I wish I had been able to fully explore this gorgeous and amazing region of the world more than I did. The only parts I got to know were small port towns and Torres del Paine. It’s so devastatingly gorgeous. There are a few pampas (boring flat grasslands, much like Kansas) all the way south, but for the most part it’s green except for the giant white and blue glaciers. There are so many things to see and do there; one day I’ll do it all.
I was so happy to cross back over into Chile from Argentina, it almost felt like coming home. My long bus from Ushuaia arrived in Punta Arenas at around 8:30 p.m. It was a 12 hour drive that cost me 900 ARS, or $50. Even though it was painfully long, it was still nice that there was no driver I needed to struggle to have a conversation with. I got to sleep some and even read. There were a few hostels near to the SurBus station, but the only one with room was a run down one called the Backpacker’s Paradise. Not appropriately named. It worked, but the walls didn’t touch the ceiling, so it was loud most of the time, and wasn’t exactly clean (I got some bites that may or may not have been flea bites, and if I had to guess, they were from that place). Needless to say, I left as soon as I could the next morning, and spent a few hours in a great cafe called Wake Up before my next bus north.
By 3:30 p.m. I had reached the small town of Puerto Natales, which was somehow colder than Ushuaia and Punta Arenas. Luckily, the first hostel I went to, Dos Lagunas, had room for me, and for everyone else too; the place was completely empty. There are an innumerable amount of hostels there, all ready and waiting for the summer influx of trekking tourists that hadn’t yet arrived.
For the past couple of days I had been toying with the thought of seeing Torres del Paine and how to go about doing it. It turned out that the owner of the hostel, Alejandro, knows absolutely everything about Torres del Paine National PArk and gave me a very thorough explanation of how to accomplish the trek. For at least an hour he was kind enough to show me the trail, recommend various views, and give advice on where and how to camp. He made it seem doable, easy even; so two days later (The booking agencies are closed on Sundays, and Monday was a holiday) I was planning my trip to Torres del Paine.
This can be extremely complicated. There are three organizations that own sections of the park and control where you will stay the night. I had to make reservations with all three, literally walking across town and back. I was starting from the East and heading West across the W trek of the park. First I had to reserve a campsite with Fantástico Sur, which is the most expensive of the 3. The campsite in Base Torres was 12,000 pesos, or about $22. The next site was through the national park and was free. All the way to the East, I planned 2 nights with Vertice, and they only charged me 11,000 pesos for both nights. It is possible to reserve online, but you have to message the company and wait for a response, that sometimes never even comes.
Torres Del Paine Day 1
The next morning I was up bright and early. Alejandro had set out breakfast at 6:30, and by 7:30 I was on the bus, and headed to the park. Two hours later we arrived at the entrance where we all paid the entrance fee of 21,000 pesos and had a short orientation. One that was done, the large group was split into 2 groups based on where we were starting the trek. In my van I met another female solo traveler named Monique who was from the Netherlands. We talked for awhile, and before I knew it, we had arrived. The drivers unceremoniously dropped us off, handed us our packs, and left without an explanation at all. After looking around, I decided to continue along the dirt road and eventually found the campsite.
After rushing to set up my tent, I packed a day pack, and set off on the 4 hour trail to see the famous towers. Along the way, I ran into Monique again, the same woman from the van, so we agreed to hike together. I was so happy to have met her; travelling alone is hard, but hiking through the forests and mountains of Patagonia by yourself is even harder. Besides, it’s always nice to have someone to share the views with, especially when they are this spectacular.
The ascent was incredibly difficult. The trail was very steep, there were times I regretted not having trekking poles as I had to use rocks and roots for balance and to boost myself up. All of it was worth it though, because the towers of Paine were utterly breathtaking.
We sat together and drank in the view for 45 minutes at least. I couldn’t stop taking pictures and saying “Wow”. There really are no words to describe the awe you feel sitting at the base of these mountains. I was beyond thankful that the day was clear and warm so we could actually see. Sometimes the clouds come down low and obstruct the view. It was so warm that the ice made big cracking sounds due to the change in temperature. The afternoon eventually began to age, which meant it was time to return as we had another 4 hours back to the campsite. On the return hike, I realized that the only thing I had actually wanted to do was to hike up and see the towers. For the remaining time, I toyed with the idea of skipping out on the trek early, and heading back on the ferry after 2 nights instead of 4.
The wind started to pick up as we descended, and clouds moved in on the horizon. Thankfully it didn’t rain, but the wind was out of this world. We reached the campsite at 8 pm, where we parted ways and promised to meet in the morning for the next hike. Making dinner was quite a challenge as the wind kept blowing the flame on my camping stove. I had to encircle my hands around it just so the water for my dinner could boil. By 9:30 I was in my tent and ready for bed, and it wasn’t even dark outside yet.
That night was easily one of the worst nights in my life. The breeze had gotten stronger, something I didn’t think possible. It shook my tent so hard I thought the stakes would get ripped out of the ground. You could hear the howl of the wind as it came swooping down off the mountains and tore through camp. I slept on and off, woken by the wind and the cold.
Torres Del Paine Day 2
I woke up at 6am, well before my alarm, and was relieved to see a sunny morning. I had a quick disgusting breakfast (powdered milk and oatmeal don’t mix by the way) before meeting up with Monique again at 8:30. The hike was long, and a little harder since I was carrying my whole backpack this time. As hard as it is to climb up steep slopes, it’s almost worse going down them. Once again I found myself wishing I had trekking poles to take some of the weight off of my knees.
The hike was gorgeous of course. We followed the shore of Lake Nordenskjöld, or as I liked to call it, the one with the Nordic name.
The only thing on the agenda for that day was our long hike. It was an easy 8 hours, and we made it a little longer by stopping and resting to enjoy the day and the scenery. One great thing about this park is the fact that you can drink the water right out of the stream! Instead of carrying a bunch of water bottles and pills, all you need is one water bottle. There are thousands of streams and rivers coming out of the mountain. It was easily the best tasting water I have ever had.
While we were hiking I kept thinking about what I was doing and eventually realized that I was no longer interested in hiking through the park. Torres del Paine is an ultimate destination for lots of people, but I realized it wasn’t for me. I think having a tent buddy may have made a difference, or if I had come to Patagonia with my heart set on doing it. But I didn’t. To hike through a rugged remote place like that, you have to really want it, and it was that moment I realized that deep down, I didn’t.
Of course I realized this too late as I was already stuck in the middle of nowhere, but I knew that I could leave by ferry the next morning, and I made that my new plan. The rest of the day went great. Monique stopped at the campsite before mine, where she had rented a room in a refugio, or cabin-like dorms. I stayed with her for about an hour while I enjoyed a beer, and she broke into her wine stash.
All of the camps have a sort of common lodge where you can buy food and drinks. I recommend against doing this too often however as it is quite expensive due to the fact that they are very remote. The only way they can get supplies is by horse or human.
Finally, I had to leave and hike the last half hour alone to my campsite. I made it in 20 minutes as it was dusk by then, and I was unnecessarily worried about pumas. By 7 p.m. I had made it safely to the campsite at Italiano and got checked in. It was very wooded, which was nice since the trees cut down on the wind. Also, it was close enough to the base of the mountains to where you could hear them. The fluctuating temperatures cause the ice to expand and contract, and it sounds just like thunder. I thought a terrible storm was coming in until someone told me what it really was. The mountains boomed all night long.
Thankfully there was a shelter where all the campers could cook and the wind wouldn’t blow out the flames. I met some nice guys from California and Toronto who were a lot of fun and like to exchange stories of motorcycle accidents. Apparently, breaking your collarbone doesn’t hurt as much as you’d think.
After dinner, we talked for a couple of hours until it got really dark and the stars came out. We all walked to the riverbank at the edge of camp and looked up, trying to name the unfamiliar constellations. We only knew the Southern Cross.
That night was better, but not by much. I wore my thermals instead of regular clothes, wool socks and my hat again, but I still woke up cold. The guy from California had suggested boiling water and putting it in my water bottle which I could use to keep my feet warm. It worked really great for the first few hours. I didn’t feel like my tent was going to blow away with me inside it, which was nice, but you could still hear it ripping through the treetops. But no tree fell on me, so I suppose I can’t really complain.
Torres Del Paine Day 3
I got to sleep in until 7 a.m. I managed to scrape out most of the powdered milk, so even breakfast was better. But by the time I was finished, dark clouds had come in and the wind had picked up. Again.
By 8:30 I was once again on the trail, headed to Paine Grande, where there is a lodge, campground, and a blessed ferry. There is a trail that goes north into the middle of the park where you can see the back of the towers. As I got on the trail, I looked in that direction, and saw the clouds were already pretty low. Not only is the trail straight up, but I wouldn’t have been able to see the view anyways. So I decided to skip it and start west. The trail to Paine Grande said it would take 2 and 1/2 hours, so I went as fast as I could as the ferry leaves at 11:15 or 6:15, and I didn’t want to sit there, trapped by the weather all day.
While I hiked the wind continued to get stronger. I couldn’t tell if the water I felt was rain or what the wind was blowing off of the lake.
It even blew off my pack cover. I had put it on in case it started to rain harder, but when I went to double check it one time, it was gone. I doubled back for a little bit, but by then the wind probably whipped it way out of eyesight. So I continued on, and hoped that the rain would hold off for just a little longer.
It was easily my least favorite hike ever. The wind howled in my ears until they felt bruised, and many times I had to crouch down or hold onto a tree to keep from being blown over. What made it worse was how creepy it was. In 2011, there had been a terrible forest fire started by a tourist, who tried to start an illegal fire with toilet paper. After the wind tore it out of control, 21,000 acres were destroyed, leaving behind a forest of skeletons.
After 2 hours, the lodge finally came into view, and I literally laughed out loud in relief. The rain was coming down harder and my ears were killing me. I was more than ready to take that ferry and return to Puerto Natales. It was a 40 minute ride across Lake Pehoé, just a south of the one with the Nordic name.
From there, I caught a bus back to town, and back to the hostel. I took the hottest shower I could stand, then went hunting for dinner. I found a restaurant that served guanaco, so I decided to splurge a bit. Guanacos in Patagonia are like deer in the Midwest. They are everywhere, and almost taste the same.
The next day, I eagerly left the small town of Puerto Natales for the small town of Punta Arenas. From there I would fly to Puerto Montt, a 2 hour flight north. Getting around Patagonia on the Chile side is very difficult, and actually impossible if you start too far south. There is a massive national park called O’Higgins National Park that expands from the coast to the border, so you are forced to go back into Argentina if you go by vehicle. After you cross back, you have to take ferries over the numerous lakes and rivers. Needless to say, it gets quite expensive, so I decided to take a shortcut.
Once I was back in Punta Arenas, I found a different hostel to stay at, Barefoot Backpackers. It wasn’t the best hostel, but it was cheap and clean, which is all I wanted from life at this point. There’s not much to do there, but I did explore the ancient cemetery, walked along the coast, did some souvenir shopping, and ate at delicious local restaurants. I also took the opportunity to get laundry done. I wish there was coin laundry in Patagonia; instead you have to pay someone to wash your clothes, which is way more expensive than it needs to be. In Punta Arenas, one small load was 10,000 pesos, which is about $17. I seriously considered washing them in the sink, but there was nowhere to hang them to dry.
By Monday, October 16th, I was super ready for my flight. I had been told that Puerto Montt wasn’t much to look at, so I decided to skip it, and I took a micro bus to Puerto Varas right after I landed. It was a short 25 minute ride, and I found an amazing hostel overlooking the town called Hostal Melmac Patagonia. It’s a beautiful place with a cozy living room, a furnace that pumps out heat all day, and amazing free breakfasts. They also offer a variety of tours, and when I saw horse back riding on there, my mind was made up.
Unfortunately, their company was all booked, but I found another one with a similar price. I only planned on staying 2 nights, but ended up staying 3 since I had to postpone the ride due to bad weather. It rained every day I was there, but I still got to explore the town and go riding.
On Wednesday, I was so relieved to finally see some sun. I set out to meet the owners of the riding company, Alanca. It’s owned by a young Chilean couple who were very kind and even speak some English. There are only 4 horses, so it was me, the guide, and a friendly Brazilian couple who were newly pregnant and had had to rethink their intense trekking trip.
I wish the ride had been longer, and not so close to civilization, but it was nice to be on a horse again. We took an overgrown forest trail until we reached the lake shore. The guide was nice enough to take photos for us to remember the excursion by.
When we got back, Carolina, the guide’s wife, had toast, melted cheese, and coffee waiting for us so we could warm up. The afternoon rain had cooled everything down.
The next evening I left for Valparaíso, a 13 hour bus ride that actually took 15 since it stopped in Santiago and Viña del Mar.
There were so many other things I wanted to do and see in Chile’s Patagonia that I missed out on, like the marble caves and the enchanted forest. But I never had a travel plan and therefore no budget, so I had to stop living on the road and stay with a friend for awhile. Sometimes I am super disappointed and depressed thinking about all the amazing things I missed, but then I remember it’s the perfect excuse to return, because I will forever love Chile.