Salar de Uyuni

The Salar de Uyuni might be the country’s biggest draw. At over 4000 square miles (10,600 square km), the Bolivian salt flats are the world’s largest. In comparison, the Salar de Uyuni is about a thousand times larger than biggest of the Utah salt flats.


The Salar de Uyuni is in the southwest of Bolivia.

Uyuni, the gateway town for the salt flats, is a shithole in the middle of nowhere. I’m usually fairly adept at finding things to do in “boring” places, but I have to admit there’s really nothing to Uyuni other than the salt flats tours. Coincidentally, those tours attract an incredible amount of mainly low budget backpackers, most of whom go on a three day tour of the area.

There are dozens of companies in Uyuni offering tours, all of which have identical itineraries and pricing. Having so many options is a bit deceiving, since the tour providers just contract the trips out to various locals with SUVs. Thus, pretty much every company, no matter its ratings online, is the same.

The three day tour, costing about $109 including accomodation and food, only spends one day in the salt flats. The second day is in valleys outside albeit near the salt flats, which I didn’t have much desire to see, let alone on a restrictive guided tour, and the third day is a return to the town of Uyuni. So I opted for the one day tour, costing about $22. One day was plenty.


For some reason the first stop on the tour is an abandoned train yard.

“Don’t tell anyone, but this is my first day as a guide!” some dude from La Paz in our SUV told me as the local driver went around to pick up the others on our tour. There were two Chinese students working on their PhD in psychology in Spain, a Chinese businessman stationed in Panama, a Russian guy my age who seemed to have visited every club in Beijing, and me.

The guide was pretty incompetent, but the driver seemed to have everything together. The guide kept mistranslating everything the driver said from Spanish to English, and after he heard me speaking to the driver in Spanish the guide immediately asked me to be the de facto translator.

The first stop was at an abandoned train yard that wasn’t terribly interesting, I overheard the Chinese man and women on the tour speaking in Mandarin with a northern accent. They seemed a little shocked when I jumped in the conversation by asking them in Chinese if they were from the northern provinces, and afterwards I was the go between for settling misunderstandings from Spanish to Mandarin. At the beginning my Mandarin skills were fairly rusty, probably from speaking largely in Spanish for the past year and a half and not Mandarin, but I think most things were coming back to me by the end of the day. I have a lot to learn, but after a couple years in China my language skills should be pretty good.


All the tours stop at the trainyard and a touristy market, above, at the same time. Thus, there’s a glut of SUVs. Once we got to the salt flats everyone spread out and it was pretty isolated.


Finally on the salt flats! They stretched out farther than I could see. It was like being on a sea of flat salt punctuated by “islands” of rock rising up out of the featureless expanse. Volcanoes ringed the area.


The salt flats were remarkably flat.


For some reason there were a bunch of flags.


We stopped for lunch, provided by the tour, at a salt hotel. As the name implies, it was made entirely of salt.


When we stopped in the salt flats we couldn’t see a single other car, or any signs of people. It might’ve been because I was there in the off season, but the Salar de Uyuni really is massive.


There were various “islands” of cactus and rock that rose up out of the salt. We spent an hour and a half at this one, which was way too long. It was nice to take a break, though.


Two members of the tour hanging out on the salt flats.


Another one of the islands that rose out of the salt, this time inhabited.


Locals harvesting salt.


Sunset on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni.

By the end of the day the guide was drunk and obnoxious. To be honest, I’m not really sure why he was there. He didn’t really say anything all day, and seemed to  annoy the driver by screaming “next next next” when it came to every song the driver put on the stereo.

But overall the tour was good, especially considering how cheap it was.

El Altiplano de Bolivia

The heat and humidity of the jungle surrounding Iguazú Falls were not my cup of tea so I opted to flee to the cool, dry Bolivian altiplano.

I went from Iguazú Falls in the far northeast of Argentina to Bolivia in the northwest via Corrientes and Salta (both Argentine cities).

The journey was fairly uneventful, if long. Not including stops to change buses, Iguazú to the Bolivian border is a 31 hour journey through Argentina. At one layover, in Corrientes near Paraguay, a crazy and possibly homeless woman kept following me around spouting random words in jibberish that I assume was supposed to be English.

Eventually, after a day and a half breaking up the journey in the northwest Argentine town of Salta, I made it to the border town of La Quiaca in the dark. Not wanting to deal with border formalities at night, and knowing lodging options were much better on the Argentine side of the bridge, I found a pleasant hotel with private rooms for $15 a night. At 11,300 feet (3440m), I was finally in the altiplano and could definitely feel it in the thinner air.

Map of Bolivia. I came up from the very southern tip and headed northwest through the altiplano.

Bolivia has made Americans get a visa to enter the country ever since the president became convinced the US government was part of a conspiracy involving denying his jet permission to land in Europe. He has a tendency to blame the US for everything, including a recent referendum barring his path to further years in office (he´s on the path to becoming president for life, and I´ve heard the opposition leaders tend to have a habit of disappearing).

Technically you’re supposed to get this visa in advance, but in practice you can usually get it at the border. I’d heard stories of buses stranding tourists at remote desert border outposts because they didn’t want to wait for the visa to be granted, so I opted to walk across the border into Villazón. Seemed like a much safer bet in case anything went wrong.

As seems to be the case in so many Spanish speaking countries I’ve visited, the whims and mood of government officials is much more important than any official requirements. The Bolivians seemed much more interested in my $160 reciprocity fee than anything else, and were strangely picky about what bills they’d take. Like most other South American countries, they seemed to have little appetite for their own currency and instead insisted the fee be paid in crisp American dollars.

Success! My old friends trickery and deceit served me well in navigating government bureaucracy.

The border guard, whose sluggish and vapid gaze suggested recent emergence from a long coma, rejected four of my twenties because of microscopic tears. However, she let me walk into Bolivia to go to an ATM, withdraw bolivianos, and convert them to dollars at an admittedly decent rate. Bills with lots of black marker drawings all over them were apparently fine. Others have told me you can sometimes pay a “service fee” directly to the border guards of about $10 to $15 to get around this craziness.

There was a shift change halfway through getting my visa, and the new guy wanted an itinerary, passport size photo, and copy of my yellow fever vaccine (the previous woman seemed much more interested in texting her friends). I gave him a bunch of papers in English that I had with me, knowing he’d have no idea what they were, and he seemed mollified. I didn´t have a copy of my yellow fever vaccine, but looking at a yellow piece of paper I had with my father´s outdated business address sufficed.

After filling out a couple forms that asked for another itinerary and a list of random things like my father’s mother’s maiden name, I was given the visa and entrance stamp. My itinerary was different each time I wrote it, and I made up reservations for hotels with addresses, but they didn’t seem to care. All in all it was very quick without a line, maybe because I did it at 7:30am on a Wednesday.

Some Bolivian funny money I withdrew back in Potosí because I’d heard the salt flats, my next destination, didn’t have reliable ATMs. Bolivia is pretty much an entirely cash based country.

Villazón, the Bolivian side, had more currency exchange offices than I’d ever seen in my life. I walked around until I found a crowded one and converted the last of my Argentine pesos to bolivianos. The rates at all these shops were surprisingly good, and including converting bolivianos from the ATM into dollars for my visa I only lost about 1% off the official Google rate (which seems largely unobtainable anyways).

Having crossed the border hours sooner than I expected, I went and got a SIM card for my phone. Data in Bolivia costs about 30 cents a day, and the $1.50 SIM card was very easy to purchase and register.


You can buy these cards from elderly women off the street to top up your phone. Scratch off the pin number on the back, enter it on your phone, and your account is credited with the amount. Data costs about 30 cents a day.

Next door at the post office I mailed my father a postcard from Iguazú Falls. “You mean…you want to buy stamps? For outside of the country? Uh, I have to go look in the back…”

The postmistress and her assistant disappeared into the back for 8 minutes and found, to their surprise, that the post office does in fact have stamps. They seemed blown away by my request and the fact that somebody actually walked into their unmarked office, hidden from the street.

With nothing left to do in Villazón, like most border towns lacking in charm or anything to attract a visitor, I headed to the bus terminal and bought a ticket for the next departure north to Tupiza. Not that the road goes anywhere else.

Bus travel in Bolivia coats about $1 an hour, stops fairly frequently to drop off and pick up passengers, and rarely if ever stops for a bathroom (on average every 4 to 5 hours in my experience). Tupiza isn’t the most interesting town, but it’s in a beautiful desert altiplano setting. Tired of buses and not in a hurry, I got a room in what seemed to be the nicest hotel in town.


The view from Tupiza looking south.

At less than $22 for the night it was extremely expensive by Bolivian standards, but quiet and well worth it.

I bought a ticket for the next morning at 10am to Potosí, five hours north. Arriving 25 minutes early to the terminal, I found that the bus had already left  but was given a ticket for the next departure two hours later (this one left a little late).


The delicious $1.50 raspberry frappe I enjoyed while waiting for my bus to depart for Potosí.

The hotels in Bolivia all have terrible reviews online. After having stayed in many of them I have to wonder whether or not these princesses realize they’re in a developing country, and that $5 a night for a room doesn’t necessarily mean you’re staying at the Four Seasons. I found a palatial room for $11.60 with immaculate private bath in Potosí at a place that was reviewed online as being barely fit for human habitation (I thought it was great).


This is what $11.60 a night gets you in Potosí.

Almost everything was closed in Potosí because of Holy Week, so after a day of wandering around I bought passage in a shared taxi to nearby Sucre. The shared taxi was able to get to Sucre in half the time of the bus on a winding route through the vast and undulating altiplano. It was well worth the extra $3 for a faster and more comfortable journey.


Looking towards the central plaza of Potosí.


Wandering the high streets of Potosí.

The main thing to do in Sucre seems to be wandering the whitewashed, narrow alleys and drinking coffee in the comfortable European-style cafes. It’s pretty relaxing, and I spent most of my time hanging out with an ex Mormon guy who hiked the PCT the year after me. We went to this bizarre castle on the outskirts of town (photography prohibited for some strange military reason), climbed a nearby mountain to look at the bones from the goats sacrificed there on Easter, and talked about our experiences on the PCT. It was quite nice.

Sucre, the de jure although no longer de facto capital (that honor belongs to La Paz), is where the Bolivian independence movement began. Their version of Independence Hall is in the central plaza, and they offer guided tours in both English and Spanish. Every explanation of independence figures seemed to end with, “…and then he was decapitated. Now we move to next man….and then he was decapitated.” My tour was in English and hard to follow, other than that a very large portion of Bolivia´s founders for some reason ended up decapitated.


The whitewashed streets of Sucre.


A statue of President Sucre, second president of Bolivia, fourth president of Peru, and a close ally of General Bolívar, in the tranquil plaza of Sucre.

One day in Sucre was devoted to a particularly uncomfortable case of food poisoning, but I survived.

Iguazú Falls

Having been to Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego, and Buenos Aires, the main Argentine attraction left was Iguazú Falls. Supposedly one of the most spectacular sights in the world, I figured it was a fitting end to my Argentine travels. Though I have to admit I’m ready as hell to get out of this dysfunctional, overpriced wasteland of conspiracy theorists. I think I’ve been here way too long and am getting jaded. 

Iguazú Falls in the far northeastern part of Argentina.

As seems to be a common theme on my trip, my intended destination wasn’t the easiest place to reach. Located where Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina all converge, the gateway town of Puerto Iguazú is a 19 hour bus ride from Buenos Aires.

A very confused looking woman at the Devil’s Throat part of the falls.

The falls can be viewed from the Argentine or Brazilian side, though I’ve been hearing over and over that the Argentine side is more impressive. Maybe that’s just because of my selective hearing and the fact that Brazil makes Americans, Canadians, Australians, and Kiwis get a visa. Either way, I didn’t think it was worth the $210 to get a Brazilian visa just to visit the falls (it’s $50 cheaper if you get it in the US). I’ll do Brazil on another trip.

There are dozens of buses per day leaving from Buenos Aires’s Retiro terminal for Puerto Iguazú, and the journey in cama ejecutiva class (very comfy seats that recline about 160 degrees) cost me approximately $112. I misread the departure time on my ticket and had to rush down to the terminal to catch it, in the process losing and having to replace my admittedly inexpensive metro pass.


View from my seat on the bus to Puerto Iguazú. In cama ejecutiva seats there are three seats per row, compared to four per row in semi cama. The seats are rather comfortable in both classes, and comfort can be quite variable from company to company. I went with Vía Bariloche, which I had positive experiences with in the Lakes District of southern Chile.

The Retiro terminal is a gargantuan labyrinth of ticket booths, food stalls, and departure platforms. Ticket sales and departure platforms are all grouped by region. Going to the northeast to Iguazú? Better not make my mistake and try to get your ticket printed out in the Patagonia section of the terminal.

Despite my panicked worrying that I was going to miss my bus, I arrived at the platform to find that it had been delayed an hour. As I heard in Spain all the time, es lo que hay (it is what it is).


The Buenos Aires Retiro bus terminal is 400 meters (a quarter mile) long.

Long distance bus journeys in South America are quite comfortable, especially if you travel with a reputable company. This isn’t as important in Argentina and Chile, where buses go off cliffs with lesser frequency than in Bolivia or Peru, but comfort of seats can vary greatly from company to company.

Upon arrival in Puerto Iguazú, I heard mutterings from the coach attendant about a bus driver strike. My hostel was only a 4 minute walk from the terminal, with prices a fraction of what they are in high season, and I discovered at reception that the strike meant no buses to the falls today. It was a stunningly beautiful and cloudless day, quite atypical for such a high rainfall jungle climate.


My favorite hostel resident.

“Wait, you speak Spanish. Want to help us find and split a taxi?” asked a pair of Arctic Norwegian women at my hostel that I’d met on the ride from Buenos Aires. The receptionist at the hostel told us 400 pesos ($26) one way would be ideal, but some dude on the street named Pedro offered to take us for 550 pesos ($36) round trip.

Pedro turned out to be a great deal. He claimed to be a taxi driver, even though his car didn’t have taxi written on it anywhere, but he delivered us to the falls at the agreed upon price. He didn’t speak English, so I sat in front and we chatted.

“It’s so good those women have a man traveling with them,” he told me, which I declined to translate for the Norwegians in the hopes of averting an international conflict. Having spent ten weeks in the Nordic countries last summer, I did not think that would go over well. Norway is perhaps the most gender equal country in the world.

Entrance to Iguazú National Park costs 500 pesos ($32). Although it’s only valid for one day, if you bring your passport and register at the ticket office upon exiting you can enter at half price the next day.

There are three main sections of the park:

  1. Entrance area – There’s really not a whole lot here other than the ticket office and a small visitor center.
  2. Cataratas (falls) – Views of the falls from lower and farther away. There are two circuits, an upper and lower, where you can walk on elevated boardwalks with many viewpoints. From the lower circuit you can take a boat to San Martín Island.
  3. Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat) – A boardwalk leading to a massive semicircle of roaring waterfalls, one of the more iconic views. This part isn’t visible from the Cataratas section.

Iguazú Falls is almost incomprehensibly massive, and you can’t see all of it from any one point on land. All three of the above stations are linked by train, with departures every 30 minutes in each direction. Apparently sometimes you can walk from the entrance to Cataratas, but the trail was closed when I visited.



The entrance train station.


Riding the train through the park.


I found this section to be the most impressive, and on my second day I spent all my time here. San Martín Island was closed my first day because of high water levels, but I was able to visit on my second day. The island is very close to the falls, and you get wet from the spray quite quickly.


Coatíes are similar to raccoons. I saw many people feeding them. They were most definitely not afraid of humans.


Lea, one of the Norwegians I visited the park with, was fascinated by the coatíes.


Looking at the falls from one of the many viewpoints.



The Norwegians on the boardwalk.


Looking from a viewpoint to the river, the water jetted off by Iguazú Falls. There were some cool views of the jungle from the boardwalks.



Looking out from the upper circuit boardwalk in the evening. Most people had left by 4pm, so after that I largely had the park to myself for a couple hours until it closed at 6pm.


There were tons of views of the falls from many, many viewpoints.

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Walking along the path in the evening. The falls are surrounded by jungle, which was cool to experience.

Garganta del Diablo

The Devil’s Throat was impressive, but that’s largely the only part of the falls you can see from here. I visited this section  on my first day with the Norwegians and did not return.
On my second day the bus strike had ended. Buses depart from Puerto Iguazú to the park and vice versa every 20 minutes. The round trip ticket costs 130 pesos ($8.40).

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Another view of the Devil’s Throat.



The butterflies came out with the sun, and they were everywhere.


The mist thrown up by the falls made photography a little difficult.

Visiting in the April shoulder season was phenomenal, even if it was 85F/29C with high humidity. There were much fewer visitors than in the summer high season, and in the evenings I largely had the park to myself. Lodging was a fraction of what it is in summer, and I was able to get a bunk in a four person dorm in a nice hostel for about $12 a night.

I really lucked out with weather. Both days of my visit were sunny and cloudless, a break in a week of thunderstorms.

Not only are the falls impressive, but the surrounding jungle is also pretty interesting. The bird watching in the area is supposed to be superb, and from the boardwalk I was able to see toucans and hummingbirds.

Overall, I’d say the falls were worth braving the heat, humidity, and days of bus rides to and from the park.

Torres del Paine

What and Where

Named one of the five most beautiful places in the world by National Geographic in 2013, Torres del Paine National Park is one of the top attractions in South America. As such, its visitation numbers have skyrocketed over the past few years to over 250,000 per relatively brief Patagonian summer (roughly December to March).


Puerto Natales, the red star at the bottom of the map, is the gateway town to Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park.

Located as far south as Calgary or London are north, and separated from the rest of Chile by sea, mountains, and the vast Southern Patagonian Ice Field, it’s not the easiest place to reach. The main gateway to the park is Puerto Natales, a town of 20,000 that’s not nearly as touristy as I’d imagined. Park tourism is a huge source of income, and it’s noticeable, but it lacks the in your face tourist trap vibe of nearby El Calafate in Argentina.

High season for both crowds and winds is January through February, so I opted to visit in the much calmer middle of March.


More visitors to Torres del Paine means a more severe environmental impact. Fires caused by negligent hikers have burned hundreds of square kilometers of parkland since 2005, overcrowding at campsites, unsanitary disposal of human waste, and other issues prompted the park to enact limitations starting with the 2016-17 summer season. The number of people allowed to start each day has been capped, and if you show up to the trailheads without reservations you will be turned away.

The reservation system is very simple to navigate online (if you can read Spanish), and I made all my reservations for the hike on my phone back around New Years in Uruguay. Campsites can fill up months in advance, though if you show up to Puerto Natales in the shoulder season with a flexible schedule they seem to be pretty accommodating.

Most of the park is hard to reach for a day trip. Much more ideal is a multiday trek, the most popular of which is the four to five day W. The W can be extended into a less frequented loop hike called the O, which most complete in ten or so days. I did the O in five and a half days, which was very manageable.


Torres del Paine National Park road and trail map. The red is the W trail, the most commonly done multiday hike in the park.

Along the treks you can stay in huts, have your meals cooked for you, and just carry day packs. The much more budget option, which I opted for, is to erect your tent in campgrounds next to the huts. The campgrounds were quite nice with flush toilets, sheltered cooking areas, and sometimes hot showers. This cost me an average of $7 a night.

Day 1

Last night I’d stayed up late listening to the owner of the Airbnb I stayed at talk about growing up under the ultra-repressive Pinochet dictatorship. It’s a topic I would never bring up on my own, partially because the US helped overthrow the democratically elected Allende and install Pinochet in his place. When I lived in Spain, life under Franco was something that was never talked about. Over 40 years after his death the country still hadn’t dealt with his legacy, instead deciding to more or less collectively ignore it (though I had a coworker tell me about growing up in Catalunya, where Franco outlawed the speaking of her native tongue Catalan).

The Pinochet regime ended much later, around the time I was born. And the 1988 plebiscite on continuing under authoritarian rule was rejected by not even 56% of Chileans. The other guest at the Airbnb, a German hiker, flat out asked the host about life under Pinochet. She said she remembered her house being searched eight days after the coup because her grandfather was a suspected (and probable) communist, the pamphlets which would’ve condemned him to death buried somewhere in the back yard. And the paranoia that anyone you knew could be a government informant, the danger of gatherings of more than three people, and the support of the Catholic Church for the repression.

The German guy was heading to the park at the same time as me, and the rain stopped just as we stepped out for the 30 minute walk to the bus terminal. The terminal was full of young foreigners with massive backpacks. Many of the people seemed to have little to no outdoors experience, and those staying in huts each night and not carrying food had packs much larger than mine.

There were multiple companies traveling the two hour route to the park, and they all left at 7:30am and charged the same amount.


Lining up to pay the entrance fee and register. Laguna Amarga entrance station.

The bus dropped us off at the Laguna Amarga entrance station, where we all disembarked to pay the entrance fee (about $30, good for the entirety of my six days), and watch a video that made clear if we lit a fire anywhere outside the cooking areas we would be summarily executed on the spot.

Those doing the W got back on the bus to catch a boat to the beginning of their hike, while the O hikers could walk the 5 miles to the start or take a van for a small fee. Having a short day, I opted to walk. There were few people on the road with almost no traffic, and the rain was almost nonexistent by that point.


Hotel Torres on my last day, which was much clearer than day one. The turnoff to the start of the hike is right around here.

The turnoff to the trail from the road was well marked, though the couple of hours to the campground was a labyrinth of muddy trails intersecting each other without clear direction. Wearing trail runners, I just walked through the mud and streams in the off and on rain knowing that my shoes would dry very quickly.

I was one of the first to arrive at the campground, a field with flush toilets in the center. I set up my tent next to that of a French couple and headed over to the covered area next to the ranger station to chat with others while wrapped in all four of my layers and long underwear.


Heading down into the valley towards Campamento Serón, my home for the first night.

Some Canadians there had a few months prior done lots of trekking in the Cordillera Blanca a day’s drive north of Lima, where I hope to spend a few weeks at the end of my hike. I was concerned about safety, but one of the women said she trekked solo there in the rainy season and felt totally safe.

Later in the afternoon the sun came out, revealing spectacular vistas of the surrounding snowcapped Andes and drying out all my stuff. Back at my tent someone asked me if I knew where he could charge his phone.


Part of Campamento Serón after the sun came out in the afternoon.

“Uh, I have a feeling you won’t find a place here to charge your stuff.”

He seemed shocked. “What about the next campsites?”

“I really don’t think so.”


Day 2

Why is there something crawling on my legs? I drowsily wondered before the realization of what was happening made me yell and thrash about, trying to get the mouse out of my tent. My tent is on its last legs, the zippers and other parts having given out after being used for around nine total months since 2015. This meant it was perfect for mice to crawl through the openings while I slept.

Having banished the mouse, I was on the verge of falling back asleep when I heard a rustling in my food bag. On the PCT, like virtually all other thru hikers, I almost always slept with my food right next to or touching me. The bears and other woodland critters were too terrified of humans to venture near. The mice in Torres del Paine seemed to lack that fear.

I yelled again and shook the mouse out of my food, securing my provisions inside my backpack and pushing it out into the below freezing night away from my body heat.


Leaving the campsite in the morning. It cleared up a lot on day two.

The next morning the tents next to mine, belonging to hikers from Colorado, told me their own stories of mouse encounters from the previous night. One of them said a mouse climbed on top of her tent, chewed a hole, dive bombed down onto her lap and began running around in search of food. After much effort she was able to get it out of her tent, where it went to the next tent and did the same.

“When you screamed ‘GET THE FUCK OUT’ at 3:00am, I knew the mice were here. This place is supposedly infested with them,” she told me.


There’s nobody on the trail if you leave camp before noon.

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A glacier is kind of visible off in the distance.

After scraping the ice off my tent, I was one of the first hikers to hit the trail at around 8:30am. I saw only three others the rest of the day as we followed the path along mountainsides with views of glaciers every hour or so. It was a phenomenal day, and the Canadian woman I met yesterday who’d solo hiked remote Peruvian trails and I had no issues finishing two days’ worth of trail by 6pm.


Refugio Dickson, a couple hours before my stop for the night at Los Perros campground, was probably the most picturesque camping area I saw in the park.

Los Perros campground was muy tranquilo, and I was able to pick a campsite off in the woods far from everyone else. Perfection.

Day 3

The rangers warned me that my proposed route, over the pass and down to the Grey Glacier all in one day, would take me at least 11 hours and that I should leave by 7am at the absolute latest. Considering I’d been doing each stage in half the time predicted at a leisurely pace, I wasn’t that concerned and rolled out of camp at 7:15am.


Heading up towards the pass. As you can tell, it really wasn’t that steep.

It was muddy and hard to find my way through the forest because of the pre-dawn dark, but once the sun rose it was fairly easy going. I made it to the pass by 8:40am, which the rangers said would take me most of the day to reach. Cold, I crawled into my toasty 10F/-12C sleeping bag to filter water, eat breakfast, and enjoy the view.

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Two women in their 60s heading over the pass.

A Belgian couple arrived half an hour after me.

“I’ve heard the people on the W carry things like cutting boards and lots of other ridiculous stuff,” I told them. We were camping that night at Refugio Grey, by the Grey Glacier and our first joining up with W hikers who weren’t doing the full O route we were currently on.

“Yeah, I heard some people even wear tennis shoes!” the woman replied.

“I wear trail runners!” I replied, excitedly showing them my beat up shoes. They were aghast and started lecturing me on how terrible that is.

“I don’t know, they were fine for my last 1600km on the Pacific Crest Trail, my 800km in the Arctic, and the last couple of months in Patagonia,” I casually replied while eating my peanuts, which I hoped the disease ridden mouse in my food bag hadn’t infected. A ranger told me hantavirus wasn’t issue in this part of Chile.

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The Belgian couple crossing a bridge, trying not to look down.

They only had a few days of backpacking experience but still thought I was insane. I’ve been lectured quite often on how I’m doing everything wrong (ie my pack is way too light, I’m going too fast, trail runners will kill you) by people who have very little outdoors experience. Mainly from Europeans, who don’t really know what wilderness is and seem horrified when I mention my grizzly bear encounters while hiking.

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The campground below the pass, which I got to absurdly early.

On the pass I met a couple of women in their 60s from Vancouver. One had moved from Yugoslavia to Canada in the 1970, while the other emigrated from newly independent Ukraine in 1994. I’d been to both of their hometowns, Novi Sad in what’s today northern Serbia and Kiev, in October. They had many questions about what it was like to be a backpacker there, and the Novi Sad woman seemed shocked that an American backpacker had visited where she grew up. I also raved about how much I loved their hometowns, which they seemed to appreciate. They were tough, and walked at about the same pace as me.


Me at Gray Glacier.


Another view of Gray Glacier.


Chunks of ice having floated away from the glacier.


Gray Glacier and its lagoon.

We cooked dinner together and I made the mistake of listening to young European backpackers talk about how underdeveloped the park was, which seemed a little ludicrous after having hiked extensively in little traveled areas of the United States and Arctic Scandinavia.

That night I woke up to a mouse crawling inches from my face, but other than that it was a fairly restful night in my dying tent.

Day 4

By being on trail by 8:30am, an hour after sunrise, I was able to avoid the vast majority of hikers and usually had the trail more or less to myself. Today followed that format, except for a random group of Chinese tourists congregating on top of a rocky viewpoint.

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Heading out in the morning with the sun still rising.

At a junction I took a detour to the Paine Grande campground, one of the most popular in the park, to use the loo. There were foxes going through the campground ostensibly searching for trash to eat, which was a little disheartening.

After using the bathroom and filling up my water bottle, I zoomed down the trail to get to Campamento Italiano and start the steep hike up to the Mirador Británico before it was closed off by rangers for the day.


Paine Grande Hotel. The campground to its right in this photo had foxes looking for trash.

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A view across the lake on the way to Campamento Italiano.

I arrived with plenty of time, and took a leisurely pace up with lots of stops to enjoy the scenery. It was fairly easy going with just my light day pack on my shoulders. Almost everyone takes the whole day to do it, but I found it fairly easy enough to accomplish in about an hour each way.


At the Mirador Británico.

That night there were Chileans blasting music in the campground, which is unfortunately the norm in Patagonia. I don’t know why they all feel the need to carry speakers up the mountain and blast music until 3am. Campamento Italiano was thankfully fairly large, so I was able to find a campsite far from them. Thank God this is my last Patagonian camping trip, the loud campgrounds can really take the joy out of it all when you’re unable to sleep until 3 or 4am each night. But like most hikers in Torres del Paine, they sleep in until almost noon so it’s not a problem if you’re taking the rest of the day to walk 5 miles.

Day 5

I usually don’t like camping next to water, partially because everyone camps by water and I hate everyone, but the roar of the stream next to my tent was relaxing. My food bag, tied to a branch near my tent to prevent mice from pilfering its contents, seemed undisturbed. I packed all my things up and hit the trail, heading to the actual Torres del Paine. Torres is Spanish for towers, and paine means blue in the indigenous Tehuelche language.


Another day on the trail.

The path up to the Torres is the most used in the park, with day trippers arriving to go visit the iconic peaks.

By coincidence, I set up camp in the Torres campground next to the same German guy who was at my Airbnb the night before hitting the trail. He’d implied that what Germany did during World War II wasn’t that bad, and I tried to avoid him, but it is what it is. He’d done the W while I did that plus the extension of the O trek.

I did the slog up to the Torres, a 45 minute walk from the campground. For some reason I had trouble getting the energy to go up there, but after a break of 10 minutes or so reading my kindle I was good to go.


The Torres del Paine. It’s getting cloudy.

I have to admit the Torres weren’t that impressive compared to the rest of the park, but it was a nice finale. I went back to my tent and went to bed early.

Day 6

Glad to not have any more encounters with vicious rodents, I braved the morning cold and was one of the first to start the 5 mike hike downhill to the Torres Hotel. This is where the trail ends and the road back to my starting point begins. I arrived fairly early and decided to do the extra 5 mile road walk back to the Laguna Amarga entrance station, where one of the noon buses had enough space for me to hop on for the ride back to Puerto Natales.


Me towards the very end of my hike.

Overall, the O had some of the most stunning backcountry vistas I’ve been lucky enough to encounter. It was well worth the reservations months ahead of time, and I can see why it’s routinely included in the list of the world’s top hikes. Granted, I was lucky enough to do the hike with nearly perfect weather. A few days prior to my start the park was shut down for a day due to storms and subsequent flooding.