It sounds a little cheesy, but Patagonia stole my heart. Its wild, greatly untouched frontier of wilderness left a lasting impression on me that I can’t seem to shake over two years later. With stunning mountains, plains, glaciers and lakes that divide the icy Southern Atlantic and Pacific oceans, Patagonia is truly a remarkable place on planet Earth that everyone should get to experience.
If you haven’t already been, you need to add it to your bucket list. Let me tell you about my experience in Patagonia in hopes of convincing you to go too.
For me Patagonia always seemed like some far-off, mysterious land. I assumed it would be an awesome place to visit, but I never put much thought into it as I didn’t think that I would ever have the chance to go. It seemed like such an abstract place to me. When I headed down to Chile to study abroad for a year in 2014, the thought of visiting Patagonia suddenly went from that abstract idea to a realistic opportunity. The more I thought about it, the more I knew that I had to go explore the southern most reaches of the South American continent and see some of the most breathtaking places in the world with my own two eyes. Patagonia was calling my name.
I didn’t really know anything about Patagonia. After speaking to Chileans or doing a quick google search, it becomes apparent that Torres del Paine National Park is the most popular destination for backpackers. I had initially thought I would look for other less frequented areas to avoid crowds, but the infrastructure and relatively easy access made Torres del Paine the most realistic option for someone in my situation who just had a week to explore Patagonia and didn’t have time to get to the obscure hard-to-access areas.
Turns out my hesitation about crowds at Torres del Paine was confirmed, but the stunning landscapes outweighed the crowds a thousand times over. I found out why everyone wants to go there and became another one of the countless souls to be enamored of its beauty.
So Torres del Paine it was, but when to go was the question that remained. I arrived in Chile in the fall, so my options were to either hastily make a trip down there before winter or wait for the thaw of summertime. My brother and sister, Nik and Anne, were coming down to visit in the summer before I returned back to the states, so I decided that would be a great trip as a grand finale of sorts for my final days in Chile.
I know the post is a little long and there are a lot of photos, but from this trip there are simply too many amazing shots. Props to those of you that can brave these 3000 words.
Day 1 – Las Torres
After an hour and a half bus ride from Puerto Natales we arrived at Torres del Paine National Park. The buses were full to the brim with backpackers from all over the world.
As you approach the mountains that rise out of the Patagonian plains, you start to notice the enormous scale of everything. The mountains, the glaciers, and the lakes are all gigantic. It’s all so much bigger than it looks in the photos.
We stopped at the ranger station to register our plans, pay a fee (I got the national ID discount, yay), and watch a video about safety in the park. I have to say, Chile does a really good job controlling the park’s tourism and keeping it as natural as possible. The relatively expensive nature of backpacking there also weeds out the folks that would come and not follow proper etiquette. I saw a few people hiking with their poop in a bag, which exemplifies the visitors’ dedication to leaving the park in its natural state. Luckily I didn’t get to the point where I had to make that desperate decision. I just stuck to the outhouses at the camps.
There are two main hikes in the park which are called the ‘W’ and the ‘O’. The ‘O’ is a big loop around the mountains and the ‘W’ is basically half of the ‘O’. The ‘W’ is the much more traveled of the two for its more manageable distance (still around 40 miles). You cannot camp anywhere you want in the park, you have to stay at designated campgrounds along the way that range from free spots with a hole in the ground outhouse to lodges with hot showers and food for sale. Since we were a little short on time and honestly I had never done a backpacking trip longer than two nights, we decided to do the ‘W’, which would take us five days and four nights.
We loaded up our packs with warm clothes, food, water, cooking supplies and a tent and started the ascent to the most iconic feature of the park, the towering granite monoliths of Las Torres.
Day 2 – Onto Los Cuernos
We woke up on our second day at Torres del Paine to crisp, clear skies. As we crawled out of our tents we felt the stiff ache in our muscles, the price paid for the rapid ascent the day before. Day two was not going to be a walk in the park either. We didn’t have to scale any mountains, but distance wise it would be the longest day of the trip (about 11 miles if I remember correctly). 11 miles doesn’t sound too bad but there were lots of ups and downs, walking through streams, and walking on loose rocks, so it would present a different set of challenges.
As we took off from Camp Chileno and distanced ourselves from the mountains’ edge, we could feel the warmth of the sun which was quite pleasant after a night spent freezing my ass off. One of my first major impressions of Patagonia was the drastic changes in weather. It could be nice and sunny and a rain cloud moves in and all of a sudden it’s snowing. You have to be prepared for all types of conditions.
Our destination for day 2 was Camp Italiano, located under Los Cuernos, another iconic granite feature of the park.
Day 3 – A little rain can’t stop us
We were without internet, but I remembered when looking at the 10-day forecast before leaving that there was a chance of rain forecasted for our third day of the trek. Our goal was to complete an out-and-back to a look out point up in the high valley and return to camp to set off to our next destination. When I woke up and saw that it hadn’t started raining yet, I got the troops up and moving quickly so we could complete the out-and-back before the rain came.
We were pretty efficient in getting an early start. As far as I could tell we were the first ones to make the ascent up the valley. As predicted, the rain arrived about 30 minutes after we started. It wasn’t raining cats and dogs, but it was a solid downpour and the thin trees higher in the valley provided little cover. I was wearing what I thought was a rain jacket, but I realized that I had never tested this jacket against true rain. When I started feeling water on my skin I realized that my “rain jacket” was only semi water proof. Nice. Luckily we had packed ponchos which ended up being a life saver.
We continued trekking up the mountain, darting from one rain-protected area to the next. The poncho did not cover my arms and hands, which had become nearly frozen due to the cold rain and chilly air temp. At one point when the rain was particularly hard we broke off the trail about 100 meters to take refuge under this rock overhang that just barely fit three people and just barely had enough of an angle to cut us off from the rain. The rock itself was dripping water on us pretty profusely, but it was the better of two bad options.
I remember talking to Nik about the rain as we were pressed up against the granite rock.
“We’ll be glad we went through this when it’s all said and done. Trust me.”
It’s hard to say that when you are miserably wet and cold, but I had remembered similarly miserable moments in previous backpacking trips that ended up being the highlight of the trip. Once we were out of the rain and dry, we agreed that it was worth it. A good twist to our story.
Eventually, we made it up to the lookout and luckily enough the rain started to let up. We enjoyed the view with a Canadian couple, had a snack and hastily headed back to camp before the rain returned.
Luckily it didn’t rain again, so we broke down the tents (which we had left up to protect our bags from the mud in case of rain) and off we were to our third camp, Paine Grande.
Day 4 – Glacier Grey
Once again we got an early start on our fourth day of backpacking, heading towards Glacier Grey, which would be the end of the road for our trip. I had never seen a glacier in person (other than the relatively small ones on this trip), so I was looking forward to seeing one first hand before climate change claims them all.
When our 6am alarm rang I was pleased to see that it was another clear day, not a cloud in the sky. From talking to friends that had done the hike, I knew that these days were not to be taken for granted in Patagonia. At 6am in the morning the sun was already well-above the horizon. This camp had showers, so we were bathed, fed and ready to tackle the tail end of the trip.
We had heard that the next stretch of the trail is very prone to wind blowing down from the glacier but we were lucky and didn’t encounter as much as a light headwind. Luck was on our side once again.
Day 5 – Farewell to Torres del Paine
For our final day in Torres del Paine we simply had to retrace our steps back to Paine Grande where we could catch a ferry that would take us back to a place accessible by buses.
A seemingly easy task, I knew that we had a little challenge ahead of us. Remember how I said that stretch of trail was known for its wind? During the night I woke up a few times to our tent ferociously flapping, and we were in a relatively protected nook of the woods. The wind had arrived.
The Patagonian wind is no joke. Given that Patagonia is the only major landmass in the 45 to 60 degrees south latitudes, the prevailing westerly winds blow around the globe unimpeded by land until BANG, they crash into Patagonia. Sailors named the winds at these southern latitudes the “roaring 40’s“, “furious 50’s”, and “screaming 60’s”. Imagine what the trips around Cape Horn were like for these guys.
Out on the open trail the wind would make our hike back home a little more difficult than when we walked that same trail the day before. We could have taken a ferry right from where we were at the glacier, but if I remember correctly it was over $100 a person, more than three times the cost of the other ferry. So like true budget backpackers, we went to take on the wind and catch the cheaper ride.
We started on the trail and immediately had to battle the wind. Looking at it with the glass half full, it was a tailwind that was blowing the direction that we wanted to go. I did not pity the hikers who were attempting the trail in the opposite direction and had to walk against the hurricane force gales (I am assuming it was at that level).
As we climbed the scraggly mountain and its narrow path, our backpacks were acting as sails, putting us at the mercy of the wind. I was being very cautious to avoid the side of the trail with a cliff, afraid that a gust could take me over the edge. Once we got the hang of it, the easiest way to hike was to do just that, use the backpack as a sail. If you went into a jog/run the wind would catch your backpack and make it feel like you were walking on the moon. It was effortless. Nik and I mastered this technique and breezed through the trail (no pun intended). Anne decided to go with the fight the wind with walking sticks technique that proved to be more strenuous and time-consuming.
Eventually we made it over the ridge and into an area of lighter wind, finishing the last stretch of trail to the ferry. I had read the ferry schedule the day before and it seemed like we were good on time, but as the dock came into our line of sight it looked like the ferry was preparing to take off. Not wanting to sit around in the brisk wind for hours until the ferry returned, we took off in a sprint to make the ferry and if I recall correctly we made it in the nick of time. We were now able to put our packs down, relax and reminisce about what we had just accomplished as we watched the snow capped, rugged peaks fade into the distance.
This video will give you an idea of what the wind was like. This was a relatively calm area where I felt comfortable taking my camera out of my pocket without having it get blown out of my hand.
So when all was said and done, was it worth it? The crowds, the cost of getting there, the wait? Absolutely. I am a little bit of a nature/geology/geography nerd and the whole time I was on the trail I couldn’t believe what was in front of my eyes. Patagonia is a special place on planet Earth and Torres del Paine is the epitome of its beauty.
I had this odd feeling after leaving Torres del Paine, like I was leaving something behind. I’ve done a bit of traveling and it was a feeling that was unique, something that I had never felt before. I had just graduated college and was about to embark on the next chapter of life and I thought to myself, “I think I could stay here.” Never have I considered living in a place so far from surfable waves, and the fact that Torres del Paine gave me such a blasphemous thought says something. I know I would suffer if I were away from the beach for a long time, but hiking in Patagonia would be very close second best option.
That was over two years ago now and I still remember many of the moments like they were yesterday. Case in point, anyone looking to explore Patagonia, I would say there is no better way to get your feet wet than in Torres del Paine.
So is Torres del Paine on your bucket list now? Hope I convinced you!
All photos by Evan Quarnstrom.