UPDATED April 2019: Read our UPDATED BLOG POST on Hiking the W and O Treks in Torres del Paine
We entered Chile for the second time, and spent one night in Puerto Natales. We chose to stay here because of its proximity to Torres Del Paine National Park where Scott had planned and reserved spaces for the W Trek 4 months ago. The Trek is called "The W" because the course of the trail resembles the letter W. We reached Puerto Natales just in time to attend an information session about the W Trek at a restaurant/gear rental tour agency. It provided helpful tips about what to expect and how to prepare.
This time of year in Patagonia is the beginning of high season (November-March) so booking in advance for accommodations and rentals is essential--if you have your own camping gear there are some free camping sites but they operate on a first come first serve basis. We were coming to Patagonia without any camping gear, but we were able to reserve what we needed in advance. We booked two nights in Refugio's (dorm style rooms) and two nights in tents at a campground/Refugio.
Preparing for the W Trek:
We packed our bags the night before, the W trek filling them with calorie dense hiking food that we picked up at the local super market, cooking supplies, extra layers of clothing, and a few toiletries. We managed to fit everything into one day bag and one of our larger travel bags. (Scott kindly carried the larger and heavier bag during our trek) We only brought one water bottle with us because it is possible to fill water every couple miles and the water is so pure, you don't even need to treat it!
The morning of the trek we woke up early to catch the bus to Torres Del Paine National Park. Once leaving the hostel however we quickly realized we had no idea where the bus station was in relation to where we were and we had very little time to waste. Scott flagged down a man driving with his son to ask for directions. He was so kind that he insisted we hop in his car and he drove us to the bus station (turns out we weren't very far away) we caught the bus with about ten minutes to spare. The drive to the park took around 2 hours.
Starting Location: Administration
Ending Location: Refugio Grey
Projected Time: 8.5 hrs.
Scott and I initially planned to get dropped off at the second stop in the park, take a catamaran across the lake, hike 3.5 hours to Refugio Grey drop off our stuff, and hike another 2 hours to Glacier Grey. However, this would make the second day off our hike very short as we would only need to hike 3.5 hours to our reserved campsite. So, we decided to get dropped off at the third bus stop which would add an additional 5 hours of hiking to get to our first Refugio, then on the second day we could hike to the glacier and our next campsite. Doing the hike this way would ensure that both days had lengthy hikes, and we would see more of the park, and add 30 kilometers to the traditional W Trek.
We hiked the first day along a river, through grassy fields with mountain views. We were incredibly lucky to have such great weather. The weather here is known to be unpredictable but we had sunny blue skies accompanied by a very strong breeze. The woman who gave the orientation the previous day said she had been physically blown off the trail twice while hiking the W due to the strong gusty winds. As we walked we observed a largely barren landscape with few brittle white shrubs- remnants of a destructive forest fires 3 years ago (supposedly someone had tried to burn their trash). We approached a beautiful teal colored glacier lake and filled our water bottles. We continued walking past the first camp, up and down rocky trails and vistas, catching our first glimpses of Glacier Grey. We hadn't anticipated such a long walk- we typically hike at a fast pace but found that the signs were very misleading with their kilometer markings. It said that we hiked a quarter mile in an hour and a half. Around 7 pm we started feeling a little distraught and desperate to reach our Refugio.
Please Note: Hiking north form the Administration building is no longer permitted, but we did this again in 2018 and just didn’t tell any one. you can legally only hike south on the trail, but don’t let this stop you if you are determined.
Finally at 8:15, after 8 hours of hiking we reached Refugio Grey. It was a sight for sore eyes. It looked like an upscale ski lodge with wooden facade interior. There were fire places in the lounge and dining areas, a bar and a welcoming staff. We made rice and carbonara soup mix for dinner. Scott's penny stove was a success and a big hit among fellow campers. We slept in a neat and clean 6 bedroom dorm.
Starting Location: Refugio Grey
Ending Location: Paine Grande (via second lookout north of Refugio Grey)
Projected Time: 8 hrs.
After a breakfast of oatmeal (mixed with powdered milk and hot chocolate mix), we hiked to a look out of Glacier Grey and stopped by the waters edge to see some floating ice. We jokingly call the floating ice "ice cubes" because they are small and cute icebergs. We continued our hike to get closer to the glacier. We passed over two suspension bridges, allowing us to get great views of the glacier from above. The hike to this glacier was actually in the opposite direction of the start of the W Trek, and added an additional 12 kilometers to our day.
We hiked back to the Refugio, ate lunch, grabbed our bags and hiked to our next campsite, Paine Grande. It was a long walk and our feet started to ache toward the end. The uneven rocky trails are hard on our knees and ankles. Scott got creative and made us hiking poles from fallen branches which helped our knees greatly.
We reached the campsite on the lake after 7.5 hours of hiking. We checked in, were given our sleeping mats and sleeping bags and shown to our tent. Scott had reserved all of this in advance. The camp ground is outside of the large Refugio, Paine Grande which houses a cafeteria style restaurant, mini market, bar/cafe, and some dorm rooms.
We rewarded ourselves with pizza, beer and a twix bar in the Refugio. Later we made dinner and retired to our tent. It did not get dark until after 10. The wind whipped loudly against our tent all night, making it very hard to sleep...but at least our sleeping bags kept us warm.
Starting Location: Paine Grande
Ending Location: Refugio Cuernos (via Britanico)
Projected Time: 11 hrs.
We woke up before 7 to get an early start on our day. We groggily crawled out of our tent and saw two rainbows over the mountains. We have seen so many rainbows in Patagonia...what a magical place!
We hiked for 2.5 hours to Camp Italiano where we left our packs and set out for another hike- 2.5 hours up the mountain to Mirador Britanica. The weather, in typical Patagonia fashion, took a turn for the worst, the wind picked up and it began raining. The cold rain whipped against us and stung our skin. And the water from the rushing glacier river was picked up by the wind and flung against us as well. We were thankful to reach a reprieve from the rain in the tree covered areas of the trail. The trail led us uphill and involved some scrambling over rocks to reach a panoramic look out of jagged mountains. From the look out we could see hanging glaciers and countless waterfalls feeding into a glacial river.
We hiked down from the look out, ate a quick lunch and started on the third leg of our hike- 2.5 hours to Camp Cuernos. We spent the last hour of our hike fighting with the wind and loosing our balance on the loose stone path. We followed switch backs down the mountain and ended up by the lakes edge. The wind near the water was brutal, we had no tree courage to protect us. You could see the wind picking up water from the lake and carrying it across the water in a midst. Our hats were blowing off and our backpack straps were whipping us in the face. The wind beat the crap out of us. We were very relived to reach our camp and check into our awesome "domo" a mix between a tent and a dorm room. We enjoyed hot showers, split a box wine, and cooked some dinner before calling it a night.
Starting Location: Refugio Cuernos
Ending Location: Las Torres Camping (via Torres del Paine Lookout)
Projected Time: 11-13 hrs.
We allowed ourselves to sleep in a bit, taking advantage of our comfortable beds and waiting for the drizzle outside to stop. It's also nice to leave a little later after the bulk of the other hikers have set out. Shorty after leaving camp, we had an incredible view of the lake and another rainbow! We were able to see both ends of the rainbow...but no pots of gold unfortunately.
We hiked uphill along the lake for about an hour. The sky started to darken, and it began to rain for the next 2 hours. The section of the trail we were on was largely exposed to the elements. The wind sprayed the rain sideways. We were both damp and cold. And, we had wet feet after several deep river crossings. One river crossing was made more difficult because of a broken suspension bridge. We had to wade through the river balancing on unstable rocks. Needless to say, the hike started to be a lot less fun for me. Scott however, remained optimistic.
We continued hiking the trail as it climbed up and down. We tried to avoid baseball sized rocks in the trail, but ended up rolling our ankles a couple times. It was hard to enjoy some of the views because our gaze was constantly checking the trail in front of our feet. We did stop to admire some beautiful views of a rushing river winding through the snow covered mountains. As we stood on the trail high on the mountain side we were caught off guard by the sound of rushing wind above our heads. It sounded like a jet. We searched the sky for the source of the sound and saw an enormous bird swooping and diving for a smaller bird. We think it was either a condor or an eagle. As we walked through this stretch of terrain we saw several signs warning us of the risk of landslides.
After 5 hours of hiking, we arrived at the campsite Chileno where we stopped for a bathroom break. They had a fireplace inside and required you to remove your shoes upon entering. I eyed some delicious pastries, but decided I didn't deserve one...we hadn't hiked all that much yet.
From Chileno it was 75 minutes to the next campsite, Campamento Torres, where we thought we were staying...when we arrived we were shocked to learn that Campamento Torres is actually a different campsite than Los Torres Camping. We had reserved a tent and sleeping bags at Los Torres Camping. Looking at the map now we understand the mistake we made. But, months in advance when Scott was doing research online it was hard to find any conclusive information about the W Trek, it also didn't help that many sites were solely in Spanish. Scott thought he booked at Campamento Torres because it is the closest camp site to the famous Torres del Paine, (3 towering rock peaks) the site the the National Park is named after. We had planned to camp there, wake up at 4:30, hike 45 minutes to the Torres and catch the sunrise over them at 5:30. Unfortunately that was no longer an option. Any other camp we stayed at would be too far away to hike to the Torres in the morning.
Now we had a predicament. We had hiked for over 6 hours, had about 5 hours left of sunlight, an 11 kilometer hike back to the hotel and the temperature was starting to drop. We had to decide what to do next.. Maybe we could switch our reservation from Los Torres Camping to Chileno (they are run by the same company) but we were confident enough that that would work. And we didn't have time to waste trying to figure that out. We decided to continue on from the campsite, hike to see the Torres then turn around and hike 3 hours back to our actual reserved campsite.
We hiked quickly feeling the pressure of time. We scrambled up the steep rocky trail to the look out point of the Torres. It's a steep ascent and as we climbed higher it became increasingly colder and windier. At the top, the view was unbelievable. No wonder the park is named for the Torres. The three rocks shoot hundreds of feet up into the sky over a teal lake.
We hiked backed down the Torres so quickly we cut the maps estimated time in half. We hiked back to Chileno so quickly we cut the time in half as well. The trails this direction were mostly down hill which helped. We took a brief stop back at Chileno because now I had really earned that pastry. It was delicious! I inhaled it and finished it in about 2 minutes, sparing Scott a bite.
We flew down the rest of the trail to Los Torres Camping. We reached in within 2 hours of leaving the Torres look out point. This trail should take 4 hours according to the map. We checked in and found our tent. After a
can of beer each, some chocolates and rice and soup, we had no trouble sleeping. We were a little disappointed by the quality of the tents and sleeping bags at this campsite. The sleeping bags were rated for 40 degree weather and it easily gets colder than that at night here. We zipped our sleeping bags together to make one large one to help stay warm.
We woke up the next morning to the most beautiful weather of the trip. We took our time making breakfast to kill time. We had until 2 when the mini bus would pick us up and take us to our other bus back to Puerto Natales. We walked around the property and checked out the hotel. We caught the mini bus and our other bus and slept most of the 2 hour ride.
Back in Puerto Natales:
After arriving in Puerto Natales, our first stop was the super market. We wanted to get ingredients for a pizza we had been fantasizing and talking about at great length on our hike. We also bought a bottle of wine. Back at the hostel we enjoy the pizza and wine in bed with no guilt or regard for calories. It was delicious!
The following morning we caught our 8am bus back to El Calafate in Argentina. We met two really nice men sitting across from us on the bus- one from Germany and one from Spain. They were very friendly and we shared stories of our travels and advice for places to visit. Back in El Calafate while stopping in a bakery we met an incredibly sweet girl working behind the counter. She only spoke Spanish, she asked where we we from. When we told her the United States she was very excited and showed us some coins she had collected-several were from the U.S. We had a few random coins left over from the countries we had visited and were glad to help her grow her collection. She was so happy, it felt great to make her day, even with our limited Spanish we were able to have a meaningful exchange.
Back in El Calafate for a Day:
We spent one day relaxing in Calafate before our flight to Buenos Aires. We went out to a 'nice' dinner that ended up not being too nice. The next morning we spent several hours talking with a very nice British man who has traveled quite a bit. He's been gone for 6 months on this trip alone. We exchanged details about destinations (he about Buenos Aires, and us about El Calafate and Puerto Natales/Torres del Paine). We're currently trying to plan the rest of our trip, after Buenos Aires we have 7 days. We're torn between Rio and Iguazu Falls. We can't book anything until we hear back from the Brazilian consulate in Buenos Aires about our visas anyways.
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