8 days in Torres del Paine

Puerto Natales Travel Blog

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Puerto Natales is a town beautifully situated on the mountainous fjord Ultima Esperanza in the far south of Chile. The buildings in the town are shielded from the famous patagonian wind by layers of brightly painted, but peeling, sheets of metal hammered on every surface. This town may be a major stop for tourists heading into Torres del Paine National Park but, unlike many other towns in Patagonia which rely on tourism, there is a strong community here based entirely on the port and the surrounding estancias. Puerto Natales cannot match the bustle of Buenos Aires or the tree-lined beauty of Mendoza but there is something in this cold, windy place that just might make it my favourite city in South America.

Torres del Paine National Park, just 100km from Puerto Natales, is one of the most spectacular places that I have ever encountered. We spent 5 days hiking the famous W trek and 3 more days kayaking on the River Serrano up to the Tyndall Glacier. It will go down in memory as one of the best trips I have ever had.

Our photos can be found at:
Sorry there are so many...it was so hard to leave out pictures!

January 31, 2008

After a hectic day in Puerto Natales organising ourselves for our 5 day trek in Torres del Paine and our 3 day Kayaking trip down the Serrano River we were packed up and waiting for our bus outside our campground by 7 30 am. Our packs, which had been considerably pruned of personal items, were heavy with provisions. We had heard that food was expensive and difficult to obtain in the park so we had gathered dehydrated soups, crackers, pasta, dried fruit and canned tuna from the poorly stocked, hiker-crowded grocery stores of Puerto Natales.

Big marshmallow clouds floated in the sky as we caught our first glimpes of the park. All of the guides that we had read about the W trek advised us to get off the bus at Lago Amarga and walk 7.5km down the road to Hosteria Torres. It was obvious that this was not popular advice. As other hikers hitch-hiked or bought rides, we found ourselves alone, trudging down the dirt road and then completely offtrail (due to dads misreading of the map). The off trail episode triggered a major hayfever attack which left me miserable and sneezing for many hours afterwards.
By the time we reached the trail that meandered up a hot, dusty hillside, we were footsore and discontent. The first refugio, Chileno, appeared, windmill whirring, like a paradisical mirage complete with water, electricity and a small concession. I bought a can of cold Sprite, which was sipped and savoured by the three of us like it was ambrosia.
We stayed at the Chileno Refugio long enough to watch a group of gauchos ford the river on their horses and gallop off down the trail.

The trail flattened and followed the river up the valley. In the trees, the temperature was much more bearable and the walk became pleasant. We set up camp at the free campsite (Campimento Torres) and then walked up to the mirador at the base of the torres. The last 20 minutes was a scramble up a rocky morraine but it was well worth the effort. Backlit by the late afternoon sun, the towers were spectacular and every dusty step with a heavy pack was forgotten. Coming down, mom was tired from the long hike and off balance in the strong wind. She slipped and had a few scrapes and a bit of a jammed wrist.
For dinner we cooked lentil soup with canned lentils. Dad and I ate voraciously. Every gram eaten was a gram that we would not have to carry the next day.

February 1, 2008

I am well aware that I will not be the first person to comment on the Patagonian wind. Quite the opposite in fact, it is quite uncommon to encounter a piece of writing on this region that does not mention the wind. This is because the wind here is constantly noticible and variable enough to cause notice. The word wind, however, does not fully encompass the multitude of variations in moving air. Today, on our hike from Campimento Torres to Campimento Cuernos we experienced warm gentle wind, wind so strong that you can do nothing but stop and brace against it, sudden gusts, constant blowing rain or dust and even small twisters forming over lakes.

The weather yesterday was hot and clear but this morning the sky was threatening rain and the mountains were partially obscured in cloud. The wind came before the rain and flattened us against the slope of the mountain, threatening to pitch us over the side. Then came the rain. Not a pouring rain but a slow, spattering drizzle that left everthing drenched even as the wind dried it. The path flattened out and wound along a hillside of small bushes and ground shrubs reminiscent of the English lake district. It was beautiful but the weather was harsh and more than one person we met on the trail wished us buenos suerte or good luck.
Our lunch of tuna sandwiches was prepared huddled in a clump of bushes where we hid from the storm.
Late in the afternoon, we came to a raging torrent that we had to cross. We had navigated our way across the first arm and were preparing to cross the second when a handsome, bereted gaucho jumped down from his horse and waded into the flood, mindless of his personal dryness. He took my hand and my backpack across the river before wading back for mom. His actions were entirely unnecessary but very swashbuckling.

After the river crossing, we became very wet and cold. By the time we reached Campimento Cuernos we were shivering and soaked to the skin. We decided that after already hiking 19 km, the 5.5 more to our intended campsite at Campimento Italiano were too far and we met many more people who had made a similar decision. Mom went into the lodge to warm up while dad and I erected the tent in record time. I was very cold and it took many cups of tea to warm me. Mom stood by the woodstove and tried to dry our clothing. We had a pasta dinner in the tent. By the evening, the worst of the storm had blown away and there was a pink sunset framed by freshly snow-dusted mountains and a circling condor.

February 2, 2008

The wind buffeted and shook the tent all night long but we woke to a morning with bright blue sky and mountains with fresh snow. We walked 5 k.m. to Campamento Italiano and pitched our tent just 2 hours after we had taken it down.

We ate a lunch of canned tuna on crackers and headed up the Valle Frances (sans backpacks) to a mirador. On the way moms back spasmed and we had a bit of an argument on whether she should turn around or not. She didnt and I was a bit annoyed. I was even more annoyed that I was annoyed in such a beautiful place on such a perfect day. The mountains truely were amazing. At the mirador we were completely surrounded by breathtaking peaks. Each day here in Patagonia, the mountains I see are more and more impossibly beautiful.

Dad told me to go down the hill at my own pace and have dinner ready when they returned. I talked with some Aussie friends that we had made for more than half an hour and was worried that I wouldnt have dinner ready in time. I boiled the water and completely cooked the pasta and still they didnt return. I was beginning to get worried when, finally, they came into the campsite, mom nursing a bandaged knee. She had tripped over over a rock (or as dad claims, her shoelaces).

February 3, 2008

After moms apparent tripping, everybody in our little camp became a little preoccupied with shoelaces. Dad got out his scissors and surgically removed several centimetres of lace from both his and moms shoes and any lace that went untied, even for a quick hop out of the tent was commented upon. I thought the whole thing was a bit of an over reaction until the next day when I was walking along a flat bit of trail and the loop of my shoelace got caught on a root. I went face first into some low prickly bushes and couldnt right myself because of the weight of my pack and my unwillingness to put more pressure on the prickles in my hands. I stayed splayed face first on the ground until mom came along and freed my shoelace. Dangerous thing these shoelaces. Maybe my next pair of shoes should be velcro.

We stayed at Campamento Italiano an extra day waiting for mom{s leg to recover and the next day set out for our final camping spot of the trekking portion of our Torres del Paine experience. The ferry and campground at Lago Pehoe was only 7.5 km. from Campamento Italiano but it took us nearly two hours to complete with mom{s leg and the strong winds that threatened to blow us off the trail. At one point in the hike, we had to cross a small stream. Mom didn{t want to get her feet wet and put on her sandals. Before she crossed she tossed her shoes across (one forcing me to step into the water to make the catch and the other going directly into the water causing dad to charge in after it as it floated downstream.) All three of us walked away from that stream with wet feet.

The campsite at Lago Pehoe was rather exposed and we set up our tent wondering how it could possibly stay erect in the strong wind. I was very excited by a small mini food store which augmented our quickly dwindling food supplies with over priced bread, cheese, chocolate, juice and wine. The view from the campsite was a spectacular postcard view of the Paine mountains. Mom and I enjoyed the view, freshly showered, from the cooking gazebo while dad walked up to Glacier Grey and finished the W.

February 4, 2008

The trekking leg of our Torres del Paine experience has been completed and the kayak leg has begun. In the morning, we took a beautiful boat ride across Lago Pehoe and were greeted on the other side by German, our kayaking guide. We drove around 20kms to the River Serrano where we met the other members of our expedition, an Irish couple Anna and Darren. We were outfitted in wetsuits, booties, jackets, gloves, life vests and dry skirts, which felt a little ridiculous at first but soon became quite normal and watched as our stuff was stuffed into drybags and then into the tiny, little holes of the kayak. Mom and dad shared a double Kayak and I had a single to myself. After a safety demonstration (which I helped translate) we got in the water. The first few minutes were spent turning around in circles until I discovered the rudder pedals. We paddled along for about an hour enjoying perfect views of the Paine until we reached a waterfall in the river and had to portage the kayaks. While we ate lunch the wind picked up and made the water looked perilous. German said that we should wait and finally suggested he would paddle each kayak to a spot that was much more suited to our paddling ability while we walked along the shore. We watched him take the first kayak drag it up on the beach and then walk back and paddle another. Miraculously, the final two kayaks arrived in a zodiac boat which had been passing up the river. They told us that the weather was quite rough further down and we ended up putting all 4 boats and 6 people into the zodiac and blasting along down the river taking air on the big waves. At the estuary of the Tyndall, we waded through knee-deep water, dragging the boats behind us and then began to paddle upstream. It was hard work and a few times we had to get out and drag the kayaks further upstream when the river was too shallow for our skill level.

We camped by the side of the river near Lago Tyndall. We set up our tents and German started to make dinner. None of us were used to going on trips where a guide made us dinner. Once we were in dry clothes, the 5 of us crowded around German while he cooked and offered to help. All we were allowed to do was pour some juice and open a bottle of nice Chilean wine. Our first course was soup, followed by rice and milanesas capped off with canned strawberries for dessert. The amount of food prepared could have fed twice as many people. We definately are not going to starve on this trip!

The evening turned chilly and by the time we said goodnight at 10pm we were bundled up in all of our clothes.

I am very pleased so far on this tour. The gear appears high quality, the guide experienced, hard-working and trustworthy and the food is very tastey and timely. My shoulders are a bit tired from paddling upstream but I am going to bed very happy.

February 5, 2008

Last night the stars were brilliant. The air in patagonia is so clear and clean (being so far away from any major sources of pollution) and the stars seemed remarkably close. I may never have had such an unobstructed view of the sky before. It was breathtaking, if a bit disorienting with all of the unfamiliar constellations.

We arose at 8 am to a windy day. When German finally emerged from the tent he revealed that he had forgotten his sleeping bag (for only the second time in all of his years of guiding). I doubt that he had had a very comfortable night.

German, our guide is the type of man that you find in romance novels. Handsome, strong, adventurous, owner of his own business and Spanish speaking. 3 years ago he became the first person to kayak solo the more than 1000 kms from Puerto Natales to the tip of Cape Horn. The journey took him 78 days and, since he did not have permission from the Chilean Navy, was completely undercover. I admit I have a bit of a crush (did I mention that his pregnant wife is an absolute sweetheart?) More information on his tours and a photoessay of his adventure can be found at his website (http://www.tutravesia.com/)

The weather was too windy for us to paddle out to the Tyndall glacier so we walked along the shore instead. Then we sat in the camp and waited for the weather to change. Around noon 12 we struck camp and were back in the water by 1 pm. With both the wind and the current behind us we shot down the Tyndall river in a fraction of the time that it took us to paddle up it.

The Serrano river was choppy and treacherous and I thought that my small boat would capsize in the huge troughs of water. But, arms burning, we got through. Then, we had to follow closely behind German to avoid being caught in a strong river current and smashed against the rocks. The river was calm for awhile and we stopped for lunch in a little forest grove. After lunch, we continued on and then suddenly the wind picked up and the water became a mass of white waves. We had to fight to keep from being swamped and then, like a miracle, we pulled into a national park campsite complete with flush toilets a 5 minute walk from the beautiful Serrano glacier. Anna and Darrens kayak went past the beach and German paddled them down and jumped neck deep into the water to get them pointed back in the correct direction. The winds howled and white capped the water but we were safe on shore.

For dinner, German cooked us pasta and sauce and once again there was more than enough. The physical and technical challenges that I faced today in the kayak made me feel that I earned my dinner. I enjoyed the day extremely.

February 6, 2008
I awoke to a windy morning. It was immediately clear that paddling on those choppy seas was out of the question. Maybe an experienced kayaker could make headway but with the wind against us we would have been floating backwards. We took the morning easy and at 12 a tour boat arrived and disembarked passengers. We loaded our kayaks on board and were on the deck when it departed at 1 pm. The scenery it took us through was spectacular and the waves sprayed up around the boat. After about an hour the boat docked at an estancia. Feeling a bit out of place in our grubby clothing, we sat down at a beautifully set table with white linen and were served a parilla of lamb, chicken and sausage. It was delicious. The estancia was a beautiful place and the whole day filled my heart with a deep love for this region and its people that I think will stay with me for life. I do not expect this will be my last trip to the southern edge of the world.

A few more hours brought us into shore in Puerto Natales. We got back all of our bags from Germans office and were all very happy with the experience and completely buzzing about it for the rest of the evening.

Tomorrow, we will run errands in town and we will board the Navimag for our 4 day passage north. A new adventure begins but I am very sad to see this one end.

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Puerto Natales
photo by: scacos2006