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