Patagonia – April 3 to April 16
Puerto Natales >> Torres del Paine >> El Calafate >> El Chalten
Note: I had heard that Patagonia was expensive. I (wrongly) assumed this meant “expensive by Latin American standards. This place is expensive by any first world standard. I’ll cover this in a “logistics of Torres del Paine” article I’ll write after this.
(Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine)
I had found a relatively cheap, one-way ticket from Santiago to Punta Arenas, Chile (~$130) on Sky Airlines (shitty, budget airline, but my other option was more than $600) that left extremely early in the morning. From here, I caught a bus to Puerto Natales, a nice port town that also acts as the primary gateway to Torres del Paine. For those of you not familiar with it, Torres del Paine is the most famous Patagonian spot in Chile and hosts many of the most iconic Patagonian landscapes. Upon my arrival, I needed to make sure I had everything ready to leave on an early morning bus to Torres del Paine the following day. I’ll cover more specifics in the logistics section, but basically I made sure my reservations were in order, I had all the equipment I needed and had enough food for my time in the park. I did the W hike (most common circuit for people to do in the park).
The 7:30am bus I took the next day started my 4 day, 3 night trip through the park. On the 3 hour ride to the park entrance, I remember thinking there wasn’t anything to special about the landscape. You don’t really feel like you’re anywhere near the dreamscape you are. I got some sleep on the bus, and was awakened when we arrived. When I took my first step off the bus, pardon my French, but holy fucking shit–I was staring at the famous towers from a distance and it literally looked like the most unbelievable painting I’d ever witnessed. I’ll have plenty of pictures in this article, but do know that no picture does this place justice–not even close.
Once I was checked in, I took a little van to my starting point, Refugio Torre Norte. I checked in, dropped off my stuff, and started on the hike to Los Torres. You very quickly realize, as many people hike this area, they don’t try to edit the nature a whole lot to make it easier on you. Any sort of littering or fire is taken extremely seriously, and this can be seen by the beauty of the park. Most of the campsites and refugios can only get their supplies on horseback. All water in the park is good to drink, so taking a single bottle is sufficient and you can refill it in any of the streams from the glacier.
I hiked about 8 km each way through a stunning valley, ending at the famous Los Torres (~8 hours). The last kilometer had about a 250m elevation gain, but the end was worth every second of pain in the hike. Early on in the hike, I met an Argentinian history teacher and we ended up doing the entire day together (another chance to practice my Spanish!).
I returned late afternoon where I relaxed and had my delicious cold sandwiches I brought, while sharing some Pisco with a couple of Korean guys I had met, followed by attempting to do a crossword puzzle in a common area with a group of people.
The second day was considerably easier (and welcomed) than the previous day. It was what I heard referred to as “Patagonia flat” (i.e. no where near flat, but not entirely uphill). Beautiful landscapes, mountains and glacial lakes filled the short day’s journey (~5 hours hiking). This day I met a Chilean guy and 4 Spaniards hiking along the trail and got yet another chance to practice some good Spanish!
These new friends were staying at a different campsite, so I didn’t see them in the evening, but did meet some other fun people in Refugio Los Cuernos. I saw one of the same Korean guys from the previous night and met an Argentinian I ended up hiking with the entire following day. I also got the chance to meet a super nice and fun French family who I ended up seeing quite a number of times throughout my time in Patagonia.
This was the long day. I hiked up through the French Valley to Mirador Britanico (with the Argentinian I mentioned earlier). The French Valley hike was the other highlight to the park, in my opinion, aside from the towers. Especially visiting during autumn, I got to experience all the trees changing colors! After the French Valley, we hiked through an (actually) flat segment to reach the final refugio of the trip, Paine Grande (~9 hours).
Once I arrived, I got to say farewell to the Spaniards I had met the previous day before they took their boat and headed out. That evening I also met a couple of Colombians and Chileans who helped me finish off the Pisco I brought with me. After these long days, I decided to treat myself to their expensive dinner, but I was so happy to have some warm food!
The final day I hiked with the Colombians I had met the previous evening to Glacier Grey. This was the only day during my time in Torres del Paine where it the weather wasn’t great (but great weather isn’t needed to appreciate the glacier). I definitely had to take this day easy, as my knee was hurting from the previous days’ hikes. I’ve never had knee problems, but the hikes are also no joke, no matter what kind of shape you’re in. Recommendation to anyone looking to hike in this park, take preventative measures for your body, the park is rough on it.
Fortunately the majority of this hike wasn’t too bad, just a little long. We, unfortunately, didn’t have the time to see the glacier too close, but the lookout were still great from a distance. I also knew I’d be seeing the Perito Morena glacier in El Calafate soon, anyway.
Upon returning from this glacier, we took the boat back to the entrance. You really got to see the amazing color of the water in the lake (some gray, green, turquoise mix–seems unreal) as well as an amazing panoramic of the mountains I had spent the last 4 days hiking all around.
That evening I got back to Puerto Natales where I ate and drank too much (food and drink is a little expensive in town, but far less so than in the park!). I vowed to do as little as possible the next two days, and I think I succeeded quite well with that objective.
(El Calafate and El Chalten)
El Calafate is the gateway city to El Chalten and is also extremely famous as the access point to tohe Perito Morena glacier. I spent a day here to go experience the glacier, which was much more commercialized (kind of like Iguazu Falls). It wasn’t really even hiking, just a few kilometers of walkways with different lookout points. It was possible to get very close to the glacier, which stood over 200 feet (70 m) above the water at its highest point. Fortunately, I did get to see a huge piece of ice fall off the glacier into the water, but unfortunately, I didn’t capture it on video.
I then went on-wards to El Chalten, which is home to Argentina’s most famous Patagonian landscapes. Visiting El Chalten was much cheaper, simpler and straightforward than Torres del Paine. El Chalten was a city in the national park with all the major hikes able to be done within a day. Albeit expensive, it cost nothing like Torres del Paine did and none of the reservations and preparation was needed. The landscape was equally as impressive as Torres del Paine (I’m not sure I could choose a favorite). With that said, because of the simplicity, it didn’t feel like quite the “experience” of Torres del Paine. Don’t let that detract from the fact I would highly recommend visiting!
I did two hikes in this city and skipped the third popular one (I’ll explain why in a moment).
Lago de los Tres (Mount Fitz Roy)
Mount Fitz Roy is considered to be one of the most intimidating and impressive rock structures in the world (and certainly within Patagonia). The hike was about 7 hours round trip, covers 20 km (~13 miles) and had a 750 m elevation change. The majority of the hike was pretty flat and simple, and the entire hike never stopped offering amazing views. The autumn leaves were even more impressive here than in Torres del Paine. You always had Fitz Roy in the background, motivating you to get to the base. I passed by a lake in the morning with a great view of Fitz Roy, and the lake was so incredibly still, the reflection looked like a photograph.
When I finally arrived at the base of Mount Fitz Roy, it was nothing short of breathtaking. One of the most incredible sights I’ve ever seen. Of course I have pictures, but none will do it true justice.
Loma del Pliegue (Panoramic views)
This was likely the hardest hike I have done down here, although it only took 7.5 hours. I covered somewhere around 24 km (~16 miles) and over 1000 m of elevation change. The end, though, was incredible, offering a full 360 degree panoramic view. I was able to see Fitz Roy, the Towers (which is why I skipped the hike dedicated to the towers), other glacial mountains, and the plains/lake on the other side of the city. I wasn’t even able to take took many pictures here because I just couldn’t capture anything close to what I was actually seeing… but I did try. All three of these photos are from the same panoramic view at the top.
I can’t even explain how happy and fortunate I feel to have had the weather I’ve had down here. This place is known for crazy and unexpected weather, and I was able to have every major point of the trip be cloudless and sunny. Truly spectacular!
Now I’m taking a well needed day off and waiting to take my bus this evening to Bariloche (a fun-filled 24 hour bus ride).
As mentioned, I’ll write up a logistics article to Torres del Paine and include more of the costs, but if you have any Patagonia questions, I’m more than happy to answer! I also have a number of videos on my Facebook to try to help show these places better, so feel free to have a look!