There are places that capture your attention the second you lay eyes on them. Torres del Paine National Park in Chilean Patagonia, at the southern tip of South America, is one of those places. But not just for me – in 2013, Torres del Paine (pronounced pie-nee) was voted the 8th Wonder of the World on the website Virtual Tourist, one of the web’s leading travel research sites. Images of milky turquoise glacial lakes surrounded by jagged granite spires were so awe-inspiring that I was convinced that it was the ONE place on the planet that I had to go!
On an extended trip to Central and South America, I came to a point in the trip where reaching Torres del Paine became my main objective. With unpredictable fall weather entering the equation, I took a multiday bus ride and a flight to reach Puerto Natales, a small city about three hours from the entry to the National Park. While Torres del Paine is still relatively unknown and little visited due to its isolation, there is a certain perceptible buzz in Puerto Natales. Many guest houses offer hiking and camping equipment for lease and there is a daily not-to-be-missed information session at the Erratic Rock Hostel where info on trekking, park accommodations, weather and equipment are discussed. It is a chance to connect with other backpackers who are equally motivated to complete the challenge that lay ahead.
The challenge is a four to five day trek of eighty or so kilometers affectionately known as the “W”. It is called the W for the approximate shape the trail transverses across the south-central portion of the Park. There are a couple of ways to complete the W. You can pre-book with the concessionaire companies that operate the refugios – small lodges scattered a day’s hike apart along the trail. The refugios provide a basic level of comfort: small shared rooms with beds and gathering spaces to relax after a hard day on the trail. You pay extra for meals. For many people the price of not having to carry their own linen and food is well worth the expense.
For the more adventurous, there is the option of camping and self-catering. Camping, you’ll experience the full range of Patagonia’s unpredictable weather, including hurricane-strength winds that will send you reeling, and driving rain and snow that will chill you and your gear to the core. For my journey along the W, I hiked with a small group of independent travelers from all over the world. We enjoyed hiking through the most amazing landscapes, sharing our travel experiences, while gazing joyfully at glorious glaciers and magnificent mountains. For those who love a great hike, it doesn’t get any better than the trails at Torres del Paine.
However, after three days of difficult weather, punctuated by a half-day hike through heavy rain, our group took shelter in a refugio for a few hours to enjoy a warm fire, hot meal and the good camaraderie of the trail. The chilly night air in our tents was made more manageable with dry socks and stomachs replete with a hearty meal and a few glasses of Chilean Malbec!
Besides the camaraderie and fellowship that develops on the trail, it’s nature’s little encouragements that pull you along. The next morning, a brilliant rainbow ushered in what would be a fabulous day of hiking. Hiking through beautiful grasslands above turquoise lakes, we eventually climbed through the forested valley to a campground below the famous Torres. The weather was pleasant and we decided to climb to the viewpoint that was a 45 minute climb above the campground. The trail crossed small streams, decorated with the colors of autumn. Catching glimpses of the Torres, I felt like I was entering the soaring spaces of a Gothic Cathedral. After negotiating the final ten minutes of the trail, which were icy and required some scrambling over boulders, we reached the lookout resting securely beneath the towering Torres and placid glacial lake at its base. After a few mentally and physically challenging days on the trail, reaching the Torres on a sunny afternoon was one of the most incredible feelings of my life.
The view of the stunning Torres had lived up to everything I had ever imagined! It’s that kind of transformative experience that makes travel such an astonishing pursuit.
Predictably, we awoke to a blanket of snow over our tents and gear the next morning.
Words and Pictures: Andrew Gorski