Imagine sitting in a remote lodge accessible only by foot, helicopter, or catamaran, and looking out plate-glass windows to see sheets of rain going sideways. On your right the Chilean flag clings desperately to its post, fighting not to be blown into a blue-green glacial lake. To your left are the ragged-edged Andean peaks of sub-antarctic Patagonia, obscured for now by the storm that has descended with time-stopping force. The catamaran is moored. The helicopter is grounded. A few brave backpackers trudge with a diagonal lean into the mess, hoping to preserve their bus and hostel reservations, which they couldn’t do at the lodge for want of a telephone connection. Most turn back after two hundred yards just past the domed tent maintained by the park ranger. This was day five on the W Circuit around the Torres del Paine National Park. I grabbed a bottle of the local beer, sat down with friends we’d made on the trail, and watched the spectacle as they taught me a French version of bridge. This is Patagonia, and it’s awesome.
On day one of our trek, we entered the park to find it colder and more overcast than we’d hoped, but pleased to see that the “refugio” put the hostels of the Camino de Santiago to shame. Day two was an eight hour hike covering 750 meters (~2500 ft) in elevation to see the peaks that give the park its name. Here are a couple pictures from the Torres del Paine hike:
Day three was a 4-hour hike along one of the many beautiful lakes that surround the towering peaks of the park, ending at Refugio los Cuernos. Here we splurged for the cabaña and hot tub option rather than the usual dorm room and bunk beds, but found that the cabaña had no heater and the hot tub was more of a lukewarm tub. Nonetheless, a private room and clean sheets were welcome. Plus, we found two couples (one French and one Dutch) that were keen to play Yahtzee over a couple boxes of wine (Clos de Pirque, for you connoisseurs). Pictures from the Los Cuernos hike:
On day four we took the big trek up the Valle Frances, about 24 kilometers over 10 hours, ending at the Lodge Paine Grande. It was another day of stunning views and cool air, and the lodge was very comfortable.
On day five, we woke up to the sound of wind pounding the lodge. Our plan was to catch the catamaran that picks up trekkers and returns them to a bus stop so that we could then catch another bus back to El Calafate, Argentina, where we’d reserved a room and left our bags. We checked someone’s guide book, which said that the catamaran always runs except in extremely strong winds. Oops. We rushed around and attempted to figure out whether there was another way out to catch our bus. That bus was our only way back to Argentina and to the hostel. The following morning we had booked a bus to the next town, El Chalten, and a room in El Chalten. No catamaran meant four different reservations down the tubes. After a flurry of confusion in various languages, it was determined that we had already missed the only bus we could walk to, which was 18 kilometers away. So we booked another night at the lodge and set about fixing our travel plans. Working backward we got confirmation from El Chalten that we could push everything back a night. There was no way to contact either bus company. The hostel in El Calafate bumped us over one night. Okay, so we saved a few bucks.
After a relaxing day in the lodge playing cards and reading whatever we could get our hands on, we determined that we needed to get up early the next day to walk the 18 kilometers to a ranger station where we could catch a bus and then hope with fingers crossed that the bus company would take us a day late.
Day 6 turned out to be a spectacular hike through the pampa fields. When we arrived at the ranger station, we found a very friendly rookie ranger who was excited to practice his English with us. He told us he was taking courses and pulled out his homework to ask us a few questions. Not surprisingly, the vocabulary he was learning focused heavily on describing weather conditions. He then made a concerted effort to help us grab the last spots on the bus and get it to come directly for us at his station. Thank goodness for that guy, or it would have been a long night… somewhere. Ultimately, we sorted it all out and managed not to lose too much money. And that’s how you do the Torres del Paine trek. It’s well worth it.