The three-day experience trekking at Torres del Paine in Patagonia was incredible! The area is so rich with natural wonders each turn in the trail brought something more magnificent. There have been many great memories of South America, and Patagonia is a very special one.
Day One Thursday, April 9th
I caught an early morning bus from Puerto Natales to Laguna Amarga, the entrance to Torres del Paine National Park. On the way we stopped to pick up more trekkers and arrived at the Park three hours later.
The Park’s Administrative office is at Laguna Amarga and visitors must stop there to pay an entry fee (18,000 CLP or about $30). As part of checking in, visitors must view a video on safety. One strict rule bans open fires anywhere in the Park. The video clarifies the severe consequences of starting a fire and the associated fine and prison sentence.
You get a map and a tag from Corporación Nacional Forestal (CONAF) listing the Park’s rules and closing times for the hiking trails. You’re required to sign the tag and attach it to your pack so it’s visible. In 2012, a fire set by a camper burned almost 70,000 acres and resulted in the loss of one life.
After check-in the bus took us to Pudeto where we caught a catamaran that passed over Lake Pehoe to Paine Grande Refugio. There were almost 100 passengers on the boat and I met some interesting people. Three young French students were very friendly. I talked with a Spanish woman who was studying in Santiago. She was trekking with her father.
Views from the catamaran were spectacular and we arrived at Paine Grande Refugio at about noon and checked into our rooms. There are no private rooms at Refugios and usually two to four bunk beds per room. There are two large banos, one for men and one for women. When I arrived no one else had checked into my room. There were three bunk beds.
After lightening my load by leaving unnecessary things behind, I started hiking the trail through the French Valley to Campo Italiano. There was light rain during most of the hike but it wasn’t unpleasant. The round trip to the mirador (look out) at the end of the trail is about 11 miles. The trail passes by Lake Skottsberg and several smaller lakes. Each lake in the Park is a different stunning color, depending on the sky and sun that day. The water in Lake Skottsberg was a turquoise blue while the water in a smaller lake nearby looked silver. Scenery in the French Valley is exquisite and views are so perfect and dramatic sometimes you think you’re looking at a painted backdrop.
I was back at the Refugio at about 6:30 p.m. and discovered another person had checked into the room. Paine Refugio is large and even though it was the end of trekking “season” about 50 or more trekkers were staying there. The evening was quiet. Tired trekkers mostly wanted to shower, have dinner, and go to sleep in preparation for the next day of hiking.
I talked with three lawyers from Michigan who were traveling together. When they started talking lawyer stuff, I excused myself and went to bed. Apparently the other person saying in the room returned while I was at dinner and was asleep in a top bunk, never met them. About 10:00 p.m., two more people entered the room – a couple from Brazil. Not sure where they came from but they must have hiked after dark using their headlamps. They seemed a little disorientated and mildly distressed. Things finally settled down and everyone got to sleep.
Day Two Friday, April 10th
After breakfast and watching an amazing bright pink sunrise, I headed out for the day’s hike. The weather on Friday was sunny and glorious. This time, I had the full weight of the pack which was only clothes, snacks, and water but still made a difference. It’s been many years since I’ve backpacked. The trail was incredibly pleasant and I stopped often to take photographs. In hind sight I should have saved the photos for one spot in the hike and established a solid and steady pace. This I will know next time!
A few miles into the trail, it became rockier and steeper. I passed Laguna Los Patos which was about a fourth of the distance to Grey Refugio. It was so beautiful I really wasn’t paying attention to time. I passed several trekkers who were pacing themselves and recognized some of the people who were on the catamaran the day before. They hiked to Grey Refugio for their first night. Later I discovered that the best itinerary for low season was hiking to Grey Refugio first and returning to Paine Grande at the end, since it’s near the catamaran stop.
One of the most dramatic points in the trail is looking out over Grey Lake and spotting the glacier for the first time – an amazing sight! I stopped for lunch at a hill overlooking the lake with the glacier in the background. It was such a magnificent thing to see. I felt mesmerized. A few other hikers stopped in the same spot and joined me for lunch.
After lunch the trail was more difficult with steep areas over solid rock. I worked my way up and then down through a wooded area and continued at a steady pace without stopping again for photos. The trail led to a sheer rock hillside with a narrow path. It was almost completely vertical! The trails have a series of orange markers and I spotted a marker below and headed down. The trail was on a cliff overlooking Grey Lake and I was thinking the Refugio should be nearby – not quite!
Continuing down the windy cliff at one point it seemed impossible to build a Refugio in such a harsh, isolated area and thought maybe I’d taken a wrong turn. I re-traced my steps back up the cliff and met two Italian students who were headed to the Refugio. They were sure we were headed in the right direction and I followed them (they were fast) back down the sheer side of the cliff to a more level path and then lost sight of them. It was an isolated, poorly marked trail and hiking along it was the only time during the trek that I felt vulnerable. I had no choice but to continue and an hour or so later finally arrived at Grey Refugio!
Knowing there was one catamaran and bus back to Puerto Natales the next day, the time constraints were tight. I had concerns about catching the catamaran at Paine Grande at 12:30 p.m. sharp. After two days of hiking, wasn’t sure I could get up at or before dawn and make it back up that steep cliff in time. It gets daylight at about 8:00 a.m. and I thought that would not be enough time to hike back. Leaving before dawn and hiking up the cliff in the dark sounded dangerous.
Decided to explore options, and discussed possibilities with the staff at the Refugio. The first option was taking my time hiking back on Saturday and spending another night at Paine Grande Refugio. Another option was taking a boat that arrives daily at 3:00 p.m. at the dock on Grey Lake. The boat begins at Hotel Lago Grey and cruises around the glaciers. They would pick me up and take me back to the hotel where I would spend Saturday night and then return to Puerto Natales on Sunday. I didn’t especially like either option and decided to think about it overnight. My legs were telling me that going back up over the cliff could only happen slowly.
Later I discovered that a different boat was taking tourists on a glacier tour and could pick me up at 10:00 a.m. Saturday and drop me off at Hotel Lago Grey. From there I had a 20 minute walk to the hotel parking lot where I could catch a bus that would supposedly be able to connect with the bus at Laguna Amarga leaving for Puerto Natales at 1:00 p.m. The boat ride was expensive, but I decided it was the best option. Sounds complicated, right? Unfortunately you can’t call a taxi to get out of the Park.
Grey Refugio is cozy and pleasant – once you get there! It’s smaller but more comfortable than Paine Grande and is beautifully done. Some of the trekkers I met there were interesting. One couple from Salt Lake City had traveled around the world for 9 months. They were planning to return to Utah in June. They were very sweet and it was interesting listening to their travel stories. There was an interesting woman from Vancouver Island who was a photo journalist and experienced trekker. Another woman from London was taking a break from her career. I also talked with a lively couple from Brazil, some Australians, and several French trekkers.
The only other solo traveler was French and so he and I were assigned to the same Refugio room where there were two bunk beds. He spoke no English and I don’t speak French, so we didn’t have any conversations. His alarm went off at 5:30 a.m. and he left an apple and some trail mix as an apology. He had a shaved head, looked to be in his 50s, and was a dead ringer for a young Mahatma Gandhi – same glasses, except with “hyp” trekking clothes. We had passed on the trail overlooking the glacier earlier in the day.
Day Three Saturday, April 11th
At 10:00 a.m. Saturday, I was standing by the Grey Lake shoreline waiting for the boat. The boat sent a dinghy to pick me up and it was interesting getting down the cliff to the dinghy. The cruise around the glacier was fantastic and I met some nice people on board the boat. However, as it got closer and closer to 1:00 p.m., wondered would I make the bus for Puerto Natales or not.
When we returned to the drop off point we transferred from the boat into a dinghy to get to the beach below Hotel Lago Grey. Then it was a short hike to the hotel parking lot. Someone was waiting there to drive me to the bus. We missed the bus by about 10 minutes!
The driver, Alejandro, was a senior Vertice staff member who was a professional guide earlier in his career. He said he just happened to be driving to Puerto Natales that afternoon to pick up an associate and would be glad to take me. That was very lucky!!!
Alejandro and I had an interesting conversation on the way to Puerto Natales. To help my Spanish, we tried not to speak in English. He told me about his many years at Torres del Paine. He started as a porter carrying trekking gear. Then he was a cook for trekking expeditions, a tour guide, and later worked on many nature projects like tagging and tracking puma in the Park. He’s Chilean and a native of Puerto Natales and is really happy with what he does in the Park.
Alejandro told me there was really no way anyone could have made the bus leaving from Laguna Amarga at 1:00 p.m. and the information provided by the person at Grey Refugio was not correct. He said a better option, which the person at the Refugio either didn’t know about or forgot to mention, was catching a different boat back to Pudeto and connecting with the bus that way.
In general, I’ve found doing business in Chile difficult. Services at the Refugios were not good. You have to look out for yourself and solve your own problems. This might have been because it was the end of the season, but that’s no excuse for poor customer service. Had it not been for Alejandro going out of his way to help, my opinion of Vertice Patagonia would not be very good.
Even though I attended a three-hour lecture, did on-line research, and talked to the two primary trekking companies in Puerto Natales – Fantastico Sur and Vertice Patagonia – no one prepared me for the difficulty involved in trekking from Grey Refugio back to Paine Grande in time to catch a 12:30 p.m. catamaran. Also it would have been valuable to know in advance how challenging the last part of the hike to Grey Refugio was! The map the Park provides when you pay your entrance fee shows each trail and clearly indicates the elevation involved. Not sure why this information isn’t provided up front by the tour companies? It should be.
It took Alejandro less than two hours to drive from Hotel Lago Grey to Puerto Natales and we passed a magnificent part of the Park that I had not seen. He took restricted back roads leading toward the Cuernos trekking area by glaciers and lakes – breathtaking sights!
Some of the many things I learned on the trek are (1) hike at Torres del Paine during prime summer months – January, February, and March, (2) find your hiking pace and stick with it, (3) save photos for one a day instead of stopping often, (4) learn all you can about the trails before hiking. I hired a guide for the Peru Colca Canyon hike but didn’t for Torres del Paine. Minus the last two hours to Grey Refugio, the trek wasn’t that difficult and any discomfort along the way was well worth it!