After the Perito Moreno Glacier we headed southwest, back toward Chile - and yet another border crossing. Our destination was the Torres del Paine National Park, a must see on the Patagonian circuit. We entered Chile at the Cerro Castillo border crossing and saw the road signs change to “Ruta del Fin Del Mundo” – End of the World Route. Ushuaia, where the road ends, is now only a 10 hour drive.
We are almost there!
Torres del Paine National Park is known for its granite pillars that soar almost vertically 2000 meters (7,800 ft.) above the Patagonian steppe. There are turquoise blue lakes, constant pounding winds, and stunning views when the occasional clear day presents itself. Before its creation in 1959, the park was part of a large sheep ranch, and it’s still recovering from a century of overexploitation of its pastures, forests and wildlife. Now herds of guanaco roam along side the road, condors soar overhead, and pumas hunt unperturbed. The ostrich-like Rhea also makes their home here and we even spotted a flock of flamingos.
It is the most popular park in Patagonia, with hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world coming to trek its highly developed infrastructure of camps and refugios (mountain hostels). Most people come here to do the popular “W” circuit, which hits the three most scenic hikes (Glacier Grey, the French Valley and the Torres) in around 4 days. Logistics, however, are complicated. Three different companies control the camping and lodging and they do not coordinate with each other. All camping and refugios need to be reserved in advance. To get to some of the hikes, two different boat companies run ferries but don’t coordinate with the lodging companies. It’s expensive and the weather can screw up plans in an instant. We decided to hit two legs of the W on day trips since the weather was foul and we didn’t want to deal with renting backpacking gear in Puerto Natales, the nearest town two hours away.
Our first hike was an ice hike on Glacier Grey, along the west leg of the “W”. We had a reservation to overnight at the refugio on the mountain and see if the winds would die down long enough to also fit in a kayaking trip. To get to the glacier, we had to take a boat early in the morning. A ranger told us we could camp in the parking lot to the trailhead for the boat, tucked in close to a shipping container and construction trailer for wind protection. It seemed like a good idea as we went to bed, but as the night wore on, the winds whipped around in all directions, shaking us like a toy. It was the first night we both really thought about popping down. John thought the bikes might get ripped off and I had visions of the roof collapsing or getting ripped off entirely.
What a night - hugged up against a container & construction trailer and we still almost blew over.
A few Torres del Paine signs regarding the wind.
After a less than peaceful night we woke to a cold rain and winds so strong I doubted our boat would sail. The idea of hiking on a glacier in this weather seemed idiotic. When we checked in we learned that all the ice hiking the previous two days had been canceled, yet we had paid for the boat ride and the night at the refugio. We debated canceling until the very last minute and then decided to go for it. The hike to the boat almost blew us off our feet, but the boat sailed and then the sun came out. The hour sail to the glacier passed giant blue icebergs in churning mint green water. Icebergs have 10% of their mass above water and 90% of their mass under water. While on the boat, we saw one of the icebergs turn, meaning the bottom half had melted enough to make unstable and it rolled, displacing huge amounts of water. The iceberg turned as if in slow motion. It was already worth our sleepless night.
Fighting to keep moving forward...and not sideways, to get to the boat.
Our drop off at Refugio Grey
We hiked with a company called Big Foot Patagonia and only one other couple joined us. First we had a zodiac ride to the base of the glacier, then a steep hour and a half climb on the rocks to get to the ice. The rock was a little slippery, rubbed smooth by the receding glacier. Our guide, Pedro, told us Glacier Grey is shrinking about 300 meters (roughly 900 feet) a year so every season the hike on the rocks gets longer. Ladders and ropes substituted for trail where needed, and before we hit the glacier we strapped on harnesses and crampons. The hike on the ice was beautiful. Giant Styrofoam-looking formations undulated as far as the eye could see. We hiked up to blue pools so deep we couldn’t see the bottom and drank from streams of melting pure glacier water. To know these glaciers may all be gone some day made walking on them a humbling experience.
The rock is so smooth from glacier movement.
We filled up on water right from one of the hundreds of rivers and streams that feed Glacier Grey.
Chutes and Ladders hike
We were happy we decided to skip the crowds and experience this side of the park on the ice. To see more photos and video of our time on Glacier Grey, including that rolling iceberg, check out the OBP TdP movie:
After the hike we made our way to our overnight spot, the Refugio Grey. We had an enjoyable communal dinner with other hikers, and a much deserved hot shower and glass of wine. It was here John and I had our first sleep with strangers. The refugio has no private rooms so we booked a quad room, and found ourselves sharing a room with a couple from France. We introduced ourselves every so briefly - and then we all went to bed. I know this is a very common occurrence in hostels all over the world, this group sleeping arrangement thing…but it was a first for us!
Post hike cocktail. So happy this refugio has vino...
Happy Hour company....
John kept saying, "Hi. My name is John and I'll be sleeping with you tonight". A wee bit awkward. Just a wee bit though.
The next morning we took the boat back down and had a fancy lunch at the Hotel Lago Grey. It was here we heard the news of the U.S. election. And we were in a serious funk. I mean serious. The wind was still rattle-your-camper windy, it was raining again, and the world had gone crazy. So we did what any sane person would do in our shoes - we splurged on the nicest hotel we could find to run away from it all. That hotel was Tierra Patagonia, just outside the park boundary. It is an architectural marvel, built into the Patagonian steppe on the banks of the deep blue Lago Sarmiento. We holed up here for two days avoiding the news. We relished every minute of our zillion thread count sheets, long hot showers, and fluffy robes. John and I often say to each other we live on such a spectrum now. We are blessed to have the resources to occasionally enjoy these kinds of indulgences on the road, but it’s always a bit of a jolt to go from hugging up to a shipping container one night, and then pulling up to a nice hotel the next.
Deep blue Lago Sarmiento
Tierra Patagonia Hotel.
Our first peek at the Towers from the hotel.
The other leg of the “W” we tackled was, of course, the hike to the Towers. We met up with our friends Janice and Gregor again, and camped in the parking lot to the Mirador Torres trailhead. We did the roughly 22 km (14 mile) hike to the top and back. They decided to camp close to the top and make the trip in two days. With no backpacking gear, we opted for the less enjoyable one-day up and back. It was long and steep, and the last hour was straight up and rocky. I won't lie...it was hard. And we thought about not going all the way up. But we were blessed with sunny skies for the last part of the climb, and as soon we saw the three sharp towers shooting up into the sky with a brillant turquoise lake below, we were so happy we made the effort. It is a stunning setting. We hung out by the lake for while, resting and enjoying the sunshine, then slowly picked our way back down. It took us 5 hours to get all the way down, finally getting to the camper at 8:00 pm. A long, strenuous day and we fell into bed totally exhausted.
Camping at the trailhead with the towers in the background.
Heading up the trail with Janice and Gregor
Janice and Gregor set up their camp while we got more water and rested before a push to the top.
Finally, the famous towers...
Finally close to the bottom. It was a long haul down.
After we left Janice and Gregor, we headed over to the Rio Serrano for a few days of camping and relaxing on the river. John started to come down with a bad cold and the rain stayed around most of the time, so those days were spent doing not very much.
The meandering Rio Serrano. Can you see us? LoJo is at the bottom of the photo, tucked in the trees by the shelter.
View of the Los Cuernos (The Horns) from our camp, with the towers in the back.
We left Torres del Paine NP not having seen everything, but we felt we experienced the best of what it had to offer. The power of the wind, the beauty of the hikes, the stunning towers...all left a lasting impression. We were now ready to make our final to push to Ushuaia, to the end of the world, and our ultimate goal.