At this point in the journey we knew we were really into the wonders of Patagonia. There was no denying it that each day was filled with amazing views. When you’re surrounded by jagged snowy peaks, lush green forests, and empty windy roads, its hard not to be ecstatic about your road trip.
We arrived in Puerto Natales a bit grungy. Yes, I was looking forward to a HOT shower. In town we discovered it’s worth stopping by hostels and asking if you can get a shower (they let us use their WIFI too). After being clean again I was able to think clearly, I realized the Parque Nacional Torres del Paine (PNTP), only created in 1959, was going to be another major highlight of our trip. Today you can see there are working and tourist estancias around the park. I wonder how the locals dealt with the government deciding they would create the national park. Moreover, what happened to the indigenous people who lived off the land here for thousands of years?
We drove towards the southern park entrance in the late afternoon (typically a NO-NO, we try to avoid driving at night at all costs) and were rewarded with amazing colors due to the setting sun. This is one thing I have truly learned about on our trip, light. It can dramatically change any place. My favorite times of the day are just after the sun rises and just before it sets. The long shadows call out attention to details that aren’t noticed otherwise. Tree branches become elongated, snowy peaks show their shadows, and above all the dust in the sky lights up with saturated colors. I can’t click my camera fast enough, all the while knowing I won’t capture the changing painting in front of me. One evening I asked Todd, “How come we didn’t stop to see all these sunsets at home?” I know Seattle is cloudy and we both worked pretty demanding jobs, but there should always be time to admire the colors in the sky. At least that is my hope for the future.
For the night we settled into a spot just off the road, approximately 10kms from the park entrance.
In the morning we paid our astonishing 42,000 CHP ($65 USD) park entrance fee for two people (no cost for the van…isn’t that what causes the most damage to natural areas?). We’ve been really lucky thus far because tourist attractions are no where as expensive as they are in the USA. They must have some USA folks working in the PNTP because they’ve figured out they can charge whatever they want and people will still come. (And the price is higher for foreigners “extranjeros” too) It would be great if the facilities within the park matched the price, but they did not. We drove on bad, dusty, corrugated roads, camped in the day use parking lots, and were allowed access to toilets (no showers) from 8AM-8PM or so…there’s nothing you can do about it, the park is truly astounding and worth the visit.
Our plan was to spend close to a week in the park, even though the ticket only says 4 days…we’re getting good at working around the rules and getting our money’s worth. The first couple of days we waited out the drizzly/rainy weather and drove around to the various entrances/exits of the parks to check out lakes, waterfalls, wildlife, and the multiple views of the Cuernos (horns) that are the quintessential postcard view. We also spent a great deal of time contemplating whether or not to attempt an overnight hike. Normally, when at an amazing NP you think, of course, I’m young, I have energy, I should do an overnighter.
But enter the PNTP online backpacker camping system.
A total nightmare. The tent sites off the “O” or “W” trail circuits within this park are managed by several online companies. You are required to book all of your sites before departing on your trip. This may mean you get lucky and secure a spot the week before your trip, or more realistically, you book all 3+ nights a month in advance. Now….have you met many backpackers? They’re usually a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants sort of bunch. You would think such an enormous park would allow reservations the day of (there are lots of no-shows) or come up with a restriction on the number of backpackers per day.
So, without a doubt, Todd and I opted not to pack in. Instead, we prepared for a full day of hiking on the most popular section, the one that leads up to THE TORRES. The amazing granite spires. You’ve probably seen pictures of these craggly peaks on your Facebook feed “10 Most Amazing National Parks in the World,” “10 Parks to See Before You Die.” These titles definitely lived up to my expectations.
Many, many, many other hikers had the same idea we did. Especially tourists who paid a lot of money (on top of their park entrance fee) to private companies to walk them up to these peaks (not sure why you need a guide to take you up a marked, very busy trail). So…we heard it might be worth it to get up at 3AM and hike up to the viewpoint to watch the sunrise. And I do like sunrises. Todd had a tough time with this idea from the start, the man likes to sleep-in. We were also battling with the ever finicky weather that PNTP is infamous for. The park rangers refuse to give you the weather report, because it will rain…they just don’t know exactly when. That’s typical for a place that has numerous glaciers creating crazy microclimates.
So we watched the weather the day before our hike. We stayed hopeful and packed our day packs full of food and warm clothing. We watched the clouds setting in as we were going to sleep at 9PM. We woke up to rain thundering down on Lola’s roof at 11pm. But still I had hope, it’s Patagonia, the weather is always changing. 3AM-wake up time. Still raining steadily. Part of me thought Todd had somehow orchestrated this because I knew he wanted to sleep-in. But, I realized this is bigger than my husband, it’s the glaciers. We decided to sleep-in and wakeup at 5AM, we were going to hit the trail no matter what.
5:30 AM we were out of the van. Hot coffee in our thermos and a little in our bellies, to pull us out of the warm confines of Lola. As soon as we locked up, I looked up. The sky was beautiful. Clouds covering a good part of it, but also stars dotting the dark blue sky. I figured this was a great omen, no precipitation!
20 minutes in, we hit the beginning of the incline. The layers started coming off (I didn’t follow “Be Bold Start Cold!”) and I started wondering why I thought a thermos full of hot coffee was a smart idea on a 5 hour hike? But then the slowly rising sun helped me realize we were hiking in Patagonia, a small sidetrip of our Pan-American journey. About to see something people only have a week to fly down for. AND, we were the only ones going up! (Later that afternoon we saw ascending groups of 15 people, separated by only a few minutes each).
Difficult, cold, rainy, and mostly cloudy, the hike up wasn’t great. We began to see people climbing down at 8AM; halfway up for us. I was worried when they said they saw 5 mins of the sunrise and then came right back down. But, I figured, we had to get to the top, even if it was going to be entirely socked in. I don’t think I’ve ever felt I had so much riding on ONE hike. It made me realize I was building up the experience way too much, yeah it’s NPTP, but it’s not the only beautiful hike in our world. So, I decided to focus on each step, each step was getting me closer. I also realized I was doing this with Todd, an awesome thing in itself; how many people are lucky enough to have their significant other wake up at 5AM and sweat it up a mountain?
After 4 hours we had one last test, the final push to the top, but the clouds were being stubborn.
After the final climb, we found a boulder-protected spot and we bundled up and stayed up there for 2 hours. And I wished I had brought more hot coffee.
After our hike we were ready for a good night of sleep. We were happy to return to Lola.
After visiting the hiking highlights of the park, we went to one last spot Glacier Grey. We didn’t splurge for the boat ride up to the face of the glacier, but we were able to appreciate how massive an area this park encompasses (the park spans 242,242 hectares).
On our way out of Puerto Natales we happened upon a local fair. We should definitely bring some of these traditions to the USA.
Lastly, we visited a cave, Cueva de Milodon, nearby Puerto Natales…pretty massive.
We traveled from Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine NP from January 14 to January 21, 2017.