I flew to Punta Arenas, Chile in December 2019 to visit Torres del Paine, which has been high on my bucket list for many years. Punta Arenas sits on the northern bank of the Strait of Magellan, overlooking the Tierra del Fuego Islands. This city, realistically, is as far south as I could ever travel to for now. It is also the Chilean expedition and tourism base for Antarctica, as cruise ships and icebreakers are harboring around. Looking from a world map, one cannot escape the feeling that this is the end of the world. That is why I felt so pleasantly surprised when I actually landed there. Punta Arenas doesn’t feel remote and isolated. The airport was bustling, the roads and highways are all well paved, and in the city center people are busy shopping for last minute Christmas gifts and goods.
Punta Arenas has a lovely, sizable downtown area, and long stretches of marina promenade, complemented by walk-assisting bars on the streets in case the winds pick up too strong. Citizens are drinking, dining, and enjoying the sunshine in the parks and the central market. I couldn’t even find a barber shop to cut my hair. Food offering in the city is excellent, the grilled meat and seafood are extremely tasty and affordable. There are a lot to do in the city itself, from walking along the Strait of Magellan, to appreciate all the street arts in downtown, visit the southernmost brewery in the world, toast with a wonderful Cerveza Austral, to check out the many museums, or simply sit in the central square to people watch. But the highlight of them all, is definitely to say hello to the penguins on either the Tierra del Fuego or the Magdalena Island: more to come about this.
The Guardian has published an excellent piece about Punta Arenas in 2017, if you want to read more about the city.
Although most people arrive in Punta Arenas to start their journey, the actual gateway to Torres del Paine National Park is at Puerto Natales, a much smaller but equally picturesque town three hours north from Punta Arenas. Most travelers get there by bus – they are many companies operating this route on an hourly schedule, and the tickets are abundant. No matter which company’s bus you are taking, they all drop you at Terminal Rodoviario, which is the central bus station of Puerto Natales. From there, I waited and took a taxi to our tour company’s site – Garden Domes. There’s really not much to do in Puerto Natales in my opinion, except to wonder what on earth happened about that frozen sloth statue (Monument of Milodon, ask the locals they are very proud of it). It feels much less like a city than a Star Wars-era outpost in a forgotten planet. The view from this outpost, however, is already breathtaking, with turquoise fjords and snow peaks surrounding the city, a great preview to what is expecting us in Torres del Paine.
Torres del Paine National Park
Two days after landing in Chile, I am finally on the last leg of my journey to reach to Torres del Paine National Park. This time, we departed in a minivan from Puerto Natales, and two hours later found ourselves at the gate of the national park. To say the air is full of excitement would be an understatement: at this point no one is able to hide their eagerness to start the trek!
I booked the classic W-Circuit 5 Days Trekking. It is one of the most popular routes in this vast park. I found a company, ChileanTour, to help me book all campsite accommodations (known as refugios, which also include three meals per day, transportation, and the first day of the trek is with guides, starting from second day we are all on our own). In practice, you don’t have to go through a tour company, and can DIY everything.
Compared to the Kilimanjaro Climb which I did two years ago, I’d say most of the refugios except one in Torres del Paine are fancy. Facilities include actual bed, hot shower, paid Wi-Fi, cervezas and cafeteria. The only refugio that was sub-par on the way is run by children . We have been taken cared of quite well, with minimal worry of unpredictability for the logistics.
One thing that is certainly unpredictable in Torres del Paine is the weather! Even in December, arguably the best season, weather can change from hot summer to wet winter within 30 minutes. That is why everyone tells us to pack all clothes, from shorts to down jackets, into the backpack we carry every day. You never know when the rain will hit, and when the wind is going to blow you away!
Let me elaborate on the wind a little bit – the wind in Torres del Paine is nonstop and brutal! I never experienced something quite like this. In multiple occasions, I was literally blown to the ground while walking, and it’s especially scary when you are on a suspension bridge over a deep gorge! This unrelenting wind comes directly from the Antarctica, and It. Will. Never. Stop! If you want to hike, bring a windproof jacket – it is going to be your lifesaver.
Day I: From the Western Park Entrance to Base Las Torres
The first day of trek is guided. It took about eight hours to walk from the Western entrance to the famous Three Towers (Las Torres), and back to the entrance. A steady climb in the morning, we passed some beautiful valleys, windy points, reaching above tree lines. About 3 o’clock in the afternoon we finally made it to the lake at the base of the towers. The sun was out and the view as unobstructed and just as breathtaking as one could imagine. After about half an hour hanging around the lake it was time to go down. It cost an equal time to return to the park entrance, although this journey feels even more exhausting than going up. At least, time was our ally – one of the benefit trekking in the Southern summer (December) is the sun doesn’t set until about 10 pm! We finally reached our site – the Tiny Houses run by Garden Domes. It was Christmas Eve, and all trekkers stayed by the table to enjoy Chilean unlimited wine and beer!
Day 2: From the Western Park Entrance to Camp Francés
This is one of the tougher days, mainly because for the entire day, weather had been terrible. Long pouring rain and gusty winds accompanied us in every hour. In Day 1 I just took a day pack, since we did a there-and-back-again and returned to the van after trekking. But since today, we are not turning back, and the entire backpack had to be on my back. For almost the entire length of the trek, we followed the turquoise-colored Lago Nordenskjöld, enjoying gorgeous view of the Lago to our left, the Cuernos del Paine (the granite massif) to the right while battling pesky rain and winds. I was constantly switching between wet and cold, and hot and sweaty, experiencing summer and winter in half an hour spans. Six hours after departure, we arrived at Camp Francés, our stay for the night. The Camp is run by children, exactly like what we have been warned. The layout of the camp was confusing, the cafeteria is a far hike away from tents, and the check-in staffs are stoned out of their minds and messed up everybody’s tent numbers and sleeping bags. But after a long, exhausting day, I didn’t have much energy to be bothered by all of this.
Day 3: Camp Francés to Paine Grande
This was a flexible day. Trekkers can choose to either take it very easy (my choice), which means only hike three hours from Camp Francés to Paine Grande, or go deep into the Valle Francés, get close to the glaciers and add six extra hours to the daily itinerary. The hike was flat and enjoyable, the weather was getting clearer, but much of the hike was passing through a huge area recently affected by fire damage. All the trees were scorched in this area. It was a sad and powerful reminder of how fragile this beautiful park could be, and how dire the consequences our nonchalant behaviors could lead to. I opted to get to the campsite early in the afternoon and enjoy my Cerveza Austral and bathing under the southern sun. Refugio Paine Grande is breathtakingly located besides Lago Pehoé, and I was very happy with my decision. Compared to the day before, Refugio Paine Grande felt huge, spacious, tidy, well-organized, and beautiful. I almost felt like living in a resort, with five bunker mates.
Day 4: Paine Grande to Lago Grey
We turned north on Day 4, following Lago Grey the entire day in search of the great glacier. Weather was once again not cooperating, but it was still better than Day 2. At some mountain passes the winds picked up again, and I was blown to the ground again. The view has changed, but equally gorgeous. We passed many torrenting streams, high waterfalls, and could see the grey-ish Lago Grey the entire day (is it what it was named after?). I could see some small icebergs floating downstream, before reaching Refugio Grey after 4.5 hours of trekking.
Getting to the Refugio was only half of the day. In the afternoon I pushed forward to see the two suspension bridges. There are actually three bridges across three different gorges, but I have only managed to see two. The bridges locate on the O-Circuit, which is another popular and higher demanding route in the park than the W-Circuit.
Both bridges were impressive, hanging high above deep running torrents. Nonetheless, the afternoon hike was a sad one: it brought me really close to tongue of Glacier Grey. From multiple viewpoints there were close up, dramatic and heartbroken exhibitions of how many icebergs had break away from the glacier, and compared to old photos, painfully evident how much the glacier has retreated over the years. This image hit especially close to home for me, since I have been working on climate change issues since last year. It will serve as a reminder of how fragile our planet is, even in its most beautiful, remote corner.
Day 5: Lago Grey to Paine Grande
Day five, the last day of the trek, was also the simplest. Backtracking in the way as Day four took the entire morning. After one last Cerveza Austral at Paine Grande, it was time to take the catamaran on the turquoise Lago Paine to get back to the bus and Puerto Natales.
Torres del Paine is one of the most breathtaking places on earth. Its only rivals that I can think of, are probably Lofoten Islands, Norway, and Mt Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. My tour company, ChileanTour, was fantastic, and I would come back in a heartbeat to do another trek, perhaps on the O-Circuit? As long as there are proper weather protection clothes and shoes, the entire trek was absolutely lovely. It will be a trip long remembered.