Deep in the heart of Chilean Patagonia, Torres del Paine is worth the trek to get there, with breathtaking glaciers, surreal lakes and spectacular mountains
On a mad, two-week dash around Patagonia, I was determined to complete the W-circuit of Torres del Paine. With so many areas of outstanding natural beauty in this vast wilderness of the world, it’s difficult to know where to concentrate, but the journey from Ushuaia in Argentina, across the Magellan Straits and over to Puerto Natales in Chile, was worth every bumpy minute of the bus ride.
However, the journey doesn’t end there! From Puerto Natales, it’s another two buses and two to three hours to get to the Parque National Torres del Paine. But this is the beauty of Patagonia. Puerto Natales may be the base to the park, but it’s still hours away to get there.
We’d been warned beforehand that the Park is expensive and you can’t buy any food inside other than snacks so you need to take your own or go half board at the refugios. So, packed with just the necessities for trekking (medical kit, water bladders, good boots and waterproofs) and lots of cash, we arrived early off the morning bus from Puerto Natales.
I’d been told that it takes up to five days to complete the W-circuit, but unfortunately we didn’t have time for that. Luckily, you can cheat and, with a combination of foot, boat and bus, we managed to cover the highlights in just three days.
Starting at Refugio Torres Central (www.fslodges.com), where we’d opted to take accommodation and meals that night, we began the ascent to the base of the highlight of the park, Las Torres (the towers). Knowing that we’d be doing a round trip to the towers and back in one day, we were well stocked with a packed lunch, provided by the refugio, and mentally psyched for the approximate seven-hour hike. Unlike many national parks I’ve visited, the paths in Torres (and pretty much everywhere I experienced in Patagonia) were immaculately kept, well-marked and very safe. You don’t need to take a guide, as the walkways are well trodden and it’s difficult to get lost, but of course you still need to exercise caution.
The ascent is slow and steady but it’s at the very last hour before you get to the base of the towers that you need to use your balance and are thankful you have ankle support in your hiking boots. Scrambling over large boulders has never been my forte but I’d come this far and I wasn’t going to turn back now. It’s not really as bad it sounds, but it’s hard work putting your foot in the right place to be able to nimbly ascend. On arrival at the top, not only were we rewarded with the most stupendous views across the valley, but the beauty and the magic of the towers in front of us was humbling. The sense of achievement is fantastic and an hour of gazing at the mountain flew by in no time. Needless to say, on return to the refugio we were starving and devoured the three-course basic menu with incredibly quaffable Chilean wine.
Day two involved a bus from the Torres Central to Guarderia Pudeto for the boat trip across Lago Pehoé to Refugio Paine Grande. If you’re short on time, or energy, the boat ride is a must. It gives you a completely different perspective on the mountain scenery that is priceless and that you wouldn’t have otherwise. On arrival at the boat dock, we took the slow and leisurely hike to the bottom of Valle Frances. Tunnels of trees and shrubs sheltered a variety of birdlife and the Glacier Frances could be seen in the distance.
That night, we decided to camp at Refugio Paine Grande, as we thought this would be the quieter option compared with the shared dormitory the night before, with the horrendously loud and fast-paced snorer. Even if you camp you can use the restaurant facilities of the refugio. Tents and sleeping bags are provided on site.
Day three was going to be the longest day: a nine-hour return hike to Glacier Grey, the tip of an immense ice sheet. Never before have I experienced a glacier like this! In 1996 it measured 17 miles long, and to see it before you and hear it creaking and groaning is spectacular. This hike requires stamina as it’s an 18 km round trip but again, the path is well-marked, in great condition and the ascent is nothing like day one and the towers. On our return to the camp, it was then time to get the boat back across Lake Pehoe and the bus back to Puerto Natales.
We’d done so much in so little time, albeit a rush - but you can’t come all this way and not visit Torres del Paine. I’ve never seen a mountain range so pretty and varied. Don’t be put off by fellow trekkers who tell you it’s crowded – yes, you’ll see other travellers but it’s no reason not to come here. If you can leave your backpack somewhere, definitely do so; the walks here are nothing like trekking in the Himalayas but you’ll have a much more comfortable day if you’ve just got your necessities with you. And ensure you book ahead where possible. The food isn’t fantastic at the refugios, but it’s all you’ll get if you haven’t got your own and you’ll be starving to eat anything at the end of such long hikes.
Beds in Torre Central cost from US$44 per person per night without blankets and sheets. With blankets and sheets, they cost US$51 per person per night. Bed with board costs US$86 per night in a dormitory that sleeps six. Full board and camping at Refugio Paine Grande is approximately US$39 per person. High season fees to the National Park are US$28. Hostels in Puerto Natales cost from around US$£20.