Patagonian Classic: Trekking Torres del Paine
By Michael Lanza
We march upward through innumerable switchbacks on the steep and dusty last mile of trail to the Torres del Paine. Small stands of Patagonia’s ubiquitous, twisted lenga trees cling to an otherwise barren mountainside of dirt and rock, earth overturned by glaciers and continually rubbed raw by the abrasive wind.
The whitewater roar of the Rio Ascencio fades as it slips away below us, replaced by the moan of gusts that grow stronger and colder as Jeff and I climb higher. In these last days of the austral summer, we’re suited up as if for winter in warm hats, gloves, and waterproof-breathable jackets over fleece.
Nearly six miles from the trailhead, we clamber onto boulders as big as refrigerators and look up. Three sheer-walled granite thumbs jut 5,000 feet straight up above an emerald glacial lake. Dark, gray clouds swirl around them, streaming off the summits as if the peaks are blowing smoke. They hint at gales up there that might make the wind blasting us seem calm.
These towers in the heart of southern Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park—which lend the park its name—look intimately familiar from the many pictures I’ve seen. And yet, they are kind of surreal, too massive to really comprehend their scale.
Suddenly, and very much without my consent, I am weightless and moving.
The abrupt, powerful gust releases me a moment later, several steps from where I was standing. I somehow managed to stay on my feet hopping across boulders as the bullying air gave me a very rough shove. Jeff and I exchange looks that say “whoa!” and laugh out loud. We’ve now been formally introduced to the infamous Patagonian wind. It will knock us around many more times in the days ahead.
My Boise friend Jeff Wilhelm and I have come to southern Chile in the second half of March to hike in what is undoubtedly one of the most prized trekking destinations in the world: Torres del Paine National Park. From here, we’ll fly to the very tip of South America to set out on the southernmost trek in the world, the Dientes Circuit.
In a sense, though, Torres del Paine is merely where we ended up. We really came here in pursuit of something bigger and more slippery: the reality behind a legend.
The region called Patagonia has earned a cache among adventurers that’s rivaled by very few places on the planet. It’s an ultimate aspiration for trekkers all over the world. We refer to it like a one-name celebrity. And saying “I want to go to Patagonia” is like saying you want to hike the Rocky Mountains—it’s rather vague.
Being nebulous is acceptable when you’re dreaming big. But there comes a time to fulfill the dream, and that means sticking a pin on the map and poking holes in all of your preconceived notions.
You could say that, perhaps like every other international trekker here, we’ve come to discover the actual meaning of the word “Patagonia.” As is usually the case when you finally visit a place, we’ll find that Patagonia is more complicated, difficult, and rewarding than we imagined.
Not to mention quite breezy.
By its broadest definition, Patagonia sprawls over nearly 400,000 square miles (about one million square kilometers) of southern Chile and Argentina—almost as large as California and Montana combined, with a population comparable to Houston. The name Patagonia conjures visions of severely vertical stone monoliths thousands of feet tall, peaks that resemble sharp, dangerous kitchen implements stood on end. And in Torres del Paine, we see those peaks. But like most foreign visitors, we were surprised to discover that much of the region is a flat, treeless pampas.
In the five-hour drive from the small city of Punta Arenas to Torres del Paine, we see almost no manmade structures save for barbed-wire strung between stick fence posts, and hardly another person until we’re stopped in a two-lane highway because gauchos are leading a herd of sheep across the road. When the sun briefly pierces the armor of the hurrying clouds, the grassland’s subtle greens and browns seem to glow. The sudden spray of sunlight lends the landscape and sky a depth that magnifies the sense of vast emptiness. You can understand why the American outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid fled to here, believing the world could never catch up with them.
Most trekkers bound for Patagonia end up in one or both of two parks, each the Yosemite of its respective nation: Argentina’s Los Glaciares National Park, home of the famed Mount Fitz Roy, or here in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park, south of Los Glaciares.
The first group of tourists to visit Torres del Paine included the British writer and feminist Lady Florence Dixie, a big-game hunter who brought a jaguar home from Patagonia to keep as a pet. She introduced the wider world to the three now-iconic towers, describing them in her 1880 book Across Patagonia. In 1959, Chile established it as Parque Nacional de Turismo Lago Grey—Grey Lake National Tourism Park—and then changed the name in 1970 to Torres del Paine. In 1978, it became a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve.
Jeff and I came here hankering to hike the 65-mile (104.5k) Paine Circuit around the Cordillera del Paine; thinking like backpackers, we liked the aesthetic completeness of it. But upon learning that the weather on the north side of the mountains was so bad lately that part of the trail may be flooded and impassable, and we wouldn’t see a thing, we opted for the increasingly popular trek known simply as the “W.” Roughly 31 miles (50k), depending on variations, the “W” sticks to the south side of the mountains, which often have better weather, and takes in some of the park’s finest scenery: the Torres del Paine, the French Valley, and Grey Glacier and Lago Grey, or Grey Lake.
There aren’t many places in the world—and certainly few this remote—with as much of an international feel as this park. In the line of perhaps two dozen trekkers waiting to enter the tiny permit office at Torres del Paine, we stood with other Americans, Aussies, Kiwis, Brits, Germans, Spaniards, Israelis, and other foreigners. I’m reminded of Nepal’s Annapurna Circuit or Switzerland’s Bernese Alps: Talking with other trekkers, you can forget for a moment what country you’re in. And I laughed seeing a bumper sticker from a favorite New England ski area in the window of the Refugio Chileno hut: “Mad River Glen—Ski It If You Can.”
But once out on the trail, there’s no forgetting where you are.
On our second morning in Torres del Paine, with several dozen other foreigners, we take a one-hour catamaran ferry ride across one of the park’s big lakes, Lago Pehoe. Most of the passengers crowd onto the open upper deck, aiming cameras and phones at the unreal, serrated skyline of peaks above the lake. The ferry drops us at the Paine Grande Lodge, which opened in recent years on Pehoe’s shore with bunkrooms for 100 guests, a dining room, bar, hot showers, and even a couple of computers with Internet service.
From the lodge, which actually sits, like the lake, just a few hundred feet above sea level, we look out on jagged peaks that rise to about 9,000 feet. It’s some of the starkest relief I’ve seen anywhere in the world—like looking at Yosemite Valley stacked atop one of the deep valleys of Glacier National Park.
By afternoon, Jeff and I start the seven-mile hike on the Grey Trail to the Refugio Grey hut.
The trail ascends a rocky canyon and bounces along a low ridge a few hundred feet above the seven-mile-long, crooked finger of Lago Grey. Icebergs float in the white-capped water, piling up in a cove on the downwind shore. Ahead of us, the face of the Grey Glacier rises above the lake’s north end. Thousands of feet overhead, lenticular clouds hover like UFOs over sheer granite pinnacles that sport a gleaming sheen of ice.
Just like yesterday, rain and fleeting moments of sunshine trade places frequently, but the wind doesn’t take a break. Again, we’re hiking in pants, rain shells over fleece, warm hats and gloves. I have to remind myself that there are a couple days still left in summer. Occasional gusts spin us around, as if someone as big as the Hagrid character in the Harry Potter books were grabbing our packs from behind and shaking us.
Where the trail drops off the ridge, we walk through denser woods of somewhat taller trees all leaning in the same direction, away from the constant onslaught of air. It looks like the amusement-park funhouse version of a forest. Moss carpets virtually everything. Waterfalls plunge over cliffs.
Looking over our surroundings, Jeff says, “I feel like a hobbit.”
We reach Refugio Grey by late afternoon. A fairly new wood hut on the shore of Lago Grey, it sleeps 30 people in several bunkrooms. Some trekkers camped outside in rain-soaked tents are hanging out in the dining room, buying their meals in here. Jeff and I drop our packs on a couple of bunks and hit the dining room for dinner. Prepared by a crew whose median age is, I’d guess, below the minimum for drinking legally, the food is nothing special, but there’s plenty of it.
Later, besides the usual noise of people coming and going in a hut bunkroom, the wind buffets the building walls all night long—thumping, whistling, and moaning like a haunted house in a B-movie thriller. Locals tell us the wind sometimes tops 120 miles (200k) per hour. Hounding us day and night, it starts to feel like a wild animal stalking us.
On top of that, the hut’s young Chilean staff parties late downstairs, talking and laughing over Bob Marley blaring from a boom box; breakfast will come later than scheduled tomorrow morning. I quickly learn to sleep with earplugs in these huts.
A rumble of thunder rises over the background noise of the wind on our third morning. Although the persistent heavy overcast again spits on our efforts as we hike uphill from Refugio Grey, the thunder we heard didn’t come from the sky. Minutes later, Jeff and I step onto a rocky overlook a few hundred feet above the snout of the Grey Glacier. Below us, a slowly widening ring of small bergs floats in the lake, shrapnel from a massive chunk of the glacier that just calved off with that booming sound.
We’ve left the hut carrying only some clothes—most of which, of course, we’re wearing—plus water and food to hike about six miles along the stretch of the Paine Circuit above the Grey Glacier. Heading north toward Paso John Garner, we won’t go as far as the 4,032-foot (1,229-meter) pass. By midday, we plan to turn around. We’ll collect the rest of our gear at Refugio Grey and hike the seven miles back to the Paine Grande Lodge by early evening.
A bit more than two miles from the hut, not far beyond a few wet tents in the backcountry camping area called Campamento Los Guardas, we leave the tilting forest behind. The trail traverses a glacier-scoured mountainside of bedrock and loose turf. Inch-high mosses and other tiny plants cover the ground in a painter’s palette of colors. The occasional stunted, gnarled lenga springs from the thin soil, its branches “flagged,” or all pointed downwind as if each tree were cowering from this malevolent air stream.
The Grey Glacier sweeps out below us, spanning two miles across to snowy mountains. It reaches much deeper into the mountains than the far edge we can see melting away into clouds and fog. This river of ice meanders 17 miles down from the 6,500-square-mile Campo de Hielo Sur, or Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the second-largest ice cap on Earth outside the poles and one of two massive ice caps of the Patagonian Andes.
Much of the glacier displays a scarred surface of narrow crevasses separating fins of dirt-stained, blue-white ice. It resembles hundreds of thousands of thick potato chips standing on end. As we walk the trail, gaping in awe at the glacier, the wind pours over us like a frigid waterfall; we pull shell hoods up to partly shield our cheeks from the wind’s sharp raking. When we remove any article of clothing for any reason, whether a glove or jacket, we never set it down on the ground—it would be gone instantly, en route to Argentina. Twice the trail crosses deep, wide, boulder-strewn gorges, where we climb down and up hundred-foot-tall steel ladders anchored by thick cables to crumbling earthen walls.
Hours later, after a full day of raw showers, bullying gusts, and scenery we didn’t want to leave, we’re walking toward the glowing lights of Paine Grande Lodge just after dark. Inside, we eagerly hit the bar for beers, toasting the fact that we just celebrated Jeff’s birthday by covering 19 miles of Patagonian ground. It was one of the most amazing days of hiking I’ve ever had.
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One last damp, impressively windy day greets us on our final morning in Torres del Paine. Jeff and I start out early to dayhike from the Paine Grande Lodge to the French Valley and back, planning to return in time to catch the late-afternoon ferry across Lago Pehoe.
The rain falls lightly at first, then steadily. After a while, the overcast separates and the sun dodges and fakes around clouds, giving the impression the sky might actually clear. Anywhere else, sunshine suddenly blasting from a splash of blue sky is merely a welcome change. Here, it’s like a precious gift. It grabs your attention, makes you forget whatever you were talking about and look around in disbelief.
But within minutes, the weather shifts again. It morphs from blue sky to a downpour to sunshine again and then yet another rain squall—all within the space of 15 minutes. My jacket hood snapping in the wind sounds like an automatic rifle.
But as we ascend the French Valley, the clouds lift enough to let us see why this is one of the park’s scenic highlights. A large glacier tumbles off the cliffs on our left. Waterfalls and roaring whitewater cascades plunge down the valley walls. Enormous granite towers with names that translate to Shark’s Fin, The Sword, The Blade, and Cathedral Mountain peek in and out of the misty, drifting overcast.
And, of course, the wind stalks us all day, hurling pellets of rain—it’s starting to give us the impression we’re not welcome. I wonder what it must be like earlier in summer, when locals say it’s even windier. I’m reminded of our first day in the park, when that big gust had sent me stumbling over boulders below the Torres del Paine. That evening, the manager of the yurts where we stayed had said to us, without a trace of irony: “Nice day today. Not too windy.”
Tomorrow, in the car on the highway heading back to Punta Arenas, gusts will frequently push the vehicle across the median strip—making me glad there’s very little traffic out here. But our driver, a woman in her thirties who works for a shuttle service and grew up here, will wave her hand nonchalantly and tell us in her halting English, “I have much ’sperience driving in wind. This is nothing.”
This much we’ve learned about the real Patagonia: The tales about the wind are not exaggerated. We also discovered that, while the multitudes of foreign trekkers in Torres del Paine can make it feel like a name on a list with a checkmark beside it, the mountains, lakes, and glaciers exceed expectations, no matter how many pictures you’ve seen of them. The experience of trekking here is wet, cold, and exhausting, and will stay with you long after you’ve returned to your warm home.
NOTE: You can combine a trek in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park with the much more rugged and rarely hiked Dientes Circuit—it’s a one-hour, 15-minute flight from Punta Arenas to Puerto Williams.
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR reasonably fit hikers prepared for extreme wind and fast-changing weather that can make even summer days feel like winter. The wind is the major weather factor for its cooling effect, but rain and snow commonly occur. (See my tips on how to dress for challenging weather.) It’s possible to stay in huts every night on the “W” trek, but on the Paine Circuit, there are gaps of 15 and 20 miles between huts, requiring most trekkers to camp; bring a sturdy tent. Beginner adults and older kids trekking with more-experienced people could handle the “W,” but the more-rugged Paine Circuit is recommended for experienced, fit trekkers. The trails in Torres del Paine National Park are generally obvious and well-marked; anyone with experience backpacking on trails in U.S. national parks would probably have no trouble finding their way.
Make It Happen
Season The prime trekking season is in the austral summer, from late December through late March. But January and February are typically very windy and Torres del Paine National Park is most crowded then. March and April are cooler but less windy and crowded. Autumn colors emerge in April, when there’s little likelihood of seeing much snow. Summertime highs average 68° F, and lows 41° F., but the wind makes it feel much chillier.
The Itinerary Most trekkers in Torres del Paine do one of two routes, the 65-mile (104.5k), seven- to eight-day Paine Circuit, or the increasingly popular and easier trek known simply as the “W.”
The “W” links up the valley of Lago Grey, the French Valley, and the trail up the Ascencio River Valley to the Torres del Paine. There are various itinerary options, but perhaps the most popular and logical is to begin by taking the catamaran ferry across Lago Pehoe to the Paine Grande Lodge. The catamaran launch site is 13.4 miles (21.6k) west of the park’s Laguna Amarga entrance via the park’s main road.
From Paine Grande Lodge, hike seven miles on the Grey Trail to Refugio Grey hut. The left arm of the “W” technically ends at Refugio Grey, but plan an extra half- or full day to dayhike out-and-back from the hut partway or all the way to Paso John Garner for the views from high above the Grey Glacier.
Return to Paine Grande Lodge for a night. The next day, hike up the French Valley and either tent that night at Italian Camp, which makes for a 12.7-mile (20.5k) day if you hike to the end of the French Valley (you can turn back sooner for a shorter day); or continue three miles (5k) beyond Italian Camp to stay at the Refugio Los Cuernos hut.
The next morning, hike to Hosteria Las Torres, which is about 7.5 miles (12k) from Refugio Los Cuernos and 10.5 miles (17k) from Italian camp. At Hosteria Las Torres, there is a tent campground, yurts with a dining hall at Ecocamp Patagonia (www.ecocamp.travel), and the hotel Hosteria Las Torres (www.lastorres.com).
The 65-mile (104.5k) Paine Circuit around the Cordillera del Paine includes the “W,” as well as the north side of the mountains and the circuit’s crux over Paso John Garner at 4,072 feet (1,241 meters). The pass is known for an inspiring view of the Grey Glacier, but also for brutal winds, difficult footing, and frequent low visibility. The best starting points are either Hosteria Las Torres or the Paine Grande Lodge. If the weather forecast looks good for the start of your trek, begin with the dayhike to the Torres del Paine, to ensure that you see them. Of more than 100,000 people, mostly foreigners, who visit Torres del Paine annually, a small percentage trek the full Paine Circuit.
The park’s iconic namesake towers, the Torres del Paine, can be visited on a 12-mile dayhike from Hosteria Las Torres, or as an overnight trip, staying in the Refugio Chileno hut or tenting at Campamento Torres in the Ascencio River Valley. As a dayhike it’s only moderately difficult, and only steep for the last mile. But spending a night allows you time to tack on the comparably dramatic Valle del Silencio—Valley of Silence—on the back side of the Torres del Paine.
Getting There Numerous commercial airlines offer flights to Santiago, Chile. Lan Airlines (lan.com) has flights to Punta Arenas. The Laguna Amarga entrance to Torres del Paine National Park is 194 miles north of Punta Arenas via good roads passable in passenger cars, though remote; it is 70 miles north of Puerto Natales, a smaller town with several guide services, lodging, and markets. There is bus service between Punta Arenas, Puerto Natales, and Torres del Paine. See parquetorresdelpaine.cl/visitors.html for information about regional bus service and the catamaran ferry across Lago Pehoe.
Fees The entrance fee for foreign visitors to Torres del Paine National Park is about $28 US (15,000 Chilean pesos).
Map Zagier & Urruty Torres del Paine Trekking Map, $9.95, patagoniashop.net/ingles/indexING.html.
Guidebook Lonely Planet Trekking in the Patagonian Andes, $24.99, or buy just the Southern Patagonia chapter on-line for $4.99, lonelyplanet.com.
• Weather ranges to extremes and shifts very quickly. Waterproof-breathable jacket and pants, gaiters, and boots, and warm, breathable insulation, hat, and gloves are recommended.
• UV exposure is very high at far southern latitudes. Bring a high-UPF sunscreen and reapply it frequently, even on cloudy days, because UV rays penetrate clouds.
• Coming from the U.S., adjusting to the time change is much less difficult than traveling to Europe. The time zone is four hours behind GMT beginning the first Sunday after March 9, and three hours behind GMT beginning the first Sunday after October 9.
• A functional command of Spanish is very useful in southern Chile.
Huts and Camping Most huts and backcountry campgrounds operate from September through March or April. The huts and Paine Grande Lodge in Torres del Paine National Park are managed by Vertice Patagonia, verticepatagonia.com. See parquetorresdelpaine.cl/camping-sites.html for info about backcountry campsites. Make hut or campsite reservations at least a few months in advance for December through March. Hut prices are comparable to many U.S. and Alps huts. The Vertice Patagonia website has useful information about the park, including videos and an interactive map of the Paine Circuit and the “W.”
Guide Find guide services listed at torresdelpaine.com/ingles/secciones/04/b/directorio.asp.