The Patagonians: Hiking Torres del Paine (for the organiser)

Nov 2015

So, you’re sitting at home scrolling through a plethora of Instagram photos of the beautiful places of the world, and then you come across pictures of Torres del Paine. Maybe they show you the ridiculous granite spires, for which the national park is named, lit bright orange by the rising sun, or the rumbling snow-melt roaring down the Valle Frances and its nearly 360 degree wall of mountains. Then you start to think about how you could get yourself there and see it for yourself.

It’s easy to think that these crazy pretty photo locations are reserved for the equally crazy adventurers. However, Torres del Paine is so well developed as a tourist destination that all you really have to do is make up your mind that you want to go, pack your bags, and go. The rest will work itself out without too much trouble. For weeks we trawled through blogs and the bits and pieces of information we could find online, never really satisfied with the level of information available. I'm sure this was because of our expectations. For the average tourist destination you can normally figure out whether the breakfast buffet has a vegetarian section, or what time the bus leaves for its daily trip to the organic farmer’s market. Information for adventure travel in South America is not so readily, unless of course if you choose to stay in the five star hotels that offer those kinds of luxuries, or you are tied in with people that have lots of experience. Eventually we realised that we’ll have to make some decisions with a few question marks left on our list of "must-knows".

If you want to hike Torres del Paine, the first thing to know is, in terms of logistics, you have nothing to worry about. Probably the biggest decisions you’re going to make is what day to go the the park, which of the salty biscuits at the local supermarket to buy, and which direction you want to walk the trail. The bus, the departure time, how it picks you up at the end of your hike…all that jazz is organised. The park and the hike are set up in such a way that basically the only way you can get in and out is by bus. This is not completely true, and if you had the money you could use a rental car and drive yourself, but I don't think the cost is worth the effort, unless you own the car, and that's a different story altogether. You are handed all the relevant information, including good maps, when you get to the park, so don't worry. Now let me say something about all the things that cause sleepless nights for every hiker, but please try not to overthink it; just have fun!


Maps

Yes, I know the feeling. I love maps too. They really are the best way of getting a lot of information condensed into a very small area. This is the Torres del Paine map they give you at the park entrance. It has all the information you could want, except topography, which I agree is useful, but not critical. You’re going to have to walk from one camp to the next, so whether it’s up or down doesn’t really matter. Just keep walking! It's a steep hike up to Las Torres and the rest is undulating, so there you go, topography sorted. If you insist on more information the map includes an elevation profile of the trail.


When to Go

Do this hike as soon as possible, before it gets even busier. I didn’t expect it to be as well developed as it is, and you can be assured that as visitor numbers increase the authorities will have to make changes to how they manage the park and that will most likely mean less things we visitors are allowed to do. We hiked in Spring during early November and I would do again around this time. It’s early season, which means there are not that many people around. With that said, there were more people than we expected. Rarely did we spend more than 5 minutes on the trail without seeing another few hikers. Like many sources say, you can have any kind of weather so be prepared. Fortunately there was no wind during all but the last day of our trip, and no rain whatsoever.


W, O, Clockwise or Anti-clockwise?

We planned for 12 days in the Torres del Paine area and wanted to hike the full loop (the 'O'), but we got news in Puerto Natales (and at the Park entrance) that the O loop was closed because of excessive snow on John Gardner Pass. For this reason we decided to do the W section (on the southern slopes of the massif) and used the extra days to visit El Chalten and Mt Fitzroy (this was a fairly common travel itinerary for most people we spoke to). We met some people who made it through the pass despite the warning. My impression is that they raise a warning as a precaution. If you're hell-bent on walking the full loop, and they see you have the right gear, the rangers might let you through. As for East to West or West to East. We decided to make the call based on the weather as we drove into the park. One of the main reasons people travel here is to the see the Torres del Paine. Our idea was that if the weather looked OK on arrival we would start from the East and walk up to the towers on day one. This worked out perfectly, and even though there was a bit of cloud, and the sunrise was more like someone turning up the image brightness, we could still see the Torres del Paine in all their glory. I also think the view from East to West is superior and I would do it that way around again next time. If you decide to walk West to East just remember to turn around every so often to fully appreciate the landscape.


How to Get There and Come Back

We flew into Punta Arenas and spent the night at the airport. Depending on what flights you’re able to book, you may arrive very late in the evening (early morning) like we did. Instead of booking accommodation we just slept on the floor in the airport for a few hours. There is a set of stairs leading up to the security check for the departure gates. You can roll out your sleeping bag in a large open area just before the security gate. Bathrooms are around the corner. The next morning we took a taxi into town to do some shopping (prices are much the same in Puerto Natales, so this wasn’t necessary). The tourist information center in Punta Arenas is really good, and they can give you more information on some of the penguin tours and other things you can do in the area. From Punta Arenas we took the bus to Puerto Natales. You can then book your return bus ride to and from Torres del Paine at the Peurto Natales bus terminal. There are a few providers to choose from with very similar prices, and they all provide open ended return tickets (only the departure to the park is booked for a specific day). Don’t think about it too much. Just pick one and go with it. The bus will drop you in one of three places:

Porteria Laguna Amarga. Catch a second bus, which you have to pay for (~2500 Pesos pp) to Hotel Las Torres to start the hike (For a view of the Torres del Paine from down below get off at the Refugio Las Torres - not indicated on the map, but a few hundred meters from the Hotel Las Torres, and the bus will stop there as well).
Cafeteria Pudeta. Catch a ferry that will take you to Refugio Paine Grande.
Centro de Visitantes y Administración. From here you need to walk an extra 5 hours to Rufugio Paine Grande. We were told it’s pretty flat and easy and that it offers excellent views of the mountains to the north.

These three places are where the busses also pick you up at the end of your trip. If you end your hike at Paine Grande you need to catch the ferry back to Cafeteria Pudeta or hike out to Centro de Visitantes y Administración. The ferry is expensive (~35000 Pesos pp); however, by the end of the hike you might be willing to part with a bit more money for the convenience. The ferry also gives you impressive views of the mountains.


Entering the Park

You don’t need to worry about how this happens. It’s all very obvious and the national parks have implemented a system that drives itself. At Porteria Laguna Amarga you pay your fee, sign a waiver, watch a video and then they set you free. Given the number of people that visit the park every year the authorities have to do something to make the process efficient. It can feel like a meat grinder, but just remember that without the process it will be complete chaos, so just go with it and stay excited about your trip.


Campsites

There are two free campsites (managed by the national parks authorities) on the W section and the others are paid sites because they are located at the privately managed refugios. We didn’t pre-book because we thought we’d like to remain flexible, but that means camping is a little more expensive (7000Pesos appose to 6000Pesos) . Also if you decide to visit in the height of summer I would recommend that you pre-book a campsite to make sure there is a spot for you. There were always spots available in early November, but not that many, especially at Refugio Cuernos. I have no idea what they do when you show up without a booking and there are no more spots available.


Food and Water

You can buy food in the national park, but it is super expensive. Buy your food in Puerto Natales. The Unimarc will have most things you'll need, and you can get dehydrated meals at the Salomon shop; they are a little over-priced, but not too bad compared to the cost of food in general. If you insist you can buy dehydrated meals in your place of origin and fly them in your luggage. We bought food in Punta Arenas, which meant a detour in our trip, which we enjoyed, but it wasn’t necessary; food costs the same in Puerto Natales. Pack your food in a bag of some kind and remember to take some string so you can suspend it from a branch or something. Field mice have been known to gnaw their way into tents and backpacks to get to the food. As for water, there is plenty of clean water in the many streams you will cross, so you don't need to take your extra Camelback. Just something big enough to get you from one stream to the next.


Cooking Stove and Fuel

Take whatever you want, unless it’s some strange model you built in your garage. You can get the fuel canisters for the most common stoves in Puerto Natales. There is a service station (“servo” for the Aussies, “gas station” for the Americans) in town where you can buy petrol (gasoline) or diesel if you want to take your Whisperlight or Dragonfly. I used petrol, but next time I’ll get some white gas from the hardware store ("benzino blanco" - because it burns cleaner than petrol and doesn’t have that smell). How much fuel? We used a MSR Whisperlight and ended up adding ~400ml of petrol fumes to the atmosphere. For two people over the five days of hiking that produced tea at least two, sometimes three times a day, cooked breakfast and dinner every day (and cooked dinner one night for a lady whose stove decided to give up). To hike the full loop we would have to cut down on the tea or eat a cold breakfast.


Pots

One of the ways we saved space in our packs was to use the Sea to Summit collapsable silicone pot, bowls, and cups. They are amazing: the pot is light-weight, and collapses down with the bowl and cups to just a few centimeters in thickness. The combo set with the bowls are a little heavier than an alluminium set, but the space saving made it worth it.


Shoes

We went in early November and hiked in waterproof running shoes (Salamon and La Sportiva). Both pairs worked perfectly. They are comfortable, warm, light-weight, and keep your feet dry when it rains or when you walk through long wet grass. We took gaiters, but never wore them, even when it rained (the waterproof rain pants were good enough to keep the water out).


Backpacks

For our entire 5 week holiday in South America we took one 50L pack each (MacPac and Osprey). They were comfortable and big enough for food, clothes, tent, sleeping bags, stoves and fuel, sleeping mats, water, and a few other bits and bobs. Less is more. If you take a 65L pack you will fill it and it will be heavy. Less is more.


Rain Gear

We used Patagonia brand waterproof jackets (not gore-tex), cheap rain pants made for boating, and "whatever brand" of backpack rain cover. It didn't rain in Torres del Paine during our visit, but it did in El Chalten (Mt Fitzroy), and it all worked very well. Dry feet, dry legs, dry chests. Hands always get wet in the rain, so don’t worry about that.


Clothes

For our entire 5 week holiday in South America (including the Torres del Paine hike) we each took two long-sleeve merino shirts, two t-shirts, a mid-layer, a light-weight down jacket, two pairs of long underwear (one for cold days and one for night time), one long sleeve thermal shirt for night time, two pairs of zip-off pants, 4 changes of underwear and socks, beanie, buff, and medium thickness gloves. Less is more. Flip your underwear and you have 8 days worth; do a wash once a week and your golden! The merino shirts were great because merino doesn’t smell as bad as synthetic fibres. We wore one long sleeve shirt and one t-shirt most days and kept the other shirts for night time wear or for the first day after the hike when the hiking clothes go in the wash at the hostel. Some people take lots of stuff for a long holiday and leave unwanted items at the hostels while they do the hike. Not a bad idea, but honestly, the minimalist approach made traveling so much easier and more enjoyable.


Tent

Stop overthinking it!! Take the tent you like. Almost any tent will do. The typical three season tent that can withstand a bit of wind will be fine, but you don’t need a $900 Hilleberg, so go and close that tab on your browser now. Maybe don’t take a $20 kiddies tent from whatever version "-Mart” shop you have in your country; although, I have heard of people who have done this, and they probably had the best time of all. All the camping spots are quite wel sheltered from the wind. In fact you can rent a tent at the refugios, and if we didn’t use our tent for the rest of the holiday we probably would have gone for that option. We used a three season Vango Mirage. Unlike most three season tents it is a little warmer because it has a light-weight solid material for the inner tent appose to just mesh.


Sleeping bags and mats

We used mid-range goose down bags that worked very well. They compress to a small size, don’t weigh much and kept us warm. Just keep them dry; if they get wet, it’s game over for a warm night’s sleep. It sounds like you have nothing to worry about; you have your backpack rain cover and as a precaution you’re going to pack your sleeping bag in a waterproof compression sack - good thinking. As for sleeping mats we took insulated inflatable mats. They are heavier than the foam mats, but pack down to a much smaller volume and are a lot more comfortable.


Camera gear and Selfies

We took an extra battery and several memory cards for the camera. There aren’t that many charging options unless you stay in the Refugios. I suppose you could plug in somewhere, but the two batteries lasted the trip without any concerns. Now…selfies…we took quite a few of those ourselves, and by all means, take as many selfies as you like; however, remember that if you spend more than 5 minutes striking the right pose and checking each attempt there will be other people watching. At some point you have to forget the pictures and remember to actually look at where you are.

On to the good stuff…the next article (coming soon) documents our hiking experience. Have fun out there and remember to take it slowly.