On the cold, moonless night of March 17, 2013, I lay shivering in my tent, grasping at the last straws of sleep, just as my iPhone’s marimba melody pierced the Patagonian silence. As I slowly awoke in Torres del Paine National Park in southern Chile, I was already dreading my planned predawn hike to the park’s namesake towers. Having arrived at the campsite at 8:30 the night before after a tough hike, I wasn’t prepared for the early return to the trail. But as I opened the tent flap and saw a parade of white headlights ascending into the distance, I found my motivation to get out of bed.
Torres del Paine is one of the world’s greatest parks, and is centered around three granite towers that lurch 6500 feet straight out of the ground. Most hikers opt for the “W” circuit, which takes them along two river valleys that provide views of both sides of the towers before meandering along a mountain lake to an active glacier. One of the circuit’s best features is that hikers can reach the towers at sunrise, in time to see the sun cast its first rays on the giant chalkboards. Despite the promise of such an awe-inspiring sight, the marimba failed to preface the breathlessness to come.
Putting aside my reticence, I woke up my camping partner, Olivia, and we rustled out of our sleeping bags to join the conga line up the mountain. For 45 minutes, we crept up a steep hill, tacking large boulders and small streams before reaching the rock field that holds back the tower’s accompanying glacial lake. Though we departed in complete darkness, we hurried along as we saw the sun starting to rise over our left shoulders. Not wanting to miss the requisite photograph, I would rush ahead, but then turn around and shine my headlamp me so Olivia could see the path. Tired and cranky, we reached the viewpoint with plenty of time to spare. From 7:00 until 7:30, we watched the sun slowly break into the sky, but it failed to light up the towers, thwarted by a low lying cloud.
But around 8:00, the sun won out and cast its bright, orange rays, directly on the pillars, lighting them like a stove’s coasters turned on high. For fifteen minutes, we took in this surreal sight, too enamored to address our tired and hungry bodies. Eventually, the sun reached a height where the coasters lost their glow, and only the granite peaks remained. Acknowledging our hunger and the long day ahead, we began our lukewarm descent, along with 50 other early risers, back to the campsite to make breakfast and pack up our gear.
In planning my trip to South America, hiking through Torres del Paine always stood out as one of the highlights of the entire trip. Trekkers come from across the globe to hike the park’s storied trails. After some minor hiccups in Buenos Aires and Uruguay during the early parts of my trip, I badly needed to get out into the wild. Having hiked for a couple days in Ushuaia, I felt like I had only had a taste of what Torres del Paine would offer. And traveling by bus and staying at hostels on the way to the park, I ran into countless people who had hiked the W and raved about its beauty. So by the time I was taking in the sunrise, I felt like I had been waiting for far too long.
We arrived in the park at about 6:00 pm on Sunday, after getting a late shuttle out of the gateway town of Puerto Natales. I had met my hiking partner, Olivia, when I stayed in Puerto Madryn on the east coast of Argentina. After realizing we were traveling in the same direction, we fell in step traveling from Ushuaia to the park together. Olivia is from Switzerland, and was planning on traveling around South America for four months before starting a master’s program.
Since we arrived at the park so late, we only had two hours to get from the entrance to the Torres Camping Ground, the only free site on the first leg of the trek. Olivia and I successfully made it into the camp at around 8:30 just after sunset, having survived a grueling 4.5 miles with a combined 60 pounds in gear. We quickly made camp, and grilled our chorizo – by far the best meal we had during our trip. Exhausted, we passed out around 11:00, fearing the 6 am wakeup call.
After our sunrise rendezvous, we got back to camp, cooked and departed by 10 am. Our Sunday trek made for a really long day, over 13 miles of hiking back down the same river valley, around a mountain, and back up another streambed to another free campsite. The first few hours of the hike proved uneventful, calmly making progress while enjoying the green, snake-like lake that unwound before us. Along the way, we ran into various characters who joined us for a few miles at a time. Tom, a boatman from Port Townsend, Washington, provided the most enjoyable distraction of the trip. Tom looked like Ishmael from top to bottom, wearing a grandpa’s fishing hat, fishing pants, and a t-shirt showing one sail boat eating another one. After spending a month on a research ship around Antarctica, Tom had come to Torres del Paine to hike what he called a capital F before flying back to Washington. Tom had an optimistic quip for just about every lull in the hike, more than making himself welcome in our company. “That sure is a lot of grass, but I wouldn’t want to mow it.”
Since this was St. Patrick’s Day, numerous hikers donned their brightest green attire. As we took a water break, a young woman, with a bright green fleece and Irish red hair marched on past us. Also noticing her, an elderly Irish gentleman with a wonderful St. Patrick’s beard, called out to her, “Now that must be an Irish lass, if ever I saw one. Happy St. Paddy’s day!” The girl, confused by the interaction, simply said,
“Oh right, Happy St. Patrick’s Day. I forgot that was today.” And she said it all without slowing down. As she made her way down the trail and out of site, the Irishman’s wife called out to her, “Of course you knew, that’s why you wore green!”
After two more hours, we came to one of the fancy refugios that are sprinkled throughout the park. There are a couple of different financial options for trekking the park’s famous trails, catering to hikers of different budgets. Backpackers can do it on the cheap, staying at free campsites and bringing all of their own food. One percenters can bring almost nothing with them and stay at these miniature hotels that serve meals. A bed in the refugio can cost as much as $100 per person per night, but after walking several miles on a mosquito infested trail in 90 degree heat, it almost makes the price worth it.
Reaching one such refugio, Olivia refused to hike the final 3 miles to the campsite. Not wanting to pay for the refugio, I sat down and agreed to wait awhile. I paid $4 for a can of Fanta – one of the best Fantas I’ve ever had – and waited for Olivia to regain her strength. After resting for an hour, with nothing but mountains and a big blue sky to occupy us, we donned our packs and struggled through the last hour to the campsite, arriving at around 6:00. Dinner on day 2 lacked the first day’s panache, just pasta and tomato sauce without any spices. Still, the carbs felt good in our tired bodies. After a final chat with Tom, we went to bed, beating the sun.
On day three, we resolved to hike up the second river valley, see the towers, and take the boat out of the park that night. Instead of a W, we’d complete a cursive U. The dedicated hiker in me felt a little morose at not completing the obligatory W, but having acquired a cold during my second day in the park, my runny nose and sore throat encouraged me to get out.
The first 9 miles of the day were a relief. The only gear we had to take with us was water and food before returning to grab our packs. For the first hour, we navigated dense forests, hearing a roaring stream beside us and assorted avalanches above. Eventually, we emerged from the trees, allowing us to climb atop a giant boulder that afforded a 360 degree view of the river valley, surrounded by peaks reaching up to 8000 feet. Having viewed the towers from a closer vantage point at sunrise, we were unimpressed. The views down to the mountain lake, though, were more than I expected, providing an excellent backdrop for our ham and cheese lunch.
Back we went, descending the river valley at a rapid pace, pausing only to take pictures of waterfalls in the accompanying stream. Once we made it to our camp, we gathered our gear, and at 3:00, we began the long march to meet our 6:30 boat. The last three hours provided just the trail we craved, a narrow route that undulated softly over easy hills along another azure lake. At one rocky overlook, we paused for a snack, with the wind subsiding enough for the lake to become still – providing impressionist reflections of the towering mountains in the distance. In the short 20 minutes we sat there, every single hiker that came along the trail interrupted our peaceful lunch to take a picture.
Back on the trail, we entered the section of the park that suffered a horrendous fire in 2011. A hiker lost control of his stove resulting in the carnage of one-eighth of the entire park. This unfortunate site was yet another reason why we decided to end the hike prematurely. Walking through burnt trees and open fields, we climbed the last hill. The final refugio came into view, more than a mile below where we stood. Despite my tired legs, I nearly ran the rest of the way there, eager to get out of the wind and from beneath my pack. We rushed the refugio’s small store, buying the most overpriced but delicious mango juice I’ve ever had. After a short rest, we pressed on to one of the park’s catamarans, beginning the 3 hour boat/bus ride back to Puerto Natalales.
Torres del Paine will no doubt be one of the highlights of my South America trip, simply because of the three days I spent in the woods. But overall, I came away from the hike slightly disappointed. After having read and listened to so many superlative accounts of the hike, I think I had unrealistic expectations for what I would see. To me, the park’s offered nature was beautiful, but certainly in line with other hikes I’ve completed in the United States and Europe. One Austrian guy I met along the trail said of the towers, “I wasn’t impressed. We have taller ones in Europe.” Part of me agreed with him. Part of the problem, though, was that many of the superlative hikers I listened to as I approached the park were not outdoor enthusiasts and hadn’t hiked very much in their respective countries. As a result, one of the reasons so many are enamored with the park is that it’s the only real hiking they’ve ever done.
Additionally, I was also disappointed by the park’s amusement park feel. There are essentially four ways of trekking through the park – all along the same path – and all four are extremely organized and crowded. So hiking through the park at times feels simply like waiting in line for a ride. This is one of the same complaints I have about Shenandoah National Park back in Virginia, so it’s hardly a new feeling. As I continue my hiking career both in the U.S. and here in Argentina, I’ll constantly be looking for trails that allow a real nature lover to get off the beaten path.