Trekking in Torres del Paine
After our recovery day in El Calafate we headed further south towards Torres del Paine, which is in neighbouring Chile. Our route there took us across the flat, open and incredibly barren pampas, with the occasional estancia or glimpse of the Andes to the west (we even say Torres del Paine in the distance with its cluster of glacier-laden peaks). The route took us through Río Turbio, a dump of a coal-mining town, and then to the border a little further on. After much faffing about (Argentina and Chile don’t quite get along…), including a search for banned foodstuffs that had us holding our breath (we’d done all our food shopping in Calafate), we eventually made it to Puerto Natales, a not unpleasant little town on the water. Without much to hold us there we jumped straight on another bus to the Parque National de Torres del Paine some four hours north-west along a rough road through some lovely alpine scenery. Once we entered the park we were able to get a minibus to take us to the start point of our trek.
Without enough time to do the world-famous full circuit of the massif (which takes 7-10 days), we planned a shortened version of the “W” trek along the southern side of the range. This hike, lasting 3-5 days, takes in the major highlights of the area.
Our first day was a short three-hour hike up to Campamento Chileno, a Swiss-style refuge with bunk beds, a hot kitchen, and a campsite next-door. We camped there the night and were pretty pleased with our day’s travel, which started all the way back in El Calafate.
We woke up early on Day Two to drizzly and grey conditions, but we wanted to make the side-trip up the valley to see the Torres del Paine, a group of 3000m pink granite pillars/towers above a small glacial lake. The weather got worse as we climbed up, and we unfortunately couldn’t see a damn thing once we got to the lake – bummer!!! (I later bought a postcard to see what I missed out on…)
The weather lifted as we walked back down the valley so we packed up the tent and were on our way by late morning. We walked back out the way we came but then turned west and traversed along the escarpment which spilled down from the other famous feature of Torres del Paine called Los Cuernos (The Horns). These are granite mountains worn smooth into beautiful shapes by aeons of glacial erosion, and they loomed above us as we hiked – an outstanding sight.
The weather continued to improve as we hiked west on Day Two and we were treated with great views of Lago Nordenskjold to the south, and the craggy peak of Paine Grande to the west with its hanging glaciers and massive seracs. We could even spot part of the Campo de Hielo Sur, our old friend the Patagonian Ice Cap, spilling down to the large Glaciar Grey (Chile’s answer to the Perito Moreno glacier).
We camped the night at Campamento Italiano’s large – and full – campground by the river. We originally planned to hike further up the valley to Campamento Britanico the next morning, but both of us were felling pretty shagged from the long day of walking (around 30km all up) the previous day. The hip injury I niggled on the Ice Cap started playing up again as well, so we scrapped that idea and enjoyed a relaxing night and a bit of a sleep-in.
On Day Three we had a boat to catch in the early afternoon across Lago Pehoe to connect us with our bus back to Puerto Natales, so given this tim constraint we chose to hike straight out to Refugio Pehoe, a hotel-style refuge where the boat departs from. The weather made our decision easier as well with Patagonian rain and wind all morning and not a Torre or a Cuerno in sight. On the bus ride out of the park the weather started to lift again and we got a pretty decent view of the entire Torres del Paine range.
Back in Puerto Natales we dried out our gear and treated ourselves to a big slap-up meal at a local seafood restaurant (no more camp stove food – yay!). The quality of the seafood was outstanding, and included the largest scallops I’ve ever seen. We were also treated to another fantastic Patagonian “big sky” sunset over the harbour with the mountains in the distance.