llama family) ñandus (similar to Emus), plus foxes and even pumas. The park is name after its most famous mountain range, ‘Los Tres Torres’, or the Three Towers and ‘Paine’ is the local indigenous word for blue, an amazing array of which you see throughout the park from the sky and lakes to the floating chunks of glaciers (which we’ll get to in a bit).
Sounds amazing, right? Here’s the thing. We love day hiking, but not 4-5 days in a row, plus the whole experience is quite costly. The refugios (hostels along the trek) run $40 for a dorm bed, and meals are apparently so overpriced that people who’ve done the trek recommend lugging around all your own food for five days. We’d have to buy or rent warm clothes, as our supply is limited and the weather in Torres del Paine can change dramatically hours at a time. Then we read about bed bugs in some of the refugios and that was that. We were not going to do the W trek.
Instead, we took the five-hour bus ride from El Calafate, Argentina to Puerto Natales, Chile, the small Patagonian city popular as the base for trips into the park. We had intentions of sorting out a day trek to the three towers, which is a highlight section of the trek, but after a few failed attempts, we settled on an all-day tour that included several stops at the main viewing points and short hikes in the park.
For those non-trekkers out there, this was a great way to actually see more of the park than you would on the W Trek. The tours all cost roughly the same, at $40 per person, plus the $36 park fee on top, which worked out to be more expensive than renting a car but easier to get to the park’s highlights without having to do any more of that pesky research!
Torres del Paine National Park begins 112km (70mi) north of Puerto Natales. The minivan tour started by speeding through the vast pampa straight toward the looming mountains of the park, making one short stop first at the Milodon cave. The prehistoric cave was probably carved out by rushing water from nearby melting glaciers thousands of years ago, but what makes these deep caves so famous is the discovery of skin and bones of the prehistoric giant ground sloth, the Milodon.
From there the tour continued on into the park, driving along nearly empty dirt roads. 100,000 hikers visit Torres Del Paine every year, or under 275 per day, meaning we felt like we had this national park almost entirely to ourselves. The first stop was the first highlight – a viewpoint overlooking a bright blue mountain lake with snow-capped mountains in the background.
Massive icebergs at Lago Grey
The first hike of the day was a short trail to Lago Grey, walking across a wooden footbridge, through a forest and down onto a beach around the lake. The temperature dropped dramatically as we neared the massive blue icebergs floating in the lake which had calved off the nearby glacier. Wind-wipped and freezing, we posed in front of the blue ice blocks and even got to touch some of the smaller ‘cubes’ that floated to the water’s edge.
We warmed up back in the van, stopped at another mountain lake and then stopped at one of the refugios for lunch. Our lunches packed, we headed away from the restaurant and up onto a small hilltop where three, then four, graceful guanacos grazed and galloped right by us. At first we had stunned faces to match the cast of Jurassic Park viewing dinosaurs for the first time, but as we still observing them, warming ourselves in the sun, it really set in how magical the park can feel – so pure, natural and exotic down at the end of the earth.
The tour continued on with gorgeous viewpoints every so often until the driver stopped for our second ‘hike’, which was really a 30 minute easy walk that led to a lookout above and just to the side of a rushing waterfall and paths up and down to different vantage points.
Along the path, the burnt trees were painful evidence of the terrible forest fires Torres del Paine suffered a few years ago when a tourist’s campfire got out of control and thousands of acres were burnt to the ground.
The water rushing down is so powerful and the water is pristine enough to drink, if only I could have just held the water bottle under that giant faucet…
The grand finale: The Three Towers viewpoint
These three towers have come to symbolize the park, the hikes, really the entire reason most people make the trip to this part of Patagonia. On the day tour, it was entirely anticlimactic, with a quick stop at a lookout spot with views of the three towers tucked behind a mountain in front of it. Watching herds of sheep running across the road nearby – and the reaction of a Japanese tourist who had never seen such a thing before – was actually much more memorable than this stop of the tour.
Even without feeling the buzz of accomplishment from at least a day hike to the towers, this day tour made the trip to Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine completely worth it. The city itself was a fun place to hang out for a day or two after the tour, as well. Not even ten years ago there was almost nothing but the basics here, and now Puerto Natales is home to several great restaurants, a clean central park perfect for people watching and one of Chile’s typical riverfront promenades with beautiful statues, a BMX bike ramp, benches and incredible views out over the water that remind you just how far south you have really come.
Details and tips
If you are looking to visit Torres Del Paine National Park in a day tour, check out the tour agency at the Patagonia Aventura hostel (on the west side of the Central Plaza in Puerto Natales). They can also set up multi-day hikes and other excursions.
Rental cars are available in Puerto Natales and start at around US$70 per day.
TorresdelPaine.com has a range of maps for the W trek, the Circuit (an 8-9 day hike in Torres Del Paine) and other treks. They also have a listing of all the lodging options in the park. Make sure to book ahead since the refugios fill up quickly, especially between December and March.
You can follow our complete route through Patagonia here – including information on how to get from place to place, how much it costs, suggestions for places to stay and how many days we recommend you spend in each place.