Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, getting ready for trekking, Part 1
After trekking in El Chalten, we took a bus back to El Calafate. El Calafate kind of sucks but unfortunately it’s a major hub in Patagonia and is a gateway to the southern part of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares (El Chalten serves the northern and free part of the park) and you usually have to go there to transfer to other places you want to travel to. We visited El Calafate three years ago to see the massive glacier (and one of the biggest in Patagonia) Perito Moreno (this is the main reason everyone travels there). While the glacier there is indeed beautiful:
we didn’t want to return this year because it’s very expensive (you have to pay a hefty entrance fee to this Southern part of the park). And they moo you in like cattle on a huge tourist bus, moo you out to go see the glacier via a boardwalk. You snap your photos and then you get back into the huge tour bus mooing all the way and return to El Calafate. A bit boring for us and too costly. Laurent said we could just look at our photos of the glacier from 3 years ago. A much more sensible idea, I thought. We only stayed in Calafate for the night, just out of convenience. The next morning we took a bus to Puerto Natales, which is in Chile.
Puerto Natales is another small village also devoted to tourism thanks to the nearby mecca for all backpackers, Parque Nacional Torres del Paine. It’s considered the gateway to the park because many buses leave daily from here to shuttle you over to the park. I like Puerto Natales better than El Chalten or El Calafate though. It retains more of a local culture, people are friendlier, it’s a tad cheaper and there is this amazing wood-fired oven pizza place that could sit well, even in NYC:
Tip: order the surprisingly well made (for a pizza place), and one of Chile’s best drinks, the pisco sour:
and there are other great eateries scattered around town. There are amazing sunsets here with incredible lighting:
At this point in our trip, we started to feel the pressure of time constraints. We had to make sure we were down in Ushuaia by December 28 for our sailboat trip to Antarctica. If you are traveling to this area and have time constraints, plan carefully because there are huge distances down here that can take (literally) days. We had one full day and half of one in Puerto Natales which is just enough time to get ready for a trek (doing laundry, food shopping and deciding what and what not to bring).
A great tip for any traveler who is carrying too much stuff (like us) and likes to do treks but doesn’t want to carry unnecessary things, is that you can leave as much of your stuff as you want in the hostel/hotel you stay at and pick it up when you return. Check to make sure they are actually locking your stuff up (most do). We left over half of our stuff behind at the warm, friendly Casa Cecilia. They also rent equipment and tents that don’t fall apart and are small & light. We set the tent up this time in advance!
Torres del Paine (TDP) is literally Disneyworld for backpackers. Throngs of brightly colored packs and their carriers descend down on this tiny town of Puerto Natales and then take buses to the park. The park attracts a potpourri of people. Everyone from serious backpackers to day hikers to people who have never hiked before in their lives. We saw one guy on the trail wearing shiny loafers and a blazer with creased slacks! Seriously! He looked totally wiped out.
Why does it attract so many people? As you travel south into Patagonia, you hear about the beautiful, unmissable TDP from everyone you meet. The circuit in TDP is considered one of the top 10 treks in the world. To make things worse, there are refugios (glorified and overpriced hostel-type places) scattered around the park, making it possible to hike a large section of the trails without carrying food, tent and thus, a big backpack. This creates a bit of mayhem. So why bother, one might ask, if it’s so crowded? Well, the scenery and the towers (torres) themselves are drop dead gorgeous:
Just from riding in the bus on the way to the park, you realize you are entering a special place:
Guanacos, which are numerous in the park, run about as you near the entrance:
January & February are the best times in terms of weather but the absolute worst in terms of crowds to visit the park. Even in December when we visited, it was already pretty crowded. If you are hiking the circuit like we did, you won’t see nearly as many people that crowd the “W”. Keep in mind that if you plan to hike the circuit, it doesn’t usually open until the end of November (due to snow). This year it opened only a week and half before we arrived (Dec 16), so it’s a good idea to check with the park first.
There are many possibilities when you arrive to the park. If you don’t like to carry a big backpack with food and a tent but still want to go on a multiple night trip, you can stay in the refugios and do what is known as the “W”. It´s called that because of the shape it makes when you hike it. Here is a good map that illustrates both the “W” (kind of obvious, I think) & the circuit (if you complete everything in red, it’s considered doing the entire circuit):
Here are a few options when visiting the park:
Doing the “W” and staying in the refugios:
It might seem like a good idea initially because you don’t have to carry a lot of stuff on your back. However, this can become an expensive option because the refugios charge almost $50 each night for sleeping (for a bunkbed!!) and if you want dinner, it´s another $20, lunch about $15 and breakfast around $11. Doesn’t seem like much but after 4 nights, it adds up. The food sucks too (we know because 3 years ago we did the “W” and even though we hauled our own food/tent, we caved one night and bought a crappy, disappointing dinner). But the advantage is that you don’t have the weight of food or equipment to carry which makes the hiking very easy. In addition to decreased weight, you can complete the W in 3-5 days.
Doing the “W” and camping next to the refugios:
If you don´t mind bringing your own equipment (tent/sleeping bag & mat) but don’t want to carry food, you can camp next to the refugios for about $8 (US) per night and purchase their crappy meals. Some campgrounds are even free but then you don’t get any food. You get the benefit of a shower and use of the bathrooms included in your $8. If you want to save even more money, just buy your own food and carry it in but this also means that you have to carry a stove/fuel and cooking supplies (utensils, pot or pan, etc.)
Doing the whole circuit:
If you want a little bit of adventure, are reasonably fit and don’t mind carrying a backpack filled with gear and food, you can hike the circuit. If you decide to do the whole circuit you don’t have much of a choice but to bring your own equipment and food. Of course you meet some crazy people that decide to hike the circuit and still stay in the refugios but that involves walking more than 30 km in a day and in my opinion, it doesn’t give you a chance to absorb or enjoy what you are seeing. But it’s possible. If you don’t want to carry as much food, you can do a night or 2 in the refugios for meals. There are lots of options to consider as far as meal planning. If you do the circuit, you need between 6-10 days, depending on how much you want to see.
Staying at the entrance to the park and using it as a base for day hikes:
If you really have lots of money to spend and want a luxurious place to stay with fine dining, you can stay at the Hosteria Las Torres (located at the entrance to the park) and just do day hikes (like the rich guy in the blazer we saw or the girl with too much perfume carrying a small Gucci purse up the trail…seriously, you see these type of “hikers” here!). But if you aren’t rich or don’t want luxury and nature to mingle, you can also camp or stay in the refugio that’s located in this area too.
Three years ago we came to TDP and set out to do the circuit but we only did the “W” instead. Back then, I hiked the first day with a backpack full of food for 9 days and I thought I was going to die. Seriously, my shoulders felt broken. So we decided a shorter trek was better for us.
This time around, we felt much more fit and ready to complete the circuit but with one modification: we would take the catamaran back from Lago Pehoe due to time contraints. I went really light (for me) with the packing. Here is what I brought:
- waterproof, windproof tent (we rented a good one this time for about $7/day)
- sleeping bag with a liner
- the bag that holds Laurent’s sleeping mat is stuffed with clothes and used as a pillow
- very basic toiletries including sunblock and bug cream and toilet paper! Don’t forget the toilet paper
- 1 pair hiking pants
- 1 pair rain pants
- 1 pair yoga pants (for camp and sleeping)
- 1 pair merino thermal undergarments
- 1 rain jacket (just the shell outer layer)
- 1 fleece
- 2 wicking t-shirts
- 3 pairs of wool socks, 2 sock liners
- 6 pairs of underwear (a bit bulky but I’m sorry, clean underwear is the only thing that makes me feel fresh on these hikes!)
- 1 hat (or touk)
- glove liners and gloves
- medical kit
- trekking poles (a must for the circuit)
- map of the park
- toilet paper
- 1 pot, 1 stove, 2 container of fuel, 2 cups, a lighter & matches, 2 spoon/fork combination
- a waterproof bag that we use for kayaking (came in handy to hang our food in the trees-kept everything dry. I refuse to keep food in the tent)
- 5 dice for yahtzee (I was glad to have this on day 5)
Our food before being crammed into our backpacks:
Our food suffered greatly because Laurent wouldn’t let me buy any fresh produce. So it went something like this:
Oatmeal with dried apples/dried bananas/dried coconut/walnuts/powdered milk-Laurent dreaded breakfast every single morning
Instant cappuccino (that weirdly foamed)
Salami/cheese sandwich on real bread! Bread is so bulky and inconvenient because it smushes easily but it’s so tasty!
Chocolate or cookies-dessert is very important
Pasta with an instant cream soup as a sauce (I know! Gross but carrying tomato sauce was too heavy!) Sometimes I used butter.I longed for fresh garlic. I carried a big hunk of butter and added it to everything. It made everything a bit richer. Definitely worth its weight. One night we had instant mashed potatoes. I will never make that mistake again. They seemed so lightweight and easy to make but it was absolutely disgusting.
For dessert we had chocolate again or a cookie. We carried lots of Tang which we added to the water to make juice. In civilization I would never dare drink Tang but out in the woods hiking around, it’s delicious. All the water in the park is drinkable, you don’t need to filter it and it’s plentiful. You cross many rivers all day long.
We carried enough food for 7 days. We arrived to the park on Sunday, December 16. We were ready! In the next post, stay tuned for a detailed account of our trek.