December 13, 2016
It’s been 10 days since I’ve written, but funny enough I’m still at Rado Boutique Hostel in Santiago, where I was when writing my last blog.
In those 10 days, I’ve stayed in six different lodges, trekked/walked/climbed 157,651 steps and seen some of the most beautiful scenery. December 6 was the first day of my trek in Southern Patagonia, in Torres del Paine National Park.
I booked with an agency called Chile Nativo and was added to a preexisting group of two – third wheel to what I expected was a couple. When I arrived for the 11 am briefing, though, I learned there would be four of us and that we were all single women. Two of them were coworkers who had tacked on a Patagonia trek to the end of their work trip to Santiago. The other gal was a Massachusetts native-turned San Francisco resident, who was traveling by herself. She’s normally inclined to make long international trips like mine, but this time she only had a quick break for the trek and a couple days in Santiago.
All these girls were big travelers actually, and my passport – with nearly 15 different countries stamped in it – palled in comparison. The coworkers, Eva from Slovenia via Albania and Lucy from England, were in a line of work for a nonprofit that had them traveling quite a bit, mostly to war-torn, third-world countries. Erica, who would be my bunk mate for the duration of the trip, once took a 10-month trip around the world, picking up an Irish boyfriend along the way who joined her in her travels.
These ladies were legit! And after getting to know their lively, easy-going personalities, I was even happier to be matched up with them.
After the briefing, we were set free in Puerto Natales to get lunch before we set off by private van to Torres del Paine National Park, about 2 hours north. Once there, we set off on an easy hour hike with our day packs to the first Refugio where our big packs were waiting. We saw heaps of guanácos (in the alpaca family), royal blue Lago Sarmiento and hieroglyphics. This was the easy day, and was by no means preparing us for the couple tough days to follow. The only difficulty we encountered was the insane wind that made walking the flat trail slower.
After settling in, we cheers’d Pisco Sours to the adventure ahead, chatted over dinner and waited for the sun to set at 10 pm before going to bed.
Our energetic guide, Chuma, warned us that this day would probably be the most difficult. Although we would only be bringing our day packs, the trek was uphill for the first half of the day. We climbed to 880 vertical feet to the base of Los Torres – paltry compared to what I saw on the Inca Trail – passing dry valleys, dense forests and rock ravines.
Once there, the view was a worthwhile reward: The three towers loomed in the distance, with a beautiful aqua-colored lagoon of glacial slurry below. We sat for nearly an hour, taking it all in and eating our soggy salmon sandwiches. The rest of the afternoon was dedicated to making the trip back, which was a bit quicker but not necessarily easier.
We checked out of our Refugio and set off with our full packs nearly six hours (disclaimer: which included two cat nap spots at mirador salons the route). We were headed west toward the French Valley, one of the park’s other popular sites that help make up the W. We ended at a small Refugio tucked away on the hill with views of Lago Nordensjkold and Los Cuernos, the mountain peaks of the lodge’s namesake.
Chuma said this would also be an easy day, and considering we should have made the trek in less than four hours, we definitely turned it into an easier one. Otherwise, there were some hills to conquer and we were carrying our full packs for the rest of the trip. The day’s trek didn’t end at a breathtaking destination the way the previous day’s had, but we all agreed that the scenery along the way was equally beautiful, just different.
We arrived to Refugio Los Cuernos in the late afternoon and checked into our upgraded private cabins that I immediately fell in love with. They were super adorable with a front door and porch that looked out over the massive aqua-blue lake. It was from that point, though, that everything went downhill. The water kept coming disconnected from our private bathrooms, the showers didn’t get hot or drain, the comedor was way too small and way too stuffy, and the wind got so bad at night I was afraid our little cabin’s roof would blow off. By the next morning Erica and I were eager to get out of that place.
Needless to say, I was in a bit of a funk on this day. Adding to my mood was the fact that instead of continuing west along the W and up into the French Valley, we had to backtrack the route from the day before and wouldn’t get to see the French Valley. Just three days before we set out on this trip, an essential bridge connecting the east side of the W with the west, just below the French Valley, broke. Word on the street was that a small boat was taxiing people from one side to the other on the lake at the mouth of the river. But, over the course of the first few days we learned that this boat was not only unreliable – some people waited just to have it never show up – but also not equipped to handle the volume – hundreds of people cross that point each day, but the boat fits only 12.
Basically, this bridge situation meant that people attempting the W west to east could not get across to ascend into the French Valley and people going east to west (like us) couldn’t cross after descending the French Valley. Both sides would have to backtrack and take a bus-boat combo to get to the other side at the farthest points of the W.
After all the planning and money and time and excitement, we would not be able to officially complete the W and we would miss out on the French Valley, one of the most amazing sites of the region. Sensing our disappointment, Chuma and the folks at Chile Nativo came up with a plan the night before for us to forge the river by foot on Day Four. If we were willing, we would carry our packs (over our heads if it got too deep) and wade through the icy cold glacial river. Though Chuma didn’t have anything but guesses to the river’s depth and current, I was elated. We would get to see the French Valley!
Unfortunately Chuma’s lack of info (research) concerned one of the others so much that she managed to talk the other two down from their excitement (she did have some valid points). Radioed reports back from the river claimed it was a bit deeper and stronger than Chuma’s initial guesses, so majority voted against the idea. While I would have still forged the river, I wasn’t comfortable putting the others’ safety at risk.
A silver lining to the frustrating situation was our rare opportunity to spot a puma while making the drive to the other side. We got out of the van for quite some time and watched it before it finally crossed the road in front of us and disappeared into the hills.
This was technically the last day of our excursion with Chile Nativo and the last leg of the W. We left Refugio Paine Grande and headed north to Lago Gray and Refugio Grey, both named after the glacier that fed the lake. We walked at a steady clip, despite hills to climb and very strong winds pushing against our fronts. Because it was our last day, we were on a time crunch to arrive before 1 pm. The gals had tickets to the boat that would take them in front of the glacier and then down the lake to where the private van would pick them up and take them back to Puerto Natales. I had a separate 1 pm reservation to kayak in front of the glacier; it meant I would forgo the boat and have one more night in a refugio before trekking back down the previous day’s route to get to the boat-bus combo back to Puerto Natales.
After saying bye to Chuma and the girls, I joined 9 other people to kayak. We got decked out in neoprene suits and gear and awkwardly set out in double kayaks as if we had just learned right from left for the first time. Before we could even go 50 meters, though, the less-than friendly Polish guide at the front cancelled the journey due to winds that had just picked up and abruptly changed direction.
Instead of waiting to kayak the following morning, I joined a group leaving for a glacier hike. And perfectly, my German friend from a previous refugio was going on it by herself. The excursion ended up being really cool, allowing us to see the glacier from a boat as well as on top. We saw some amazing ice formations, tunnels and streams while on top of Glacier Grey. It’s just incredible to think something like that exists (I might try to dedicate a blog to that later).
A night at Refugio Grey was included with my glacier package, so I had to make my way back down the left side of the W from Grey to catch the transport from Refugio Paine Grande. I had no problem making the 3-4 hour trek myself; it was only semi-strenuous and the route was very clear. Chile Nativo provided me with all the instruction and tickets I needed.
Instead, the problem was that “heavy rain” was in the forecast. My pack wasn’t waterproof and despite having sprayed my jacket before the trip, I wasn’t confident it was waterproof. Hiking while wet can be pretty miserable.
After breakfast I quickly hiked further up the trail to a couple miradors of the glacier and hanging bridges. I made good time and made it back to the lodge to eat lunch and get my big pack. That’s when the rain started… Needless to say, I was not motivated to leave my cozy spot in the lodge and start making the trek.
Fast forward three hours: I was soaked, cold and not stoked that it would be another five hours before I arrived at my hotel back in Puerto Natales. It was 5 pm, the boat left at 6:30, and the bus left after 7, arriving in Puerto Natales at 10 pm.
At one point during the hike I contemplated staying in the park an extra night to try to hike to the French Valley – I would cross that river myself dammit! But at this point, I just wanted to add a night so I could take a hot shower, dry my clothes and climb under warm covers. So that’s what I did. Fortunately Refugio Paine Grande had a bed available in a six-bed mixed dorm. I had to rent a sleeping bag (mine was back in Pueto Natalas, because we didn’t need it during the trek) and share a room with four smelly boys and another gal. The shower never got warm, let alone hot, and I couldn’t seem to warm up, but curled up inside my sleeping bag in one of the lounges was way better than wet on a long bus ride.
Torres del Paine, you are amazing and glorious and wonderful, but I am ready to get outta here!
After checking out, I retired my beloved Brooks trail runners. I had actually planned to leave them behind after my last trek; they had seen plenty of miles and I needed to unload some weight. They were still soaked from the day before, so they were definitely not coming with me.
I caught the 11:35 boat and the following bus, and that was it. Thank you for the past week Patagonia! Even though I didn’t officially complete the W, I’d like to go to some of the other places in Patagonia in the future before returning to Torres del Paine. The region is so massive and spectacular that I’d want to see other infamous spots like Fitzroy, El Chaltan, Calafate and the lakes district first.