Continuing our Patagonian adventure, we crossed the border to Chile and set up camp for several days in Puerto Natales. Puerto Natales serves as the gateway to nearby Torres del Paine National Park, where we planned to take on the 5-day / 4-night “W Trek.” Since our 5-day trek through the Brazilian jungle with Puma went swimmingly, we confidently decided to tackle Torres del Paine sans-guide. The fact that the trail is well marked, well traveled (with the number of hikers increasing nearly 50% over last year) and complete with campsites (essentially everything Chapada Diamantina was not) didn’t hurt either.
After settling into our cozy hostel, getting the rundown on the trek and gearing up (but then gearing down for a brief detour around the world, resettling into our cozy hostel and re-gearing up), we headed out to the Park. Without Puma, the load (5-days worth of food and rented camping equipment) fell on our backs. Though we managed to lighten the load by bringing only one change of clothes (that somehow went unused), we happily added to it with a quality, waterproof tent.
We arrived at Torres del Paine on a freezing, cloudy day. Shivering and attempting to remain upright with our heavy packs in destabilizing wind, we looked around seriously wondering why any of us had willingly undertaken this journey. But over 5 days, 71.5 km (45 miles for those of us who still don’t understand kilometers) and 3 peaks measuring up to 1,000 meters in elevation, we were constantly reminded of why the journey was worth every ounce of discomfort.
- The varied landscape of the park ranged from giant glaciers to lagoons surrounded by rolling hills to deep and mountainous valleys. We were constantly amazed by the changing landscape (and the associated changing weather!).
- After enjoying the benefits of traveling with a guide in Brazil, we were very proud of our ability to carry, set up, cook, and carry out everything we needed for the 5-days (well except 1 litre of boxed wine and 1 shower purchased at one of the paid campsites!). The feeling of self-sufficiency (aka dirty, achey bodies) was oddly rewarding.
- The park attracts travelers from all over the world and along the trail you continuously cross paths with the same groups of hikers. By the end of 5 days we had spent an entire day with a couple we kept running into from Philadelphia, shared knee aches (and heavy-duty Motrin) with medical students from New York, cooked dinner with a group of Chileans, taken camera lessons from vacationers from Croatia, and met countless others from Germany, the Netherlands, France, England and the US. The camaraderie was a highlight throughout the W.
- On our last day, we awoke at 4:45 AM to climb the vertical stretch from our camp to the base of Torres. From there we watched (well Alie unsurprisingly fell asleep during) the rising sunlight over the Torres of Paine, or the Towers of Blue. After 4 days of cloudy skies granting us only a glimpse of the mountaintops, we finally enjoyed a perfectly clear, blue sky revealing the gorgeous towers.
To us, Torres del Paine was well worth all of the hype, exhaustion and ache. We certainly recommend a visit to anyone in Patagonia – whether for an overnight stay at the beautiful Torres Lodge to enjoy day hikes, for a 5-day trek either with/without a guide or with/without the full-board refugios or for any of the longer, week-plus circuits.
- Erratic Rock Base Camp in Puerto Natales offers an extremely helpful free information session everyday at 3 PM that better prepared us for the trek. We recommend a sit-in to hear their tips on the trail, campsites and packing. Afterwards, you can also rent gear at their equipment shop (smart business maneuver by Erratic Rock). Though the gear is a tiny bit more expensive than other providers, it’s in good condition and served us well over our 5 days in the park.
- We trekked from east to west, or from Grey to Torres. You’ll hear many views on which way to start & end and, naturally, we found our route to be optimal. The sunrise view of Torres offers something to build toward at the end of an exhausting 5-day trek.
- In terms of packing, try to only bring essentials. As we learned, carrying your pack every day adds pressure on your knees, so keep it light. All that’s really required other than warm day clothes is a change of warm night clothes, and maybe one extra dry shirt. Smelly, yes, but you are going to be smelly anyways and the added weight of more than 1 change of clothes isn’t worth the knee stress.
- In Puerto Natales we absolutely loved Erratic Rock. The place is small and really treats everyone staying there like family. They were extremely accommodating, had clean and comfortable rooms, served delicious breakfast and had a fully stocked kitchen. The connection to the tour and rental company next door was also extremely handy. They generally offer a walk-in only reservation system but if any of you would like to stay they try to accommodate referrals also!
- Along the trail, there are 2 free campsites – Italiano and Torres. It’s helpful to book these in advance at Conaf in Puerto Natales as they can fill up, but they also reserve spots at the Conaf ranger stations along the trail and we didn’t have any problem booking along the way (despite significant anxiety!). The free campsites are optimally located for the standard W trek, as the paid campsites require some backtracking and make the days a bit longer. With that said, the paid campsites have clean, indoor kitchens and real bathrooms with hot showers.
- In case you want to carry a lighter load (i.e. no tent and sleeping bag) and/or crave a break from your mattress pad, the paid campsites also offer “refugios,” or dorm rooms to sleep in. The refugios book up months in advance but usually also have some limited walk-in/cancellation availability.
- There is a beautiful hotel at the bottom of Torres that offers an upscale option for day treks.
Days Stayed / Recommended: There isn’t much to see or do in Peurto Natales, but there are countless options in Torres del Paine. Other than the 5-day/4-night trek, other trekking options include “The O” (9-days/8-nights) and “The Q” (13-days/12-nights).
- Breakfast: Oatmeal and coffee seem to be the standard breakfast on the trail, offering carbs to get you going in the morning as well as a way to warm up. Dried fruit and nuts were a solid oatmeal addition. We also added in a pear each morning… somewhat of a poor choice by day 4 given how easily the fruit bruises.
- Lunch: We alternated between turkey sandwiches the first two days, and then peanut butter sandwiches and tuna during the final three. The tuna was definitely heavy to carry along but provided a protein that wouldn’t go bad without refrigeration.
- Dinner: Pasta and rice are trail favorites, offering a hearty, quick meal after a long day. We definitely preferred the pasta but it is a bit heavier. We also added in some vegetables to make each one a bit more nutritious and fresh tasting (not surprising to those of you who know us…) but we were definitely the only ones chopping veggies in the woods!
- Snacks: One of the more essential items to pack for your hike. We packed a roll (yes, an entire roll) of cookies for each day – trust us, these are a nice treat during a long day. In a similar fashion, dinner wouldn’t have been complete without the 2 candy bars we brought for desert (1/2 for each night). We also fit in apples, nuts and granola bars. All totally worth it.
- Keep in mind that to cook all of the above, you’ll need a small stove, a gas canister and a pot along with a few other utensils. (Also bring a sponge for easy cleaning!).
Other: Bring Motrin. A ton of hikers, unfortunately us included, experienced knee pain from all of the steep downhills. We missed the Motrin memo but luckily were saved by generous fellow hikers. Also, Chilean border control is extremely intense. They confiscate all fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats and are NOT friendly. Eat your dinner before you cross the border!